Versus point of inquiry for Friday, June 12th, 2009.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe. Jim Underdown point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots level, my guest this week is Tom Clarke. He’s director of the nonprofit Center for Naturalism and author of Encountering Naturalism, A World View and Its Uses. He writes on science, freewheel, consciousness, addiction and other topics. He maintains the naturalism or Web site, which is an extensive resource on world view naturalism. He’s also the moderator for the Monthly Philosophy Cafe at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tom Clark, welcome back to the show.
Well, D.J., it’s a pleasure to be back.
Tom, you run the Center for Naturalism in the Boston area there. It’s really the only organization of its kind pushing this almost call it hard core naturalism. Right? Maybe I’m mischaracterizing it, but there are a lot of organization center for inquiries, one of them that cares about the implications of naturalism for God and ghosts. We talk about ethics and stuff, but you go further. You talk about what naturalism means for other kind of central beliefs in our society like that. Everybody has freewill that we learn, that we have a self that you know, where we can be morally responsible. Questions about crime and punishment. So you’re like you’re on the vanguard of this naturalism stuff. Before we get into some of these philosophical issues, though, Tom, just tell me how you got into all of this, how someone kind of end up running the Center for Naturalism.
Thanks for asking. It’s a somewhat interesting tale and that I studied with Dan Dennett, a tough but before I went to tough to look at philosophy, I was into Eastern philosophy and Eastern philosophical tradition, as you may know, questions the Buddhist tradition, questions the notion of a substantial ego or self. And what I discovered was that behaviorism as advanced by B.F. Skinner was pretty much saying the same thing, and it’s challenge to free will. Then I discovered Daniel Dennis work at Tufts, and he too, in his work, in the philosophy of mind, was getting into some of the very same issues of who are we fundamentally are issues of free will, of issues about naturalizing the self. That’s really where I ended up in naturalism, because that’s what’s going on with all this, is that the scientific revolution that’s been going on for a while, plus the philosophy of mind that Dennett is doing and other people are doing it. What’s what’s happening is a naturalization of the self.
And so when you see Naturalization of the self, but it’s really making the self go away.
No, I see that’s what a philosopher would call it, an illimitable position. And naturalist don’t have to be a limit of this with respect to the self. They just define it in natural terms such that we understand it as a natural phenomenon, as are all phenomena according to naturalists. So the self yourself, myself can be understood as, for instance, a construction of the brain and body does from moment to moment. We feel like herself. We all have our personal identities in these things, although they’re physical in their basis, still are quite real. So even though it naturalizing the self, we deny the immaterial soul. We don’t deny the self. But of course, we can argue about what the self is in its essence or in its end, its components, if you like. The idea that’s that’s kind of how I got into it, is because I saw this nexus of issues that were different from Athie ism but had to do with naturalism and that that’s kind of where I’m coming from.
So let’s just start off by getting into the self question. You say that the kind of naturalist that you are doesn’t deny the self, but on the other hand, like all of us, you say there’s no soul. And for a lot of people, self equals soul. You know, this kind of supernatural me that survives death, etc. Most freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, whatever, don’t buy that. But they buy a concept of the self that you don’t buy. That’s why I was suggesting, you know, you’re going further than most atheists and freethinkers. You’re saying that it is a construction. The self is kind of an illusion of the brain. It gives me a sense of self. Maybe I have a sense of self, but there’s not actually a self.
There’s no little me sitting in the inside directing the show or witnessing the show.
That’s certainly true. There’s just the brain going on. And it’s an interesting question of how our sense of self, our sense of being an observer is actually conjured up by the brain. But yeah, what kind of naturalism that the center is promoting is a thoroughgoing naturalism that is really questions anything supernatural about ourselves, because many people, even some secularists and free thinkers suppose that there’s something special about human being.
That makes them somewhat independent. Say, of cause and effect that when it comes to choosing our actions or thinking our thoughts, that we have had this little locus of what I call contra causal agency as being a self that isn’t at the effect of anything else in some basic respect, important aspect. And this is what we deny. And this is what the naturalization of the self is about.
It’s showing that the self, the human person, is completely a function of conditions, formative conditions, and also the environmental conditions that surround us from moment to moment so we can understand ourselves as a natural arising out of circumstances both historically and in the present moment. And so this is sort of a radical deconstruction of the common sense Western idea of the autonomous, free, willing ego that everyone supposes or many people suppose that they are even naturalists, even many natural’s free thinkers, humanists consider themselves as having an ego or a self in that sense.
Right. And when we talk about free will. I just want to make sure that the listeners understand what I’m denying. And what many naturalists deny. Including Dan Dennett, is the idea of contra causal freewill.
