Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club, Part 3
By Bryan Caplan
The Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club continues. Today, we go over Part 3: Metaphysics. Huemer’s in blockquotes, I’m not. Once again, I’m focusing on my disagreements to keep the discussion lively.
1. The Argument from Design.
Back in the 19th century, I guess a lot of people had mechanical pocket watches, and if you looked inside, you could see a complicated, very precise mechanism working. Even if you’d never seen a watch before, you would immediately know that this thing had to have been designed by someone. It’s too intricately ordered to have just happened.
Unless I missed it, Huemer never clearly articulates the fundamental objection to the Argument from Design. Namely: The reason why we infer a watch-maker from a watch is not that the watch is “intricately ordered,” but that we have independent reason to believe that watches are not naturally occurring.
Consider this rock formation:
Now compare it to this rock carving:
The former is far more “intricately ordered” than the latter. But the latter shows design, and the former does not. Why? Because we have independent knowledge that only intelligent beings create rocks with little hearts on them. The upshot is that the Argument from Design literally “begs the question.” It assumes that the universe couldn’t be naturally occurring, which is precisely the point under dispute.
I’m not going to say much about this instance of the Argument from Design, though, because it has not aged well. Paley wrote before the Theory of Evolution was developed (Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859), so in Paley’s time, there really was no good explanation for life that anyone had thought of, other than “God did it.” Paley was correct to think it implausible that life just appeared by chance.
But would it not be even more implausible to think that God just appeared by chance? If so, how would the existence of life have been a good argument for the existence of God, even in Paley’s pre-Darwinian time?
2. The “fine tuning” argument for the existence of God:
So, given that almost all ways of assigning values to the universe’s parameters would be unfriendly to life, why does the universe in fact have life-friendly parameters? The theist says: Because an intelligent, benevolent, and immensely powerful being set the parameters of the universe that way, in order to make life possible.
I say this is an obviously terrible argument, and I don’t say such things lightly. Why? Because we have zero evidence that the anyone can “set the parameters of the universe”! If you went into a music studio, full of knobs and dials, it makes sense to say, “I doubt these knobs and dials just happened to be in the right position to record punk rock.” The reasonable inference is that someone who wanted to make punk rock set them to do so. But that’s only because there are a bunch of knobs and dials amenable to adjustment! If a newly-discovered cave had great acoustics for punk, in contrast, it would be crazy to think anyone “adjusted the cave’s settings” for this purpose.
When responding to “Weak Objection #4,” Huemer presents the following hypothetical:
Made by God: While exploring the surface of Mars, astronauts discover a new kind of crystal. When they look at it under a microscope, they find that the molecules of this crystal spontaneously arrange themselves into patterns that look exactly like the English words, “Made by God” in Times New Roman font. Everyone who looks in the microscope sees it. Scientists are able to figure out that this is actually a complicated, hitherto-unnoticed consequence of some very specific features of the laws of nature, features that no one has any explanation for. Over the next few decades, many more crystals are discovered, scattered across all the planets of the solar system, which, when looked at under microscopes, look like the phrase “Made by God” spelled out in each of the languages of Earth. Again, the laws of nature just happen to be arranged to ensure that this happens.
I’d say this is excellent evidence for intelligent English-speaking life on Mars, but zero evidence for God’s existence. After all, everything on Earth labelled “made by God” is made by garden-variety intelligent English-speaking life, so why shouldn’t we make a parallel inference on Mars?
Am I misreading the point of this hypothetical? Seemingly not, because shortly thereafter, Huemer writes: “If your opposition to theism is so extreme that your position wouldn’t even admit that there was evidence for theism in the ‘Made by God’ story, then I think you need to step back and take a break.” I have stepped back, taken a break, and I still think the hypothetical fails.
3. Next, Huemer turns to the Anthropic Principle’s response to the fine tuning argument. And I have to say, the Anthropic response seems completely satisfactory to me. So what’s wrong with it, according to Huemer? He presents this hypothetical:
Firing Squad: You’ve been convicted of treason (a result of one too many intemperate tweets about the President) and are scheduled to be executed by firing squad. When the time of your execution arrives, you stand there blindfolded, listening to the fifty sharpshooters lift their rifles, fire, and then . . . Somehow you find yourself unscathed. All fifty shooters have apparently somehow missed. Wondering how this could have happened, you start entertaining hypotheses such as: Maybe someone paid all the soldiers to deliberately miss, maybe someone broke into the armory last night and loaded all the guns with blanks, etc.
My reply: Entertaining such hypotheses only makes sense because we have independent reason to believe that people normally don’t survive fifty-man firing squads. In contrast, it’s not weird for humans to exist on planet hospitable to human life. And if you ask, “How did this happen?,” saying, “If the universe were very different, we wouldn’t be here too ask such questions” is illuminating.
In any case, if you take fine tuning seriously, why can’t you just ask, “How did we happen to be in a universe where a divine being fine-tunes the laws of nature to allow our survival?” Are you going to say, “A super-divine being flipped the ‘divine fine-turning’ switch to ‘on'”? In other words, you can think of the presence of a pro-human divine being as another “parameter” of the universe, and say, “This is even more puzzling than I realized. How did the divine being happen to be so pro-human?” Yes, you could invoke the Anthropic Principle here too, but then why not cut out the divine being entirely?
4. “The Burden of Proof”:
I should note, though, that it’s not always clear exactly what the “burden of proof” people are saying – they’re usually not as explicit as I was above, probably because they themselves are not sure what they believe. (That happens a lot in philosophy.) So people will often make remarks that are ambiguous between (a) and (b) below:
(a) In the absence of evidence, you should believe x does not exist.
(b) In the absence of evidence, you should refrain from believing that x exists.
