Free will vs Causality – Something has to give!

Many people believe that everything must have a cause. I argue elsewhere that the notion of cause is highly problematic, and either ambiguous or meaningless in most of its uses within philosophy. But let’s leave that aside, assume we know what a cause is, and consider where it leads.

If everything has a cause then all our actions have a cause. Say I lift my arm to hail a taxi. We might imagine a chain of causes, working backwards from the physical action of my arm, to nerve impulses, to brain commands, to brain processing (deciding do I really want a taxi? Do I want that taxi?), to sensory stimuli (seeing the taxi).

Hailing a taxi can happen with our brain entirely on auto-pilot. What about a more deliberate and conscious decision, one with grave moral repercussions? Consider the anti-hero Meursault in Camus’s novel L’Etranger. He shoots a man dead for no very good reason. Is there a similar train of causes leading to this action as there was to hailing the taxi?

What, if anything, was the cause of Meursault’s brain reaching the decision to pull the trigger? We might suppose it was because he was mean or vicious, or perhaps he had a suppressed love of violence. Why did he have those characteristics? Was it his genes, or perhaps a product of his early environment? Perhaps it was a history of past cruel and callous acts he has done that has lowered his inhibitions to pulling the trigger. But then what caused those acts?

We can go back and back and back. If we can trace the causes back to events that occurred before Meursault was conceived, then free will cannot have played any role in his decision. What are the alternatives? I think the following list is exhaustive:

  1. The chain of causes ends with an event in Meursault’s brain (or ‘mind’, if we prefer) that was uncaused. It just happened without a cause. Perhaps that is what libertarians mean by free will.
  2. The chain of causes ends with an event outside Meursault’s brain/mind, while he was alive, that was uncaused.
  3. The chain of causes ends in a causal loop of events that occur while Meursault was alive.
  4. The chain of causes does not end. It undergoes an infinite regress. As we have assumed there are no causes prior to Meursault’s conception, this regress must occur within the finite time of Meursault’s life.

Of these options, 1 and 2 require denial that every event has a cause. 3 requires acceptance of causal loops and 4 requires acceptance of an infinite regress.

The usual notion of causality requires that a cause happens at a time earlier than its effect, which rules out causal loops (option 3) and requires that there is some time t0 to which the times of the causes in option 4 asymptotically approach (but never reach) as we trace backwards through the infinite causal regress. Further, t0 must be no earlier than the moment of Meursault’s conception. But then we can combine all the events in the causal chain occurring between t0 and t0+1 nanosecond and call that a single event. That event is not caused by any prior event, and hence is uncaused.

So this analysis presents us with a stark choice: either the action was caused by events before Meursault’s conception, and we must deny libertarian free will, or the action can be traced back to an uncaused event, in which case we must deny that every event has a cause.

What makes this interesting is that many Christian apologists try to assert both the existence of libertarian free will (as part of doctrines about original sin and salvation) and the necessity of every event being caused (as part of a classical cosmological argument for the existence of God). Based on the above analysis, it appears impossible to hold both beliefs. Either one must ditch universal causality (the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason’ as it is sometimes called) or one must discard libertarian free will.

My current position is that I suspect neither belief is true. I can’t prove that, but I don’t need to – it is a perfectly plausible hypothesis. Equally, it seems plausible to believe one of the two but not the other. The problem arises when you wish to believe both.

There is nothing new in any of these arguments. They have all been made before, many times. But it strikes me as particularly stark and concise that belief in libertarian free will requires asserting a break in the chain of causality, whereas many of those that wish to hold that belief also assert in another context that everything must have a cause.

Is it intolerant to not tolerate intolerance?

