Tag Archives: philosophy

Response to the Claim that Atheists Can’t Justify Believing in Free Will

Blogger Wintery Knight argues that atheists cannot ground the claim that we have libertarian free will.

Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible for atheists

He quotes atheist Jerry Coyne:

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

First of all, giving examples of atheists who believe that there is no free will does not establish a logical connection between the two positions. There is considerable diversity among atheists in terms of what they believe about free will. Two examples of atheists who believe in libertarian free will are Ayn Rand and John Searle. Robert Kane and E. J. Lowe have also presented accounts of libertarian free will that are consistent with atheism. So, quoting an atheist who happens to be a hard determinist doesn’t prove anything.

Secondly, this is bad evidence for determinism. The decision about which of two buttons on a computer to press is not a significant one, and there is no real basis for making the decision given the experimental setup, so subconscious influences may have a bigger role here than they would in a decision that something actually rode on.

Thirdly, it is self evident that we are capable of making decisions rationally, and the determinist’s own argument presupposes that he is capable of rational deliberation. If his conclusion is correct, then his own belief in determinism is merely the result of arbitrary subconscious influences, which means that it is invalid.

In conclusion, Wintery Knight has provided no reason to think that atheism is inconsistent with libertarian free will.

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Subjective

Sometimes people are inclined to describe an area of inquiry, like morality, as subjective. However, it is important to separate out two senses of the word “subjective,” which I will call the metaphysical sense and the epistemological sense.

  • An area is metaphysically subjective if there actually are no objective criteria for deciding questions in that area of inquiry.
  • An area is epistemologically subjective if there are objective criteria for deciding questions in that area, but we don’t know what they are.

Every area of inquiry is epistemologically subjective prior to discovering the objectively correct criteria to employ, by definition. For example, logic was epistemologically subjective prior to Aristotle, since no one had explicit rules for how to reason properly or identify logical fallacies. People just reasoned using intuition until the objective logical standards were discovered.

Some areas of inquiry are metaphysically subjective, like astrology. There are no objective criteria for what your horoscope should say, because the field has no basis in reality. If the objective criteria for an area of inquiry are not known, then that may be used as an argument for the position that that area of inquiry is metaphysically subjective – that is, that there are in fact no such criteria. This is the basis for the philosophical position that morality is subjective.

It is critically important that we not rest content with a subjective approach to any legitimate area of inquiry, but rather work to define objective standards for everything we do. In the absence of objective standards, disagreement will proliferate, and skepticism and mysticism will run rampant.

Plato’s Dialectic

Plato held that in philosophy, we arrive at the truth by means of a process of “dialectic.” Dialectic, for Plato, works as follows:

  • We begin by having one person put forward an answer to the problem in question on the basis of certain arguments.
  • Another person then comes along, points out flaws in the first person’s answer, and puts forward his own answer.
  • Then a third person comes along, criticizes both viewpoints, and puts forward an answer that is better than either of them.
  • etc.

Plato held that, over time, this process leads us closer and closer to the truth. This is illustrated by some of his dialogues.

Plato’s theory assumes that we have a way of rationally evaluating an answer to a philosophical question as plausible or implausible. Plato held that we could see this “intuitively,” but his account of intuition depends on his metaphysics, which most philosophers have rejected.

Another perspective on dialectic comes from David Hume. Hume agrees that it often happens in philosophy that one person puts a position forward, and then another person criticizes it and puts their own position forward. However, according to Hume, the intuitions that this process depends on are subjective products of “habit or custom.” So, while dialectic can arrive at conclusions that better appeal to a given person subjectively, it is not a source of objective truth like Plato thought.

I think the only way to answer Hume once and for all is to present a body of demonstrably true conclusions in philosophy. So long as philosophy is seen as an endless debate, many will be inclined to question whether it has any cognitive status at all. There have been a number of attempts to do this since Hume, and evaluating all of them is beyond my scope here.

In Defense of Self Evidence

A self evident proposition is a proposition that any rational person will agree is certainly true upon grasping it. In this post, I will demonstrate that there are self evident propositions.

The strongest argument for the claim that there are self evident propositions is to just list several of them so that the reader can see that some propositions are really self evident. Here are three:

  • There is an objective reality.
  • A thing is identical to itself.
  • I am conscious.

I will explain each of these.

“There is an objective reality” means that there is a fact of the matter about something. For example, if I say that we landed on the Moon, and someone else denies that we landed on the Moon, there is a fact of the matter about which of us is right. The fact of the matter about whether we landed on the Moon is one component of the objective reality in which we live.

The existence of an objective reality is contained in every experience we have. When I experience the fact that my alarm clock is red, I can see immediately that my alarm clock really exists, that it really has certain properties like redness, and that its existence and properties are independent of my mind. This experience shows me directly that there is an objective reality.