Notice that (b) is obvious, while (a) is a lot more puzzling and less obvious. I’m going to address (a).
I agree that (a) is a little puzzling, but it’s sound under straightforward conditions. Namely: If X has a low prior probability of existing, and there’s no evidence of X’s existence, we should conclude that X has a very low posterior probability of existing. What gives X “a low prior probability of existing”? Many things, including (a) being very specific (e.g. X=”a guy with a feathered hat named Josephus who likes pickle-flavored ice cream and has exactly 19 hairs on his head”), and (b) being fantastical (e.g. X=Superman). The Christian God is both (a) and (b). A generic God is (b). Yes, some things in categories (a) and (b) do exist, but if someone asserts their existence without evidence, we should severely doubt their existence. (Especially if the asserter has a poor epistemic track record already).
5. Free Will and Predictability
Huemer persuasively debunks the “compatibilist” view that free will and determinism can both be true. But as far as I can tell, he never debunks one of the most popular arguments for determinism. Namely: Human behavior is often highly predictable. As a social scientist, I hear such arguments fairly often.
My position, which I warrant Huemer would also accept: Libertarian free will and behavioral predictability are totally compatible.
Why? Because libertarian free will is about what you can do, and predictability is about what you do do. I know via introspection, for example, that I can stop watching television. But it remains highly predictable that I will keep watching. Flipping things around, you can often use my genes and environment to make excellent predictions about my behavior. E.g., Per evolutionary psychology and social norms, I’m going to continue taking care of my kids. Still, this doesn’t show that I can’t do otherwise, only that I won’t.
In Bayesian terms, admittedly, the best way to show that you can do X is to actually do X. P(I can do X|I do X)=1, whereas P(I can do X|I don’t do X)<=1. But P(I can do X|I don’t do X) is frequently high.
6. Free will as a continuum.
Most discussion of free will treats freedom as a binary property (a property having only two values): Either you have free will, or you do not have it. Philosophers give qualitative conditions for an action to be free, where satisfying the conditions presumably makes you fully free, and failing to satisfy them makes you not at all free.
However, it seems that one can have varying degrees of freedom. Among actions that are to some degree free, some are more free than others. For example, suppose a person’s behavior is partly explained by their poor upbringing. Or a psychological disorder. Or the influence of drugs or alcohol. I say “partly explained” here because nobody’s behavior is ever completely explained by those things. But the influence of extraneous, non-rational factors can be more or less difficult to resist, and a person can have a more or less active role in their own decision-making process. So these outside influences would diminish one’s free will.
While speaking this way is tempting, the binary position is basically correct. Loosely speaking, it is “harder” for a straight man to avoid romance with woman (to whom he is strongly attracted) than with males (to whom he isn’t attracted at all). Strictly speaking, however, both choices are fully free. One is much more pleasing, but we are fully free to refrain from taking pleasing actions.
If I recall correctly, Huemer is not a fan of the Szaszian approach to mental illness. But it’s directly relevant. I say, for example, that alcoholics are fully free to stop drinking. They rarely do, but they absolutely can. Indeed, there is strong empirical evidence that I’m right, because changing incentives changes alcoholics behavior; and if changing incentives changes behavior, that is strong evidence that you were capable of changing your behavior all along.
Yes, it is often sensible to adjust our moral judgment based on how “hard” or “easy” a choice is. We condemn a starving man for stealing bread much less than a well-fed man for doing the same. The reason, though, it’s not because the latter choice is “freer” than the other, but because the latter choice is less morally justified than the latter.
Consequentialists may insist that we vary the severity of condemnation simply to improve incentives. Yet in that case, we would have to harshly punish doing the wrong thing for “hard” choices, yet could safely settle for light punishments for doing the wrong thing on “easy” choices. The normal view is almost the opposite.
7. “Now, despite what I just said, I think the Soul Theory is the only plausible theory of personal identity that anyone has devised. Every other theory has obviously false implications.” I basically agree. Why, though, call this the “soul theory” with its strong supernatural connotations, rather than simply the “mind theory”? After all, there is a whole field already called “philosophy of mind” (we both took this class from Searle, I believe). When Huemer writes:
Some believe that persons have a special, immaterial component called “the soul”, which determines one’s identity. (This view is sometimes called “mind-body dualism”.) The soul is also said to be the subject of mental states (it is your soul, rather than your body, that experiences thoughts, feelings, and so on). In all the thought experiments about personal identity, you go wherever your soul goes. The unobservability of souls makes it possible to account for any intuitions about personal identity you want; we can just suppose that a person’s soul goes wherever we intuitively think the person is.
Why didn’t he instead say:
Some believe that persons have a special, immaterial component called “the mind”, which determines one’s identity. (This view is sometimes called “mind-body dualism”.) The mind is also said to be the subject of mental states (it is your mind, rather than your body, that experiences thoughts, feelings, and so on). In all the thought experiments about personal identity, you go wherever your mind goes. The unobservability of mind makes it possible to account for any intuitions about personal identity you want; we can just suppose that a person’s mind goes wherever we intuitively think the person is.
8. Let me end with a particularly good passage I agree with:
In response, hard determinists often say this is an “illusion”, adding that we are determined to experience this illusion. This reply, however, is very lame by itself – that is, if not supplemented with actual evidence that shows free will to be illusory. In general, if we seem to observe something, it is very lame to simply say, “Oh, that’s an illusion” and move on. Rational people assume that what we seem to observe is real, unless there is evidence to the contrary; they don’t assume that whatever we seem to observe is illusory until proven real (see §7.6).
In other words, determinism is a supremely unscientific theory that begins by throwing away ubiquitous conflicting evidence that each of us experiences in our every waking moment.