So it’s not just the ability to make a choice, but it’s that you can make a choice, almost metaphysical choice that is beyond the influence of time and space.
Right. Here’s one way to put it. If you imagine a situation in which you’re behaving and you make a particular choice, many people suppose that given that situation exactly as it transpired, you could have chosen something other than what you did. But a science based naturalism, looking at the situation as it arises, will see the choice as a function of the exact conditions that were present at the time. So if you replay that scenario, there’s no reason to think that anything else would have happened. Now, many people think in supposing that they have contre calls or freewill, that had they been in that situation, even with the same desires, the same exact circumstances inside and outside themselves, they could have chosen or done something other than what they did. And this is what we’re denying. This is what I think a thoroughgoing science based naturalism challenges is this idea of a causally autonomous, metaphysically autonomous self that somehow gets to cause things but is itself not fully caused.
So if the way that I behave is determined by these factors and I could never have behaved otherwise were I in exactly the same situation again. Does that mean that I’m just a mindless automaton, that I just kind of think I make free choices even when they’re completely determined?
Well, in saying what you just said, you’re contrasting free with determined. And this is what many philosophers don’t do. Many philosophers think that important real freedoms that we have are perfectly consistent with being fully caused or determined in what we do. And what they mean by freewill or freedom in this instance is that when I act freely, no one is compelling me to act in a way other than what I want to be doing.
It’s almost like freedom from external force.
You mean freedom from other agents pushing me around? Right. So that’s consistent with everything being determined if in fact, determinism is true. And by the way, there’s no consensus on that. But so in denying contra causal freewill, what we’re we’re not claiming necessarily that determinism per say is true. What we’re claiming is that there’s no little independent agent that concocts its own actions out of nothing. Everything comes from somewhere, even if it could be deterministic or could be random. I think if the evidence shows that in terms of human behavior, we are determined, we are paused and what we do. Human beings come out of a set of circumstances which are causal environments and genetics, so that there’s good reason to think that on a macro level of human behavior, we are determined in how we come to be who we are and we are determined that our choices.
But nonetheless, we make choices. And you don’t have an issue with, you know, thinking that we make choices, but the choices are programed or determined by chancer or other factors.
Right. I don’t have a problem with that. And here’s why. It’s because the human agent is just as real as all the factors that created the agent. What people often miss and thinking about determinism and causality is that they think of the human being as sort of this passive result of all the determinants that have made it what it is.
But the human being, him or herself, can be one of the determinants.
Right. In other words, we cause things to happen just as much as things cause us to be who we are and act as we do. We have a lot of internal neural machinery, hardware that does an incredible amount of work and making choices. So to appeal to external factors and our history is an incomplete story. We have to look at the. As well. So the person doesn’t disappear on this account. That’s very important to keep in mind. It’s one of the major reassurances that people who are promoting a thoroughgoing natural them have to keep reminding people of the human agent doesn’t disappear. We have causal powers, just like the powers that created us Jim Underdown.
But flesh something out for me. You say the person doesn’t disappear. But you’re attacking the concept of the self as illusory, unless you mean something less than what most people mean by the self.
Right. That the Asian doesn’t disappear. But the human agent can be seen as operating within the causal web such that once he become who you are, D.J. or Tom or whoever is listening. Once you see and remember that you are an identifiable agent. Even the fact that you’re fully cause to be who you are, who you are, doesn’t subtract from your own agency. But what you can’t do is you can’t be supposed that you choose yourself out of nothing. That’s as kind of a kind of egoism, I think, that infects our thinking about the self. We suppose that we have to be ultimately self caught in some respect to really be self. And that’s simply false. I’m not quite sure why we ended up with that conception of the self. Probably because of certain religious influences or dualism that we’ve inherited. But we can be completely valid, causally powerful selves and acknowledge that each and every part of us came from something that we didn’t ultimately choose. Those are completely consistent things. And this is why most people in the Academy, most philosophers and many scientists and some lawyers don’t Buycott recalls, well, free will they accept the fact that it’s likely human beings are fully caused creatures and that we can be morally responsible? We can be effective agents in the light of that knowledge.
So what you’re really preaching, Tom, is compatible ism of someone like Dan Dennett. You mentioned Tim others. It’s that freewill and certain kinds of determinism are compatible.
Right. A certain kind of freedom is compatible with determinism. And we talked about it earlier. It’s the freedom of not being told what to do. Freedom from political and interpersonal coercion so that if I act freely, what that means is that I’m acting out of my own will, out of my own desires. And of course, when we say I do something of my own free will, that’s usually what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about anything deeply metaphysical. We’re just saying that, you know, when I do something of my own free will, it’s what I want to be doing and no one’s preventing me from doing it.
