Friday, April 13, 2012

The Fountainhead of Moral Laws

We know, from a study of the Problem of Evil argument, that whether or not God exists, there is no evil on the earth until man appears. Man defines evil according to the manner in which he treats his fellow man. At the core of every evil act is a betrayal of trust. This is true in any universe where thinkers are free-willed and autonomous. This is true if God does or does not exist.

When we are born, we have no choice but to trust. Our only hope for survival is that there is somebody, worthy of our trust, who will keep us safe from harm until such time as we have grown to the wisdom and maturity to stand on our own.

We learn to betray each other when we are very young. We learn that we can lie. This starts in the crib, when we discover that we can draw our mother near if we feign a cry of distress. We do not have the conscious vocabulary to verbalize the concepts, but our subconscious is hard at work, storing information in symbols we can no longer consciously understand. Now that we are older, our minds do the work of bubbling up concepts, from our subconscious,  and transforming them to courses of action that sometimes escape as impulsive reactions. If you hit your thumb with a hammer in your own garage a colorful curse might escape with abandon. If you are in the company of small children you might catch this impulse and exclaim something more carefully thought out, causing laughter from the children themselves to escape with the same abandon.

At some point in time, still while we are very young and not capable of practical language, we develop our own internal language and we babble all day long about anything that is on our minds. Sometimes, to attract attention, we will make up a story and speak it, unaware that nobody can understand what we are saying. And, if our story has the intended effect of gaining attention, we begin to understand, in our own internal language, the power of the lie.

We learn at the age of 2 or 3 that we can cause another being to veer off of a natural course if we can get him or her to believe a lie. We understand that we must temper this power because we have developed relationships of concern for those close to us. We do not want to lead them down the wrong path. We want them to have good sources of trust in a world where all can lie. We understand that we can be somebody that they can trust. We understand all of this, in our own language while we are still very young.

 In the struggle for life, a well-executed lie can be the difference between life and death. This is true throughout the animal kingdom and it is no less true in the mind of man. Therefore it is important that we learn early on about the power of the lie. Evolution, or our creator herself, has brought us to this state, empowering us with the capacity to lie.

The fountainhead of moral laws is in your consciousness. You always, without exception, within your own internal court of reason, condemn yourself for each instance in which you have judged that you betrayed another’s trust. You cannot escape from this; the testimony of your memory is unimpeachable and your internal moral code is clear. You could have behaved as a repository of trust.  Instead you behaved as something less than that.

You have within yourself  a perfect system of justice with respect to the things you know.  You can choose. You are not a robot. You are a physical law of the universe. You are the fountainhead of moral laws.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Birth of Physical Laws

Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris

Well known atheist and New York Times bestselling author Sam Harris has authored a new book entitled Free Will that is dedicated to the proposition that free will is an illusion. The rationale is clear and compelling. It is a short monograph; the main content is about 70 pages followed by a section of references and endnotes.

Do we live in a deterministic universe? Is each future state of the universe determined absolutely by a prior state? Or is the opposite true? Can a certain state of the universe come into existence without absolute dependence on the constitution of a prior state? The key word is "absolute." If, for example, in any new state of the universe, a random element is introduced, then that state is not absolutely dependent on the prior state. This view of the universe is labeled as indeterminism.

The problem with the standard notion of free will is that it appears to be incompatible with either form of universe. Mr. Harris lays out the reasons for this very clearly. This understanding of free will is labeled as incompatibilism.

But, what exactly is the 'standard notion' of free will?  As Mr. Harris points out, the definition can vary and change over time from person to person.

Harris quotes Einstein:
Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what realtionship this has to freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing?
Einstein is not compelled to light the pipe.  If he were a robot, the lighting of the pipe would be part of the behavior 'detemined' by his programmer. So, when Einstein lights his pipe, who, or what, is doing the "determining?" 

NYU Professor of Philosophy Ned Block points out how in the face of incompatibility he decided to adopt a more restricted notion of free will. This position is labeled as compatiblism.

Tufts University Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett further refines a compatibilist view. We act because of reasons and further we share our reasons with one another. The concept of 'responsibility' is introduced as wearing its definition on its sleeve. We can be responsible to one another because we are capable of responding to one another.

University of Reading Professor of Philosophy Galen Strawson’s argument against free will is based on a definition of free will as the individuals being solely, ultimately, and singularly responsible for his decisions. Mr. Harris maintains similar positions throughout his book.

Must the notion of free will be glued to the notion of responsibility? Some theists propose that the answer is yes, implying that one is responsible to God, however this is a non-sequiter.  Free will can be a bona-fide subject of discussion in both created and non-created universes. The concept of free will, in and of itself, cannot be associated with a concept of responsibility, until one first defines the concept of free will and then answers the question: "To whom, if anyone, is one responsible?"  Free will can exist without regard to the asking or the answering of that question. 

All choices are constrained by the physical laws of the universe. For example, if one is starving and finds two bushes of berries, one red and the other blue, he must make a decision as to which one of them, if any, is safe to eat. He must eat, and his choices are restricted, but he is free to make a choice. This is absolute freedom in every sense of the word. He is not compelled by prior circumstances to choose red over blue or vice versa. He can flip a coin, or perhaps he can feed some of the berries to animals to observe their effect.

The ‘free’ in free will refers not to the quantity or quality of choices. It refers to the individual’s capacities to make a choice and to carry it out. If, in the example above, only red berries were found, the choice remained to eat no berries at all and to press on instead for more reliable food. Yes, death is the risk, but death is the risk of life itself.

Definition of Free Will

Free will is the collection of the following four capacities of a thinking agent:

  1. The capacity to observe the present: Options exist out of which one or more can be chosen. 
  2. The capacity to observe the past: To use ones memory in the evaluation of the current options. 
  3. The capacity to conceive of the future: To predict the probable net effect on future states of the different choices that might be made.  
  4. The capacity to carry out a selected choice.
The net effect of the possession of free will, in a deterministic or indeterministic universe, is to act in conjunction with the physical laws of the universe to determine, predict and cause the existence of a selected future state. The will of man thus becomes a physical law of the universe. In a non created universe, the physical laws of the universe have dictated that new physical laws will come into existence and we see them arise with each newborn child.  In a created universe we see the same thing and more, for we see our children as the continuous gifts of a loving creator who entrusts is with their care.

The autonomous thinkers of free will, be they atheist or be they theist, can reason together to create the rationale and the enactment that will ensure freedom of thought for all newborn children so that they can cause to exist a selected future state of world peace and the realization of an effort to spread the  human population across the universe. We are physical law of the universe, created or evolved, we can move the ancient mountains, in faith or in resolve.