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Dennett/D’Souza Debate — D’Souza

2008.02.16   prev     next

THIS is Part 2 of 2, of my comments on the Tufts University debate between Daniel Dennett and Dinesh D’Souza of last November.


D’Souza’s arguments against Dennett are for the most part, I think, sound. It’s when he goes off on a tangent about free will and morality that things go awry:

Take a stone rolling down a hill. A stone, quite frankly, has no choice in the matter. The stone rolls. It is a product of nature. We, on the other hand, seem to exist in two dimensions — we are products of nature, but we are also products, ultimately, of free will, of choice, of intentionality, of feelings, of consciousness, of morality. Now I ask you: Where can those things be found under the microscope? Have you ever seen consciousness? No. Dan Dennett argues, because he can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. It’s kind of an illusion. It’s ultimately a sort of projection, an epiphenomenon of material things. Everything has to be reduced to the material — why? Because ultimately a great, wide universe has to be truncated in a procrustean way to make it fit with materialist morality. Half of our experience, the entire subjective dimension, has to be cancelled out. So for Dan, if a computer can process a transaction and you can process a transaction — hey, the computer’s being rational. The computer is human in some fundamental sense, no different from you. And why? Because the result is the same.

Now I think this is a bit of foolishness, that it really perhaps takes a non-academic to see. In other words, we have knowledge of nature not just from the outside — we are like stones — but we also have choice. Here I am, participating in this debate, and our debate is based on free exchange of ideas, and free will. I mean, I could put this microphone down and go sit down. Is the firing of the neurons in my head determining my decision? Is it telling me one way or the other? No! I can go either way. I speak, I stop. So the dimension of free will would seem to suggest that there is a part of us that, one may say, can override the laws of nature. Now, in what way? Obviously if I throw this microphone, its trajectory, its parabola-like motion — it will fall to the ground in obedience to the laws of gravity; I admit all that. But my decision to throw it, I would suggest, is undetermined. And why? Think about it — imagine if all our actions were determined. If that were true, there would be no point in having this debate. There would be no point in us having universities. There would be no point in having morality. Because you could never say to someone, “You shouldn’t do this; you mustn’t do that; this isn’t right,” because they would answer, “What choice do I have in the matter?” You can’t go to Hitler or the Nazis and say, “You shouldn’t wipe out an entire population,” because they would say, “Well, my neurons made me do it.”

I don’t know, to any high extent, what Dennett thinks of these ideas, so please don’t take this as any kind of endorsement of his position. But I see some big problems with them from my own perspective.

If you told the Nazis, “You shouldn’t wipe out an entire population,” would they say, “My neurons make me do it” — or would they simply say, “Go to hell,” then shoot you in the face? I would suggest that the Nazis were motivated not by a failure to believe in free will, but rather by some innate love of violence, and/or a personal anger over great disappointments in their own lives. Society is filled with such individuals, and the way we protect ourselves from them is via a combination of force, deterrence, and detection. The Nazi disaster was due to local circumstances (largely created by the punitive “war debt” inflicted on post-WWI Germany) in which the rage-motivated segment of the population could take over the government.

A microphone flying through the air on a parabolic path is an example of the stable behavior of a two-body (Earth-and-microphone) system. But the “three-body” problem is famously known to have no stable solution; to exhibit chaotic behavior that is hard to predict in the long-term. The human brain is the multi-billion-body problem, and is therefore that much harder to predict. You can call that unpredictability “free will,” but it doesn’t mean the human mind is “more” than the human brain.

If people don’t believe in free will, will that cause them to shut down universities and stop having interesting philosophical debates? D’Souza directly implies as much, but I see no evidence that any such thing would happen. I myself don’t believe in D’Souza’s concept of free will, and I’m engaging in debate right now. Notice that D’Souza says that there would be “no point” in having universities and debates if we don’t have free will — but he carefully avoided saying that there would be no point in wiping out whole populations if we don’t have free will. Why not? Why would a lack of free will bring pointlessness only to constructive activities? Why also does D’Souza neglect the scenario in which we “have no choice in the matter” of building universities and participating in intellectual debates? Why cannot our neurons make us do those things?

Population Statistics vs. Free Will

But the most important problem with D’Souza’s argument has to do with population statistics. Almost all socially counterproductive violence is perpetrated by males. Does that mean females don’t have free will to choose violence? Do males, for that matter? If everyone has free will to choose violence or nonviolence, why do almost all of those who “freely choose” violence just happen to be male?

If a criminal profiler starts her profile of a serial killer with the presumption that the killer is male, simply based on the statistical fact that almost all serial killers are male (plus no available evidence that this one is female), is she making a mistake by discounting free will? Does free will mean that, no matter what the statistics of past events, this serial killer is just as likely to be female as male, since the population has about the same number of males as females, and all those people have free will to choose whether or not to go on a killing spree?

And by extension, are all population statistics, and the numerous improvements we have made to society by using those statistics to our best advantage, somehow bogus, illusory, or illegitimate, due to free will?

One way to try to dodge this problem is by saying, “OK, males must have a built-in impulse to kill that females generally don’t. But the males can still use free will to choose whether to act on that impulse. Some choose to act on it; others choose not to.” That argument is seriously flawed, because if the presence or absence of a built-in impulse has a profound statistical effect on how many murders are committed by a group of people, then the alleged “free will” is apparently not overriding the presence or absence of that impulse. If free will has final say-so over the decision to be violent, then the statistics should reflect that. The male impulse to kill should be invisible in population data, because it is overridden by free will.

Of course, we don’t observe anything like that. The gender statistic is strong, and proves, all by itself, that most if not all individuals do not have metaphysically free will. Their actions are a function of the predispositions in their brain (as dictated by their DNA) and their perceived likelihood of satisfying those predispositions through action.

D’Souza said he was free to throw his microphone across the room. But he did not throw it — he kept it in his hand and continued talking, well beyond discussion of the microphone-throwing scenario. And, it is certainly worth noting, we can reliably observe that virtually all (99.999% perhaps?) of speakers in public debating forums do not throw their microphones across the room in the middle of their speeches. D’Souza hoped with his words to demonstrate that he was free to throw the microphone, but demonstrated nothing of the sort. The circumstances of the debate and his desire to express his opinions through a functioning microphone were much greater than his desire to see the microphone sail through the air and crash to the floor. Neither D’Souza nor anyone else is “free” to override their circumstances and desires.


Update 2008.03.18 — typo correction to “worth noting.”


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