Do you use the phrase free will or doesn’t that just muddy things up?
What I do, D.J., is always qualify free will with contra causal in front of it. In other words, like when I’m writing or talking about free will, I will always say contra causal free for people know that what I’m referring to is not the free will of just doing what you want to do.
It’s the metaphysical concept of having an uncaused causer contra causal agent sitting there making things happen but without itself being fully caused and what it does. You know, it’s it’s a weird idea. And when you talk people through it, they’ll see immediately. Yeah, there’s something fishy about Contra Colleville freewill, something supernatural.
There’s a supernatural claim there.
Right. If there’s a supernatural claim that that’s that somehow the human self transcends causation in what it decides to do, and that’s it’s simply there’s no evidence for there’s no scientific basis for it. And it’s kind of logically impossible for us to be self caused in any ultimate way. Every part of us comes from somewhere else. So you can’t logically have a self caused self. And that’s what contre calls freewill really demands. It wants action and character and the self to arise out of nothing to self formed such that it can take ultimate credit and blame. So I think that psychologically, what helps drive this whole issue of belief in countercultural freewill, is it the desire to be one’s own little God? Mm hmm. You know, that can take complete and utter credit. No one helped me in this. I did it all myself.
Or someone’s completely to blame for the bad stuff. Tom, I want to talk about moral responsibility. But but let’s review this. Freedom to do what you want thing. Just one more time. Because in all the conversations I have with folks about this, you know, we have a few drinks and we think we’re gonna solve the thorniest question in the history, the Western philosophical tradition over, you know, three rounds. And it gets to this issue of how can you be free if you you’re determined. You’re saying philosophers don’t contrast those two things much. You say. Instead, I can do what I want in something out there is not keeping me from doing what I want. So in that sense, I’m free. But what I want to do itself is determined.
That’s exactly right. The the notion of freedom that’s common sensical that naturalists can champion and defend is the freedom of action of of of liberty. Which we fortunately enjoy so much in this country such that I act freely. Just in case no one is preventing me from doing what I want to do. But as you just said, my desires, my character all flow out of causal circumstances, genetic and environmental. So there’s nothing uncaused there. So we have determinism is true then?
The freedom that we do have is compatible with determinism and a kind of commonsense way that’s helped me think about this is that, you know, if you’re imagining what your friend is about to do, you can predict what he or she is about to do, even though you’re not determining it. In other words, what they want to do it because it’s predictable. You know, it’s. It suggests it’s not contra causal, that they’re just not all of a sudden going to do something completely unlike what they always do.
Sure. I think we’re natural born determinist then we always look for causal regularities, especially in human behavior. So you’re absolutely right. Well, we’re with friends. People are acting pretty much as you expect them to do. If they were truly contra causal agents, they’d be popping off doing every sort of weird thing from moment to moment. You could never predict what they’re going to do. We wouldn’t want that kind of world. And someone who’s concerned about contre call Wolfie will should ask themselves this question. On what basis would I choose anything? If I were uninfluenced and uncaused in my choice.
If you didn’t have interests which themselves are determinants.
That’s right. Exactly. So being a free agent means that you you can be determined, but it’s your own interests that are driving your behavior, not someone else’s. That what that’s what it means to be free in a very commonsensical and very important way. So we don’t have to be free from causation. What we want is to be free from other people’s coercion. That’s what really matters. So this whole debate about being free from determinism or free from causation. I think it’s just a it’s an unfortunate red herring that people have gotten hung up on in the freewill debate. But I get it. It derives from our dualistic conception of the self. Well, we of many people think of themselves as souls as opposed to bodies. And the soul has this or this mental age and has this magical power to control the brain and control action without itself being caused. But we don’t need that to have the kind of freedom that’s important.
Tom, I want to talk about the implications of all of this for morality. That seems to be the, oh, the biggest motivating factor in people’s rejection of the kind of skepticism of contra causal freewill you’re talking about. You know, they say if I’m not that kind of free, then I can’t be held morally responsible. And in fact, you say yourself that none of us bears ultimate responsibility for our actions because our actions are caused. If everyone believed what you believe, wouldn’t just the whole world fall apart? In other words, let’s say you’re right. Shouldn’t you, for the sake of society, just shut up about it?
