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Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape) 
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 Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)
Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)



Thu Dec 09, 2010 10:09 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)
What do you think about Harris' discussion of free will?

I tend to find the scientific view persuasive "that free will could not be squared with our growing understanding of the physical world."

I'm not sure I understand all of Harris' points about the consequences of this -- I need re-read this section -- and in particular the last part about the illusion of free will being an illusion. Does he just mean that once we understand the workings of the brain better, we will accept the fact that there is no free will? It seems to me that even then we won't escape the subjective illusion that free will exists.



Thu Jan 06, 2011 10:37 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)
There were several topics covered here. I've read a little farther than this chapter, but even here a pattern becomes clear of Harris trying to undo damage of various kinds in order to get us to agree that we can make valid moral judgments and that we must. Relatively little of this damage, interestingly, is at the hands of Harris' enemy in his previous books, religion.

So he starts by undoing the damage of the selfish gene theory. Although he certainly accepts the basic theory of his friend Richard Dawkins, he wants to convince us that cooperation is a trait that selfish genes would want to select, and that's why we see such outstanding examples of both cooperation and concern for others everywhere we look. We're quite tied up in benefiting ourselves or those closest to us, true, but when we "consciously reflect on what we should do, an angel of beneficence and impartiality seems to spread its wings within us: we genuinely want fair and just societies" (59). The desire for greater well-being is that shown by our best selves.

Cultural relativism harms our thinking as well. He has already talked about this, but he pushes farther in telling about the Dobu, who seem to have constructed a very unpleasant society in which to live. Relativists would say about the dominance of "animosity and malignancy" in Dobu society that it is functional for them and also doesn't mean, for instance, that the Dobu don't "love their friends and family as much as we love ours." Wrong, says Harris. The Dobu haven't succeeded in creating a society in which such human feelings can flourish. If we were able to view the brains of Dobu people, we could see the evidence in the form of lower activity in the areas of the brain in which feelings of compassion and love show up.

Harris identifies his philosophical orientations as moral realism--the idea that right and wrong actions really exist--and consequentialism--the idea that we must be concerned with the effects of our actions on well-being. He acknowledges the arguments against these views but finds them wanting. He does confront the difficulties, though, especially of a consequentialist view, which speaks well for him. Throughout the book, his position is that we will not find theory of morality that doesn't admit of exceptions or that can be applied with perfect consistency in the real world. We only need "good enough" and an avoidance of the worse effects that other philosophies leave us open to.

Some of the discussion of how to gauge consequences of actions in an effort to do the most overall good leaves me a little dizzy, and wondering if it is a practical project at all. Unintended consequences aren't the only problem, but also deciding how to apportion efforts throughout a population. We might actually end up with nobody very happy if our goal was to eliminate misery for everyone. Or we could countenance the misery of a few in order to have at least some people be positively happy. Then there also are our failures of moral imagination, such as our tendency to care less about suffering of groups of people compared to the suffering of one or just a few. However great the problems seem, for SH the goal of maximizing happiness--somehow--remains the only one worth having.

Didn't get to free will. Maybe later.


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Fri Jan 14, 2011 10:09 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)
Dexter wrote:
What do you think about Harris' discussion of free will?

I tend to find the scientific view persuasive "that free will could not be squared with our growing understanding of the physical world."

I'm not sure I understand all of Harris' points about the consequences of this -- I need re-read this section -- and in particular the last part about the illusion of free will being an illusion. Does he just mean that once we understand the workings of the brain better, we will accept the fact that there is no free will? It seems to me that even then we won't escape the subjective illusion that free will exists.

I looked at this section but find that I don't fully understand Harris here. This could also be because I usually become confused and frustrated by any discussion of free will. I mean, why does it even come up? It seems so clear, not worth arguing about, that we have all sorts of constraints on our behavior and thoughts and characters. All of these constraints are necessary for us to have a mind at all. As Harris says, "Actions, intentions, beliefs, and desires are the sorts of things that can exist only in a system that is significantly constrained by patterns of behavior and the laws of stimulus-response" (104). But the fact that "one is not the conscious source of one's actions" doesn't seem to mean that everything we do or think is determined or that there isn't a sense in which we do originate actions or thoughts. That we are to even a small degree originators seems the only important thing to me. Harris says that determinism doesn't equal fatalism, but I don't see a sufficient distinction between the two words.

