Monday, January 28, 2013

Atheists ought to be the most non-judgmental people in the world

Okay, by "atheist" I really mean naturalist. Why should naturalists be so non-judgmental? Because people aren't really responsible for their actions. People do what they do, ultimately, because of their genetics and their environment. To what other causes could I possibly attribute their actions? If I were religious, maybe I could attribute their choices to an immortal spirit and allude to "free will" (whatever that means) as the ultimate explanation for their choices. But as a naturalist, I think choices are the result of neurons firing in a brain, and a choice is only a proximate explanation for actions, not the ultimate explanation. The ultimate reasons for an individual's actions is her genetics and environment, and she is not personally responsible for either of those.

I think people should only be held responsible for their actions if it's for their own good or the good of other people around them. A parent should impose consequences on their children's actions to teach them to behave well. Society punishes criminals to discourage crime. I think society should lock up criminals if they're likely to harm others. That makes sense. But I don't think people ever "deserve" punishment or pain, unless it's necessary for a good purpose. That's why I prefer treatment to punishment, both on a government-policy level and in my personal interactions. I'd rather try to change someone's bad behavior than punish them for it.

And that's why naturalists ought to be so non-judgmental. People may be irrational, be bad drivers, or harm themselves or others, but hey, why should I expect anything more from a species of somewhat-intelligent apes? When I can help someone improve their behavior in some way, for example by helping them better understand the consequences of their actions on themselves or others, by all means, I'd like to do it. But if I'm not in a position to influence someone else's behavior, maybe the best thing to do is just lower my expectations, and remind myself of why that person is behaving badly to begin with. Because of his genetics, his environment, and because he's a close cousin of the chimpanzees, just like all of us.


gavinomics said...

Before I comment, I just want to confirm your position.
Is it correct to say that you believe that people are not ultimately free nor ultimately responsible for their actions?

Bennion said...

It depends on what you mean by "free" or "responsible." People have the mental ability to evaluate their known information, deliberate, and make decisions, so they're "free" in a way. But the ultimate reasons for their decisions, regardless of the amount of deliberation they undertake, are their genetics and environment, so they're not free in the sense that they cannot transcend their own genetics, experience, and environment.

Let me try to illustrate this: think back to a major decision you made a long time ago, especially one that you would now change. Why did you make it? Well, you probably made it because of the limited information you had at the time, your limited experience, and your own innate personality and tendencies, or possibly how you were raised. It's the same for the decisions we make now, only we don't usually realize how limited we are by the information we're aware of, or the experiences we've gone through.

Google defines "responsible" as "being the primary cause of something." My point is that choice is only a proximate cause, not an ultimate cause. I don't think I can say yes or no to your questions, because the meanings of those words are kind of ambiguous.

gavinomics said...

What I mean by free will is the ability to choose between alternative possibilities. One has free agency if they could have chosen differently than they did. For instance, you chose to write this blog article. Do you believe that you could have chosen not to write it? or did your genetics and environment ultimately determine your behavior in writing the blog post?

Bennion said...

I'm not sure what "could have" means. "Could have" given what difference? If we replayed the decision to write this blog post, given the exact same environment and state of my brain, I would have gone through the exact same chain of thoughts that ultimately led me to choose to write the blog post. I have the mental ability to evaluate my alternative options for actions, and choose one of those options, but regardless of what I choose, the reason why I chose it was because of my genetics and environment. Genetics and environment don't take away my ability to choose, I always have the ability to make choices, but regardless of which choice I make, I know the ultimate reasons were my genetics and my environment. Our genetics and environment manifest themselves through our choices.

I'm not sure how to explain this clearly. Genetics and environment may determine my choice, but they don't take away my ability to choose, they act through my decision-making process. I use my knowledge that comes from my limited experience, and the brain that comes from my genetics, to make my choice. Or rather, my brain makes the choice, because my brain is me.

Sorry this comment is so repetitive, I'm struggling to explain this clearly.

gavinomics said...

Don't worry for about being repetitive. I am just trying to understand.

The statement, "Genetics and environment may determine my choice, but they don't take away my ability to choose they act through my decision-making process" seems contradictory to me. How is "acting through" different from determine?

Lets me put it another way. If the tape of time was rewound all the way back to the big bang and we restarted the tape just after the big bang, would everything have happened in exactly the same way?

Bennion said...

Okay, the word "choice" refers to the mental process of evaluating known information and the consequences of a choice, and then selecting an option based on that information. Nothing in that process transcends environment and genetics. Environment and genetics are inputs to the decision-making process, which results in a choice. Given the same inputs, the same output will result.

Maybe an analogy will help. Let's say our brain is like Pandora, my favorite music app, and Pandora "chooses" what music it will play for me, if we define "choose" as selecting the music that will play. Pandora's programming and the inputs I've provided to it determine what it will "choose" for me, but the fact that these things determine what Pandora will choose doesn't mean Pandora doesn't have the ability to choose, because it's still Pandora (the program) that is making the choice.

