Far, far too often free will is thrown into a religious debate as an attempted magic bullet to absolve God of all moral guilt. However, ironically, free will is as incompatible with an omniscient God as it is with a deterministic universe. To be clear, I am simply defining omniscient as “all knowing”. Basically, if God knows everything, you do not have free will.
To be fair, there are plenty of compatibilists who would object to this idea. A compatibilist is someone who believes free will is possible in a deterministic universe (where the course of events throughout history are determined by the initial state of the universe and the laws of nature-it is metaphysically impossible for you to act differently than was determined for you). To maintain this idea, compatibilists have to offer up odd definitions of free will, or odd conditions. Each of these definitions ultimately fail for the same reason-we cannot act differently than what was determined, so how are we free?
The incompatibilist defines free will with a necessary condition: a decision can only be free if there were alternate possible decisions that the agent could have done (to stand against criticism, this definition doesn’t need alternate possible actions, but rather alternate possible scenarios of some sort). In simple terms-you are only free in wanting macaroni if you could have wanted ramen.
Upon reflection, most people I’ve asked agree with the incompatibilist definition. It seems absurd to claim that a person is free even though they had no other option. Further, most Christians who use the doctrine of free will agree with this definition, after all, God can only be absolved of guilt if your sin was a choice you could have avoided.
The problem comes when future events falls under the category of what God knows. If God knows everything, and future events are a thing that can be known, then God knows future events (this idea supported by the verse that God knows when the end will be, as well as numerous prophecies). If God cannot know the future, then it seems that he has severe limitations in what he can know.
However, if God knows the future, then God knows exactly what you will do for every decision in your life. When you’re deciding between macaroni and ramen, God knows exactly which one you will choose. If God is always correct (which is built into the omniscient definition), then it is metaphysically impossible for you to choose otherwise than what God knew you would do. If it is metaphysically impossible for you to choose otherwise, then you do not have free will. Think of it in simple terms: is it really a choice if God knows what you are going to choose? Can you truly rebel against God, if you cannot act in a way that is different than what he predicts?
-Note: My post next week will likely be late, as it is the end of the quarter and I have papers/finals. Hopefully this post is clear, it ties heavily to my “Why the Common Conception of God is Impossible” post.
Most arguments, especially in politics, have become shouting or regurgitation contests-whoever can yell the loudest or recall the most talking points in an argument is the supposed winner. I deal with this on a regular basis in the religion section of YA and the political section of CNN. The purpose of this post is to describe how arguments are supposed to be done-through the search of a sound argument (see: the Lincoln Douglass Debates). If you want to get right to an example of how this works, scroll down to the bold part. The first part is explaining the theoretical components of logic, which might be boring to some but explains what I am doing in the example.
I am currently in a debate about the morality of food stamp programs, so I’m going to focus on that. This argument can be split into two categories: application and ethical arguments (http://fensel.net/2011/08/24/174/). Basically, application arguments ask whether or not the policy can reasonably be expected to be successful in the real world. The ethical arguments are whether or not the policy’s goal is morally justifiable.
There are two basic stances in each debate: advocating your own argument, and refuting your opponents argument. The focus in each is to find a sound argument-one where each of the premises (assertions) is true, and the truth of the premises logically necessitate the truth of the conclusion. In the words of my former professor W. Siewert, you have to accept the truth of a sound conclusion on “pain of being irrational”. So, if you are trying to prove your own conclusion, you need to justify each premise you make and how that premise logically leads to the conclusion. If your opponent is a skilled debater, then he/she will either show how your premises don’t lead to your conclusion, or choose one of your premises that he/she disagrees with. The same holds true if you are trying to refute your opponents argument-look for false premises, or look for false inferences (points where the premise does not lead to the conclusion).
When boiled down, I believe almost every valid inference in an argument is going to be either a Modus Ponens (MP) inference or a Modus Tollens (MT) inference. MP is: If in each scenario where you have x, you have y; and you have x; then you can conclude y (real world example: if you are using the internet, you are using electricity; you are using the internet; therefore you are using electricity). MT is: If in each scenario where you have x, you have y; and you don’t have y; then you can conclude that you don’t have x (if you are using the internet you are using electricity, you are not using electricity; therefore you are not using the internet).
By and large, if the inference made in an argument is not MP or MT, it is most often an invalid reference. The easiest way to judge these inferences is to look for the necessary and sufficient claims. Necessary conditions=in order to have y, you need x (there is no y in which there is no x). Sufficient conditions=if you have x, then you can assume y. In MP, the claim is that internet is sufficient for the existence of electricity. Similarly, electricity is necessary for internet.
