Thursday, January 7, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section three

I don’t know how many people are reading these posts (though I noticed I’ve been getting more hits since I started posting every day), but there haven’t been many comments. I’d like to think that’s because my brilliant dissection of the book leaves you all speechless, but I must humbly admit that I do occasionally make mistakes. If anyone spots any flaws in my arguments, I’d appreciate it if you point them out so that I can correct them.

“The Twinkie Defense” (Chapter Three, section three)

The author cites several ludicrous defenses brought in real-life trials, then cites, “The Twinkie Defense.” A man who murdered two of his coworkers claimed that he could not be held accountable for his actions because he was hyperglycemic and had consumed a Twinkie and Coke on his way to work, causing his blood sugar to skyrocket and cloud his judgment. The jury bought it and lowered the charges from first-degree murder to manslaughter.

At least, that's the way the author presents it. In reality, the defense cited a recent change in the defendant's diet from very health-concious to sugary foods and drinks as a symptom of his overall downhill slide in the time leading up to the murders. Their defense was based on diminished capacity, a claim that the defendant was in an impaired state through no fault of his own and that this state, rather than malicious premeditation, was why he had killed his coworkers.

The author tries to use this case to show that people today get out of being held accountable for their actions by claiming they didn’t act willfully but were instead controlled by circumstances. This case shows no such thing. First degree murder is the malicious premeditated killing of another person. If the defense was correct, the defendant in this case didn’t commit murder, he committed manslaughter. And he was held accountable for manslaughter.

(Whether or not we should make such distinctions if all killings are equally the result of circumstances rather than our free will is a separate discussion. The facts in this case were judged to fit the technical definition of manslaughter, not murder, and so he was properly convicted of manslaughter.)
{unjustified claim}

The author now insultingly implies that scientists are deliberately interpreting data to discredit the concept of free will. He states, “…scientists gain a lot by denying free will: they can get away with the most outrageous actions and be held culpable of nothing.” For a book that is attempting to use rational arguments and scientific principles to support religious claims, this seems awfully close to the universal-conspiracy-of-scientists-intent-on-destroying-religion nonsense I was fed in elementary school.
(I realize that this in itself isn't an argument against his accusation, and that I am making something of an emotional appeal here, but this isn't the place to debunk the scientific conspiracy claim. That will come a little later, in part two of the book.)

He goes on to say that free will allows people to change and grow and denying free will reduces people to helpless automatons. This may be true. (Though I think it’s debatable – even if free will is an illusion, the illusion is so strong that treating it as real in some cases could be useful. The perception that we have free will may itself be a contributing factor among those that drive our decisions. Or maybe not, but it’s not a foregone conclusion either way.) But it’s an appeal to consequences. That acknowledging our lack of free will may rob people of motivation for positive change does not mean that we have free will.
{appeal to consequences}

It’s possible that he meant that people could change and grow ONLY if they had free will, and the fact that people do change shows that free will is a real phenomenon. But this isn’t true, because those changes could themselves be the product of the influences that drive a person’s behavior.
{unjustified conclusion}

I also think that the claim that a lack of free will reduces people to helpless automatons is an appeal to emotion. Most peoples’ reaction will be, “Of course I choose what I do. I’m not some kind of a helpless robot stuck with its programming!” The idea that our decisions are not the result of a conscious choice is very disconcerting.
{appeal to emotion}

This is followed by a story of a person who learned to control his temper and a poetic quote from a rabbi claiming that to be human is, “to ascend higher than angels and to descend lower than the vilest creature… Every day is… a new opportunity to climb… and climb we must.” Very touching, I’m sure, but not at all relevant to the question of whether we have free will. Anecdotes and assertions do not evidence make.

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