Failure to grasp the concept

An agnostic writes over on Ed Feser’s blog to persuade us all of the following:

Neuroscience has firmly established that there is no free will, that every thought and feeling we have is determined by physical, neurological processes completely outside of our control. We cannot stop the way that our neurons form, arrange, and fire anymore than we can stop the sun from rising. Hence, there is no moral responsibility, and consequently no morality.

And there goes Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.

Let me repeat that: He writes to persuade.


Per freakin’ suade. As in “convince somebody to freely choose to believe this idea of determinism”. As in “argue about the moral wrongness of choosing to believe a false idea about free will.” Hel-LO?

Friends don’t let friends worship instead of use the Intellect.

Meanwhile, if you scroll up to the top, there’s a very interesting discussion of the concept of the “jocose lie” which I basically agree with.

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  • I guess he just couldn’t help himself.

    • The Deuce

      This blog needs a “Like” function for comments 🙂

  • ivan_the_mad

    I studied determinism in school (part of a computer science course), and later was exposed to determinism as applied to the human brain in a philosophy course. There are some very big practical problems out there that are non-deterministic, and so I was very amused that anyone would hold the human brain as deterministic. In plainer language, given something in a particular state, starting from a known initial state, we know exactly what the next state will be. If you can’t do this, it’s … *gasp* … non-deterministic.

    Neuroscience has firmly established? LOL. No, it hasn’t. We can’t deterministically solve the travelling salesman problem with 100,000 nodes, so good luck with a brain with an estimated 100bn to 100tn synapses.

    • The Deuce

      In plainer language, given something in a particular state, starting from a known initial state, we know exactly what the next state will be.

      And additionally, the next state must be predictable in a mathematical fashion in order to be deterministic. I can often predict what someone will do if I know their motivations and desires, and can figure what would be the rational course of action for them to take in order to achieve their goals given their reasons for acting. But that sort of prediction is based on logical inference rather than a math equation, and serves only to highlight the incompatibility of determinism and reason.

    • Nate

      Right on, Ivan.
      I recently read a very humorous and well-written tome against ‘Neuromania’ called Aping Mankind, by Raymond Tallis. He points out something interesting: the sort of silly, hysterical ‘hard determinism’ that crops up on blog comments and such, is actually the final rung in a chain of events that starts with poorly refereed journal articles in science journals. These articles are then given silly titles to grab attention. Because of the titles, they are picked up by main-stream journalists, who, needing their man-bites-dog headlines, make an even *more* silly-sounding title for their own news story, and then add the paper-selling words ‘Scientists prove that…’

      Sells newspapers. But, says Tallis, if you go back to the original article, you’ll see that even the neuroscientist writing the article, despite his crazy confirmation-bias, not only hasn’t shown what the newspaper said he showed, but wasn’t himself even claiming to show that. And that, moreover, what the scientist *claims* to show, while much less benign and frightening, is most probably wrong anyway.

      Not all neuroscientists, writes the neuroscientist (and atheist) Tallis, are brilliant and amazing, despite their fancy job description and title.

  • Chris M

    “Hence, there is no moral responsibility, and consequently no morality.”

    So, if I walk up and punch him squarely in the babymaker, he has no cause to complain. Neat!

  • “Neuroscience has firmly established that there is no free will, that every thought and feeling we have is determined by physical, neurological processes completely outside of our control.”

    What amuses me is the inability of the alleged intellectual to grasp that this is a philosophical and not a scientific issue. The physical sciences deal with and only with the material aspects of material events in the material world that can be observed, either directly or via instruments, by the senses. Philosophy deals with the imponderable questions of interpretation, metaphysics, epistemology, morals, and so on.

    Here the clown is making the statement that the physical sciences have FIRMLY (giggle, snort) established a metaphysical principle (i.e. determinism) and from that he draws a legal conclusion (i.e. no moral responsibility for one’s acts). How? Did repeated scientific experimenters in a double blind test weigh the free will particles in the human brain, and when the mass of freewillions drops below detectable thresholds, the free will is zero?

    Even granted his premise that one can make metaphysical deductions from physical sciences, how does he make the leap from determinism to atheism? Calvinists are determinist, and I believe mainstream Muslims are as well, teaching that a man’s fate and his each decision is entirely determined by God in a predestination which is inescapable. Neither Calvinism nor Islam says a man is free from moral blame for his acts.

