Thursday, June 12, 2008

Welcome to the DT Strain Philosophy Blog Archive (2004-2008)

This blog was active from 2004 to 2008. It is no longer updated, but remains here an an archive of my philosophic thoughts and studies over the course of those years. Many of these thoughts developed into my new and main website, The Humanist Contemplative. Please feel free to visit that site!

If you would like to browse these archives, there are at least three ways:

1) The Best of DT Strain Philosophy Blog
You can click HERE to see a list of the best blog entries over several years. Please keep in mind there are many others.

2) Search Terms
You can use the search field above to search this blog. Suggested terms include: Stoicism, Buddhism, Taoism, Complexity, Science, Religion, Jesus, Christianity, Humanism, Violence, and more.

3) Dates
There are links to the right for different months and years for chronological reading.

There is also a sister site to this one, which contains many of my longer essays. The DT Strain Philosophy Site can be accessed by clicking HERE. That site is also now retired, but still contains these essays. Both of these sites have been rolled into my current one: The Humanist Contemplative.

Thanks for visiting and for your time! :)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Some Precepts to Consider

I've been sitting on these for almost two years, occasionally adding to them or filling them out with references. I plan to consider adding more detail and links into them eventually, but I think I'm ready to post now. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the following:


Update, January 30, 2008: I have made some wording adjustments after some questions by friends to be more clear. I have also added links in the notes section.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Not Half The Man I Used To Be

Recently in the Advayavada Network, Mike posted the following:
Here's an interesting observation by the physicist and naturalist Steve Grand (naturalist in the sense that he finds no justification for believing in anything supernatural such as a soul, a spirit, or a god):

"Think of something from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there.

After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. What ever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made."

This puts a new and interesting spin on Robin William's classic observation that, "If you remember the sixties you weren't there." It also gives a new point of entry into the question, "What, if anything, is the 'Self'?"
In a sense Mike (and Steve Grand) is perfectly right. It's true that:
(a) Not an atom in my body was present at the event I remember, and

(b) I am not the stuff (atoms) of which I am made.
This is where complex systems theory comes in. In complexity science, there is a process called 'autopoiesis'. This is a process whereby you have a stable complex system that maintains its form, but every particle of which it is constructed switches out over time. Biological life forms are the most obvious example of this, but not the only. Another example of a structure that undergoes autopoiesis is the 'red spot' on Jupiter. In a more abstract sense, we might say that a mathematical formula embodies a structure of relationships whereby the actual variables can be exchanged without the structure being lost. I don't think that counts literally as autopoiesis but it might help communicate the concept.

Of course, all I've done here is given a name to the phenomenon Mike describes, and pointed out that the concept is addressed in science and that it is a very real thing.

Philosophically, this helps to point out that there are many things that are real and actually exist, but which are not particles per se - rather, they are relationships between particles. Other examples of 'relational facts' that are real but not supernatural and not physical would be 'democracy' or 'hive'.

In my essay, "A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma and Rebirth", I use the analogy of a wave to discuss how Karma can be a real thing without being a distinct 'force'. Like a wave, it is a conceptualization of relationships. We treat waves as real entities - even computing mathematical solutions concerning their activities. However, when we see a wave move from left to right, no "stuff" (to use Steve Grand's wording) has in fact moved from left to right. Merely, a relationship of cause and effect has taken place in one position, and the one next to it, the one next to that, and so on.

This is one key to understanding waves, understanding autopoiesis, understanding mind, understanding the Tao, understanding karma, understanding self, and understanding how we can be something other than our atoms without resorting to dualism or supernaturalism.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Are We All Faithful?

I'd like to use this post to respond to a comment I received from a theist regarding something I wrote. This comment refers to a general line of argument I have heard several times before, and it deserves addressing. It has to do with faith and we might call it the "everyone does it" argument (maybe there is a more technical name for this already). In any case, here is the form it recently took:
"I have yet to find anyone, religious or atheist, who doesn't operate on faith. Both are highly dogmatic, as evidenced by the strength of your value judgments, which can only come from a priori, non-empirical stance. We ALL operate on the basis that some things are true, yet without adequate proofs."
Before I can address this it is important to draw out and make plain all of the implications of the above statement. By saying that we "ALL" operate on the basis of some things without adequate proofs, the author is implying that empiricists are in the very same boat with all others. The author also implies there is no difference in the reasonableness and no distinction among varieties of belief or the sources from which they spring because ultimately, we all rely on faith. These are important implications and need to be put into words.