Here I’m going to paraphrase a food stamps argument that I’ve been having with Mitchell Powell on various posts on his blog (fontwords.com).
His view is that all food stamp policies should be abolished. His argument was basically that food stamps lead to greater crime in some way, and that eliminating all food stamps would lead to less crime.
To counter, you have to look at what a statement like this is really saying: The crime that food stamps causes makes food stamps a morally unjust policy. In MP form, it looks like this:
1. If food stamps cause x amount of crime, then food stamps are unjust.
2. Food stamps cause x amount of crime.
Food stamps are unjust.
The above argument is logically valid, so if the two premises are correct the conclusion must be true.
I chose to reject premise #1. Premise #2 is questionable at best, there are numerous correlation does not equal causation fallacies required as well as other problems. But, for the sake of simplicity, I usually grant all the premises other than the one I feel is most wrong.
So, is #1 true: “1. If food stamps cause x amount of crime, then food stamps are unjust.”
This is a sufficient claim. Basically, it says that in any case where something causes x amount of crime, it is unjust. This is obviously untrue-there could be a greater moral value that would justify the x amount of crime. Imagine that policy A creates x amount of crime, but saves a billion lives. Is it justified? Unless x is an absurdly unreasonable amount of crime, policy A is justified. Therefore, premise #1 is false (remember, a sufficient claim is false if you can find even one counterexample to it).
I then argued: does the negative value of x crime outweigh the positive value of food stamps (being giving people food, potentially eliminating poverty induced crime, malnourishment, and starvation)? Mitchell responded by taking my argument to be an absolutist claim that the positive value of saving lives outweighs any negative value. I then responded that I was making a claim that a positive moral value outweighing a negative moral value is sufficient for moral justification, not that positive moral values are sufficient for moral justification. (This is where our debate is currently at)
-Hopefully this is somewhat clear. The key points to take from this: it is much harder to have a sound argument than most people realize, but having one automatically makes your conclusion correct. Also, look for hidden premises: if someone makes a claim to justify a conclusion, find out how that claim could possibly lead to the conclusion (through MP for example). Use counterexamples to refute faulty inferences. If the inferences are all correct, and you still disagree, it is most likely due to a differing opinion on a specific premise. Sometimes these premises can be debated (and their truth can be derived into further premises), but at some point, if no faulty inferences are ever made, you will find a non-derivable premise that you disagree on (like whether or not people should morally value others). For example, in my previous debate with Mitchell on public education, we boiled down our arguments to one fundamental difference: I believe that there would be a significant amount of children who would be better off with education but would be unable to have one in a completely private educational system, he did not believe these children existed in any significant degree. There wasn’t really a way either of us could prove our premises, but we had derived the differing ideas we had and figured out why we inferred different conclusions.
Last note: Anecdotes in arguments are usually a sign of a weak argument. When you see one, keep in mind what an anecdote is: a personal example of a case. This case can be justly used as a counterexample to a sufficient or necessary condition claim. However, as it is most often used, it cannot be used to infer a sufficient or necessary condition claim. Meaning that you can’t infer from “I know a person who was hurt by our welfare system” to “all people are hurt by our welfare system” or “if you are on our welfare system, you are worse off than you would be without it”.
(If interested, feel free to post any arguments in the comments for me to do this process on)
In the simplest terms, an absolutist claim is one that says: x always is or always leads to y. Examples: Killing is always wrong. Tax cuts always lead to job growth.
In the “x is always y” cases, it’s pretty easy to test the validity. If you find any case where x is not y, then the absolutist claim is false. So for killing is always wrong: is killing an unjust aggressor in self defense wrong? If not, then the absolutist claim is false. What about the claim: “killing is always a negative moral value”. This seems much more plausible, and I think it holds. Basically, eliminating a right to life is always a negative moral value that can only be justified with a greater positive moral value. Certain counterexample cases: mass murderer, is it bad that he dies? There’s a concept of losing your right to life, at least to some extent, when you intentionally murder innocent people. I buy this to an extent, I think it falls under our concept of justice nicely. But I would still call the death a negative moral value-it is just outweighed by the positive moral value of giving justice to the victims.
Relation to politics: The statement “torture is always wrong”. In current debates, the claim is linked with “waterboarding is torture” to make “waterboarding is always wrong”.
Does this stand? I accept “waterboarding is torture”, as no coherent definition of torture could survive its exclusion. But, is “torture always wrong”? A common hypothetical case in philosophy is called the “Ticking Time Bomb Case” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ticking_time_bomb_scenario for those interested). In summary, you have two options: torture a terrorist, or let an entire city die.
When given those two options, I think its clear that torture is the right option. So the blanket statement “torture is always wrong” is false. That being said, “torture is an extremely negative moral value that can only be outweighed by immediate, drastic danger” is most likely true.
