Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Recently, a correspondent wrote to me asking:
“How do you deal with the fact that nearly every work on zen buddhism available on the market is either infected by new age thought or riddled with information a naturalist can hardly be happy with? What's your criteria (for) which books are a good read? Do you extract the thoughts that are sound for naturalists or do you reinterpret the infected thoughts so that they can be embraced by naturalists? What's your motivation to deal with zen buddhism even if so many ideas inherent in it are so unsound for naturalists?”
These are good questions, and need to be addressed by any practitioner professing to reject any supernatural or transcendent ideas or teachings. In fact, if you were to look into the pages of any buddhist (zen or other) book that I’ve read, you are likely to find lots of marginalia where I am in argument with what is written! So why do I read such material? I could say I’m a glutton for punishment, but actually, what I find is that engaging with other perspectives keeps me on my toes; engages me in questioning what I truly believe; and sharpens my critical thinking skills. But yeah, it’d be nice to read a book now and then that truly captures a naturalist perspective.
In direct response to my questioner:
1. My criteria is whether the topic seems interesting to me; whether the author is someone I’m familiar with or not (if not familiar, I may read to see what they offer); and whether or not I can find something useful for practice and/or teaching purposes.
2. I both ‘extract’ ideas and perspectives that I believe are in harmony with a naturalistic perspective where possible, and also find myself engaged with some creative re-interpretation of other material so as to be in harmony with such a perspective.
3. My motivation to remain involved in zen buddhism despite so much of it being at odds with a fully naturalist perspective has to do with my love of the practice as well as some of it’s imagery that is either naturalistic or easily framed as such. In honesty, part of the reason is most likely due to the fact that it’s the tradition I trained in and found – despite all else – most simpatico!
Now, I teach two Mindfulness Yoga classes a week here in Tucson, and the format is a short reading (3 – 5 minutes) followed by a short dharma talk (5 – 7 minutes) where I either draw out a point made in the reading, add my thoughts and responses to the reading, or critique the reading. I find many students surprised by this last response; they seem to assume if I’m reading it before class I am ‘endorsing’ the teaching! Just this past Sunday, it was an example of the latter that, in partial response to my correspondent’s question, I offer here.
For quite some time (as the readings are always short, it may take a year or more to get through a book) I’ve been reading from Steve Hagen’s Meditation: Now or Never. I find it generally useful for my purposes of setting intention and for developing a theme for class. Most of his book (and his other writings) falls into the category of being good for extracting ideas that do not conflict with a naturalist perspective. However, like most zen teachers, he does fall into idealist, transcendent, super-mundane ideas (even if he isn’t aware of doing so, and most likely would reject the suggestion that he does).
For instance, on Sunday, I read the following from his chapter “It’s Not About Getting Things Done”:
Meditation is not about throwing things out of your mind or trying to make your mind blank. For starters, this is impossible. If you try to throw things out of your mind, how will you throw out the final thing – the willful mind that has been busily throwing things out?
Now, this first paragraph is a good example of a teaching in line with naturalism. I think it important to address the common misunderstanding that all meditation has a blank mind, free of all thoughts as its goal. Despite this, there are reams of texts from the zen traditions that actually do assert a mind free from thought as an ideal!
Meditation is not about doing anything. It is pure attention without grasping, without interference. It is simply paying attention.
Here’s where he begins his step into hogwash. Paying attention is doing something; not grasping or interfering is an action and relationship toward experience. Attention is a mental formation (citta-samskara). Many teachers and practitioners fool themselves into thinking (ha!) that “non-reactive attention” is not itself a mental activity/stance and chosen relationship to other mental activity! This is a subtle positing of an atman.
If our will is directed toward any object or purpose – even toward meditating correctly – then we’re not in meditation. We’re doing something.
But isn’t paying attention doing something? Actually no – not if it is pure, simple attention devoid of hope, fear, dread, or expectation. Bare attention, in fact, is the only activity that does not involve doing something.
This whole passage reflects the influence of Taoism upon zen. Whatever one thinks of Taoism, whatever poetry one finds there, it is not what the buddha taught!