The author is correct in the last sentence of what he says. However, if we think closely about this, we can see that this is not a statement belonging to the faith-based side of the argument. This is a statement of empiricism. It is the empirical approach, which makes the profound realization that we "ALL operate on the basis of some things without adequate proofs". This is why the empirical approach is to say that we never know anything for certain, and must continually question and test our assumptions through a continuous pursuit of new evidence.

The faith-based position, on the other hand, says the opposite. When a believer says, "I believe in God", they are not claiming to "operate on the basis" of God existing "without adequate proof". To claim this is for the theist to put on empiricist clothes and seek to look like one of them for the sake of persuasion. In reality, the faithful mean something very different when they state their belief in God.

Rather, what the theist is saying is that "God is real" - he does in fact exist; not merely that they will "act as though God exists" for some pragmatic purpose. But it goes further than this. The theist claims to have knowledge of God's existence. This use of the word 'knowledge' is also very different than the empiricist's use of the word, for it is absolute. There is no such non-provision "knowledge" in the empiricist's lexicon. This faith-based 'knowledge' might come through some revelation or communion, through biblical teachings or experiences of events. All of these are very different than empirical methodology and miss the mark.

1) Revelation or communion:
This is a claim that knowledge (justified & true belief) can come to us through something other than our five senses. No such phenomenon has ever been shown to be true. Certainly empiricism is contrary to this belief.

2) Biblical teachings or events:
This is where someone claims to have 'figured out' that God exists by reading 'His word', or by observing something in nature, or by experiencing some unlikely event. Yet, if we are to examine the logic behind all of these claims, we find they violate core principles of empiricism.

So, it is the theist who believes that, contrary to "operating on the basis" of some things being true, he or she can "know" things with certainty, and without any (proved) causal connection between the object and the alleged knowledge in his or her head. This is why the faithful are not keen on their claims being tested and why they refer to changes in scientific theories over time as though it were a weakness rather than a strength. Arguments for faith and theism will commonly try to "wear empiricist clothes" but these are very different approaches to knowledge and one should be careful not to confuse them.

Yet, what if we look at empiricism itself, on its own merits? Doesn't empiricism rely on unproved axioms at some level?

At the base level of all knowledge, we ultimately can't know anything for certain, other than the fact that we, ourselves only, exist in some form or another. I might be a brain in a jar, or I might be some cosmic goo that's living a life of fantastic delusion. But at least I know there is something that is thinking about it because I'm the one doing the thinking. This was the essence of René Descartes' famous argument, "...I think, therefore I am".

No faith yet.

From there, we have to start making some assumptions. For one, we have to assume that what we can sense about ourselves and our surroundings are in some way connected to a reality of some type. It is true this is an assumption. However, how could we do anything unless we at least assume this?

Still, even this most fundamental of assumptions, for the empiricist, is but a pragmatic conceit. It is "operating on the basis of". And still, the true believer's claim that God exists exceeds even this foundational assumption in its certainty. Anything less would mean doubt, and men have been killed for less.

After this unavoidable 'foundational pragmatic assumption', we then get into matters of induction vs. deduction. Deduction is where we begin with known premises and end with a conclusion that follows from them. This form of logic is the most sound and, provided there is no faith within the premises, very few would argue faith is involved in these conclusions. That is, unless one wants to say that a computer or a robot can have 'faith'.

Induction is where things get trickier. With Inductive reasoning, we often move from the specific to the general, or from past experience to future prediction. For example, because the sun came up yesterday and all days previous, we will assume it will come up tomorrow. Because we have not been poisoned by carrots before, we will assume we can eat carrots in the future. Because all dogs we've seen have naturally had four legs, we will say that dogs, in general, have four legs. This is shakier than deduction because it is easy to go wrong. For example, if we had never seen a tree over 12 foot tall, we might induce that no trees are taller than 12 feet.

Yet, unfortunately, one will find that almost all thinking requires some form of induction. Even the strictest of deductive logic relies on some premises which result from induction, and even the belief that deductive logic is sound and will remain sound for all phenomena and all time is an act of induction.

