Monday, April 23, 2007

An Argument Against Naturalism Leaves Me Confused

This morning, I'm a bit confused after reading a letter to the editor published in The National Post (of Canada).

The author of the letter is Don D. Wallar, and he holds a Masters in Neurochemistry. Mr. Wallar wants to argue against naturalism, which is the philosophical position that only nature exists. That is, nothing supernatural exists. And Mr. Wallar specifically wants to argue against the notion, "there is no mind or soul independent of the brain; all thought and behaviour is purely the result of neurochemical synapses in the brain."

Now, when I'm on a first date, I often make a point of telling my new friend that I'm much more fascinated by epistemological naturalism than I am interested in ontological naturalism. The point, of course, is to impress her with how many big words I know. It seems to work, because my dates are so impressed by my droning on about the various naturalisms that they never go with me on second dates. And that's how I avoid the horrible troubles associated with extended romances.

Consequently, I really perked up this morning when I sighted Mr. Wallar's letter, for I immediately grasped that it might provide me with juice for initiating an engaging conversation at one of those tender moments after the dinner, and after the movie, when I'm back at my date's apartment and she's just dimmed the lights.

Unfortunately, Mr. Wallar's letter left me more confused than intellectually armed.

That's because Mr. Wallar argues in his letter that naturalism is untenable because it leads to our denying the existence of free will. He says:

There are serious scientific and philosophical reasons why physical [i.e. ontological] naturalism cannot be tenable. One philosophical argument is based on the idea of free will.

Human beings are known to exhibit what is known as libertarian freedom, that is, they can literally choose between bona fide options... A or B.

If all thought and behaviour are indeed only the result of the biochemistry of the brain, then free will cannot exist, and all we have left is pure determinism.

Furthermore, any concept of moral obligation and responsibility is also nonsensical if determinism is true. But we do not live this way because we do not believe this way. [stuff in brackets mine]

Here's something my old philosophy professor taught me shortly before he taught me how to practice safe sex by engaging my dates in philosophical conversations at strategic moments in order to deter them from pursuing their base romantic desires: "One cannot legitimately argue that something is false merely on the grounds that if, it were true, one wouldn't like the consequences of it's being true."

Applied here, that means Mr. Wallar cannot legitimately argue that ontological naturalism is false simply because there can be no free will if it's true. Yet, it seems to me this morning that is precisely what Mr. Wallar is doing in his letter. He's urging us to reject ontological naturalism on the sole grounds that, if we accept it, we have to discard any dear notion we might have that our wills are free. And that's confusing me.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding his point, but is that the best grounds he wants to offer us for rejecting ontological naturalism? "It can't be true because we don't like what it implies"?

But there's another possibility. Having said all that, I think it's possible that Mr. Wallar is actually arguing:

1) Ontological naturalism implies no free will.

2) But we have libertarian freedom of choice (i.e. we can choose between options).

3) Libertarian freedom of choice is the same as free will.

4) If we have free will, then ontological naturalism is false.

5) We have free will.

6) Therefore ontological naturalism is false. False! FALSE!
That's a different argument than the first one. Yet, if that's what he's arguing, then the trouble is premise #3 is wrong. Contra the premise, libertarian freedom of choice does not actually imply free will.

You can see that when you think of how a computer works. A computer can be programed to choose between options. That is, a computer has libertarian freedom of choice, which is the ability to choose between options. But a computer certainly does not have free will. Hence, there is no precise equivalence of free will and libertarian choice.

Of course, if premise #3 is wrong, then the conclusion that ontological naturalism is false does not follow from Mr. Wallar's argument. Instead, we have to go back to square one, and find other grounds on which to argue either for or against ontological naturalism.

I'm still confused though. I really don't know which argument he's making in his letter. If I had to bet, I'd lay money on the second one, because that's the stronger argument. But it seems to me it could just as easily be the first argument that he's really making. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I need to quit reading arguments against naturalism so early in the morning.

At any rate, what do you think of Mr. Wallar's argument? Do you buy into it? Do you reject it? Would you like to go on a first date?


Brendan said...

"Free choice" is a judgment or an interpretation, one that we inherited in our language and thought from millenia of religious and philosophical tradition. What appear to be choices may not be from a perspective other than the chooser. The classic example is the "force" card used in card tricks in stage magic. The mark doesn't know that the magician is determining the card and merely creating the illusion that the mark has "chosen" it. Because the mark's mind fills in "free choice" as a matter of interpretation and perspective almost instinctually, the mark fails to see the trick.

If all mental events are physically caused, then every perceived "choice" is predetermined.

Or put another way, whether we have free will or not, it would still look to us as though we have free will. Thus, that perception itself demonstrates nothing.

Mystic Wing said...

Interesting post, Paul. I've wrestled with the same dilemma in my Buddhist studies. In a karmic world, where all events follow logically from prior conditions, it is fairly easy to argue that free will does not exist at all—that what we perceive as choice is actually determinism if viewed from a different (correct) perspective.

I haven't reconciled this problem by any means, but I do occasionally glimpse an interesting paradox: abandoning ego willfulness creates a genuine, liberating freedom.

This is much the same as the recognition that life in a society structured with reasonable laws is actually much more free than life in anarchy.

It's possible, then, that our slavery originates from our insistence on free choice.