    You see, the reason why we excuse madmen and children and beasts from legal responsibility for their acts is that we, having free will, recognize that certain beings by nature either have no capacity for reasoned judgment (beasts) or have not sufficiently developed that capacity for reason (children) or suffer a defect or loss of reason (madmen) and therefore cannot be held responsible because the “responsibility” vests in those who have free will and can chose to follow right reason.
    But if there is no free will, and no one has that choice, then there is no incapacity in children and no defect in madmen. You have to believe in free will to be believe that certain people, due to a lack of it, can be held blameless legally.
    If you do not believe in free will, there is no logical reason for such forbearance.
    When my computer goes haywire, I don’t give it a second chance and tell myself it could not help what it did: I merely do whatever needs to be done to force the proper behavior from the defective machine.
    In other words, the logical argument is that if all men are machines, any defects must be corrected without concern for fictions like feelings or rights or the innate dignity of the human person, and no excuses be made for them and no mercy shown; the logical argument is that if men have free will but some men through minority or incapacity cannot exercise that free will, then they can be held blameless, because indeed their will did not consent.
    Again, the concept that “their will did not consent” makes no sense if there is no will and no such thing as consent. Only if there is such a thing as a free will can an excuse be made or mercy shown to those whose will is not free.

    • The Deuce

      Calvinists are determinist, and I believe mainstream Muslims are as well, teaching that a man’s fate and his each decision is entirely determined by God in a predestination which is inescapable. Neither Calvinism nor Islam says a man is free from moral blame for his acts.

      Just for the record here, I’m a Calvinist of sorts, but not a determinist. Calvinism holds that sinners are unable to repent unless God first regenerates them via an act of grace so that they want to. This isn’t because people are automatons that have to be reprogrammed, and it specifically applies to salvation and not all human acts (Of course, Calvinists also believe that God is sovereign and pre-ordains everything, but so do Catholics and everyone else except for “open theists”).

      It’s the same sense in which I’m “unable” to get out of bed in the morning because it’s too comfortable, and hence my desire to stay in bed too strong to try to get out of it. I’m not an automaton, and my desire to remain comfy, and my correct rational inference that the way to maintain that comfy feeling is to stay in bed, do not reduce to blind, mechanical, deterministic processes that could in principle be captured by mathematical equations. Rather, my reasons and desires for acting as I do overwhelm my reasons for acting otherwise. Similarly, sinners are “comfortable” being their own masters and afraid of submitting to God, and the desire to stay that way overwhelms

      That said, I have seen a number of Internet Calvinists who deny free will, and do seem to think that people are automatons. I think that’s A) incoherent and incompatible with theism and reason, and B) an incorrect and unnecessary inference from Calvinism than brings in a lot of false modernist assumptions.

      • J.H.M.O

        No, Sir: While some arcane schools of “Catholic” theology (such as Bañezianism) indee hold that God pre-ordains everything, other Catholic theorists (such as the Thomist Jacques Maritain in his book God and the Permission of Evil) maintain that God’s control of events takes account of a human’s utterly free “nihilation” or non-“nihilation” under a divine “motion” to a good act.

        • The Deuce

          Perhaps you’re using a different definition of “ordain”, but to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia:

          “Yet all things, whether due to necessary causes or to the free choice of man, are foreseen by God and preordained in accordance with His all-embracing purpose.”

          Given both God’s omnipotence and perfect knowledge of all events (including future ones, which are for Him the same as present events, as He is outside time), this conclusion is inescapable, so the only way to escape it is to deny one or both of omnipotence and omniscience.

          • J.H.M.O

            Sir: The Catholic Encyclopedia must then be speaking loosely. For “Properly speaking, God does not FORE-see the things of time, He SEES them, and He sees in particular the free options and decisions of the created existent which, inasmuch as they are free, are unforeseeable in themselves.” (Maritain in pp. 78 & 79 of his God and the Permission of Evil). Further, of any defect or privation of grace, says Aquinas in his Commentary on the Sentences, I, dist. 40, q. 4, a. 2 “the ABSOLUTELY FIRST CAUSE is on the part of the [by hypothesis sinning] man”: “huius defectus, absolute prima causa est ex parte hominis”.

    • Ted Seeber

      And while I’m not a Muslim, I have made an extensive study of Islamic theology, and your description is limited to the Sunni, Sufi, and Khawarij sects. Shi’a and Muwahiddun sects would disagree- saying that Allah does not follow *ANY* determinism recognizable by human beings, and while he’s still in control of everything, that control is random as far as we’re concerned.

    • Qualis Rex

      Howdy John – Mohammedanism is not a very sophisticated belief system theologically speaking. You are correct in equating mainstream (Sunni) Mohammedanism with Calvinism with regard to predestination. And as you also correctly point out, they do not dismiss any individual of blame or sin for his or her actions either…so it’s a bit of a conundrum that none of them really care to explain (or can). The result is a caste system, where you have on the one hand humans who God has “opened their hearts” so that they can “embrace” Mohammedanism (notice, this is God making the decision) and on the other hand humans who simply cannot or will not make that decision who must be a) eliminated b) treated as second-class subhumans (dhimmi). Islam of course means submission, which gives Mohammedans an “out” for violence and forced conversions; while there are a couple of passages in the Qur’an that say “tell them to you your religion and to me mine” and “there must be no compulsion in religion” there are also passages that say “find them, slay them” and “subjugate them until they pay the jizya (tax on non-believers)”. So, many Mohammedans actually feel by forcing anyone to convert by any means necessary (even the prospect of murder) is doing God’s will (i.e. the person would never have arrived at this conclusion otherwise, so the Mohammedan is the instrument of God).

