Guest Post Week: Zdeno, Part 3

Frost’s Note: My sincere apologies, Freedom Twenty-Five readers. Apparently the praise I had for guest-poster Zdeno’s earlier installments went to his head, and he has become so emboldened that he thinks we might be interested in his navel gazing on “deep” philosophical questions. Also, he has the temerity to address US as “Blowhards” for reasons unknown to me. In his defense, apparently the kid is only 23, and he smokes more pot than he should. Also, he’s a grad student. You know how they are. Suffer through this, and I’ll try and come back with something more interesting this afternoon.


In case anyone, for reasons unfathomable to me, skips the often-more-interesting-than-the-post-itself comment threads here at 2Blowhards, I’ll briefly catch you up to speed: At some point, the question of Ideological Inconsistencies was overtaken (in a good way) by a discussion on free will and strict materialism. My claims to soullessness, which would have resonated well with some of my ex-girlfriends, did not persuade PatrickH and Vladimir, who I feel got the better of the exchange. Fortunately, I have let guest-posting privileges go to my head (Le blog, c’est moi!) so I will use the cheap trick of responding above the fold.

I have considered myself a strict materialist well before I heard the phrase, originating with a line of argument taken by my 10th-grade English teacher, a man I later learned was high his entire waking life. I’m not sure how he worked it into our discussion of A Separate Peace, but here it is, as I vaguely remember it:

Imagine you were to smash a teacup on a concrete floor. The pieces would scatter throughout the room according to the strength and angle with which you had thrown the cup, the irregularities in the floor where it smashed, and every other material object that interacted with it, all the way down to the air currents and dust motes that nudged the shards of glass in their trajectories. We could not hope to predict the exact placement of each shard, lowly mortals that we are, but in the sense that the final distribution of glass is a function of the physical properties of the room, we can say that the outcome is predetermined. If we were to somehow recreate the exact physical properties of the room and throw the same teacup in exactly the same manner, we would get exactly the same result, perhaps with some variability resulting from quantum randomness.

Now extend the analogy to a person walking into (say) his office first thing in the morning. He walks in, grabs a coffee, says hello to a co-worker, then sits down and fires up SPSS. All decisions made via free will, right?

But how is the person any different from a teacup? We are all the products of our genes and our experiences. If we could recreate the exact same scenario for our hypothetical office worker – same physical office, the people he interacts with behaving in the exact same way, etc – what reason do we have to suspect that his behaviour would be in any way different from the first time we ran the simulation? Even if we posit the existence of a soul, would the same soul not make the same “choices” over and over again, if we regressed it through the same situation repeatedly? If this logic applies to everyone, than the outcome of any particular scenario we find ourselves in is predetermined – we are all just billiard balls knocking each other around on green felt. Our interactions are extraordinarily complex, and thus unpredictable by our mortal minds, but they are predetermined nonetheless.

If free will exists, the implication is that your soul, placed in a situation with a given set of choices to make, would choose differently if it were run through the same situation over and over again. Perhaps the soul decides with some sort of probabilistic function, killing his parents for the insurance money with p= (.2) and nursing them throughout their old age with p = (.08). Is that still free will? Mere probability?

And that’s how I first started leaning towards a materialist interpretation of human minds. Since then, I’ve come across a book or two on evolutionary biology and I am more or less convinced by the Dawkinsian treatment of the origins of replicators, genes, and intelligent life as explained in the opening chapter of The Selfish Gene. I consider it to be plausible, if humbling, that we are the result of a gradual evolution of creatures of greater and greater complexity, culminating in a species whose central nervous systems are so sophisticated that they create something as mysterious and seemingly irreducible as the subjective experience of consciousness. I can’t explain the phenomenon, and my experience of life certainly doesn’t feel pre-scripted, but that seems to me to be the (flawed) crux of the argument made by the Soulistas – that because we feel like we’re making choices, it must be so. The alternative, that free will is an illusionary by-product of our moist-robot brains, doesn’t strike me as impossible. This line of reasoning relegates souls –mysterious, supernatural, immaterial consciousnesses that have not been observed and whose existence cannot be tested – to the category of “extraordinary claims.” I have yet to see extraordinary evidence for them.

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At the risk of over-burdening a single post, I’d like to wade into a second question that came up: The nihilistic consequnces of a soulless existence.

One implication of strict materialism is that absolute morality – Humean oughts, wrought into the fabric of the universe – cannot exist. How can we talk about morality if we have no choices to make? Amorality is the logical implication of determinism, and determinism is the logical implication of materialism. And yet, here I am, claiming that I do believe in higher morals, and that I live my life according to X and Y moral principles, and just generally acting as if I don’t believe a word of what I’ve just written. PatrickH and Vlad are right to call me out on this disconnect between my words and my actions.

My response, which can quite fairly be called a cop-out, is that I am playing the odds. I am hesitant to speak probabilistically about something so meta, but let’s say I assign p=.95 to my materialist interpretation of reality. If I am correct, the choices I make are not choices at all, and thus have no effect on my life and happiness. If I am incorrect, and act as if I believe the strict materialist hypothesis, i.e. run red lights, eat old oysters, trust her when she says she’s on the pill – I am much worse off. As long as I assign a non-zero probability to being incorrect on the question of free will, I am better off making the same choices as a 100%-convinced Soulista. There are simply no behavioural implications of a materialist worldview, unless you are 100% convinced that you are correct. A fair analogy can be made to Pascal’s Wager.

Anyways, thanks for tuning in to Moral Philosophy Amateur Hour. I don’t think I’ve seen that line of reasoning anywhere else, but it seems like a fairly obvious one, so I doubt I’m the first to use it. My self-education on the subject hasn’t been extensive, but anyone interested in further reading should check out this dialogue between Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. I would also recommend this ambitious attempt by Daniel Dennett to make sense of consciousness, and for a fictional treatment of the subject, The Terminal Experiment by Sci-Fi titan Robert Sawyer is a fun read.

So, Blowhards: Where do you fall in the materialist debate, and why? Mind, or Matter? Material Girl, or Soul Power? Any reading recommendations that could change the (purely physical) mind of this atheistic materialist?