In some of the very foundations of science, we inductively reason that physical laws apply universally, that they are internally consistent, that we can decipher them with logic and reason, and that knowing them gives us predictive power in computing future events. The very practice of science would not be possible without these inductions. This, no doubt, is to what the author of the comment above was referring.

The question we should examine is this: is induction equal to faith?

In other writings I have noted that 'faith' is used in many ways in our language, and it is important to delineate between them. I draw a distinction between 'faith' and 'confidence'. Often when we say, "I have faith in my friends" what we really mean is, "I have confidence in my friends". To test that out, imagine saying, "I have faith in that random stranger". We might let our friend hold our wallet but not the stranger. The difference here is that we have past experiences which give us a pattern by which we can make future predictions. Certainly the predictions are not infallible, since people and things can sometimes behave much differently than a past pattern suggests, and we cannot directly observe the future - but they would seem to be more reliable than taking random actions.

So, confidence is "belief because of the evidence." Meanwhile, the faith that people like myself criticize is "belief lacking evidence or possibly even despite the evidence" - a very big difference.

What induction is not is the reaching of a conclusion because of no evidence. Induction is also not the reaching of a conclusion based on things for which we have no reason to suspect are connected to our conclusion. This would completely rule out #1 above (revelation or communion). What's left would be #2, Biblical teachings or events.

Here we might be in the realm of induction. However, there is a range of quality and good sense between instances of induction. Not all induction is of the same quality (remember the good and bad examples mentioned above). Not only are faith and induction distinct, but the comment also implies that one induction is as good as the next. This is plainly not true.

It is at this point that we get into the basics of good skepticism. Carl Sagan said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and that seems to be sensible advice. If I notice that after many times I leave my trash can in the street, a neighbor moves it onto my lawn, then I can reasonably suspect that it would happen again. Here we have a rather ordinary claim, and it requires only ordinary evidence. However, if I notice that many times I bet on the horse races and wore green socks, that I won, it would not be reasonable to induce that green socks were causally linked to my winning. That is because such a claim would be extraordinary, and the simple correlation between the green socks and winning at a bet would not be of an extraordinary level to justify such a claim.

The claim that an invisible all-powerful personified entity created the universe and plays a role in it is so extraordinary, that a reasonable person would need some sort of absolutely extraordinary evidence before deducing or inducing such a thing. And, even if such a thing were done, the layer upon layer of further extraordinary claims leading to the specifics of Christianity or any particular religion would each be even more extraordinary than the last because of their increasing specificity. Even if this could count as some form of induction, it is clear that it is of far less reasonable nature than the inductions normally employed by scientific empiricists.

In the end, however, it is doubtful faith-based notions even qualify as any form of sound logic or reasoning. At their heart, they are superstition and ideology from a previous irrational era in human history, and ultimately incompatible with even the basic foundations of modern human rationality. But that won't stop the faithful from trying (earnestly and honestly in most cases) to find some way of equating that irrationality with modern thought. By imagining there is some comparison, it makes it easier not to look squarely at the fact that they have been trapped by a medieval (at best) perversion of reason that preys on our weaknesses and imperfections as thinking beings. In this way, people convince themselves there is some compatibility between what they want to believe, and what they know makes rational sense - it is a coping mechanism.

The employment of this coping mechanism stems from a more fundamental belief that life is somehow meaningless without god/s or the supernatural, or that not believing in such is somehow immoral. Both of these misconceptions are deeply ingrained in our culture and history. Until someone understands the true (and secular) basis of ethics, and until they really understand that a meaningful and happy life is possible without supernatural beliefs, they will continue to harbor that strong desire to believe such things, and a deep fear of disbelieving them. Those desires and fears will continue to trump their good sense - the same good sense they are perfectly capable of applying in all of the other mundane situations in their life. Thus, they will concoct all manner of rationalizations and self deceptions to maintain unfounded beliefs. One of those rationalizations, which I have discussed here, is the attempt to equate empirical reasoning with superstitious faith.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wafa Sultan

I was recently made aware of this interesting clip by my friend, Al Robison (thanks Al). It is a Syrian-American psychologist named Wafa Sultan, appearing on Al Jazeera. As you can see here, she is very critical of Islam, and has apparently been making quite a stir since September 11, 2001. Although she "doesn't believe in Islam" she still calls herself a Muslim. She also says that she is a "secular human being". It would be interesting to learn more details about how she views the differences in these terms.