The key about morality that I’m getting at is the basic consequentionalist idea: actions can never be ruled out absolutely. Weighing the consequences of each action determines the best result, and you can always tip the scale of a hypothetical to prove “x is always wrong” false.
Now for “x will always lead to y” statements. These are especially common, and dangerous, in politics. A lot of Republicans have made claims that amount to “federal regulations will always lead to negative economic results” and “lower taxes on the rich will always create more jobs”.
As for regulations: simply ask, is it even conceivably possible that a federal regulation could produce positive economic results (ignoring social factors such as public safety for now)? Is it conceivably possible for an economic prisoners dilemma to exist, where everyone acting in their own best interest leads to an overall bad outcome? If so, then the blanket statement doesn’t work.
As for lower taxes, take the statement to the extreme: does not taxing the rich whatsoever lead to the most jobs? If not, then the blanket statement doesn’t work.
I feel these points are rather obvious, but neglected in a lot of political news and debates. The main point I’m making with the last argument: instead of making the blanket statements (which are obviously untrue), argue for specific regulations/or how specific tax cuts will lead to certain number of jobs.
-I want to do a post soon that basically explains how to argue like a philosopher. Hopefully it’ll be clear, and I wanted this post to come first to try to explain one of the main ways some people argue illogically.
I find it a bit paradoxical that in ethics, the results of normative theories are most often compared to what our common intuitions believe. The basic idea is that normative theories (like utilitarianism) can be judged as to how consistent they are with intuitions. If they go against an obvious intuition (like killing is morally wrong), then the theory is obviously wrong. If the theory can clearly coincide with our intuitions, then it might be helpful in helping us decide between conflicting intuitions.
The problem I’m thinking of is a bit abstract, but hopefully it’ll come across clearly. When normative ethical theories determine what makes an action moral, they are almost always using some objective concept. Utilitarianism has an objective consequence: aggregate happiness. Deontology is almost a complete rejection of intuition; it claims that morality is entirely a product of reason. The common theme goes along with the intuition that morality shouldn’t be subjectively decided, so I cannot claim stealing is okay just because I want it to be. There has to be some objective concept out there that my subjective opinion does not change.
However, morality in some way has to be based in our intuitions. The only way morality could be purely objective is if there were a higher power (like God), that clearly established what morality is. As most of you now, I don’t buy that possibility. Alternatively, I see morality as a social contract of sorts that began with initial groups of humans agreeing to not kill each other for mutual benefit.
Here’s the issue: in order for any sort of objective morality to be established, we have to already have an intuition that its base principle is correct. Utilitarianism is an appeal to objectivity, but it only stands if you have the intuition that happiness is the primary factor in morality. Ethical theories that appeal to reason will always have some intuition that they are based on. After all, reason cannot create objective facts; it can only derive objective facts from other objective facts. Reason is a sort of logical bridge that can connect ideas, not create them.
In morality, reason cannot create objective facts without being derived from objective facts. However, morality in itself does not begin with objective fact since it is a human made concept. In order to connect to objective rules about morality, ethical systems must have some other base facts. These base facts, I believe, are necessarily intuitive ideas.
So, which ideas do we in fact base morality on? My own theory necessitates the idea that humans value other humans as an end in themselves. So basically, my ethical theory only works with people who already have the intuition that other humans have a value that isn’t dependent on our own benefit. I personally believe my theory can then use reason to connect this intuition with my final theory.
The main question of this post: can that intuitive principle be objective? If morality cannot be subjectively determined, and morality is determined from that intuition, then that intuition cannot be subjective.
I have two possible answers to this: either we might have evolved to have that intuition (and its not much of a conscious choice), or the absence of that intuition rules out morality altogether.
If we evolved to have the intuition that others are valuable for their own sake, then perhaps morality can still be objective. The intuition it relies on isn’t subjectively chosen, rather, it is a part of what it means to be human. Since we evolved with it, someone without it might be “less human”, perhaps to the same extent of someone who didn’t evolve the ability to understand language. If being human requires this intuition, then the intuition could be an objective standard for a morality that only concerns human decisions.
Another approach, that I particularly find appealing, is that a person cannot be moral without the intuition. So, if a person is an egoist (acts only in self interest), then it is impossible for that person to act morally. I talked about this in my “Inferring an Ought from an Is” post: http://fensel.net/2011/09/17/inferring-an-ought-from-an-is/. I think it is reasonable to say: if you don’t value others as an end in themselves, then you cannot truly act morally.
-This post was delayed a bit because I had two papers due yesterday that I worked on all week. I’m still updating weekly though.