Monday, September 20, 2010

Freedom Is Doing What You Never Even Knew You Could Have Done

I had one of those minor philosophical epiphanies that I probably won’t do anything with professionally, at least not directly. In order to produce publishable (in academic journals) material around this epiphany, I’d have to read at least the last twenty years of evolutionary philosophy and psychology, and the freedom vs determinism debate going back at least twice as far, and then well into the seventeenth century. I really don’t have time for an extra project that long, so I’m going to blog about it. There’s a few steps in this, so it’ll take a few paragraphs to spell out.

Why are the opponents of evolution so frightened by the prospect? It has to do with what exactly that prospect is. The more theatrical anti-evolutionists have made rhetoric of jokes about an orangutan being their uncles or aunts. But the weirdness of existing on a continuum with other species is only evoked to disgust people. Conceptually, a deeper meaning underlies it.

The way humans have understood themselves morally is as free agents. Human morality and the complex societies that produce these moral systems are typically seen as exceptions to the natural order. We humans are artificial. That which is natural is governed by deterministic linear causality, the most advanced form of which is instinct. But humans are not purely instinctual: we are moral. Morality is an exception to instinct, animal behaviour not subject to linear causality.

But evolution is a natural process. If humans are the product of a natural process, then our moral systems do not constitute an exception to the deterministic natural order. This produces a contradiction in which morality loses, in those people who think of the deterministic natural order in a particular (but very popular) way. Actions which are not freely chosen cannot require the moral responsibility of their actors. If morality is a natural process, then it is a complex evolution of instinct, an entire determined process. So we have moral concepts by which we attribute responsibility, but no actual responsibility because we are not an exception to the deterministic natural order.

The greatest fear underlying opposition to evolution is the fear that there is no genuine moral responsibility.

I laid out this chain of reasoning, but I don’t believe in it, because I think several of the premises according to which this makes sense are not actually the case about the universe. It hinges on a metaphysical point. I used the term deterministic linear causality above, and I did that on purpose. Causality in general is an underdetermined process: an event can have a huge number of conditions and causes, and very complex relations among them. The image of one snooker ball hitting another snooker ball is an example that oversimplifies an amazingly complex universe. Determinism is similarly underdetermined: an event can have a huge number of different effects, can change a system in a wide variety of highly complex ways, and each of these effects interfere with each other apart from the event that was their genesis.

Here’s where the word ‘linear’ comes in. Precisely because of these underdeterminations in how events actually interact and cause each other, very few relations of causality are actually linear, like the snooker balls. The world we live in is enormously complex, and even though the mathematics that describe these complex systems that are our world are deterministic, there are enormous possibilities within the deterministic development of a system. One event does not cause a single set of effect events. One event sets off an enormous chain of interrelated events with millions of possibilities that its constituent bodies can choose from. That choice among possibilities is especially open to creatures with highly complex perceptual and reasoning skills who can analyze situations with an eye towards all that can be, not simply what there is.

Instinct is a reactive response to stimulus, a pattern that an organism follows according to what is there. The ability to conceive of possibility, either through colloquial reasoning, or highly complex phase space chaos mathematics, is a step far beyond instinct. This way of thinking about the metaphysics of the universe and causality takes us out of the trap by which moral responsibility disappears. Freedom, the capacity to understand and act on what can be rather than simply on what there is, is an evolved trait.

The natural order itself constitutes creatures that are more free than any creature before, so free that they can imagine themselves to be unnatural, and believe their dreams.

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