Your Brain Makes Its Decisions Without You: More on Free Will and Identity

July 2, 2008

There’s little doubt that conscious experience is one of the most perplexing phenomenon that… well that it has ever encountered. Not only do we not know what our inner “observing” subject is, we don’t know how to even think about what it is. Why am “I” (whatever it is that’s experiencing anything at all) linked to not just to a body, but to a specific body? Why aren’t “I” someone else? Why is it “like” anything to be a human being, rather than our brains simply carrying out choice and action without any seeming internal passenger?

Philosophers and Theologians have long tried to lay claim to the mystery with concepts like “Soul” or “Free Will” that purport to explain conscious experience or the nature of willed choice, but their attempts have never delivered any actual tangible, additional insight into the phenomenon. Later attempts like “qualia” have only put more names to things we still do not understand. And perhaps it’s no surprise that these attempts have been so unproductive: their ultimate aim has always seemed less about increasing our knowledge, and more about a turf war over which school or ideology can assert exclusive right to this most precious of philosophical possessions.

But while there’s no guarantee that science can ever fully explain consciousness, there can also be no doubt that if you want to learn at least something about it, rather than merely discover new names for things you still don’t understand, neurologists have far more to offer than most traditional philosophers and theologians at this point. And, indeed, what science is revealing is far weirder than we could have ever imagined from any armchair.

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Gay Marriage Today: Why Not Polygamy Tommorow? …Here’s Why

May 20, 2008

Advocates of gay marriage are often far too glib about their institutional goals. Myself included. We dismiss all sorts of slippery-slope and social fears as simply being based on bigotry (and perhaps we luck out there, because we often turn out to be right, even if it was just a knee-jerk accusation). But many of those fears do make logical sense, particularly when social changes are made by judicial rulings based on distressingly broad and unmoderated principles.

One of the most legitimate of these fears has always been that judicial rulings about gay marriage that are based on bare notions of equality and fairness would carve a path towards the legal recognition of, well, polygamy. And with a polygamist cult controversy still driving news cycles, and HBO’s Big Love back for another season, polygamy can no longer be casually dismissed as an esoteric issue.

That doesn’t mean, that it can’t be dismissed though. It just means that it’s going to take a lot of serious work and argument to do it.

And so, over at Volokh Conspiracy, Dale Carpenter has penned a must-read “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the best arguments against the “gay marriage/polygamy” connection. Personally, I find them convincing. I’d appreciate any arguments concerning why I should not.

As to the recent California gay-marriage decision itself, I’m of two minds. It should come as no surprise that I like the result. But I also have very strong sympathies with the view that the judges in this case (most of whom were Republicans, by the way) are using methods that overstep important boundaries in our system of government.

On the other hand (again!), I have slightly less sympathy given the fact that people often write constitutional and legal language that claims to be based on lofty moral principles and language… but then whine when someone actually goes and takes those principles seriously, rather than merely conventionally. If you don’t want constitutions to be treated any differently than literal regulations and craven contracts of social convention, then don’t write them as if they were shining beacons of truth and justice.

For all the gay couples who will finally be able to codify their partnerships in the law of our society, there’s little to offer aside from congratulations.

Update: Over at Dean’s World, Dean links to law prof John Witte Jr. and his take on the issue. Among other things, though, Witte notes that one of the traditional reasons that polygamy has been verbotten in the West is that is “routinizes patriarchy.” I’m no women’s studies stooge, but that particular reason strikes me as a little implausible except as a very, very recent development.


More on the Pinker/”Dignity” Bioethics Debate, A Reponse to Patrick Lee and Robert George

May 19, 2008

That Steven Pinker article “The Stupidity of Dignity” is now out in published form, and continues to be a source of controversy. For those who detest Pinker’s tone, Russell Blackford has his own, similar, take to the concept of dignity that he penned a few years ago in response to Francis Fukuyama.

A recent commenter suggested I give my own thoughts on one of the Bioethics Council’s “dignity” essays, and I figured I’d expand my comment into a fuller review. The essay/chapter in question is Patrick Lee and Robert P. George’s “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity.” And they start off with a definition of dignity that I find problematic right off the bat:

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Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

May 17, 2008

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.


Human Dignity: An Ethically Useless Concept

May 12, 2008

Last year Steven Pinker wrote a fantastic article on bioethics that somehow had escaped my notice until a commenter recently brought it to my attention: The Stupidity of Dignity.

The point of his essay is not, as one might fear, that human beings lack an inherent dignity or moral importance. It’s that the term “dignity” has been so constantly abused that it has become almost worthless in moral debates. It’s incoherently defined, capable of having nearly any property, even contradictory ones. And it’s all too often used simply as a proxy for the philosopher’s or theologian’s subjective dislike of some behavior or idea.

Here’s the key point of the article:

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

The rest of Pinker’s article basically argues that despite an entire volume full of responses to Macklin’s challenge, the mostly conservative and religious Presidential Council on Bioethics have failed to answer it. In some cases, as with the notorious Leon Kass, they did worse than fail, exposing bizarre theocratic preoccupations that celebrate death and bemoan liberty in life.

A tour de force. Anyone know of any good responses to, or critiques of, this piece from conservative critics?


First Things First: Tsunami, Theodicy, and Recycling for Cyclones in Myanmar

May 8, 2008

This wasn’t quite how I wanted to start a series of posts on theodicy, but here we are. In the wake of the recent cyclone disaster in Burma/Myanmar, the conservative religious journal First Things has reprinted any article attempting to reflect on the similarly shocking disaster of tsunami. You might remember First Things from my previous rants on one of the journal’s founders Richard John Neuhaus and his loving fantasies of anguished atheists. Well, a link from Exploring our Matrix led me back there yet again, and this was the result:

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Richard Carrier on Atheist Morality & Theist Fears of Depravity

April 7, 2008

I’ve argued that theism cannot provide any demonstrable advantage over the lack of it in regards to justifying “meaning,” including moral meaning. More recently, I’ve started to flesh out the reasons why I find the specifically Christian version of theism morally incoherent (from, of course, my own conception of what is moral: i.e. fairness, rational principles, concern for others, etc.), specifically the idea of salvation (as well as a response to a cumbersome critic).

Richard Carrier, up and coming historian and philosopher, has some more to say on the subject of morality that I think is worth a look. As he notes, when believers insist that non-believers are always a frightening inch away from rape and pillage, they are looking for a very specific set of answers, which are not always provided by atheists, perhaps because we’re missing the real point of the question.

As I noted in my first essay on meaning, one important key to this debate is to ask how exactly believers really come to their own moral justifications, which they purport to be satisfied with, or at least think superior to all comers. I think they, and perhaps even the rest of us, might be surprised at just how flimsy and often strangely indirect those justifications for moral behavior are.

On a side note, Carrier is also looking for patrons, of sorts, to sponsor him in his writing of a book on the historical Jesus. When the vast majority of Biblical scholars (though perhaps not the ranks of best) are devoted believers or even glorified salesmen like William Craig, it is always worthwhile to have a contrary perspective, especially from someone who is qualified to give one (as Richard is). I know I don’t have a devoted set of wealthy readers, or else you’d have already given ME all your money by now. But its certainly a cause worth passing the word around about.