I'm surprised that he seems to deny ability to consciously exert will, because any act of reasoning seems to be an act of will. Throughout the book, Harris asserts that reasoning exists independently of emotional investment or innate biases. It seems that he would want to emphasize the glass half full in this regard. He cites the thousands of emails he has received from people who have abandoned their religious ways of thinking. What accounts for their ability to make that change?

Regarding our tradition of retribution for the bad things people do, is it really true that we can't hold anyone responsible for what he does? Sure, we're shaped by our heredity and our environment, but do we really have no logical basis for punishing Bernie Madoff?

Please let me know what I might not be getting.


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Mon Jan 17, 2011 9:55 am
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Post Re: Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)
DWill, I'm restating the argument as I see it for my own benefit. The argument is that if your mind is just a result of physical processes in your brain, and you agree there is nothing immaterial like a soul, then our thoughts and actions are determined by the previous state of your neurons (of course which are also influenced by environmental stimuli). It certainly seems like we could have chosen something other than what we actually did -- that's the illusion of free will he's talking about, but the argument is that this idea does not stand up to scrutiny. Your choice was still determined by past conditions. And free will can't be rescued by some kind of quantum indeterminacy, as some have argued, because that just introduces randomness. As I said, I'm not sure what Harris means when he says the illusion of free will is an illusion. Surely we all act as if we have free will even if we are a "fatalist."

I agree with you in not quite understanding the arguments of someone like Dennett, who has argued for a kind of compatibilism (that free will is compatible with determinism). I've even tried reading his book on the subject, and gave up without quite getting the argument.

Some brain research that Harris doesn't get into really makes you question our notions of subjective experience and decision-making -- for example one type of split-brain study has people respond to different things with different sides of their brain. As I recall, they are told to raise their hand for example, and the other side of the brain is not aware of the instruction, so when asked they make up a reason after the fact for why they decided to raise their hand.

If you accept determinism (and if not, what is the alternative?), quite frankly I'm not really sure how to think about the implications of that, and it seems to me philosophers (and Harris) do a lot of hand-waving on the subject. I was just looking into reading a bit more on the subject. Of course whether I do will be determined anyway, so what difference does it make?



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Mon Jan 17, 2011 10:48 am
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Post Re: Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)
This seems to relate, perhaps, to the physicists' argument that everything is happenings, the result of particles in motion. But aren't there also real doings as well as happenings? That's all I'm asking for with regard to free will, that there is origination that doesn't depend on an endless regress to previous states of particles in motion. It seems to me there has to be, that this sense can't be just an illusion. Harris says that our choices still matter, but is there any sense in using the word if all choices are determined? We can't necessarily explain the existence of agency; we have to resort to mystical speech, but our inability to explain it doesn't argue that it's an illusion.


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Tue Jan 18, 2011 5:31 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)
DWill wrote:
This seems to relate, perhaps, to the physicists' argument that everything is happenings, the result of particles in motion. But aren't there also real doings as well as happenings? That's all I'm asking for with regard to free will, that there is origination that doesn't depend on an endless regress to previous states of particles in motion. It seems to me there has to be, that this sense can't be just an illusion. Harris says that our choices still matter, but is there any sense in using the word if all choices are determined? We can't necessarily explain the existence of agency; we have to resort to mystical speech, but our inability to explain it doesn't argue that it's an illusion.


But if you take the scientific view of determinism -- and there is no "soul" or some kind of agency that can defy the laws of physics -- how can free will not be an illusion?

It is kind of disturbing and mind-blowing to think about. It may lead to a kind of fatalism at some level, even if most are unable to admit it, but maybe that's reality (and we will all live our lives the same way as before). Just like there are no 72 virgins waiting for us -- unfortunate but true.



Tue Jan 18, 2011 6:43 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)
Dexter wrote:
I agree with you in not quite understanding the arguments of someone like Dennett, who has argued for a kind of compatibilism (that free will is compatible with determinism).


Elbow Room? Dennet doesn't come right out and say that we have free will, he instead gives a perspective that even if our actions are determined, "determination" carries all the wrong baggage. In some sense, we should be thankful if things are determined, because if they are, and I'm living it, then it's surely random enough already without true randomness! Non-determination does not equal mysticism nor mystery, those are qualities of a person's subjective understanding of the world. The beautiful and mysterious can and does exist in a determined world. If you've descended to fatalism at any point, truly understanding this can bring you back up. It is the beauty that there can be no such thing as omniscience.