“A thing is identical to itself” means that a thing is what it is. A tree is a tree, and has all of the properties required for being a tree. Symbolically, this is often expressed “A is A,” where A refers to anything that exists.

This proposition, called the law of identity, is contained in every thought and every observation we have. When you observe a computer, you also observe that that computer is a computer. When you think of the number one, you can see that the number one is the number one. This is one of the undeniable foundations of rational thought.

“I am conscious” means that I am aware of the world and can identify things that exist using my mind. I can perceive the things that exist, whether they be cars, animals, or anything else that is presented to my senses. I am actually aware of the world.

Obviously, the fact that we are conscious is forced upon us by every perception or thought we have. If I perceive a lamp, I can see that I am aware of that lamp. If I think about Nazi Germany, I can see that my mind is thinking about Nazi Germany. Every act of my consciousness contains consciousness. Thought and perception are undeniable data of experience.

Conclusion

Having gone through these examples of self evident propositions, we can see that there are in fact self evident propositions, since there can be no doubt about the existence of an objective reality, the law of identity, or consciousness.

Some philosophers have raised objections to the idea of the self evident, and I may address those objections in another post. Keep in mind, though, that even if we do not know the answer to some tricky objection, that casts no doubt on the idea of self evidence or the self evident propositions I have enumerated. We can see, just by looking at them, that any objection to these propositions has to fail, even if we cannot identify the error in a specific objection.

Short Review of OPAR

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff was one of the first philosophy books I read, back when I was a teenager. It persuaded me that philosophical questions had objective answers and provided a coherent framework that I could use to approach philosophical issues with.

The book is a distilled presentation of the essential theoretical structure of Objectivism. It starts at the foundation with metaphysics, then proceeds to concept formation, epistemology, the good, the moral virtues, politics, capitalism, and aesthetics. Each topic is explained clearly and linked to the foregoing and previous.

Peikoff’s presentation of Rand’s philosophy is very engaging and persuasive. I recommend it if you’re interested in a compelling, systematic challenge to your worldview.

Disjunctive Syllogism

The disjunctive syllogism is a form of deductive reasoning that goes as follows:

  1. Either p is true, or q is true.
  2. p is false.
  3. Therefore, q is true.

This is a deductively valid form of reasoning because, given that p and q are the only alternatives, and p is false, q has to be true. The conclusion follows necessarily from the premises in virtue of the form of the argument.

This form of reasoning is useful when we have a small set of hypotheses, because we can use it to narrow down which one is true. For example, in a murder trial, we might know that the only people at the scene of the crime were Alex and Bob. So, we could reason as follows.

  1. The murderer was either Alex or Bob.
  2. Alex is on video camera in a different room at the time of the murder, so he can’t be the murderer.
  3. Therefore, the murderer was Bob.

Importantly, this requires us to actually have a good reason to believe that Alex and Bob were the only people at the scene of the crime. If there is evidence that there might have been a third person at the scene of the crime, then our argument commits the fallacy of the false dichotomy, because there is a third possibility, namely that the murderer was this third person. This may create “reasonable doubt” in the jury’s mind about whether Bob was the murderer, depending on the other facts.

However, alternative hypotheses cannot be generated arbitrarily. There has to be some reason to take a hypothesis seriously before it becomes an objection to our argument. For example, the defense attorney can’t say “maybe a Martian was the murderer” – that is a doubt, but it is not a reasonable one, and so does not undermine our argument.

Objective Definitions

I was asked on another website how we should treat definitions that aren’t strictly convertible with the concepts that they define. In other words, in mathematics and logic, you can generally just substitute a concept whenever its definition appears, because there is nothing more to the concept than its definition states. You can’t do that with a lot of definitions elsewhere. For example, a horse without hooves is still a horse even though it doesn’t strictly meet the definition of a horse.

However, even when we define a term in mathematics, we don’t generally do so as an end in itself, and if we did our definition would quickly be forgotten or discarded. We formulate our definitions in order to prove things from them. The definition names a useful starting point in our reasoning for seeking out and identifying logical connections that exist objectively.

So, on the view I’m defending, our main goal when we define something isn’t necessarily to come up with a definition in which the subject is strictly convertible with the predicate, it is to identify the essence of the subject. This is a true proposition, in genus and differentia, from which the most of the subject’s known attributes follow, whether causally or logically. If the definition is convertible with the concept it defines, great, but if not, that’s fine too.

So, when we’re defining, say, a horse, the goal shouldn’t be to come up with a proposition that’s true of every horse, although it would be great if we could. We want to find the essence, a proposition which identifies the genus and differentia from which the most of the attributes of horses follow. We want the definition to do this because it will enable us to draw the most true generalizations about horses in our subsequent research, although we may have to take particular exceptions like the occasional horse without hooves into account when we are reasoning about them specifically.