The buddha is said to have described his awakening as “gradual” and specifically says “I directed my mind to the understanding of…” what we would call rebirth and karma. It is plain to see that the buddha’s meditation involved willful direction of attention and analysis.
The buddha also apparently rejected any idea of “pure awareness.” “Bare attention” is a mental activity, and you can see the related brain activity in an MRI. Such terms as “pure awareness” can only make sense if you posit a transcendent, independent self. This is the back-peddling from the radical implications of anatman we see in much of the later Mahayana buddhist thought (whether called ‘original face,’ ‘true nature,’ or the more traditional terms ‘buddha-nature,’ or ‘tathagata-garbha’ these are simply the reappearance of an atman in new garb, but it shouldn’t fool anyone.
In the above passage, Hagen posits a “pure awareness” devoid of characteristics. That’s a formulation of the absolute – and to be sure, Hagen often uses capitalization of words like “Reality,” “Truth” and “Awareness” as in a sentence where he writes, “Actually, this is how things are in Reality.” Watch for those capitalizations! They are semantic signifiers of the Absolute that, by definition, is Super Natural and Transcendent. All rejected by zen naturalism.
Sunday, February 17, 2013
At this point it’s worthwhile to address the question, “If there is no-self; if there is no absolute, acausal free will; if all is determined and conditioned, than who takes refuge? Who takes the five precepts, the foundational ethical training of buddhism? What does it mean to "be" or "take responsibility" if there is no apparent base for moral responsibility?
I’d like to begin by investigating those who argue for taking moral responsibility; question if doing so is possible, and then explore the possibility of there being other understandings of what it means to take responsibility. Harry Frankfurt has argued (with gendered bias) that, “To the extent that a person identifies himself with the springs of his actions, he takes responsibility for those actions and acquires moral responsibility for them.” He even goes on to say that “the question of how the actions and the identifications with their springs is caused is irrelevant to the questions of whether he performs the actions freely or is morally responsible for performing them.” (1975, 122).
This would mean that your past is irrelevant; once you take responsibility, the responsibility is yours by virtue of identifying with and accepting the responsibility as yours. Taking responsibility is seen as a key element of agency. Who can deny the desire to be an agent, taking responsibility for our actions, and not being under the control of others? But is taking responsibility a justification of moral responsibility? Is it true that I am morally responsible because I take responsibility for my actions?
As I wrote about in my previous post, taking responsibility has been shown to be healthy – physically and psychologically. But it is essential to distinguish two very different forms of “responsibility” because if we understand the deeper implications, I argue that we will see that only one form of taking responsibility actually can be taken and is the only form beneficially worthwhile to take! Moral responsibility cannot be taken, and the benefits we see from taking responsibility do not even apply to moral responsibility. In fact, the assumption of moral responsibility is an obstacle to taking responsibility!
The difference between moral responsibility and taken responsibility comes down to some very basic, and quite obvious observations, despite the wide-spread confusion. You can take responsibility for many things of varying degrees of importance. I can take responsibility for teaching a course on meditation, planning a trip to the coast, for my financial planning, and for my health care decisions. But such “taken responsibility” is profoundly different from the moral responsibility that would open me to justified praise and blame. Perhaps the trip to the coast is a dismal failure, with cancelled and delayed flights, followed by storms that prevented anyone from ever getting into the ocean. If I were to say, “I took responsibility so I deserve blame for the dismal failure of the trip,” I think it clear someone would argue that given the air travel fiasco and the severe stormy weather, all of which was out of my control, I don’t deserve blame.
I am arguing that there’s really no difference between this and the failure of the course on meditation that I took responsibility for being a complete failure because I never advertised it and no one showed up! Yes, it was my responsibility and I royally messed up, but I am not to blame because my procrastination, forgetfulness and laziness are all part of my genetic inheritance from my father, as well as the poor parenting skills of my parents (which themselves were conditioned by their genetic and environmental conditions). Now, you may dispute that genetics – or even upbringing – has anything to do with my ineptness and insist that I am morally responsible and deserve blame. Fine, but the point I am making is that such a claim is still different from the claim that I took responsibility. The fact is, we can agree that I took responsibility and still differ over whether that makes me morally responsible or not. This clearly shows we are talking about two radically different concepts.