Dwill wrote:
Harris says that our choices still matter, but is there any sense in using the word if all choices are determined?


DWill, I think you'd have a hard time coming up with an example of a 'choice' which wasn't predetermined. Yes, you could choose between chocolate and vanilla tonight, but do you really not think there is a reason you will choose chocolate, even if that reason is unconscious at the time? The concept of a reason belies a state of neurons, which in turn leads further back down the causal chain out of view into a complex past.

DWill wrote:
But aren't there also real doings as well as happenings?


A lot of wishful thinking sprouts from the ambiguity of ill-defined concepts. I can't place the difference between "doing" and "happening" as you use them, so it makes me wonder if you aren't fishing for a distinction. Would a "doing" be a first cause on a microscopic scale? There are problems with this idea. If there is an opportunity for such a first cause, then the opportunity itself is a sort of cause. It's a significant marker, a piece of a pattern. If there is no opportunity, does the first cause happen at random? This would mean randomness manifesting on a macro scale.

I truly don't understand any sort of conceptual definition of "doing" that is not either a dumb cause, a smart cause(a higher intelligence), or randomness.



Perhaps I'll read further tonight, I've been slacking lately.



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Tue Jan 18, 2011 8:06 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2: Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)
Well, thanks to you both for the assistance. It's always interesting to think about why we want to put up a fight about certain matters, why we want to cling to something rather than abandon it. It can be hazardous to try this examination, though, because of the inconvenient fact that we might not be the best ones to know what's going on inside our own minds, and we might engage in defensive rationalization. I like Harris' example of this when he notes that sometimes another person can instantly identify our mental state just by our affect, while we might have no conscious awareness of it. Harris is right to note, though, that we can be either more or less handicapped by this blindness, that through effort we can learn to peer inside our thinking.

I say that in order to acknowledge the possibility that I want to believe in some version of free will. It's common, after all, for people to shield themselves from a belief because of perceived negative consequences, regardless of whether that belief might edge closer to the truth. Then there is the "feeling" that one can have that makes him just "know," without being able to explain it, that a thing is real. That is a common enough reason that people give for believing in God, which can be a warning signal that it's an individual feature of their own minds that causes them to judge the world in that way. Harris notes that subjects with certain endowments in areas of their brains are more likely to assent to supernatural beliefs.

It can be legitimate, though, to question the validity or relevance of this concept of free will vs. determinism. If we agree to have a debate about it, we are agreeing that in some way the idea represents an important distinction, existentially. But what if it really doesn't? I'm tempted to call this problem a contaminated one, because it played such a large role in Christian theology. Free will was a dodge that theologians used to explain why God allowed so many people to do such evil things. Since that opened the possibility that God wasn't after all omniscient, it was proposed that God knew beforehand what these free will choices would be. So both freedom and divine determinism were preserved.

We can choose to discard these terms rather than continue to regard them as somehow relevant for us. With all that we're now aware of about the influence of environment, heredity, and the mind, why would we incline to claim our minds are free, untethered, that our actions proceed de novo from a non-physical mind? If we don't think that soul is real anyway, it just doesn't follow that there is a reason to argue for free will. Free will and the soul seem to be a required pairing. With determinism, possibly we become worked up about it because of the theological association with pre-determinism. I don't think most people who today argue for determinism are claiming that our actions are predetermined, that only one future now exists. If determinism is, instead, about the causal connections on the ladder of events, it seems of much less significance for our view of what we do in the world.

I prefer to replace free-will vs. determinism with the view that we, and other animals as well, are by the dictates of natural selection seeking creatures. That is what we have to do to survive, continually seek and explore. With humans, this seeking outgrew the function of mere survival and has become an intellectual imperative for the dominant, Western worldview. We're impelled to be originators, and now I've managed to arrive at the term that gives me the most satisfaction. If the question were asked, "But are we free originators"? I'd want to suggest that we only ask the question out of habit, not because it really needs to be asked.


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Last edited by DWill on Wed Jan 19, 2011 8:57 am, edited 1 time in total.



Wed Jan 19, 2011 8:55 am
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