Friday, 27 April 2012

Dawkins's Ultimate 747 Gambit

This argument, from p. 187 in my Kindle edition of The God Delusion (I lost my print copy, lending it to light fingered theists!) is commonly cited by philosophers and theists as particularly poor, and it certainly doesn't stand up as a syllogism:
1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.
3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a ‘crane’, not a ‘skyhook’, for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.
4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that – an illusion.
5. We don’t yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.
6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer... 
...God almost certainly doesn't exist. 
It's plainly not the sort of argument a philosopher would want to put up, but Dawkins is not writing for that audience. He's not writing another Miracle of Theism. He's addressing the ordinary person and telling us why he thinks a god is improbable. To that extent, it's always seemed fine to me. I want to explain why it has always seemed fine to me. This doesn't mean, of course, that this is what Dawkins meant, or that the concepts I discuss are entirely accurate (I'm bound to be wrong about many people's god concept, for example). It's an explanation for why it has appealed to me, to perhaps explain why it appeals to others.

Points 1 and 2 summarise how many people approach the 'god explanation'. Point 3 borrows from Daniel Dennett, and asserts that the traditional mind-first view is a problem (Dawkins makes a hidden assumption here). Points 4 to 6 explain that the evidence shows that it is false (given his hidden assumption). I think he's right on his own terms, but theists and atheists often argue past each other on this. Even many atheists get the wrong end of the stick; I think, perhaps, because they are so familiar with more sophisticated god concepts. Here, Common Sense Atheism fails to see the problem, because of the god concept they address. They use philosopher Erik Wielenberg's redrawn argument as the basis for a re-appraisal. Wielenberg's piece is right on its own terms too; it's just not how I interpreted Dawkins's words. Despite Dawkins describing the above as his 'central argument', I don't see Dawkins proposing an argument; I see him refuting an argument.

He starts the chapter by referring to Fred Hoyle's Boeing 747 argument for God:
Hoyle said that the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. Others have borrowed the metaphor to refer to the later evolution of complex living bodies, where it has a spurious plausibility.
This is the common refrain (and one I used to express): if there's no God, then how likely is all this around us? And just before that, Dawkins says:
The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist. 
So, the way I've always read it, Dawkins is trying to refute an argument for theism that goes something like this:
P1 There are complex things.
P2 The existence of complex things is unlikely without ultimately a mind to explain them.
[P3 Minds are complex.]
C Therefore an ultimate mind [the most complex?] exists, and this is God.
But, Dawkins says, since your god is a complex thing, it is therefore most unlikely without another mind to explain it, per P2, so the argument is self-defeating, and invalid. Spot on, I say. This doesn't need any argument for more complex explanations, per Wielenberg; it just needs a complex explanation. This argument was basically how I thought when I believed, and, to be honest, that's what everyone I knew who believed thought too, as far as I could tell! But it doesn't work. I've bracketed P3 because this is generally a hidden assumption, and, I think, is where atheists and perhaps many 'everyday' theists differ from theists who have realised this argument is hopeless.

So, many theists have thought about this some more and deny that this is the argument; they posit something more like this:
P1 There are complex things.
P2 The existence of complex things is unlikely without ultimately a mind to explain them.
[P3 Minds are simple.]
C Therefore an ultimate mind [the most simple?] exists, and this is God.
Now the argument is valid, I think, and Dawkins’s improbability objection doesn’t apply, because the god isn't a complex thing. P2 doesn't apply to it.

For theists, P2 is supported by many arguments, such as Aquinas’s five ways, Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason, Paley's teleological argument, and so on. P3 seems to be intuited from the supposed immateriality of thoughts. Minds don't have extension in space, per Descartes, for example, so don't have parts, so are simple. For atheists, obviously, these arguments don't convince.

Furthermore, for atheists, Hume’s arguments for the preferment of natural explanations, evolution by natural selection showing the direction of development from simple organisms without minds to more complex organisms with minds, and physics also showing a move from low entropy to high, and simple universe origins, all militate against P2; and the incoherence of dualism in the light of the evidence shows P3 to be false. And this is what Dawkins is referring to in points 4 to 6, I think. So, that argument, with a different hidden assumption, isn't sound.

In the end, I think Dawkins addresses an intuitive argument for god adopted by many that is invalid. Certainly, many theists don't adopt that intuitive argument, but a revised valid argument many do adopt is not sound, because our exploration of reality shows that its premises are unlikely to be true. Dawkins fails to pull out these different assumptions, but nevertheless brings forward points that fatally damage both arguments. I think many readers see what he means, and the book's popularity certainly supports that thought.