Just so it’s clear, the same is true regarding praise. Perhaps my course went splendidly! If I say, “I took responsibility for the course, so I deserve special credit,” you can now respond, “Well, you took responsibility for it, but it was Rachel, the yoga studio manager who did all the work publicizing it, getting the room set up and taking the registration fees. You don’t deserve any special credit and you are not morally responsible.” OR, you could say, “Yes, you took responsibility and you worked your ass off getting the word out, making sure the room was prepared and did a magnificent job of handling the administration. You certainly have benefited from your parent’s strong work ethic and you are quite fortunate to have the genes for such leadership behavior.” Again, the point of this example is simply to emphasize that we are talking about two different concepts when we talk about “taken responsibility” and “moral responsibility.”
This is a distinction ignored by those, like Daniel Dennet and Harry Frankfurt, who see a “need” to conflate moral responsibility with taking responsibility. However, the responsibility that one can take, called “take-charge responsibility” by Bruce Waller, is similar to the “role” responsibility described by H.L.A. Hart: “A sea captain is responsible for the safety of his ship…. A sentry is responsible for alerting the guard at the enemy’s approach; a clerk for keeping the accounts at his firm... whenever a person occupies a distinctive place or office in a social organization, to which specific duties are attached to provide for the welfare of others ot to advance in some specific way the aims or purposes of the organization, he is properly said to be responsible for the performance of those duties. (1968, 212)
This “role responsibility” is categorically distinct from moral responsibility. The sea captain is role responsible for the safety of her ship. She does a great job, but that doesn’t mean she is morally responsible and deserving of special praise. She is lucky to have benefited from exceptionally good training, and she has a top-notch first lieutenant who keeps things running smoothly. Again, you may like to argue that she is morally responsible and deserving of special praise just because she does fulfill her duties well, regardless of whatever conditions contribute to her stellar performance. For the moment, setting aside whether the claim that she is morally responsible is correct or not, the simple point I’m making here is that claiming she is morally responsible is an additional claim, beyond the question of her role responsibility. We can agree that she is role responsible and still disagree as to her being morally responsible.
Waller’s “take-charge responsibility” (1998) designates a broader taking of responsibility that includes taking charge of one’s own plans and projects and life as we see in the buddhist tradition of taking refuge, taking precepts and other forms of vow-taking. Just as the sea captain has role responsibility for her ship, you can have take-charge responsibility for your life values, goals, actions, practices… your life. It is possible that someone else could do a better job at managing your life. I often suspect that in my case it is most probable that someone could do a better job of it! But, I “take-charge responsibility” of my life because doing so is something I value and most times I enjoy exercising. As the Bhagavad-Gita says of sva-dharma, I would rather exercise my take-charge responsibility badly than turn it over to some life-manager who could run my life better!
Just as the sea captain can take “role responsibility” without being morally responsible for exercising that role responsibility well or badly, I can assume “take-charge responsibility” for my life and not be morally responsible for whether I do well or not. Maybe I do indeed exercise my take-charge responsibility wonderfully; But I was lucky to have a loving and supportive family, a solid and advanced education that emphasized critical thinking skills and self-sufficiency, as well as a genetic disposition toward being a chronic cognizer and a strong internal locus-of-control. Whether or not I take responsibility well, it does not follow that I am morally responsible. Perhaps I am, but the very fact that there are cases where take-charge responsibility is clear while moral responsibility remains unclear shows that these are two different kinds of responsibility and thus one (take-charge responsibility) does not necessarily imply or establish the other (moral responsibility).
At this point, it is obvious that proponents of moral responsibility may argue that "if you took responsibility for setting up the classroom for the lecture, you are to blame if you fail to do so.” I’m arguing that that is not so. However, I end this post by simply stating, once again, that if you believe that take-charge responsibility results in moral responsibility, that assertion will require further justification because it is clear that there are cases where take-charge responsibility does not involve moral responsibility. Those who argue that taking responsibility justifies moral responsibility are confusing two different types of responsibility. Their argument is thus wrong or lacking in some essential aspect that would justify the claim.
