Liberty Interviews Episode 3: Jonathan MS Pearce

Liberty Interviews Episode 3: Jonathan MS Pearce September 10, 2014

This is the third episode of hopefully many weekly interviews I plan to conduct on the subject of liberty from people with varying standpoints and views. Check out the previous episodes here.

As an author, Jonathan MS Pearce writes about the subjects which fascinate him hugely. His first book “Free Will?” is a work dedicated to investigating free will and determinism, presenting a wealth of evidence to support a deterministic worldview. His second book “The Little Book of Unholy Questions” is a cumulative case against the existence of God written in the form of a set of questions asked directly to God. His last book “The Nativity: A Critical Examination” is a synthesis of the work detailing the analysis of the infancy narratives in the New Testament, showing that the two Gospel accounts are clearly a-historical. Check his blog at A Tippling Philosopher.


Kaveh Mousavi: I think before venturing on this interview, the first natural question is that what do you mean by the subject of “free will”, to give our uninitiated reader a background of this subject and your thinking on it.

Jonathan MS Pearce: Wow, this is going to be tough; succinctly summing up a few thousand years of debate…

There are several debates about free will. The prima facie debate, the cheap veneer if you like, is the one which I actually spend most of my time dealing with. This is because it deals with an understanding of free will that almost all theists and regular Joes on the street adhere to: the idea that we could have done otherwise. The Principle of Alternate Possibilities grants that we have the ability to really choose X or Y in Causal Circumstance C. Or, at any given point in time we might choose to do something, but if we carried on living and rewound after 10 minutes to that same point, we really could have done differently. This idea of ‘Libertarian Free Will’ (LFW) is what most people understand by free will, and what almost all theists understand by it. I declare we do not have that ability.

The second debate assumes we do not have that type of free will, and so what type of free will do we have? How do we define it? Since only 13.7% of philosophers think we have LFW, then most philosophers are over that first question, and take their time up with the second and third questions.

The third debate is as to whether or not we have moral responsibility with the negation of LFW, or under the redefined version of free will that most philosophers have (ie compatibilism – the notion that determinism and free will are compatible). Do we have moral responsibility, or do we lose it? If we lose it, is it really that much of a big difference? And what do we do about crime and punishment?

The initial question has two prongs. The first is philosophical; logical. Is it even coherent to have a free will which is effectively acausal? On LFW, you have this idea that free will operates outside of cause and effect, outside of causal determinism. It is often called contra-causal free will. But if it does not adhere to this mantra, surely it is random, or synonymous with it?!

The second prong deals with whether the universe is deterministic, adhering to laws of cause and effect. This is the empirical question, dealing primarily with science. What do biology, physics, genetics, psychology, social science and so on have to say about why we do things, and how?

Along with many other philosophers, I conclude that LFW doesn’t make sense philosophically, and all of the empirical evidence points towards a deterministic (or adequately deterministic, given a possible quantum randomness) universe. In fact, exactly what would evidence for LFW actually look like? What could evidence for something which is inherently incoherent, and which bypasses our understanding of cause and effect, resemble?

And, of course, such a conclusion necessarily spell doom for most notions of a personal (judgemental) God.[end]

Kaveh Mousavi: I understand that most people confuse determinism with fatalism. Would you please explain the difference between the two?

Jonathan MS Pearce: Determinism, to me, is the simple notion that the universe works to laws of cause and effect, such that it is in effect a set of dominoes knocking into each other. Every domino falls as a result of an antecedent domino knocking into it. Under adequate determinism, this happens at a macro-level, but perhaps at a quantum level there is some kind of unpredictability that does not translate to that larger level.

Fatalism is, to me, a psychologico-philosophical approach to determinism which includes ideas of powerlessness and resignation. It is a defeatist approach to inevitability which has semantic links to ideas of fate. What’s the point of getting up in the morning if there is nothing you can  do about life? etc.

One way of looking at determinism and causality is to say that we are authors of our own future, even if that future is in some sense determined. Causality works through us, and we play a vital part in causality and we author our own futures. This is conducive to a more positive psychological disposition, I wager.

Personally, as an aside, I dislike the use of the word predetermined as it smuggles in the idea of agency sitting around a working things out in order to arrive at a certain end. Naturalism, of course, is not consistent with these sorts of ideas. There is some problem, perhaps, with notions of truths about future events. In this sense, things aren’t predetermined, but are simply determined.

But then we could get into the very complex area of time, where the B-Theory of time means that past, present and future events are all matters of fact. Actually, given such a theory (which prevails in physics), notions of LFW are definitely incoherent. But I digress a little.