Since these are the arguments I see Dawkins refuting in this section, it follows that other arguments that theists may want to posit need to be countered differently, so I think when he says that 'The argument... comes close to proving that God does not exist', I think he's stretching. Nevertheless, I think it's reasonable to say that the first argument, above, if taken by a theist as reason for believing, is in fact a good reason for not believing.

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Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Point of Free Will

I've been enjoying (or is it suffering?) another round of free will posts. Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne state the obvious, that contra-causal free will does not exist, and so conclude, contra compatibilists like Daniel Dennett, that free will does not exist. This is not entirely unreasonable, since free will is commonly considered to mean contra-causal free will. And maybe they're right, that it should be held to that definition; for philosophers to amend free will to some other thing allows theologians the get-out of pointing to many respected philos who believe in a free will that has nothing to do with their bankrupt theological concept of free will.

But I'm really not that fussed about the use of the term. I've previously discussed how contra causal free will makes little sense whether determinism is true or false. But rather than rescuing free will, I do think it's worth rescuing the point of free will; or why responsibility is worth laying.

In another piece Coyne says this:
I still see myself as a meat robot, and I don’t accept free will as meaning “I could have done something different had circumstances been different.” For in that sense computers and nearly all living organisms also have “free will”.
This strikes me as a slightly strange thing to say; the first part seems to contradict the second, since if he's a 'meat robot' then obviously robots too can have free will, and we surely treat many living organisms as if they too have free will. I treat my cats as if they have causal influence over their own behaviour, for example. And there's a sense in which Coyne is suggesting some kind of human exceptionalism; if we allow free will then I see no reason to deny it to computers and living organisms a priori

I suppose he means something more, that any computer or any living organism would have free will under the definition offered - it's too liberal. But I think this gives a clue to the point of free will; if a computer or living organism is sufficiently complex that it can change its behaviour because it has an internal guiding mechanism that responds in a certain way to external prompts, then we have a reason to talk about the machine having something like 'free will'. We aren't puppeteers in these circumstances, but nudge button operators.

What difference does this make? If we want to affect our futures, and I assume we all do, we need to differentiate between objects that can be remonstrated with and those that can't. Now, although I do remonstrate with my computer, I understand it's pointless: I could change how it operates, but it could not reflect on its actions. However, a more complicated computer, like Marvin, might be worth remonstrating with, if it has an internal guidance and reflection system open to external prompts and information. Similarly, experience shows that my cat is worth remonstrating with too, even if it's less effective than with fellow humans; she doesn't have all the tools or understanding available to most humans. But notice, there are humans who also can't be remonstrated with, so membership of homo sapiens does not determine who is in this group.

In another Coyne piece, in response to some issues that Russell Blackford raises, he says this:
When Russell says “I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise,” he seems to mean only, “had I been somebody other than Russell Blackford at that moment, I might have done otherwise.” And in what sense is that free will? It’s one thing for people to chastise somebody for making a “bad choice” (an emotion that feels natural but is at bottom irrational), but it’s a different thing to think that somebody actually can act in different ways at a single time.
To me, this highlights the very point of free will; to identify the nature of particular agencies, so we can take an appropriate course of action in the light of that nature. I don't think Russell, or anyone, would have behaved differently under the same circumstances (that would just make us randomly-acting beings) - but the difference between how Russell behaves and how another person behaves under the same circumstances reflects a freedom to act differently which is open to all agencies. So we can then apply a 'blame' in proportion to the 'culpability' of each agency going back in the causal chain. I use scare quotes to recognise that the agencies weren't 'free' from their own causal determinism, but we can now usefully employ this information to address any problems caused, or reward any benefits resulting, in the knowledge that the responsibility reflects an agency's ability to self-regulate. We wouldn't allocate moral responsibility to the snow in deadly avalanches, but we might to folk who detonate charges setting off deadly avalanches, because the former has no agency that would respond to remonstration, but the latter has. And such allocation would actually require determinism, or, at least, if there are any indeterminate events, these would be irrelevant to any such moral calculation.

So, in summary, I'm happy to jettison free will; I'm just not so happy to jettison the point of free will, if this is what it is. It does appear that Sam Harris, at least, agrees:
...I argue that people are mistaken in believing that they are free in the usual sense. I claim that this realization has consequences—good ones, for the most part—and for that reason we should not gloss over it by revising our definition of “free will” too quickly. Dan believes that his adjustment of the concept has allowed him to provide a description of human agency and moral responsibility that preserves many of our intuitions about ourselves and still fits the facts. I agree, for the most part, but I think that other problems need to be solved.

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