Sunday, October 17, 2004

Materialism and Morality

Shephen M Barr takes on Richard Dawkins, and by extension atheistic materialism in the August/September issue of First Things:

Dawkins contrasts ideas that are just memes, mindlessly and slavishly copied from brain to brain like computer viruses, with scientific ideas, which he likens to useful software that is critically evaluated by potential users and adopted or rejected on rational grounds. Such a distinction may be valid, but it is not a distinction that a materialist can make. It is based on there being an essential difference between machines, which can only do as they are told, and intelligent and free users of those machines, who can decide for themselves what to do. In the materialist’s universe, however, all users are themselves just machines, and are therefore as much driven by physical necessity (or chance) as everything else is. As the great mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl observed,

There must be freedom in the theoretical acts of affirmation and negation: When I reason that 2+2=4, this actual judgment is not forced upon me through blind natural causality (a view that would eliminate thinking as an act for which we can be held answerable) but something purely spiritual enters in.

The inescapable conclusion is that Dawkins and materialists of his sort do not in fact “stand up full-face into the keen wind of understanding.” They don’t face the implications of their ideas. If they did, they would have to dismiss all talk of morality, rebellion against nature, and intellectual freedom as so much sentimentality.

This, of course, begs the question "why"? Why does atheistic materialism dismiss any consideration of morality, rebellion against nature, and intellectual freedom? As an atheistic materialist, I just don't see it. Maybe I am just dense, but this argument is always put forth by religious polemicists as something that is irreducibly obvious. Lets pry into this argument just a little.

It assumes that morality is only possible where an actor is free to choose a course of action, unconstrained by deterministic forces that would force his choice to follow a set path. This seems reasonable and logical. He is implying that the choice must be made freely, and not determined by the atoms and molecules of his brain. But here is where the argument breaks down; the actor IS the atoms and molecules of his brain, along with the rest of his body. The actions of the atoms and molecules, firing to cause the sequence of activities that causes a certain course of action to be taken, IS the actor choosing that course of action. What our atoms choose, we choose. We are our atoms.

Religious people reject this prospect, just as Hermann Weyl rejects the notion that the understanding of a mathematical truth could not be the result of a blind natural causality. The problem is seemingly resolved, but truthfully only hidden, by a layer of indirection. The soul, a non-material entity which is the source and the seat of humanwill, is the true actor, the ghost in the machine that provides the necessary freedom that makes morality possible. But indirection merely shifts the problem to a different entity. The problem remains: what gives the soul its freedom of action?

There is a contradiction at work here, which Barr, Weyl and the religious do not recognize. Matter is rejected as a source of freedom, because it is thought to be deterministic. It produced predictable, regular results based on its initial conditions. But is freedom really the same as an absence of predictability? Does randomness equate to freedom? This would assume that a moral person is a person who will, given a situation, respond in a totally unpredictable way. But we do not judge morality in this way, we judge people as moral who follow a predictable, prescribed course of action whenever they are presented with a situation. A man who always reacts with kindness to others, whether they are kind to him or not, is considered moral. We also judge immoral people in this same way. Someone who uses every interaction to advance his own benefit or pleasure, whether it helps or hurts the other, is judged immoral.

But, surprisingly if you took the above definition of freedom seriously, we do not ascribe morality or immorality to someone who truly acts in a random, unpredictable way to a given situation. Such a person is judged to be mentally ill, and not responsible for his actions.

But isn't predictable behavior consistent with deterministic processes? How is a soul that produces predictable behaviors in a person any more indicative of freedom of action than a material body that can produce the same behaviors? Answer - it isn't.

The simple fact is that a predictable entity is a determined thing. Barr gets hung up on whether the deterimining is being done by the soul itself, or by an outside entity, the material body. He has no problem with a soul determining itself, that is his definition of freedom. Freedom is the ability to determine yourself. It is a willed automaton as opposed to a non-willed one where de draws the distinction between a free moral actor and an unfree mechanism incapable of moral responsibility.

This, of course, begs the question; when a soul determines itself, what is determining what? How can a soul, or anthing for that matter, be self-determined? Self-determination divides the soul into an active and a passive component, a determining and a determined part. So, to be free, the "I" has to be the determining, free part. But what determines how that will decide? As with all self-referential problems, this leads to an infinite regression. The "I", the free, undetermined but determining agent, must constantly be pushed farther down the line of regression to escape the fate of having its nature determined, and its freedom taken away.