I have occasionally come across the argument that freethinkers who value tolerance are being hypocritical in trying to impose their values of tolerance on society, while at the same time complaining about religious people attempting to impose their values, such as banning contraception, forbidding shops to open on Sunday or Sharia law, on society. Examples of freethinkers imposing their views are when they campaign or vote for laws that forbid discrimination against minorities.As a freethinker who places a high value on tolerance, this argument troubled me, as I could not see any good response to it. Hence, it seemed that my moral framework was inconsistent, maybe even irrational (oh, horror of horrors!).I think I have resolved this problem, at least to my own satisfaction, as follows. I value tolerance, as part of a broader moral framework that is largely, although not entirely, utilitarian. My moral framework is, so far as I can tell, self-consistent, although, like any logical system, it rests on unprovable axioms. Primary amongst these is that one ought to make decisions in such a way as to minimise the suffering of sentient beings.In contrast, a fundamentalist Christian (or Muslim) might have a moral framework for which one axiom is that one ought to obey Yahweh’s (Allah’s) law, as it is stated in the Bible (Koran) before any other considerations.Hume has observed that one cannot get an ought from an is, and I agree. I cannot prove that my moral framework is true, or superior, any more than the Christian or Muslim can prove that theirs is. Nevertheless, I prefer my framework to theirs, because it is more aesthetically pleasing to me, and it is consistent with my most fundamental intuitive feelings – primarily empathy. In colloquial terms, it just ‘feels right’.So, I prefer a broadly utilitarian approach, and my preference is not constrained to my own moral decisions. I want to live in a world where most people make decisions based on these principles, or at least act, possibly under compulsion, as if they were making decisions based on those principles. A practical way to influence the world in such a direction is to create rules – formal and informal, legislated and societal – that will constrain many people to behave that way. Because I value such behaviour, it is rational for me to do what I can to influence the world in that direction. That may involve a wide range of activities, such as voting for particular political candidates, campaigning for certain issues, attending street marches and protests, attempting to persuade others to my point of view, donating to campaigns or political entities, or maybe even standing for political office myself.

Now the preceding paragraph is equally valid for a fundamentalist Christian. They may wish to live in a world in which people act, under compulsion or otherwise, according to their interpretation of the ‘law of the Bible’, so it is rational for them to campaign to bring that about. Neither I nor the fundamentalist is being inconsistent, nor can we be validly accused of hypocrisy.

These two views will often come into conflict. A common source of conflict is where some Christians (certainly not all!) wish their religion to be taught, or other Christian activities such as prayers to occur, in a publicly-funded school, whereas freethinkers such as myself do not wish that to occur. Let us assume that there are no laws either requiring or forbidding such activities (unlike for instance, the USA where the first amendment of the constitution bears on many of these cases). If I campaign against school prayer by saying that the Christians are imposing their values on others, and ‘should not’ do so, they can validly reply that, by trying to prevent the prayers, I am trying to impose my values of tolerance on them. I am implicitly trying to get an ought from an is, asserting that my value system is more valid than theirs.

What I can do, however, is to argue that our society will be ‘better’ in some way if the prayers are not allowed, than if they are. I might argue for instance that a society that does not officially sanction any particular religion will be more tolerant than one that does, that a tolerant society will be a less conflict-ridden society, and that people will generally be happier if the level of conflict is lower. This is an essentially utilitarian appeal, and will cut no ice with the fundamentalist, but they are not my target. My target is the undecided voters, lawmakers and law implementers such as judges or education department officials. For my argument to succeed I need to do two things:

  • I must persuade those undecided people to value what I value – general human happiness; and
  • I must persuade them that my proposal will be more likely to satisfy that value than the alternative.

Essentially, I am doing a ‘sales job’, selling my worldview to the undecided people, in the hope that they’ll ‘buy’ it. The fundamentalists will do the same on their side, perhaps telling people that school prayers will bring more people to Jesus, which will lead to more people escaping eternal torment in Hell. Neither of us is necessarily inconsistent or hypocritical. What we have is not a contest of logic, but a contest of values, trying to persuade the undecided to value what we value. I hope I win.

Not all disputes about religion are like that. It is often the case that both sides claim to hold the same values, in relation to the issue at hand, but reach different conclusions. In such cases, accusations of inconsistency or hypocrisy do become possible. Take for example the Vatican’s attempt to argue that condoms should not be promoted in Africa as a defence against HIV transmission, because they do not work. Here the Vatican is claiming to hold the same values as its opponents, viz a concern for the physical welfare of the people engaging in sexual activity. Such a claim can be rebutted on purely logical grounds, using scientific evidence. This then lays the Vatican open to a charge of hypocrisy on the grounds that it is  pretending to be motivated by a concern for human physical welfare, when in fact (we allege) that is a smokescreen to hide its true concern which is about compliance with what they believe to be God’s laws.

Likewise, in the school prayer case, if the fundamentalists had made an argument that there would be more kindness and less crime if we had school prayer (a la Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted), that could be attacked on logical grounds, as it implies the same value as the nonbeliever – a happier society.

So, in summary, I think it is possible to argue for a tolerant society in two ways that maintain integrity and consistency:

  • by appealing to the undecided to share values, such as minimising suffering, that I hold, or
  • if those values are already shared, to argue that the values are likely to be better satisfied in a tolerant society than an intolerant one.

The first is an appeal to the passions, the second is an appeal to reason.