Kaveh Mousavi: Now the purpose of these series is really political freedom. In your view of the world, what is the place of political freedom? How is it justified? Any differently from morality in general?

Jonathan MS Pearce: Political freedom is, of course, vital to democracies. The external freedom to vote or act as one wishes, politically, is almost the core goal of any progressive and fair society. Or, the other way round: a fair society is the outcome of political freedom. Either way, it is crucial for the sort of society most every one of your readers would want, no doubt.

So what is the antithesis of political freedom? Well, external constraints on ability to vote, but more fundamentally, to act (such as running a political party, running for candidate etc) to fulfil one’s own political desires. Any societal, theocratic or political system which inhibits freedom of political thought and action has something to hide. And that is usually, whether the people realise this or not, insecurity. They are afraid of the power of equality, of women, of minorities, and feel the need to oppressively control them. You see this reflected in rape threats of women who stand up for their beliefs. That strength of character threatens the insecure men who predominantly lash out. Well, it is similar with theocracies and states like the ones you might see in the (theocratically driven) Middle East. The men feel threatened as power is challenged by equality, by progressive liberals, by philosophy, by politics, by secularism. If they really did believe in their own rectitude, they would be less inclined to get violent and oppressive about it, perhaps. Suppressing free thought is about control and is a clear warning. Any country where I can’t buy a book that I want to read, where I can’t say something eminently sensible in the public sphere, is not one I want to live in.

However, it’s not all plain sailing. What if you want to have the political right to create a political party of hate, with actions to suit? So the desire for political freedom is analogous to the desire for freedom of speech. At some point, you can get into problems. It’s prima facie desirable, but what are the implications if taken to its extreme ends? I suppose if any action resulting from such political machinations which do not fit into accepted moral value systems, then that is what defines whether one can be that “free” or not.

Of course, how all of this political ideology works when one fundamentally denies freedom of will is another thing again.

Kaveh Mousavi: Don’t you think that there might be a philosophical contradiction between political freedoms and living in a world with determinism? (For the record I don’t think so, I’m asking for the readers who might be curious).

Jonathan MS Pearce: So this is pretty interesting. On the one hand I am arguing for political freedom, and on the other saying there is no such thing as freedom of the will. What gives? Well, there is perhaps a little equivocation on terms here. Political freedom still works under compatibilist ideas of free will (ie redefining the simplistic notion of free will that I have used). If free will is being able to do that which one wants, or as Daniel Dennett has said, the volition of a morally competent being, then this works with political freedom. Just because we couldn’t have done otherwise in any given situation, ceteris paribus, it does not invalidate the idea that the world looks to be a better place when people are able to fulfil their morally appropriate desires in the political domain.

Kaveh Mousavi: Do you think political freedom is completely achieved for western countries, or is it still an ongoing battle?

Jonathan MS Pearce: Ha! I was hoping you would ask me that. Not even close. The amusing thing is the USA. Here is a country that fights for democracy worldwide, and holds itself up as a paragon of democratic principles. With only two parties you can effectively vote for. That’s one more than one. That is the smallest, crappiest choice you can get, where the irony is that choice is a fundamental tenet of the capitalism that the country so obviously desires. What political freedom does this give the electorate? Then there is a financial barrier to entry into the political market for any start-up political party, since the money machines of the Republicans and the Democrats prohibit effective competition. It is amazing that the Tea Party has done so well, but then it has received considerable financial support from billionaires and suchlike. And that is not even mentioning the underhand destabilisation of countless democratically elected regimes in say, South America since the Second World War. Time and again, whether with the CIA, financing or some other clandestine methods, a country espousing democratic values strangely does a lot to undermine them when it suits them.

I am not here to trash the US, but I would say that one of the issues is with lobbying and conflict of interests of politicians. That you can have people in policy-making positions who are in the pay of pharmaceuticals or healthcare insurers is insane, and utterly runs against the core ideals of political freedom. Lobbying gives huge returns on investments. And the UK, where I am from, is getting worse in this area too. Our own present Prime Minister is quoted as saying: “It is the next big scandal waiting to happen. It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.” Although I doubt he will remotely succeed in shining “the light of transparency” on lobbying so that politics “comes clean about who is buying power and influence.”

In the UK we also have a problem with the way our votes are counted and collated such that it is the first past the post system, rather than a fairer system of some kind of proportional representation. I also think it might be better to completely change the way we do politics and move more towards a Swiss system, perhaps, of voting on policy, rather than party. The problem, though, with these ideas is that sometimes the masses, misinformed by media, and perhaps not educated enough in relevant areas, do not often vote for the best or most sensible thing. And this is probably one of the biggest thorns in the side for perfect political freedom – we might assume that most people are nice and will want to vote for that which is morally the best. With the rise of the anti-European, borderline racism, and downright looney manifesto-writing UKIP in the UK, sometimes democracy can be frustrating. Or maybe that should read, sometimes your compatriots are frustrating. Very frustrating.