Sunday, December 09, 2007

TED & Rev. Tom Honey on God

I've been meaning for some time to post on a wonderful website of which my brother made me aware. It's called 'TED' (www.ted.com), which stands for: technology, engineering, and design. However, its topic is more broad than one would imagine, for all three of these terms are meant in their widest possible sense. In effect, the site features talks by some of the world's best professionals and thinkers in a wide variety of fields. The talks are always stimulating and deal with cutting-edge ideas. I can't recommend this site enough.

But this post is about one talk in particular. Under the section 'Is there a God' one will find a good assortment of speakers. But the presentation that I thought most profound was Rev. Tom Honey's. Honey is a vicar in the Church of England. He addressed his deep questions on God in the wake of the south Asian tsunami of 2004. Rarely have I seen such humble and honest introspection; such personal integrity and sincerity in a public presentation. In addition, Honey's ideas are stimulating and moving, his conclusion possibly the best that we see in the future evolution of human religion. I look forward to his continued exploration of these thoughts.

His conclusions in the last segment are worthy of quoting, but I'd prefer not to spoil his presentation, and recommend viewers simply watch the whole (nearly) 20 minutes.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Well, this November marked the third anniversary of the DT Strain Philosophy Blog! After three years of blogging, I've collected a journal that has been helpful to me in remembering my own philosophical explorations over this eye-opening period.

I have been thinking about whether or not to continue this blog, and considered ending posts but leaving it up as an archive. The main reason for this has been my busy life lately. In either case, I would continue to add essays to the Philosophy Site over time.

Nevertheless, I've decided to keep the blog going. It's simply been too valuable a tool to me. As I look back over these posts, I'm reminded of important thoughts I've had in my own explorations that I would normally have forgotten. I've also gained insight by all the kind people who have left comments and alerted me to tangent thoughts.

But, while the blog will continue, I think I will narrow its focus some. In the past, posts have consisted of whatever happened to have crossed my mind, plus commentary on some major events of the day. What I plan to do this coming year is focus on helping to develop a Humanist philosophy more fully.

By that, I mean to work on developing thoughts to 'fill out' Humanism more in the area of addressing one's personal needs, ethics, and life practice. What we'll ultimately need is a new manifesto specifically aimed at personal life practice, ethics, and needs - something far more robust than the broad principles and 'social issue oriented' objectives in the current one (although the current manifesto has nothing but good and proper material within it - it is necessary, but not sufficient). In that endeavor, I plan to take inspiration from ancient philosophy, science, psychology, modern pragmatic wisdom, and my Humanist brothers and sisters who are engaging in similar thought. Many of us have had the notion of this endeavor for some time, but it has remained largely ungrounded. For more on this, see the website of my Humanist Contemplatives Club.

So, this being the end of my third year in blogging, here is a summary of the TOP TEN POSTS from 2007!

I Am A Believer
Either/Or's and Iraq
Socrates & The "Soul"
Increasing Wisdom
Humanist Ritual
How Messed Up Is This?
Analysis: How News Misleads
What Can't Be Proven?
Complexity, Economics, and Libertarianism
Why Determinism Doesn't Get Us Off The Hook

These posts do not include the often-longer essays on my Philosophy Site. Also, see "The Best of" page for a summary of the Top Ten Posts of ALL TIME for my blog.

Here's wishing all my readers a happy new year and looking forward to more interesting posts :)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Subtle Distinction

Recently a reader, J.L.A., commented on my post: Responses to Dr. Francis Collins. Thanks very much to him for reading and for the comment.

Dr. Collins had characterized atheists as being opposed to the 'possibility' of a God, and I corrected that this is not what atheism is. Rather, atheism is merely the lack of a belief that a God does exist; a subtle distinction in itself, though not the one that is the subject of this post. J.L.A. wrote in response:
It is certainly true Dr. Collins is overgeneralizing the view of some atheists. However, there are some atheists who are convinced that there is no god and think that anyone who believes in one is deluded (I have had the misfortune of knowing several of them myself). Unfortunately, they are often the most vocal people in the group and that is often the reason that others misunderstand the meaning of the term "atheism".
I think there is a subtle distinction at play here that goes unappreciated. This unappreciated distinction makes it appear there are more 'strong atheists' (those stating certainty that God is non-existent) than there actually are. In reality, in all my dealings with atheists, I don't know that I have ever really met one.