Think of it this way. If I am free, then I can choose to act as I desire. But can I choose what to desire? If not, then I am not free, I am determined. Something that is not me determined what it is that I desire. So I must choose what it is I desire if I am to be free. But can I choose what it is that I desire that I desire? If not, then I am not free, I am determined. So I must choose what it is I deisire that I desire. But can I choose what it is that I desire that I desire that I desire? If not, then I am not free, I am determined. Blah, blah, blah, ad infinitum.

If the soul is free to make decisions unencumbered by any deterministic restriction, then it must necessarily act in a random, unpredictable manner. But if the action of the body is determined by the soul, then it too would act randomly. As it doesn't, except in the case of mental illness described above, then the soul must necessarily be a determined entity, and thus not free according to the definition above.

So have I not proven Barr's point? No, because I reject that definition of freedom. A being is free if it can act on its will. Note that I did not say act on its desires, but its will. The difference between humans and animals is that for an animal its will and its desires are one and the same. For a human, his will can diverge from his desires, or more accurately he can create within himself higher level desires with more far reaching objects of those desires which may lie totally outside of himself and embody abstractions and ideals, such as beauty, justice and the good, and to which he can subordinate his inherited animal desires. Morality is possible because of this capability.

Now, does it matter that the will may determined by material processes? No, for freedom does not depend on whether a person can freely choose the content of his will, only that he can freely act upon his will. Whether that will is embodied in an immaterial soul or a material brain is irrelevant. So when Barr says "It is based on there being an essential difference between machines, which can only do as they are told, and intelligent and free users of those machines, who can decide for themselves what to do." he is making the error of separating the machine from the intelligent and free user. The machine and the intelligent free user are one and the same.


Blogger Hey Skipper said...


It is great to see you take the plunge--your analytical skills require a far broader outlet than posting on Brothers Judd could ever allow.

A couple additional considerations occurred to me after reading this article.

First, if our entire notion of right and wrong derives from what God says, than our notions are contingent upon God's whim. After all, God could tomorrow, or even later today, change tack and decide rapine and murder are from henceforth good, and their alternatives bad.

Regardless of whether one believes God would actually do that, the fact remains that a God based morality is subject to whim.

The alternative is that we are imbued with some moral sense, imperfect though it may be.

Which rather takes God out of the moral picture.

The second consideration is materialism itself. People are, in general, "moral" because being so is materially more advanageous than the alternative. Morality is just another name for enlightened self interest.

October 18, 2004 2:20 AM  
Blogger Michael Herdegen said...

I second the congratulations, and good luck: A successful blog is a lot of work.

Surely you aren't a fan of Dawkins ?

Whatever one might believe about religions, the fact that all people, everywhere, have had religions, might make a rational person wonder whether there was some value to doing so.

As Jeff says, one's own blog affords one a scope difficult to match by posting on another's site, but also BrosJudd has built up a lot of traffic and a loyal readership, which takes time.

October 18, 2004 6:34 AM  
Blogger Michael Herdegen said...


For morality to be purely self-interest, it would have to be enlightened indeed, for often what is in one's immediate self-interest is immoral.

If morality is some vague urging to play nice, for the good of the group, how does such behavior avoid the tragedy of the commons ?

October 18, 2004 6:38 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Jeff and Michael, thanks for your comments! I expected that it would be some time to generate some traffic to the site, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the comments this morning. I won't be as prolific as OJ in replies, though, but when I get a post that generates a good discussion, I intend to keep it going and available for awhile.

Back to work!

October 18, 2004 7:38 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Outside of his writings on Darwinism, I am not a fan of Dawkins.

I agree with you in your contention that enlightened self-interest will not always line up with those actions that we consider moral, as with the personal sacrifices that we see firemen and soldiers willingly endure. There is a line, though, that separates moral sacrifice from an immoral acquiescence to evil. I think that reflexive, "turn the other cheek" pacifism falls in that category. True morality seeks to encourage reciprocal moral actions in others, whereas pacifism rewards and encourages opportunistic violence.

October 18, 2004 5:15 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Well, well, Robert. Allow me to add my congrats and best wishes. That was very impressive. I'd like to see you go head to head with Paul Cella.