      It’s all very disgusting.

  • Sal

    So, is this anything like the part in Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum is putting the moves on Laura Dern by explaining chaos theory to her with drops of water?

  • A Philosopher

    I’m a compatibilist, so I disagree with AffableAgnostic’s move from determinism to lack of free will. And I’m a non-determinist about physical law, so I disagree with the determinism in the first place. And I don’t think free will is essential for moral status, so I disagree with the move from lack of free will to lack of morality. And I suspect that in a pinch versions of all the Abrahamic religions can be constructed without the category of morality, so I’m not too happy with the concluding jab.

    So: not much agreement there. But I don’t really get the attempted “persuade” reductio, and a whole class of similar moves people make. I see that you’ve put “free” into your definition of persuade, but it isn’t really there — the ordinary concept of persuade just seems to require causing someone to change their mind, which doesn’t require free will.

    • Ted Seeber

      Playing the devil’s advocate for a post: I don’t understand how compatibilism is compatible with absolute materialism. The two seem to be at extreme odds to me- either the compatibilist doesn’t understand the materialist interpretation of neuralchemistry which certainly IS inescapably deterministic, or the materialist, in denying there is a God is throwing out the baby with the bathwater and denying that there is also a soul.

      I can’t reconcile the two views. Free will absolutely implies that the brain is NOT deterministic and therefore the materialist interpretation of neuralchemistry is incorrect- that there’s something going on *beyond* just an electrochemical reaction in a neural net.

      This might be influenced by the fact that when I tried to program a non-deterministic neural net, it very quickly found the subroutine to format the hard drive- and did, thus committing suicide.

      • A Philosopher

        Compatibilism is, at least among philosophers, the name for the view that determinism and free will are compatible (that a person can be simultaneously governed by deterministic physical law, and have free will). So there’s no worry about the compatibilist not “understand[ing] the materialist interpretation of neuralchemistry which certainly IS inescapably deterministic” — the compatibilist just doesn’t think that determinism is a threat to freedom.

        Now, you may be (and apparently are, given “free will absolutely implies that the brain is NOT deterministic”) tempted by the view that lack of determinism is simply part of the concept of free will. But compatibilists argue that what is philosophically central to freedom is independent of determinism (things like ability to deliberate, responsiveness to reasons, and so on are often cited). As usual, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry is very helpful.

        • Ted Seeber

          It’s more that I’m not a materialist- and one of my primary proofs by which I eliminate hard deterministic materialism from my thinking is the apparent existence of free will within our frame of reference.

          But thanks to the link and the section on alternatives to compatibilism, I know that I am a relative libertarian. That doesn’t mean that my beliefs say that absolute liberty is right, only that it is possible. I think it is related to the one unforgivable sin to tell God and the Holy Spirit to go take a hike; but the very existence OF the unforgivable sin and atheism proves to me that hard determinism cannot possibly exist in my worldview. If I was a hard determinism theist- I’d still be an incompatibilist, because I would insist that in a deterministic universe, God’s laws of physics determine *everything* down to quantum physics and below, so even your alternative meanings for freedom would be impossible (we wouldn’t have the ability to deliberate, for instance, for God would have already predetermined not only the answer to our deliberations, but every argument we bring up. Likewise a deterministic universe is one where the human species can’t possibly reason, the only real thinker would be a being that transcends that universe, etc).

  • “Please pass the salt.”

  • MikeTheGeek

    “every thought and feeling we have is determined by physical, neurological processes completely outside of our control. ”

    Is he an agnostic, or is he a Presbyterian?

  • Kristen inDallas

    I laughed in spite of myself while reading that… I couldn’t help it. My neurons made me do it. It’s not that it’s a *bad* idea, it’s just that my neurons won’t let me think about it any anthing other than a completely condescending way…

  • Steve P

    I do think determinism is laughable, but it would seem to me that one could be “persuaded” if exposed to enough repetition and and the right combination of blog comments. So that’s perhaps what we was doing, stimulating the right neurotransmitters and release of chemicals by that particular string of words at that particular time. Though he couldn’t help it, of course.