The subtle distinction is this:

While we cannot know whether or not the claim of a non-physical entity immune to empirical observation is true are false, we do know that it is irrational to hold a belief in either position - specifically due to that fact.

Therefore, people who believe in God are deluded. And, even if they someday die and find themselves looking at God in the face, they will still have been deluded during their lives.

In such a case, they would not have been deluded about the existence of God itself, but deluded in thinking that it is reasonable or rational to accept as true such an extraordinary claim without empirical evidence.

It would be like being convinced that J.L.A. is actually an alien from a planet on the other side of the galaxy, posing as a human. Even if this bizarre claim turned out to be correct by chance, one would be no less deluded in thinking it reasonable to hold such a belief without justifiable, rational reason. In fact, even a much more likely possibility, such as believing J.L.A. to be 110 years old, would be irrational without some sort of evidence to believe it.

So, what happens is that believers encounter an atheist of this nature, who certainly doesn't believe God is impossible or claim to know that such a being could never exist. But the atheist unfortunately projects a sense that he sees the believer as generally silly, irrational, and wrong. The perception on the part of the theist is correct, but they confuse the source of the atheist's attitude as being a belief that they are wrong about God, when in fact, the source of their attitude is the belief they are wrong in their belief in God, regardless of whether or not there is actually a God.

In that judgment, the weak atheist is correct: the theist is objectively wrong.

Where these kinds of atheists are wrong, however, is in their attitude; and I think this is what you may really be referring to when you mention your unfortunate association with such people. I would advise all atheists not to project such attitudes in the first place. Aside from it simply being uncivil and rude, it is also unfair and conceited. Of our many millions of thoughts, we are all wrong (i.e. deluded) about something, and there is no evidence that a person is necessarily dumb or deserving of such treatment merely for being a theist. Most people are deserving of respect, and that in no way requires any censorship of the substance of our critiques. Furthermore, such attitudes only serve to raise walls and hamper communication. And, of course, it also leads to this common misunderstanding about atheists in general as being people who deny even the possibility of a God.

Mature people should be capable of communicating their positions clearly without smugness, intolerance, or demeaning attitudes. We are all part of the same human family and all attempts to convey truth or reason should be made with compassion in mind, and with the attitude that engenders.

As for those few people who might actually claim to know that a God cannot possibly exist, I consider them equally as wrong in that extraordinary claim.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Weighing Up Democracy

Everyone knows by now that Pakistan's president Musharraf has declared a 'state of emergency' and suspended democracy in his country, postponing elections and putting a stop to a court case that was deciding the legitimacy of his presidency. Pakistan has allegedly been an ally in the 'war on terror' and has been given billions of dollars by the U.S. to help fight it.

Philosophically it would be impossible for the purpose of the war on terror to be 'defending democracy' (as has been claimed) if it were a higher priority than democracy itself. If one is willing to put the means before the ends, this would be an indication that those means exist for something other than the stated ends - some other unstated ends.

What Musharraf has done in his country does not overly surprise most Americans. But it seems unimaginable to Americans that such a thing could happen in the U.S. What is more important to American president George W. Bush: the 'war on terror' or democracy? There's a good way to know where your president's priorities lie.

The Bush Administration has stated they are opposed to Musharraf's 'extra constitutional measures'. Statements are easily made. You can determine a person's priorities by where they spend their money. If Bush agrees to a suspension of funds to Pakistan until democracy is restored, then we will know that he values democracy more than the war on terror. If he does not suspend funding, then we will know he values the war on terror more than democracy itself.

And, what would the implications be for a country if its president, when faced with a contradiction between democracy and fighting terrorism, preferred the latter to the former?

In my haste I neglected to address another huge factor, which is the danger of extremists within the country taking over a democratic Pakistan with nuclear weapons. Here we see an example (like Iraq) of what democracy could unfortunately be when it isn't coupled with that other pillar of a just society: individual rights. Democracy without a doctrine of rights (and the cultural foundation that supports such notions) is merely mob rule. Among those rights; the separation of religion and state. So, it's not just the weighing of democracy but the weighing of democracy with or without individual liberties that must be considered. In that respect, it's possible Bush could have a logical 'out' in this case, regarding funding support.

This also really highlights the possible mistake of thinking that a people, if given the vote, will automatically vote themselves rights. The United States during its founding was inspired by a solid foundation of Western philosophers whose ideas helped shape the Bill of Rights. Without that cultural foundation, might a people unwittingly vote tyranny for themselves? Such is the madness of dogmatic religious fundamentalism that only a Western fundamentalist leader could fail to understand - and such is the danger we find ourselves in if we collectively lose that cultural philosophy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why Determinism Doesn't Get Us Off The Hook

This post is about comparing the two seemingly contradictory concepts of determinism and moral responsibility. On one hand, if everything is determined by causality and physics, and this includes our brain activity, memories, thoughts, choices, and actions, then how can we be responsible for what we do?[1] On the other hand, it sure seems like we should be held responsible for what we do. If we weren't, couldn't we use that as an excuse to be even worse than we might be otherwise? Wouldn't all of ethics and morality fall away as being some sort of sham?

I believe these issues clear up considerably when we have clear definitions of things like: 'morality', 'responsibility', 'will', 'free', and so on. In my view, what is happening here when we perceive a conflict between these two concepts is that we are assigning meanings to one or the other which are inappropriate.

First, start with the premise that it's all "atoms and the void", interacting in a causal nexus according to the laws of physics. What will happen will happen.

Next, imagine there are various subsets of these atomic structures with various sorts of behaviors that emerge out of these complex interactions. We, as thinking beings, assign various names to clumps of these atoms, to various forms we find repeated throughout nature, and to various sorts of activities within and between these clumps.

One of the clumps of atoms we see repeated is what we've called 'human beings'[2]. We've also observed that these 'human beings' have various sorts of common behaviors. Among them is the tendency to coordinate on opinions regarding the acceptability or unacceptability of other behaviors - mostly those that deal with how they interact with one another. These notions tend to shift over time in the culture in response to environmental factors, conditions, and human nature. They are generally 'enforced' through social pressures, ranging from social discomfort to the use of force, depending on how important the behavioral rule is generally held to be. This is human morality[3]. Forming these social norms is a tendency toward which all humans seem to have an instinctive, inborn natural inclination. This is evidenced by the fact that all human cultures have formed these social norms, even if the specifics of those norms vary. It seems quite obvious the reason Homo Sapiens evolved this tendency is related to the fact that humans are social animals and there is some survival benefit to coordinated cooperation and society-building in general. Our numbers seem to indicate that it is a particularly potent survival trait at that[4].

So, when we talk about morality, we should remember that we are talking about a human-level phenomenon, with human-level functions and roles. Certain concepts simply don't apply on certain scales. For example, one cannot meaningfully discuss 'air pressure' with respect to one atom of oxygen because the concept of pressure is inherently about the relationship between several molecules.

We need to ask ourselves why it is important for human beings to be held accountable for their actions? Why is it important for them to feel pity, remorse, shame? Why is it important for us to shun those who do wrong?

If we understand the survival benefits of morality, and we further understand the benefits to ourselves as individuals, then we can see that ethics is important, morality is important - not only despite its inherently human origins and function - but specifically because of that. Since ethics is important, its maintenance is as well. This means teaching it to children, encouraging it in peers, developing it in ourselves, and applying those social and legal pressures to those who do not comply (including punishments).

But what of our notion that a person shouldn't be responsible for something if they 'couldn't help it'? Let's look at the sentence: "Tom isn't responsible for his actions because of determinism." What we have to remember is what exactly we mean by "Tom" in that sentence. "Tom" is the name we have given a certain clump of atoms. When we look deeper at what we mean by the word, that clump doesn't necessarily refer to the clump of atoms that is Tom's body. Rather, we're talking about a 'person'. In other words, we're talking about the pattern of interaction and data that is maintained through the ongoing activity of atoms making up regions of a brain. 'Tom' is a pattern of information that interacts within itself as a complex system. The ability of that system to make selections between data and initiate actions is Tom's "will". Tom's will has a 'normal function' to it and when it is functioning properly and unhindered we can define this as being 'free' - free of obstruction or intrusion from unusual phenomena not typical to its normal operation. Tom therefore has a 'free will'. Thus, in talking about 'free will' much is cleared up by precisely defining what we mean by 'will' and what it means for a will to be 'free'. These are pragmatic and practical means of defining these characteristics in a way that is meaningful and useful.