Now, I think I understand your argument. I've never had much time for those--religious or secular-- who argue against free well. Some things are just obvious. But aren't you arguing both sides of the coin. In past debates I have argued that evolution can't explain morality (which implies free will) and I've usually been met with the unconvincing answer that our sense of right and wrong can in some way be linked to or rationalized by the survival imperative. We agree, I think, that animals are impelled solely by impulse and instinct and that it is nonsense to speak of immorality in the animal kingdom. (The nice little old lady that insists Fluffy was bad today and is feeling guilty charms us, but doesn't convince us).

So, never mind morality, where does immorality come from? You have made a convincing case that atheism and free will are compatible in an individual in the sense of being biologically explicable, but what about the connection between two individuals that gives the words morality and immorality any meaning? You speak of "kind" people, but surely that begs the question of how humans developed such a concept and how they share and communicate it. Are you saying that general kindness is, by definition, conducive to general survival and most of us are programmed to it? Or are you saying it is a matter beyond survival and an expression of free will, in which case where is the definition link among us?

To say that atheism is compatible with free will but that morality is determined by survival is a rough combo, no? Surely what is and what is not good for survival is an objective question. An individual may be stupid, but how can a whole people be wicked in your world?

And then, of course, there is the issue Michael hints at. In a world driven by biological evolution, but with free will, what impels us so naturally to the supernatural? If it is just a psychological crutch we need to drive us to hard work, cooperation and self-denial, what freaky evolutionary development took us out from under the secure, survival-friendly protection of impulse and instinct?

October 25, 2004 2:30 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Hi Peter, welcome to my blog! Thanks for the kind comments, I'll try to live up to them.

Where does immorality come from? What we call morality and what we call immorality are both the product of survival pressures. I think that Dawkins selfish gene theory explains this best. Social groupings of closely related individuals maximized the survival of the genes that are commonly shared. But individuals still had an incentive to maximize their own genetic survival at the expense of the relatives. To use a business term, it is co-opetition. Survival pressures optimized the tradeoffs between individual and group survival strategies.

But this explains animal evolution, why do we sometimes follow this instinctual calculus and sometimes oppose it? Well, I don't know if I can explain it, but it probably has something to do with the evolution of conscious decision making processes, and the ability to observe our own thoughts as if by a detatched other. Abstract thought gave us the ability to idealize our social instincts into sets of objective principles, such as justice and fairness. Maybe this was a mutation that in another creature would have led to its demise, but as it also gave us the power to craft tools and weapons, and devise strategies, it came along for the ride. But it allowed larger, more genetically diverse societies to cohere and thrive, by basing group loyalty on ideologies and not merely kinship.

How can a whole people be wicked? I don't think that they can. I don't believe that all Germans were wicked under Hitler, or all southerners wicked under the slave system. But survival instincts cannot be ignored, and spasms of group violence are bound to occur, especially given the larger aggregations of peoples that civilization has made possible. The larger the body of water, the larger the waves that it can produce.

As for the supernatural, here is my theory. As social beings, a large portion of our brainpower is dedicated to "relationship management". We are dependent on the group, and our survival is dependent on maintaining good social ties, and by possibly advancing ourselves and our offspring up the social hierarchy. We are happy when the group accepts us, and anxious when our social standing is in doubt or on the line. So our entire outlook on life is driven by social calculus - where do we stand, who can we trust, who is out to get us, who do we have to suck up to, who can we ignore, etc.

It would not be surprising if this way of looking after our security within the group was used as a mental template to look at the world outside the group. Threats to our security come from the natural world, and not just from our own ken. Spring rains that don't come, or storms that ruin our crops pose risks that are seemingly beyond our control. But what if they are not? Is there a personal will behind these forces? If there is, then we can potentially affect them to our benefit, by using the same "relationship management" strategies that we use to secure our group security. A belief in the supernatural is just applying our predominant mental framework onto the rest of the world. In the software development world, this is known as "reuse".

Does it work? Do sacrifices make the rains come? If it makes the believer think so, then it allows him to allay his anxiety and deal with his struggles with a sense of hope. Which is what faith is about, no?

October 25, 2004 6:14 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

October 25, 2004 6:18 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

October 25, 2004 7:05 PM  
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December 30, 2005 2:58 PM  

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