Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section one

Soul Properties: Are Our Choices Predetermined? (Chapter Three, section one)

The author begins with a story of an elderly man who, determined to conquer his fear of flying, boards a plane for his annual trip to his favorite vacation spot rather than take a train as he had been doing for years. (The author expresses his awe of this man, and I’m inclined to agree, insofar as this was something that took a lot of willpower. Conquering phobias by immersion is an extremely difficult thing to do. Fortunately, there are straightforward therapeutic techniques to cause phobias to cease, and the elderly man in the story would have been better off going to a therapist for a few sessions than risk a heart attack by forcing himself to fly. All of this is, however, beside the point.) The author asks whether we can doubt that this man made a conscious choice to board the plane and conquer his phobia.

The author here is conflating, “making a conscious choice,” with, “exercising free will.” That we arrive at a decision based on a conscious process does not mean that process wasn’t influenced in part or wholly by something outside our control. Our decisions are influenced by many things, not least of which is culture. Had the man in the story not lived in a society which saw conquering your fears as a noble endeavor it is highly unlikely he would have boarded that plane. He didn’t choose the society he was born into or the social norms he was indoctrinated with, yet those social norms had a profound influence on his “conscious” decision.

The influence of society alone doesn’t negate free will, but let’s engage in some speculation. Let’s suppose that this man was very close with his late father, and his father believed that conquering one’s fear was very important, to the point where he thought that someone who didn’t do something because he was afraid was a coward. Let’s further suppose that our elderly man is religious and believes he will see his father again in the afterlife. Now let’s say he had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

This specific situation probably isn’t true of the man in the story, but hypothetically speaking, if it was, could we say that his belief he would soon be seeing his father again, and his fear that his father would see him as a coward if he died without conquering his fear of flying, forced him to board that plane? Would his conscious choice to conquer his phobia then be an act of free will, or the inevitable outcome of a confluence of circumstances?

The author now states that modern science says there is, “nothing non-physical about the mind,” and our choices are a product of biology. The physicality of the mind is what I’ve been arguing for all along, and I tend to think that free will is an illusion. It will be interesting to see how the author tries to show that the scientists are wrong. Let’s see if there’s anything other than appeals to consequences.

Ah, here we go. Appeal to consequences: “This theory is as preposterous as it is dangerous. If our choices are not ours… we can no longer be responsible for any of our decisions. …The theory exonerates most evil people, including even Hitler.”

That we would not be able to hold people morally accountable for their actions without free will, and that this idea makes us uncomfortable, has nothing to do with whether or not we actually have free will. Further, the author compounds his appeal to consequences with an emotional appeal when he states that a lack of free will exonerates even Hitler. We are supposed to react in moral outrage. Hitler was a monster! He was evil, and must be held morally responsible for his actions! Again, that we feel outrage at the idea Hitler may not be morally responsible for his actions does not mean that we have free will.

The author also tries to imply that denying free will leads to anarchy, as he claims that every lawyer can say his client committed the crime, but it can’t be held accountable because his lack of free will means, “it wasn’t his fault.” The real question here is what is the purpose of the legal system? The author seems to be taking the approach that the legal system is a way to balance the universe’s books. If someone does something wrong, they must be punished. If they don’t have free will, they can’t be held morally accountable for a wrongdoing, and so shouldn’t be punished. I would argue that the purpose of the legal system is to protect society. If a person is a murderer, they should be imprisoned because they represent a threat to society. If a person causes financially calculable harm to another, he should pay – not as a punishment to him for causing the harm, but so that those who are caused harm will be protected from loss. As the agent of that harm, he is responsible for making good the loss.

“Ah”, some might argue, “but that’s not fair! It’s not his fault! He has no free will!” True enough, but if someone is standing on a ladder to fix his roof, a stray dog wanders into his yard and knocks down the ladder, and he lands on and breaks his neighbor’s lawn furniture, he is still responsible to pay for the broken furniture even though he cannot be held morally accountable for the chain of events that led to the furniture’s destruction.

(Please note, I am not trying to make the legal system the basis of morality. Nor does the fact that at times not being in full control (crimes of passion) may be taken into account mean that my approach is wrong, because it is entirely possible that part of our legal system is built on the same supposition the author makes, i.e. that the law is meant to punish those who did wrong in order to balance the universe’s books.)

Further, the existence of consequences for given actions are themselves part of the circumstances that determine our actions.
{appeal to consequences, emotional appeal }

The author goes on to quote several scientists and philosophers as saying that while we have the perception of free will, we do not have actual free will. He quotes Einstein as saying, “This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.” I’m not sure why the author included the quote, except perhaps as a contrast to the next section where he talks about Judaism’s stance on free will.

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