Friday, April 13, 2012

Many reject determinism

Leftist-atheist-evolutionist Sam Harris wrote a book arguing that science could determine universal moral truths:
Harris argues that questions about values and ethics can be reduced to questions about “well-being,” which includes physical, mental and even spiritual health. And well-being can, at least in principle, be measured with brain scans and other techniques. Just as science can steer us toward a healthy diet or exercise regime, so it can help us make decisions about how to reconcile, say, individual freedom with group welfare. This effort will ultimately yield a set of moral truths that transcend culture, just as quantum mechanics and relativity do. “Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra,” Harris declares, “we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality.”
Harris just wrote another book against free will:
“The illusoriness of free will,” Harris says, “is as certain a fact, to my mind, as the truth of evolution.”
Saying something is as certain as "the truth of evolution" is an odd phrase. Evolution has several common definitions, and can be as broad as "any change in the history of the universe". Depending on the definition, support for evolution among the American public varies from 10% to 100%.

Usually when people want to emphasize how strongly they believe something is true, they make a comparison to some well-defined and well-accepted truth, such as 2+2=4 or the world is not flat. To Harris, leftist politics and morals, atheist rejection of religion, and evolutionist beliefs all get lumped together in his view of science.

Fellow leftist-atheist-evolutionist Jerry Coyne responds:
People can and have taken strong issue with the view, favored by Sam Harris and me, that free will as traditionally conceived is a complete illusion. Many people have responded with diverse versions of “compatibilism” — the view that determinism is still compatible with some notion of free will. (I happily note, though, that almost nobody questions determinism itself, though some have urged us to keep it quiet lest it rile up the hoi polloi).
That is not true. Most physicists reject determinism. As Carl Hoefer explains:
Many physicists in the past 60 years or so have been convinced of determinism's falsity, because they were convinced that (a) whatever the Final Theory is, it will be some recognizable variant of the family of quantum mechanical theories; and (b) all quantum mechanical theories are non-deterministic. ...

As indicated above, QM is widely thought to be a strongly non-deterministic theory. Popular belief (even among most physicists) holds that phenomena such as radioactive decay, photon emission and absorption, and many others are such that only a probabilistic description of them can be given. The theory does not say what happens in a given case, but only says what the probabilities of various results are.
Einstein believed in determinism, but he was the exception and the consensus was that he was wrong.

The attacks by Harris and Coyne on free will are very strange. First, they pretend to be scientific, but the science behind their attacks in entirely wrong. Second, their arguments are driven by ideology. They can't stop talking about how religion poisons everything, how they hoped that evolution theory would destroy religion, and how they need stronger anti-religion arguments so they are going with the anti-free-will argument. Furthermore, opposing free will comports with their leftist politics because it absolves people of individual responsibility for their actions.

I believe that free will issue is not a scientific question, as explained by Massimo Pigliucci here and here.

Update: Reader Piero tells me to "STFU" and adds:
It is quite irrelevant whether the universe is in fact deterministic or not, If it is, our brains (which I'm sure you would rank as physical objects) are determined, so free will cannot exist. If the universe is stochastic, then so are our brains, hence free will cannot exist. In order to demonstrate the existence of free will, you would have to provide evidence for the existence of an as-yet-unknown agent that is both free from physical constraints AND able to influence physical outcomes. I'll be waiting in my grave.
He assumes that mental acts are either deterministic or random, and argues that leaves no room for free will. He is assuming what he wants to prove, with a false dichotomy.

There are other commenters who argue that quantum mechanics is irrelevant to biology. Piero says, "Have you ever seen a building collapse because of some unpredictable quantum phenomenon?" No, I haven't, but quantum mechanics is at the root of most biological processes.

1 comment:

Igor Alexander said...

The first quoted statement makes clear that what Harris is after is a scientific dictatorship. Basically, he wants scientists to sit at their desks and tell the rest of the world what to do. The reason these guys hate priests so much is because they want to take their place.