In a deterministic universe, a person will operate causally, according to its natural function in interaction with its environment. Therefore, if ethics is important to humanity and beneficial to individual human beings, we must attempt to build an environment in which that person will adapt to be more likely to operate in the manner needed. We have found this is accomplished through social pressures such as shunning, blame, praise, and in more extreme cases punishment, confinement, etc. There are more artful ways of accomplishing this than through brute force, which often include more creative 'carrots' than 'sticks', but the bottom line is the same - human beings must be held accountable for their actions, precisely because we live in a deterministic universe. Meanwhile, to the contrary, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to why we should punish people if they are so free from causality that our punishments will have no causal effect on their future actions.

When we choose whether or not to hold a human being accountable for a moral misbehavior, we should look at whether or not the will was operating freely in the manner described above. The reason for this is that it is the will which that accountability is designed to mold. Guilt, pride, contentment, peace, unhappiness, shame, are all experiences which shape the will such that it will more often make certain choices and avoid others.

However, if we determine that a moral outrage took place because of some unusual interference with the will, such as a mental illness or brain damage, this is another matter. Similarly, if we find that the action took place due to accident beyond control of the will, it is also another matter. In both of these cases, there is no functional purpose to holding the person morally accountable because (1) the event was not an indication of the nature of the person's will we seek to mold, but rather some other phenomena effecting it, and (2) accountability is not capable of molding the external forces that were acting on the person's will, nor is accountability capable of molding anything having to do with incidental accidents which could happen at any time. Thus, accountability should only apply to cases of a freely operating will. Only there can it have the molding effect it is designed to.

Meanwhile, to apply such accountability (and the discomfort or displeasure that often accompanies it) in a case where the will was not free, would be giving those negative experiences to a will that was already properly formed or did not have the defects the accountability is seeking to dissolve. In such a case, the accountability may have an adverse affect, molding the will in unpredictable or undesired fashion such that inappropriate behavior is actually increased. In addition, it is a violation of a social contract with which we have agreed that we will not do to others what we would not want done to us (namely, applying negative experiences when we have done nothing negative ourselves). Should that contract be weakened, we all experience less enjoyable events on average. Therefore violations of it should be avoided where possible.

As you can see, moral responsibility and free will are phenomena like 'air pressure' which only make sense on a certain scale (a human scale). Meanwhile, determinism is a much more fundamental property. In this regard, it is simultaneously possible (even mutually necessary) for determinism to be true, the will to be free, and people to be morally responsible - so long as we define these concepts precisely and pragmatically. At least, that's my take.

For a nice essay on how the Stoics reconciled moral responsibility and determinism, see Dr. Keith Seddon's article: Do the Stoics succeed in showing how people can be morally responsible for some of their actions within the framework of causal determinism? [LINK HERE].


[1] In dealing with this conundrum, I'm going to go ahead and assume that determinism is true - that we do indeed live in a completely mechanistic and causally determined universe. I'm also going to ignore quantum mechanical considerations on the basis that, even if randomness plays a role at the most fundamental levels of the universe, it averages out on larger scales that even brain activity statistically behaves as though it were more or less determined. Some say there might be exceptions whereby quantum fluctuations in portions of the brain might create a chain reaction leading up to the larger scale in our neural networks, thereby possibly resulting in different thoughts and actions. However, I'm going to discount this as well for these purposes, since randomness presents the very same conundrums where moral responsibility is concerned, in that it is still a phenomenon which may result in our choices and actions which is something other than a completely sovereign 'will'.

[2] The fact that we are the human beings is incidental to the fact that we can still observe ourselves objectively from an 'outside perspective' as we would any other phenomenon.

[3] For a more complete explanation, please see: Natural-Objective Ethics on my philosophy site.

[4] That is, if it doesn't turn out that our intellects, growth rate, or other traits result in overpopulation and stripping of the planet's resources, or possibly devastating warfare, destroying ourselves in the process. The answers to these questions remain to be seen.