  • Qualis Rex

    Aside from the very well-thought points already cited here, this neuroscience escapism omits one key factor: the quantity and quality of the brain-cells in question. Meaning, if one solely attributes the synapses for the responsibility of our thoughts and actions, then this discounts the fact that they live, grow and die. Meaning, we can make a decision to drink poison, ride a motorcycle into a tree for fun or do drugs; all of which will result in the damage or death of any amount of brain cells. Why would these cells individually or collectively commit suicide?

    • Ted Seeber

      Under current neurobiology, they only are born and die, they do not grow or reproduce. There are few to no adult stem neural cells in the adult human body; that’s one of the main reasons we can’t regenerate like a starfish can.

      • Qualis Rex

        Not sure what “current” neurobiology you are combing through, but brain cells absolutely grow (I never said reproduce) which is the basis of modern medical experimentation to combat such malaties as alzheimers. And yeah, I was hoping I’d regenerate like a starfish someday if I lose a vital limb, so thanks for clearing that one up.

        • Ted Seeber

          WOW- a potential cure for my autism! I had no idea they had made that breakthrough!

    • Nate

      Of course. Good to point out.
      Neuro-reductionism is pathologically ridiculous. At the risk of sounding jerkish to the less-religiously and more-natralistically inclined. (To those who are more naturalistically inclined, I’d stop reading now, lest I offend you.)

      We should point out–not that we need reminding–that out of the various ‘isms’ that have been proposed to make sense of how things, in the broadest possible sense, hang together in the broadest possible sense–from theism to deism to New Ageism to paganism to sundry ‘eastern things’, in the words of The Dude, to orthodox Christianity to Scientology–that naturalism is the only one that can be called patently incoherent and wrong without further investigation.

      It’s really a pity that the less naturalistically inclined among the philosopher class need to spend any time at all dealing with it to show why it is wrong.
      Of course, I’ll be accused of dismissivism in saying all of this by both the naturalists and the anti-naturalists who are in the trenches.
      I suppose naturalism is the particular pathology of our age, so it needs to be addressed. But there’s just so much more interesting things to talk about, consider, and figure out. Yet here we are, arguing with bag ladies screaming at traffic.


      • Qualis Rex

        Hey, I’m just enjoying the discussion with people like you.

        Now…WHO BEEN STEALING MY BRAINWAVES??!! What? Where’s my meds at??!!

  • “Meanwhile, if you scroll up to the top, there’s a very interesting discussion of the concept of the ‘jocose lie’ which I basically agree with.”

    I found it an unexpectedly clumsy bit of special pleading. When is a lie not a lie? When I think it’s funny.

    • Mark Shea

      I would say, “when everybody thinks it’s funny”. I’m not much on practical jokes that humiliate. But it’s hard for me to get too worked about a tall tale about meeting a giant on April Fool’s day for instance. Spinning a yard for a child and then saying “April Fool”, when the social convention is that “this is the day for spinning yarns” doesn’t seem to me to be lying. Nor do the hundreds of small ways friends josh each other with, “You are a major chick magnet!” when the opposite is actually understood by all parties to be spoken. This seems more like the social convention of “fiction” than lying.

      • Even by your standard, then, his lie was a lie:

        “The only thing more priceless than the look of horror on his face was the ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ expression that replaced it when I told him I was kidding.”

        Either “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error” is always wrong, or it’s not.

        • Mark Shea

          Fair enough.

    • When is a lie not a lie? When I think it’s funny.
      Yeah, that’s what I said. Except that I didn’t. Liar.
      OK, just joking. I know you’re not lying, just indulging in some self-satisfied blogospheric snark. But I did give a serious argument for the claim that the joke in question does not count as a lie, an argument grounded in distinctions carefully worked out over the centuries by orthodox moral theologians. You might not agree with them or with me, but it is intellectually dishonest to pretend the arguments don’t exist. In particular, that “deception” and “lying” are not the same thing is well established in the tradition — that is why Athanasius’ followers’ actions, though deceptive, did not count as lies, and that is why broad mental reservations don’t count as lies. You might dismiss all of this as hair-splitting, but smug dismissal is not the same as an argument.

  • Mark,

    There is a neurological phenomenon known as ‘aboulia’, loss of will. It was apparently found quite frequently in sufferers of botched lobotomies. I make no other comment on it.

    The gentleman to whom you have linked is absolutely and completely wrong. The study of neuroscience has proved remarkably little other than that we have virtually no idea how the brain works. Even speculating about it sometimes seems pointless. It’s almost as if someone didn’t want us to know what was going on.

    The only thing the writer proves is that if he thinks that the neurologically afflicted do not know the difference between right and wrong I suspect his knowledge of neuroscience may be more limited than he imagines.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    Too bad physics gave up on that 19th century mechanical determinism thingie. Check Heisenberg for details. For some reason, the biological sciences are a century behind physics and chemistry.
    + + +
    For comments on neuroscientific free-willy stuff, see here: