Where's the "should" in an avalanche?
Robert Sapolsky argues against freedom and responsibility in this latest shameless attempt by The Science to convince you that you aren't real.
Another scientist has decided to build his brand awareness by attacking Free Will with the latest and greatest arguments from 19th century physics.
In his latest book, “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will,” Dr. Sapolsky confronts and refutes the biological and philosophical arguments for free will. He contends that we are not free agents, but that biology, hormones, childhood and life circumstances coalesce to produce actions that we merely feel were ours to choose.
Fascinating. I’m sure this will be an original and compelling argument.
Getting rid of free will “completely strikes at our sense of identity and autonomy and where we get meaning from,” Dr. Sapolsky said, and this makes the idea particularly hard to shake.
If it’s so hard to shake, I wonder why anyone feels a need to give his opinion more weight than what is most obvious and essential to our experience. Why would anyone assume The Science has any special authority here?
That’s not just me whistling Dixie. This brand of skeptical attack on freedom leads its advocates to disprove their own conclusions in the act of arguing for it. Arguing against free will requires a few inconvenient assumptions related to that very same sense of autonomy and meaning
First, there’s such a thing as an argument or a reason. If everything is “really” the particles and fields of physical reality, there is no such thing. It’s all atoms buzzing at atoms.
Second, it requires a person, who can understand the argument and act on the knowledge. If knowledge can change behavior, then ideas in the mind can cause physical events. Let’s see what Sapolsky has to say about that:
When most people think they’re discerning free will, what they mean is somebody intended to do what they did: Something has just happened; somebody pulled the trigger. They understood the consequences and knew that alternative behaviors were available.
But that doesn’t remotely begin to touch it, because you’ve got to ask: Where did that intent come from? That’s what happened a minute before, in the years before, and everything in between.
He’s arguing that you meat-bots cannot respond to arguments.
Another thing that should catch your eye is how the free-will denier insists on using language that, in technical terms, involves normative, evaluative, and teleological terms. In plainer language, that’s talk of “should” and “good". There’s a way things can go right or wrong. There’s a worthy purpose for which we do an action.
Sapolsky opines that we are each naught but a biological machine cursed with the awareness of our miserable state. Therefore:
We still find things aversive enough as biological machines that it’s useful to call stuff like that “pain” or “sadness” or “unhappiness.” And even though it’s completely absurd to think that something good can happen to a machine, it’s good when the feeling of feeling pain is lessened.
After spending thousands of words telling people that their experience of being selves and agents is an illusion, he declares that “good” is what he likes.
It’s all physical events, see, and values are just an illusion. Except for these events, which are totally valuable.
Some months ago I wrote this piece about the hokum non-ethics kicked around in AI. The main ideas apply just as well here. If AI is humanizing machines, Sapolsky’s argument can be understood as its mirror image, mechanizing human beings.
“Everything is an illusion except what I like” is possibly the least compelling argument anyone could ever make. This is a serious scientist, positioning himself as a serious intellectual, and being taken seriously by an audience which doesn’t know any better but to default to fanboying.
Each year that goes by I find these arguments more tedious.
I’m sure that brain anatomy and functional physiology have advanced a great deal since the 19th century, but the budget materialist metaphysics of the unthinking scientists have not. Not a word of this, I say to you not one sentence, is an original advance over ideas that were already set out and discarded over 100 years ago.
To name but one example, Rudolf Steiner’s Die Philosophie der Freiheit, published in 1916, savages Sapolsky’s philosophical ancestors with a vigor I could scarcely hope to match.
Given the inability of most of our most public intellectuals to think beyond the narrow tracks of the approved thoughts, regression was inevitable.
It’s one thing to discover what the brain does. That’s cool and all, but entirely different from the metaphysical leap from limited models of certain parts of reality to generalizations about How Existence Is And Must Be.
The bigger question on my mind is why the consensus of the Very Smart People (just ask them) haunting the professional managerial caste is so invested in eliminating the intentional side of life.
Why spend so much effort to convince the masses that such basic aspects of life as agency, volition, willing, acting, and responsibility belong in the landfill with last week’s garbage?
The sentimental hippy boilerplate about compassion and tolerance and eliminating suffering doesn’t cut it. If we’re all biological robots determined by our history, then strictly speaking none of these ideals matter. No ideals matter.
Ask the pebbles in an avalanche what they think they should do.
Pebbles and avalanches don’t care about should. They just move. Dead, blind, uncaring movement. If that’s us, then right and wrong are illusions.
If Sapolsky’s right, ethics and politics make as much sense as yelling at rocks. Including his own moral beliefs.
Could the hypothetical intelligent pebble stop falling if you gave it a good enough reason? Is having a reason enough to weigh against the many physical forces acting on it and causing it to move non-consciously?
Humans are embodied beings with living animal bodies. Those bodies probably did evolve more or less as contemporary evolutionary sciences say (although I have my questions). If that’s true, then those organic bodies are constrained by physical laws.
That’s all true, with a “but”.
We have material conditions necessary for our existence. But we also have a mental aspect that doesn’t simplify into nothing but material stuff.
Yes, we are adrift in the contingency of matter and physical causes. We all learn from a young age that the world resists our minds. But neither does our matter fully dominate our minds. We do act and we do change the environment around us, and we do some of these things knowingly and intentionally. Physical nature conditions and constrains mental life, but a constraint is not a cause (much less an exclusive and sufficient cause).
If it weren’t so, then Sapolsky’s own argument against free will would be the confused flapping of monkey-gums. If he’s right, then there are no arguments, only apes making sounds.
Which, I add, wouldn’t get us any closer to his ideal of the hippie paradise of compassionate pain-free living. The cruelty and violent impulses of homo sapiens belong as much to our natural heritage as the hippie feel-good aspirations. When these pebbles fall, they fall with plenty of pain and blood.
If you want to say why we shouldn’t do these things, you first need a “should”.
The human mind and the nature we inhabit are each vastly more complicated than this simple-minded picture of particles banging into particles (or, for that matter, a magical “Will” that operates free and clear of material limitations).
However convincing to the unlikable pessimists and weaponized nerds currently ruling over us, it ain’t so.
Thanks for reading.
p.s. If you found this valuable, interesting, funny, or it made you upset that you had to use your mind for something besides infinite scrolling, I ask that you do me a favor and share it with just one person.
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