On the big bang, my limited understanding is that down on the quantum level there is true randomness, so the outcome may be somewhat different due to that randomness. I think the scale that neurons exist on is far enough above the quantum scale that randomness probably plays a very small (and possibly insignificant) role in our neural processes, but it may play a role. Kind of like how a star's exact placement was originally due to randomness that happened during the big bang, but after it's placed, quantum randomness isn't going to affect its future course much at all.

gavinomics said...

So then on your account, we are completely determined. Our biological structure provides a program that will react to inputs from the environment. If we knew enough about the program and the inputs then we could perfectly predict a person's behavior (with the exception of some weird quantum randomness). Right?

Bennion said...

Yep, that sounds right.

gavinomics said...

If it is true that behaviors are completely determined then this is what I think you ought to conclude:

Premise 1: All behavior is determined by "biological programming + input"
Premise 2: The act of choosing is a behavior
Conclusion1: All choices are determined by "biological programming + input"
Conclusion2: The experience of choosing is superfluous. It is just an illusion.

If conclusion 1 and 2 are true, then choosing is not a proximate cause because choosing doesn't cause anything. Our "biological programming + input" causes our behavior and it causes our experience of choosing which is superfluous. If the programming and hardware were more efficient, we would bypass the experience of choosing altogether.

Bennion said...

I agree with Premise 1 and 2, and Conclusion1, but I'm not sure what you mean by Conclusion2. The experience of choosing is not superfluous, it's the only way a choice will be made, and it is not an illusion, and can't be bypassed. The experience of choosing is how choices are made. It's how the brain works. I have a difficult time imagining another way for it to work. We evaluate our potential options and select one. The "experience of choosing" IS the brain doing its thing, or following its biological programming. The two are one and the same, just as we are our brain, and can't really separate our "selves" from our brain.

gavinomics said...

How could we truly evaluate and select anything if all behavior is determined?
It doesn't make sense. Truly evaluating and selecting between options assumes that we can choose between alternative possible options.
But if all behavior is determined, then we really can't choose between alternative options. There is only one possible option which is determined by the program.
The behavior is already determined by our programming and input. Therefore the act of choosing must be illusory.

According to your view, the program just takes time to implement a new behavior and during that time, the hardware is just processing the input in order to send a command to move the body to do what is already determined. It just appears that we could have chosen between alternative possible options, but we really couldn't because our behavior is determined.

It sounds like you are just trying to redefine "choosing" to mean the activity that goes on the brain in between input and determined behavior. That is not what everybody else means by choosing. If that was how we defined choosing, then my pencil "chooses" to remain stationary because it's program is: When Input=sitting on a flat table, behavior=do nothing.

Bennion said...

We can evaluate and select things even though behavior is determined because behavior is determined through the evaluation and selection processes. You say "we really can't choose" because "there is only one possible option which is determined by the program." You're trying to separate the act of choosing from the program, but the act of choosing IS the program. They don't constrain each other, because they're the same thing. The act of choosing is not illusory, because the act of choosing is the program running.

We could have chosen between different options in the sense that Pandora could have selected different songs to play. Our behavior being determined doesn't take away choice, because it's choice itself which determines our behavior.

I think I'm using "choose" exactly how everyone else is using it. It usually is only used for conscious beings, not pencils. It's kind of a shortcut concept for understanding complicated systems. If Pandora is very complicated, rather than explain exactly how it works (which I may not even understand), I can just say "Pandora chose such-and-such." I'm just employing a naturalistic explanation for how choice works, instead of appealing to an ill-defined metaphysical concept of "free will" (which imho doesn't even make sense) as the explanation.

gavinomics said...

But, Pandora does not literally choose anything. If we say that Pandora "chooses" a song we can only be using those words metaphorically. Saying that Pandora "chooses a song" is anthropomorphizing the program behind Pandora. It is a mistake to confuse the metaphor with what is actually going on in Pandora.

What is actually going on?
Pandora is a program and as such follows the formal procedures of the program. When a user selects Justin Beiber, the pandora program will just play a song. The song may appear random, but unless Pandora uses quantum computing, it is not truly random. A playlist is generated based on the formal procedures of the program. Pandora is 100% determined by its program. It has no choice at all. Make Pandora 100,000X more complicated and it still makes no choices in a literal sense. It only makes a "choice" in a metaphorical sense.

Likewise if human beings were a computer program like Pandora, then they could not choose either because as I mentioned before, choosing assumes free will. Human beings would simply implement the formal procedures of the program. They too would be 100% determined (as you said) and could not literally choose. I understand your objection to that proposition as saying, "but when the program receives input (I) at time (T) then then the program initiates a decision-making program (D). That program is called "choosing"". If that were true, then the program called "choosing" would just be a continuation of the implementation of the formal procedures of the program. People would just exhibit program-determined behavior. The behavior looks like a choice, but it can't properly be thought of as a literal choice.

I don't see why anyone could think that free will is nonsensical. The concept of choice is only intelligible if we assume free will. Free will just means that when we are faced with multiple alternative possibilities, we have the ability to choose freely among those possibilities. If we were choosing between songs, we literally could choose any of the songs if we have free will. Free will is constituted by the gap between my reasons/desires for choosing a song and my actual decision of choosing a song. When multiple songs are presented before me, I have the experience that I could chosen any of them. But, if I am just a computer program, then the formal procedures of the program would determine my behavior regardless of whether that particular part of the program was called "choosing". What seemed like a freely made choice by me would have just been an illusion. What seems like a choice is just the program saying, "when presented with these options, behave this way." Determinism is not compatible with the literal meaning of choice.

For these reasons, I conclude the pandora metaphor fails, and the computer metaphor in general distorts the concept of choice because it is only using it metaphorically and not literally. The literal concept of "choice" cannot be reconciled with biological determinism.

Bennion said...

I feel like I've already answered these objections, and this argument is starting to get circular. I think you're the one who is insisting on a narrow, personal definition of choice. Let's just use Wikipedia as a source for definitions for convenience. Wikipedia's first line in its article on "choice" defines it thusly: "Choice consists of the mental process of judging the merits of multiple options and selecting one or more of them.". That's compatible with how I'm using the word, and in fact, nothing in the first section is at all incompatible with how I'm using the word.

Just because I think our choices are determined doesn't mean they're not "literal" choices. They're choices because there are no external constraints forcing us to one option. We CAN choose whatever we want, therefore that's not an illusion. The mental process of evaluating potential options doesn't consider the constraint of itself, because that doesn't make sense. I think people do exhibit program-determined behavior. People are just so complicated that they're not always predictable.

I don't at all see why free will is necessary for choice. I'll quote from the Wikipedia article on Free Will: "Free will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints." That last phrase "free from certain kinds of constraints" is there because choices still exist even if there are certain constraints on them. I think my definitions are in line with Wikipedia again.

gavinomics said...

I agree that the discussion is feeling a bit strained. I considered starting out my last comment by apologizing for repeating myself, but then I chose not to since my comment was getting long.

Anyway, you said that you already answered my objections. It seems to me that you tried to answer my objections by using the Pandora analogy. Then I returned a response with reasons for why the Pandora analogy doesn't work. So I was waiting for a response to my objections to using the pandora analogy.

This discussion has focused on the semantics of words. I don't mind this type of discussion because I think the meaning of the words is important. I also believe that I am using words in line with the meanings from Wikipedia.

The important point is that our discussion presumes that we can understand semantics (the meaning of words). Computer programs cannot understand semantics. They only process syntax. Therefore, I believe that our disagreement about semantics shows that we can't rationally believe that our minds are just a computer program that takes input and responds according to some biologically determined program. Because if we believe that our minds are just like computer programs, then we have to deny what we are implicitly assuming in this discussion.

Bennion said...

So you think the Pandora analogy doesn't work because "People would just exhibit program-determined behavior. The behavior looks like a choice, but it can't properly be thought of as a literal choice." Well, people do exhibit program-determined behavior, in my opinion. They're just very complicated programs, and I don't see any reason their choices can't be called "literal" choices.

You say "Computer programs cannot understand semantics." Why not? I don't see why a future very complicated computer program would be unable to "understand" in a very similar way to how we "understand."

"Free will is constituted by the gap between my reasons/desires for choosing a song and my actual decision of choosing a song." That gap is mental processing of a lot of different inputs.

You seem to think that there's something about what we experience that makes it impossible that we're like programs. I really don't see anything about what we experience that makes it impossible that we are like programs.

It's funny to me how differently we can see this. When you talk about a world without free will, you're imagining something different than how the world is, while I'm imagining exactly the world that we're in.

gavinomics said...

• I'll have to show why a computer cannot understand semantics in a more in depth blog post. I used to be intrigued by the computational theory of mind. I have read Pinker's How the Mind Works and other articles that praise to the computational theory. But, now I think the arguments against it are fatal.
In a nutshell, computers can never understand meaning because it is logically impossible to get semantics from syntax alone. And computers just do symbol manipulation. They only do syntax. The only reason one can ask "why not?" is the same reason that a child can ask why couldn't a shape be both a square and a circle at the same time. The possibility only seems open to them because they are ignorant of the law of identity.

• The way you redefined the Gap destroys the meaning it was intended to have.

• I know you think the world is exactly as you think it is, but I don't see how one can rationally accept that position. It could be true that we don't have free will, but we can't rationally accept it without destroying the intelligibility of the way we use language. I'll have to unpack that statement as well in a future blog post. My list of things to write about in response to our delightful conversations is getting pretty long now. But I think this is a good stopping point for now and I will sincerely consider your last word.

Bennion said...

Yeah, it's definitely a good stopping point. Thanks for all your comments and consideration. It was a fun topic to discuss, even if it did get a bit strained there towards the end.

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