Frankfurt, Harry G. 1975. Three Concepts of free action. Aristotelian Society Proceedings Supplementary 49: 113 - 125.
Hart, H.L.A. 1968. Punishment and Responsibility. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Waller, Bruce N. 1998. The Natural Selection of Autonomy. Albany: State University of New York Press
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Physicist Leonard Mlodinow writes about a wide range of experiments on what has been called automaticity that demonstrate the enormously significant role the unconscious plays in our behavior. As he points out, science has now confirmed what advertising and public relations firms have known intuitively: decisions are largely made by factors outside our awareness. Ironically, automaticity theorists suggest that such automaticisty turns out to be very highly adaptive. The mind operates most efficiently, they argue, by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious.
Mlodinow points out that the human sensory system sends the brain about 11 million bits of information per second, yet our conscious mind can handle only about 50 bits per second! This means there’s an enormous amount of processing before we can even become aware of what has been sensed. One estimate is that we are conscious of about 5% of our cognitive processes with the other 95% going on “under the radar” of our awareness. We’d be paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of information if it were all consciously available to us!
Yet, this raises the question, “if our brains are making our decisions for us outside conscious awareness so often, how can we be held morally responsible for our actions? How can our legal system punish criminals who aren’t in full control of their decision-making faculties?”
One argument as to how we can still hold people morally responsible is to distinguish between regulative control which would be the control that allows us to choose our direction in life through making open choices from among truly open alternatives (for which there is no real evidence and which buddhism and naturalism denies) and guidance control which is a sort of control that doesn’t require open choices: I may not have any choice about my path, but I can be held morally responsible for how I walk down this path. (This is a similar argument I’ve heard from some contemporary buddhists who do not seem to fully comprehend the more profound implications of anatta and dependent origination). Epicetus used this argument, interestingly, in the context of fatalism; the fates controlled your destiny, but the details as to how we responded to our fate was up to us: “For this is your business, to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to another.”
John Martin Fischer offers a contemporary naturalist version. From his perspective, I could not have been a physicist because I could never understand calculus, I couldn’t be a hockey player because I’ve never learned to ice skate and I couldn’t be a high-wire aerialist because I’m afraid of heights. I did not exercise regulative control in becoming a yoga/dharma teacher because it was the only path open to me! However, according to his argument for guidance control, how I carry out my teaching role is up to me: I can do it with good humor or with a stern gravitas; I can do it with sharp precision or with an air of improvisational whimsy. I can teach with gusto and élan or with slacker-laziness. However, under what grounds can we justify isolating guidance control from the same causal factors that shape all our behavior? My tendency towards more good humored, improvisational whimsy was set – and most certainly not chosen by me – by myriad factors of genetics, environment and life experience, so why should I be blamed or praised for it?
To be absolutely clear, there are truly important benefits from having guidance control. For instance, it has been shown that while cancer patients cannot control the fact they have the disease, those who feel they have some control over the treatment choices available to them suffer less depression and anxiety. Research has shown that elderly residents of long-term care institutions, who generally feel that they’ve lost much control over their lives, often suffer depression, lowered immunity and a higher death rate, but when given the opportunity to exercise control over the care for plants, or even have control over the furniture arrangement in their room have lowered rates of depression, better immune functioning and lowered mortality rates.
But, there is no justification for supporting moral responsibility provided by guidance control. Yes, if someone handles their illness with grace and dignity they will experience greater well-being psychologically, and those around her will respond with respect, admiration and kindness that they most likely would not to a more curmudgeonly patient, but to say that someone who exercises a more healthy and skillful guidance control should be held morally responsible for doing so is another question completely. That someone has the inner resources to handle illness with such dignity and another patient does not because of factors they have not chosen means that they cannot and should not be held morally responsible.
If we cannot be held morally responsible, and thus are without blame, how can we speak of “taking refuge” and “taking” or “receiving” precepts? What does it mean to practice “atonement” if we are not morally responsible? I hope to begin to approach these questions in future posts.
Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012)
Epicetus, Enchiridion 17
John Martin Fischer, The Metaphysics of Free Will: An Essay On Control, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994)
Saturday, December 22, 2012
In my last post, I addressed the libertarian thinker C. A. Campbell and the problems with the libertarian stance neuro-science presents as summarized by Daniel Wegner. Here, it’s time to address the “compatibilists” who attempt to argue that free will and moral responsibility are perfectly compatible with naturalism. Yet, when we look closer, we’ll find that they always end up slipping in some small, but crucial and telling element of non-natural free choice.
First, let’s look at an account of free will presented by Daniel Dennett. He suggests that: “the decision, for instance, not to consider any further, to terminate deliberation; or the decision to ignore certain lines of inquiry” contribute to our sense of ourselves as responsible free agents “roughly in the following way: I am faced with an important decision to make, and after a certain amount of deliberation I say to myself, ‘That’s enough. I’ve considered this matter enough and now I’m going to act,’ in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case.” (1978, 297)
Dennett seems to think that the crucial element needed for legitimately accepting responsibility is simply “I could have considered further.” It’s a slim margin for free will, and when we examine more closely, this margin quickly dissolves. What we find is that people do act freely when they choose to stop or continue deliberating, but while these are occasions of “free choice,” individuals are not acting from a position of having open and unconditioned power to choose either way! Such a power is not required for free action, but it is a necessity for assigning moral responsibility. For instance, when I am engaged in the process of writing, the question of when “enough is enough; it’s finished” is one I often grapple with, and after some time of deliberation, I choose either to “finesse it a bit more” or consider it “done.” That choice is most certainly mine, but it is also most certainly made under the influence of powerful factors and conditions of which many researchers have made extensive study. And these various conditions I did not choose.
For instance, some people truly enjoy careful, systematic deliberation and find it quite satisfying to engage in it; such folk are referred to as chronic cognizers by psychologists who study this sort of thing. Conversely, those folk who do not enjoy careful, lengthy deliberation, perhaps even finding such cognizing oppressively boring are called cognitive misers. The differences between these two types of deliberators are shaped by various factors including genetics and myriad environmental forces throughout their histories. One example is the influence of parenting: some are raised by parents who emphasize “looking before leaping” while others might unwittingly punish a child deliberating between two options by impatiently making the choice for her or denying both options! The lesson such a child would learn is that it is costly to “overly think” a decision.
I don’t think it merely coincidence that a philosopher would hinge such a weighty assertion as free will and moral responsibility on imagining that we can always deliberate more, or on the decision to explore or ignore particular lines of inquiry, for surely philosophers as a group are nothing if not chronic cognizers! From the naturalist perspective, such deliberative skills and inclinations among philosophers do not offer some transcendent path beyond nature so that it really isn’t even true of such chronic cognizers that “we could always deliberate more.” Sooner or later, we will come up against the limits imposed by our finite and conditioned “powers” of cognition.
A related argument for positing grounds for moral responsibility is the capacity and practice of self-evaluation – which certainly has ramifications for some forms of yogic practice (for instance, some meditations and the practice of svadhaya or “self study”). The argument states simply that as self evaluation is something we do, when we do it, we can be understood as being responsible for ourselves and because it is up to us to do it, even when we don’t do it, we can be seen as being responsible whether we undertake this process of evaluation or not.
By now you can most likely see the problem with this argument, given a naturalist understanding. The idea that is it always open to us to undertake the self-evaluation of our values and motives, regardless of whether we do so or not, ignores the different conditioned capacities we have to bring to the introspective process! Again, the fact that professional philosophers find it easy and satisfying to undertake such cognitively challenging practices doesn’t mean such endeavor is open to everyone.
Finally, naturalists seek a natural explanation for why one person may deliberate further and another one doesn’t; why one person takes to mindfulness meditation and another finds it overly difficult. The choice to deliberate further or not, or to perform deep introspective self-evaluation or not is mine to make. It can even be argued that I made the choice freely (no one forced me to or prevented me from doing so). But it is important to be clear about this: if the examination is made as to how that choice was shaped by early conditions that were outside my control, it becomes evident that such “choice” is not a feasible support for the gravitas of moral responsibility. If I shirk the process of mindful self-investigation because of such formative conditioning, I deserve no blame. And the fact that my mindfulness practice has created the conditions for me to deepen my self-investigation and to even find some satisfaction in it does not justify any praise either.