The Use and Abuse of Common Sense

Common sense is very useful, in fact essential, for checking the reasonableness of ideas or conclusions. However it can only ever be effective as a screening technique, not as a final determinant of what we believe. If we only believed what common sense supported we would never have had flight, electricity, steam power, space flight or the internet. Common sense should always be invoked as a challenge to new ideas, but only as an indicator of when we need to reinvestigate the reasoning behind the idea and the assumptions underlying it. If, no flaws are found in that reinvestigation, we should accept the new idea. As Sherlock Holmes said ‘when all other possibilities have been excluded, the remaining possibility, however improbable, must be the truth’. Or something like that.

So next time you hear someone claim that something can’t be true because it doesn’t agree with ‘common sense’, tell them that, if that’s the only argument they have, then they have no argument at all.

The value of common sense is that by causing you to reinvestigate reasoning and assumptions, it can lead you to find the true reason why a conclusion is not correct. If it doesn’t lead you to that then you need to update your idea of what constitutes common sense.

Shock jocks like Alan Jones love to appeal to common sense as their argument, whether it be that climate change doesn’t exist, that shifting the focus from prohibition to harm minimisation will increase drug use, or that lowering taxes will be good for the economy. Remember, valuable as common sense is, if that’s all you have then you have nothing.

A proper use of common sense is to say that if an idea isn’t consistent with historical observations and generalisations, then there’s a high probability that it’s wrong. An abuse of common sense is to say that the idea must be wrong. Most of humanity’s greatest advances have come from ideas that defied common sense. A society that insists on abusing common sense in this way will never make any new inventions or discoveries. It will wither and die.