Well, this is a lot of people feel this way. In fact, some philosophers and psychologists think that we should put the wraps on this debate and not be talking about it at all, because I think it’s inevitable that people will come to that conclusion that you just articulated. But the fact is that we don’t need to be contre causally free to be moral agents or to be morally responsible or to be held responsible. After all, one of the main ways we keep people in line is to hold them responsible. Moral norms and the enforcement of moral norms is how we keep ourselves in line. Keeping each other locked in line in a moral community is a causal process in which the prospect of sanctions and praise and blame all of that works to help shape behavior, to make us moral agents to do the right thing. Now, if you’ve inserted a contra causal agent anywhere in that process, it wouldn’t be subject to both kinds of influences by definition, because the control causal agent is that which is not influenced. So you can see again that having a friedly willing self that in the sense of being free from determinants would upset the moral community because would be no way to control it. So the belief in contra causal freewill is actually a bigger issue for moral responsibility than your skepticism, although I see it that way, because what people think they want in this kind of strong metaphysical responsibility is to be able to pin the blame on the agent. Ultimately, as you were saying before, and its ultimate responsibility that we don’t need. Dan, Dan, I gave a talk about free will. Couple of years ago. And he talked about cosmic desert, deserving it in a cosmic, deep metaphysical way. And he said, you know, we don’t need that. It doesn’t do us any good. So we can hold each other responsible. We still have our moral norms. We still have our moral compass, our sense of right and wrong. All of that still is intact. We can still hold people responsible as as agents, as moral agents, because. People ordinarily are sensitive to the prospect of being praised or punished. And that’s the functional justification for morality on this naturalistic view, what morality does. It’s a natural phenomenon that helps keep us social creatures in line so that we treat each other right. It’s not very complicated.
To me, it’s it’s sounding more and more complicated. The more you’re talking, Tom, if we don’t have ultimate responsibility, what kind of responsibility do we have?
Well, we have proximate responsibility. In other words, if I behave badly, then you want to you’re good. You’re going to want to come to me and say, listen, Clark, you’d better shape up. And if you don’t, here’s what’s going to happen now. I don’t have to be ultimately responsible for my behavior. For you to be able to say that. Right. I have to be just the proximate cause of my actions, which I am. There’s no one else usually controlling what I do except for myself. So when it comes to putting sanctions or placing rewards as consequences of my behavior, that’s perfectly legitimate. But what you can’t do is suppose that I could have done otherwise and the situation that I acted. That’s what people seem to think is necessary in order to hold people responsible.
But that’s where punishment comes from, right? You want to fry the bastard when some socioeconomically disadvantaged person steals or some, you know, crazy person, mentally ill person, sorry, kill someone or tortures someone. You hear these horrible stories and we want to say they had a choice. They could have done otherwise. They didn’t do otherwise. So let’s really poke their eye out. Let’s stick it to them. Let’s punish them.
Yeah. You’re articulating the retributive motive, justification for punishment. And that’s exactly what I think a thoroughgoing naturalism dispatches. It does away with it because we see that indeed even the worst among us doesn’t choose to become that way. Ultimately, they’re a function of conditions. And that insight conditions are ideas about punishment. I think it should influence how we justified punishment in other ways. We no longer can suppose that someone deserves to suffer horribly because of their choices. We have to be more as as people put it, consequentialist and how we administer punishment. We do it as humanely and as non tentatively as possible because we see ultimately that people don’t choose themselves, that they are a function, completely a function of conditions that they didn’t themselves choose. And this is why this is so important to see.
Yeah. This almost social justice implications. Your your not just metaphorically, you’re literally arguing that this thoroughgoing naturalism is the ultimate get out of jail free card.
Not at all. It’s not a get out get out of jail free at all.
What it means is that our our modes of criminal justice are are ways that we try to reform people and keep them safe out of society. All are no longer premised on the idea of retribution.
But the criminal justice system, at least in the United States, is not just about protecting society from the worst of the worst. It’s about punishing them for the bad stuff they did. People are in prison not just to protect our neighborhoods, but because they deserve it, right?
Exactly. So you’re getting at the central point, and I’m not alone in this by any stretch. There are many people who have the same idea. Joshua Green, psychologist, Harvard, and Jonathan Cohn have written a very good paper that’s widely cited now about how this view of this retributive view of punishment has to be dropped. If we get rid of the idea of contra causal freewill and they’re absolutely right, but this is not a get out of jail free card. What it means is that our responses to wrongdoing are modulated. They’re influenced by the compassion that we will. I think we end up feeling when we see that people are not self caused monsters, they really do come out of circumstances. And had you been in those circumstances, it’s very likely you would have acted the same way. So there but for circumstances go we. And this insight, this causal insight, getting rid of the freewheeling, willing cop Coverley created, I think has tremendous implications for how we think about ourselves, for such things as criminal justice and social inequality, because people simply don’t ultimately choose to do the wrong thing. Now they do the wrong thing and they’re proximately they’re the proximate cause. So we have to. Yes, include the agent in our responses. We don’t forget about the agent. And I’ve said that all along. Right. But it’s still the case that our responses in both the policy domains and also interpersonally treating each other as human beings on a day to day basis do get strongly conditioned by this revolution and our self concept.
