Thursday, October 21, 2010

No purpose, no responsibility

(Prompted in part by reactions to an 'experimental philosophy' paper on Moral Responsibility and Determinism.)

We are choice makers by default.  Unless we can turn off our unconscious (i.e., emotional) processes entirely, we cannot react with logical consistency to any assumption that in the end there's no such thing as choice, where we would also feel required to assume that choices are part of that deterministic world, yet at the same time be functionally illusory.

Our underlying "theories" are based on instinctive assumptions that all things (living or not) that act against our interests do so with some element of intent.  Some seek to be trusted, some seek to violate that trust, some seek primarily to harm or eat us with any "trust" relationship being secondary to that.  It's all about some aspect of trust, and trust would not come into existence in a determinate world.  Everything there would already be in a permanent state of neutrality, no trust required, since there would be no contrasting distrust.
We can't deal instinctively or intuitively with a "logical" assumption that trust is not to be considered.

We also can't set up an "experiment" where we "accept" that people in a determinate universe would nevertheless act as if they had the right to choose.  We "know" instinctively that such a universe would contain no such behaviors without the illusion of indeterminacy being a permanent part of that world.  In which case we would act toward others accordingly, continuing to punish them as the illusion requires.

Cultural differences cannot in the end erase these instincts, only channel the ways that we choose to apply consequences.  We can't be barred from choosing that some consequences are applicable.

This does not require us to have anything like an innate ‘moral responsibility module.’  We have an innate responsibility strategy that is archetypical.

And any differences that divide us into compatibilists versus incompatibilists (a false dichotomy in any case) are in themselves strategic responses based on our pecking orders, learned tactics, cultural differences, etc.

We don't have "compatibilist" intuitions as opposed to "incompatibilst" ones.  We are basically incompatibilists by "nature"  - we function probabilistically with an overlay of logically abstract certainties as to the inevitability of fate.
We act as if to outsmart nature for the short term, "knowing" it will outsmart us for the long term.


  1. I tend to agreed with Einstein that the uncertainty principle is uncertain only because our knowledge is not sufficiently developed, But I will concede that it is troubling to consider that, by that principle, all things must therefore be predetermined and predictable. From a strictly logical stand point I have difficulty denying that it is in all probability the overwhelming number of undetermined variables that permit us to enjoy the illusions of control, choice, and for that matter sentience. Sometimes I struggle with a feeling that time has already passed, perhaps thousands of years ago [Perhaps more] and I wonder if linear perception is an illusion; all things having already happened, our conceptions amount to little more than an echo.

  2. I don't think Einstein held that lack of knowledge was the only reason to hold with uncertainty as a principle. That's too much like having faith in non-belief. But in any case I had more to say on this in a later post.

  3. I apologize for the confusion. I did not articulate clearly. Einstein disagreed with uncertainty principle all the way to his fatal aneurysm. He was working on a unified field equation to counter Niels Bohr. Unfortunately, after decades of work at Princeton, he failed. He made the contention in many of his writings that uncertainty principal would eventually be shown to be an incomplete work.

    I agree with him.

  4. Sure, but the default position of determinacy or predeterminacy does not by that measure become a principle, i.e., a fundamental truth.

  5. The word fundamental is a good pretext to our conversation. Sticking with an Einsteinian theme, Mercury's orbit can be precisely calculated. We know precisely the position and momentum of Mercury at any relative point in time. This concept holds true for all quantifiable inanimate objects, the only variable being relative perception. However, as we measure "quanta", we run into immeasurable variables, and cannot conclusively determine momentum and location at any relative point in time. Our perception is randomness and uncertainty at the most fundamental [atomic] level of our cosmos. This indeterminacy gives comfort to those that do not want to believe in concepts like fate. I contend that atomic theory is in all likelihood an incomplete work. We can measure the relative mass of various forms of matter but we are still not entirely sure what we are looking at mechanically. It is compressed [fused] energy to be sure, but why it behaves so irrational deserves a better explanation than indeterminacy.

    The parallel between physics and sociology has always been there. If all the variables were known, in the same manner that we can precisely predict the relative positions of planets, we should be able to predict the precise relative position and action of every atom, and their sub atomic electrons, protons, and neutrons. If this is true then likewise, if all the variables were known, then it could be precisely predetermined the relative location and action of every human being.

    This concept disturbed early 20th century physicists and I contend that it resulted in an overenthusiastic embrace of uncertainty as a principle.

  6. Einstein did not maintain that any of our calculations were other than exact approximations in time.

  7. Of course, that assertion is at the foundation of relativity theory. This is why, to maintain a degree of accuracy in an analogy that uses Einstein, the word "relative" is repeatedly used as an adjective.

    Perhaps humans will never see the production of a supercomputer capable of mapping a relatively precise course of humanity's future, but I cannot logically dispel either the possibility or the probability that we will.

    There is an obvious paradox written into the idea that we can predict our fate [or at least the fate nature prescribes] and subsequently change it.

  8. There is no paradox if both our fates and our predictive expectations can be no more than maximally approximate. With a probability factor that decreases exponentially with increasing time.

  9. Your logic is impeccable and it serves to illustrate a point. From our vantage point, events appear to be undeterminable. However, looking at the quantifiable building blocks of the universe, everything seems to be precisely determinable. When sufficient heat is applied to hydrogen and oxygen in a test tube, the chain reaction [combustion rate] is calculable to the microsecond. Humanity, and the entire cosmos for that matter, can be quantified as a large scale chain reaction. This reaction, from a strictly logical standpoint, could be precisely calculated to the microsecond if it weren't for the inherent limitations of the human intellect.

    Therefore, is this dialog we are having by choice or was it an inevitable, and calculable, consequence of the big bang? If we were able to predict the occurrence of some future conversation and change it, would we be changing it by choice or would we be changing it as an inevitable consequence of the chain reaction unleashed by the big bang?

    I suppose it is fortunate that our psychological capacities are inherently limited. We cannot say for certain [at present] what the big bang was a result of, let alone what it will result in (or for that matter, if "the big bang" was what really happened at all). Therefore, for the time being, we can enjoy the fruits of uncertainty (i.e choice).

    If left unchecked, I have my doubts that the ignorance and limitations of human intellectualism will persist. By this reasoning it would seem that the amount if choice we have is inversely proportional to the progressive development of certainty over time. The more certain we become the less choice we have.

    The semantical sound of such an argument is repugnant. Here it is rewritten: "Knowledge comes at the expense of freedom." or "Freedom is the natural consequence of ignorance." - None the less, logical progression seems to lead to those conclusions.

    Is it to much to ask that an intellectual could have their cake and eat it too? Freedom and certainty at the same time? Simultaneously possessing the knowledge of what is, what was, and what is to come while retaining the illusion of choice?

    Perhaps this was the logical progression the authors of religion were referring to then they wrote about people's relationship to the image of God.

  10. "When sufficient heat is applied to hydrogen and oxygen in a test tube, the chain reaction [combustion rate] is calculable to the microsecond."
    But those calculations themselves are done for our predictive purposes, and again are "truth" certainties that for us can be no more than an exact approximation in time.

    "Humanity, and the entire cosmos for that matter, can be quantified as a large scale chain reaction."
    But that's the biggest part of the problem, since such causation isn't and can't be a large scale chain reaction.

    Because causation (and I'm surely not the first to note this) is not lineal but comes at you and everything else from all possible directions. And goes out from each countless point for countless times in all directions, and in addition is in service of countless purposes and combinations thereof. Just one uncaused or random purposeless event at any time or place since the beginning (if any) of the cosmos would have destroyed by now the certain destinies of all other cosmological eventualities.
    Sure, our choices are limited, but they are still ours to make, and foolish of us to imagine that we're the first in the universe with that optional facility or capacity.

  11. >"Just one uncaused or random purposeless event at any time or place since the beginning (if any)"

    Indeed, we are not for sure if there was a beginning, let alone, if there will be an end.

    >"Sure, our choices are limited, but they are still ours to make, and foolish of us to imagine that we're the first in the universe with that optional facility or capacity."

    I compliment you on the latter assertion. I too doubt the fundamentalist assertion that life could have only began on earth. First of all, geology has proved that life appeared during the bombardment period, right after the formation of the earth. Thousands of astroids, brutally colliding with our planet and out of the hostility an adaptive bacteria takes root. I know that astroid impacts have been shown to create peptides, but there has never been an experiment that has shown peptides making the extraordinary jump to viable proteins. The idea that enough viable proteins formed to create a replicable strand of deoxyribonucleic acid in such a short amount of time seems a bit absurd. What is not absurd is that 250 million year old bacterium found dormant in salt crystals were still viable and easily reanimated.

    Furthermore, the amounts of heavy materials found on earth and throughout our solar system are noteworthy. These elements, which form at the center of a star, can only become present in interstellar space via a supernova. It has been asserted that at least three supernovae must have occurred to have contributed the amount of heavy matter present in our accretion disc prior to the formation of the earth.

    What is most interesting to me, is how many extrasolar planets we are discovering. It seems that most stars have orbiting planets and if our own solar system is any indication, they are probably geologically active. We do not know how many supernovae were involved in contributing matter to our accretion disc, but it is highly probable that at least three geologically active solar systems faced utter annihilation prior to the formation of our earth. Anyone of them may have been the originator of [our] life and the bacteria that seeded our world, a mere survivor of cataclysm.

    But then I pose the question; What would we do if we realized our star was about to explode? We do not have any technology available to us to escape such a blast radius. How would we preserve life? The most logical course of action would be to encapsulate our DNA into a highly resilient form of adaptive bacteria and evacuate as much of it as possible into interstellar space. Knowing all this, how can the intellectual unequivocally reject the notion of intelligent design? Can we know for sure that the three preceding solar systems were void of intelligent life? We are the point today where the theory of intelligent design cannot be printed in our textbooks. It seems that contempt for creationism is creating an intellectual box that will leave a lot of people looking silly when encapsulated interstellar bacterium is discovered.

  12. Well, I'd agree that whichever side of this fight to see which magical version of our creation gets the nod, they are as one when it comes to the denial of any possibility that life forms have intelligently designed themselves from scratch. In some ways our brains would seem to be the least capable of our self-engineering trial and error systems.

  13. That is an accurate description of the creationist's proclivity. Looking at the diversity of life on this planet, observing small changes over vast amounts of time through geology, and seeing cancer and other failed naturally occurring mutations, it seems ridiculous to be in denial of a trial and error system. The general prejudice in their case is without reason.

    What is interesting to me, is that I cannot find a biblical verse that would be grounds for mounting the vehement refutation of evolution that persists amongst the Christian right. By taking such a stance, they have put themselves in a box that only serves to destroy their credibility.

  14. A point of irony is the right taking a strong pro-life stance on abortion while at the same time denying evolution. Saying that life begins at conception, is admitting that life begins as a single celled organism that evolves into intelligent life through a process of mutation.

  15. You give them too much credit for letting inconsistencies be bothersome. The preselected soul arrives at conception and brings all predetermined growth processes with it. Drinks on the house, and the devil takes the hindmost if he can.

  16. Thank you for the intelligent discussion. I enjoy reading your blog and have included it in my sidebar.

  17. Thanks, now I'll have to post more often. Damn.