The dilemma of once-worn clothes

It’s time for the ABC to stop dodging the big issues. I’m as mad as an upside-down turtle about the censorship the MSM (that’s Mainstream Media for those of you that aren’t fully hip to the Drum lexicon) applies to one of the greatest moral challenges of our time. No, not that one, the other one – the dilemma of what to do with once-worn clothes. Surely a Nobel Prize awaits the person that can solve this problem.
Now I’m not talking about undies here. Or socks. Contrary to popular belief, we of the masculine persuasion do have some rudimentary standards of hygiene. Well, there is the age old trick of resting the socks for a day or two and then wearing them inside out but, to keep things simple, let’s just rule that one out of bounds for now. Worn undies and socks go straight into the wash.
But, I’m talking about t-shirts, I’m talking about trousers. You know what I’m talking about! In winter, I’m talking about jumpers and fleecies. You’ve worn it once, ….or twice. You take it off and get ready to toddle off to bed. The garment doesn’t smell and there is no discernible evidence of mud, sweat, ink, tomato sauce or less salubrious additives. Now what do you do with the darned thing? Does it go back into the cupboard with the clean clothes, or does it go into the washing basket? In the interests of sounding knowledgeable and analytical, let’s call these the Cupboard Option and the Wash Option [memo to self. In the unlikely event of lucrative offer for syndication into the US, change the former to Closet Option].
The Cupboard Option is great: neat, tidy, and helps justify the money you outlaid and the time you spent trying to assemble that super-capacious, mega-airy, architect-designed Snonk cupboardatory system from Ikea.
Living life the Cupboard Way is just one long festival, an obsessive compulsive’s dream, until one day, maybe a few months later, you take something out of the cupboard and realise it has gone green and furry – and not in a good way. You could just wrinkle up your nose and throw it in the wash, perhaps with a prefatory detour via a bowl of bleached water. But then your heart sinks as you realise – what about the clothes it was nestled up against inside the Snonk? Has the new life form you have unwittingly created spread and maybe infected the whole drawer, maybe even the whole cupboard? What should you do? Wash the whole drawer? Wash all of your clothes? Burn all of your clothes? Burn the Snonk?
Where you went wrong of course was that you lost track of how many times the garment had been worn. By camouflaging itself cunningly amongst a bunch of clean, unworn clothes, the offending sartorial component had cunningly concealed the fact that it had been worn every other day for four months, and by now had accumulated enough microscopic life forms and general grunge to destroy the entire ALP backroom powerbroker population of New South Wales.
OK then, maybe the Wash Option is the best way to go. You know where you are with the Wash Option. There is only one rule: when you take it off, it goes in the wash. Everything you take out of the cupboard to wear will be guaranteed washed, clean and brimming with freshness.
This goes pretty swimmingly for a while. You have to buy a bigger laundry basket, but that’s a small price to pay for the twin miracles of Order and Hygiene. Then, a little later, you get called into the boss’s office at work. She wants to know why you’ve been an average of two hours late for work every day of the last fortnight – Oh and also why are you sitting in her office wearing a Kevin 07 t-shirt and a pair of (fresh, newly-washed) acid-wash jeans, very de rigeur circa 1989. As your mind races for excuses, you toy with the idea of telling her the truth – that your daily washing obligations have increased so much that you have been spending most of your waking hours loading and unloading the washing machine, hanging out the clothes, bringing them in, folding them (we’ll assume thre’s no ironing, because you’re a bloke, after all), and even so you still only manage to have a couple of pieces of dry, clean, wearable clothes available at any given time…. – but then you decide it would be less embarrassing to just resign. You’re also worried about the threatening letters from the water and electricity companies and the hand-written note from Al Gore expressing his disappointment that your personal greenhouse footprint now exceeds that of Texas.
Tragic scenarios like those above have moved some of our foremost public intellectuals to propose alternative solutions to the great once-worn dilemma.
There’s the ‘Leave It Out’ solution. Here you leave any garment that has been worn but doesn’t yet need a wash, lying on the nearest available horizontal surface, as a daily reminder of its availability. This is great if you wear the same sort of clothes every day, but otherwise you will soon get to the point of being unable to find your bed, let alone the dinner table, under all the laid-out clothes.
There’s the Cache solution, in which you have a big basket just for once-worn clothes. Neater than Leave It Out, but you soon forget what’s in there and the basket just becomes a big, overflowing eyesore, with all the best bits buried at the bottom.
The Bucketing Option (aka the Extended Cache Option). Here you use not just one but a series of buckets or baskets, numbered from one to say three (or thirteen, depending on your hygiene standards), and place each piece of clothing in the bucket numbered according to the number of times it has been worn since the last wash. The only problem with this option is that it is silly. Nobody has that much space.
There’s the Kerry Packer option. Thus named not because the aforenamed individual invented it but because this is the most popular consensus view of focus groups convened to discuss what Australian swinging voters believe mega rich people do about their washing (I’ve heard the ALP party machine conducts these to keep in practice when they don’t have a Prime Minister to dispose of). Under this one, you only ever wear new clothes. When you take them off, one of your minions spirits them away to be given to those less fortunate than yourself (you know: stockbrokers, shock jocks, managing directors of public broadcasting organisations) and another minion fetches replacements from the warehouse in the East Wing of your garden.
Regrettably, this option is currently unavailable to many, including myself, for reasons that will have to be the subject of another essay.
Lastly, there’s the Diogenes option. Under this, you give away all your clothes except one set. On wash day you borrow a towel and hope it won’t rain. Simple but effective, and available to anybody with sufficient self-belief and Sternness of Resolve.  The only trouble with this option is that it’s unpleasant, and I don’t know of anyone since Diogenes who adopted it voluntarily. For some it is forced upon them by circumstances, and there’s nothing at all funny about that.
None of these options are satisfactory. As nobody else seems willing to step forward and solve this problem, I will have a go myself, as a public service. My proposal is called the Velcro Option, and it has two parts:
Firstly, all new clothes sold in Australia would be required to have a label indicating their inter-wash wearing capacity (IWWC). The label would bear words along the lines of ‘This garment may be worn up to n times between washes by a standard adult (under laboratory conditions) without their being regarded as a schmutz.’ The value of n would be determined based on rigorous testing by a new Commonwealth Government department staffed by chemists, apparel technologists and sniffer dogs.
Each label would have a section with n rectangular orange cotton strips attached to it by velcro, bearing the numbers from 1 to n, where n is the IWWC of the garment. The instruction CD accompanying the garment would explain that, after each wear, the user should remove the highest numbered velcro strip from the label and place in a drawer (are you still with me?). When there are no strips left, the garment will be due for a wash. After the wash, the velcro strips would be re-affixed and the cycle begins again.
With this system in place, you can put your worn clothes back in the cupboard, secure in the knowledge that they won’t end up exceeding their IWWC, and won’t that be a splendid feeling!
I know what you’re thinking:
– what a great idea!
– why hasn’t anybody thought of this before?
– calloo, callay, all my problems are solved, my life will be an absolute breeze from here on in!
– will the world’s Velcro-producing nations be able to keep up with demand?
– hang on a sec, I bet this is patented and he’s planning to make a fortune by charging like a wounded Prime Minister for its use.
Well I am delighted to inform you that that is the best news of all: I shall not patent this idea. Like the human genome, this discovery is too important to the future of mankind to lock it up with patents. It’s yours, for all of you, to keep. Use it well.
Now I wonder whether I can get one more wear out of this grey cardigan.
Andrew Kirk
July 2010