What you’re. Saying right now suggests that this thoroughgoing naturalism, rather than being bleak and kind of killing off the self, not only God and ghosts, but the self and and this freewill that a lot of people believe in, rather than that being a bad thing, you’re saying it will lead to a more compassionate or more humanistic life stance?
Yes, that is one of the central claims that the Center for Naturalism is the dancing. Another very important consequence of taking the causal view is that we gain power and control sentences. Supposing that people simply choose to become bad or good. We understand that they’re fully caused to become bad or good in that way. By looking at the actual causes, instead of this mythical, freewheeling agent, looking at the actual causes it gives, it gives us power. Because we can then intervene. We’ll understand what makes people tick, why neighborhoods, corrupt people, why certain policies are counterproductive. In, for instance, our criminal justice policies make it worse, not better. And it’s often justified on retributive grounds. So there’s a a nice interaction between the cause, one, understanding, lessening our retributive impulses and making us more effective in how we actually treat people.
So we don’t have contra causal freewill. We don’t have ultimate power to make our choices. But you’re saying that truth empowers us to make better choices about the social conditions and kind of. Well, you’re kind of creeping toward, you know, social engineering and as some of that stuff.
Right. But we don’t forget about human liberty at the same time. Right. Because the person has not disappeared. The person is still there.
We still have the full set of attitudes and beliefs and desires that we had before about being treated fairly, about our liberties. All this stays intact. Right. So it isn’t as if this revolution in our self concept does away with the idea of personal liberty or a human right. Quite the opposite. It just means that in in setting policy, we take into account the actual causal story of why people end up good or bad, talented or not fulfilled or not. It’s not that it’s not ultimately self chosen that that seems to me it gives us a huge amount more power and we’ll treat people more compassionately because we’ll understand that they come out of circumstances. They are not self-made.
For longtime Tom, this debate about free will. It has happened kind of among philosophers or what? Now, cognitive neuroscientists. But it’s not a bigger discussion in society at large. You see that changing?
Yeah, actually, I do. There’s been, I think, increasing attention to the freewill issue in the last, I don’t know, five, six years, most recently at the World Science Festival in New York. I had a whole session devoted to it with four people up on stage and an interviewer talking about free will. And what we’ve been discussing here, I think, with psychologist Dan Wegner and a couple of neuroscientists. And then there’s also there was a big social psychology conference and there was a big debate, public debate about free will right on stage between John Bach, who’s a psychologist, and Roy Baumeister duking it out about this whole freewill issue. And they have blogs on the Psychology Today website where they’re rehashing this debate. Yeah, I. I think this issue is coming to the fore. People are starting to see that, you know, science is making strides, understanding who we are. And this puts pressure on any dualistic notion of the of the of categorically mental agent or a soul or something that isn’t caused.
Last question, Tom. So if society at large is giving more attention to these questions, the debates, the panel discussions you just mentioned. Do you see it playing out more in the Freethought, in the skeptics community? Most of us only go so far in our skepticism. You’ve gone further than most. You’re not just skeptical of God, but the little God of the soul, of the self, of the tumultuous inside of us. Do you think that the better job organizations do advancing naturalism? Is it an obvious result that there will be freethinking communities out there who are skeptical of the little gods as well?
Yes, in fact, that’s already starting to happen. Individuals and groups that are starting to see this as a result of a thoroughgoing naturalism, they’re embracing the no freewill position of the no contra causal freewill position. They see the implications. So I think it’s on its way. It’s a very small number of secularists right now are grasping this, but it’s more than there were 10 years ago. And I’m very pleased about that. And again, I want to emphasize, this is nothing new. This debate, this insight about our. Being completely natural caused creatures has been with us for millennia. So what we’re doing here in promoting a thoroughgoing growing nationalism is simply the most recent version of this long, cumulative process of naturalizing ourselves that started way back with the Greeks.
So all of all of your power to do this, Tom. It’s willpower, but none of it’s free. And more power to you. Thank you for joining me on point of Inquiry DNA.
It’s always a pleasure to talk with you and keep up the good work at the Center for Inquiry.
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