So, no, we are far from that ideal. But perhaps it is a utopian and unrealistic ideal since the world will always be run by people, who will always be swayed by money and greed. That is human nature. A political system which separates corporate interests from policy decision and politicians will undoubtedly be fairer; but is it completely achievable?

Kaveh Mousavi: What is the relationship between justice and equality and freedom? Are they harmonic values that can only exist with each other, or are they contradictory, or are both these statements valid to a degree?

Jonathan MS Pearce: I can’t see why they wouldn’t be harmonious, since it appears to me that a just world is a fair world, and a fair world is one in which people are free from constraints to do that which is desired and morally appropriate.

The interesting term in the question is equality ads this can cause some discussion, since having everyone in the world exactly equal in some kind of uber-communistic sense is problematic. Equality of opportunities, though, is a far better ideal. That everyone has fair and equal access to educational opportunities, resources, healthcare, legal justice, knowledge and so on is vital for a fair, just and desirable world.

Kaveh Mousavi: As the final question, what do you think we as Middle Easterners could learn from you, a western thinker on the subject of liberty? And what can you learn from Middle Eastern situation?

Jonathan MS Pearce: Goodness. I wouldn’t presume to be someone who could properly beneficially influence anyone in the Middle East, or anywhere, though I would like to believe that one day I might…

That said, the big problem for me is the theocratic, or nearly so, political set up of many of the countries. I don’t see a bright future for the Middle East all the while it is so inextricably linked to Islam. I don’t want to sound like an Islamaphobe in an irrational sense. However, I do fear for parts of the world under its auspices since, as I have written elsewhere, Islam is far less adaptable than, say, Christianity. It needs a reformation. Whatever criticisms I often level at Christianity, it does have the power to morph and adapt to society, generally speaking. There is a Christianity for everyone: capitalist, socialist, gay, homophobe, slave, slaver, scientist, ignoramus. Islam, though, is more difficult to mould, and more obviously demands that society adapts to it.

Thus if we look at political freedom, as long as such political liberties stand in contrast to tenets of Quranic Islam, then there will be problems.

For example, as far as equality is concerned:

Qur’an (45:21) – “What! Do those who seek after evil ways think that We shall hold them equal with those who believe and do righteous deeds,- that equal will be their life and their death? Ill is the judgment that they make.”

Or the liberty of following political desires:

Qur’an (5:49) – “So judge between them by that which Allah hath revealed, and follow not their desires, but beware of them lest they seduce thee from some part of that which Allah hath revealed unto thee”

Or from the Hadith:

Bukhari (88:219) – “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.”

The kind of moral absolutism espoused in the Qu’ran presents a massive hurdle for the moral and social progress of the Middle East. IT appears to me, though I am no scholar in this area, that the Qu’ran is very similar in many ways to the Old Testament. Modern Christians either flat out ignore the OT, or they contextualise it out of modern significance. The same charity cannot be afforded of the Qu’ran as word of God.

As Christer Stendahl said: “This understanding leads to the puzzling insight that in the living religious traditions continuity is affirmed and achieved by discontinuity. Authority is affirmed and relevance asserted by reinterpretation.”

And yet, as one commenter asserted of the Qu’ran:

“In conclusion, if there is a command in Quran, there is no need to look for its historical context since humanity from the formation of Quran to the end of times are living in the context of the text. It is the Muslim belief. God, Gabriel, Muhammad, three key figures formed Quran have infinite relevance, so the making (Quran) too necessarily possess the quality of being interminably relevant. If this is the common Muslim belief pertaining to Quran, there is no room for a context excuse in its case.

Thus, the context excuse in the case of Quran is flawed in its fundamentals.”

More than anywhere else on earth, the idea of political freedom is pertinent in the Middle East. It is essential for its future, and thus for the future of the world.

And that is what I have learnt from the Middle Eastern conflicts in events. I must cherish that which I have, and when I see constraints being placed on my own system, it makes me angry. We (in my country) have a good thing, not the best, but good; and yet people are still willing to do their best to fuck it up at the earliest convenience.

Schopenhauer once said something like, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” That second part might well be logically and empirically impossible. But that first part is a noble cause.

Kaveh Mousavi: Thank you very much Jonathan for doing this with me.

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