It started with a LOL moment and ended as a very satisfying conversation with an former student of mine who is extremely bright and inquisitive.
As I was approaching the end of a very long non-fiction book, I came across a quotation that made me laugh out loud. My wife is accustomed to hearing me laugh when reading. She gave me that quizzical look. So I read it to her, and she laughed, too.
I made a mini-poster out of it and posted it on Facebook. You can see it just there to the upper left. This is the conversation it provoked:
Theo: I'm feeling a little disconnect on the second part of his argument. What am I missing?
Me: If your brain is an organic computer designed by natural selection for nothing other than survival and propagation, then it wasn't programmed to be a very good truth detector.
Or, if we live in a mechanistic universe, and your brain is nothing more than an organic computational device, then you have no free will. You believe what you believe because you were programmed to believe it by both nature and nurture. None of your beliefs were freely chosen.
Only if there is something transcendent is there any chance of free will. But science, by definition, cannot deal with the transcendent. For that you need either philosophy or religion, or both.
Theo: Couldn't it be argued that the beliefs that the mechanistic universe "gives us " are valid? Or at the very least unimportant to the uncaring system we're born into? Why does an idea have to be freely chosen in order to be valid?
Me: They might be valid; then again, they might not be.
Assuming a mechanistic universe, all your thoughts are just atoms in motion, so your ideas may be true, but only by chance.
Assuming the existence of a transcendent reality, your mind is more than your brain. It is not just atoms in motion, but something more. This is the only way to explain free will.
Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and the other "New Atheists" accept the mechanistic universe. Until Harris published The Moral Landscape a couple of years ago, they all denied free will. Harris' book doesn't really solve the problem, though, because he has never been able to overcome the "is/ought" distinction.
The so-called Hume's Law (after David Hume) says that you can't get an "ought" from an "is." Science can describe what is, but it can never tell you what ought to be.
Theo: But isn't what is and what is not "true" defined by our environment? We have our senses to rely on to find this truth. And the way we receive information about the world comes from the same world. To get back to the question of the original photo - why does Haldane feel that a mechanistic brain isn't reliable? Perhaps analytically, a data driven brain isn't suited for finding the captial-T Truth of the universe, if such a thing exists, but why should science be discounted by a mechanistic universe? A brain that is better at analyzing its environment and finding material truth should be more predisposed to survive, right?
Me: Defining some terms may prove useful.
Fact: that which can be verified.
Truth: that which corresponds with reality.
Belief: that which one thinks corresponds with reality.
Some beliefs cannot be verified but still true (e.g. I think therefore I am—no one but the thinker can verify this).
Some truths cannot be verified but still true (e.g., the non-existence of Bertrand Russell's invisible teapot orbiting the sun).
Some truths are not believed but still true (there is an exact number of stars that currently exist in our galaxy, but no one knows it).
Alvin Plantinga offers examples of false beliefs that increase survival value. One is the false belief that you will go to jail if you do not pay off your credit card balance every month. This falsehood will keep you from running up debt and tend to make things better for you and your offspring.
Immanuel Kant forever destroyed the idea that we can really know things as they are—what he called the noumena. We can only know things as phenomena, things as we perceive them. Since we see less than 1 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum it is obvious that we can never see things as they are. Our sense of sight is too limited. Anything we perceive outside of ourselves is mediated by very limited senses that are often fooled. So our knowledge of anything is a tiny fraction of the truth about it.
Theo: I agree, our senses are quite often fooled. But I think this illusion we live in is valuable. We have facts, which are verifiable. With our weak senses, yes, but verified. Wouldn’t the existence of atoms be among these facts? Can't we factually say that a majority of the world, and the universe at large, is controlled by physics?
Me: I believe that our current understanding of physics is accurate (although there is much yet to learn). But I can never be 100 percent sure that it is true. I might be like Neo, plugged into the Matrix and being fed false data through electrodes in my nervous system.
Although we can never be 100 percent sure of anything, such a standard is unreasonable. We still have to live in the world as we find it. I think that’s part of what you are saying.
But if I find that the existence of free will is a reasonable belief (even though I am not 100 percent sure of it), then I must conclude that the mechanistic view of the universe is false. The existence of the transcendent becomes the most reasonable conclusion from the observable data. So mind is more than atoms and the void (to borrow a phrase from Democritus).
I have to say, Theo, I have missed having such conversations with you. You have one of the most inquisitive minds I encountered during ten years at ITA.
Theo: Well, thank you, Mr.Blocher! I appreciate that. I think your humanities class helped me question my values, even more than my college philosophy classes have.
Me: May I have your permission to use this conversation in my classes at The Art Institute of Wisconsin? The questions you asked were exactly what I needed to clarify Professor Haldane's point. You made me think it through more thoroughly.
Theo: Sure thing!