Dennett, Daniel. 1978. Brainstorms. Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books
Once again, I acknowledge Bruce N. Waller's Against Moral Responsibility (2011; The MIT Press) as the basis of this on-going series.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
For a religionist who believes in the supernatural, miracles, and the soul, the idea that humans can miraculously create themselves independently of all causality is no big deal. Hell, if you believe in an “almighty god” that miraculously created the cosmos, accepting that humans have the god-like ability to create themselves comes easy. This position is known philosophically as “libertarianism.” Such libertarians maintain that the special human freedom essential for moral responsibility must be independent of natural explanation and all natural causes. Contemporary libertarian free will has, over the last century or so, under the influence of the increasing success of scientific, natural explanations, become a bit more modest.
An example of this more restrained libertarianism is C. A. Campbell, who acknowledges the influences of heredity and environment that prevent any “man” from having a “voice in determining the raw material of impulses and capacities” and thus casting doubt on “whether there is any act of will at all of which one can truly say that the self is sole author, sole determinant.” His solution to this situation it to reduce the scope of the free will function. Rather than “making ourselves from scratch,” he argues that we make small, decisive choices that are the basis of moral responsibility. His free will has been referred to as a “free will of the gaps,” as it is only when we experience conflict between desire and duty that we have this “special power” to exert or withhold the moral effort required to restrain our desire and accomplish our duty. Campbell accepts that science can explain how desires are shaped, and the causes of much of our character and behavior, but asserts that science has no causal accounting of the inner act of exerting will power, which leaves a “gap” for the exercise of “acausal free will.”
As with the problem of the “god of the gaps,” when free will is placed in the gap of our scientific knowledge, it becomes vulnerable to the closing of those gaps. In this case, Campbell’s “gap” closed awfully quickly when neuroscience showed that one’s capacity to exert will power depends upon subtle but identifiable psychological factors, including one’s locus of control, one’s sense of self efficacy, and one’s degree of learned helplessness.
Clearly, we have an introspective sense of a conscious free will power that causes our acts and choices, but there is strong evidence that this sense of self-directed unconstrained will is not at all reliable. Here is not the place to go into great detail regarding this evidence, but a solid summary of the evidence can be found in The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002) by Daniel Wegner.
Briefly, there are cases where we have a strong sense of consciously willing an action when in fact we have performed no action at all; there are also cases in which one performs an action but experiences no sense of willing (obvious cases involve the Ouija board and so-called “facilitated communication”); as well as cases where one has a strong sense of having freely chosen and willed an act when in fact the choice was actually under the control or strong influence of external factors. An interesting example of this is when electrical stimulation of an area of the brain caused patients to turn their head from side to side. When asked, “What are you doing?” the patients always gave a reasonable answer such as “I’m looking for my slippers” or “I heard a noise.” Other experiments show this tendency we have to create reasons for our behavior after the fact.
One of my favorite social experiments shows how even trivial, unrecognized factors can influence and lead to dramatic and powerful effects on our behavior. In 1972, (when public phone booths were common) one group of experimental subjects found a dime in a phone booth and other subjects did not. As each subject left the phone booth, one of the experimenters (the subjects were unaware this was an experiment and that this person was part of the experiment) walked by and dropped an armful of papers he was carrying. The subjects who had found a dime nearly invariably stopped to help the experimenter pick up the papers while most of the subjects who did not find a dime simply walked on by! Subjects never gave finding a dime as a reason for why they helped, but the evidence strongly suggests it had a profound effect. Similar experiments have gone on to show that subtle situational factors have a much greater effect on our choices and behaviors than does any “underlying character,” all of which is in line with the anti-essentialist understanding of buddhism which posits causes and conditions over any substantialist understanding of “self-nature.”
On the basis of these experimental results, Wegner proposes an epiphenomenal account of the conscious experience of willing: the unconscious impulse to act occurs first and the conscious awareness of willing arises as a by-product of that unconscious decision, informing us that the willed action is our own. In this way, the experience of willing serves as useful feedback letting us know that an action came from “within” and thus was our own, and not the result of any external causal force (the movement of my fingers on the keyboard come from my own brain operations and nor from someone manipulating my fingers).
I hope you can see from this that Wegner is saying that while my fingers moving over the keys of my laptop is my free act, he denies that my “experience of conscious willing” is evidence of some special power of free will that is the source of my behavior. The vast range of experimental evidence covered by Wegner makes an impressive case against the truth status of our sense of conscious free willing. The ontological existence of some independent free will would need a much stronger basis than our incredibly unreliable sense of acting from freely efficacious willing.
Our experience of freedom signals to us that the action we have taken is our own action that comes from our own choices rather than being the product of some external force. If your arm is lifted by someone else, it is a very different experience than the experience of freely choosing to move your arm. The movement was initiated nonconsciously, but it is still your own movement rather than some external force. This is a naturally evolved useful tool for distinguishing our own motions from those initiated externally. This epiphenomenal understanding will have relevance for the later distinguishing of “action responsibility” from “moral responsibility” in that while we have the former, there is no real evidence of the latter.
Friday, November 2, 2012
Along with being a “naturalist,” I tend towards a pragmatic attitude rather than one of blind optimism or idealism. During the last presidential election cycle, I never bought the “audacity of hope” that so many young people, lefties and yogis I knew seemed to have fallen for. I saw how it would set up exactly what we see now: a hell of a lot of cynicism and a deep sense of betrayal. There are many young folk whose first presidential election vote went to Obama and who have said they are not bothering to vote this time around.
Being pragmatically oriented, I voted for Hillary Clinton in the Arizona primary. I think – and still think – she’d have done a hell of a better job than Obama. I feel pretty sure she has more grit and fire than Obama, and would have given Congress the hell it deserved and not been as pandering in “negotiations” rather than bending over backwards and forwards as Obama did repeatedly. Plus, we’d have had Bill as “First Bubba” and he’s still one of (if not the most) popular politicians in the world.
But, we got Obama. And now, we should do all we can to keep him, because I’m pretty damn certain Romney and Ryan are a bit sociopathic. Yeah, it sucks to not be in the position to vote for someone I’d actually like to see President, one with whom I agree politically, (fat chance in america) but for all his many weaknesses, Obama is the lesser of two evils by far! And that’s the bottom line.
I mean, look at the respective platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties and tell me with a straight face there’s truly no difference! To take that position you’d have to be as much a bald-faced liar as Romney or as ignorant as John Koster, Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin, Michelle Bachman, Joe Walsh…. Do I have to go on?!
So don’t give in to whatever cynicism you may be feeling; pinch your nose if you have to, and vote for Barack Obama. Voting for Jill Stein, if you live in a ‘swing state,’ may make you feel good about yourself, but it’s a wasted vote and it’s most likely the immigrant farmer or nanny, the gay couple that would like to marry, the pregnant young girl, and the lower middle-class worker who cannot afford health insurance who will suffer if a Republican administration, in ass-licking subservience to the radical “Christian right" is elected.
And then, don’t just stop your political activity at the ballot box; do all you can do to hold Obama and your Congressional representatives feet to the fire. And work for a really viable third party if that’s what you think the US needs. Just don’t let Romney be foisted upon us!
Friday, July 13, 2012
There have been a number of arguments made hoping to develop a naturalistic account of open alternatives that would support moral responsibility. However, many of the problems such arguments run into can be avoided with an account that does not require choices among open alternatives, but rather on choices that are one’s “own” choices. This kind of argument rests upon the issue of authenticity. The question is not whether one could have chosen differently but whether one’s choice genuinely reflects one’s true commitments. Harry Frankfurt is one of the more influential advocates of the authenticity approach.
While this “hierarchical authenticity” approach, as it is called, offers some important insights, it too fails as a justification for moral responsibility. Frankfurt’s example of the “willing addict” reveals the difficulty. The “willing addict” is someone who, according to Frankfurt’s argument, has no alternative to taking drugs, but is nonetheless free and morally responsible because she reflectively approves and endorses her desire and addiction.
The psychological state of the unwilling addict is easy enough to understand: all of us have experienced strong, and maybe even addictive desires that we actively disapprove of for such things as chocolate, coffee, sweets, video games, pornography, soap operas, or Facebook. We may toy with our particular “poison,” thinking we can remain in control, and then some of us find ourselves trapped in an addiction we regret and perhaps even despise… but what can we do? Such an unwilling addict is obviously not free, and though the path to such unwilling addiction is clear to see and understand, the path to willing addiction is not so clear.
What is the psychological experience of the willing addict? At some point, his only desire is for his addictive substance, he clings to it and finds no pleasure in anything other than his addiction. He has become “willing” but having lost the desire to escape his addiction, can we honestly say that he has now gained freedom and moral responsibility as Frankfurt’s argument would suppose? The only reason a philosopher such as Frankfurt could lead himself to such an argument is his ideological commitment to save moral responsibility! The shadow implication of holding to this argument are the “happy slaves,” “contented peasants” and women who were “happy with their lot until outside, intellectual, feminists started to stir them up.” When a theory implies that an oppressed class of people can end up “satisfied with their lot” and thus be considered “free” because “willing,” there is something wrong with that theory!
The western philosophical tradition has consistently drawn a clear distinction between having and not having free will. Various philosophers may offer drastically different accounts of free will, but they agree in setting a clear and firm boundary between who does and does not have free will, and under what conditions does free will operate or not operate. Such a boundary itself is based upon the two demands that 1. free will and moral responsibility must go together and, 2. that there must be a clear standard for who is and who is not morally responsible. The naturalistic free will model – one which is consistent with the buddhist teaching of anatta and contingency – argues that there is no such clear line between the haves and the have-nots and no clear standard actually exists.
The buddhist understanding is that the only ‘free will’ that can be spoken about is “relative” or “conditioned” free will and that while all such “willing” is conditioned, there is a matter of degree that allows this relative freedom to be enhanced or weakened by circumstances, training (practice), skillfulness, and cognitive ability and functionality.
Was the unreflective soldier who looked on or actively participated in the humiliation of prisoners in Abu Graib morally responsible? Was the child soldier in Somalia who killed those he was instructed to kill morally responsible. Is Jared Lee Loughner morally responsible for his shooting spree that killed and wounded 18 people at a shopping center? These kinds of questions demand clear black-and-white answers because the answers will determine whether the people in question will or will not be subject to blame and punishment. And yet, the difficulties with drawing such a clear, unambiguous line are indicated by the continuing problems the judicial system confronts in establishing a clear standard for "not guilty by reason of insanity." What continues to be avoided in this discussion is that such difficulty is itself an indication that there is not a clear line between being and not being morally responsible because there is no clear line dividing having and not having free will!
With the acknowledgement of not-self and the absence of unconditioned free will, there is no moral responsibility. Without moral responsibility, we can acknowledge that there is no fixed marker between having and not having free will, and thus free from creating a dubious boundary, we can more clearly look into the multiple factors that strengthen or weaken (relative) free will.
Such factors as greater knowledge, greater self-awareness, a stronger sense of locus-of-control, a stronger sense of self-efficacy, a supportive environment, a developed facility for self-control and higher-order reflectiveness all contribute to a stronger and healthier conditioned free will. Someone with these attributes will have a level of such ‘free will’ superior to someone who lacks such attributes and conditions. It is important and helpful to recognize this distinction and through careful investigation of the factors that nurture such a character, work to create these supportive conditions for all people.
What is presented here is a plausible and workable account of free will that does not support moral responsibility (and the concomitant punishment and blame) and recognizes the completely conditioned nature of will. That the conditioning exists on a continuum from the phenomenological experience of complete compulsive behavior to the experience of choosing among alternative modes of response means there is no absolute of acausal free will, but that willing itself can be influenced by our current actions feeding into the matrix of conditions. If we are fortunate enough to have been exposed to practices such as mindfulness meditation, and have the conditions supportive of such practice, we will have greater ‘freedom,’ but we cannot take any praise for having done so!