Friday, January 11, 2013

Plantinga on Harris

It should come as no surprise that conservative Protestant philosopher Alvin Plantinga should jump into the fray regarding the existence or nonexistence of free will. Plantinga, perhaps most famous for his "Freewill [sic] Defense" in discussions of theodicy, has done major work in the areas of human action, especially the domains of warrant and justification. You can get a good feel for Plantinga's thought and approach in The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity, a compendium of papers dealing with the philosophical implications of the existence of multiple religious traditions. Neuroscientist and thinker Sam Harris, meanwhile, has offered his own take on his blog, in lectures and interviews, and in his recent book Free Will: free will doesn't exist.

So Plantinga, a bit late to the game, has just written an article titled "Bait and Switch" (thanks, Twitter, for alerting me) accusing Harris of promising to deconstruct one thing, and then deconstructing another. More specifically, Plantinga accuses Harris of ostensibly taking on free will as most of us understand it (i.e., the ability to do otherwise than what one does/has done), then deconstructing a radicalized notion of free will that Plantinga terms maximal autonomy. Plantinga's critiques of Harris boil down to:

1. Maximal autonomy is not how most of us think of free will. Of course we're not maximally free: none of us could choose our genetic or spatial circumstances at the time of our birth, nor can we alter certain core elements of personality and character. But this doesn't imply that we can't be free in a more limited, realistic sense.

2. Harris offers a false choice between two non-freedoms: (1) either our wills are determined by a prior and unbreakable chain of causation, or (2) our wills are the product of randomness. In neither case are we free.

Plantinga dismisses this dichotomy by arguing that, far from our choices occurring by chance, they are (or can be) the products of reasons. He writes:

Why think that if it is within my power to perform an action, but also within my power to refrain from so doing, then what I do happens just by chance? Maybe I have a good reason for doing what I do on that occasion—then it wouldn't be just by chance that I do it.

Plantinga's response doesn't hold water. The "good reason" that he cites, above, can be easily incorporated into Harris's no-freedom paradigm: what the mind does is react to circumstance, and since circumstance isn't determined by the mind, freedom never enters the equation. This strikes me as an easy rebuttal to Plantinga.

3. Plantinga claims he "can't find the argument" when Harris contends that, just as people with brain tumors or other incapacities can't be considered fully responsible for their actions, those of us free of such incapacities are equally non-responsible.

Plantinga's point, here, is that Harris is using extreme examples of cases that show people acting without freedom (e.g., the mass murderer with a tumor affecting certain areas of the brain, compelling violence), but he hasn't clearly tied those extreme examples to the more pedestrian domain of ordinary human life.

Harris seems to think merely pointing to this possibility [mass murderer with brain tumor] is sufficient to clinch his case. But that seems preposterous. Some people under some conditions aren't free; how does it even begin to follow that no people under any conditions are free? Couldn't it be that pathological conditions rob a person of a freedom they would otherwise have? Couldn't it be that cognitive malfunction can take away a person's freedom? This is what we certainly think ordinarily. We excuse the person suffering from cognitive malfunction: she is not guilty by reason of insanity, or less guilty by reason of diminished capacity. Cognitive malfunction can take away one's freedom, and with it one's responsibility. But there isn't here the slightest reason to think that those who are not suffering from cognitive malfunction are never responsible for what they do. This argument, like the others, gives us no reason at all to amend this ordinary and deeply rooted way of thinking.

Like Plantinga, I'm a believer in free will, but I'm not convinced that Plantinga has succeeded here, either. Harris uses cartoonishly extreme examples to illustrate the problem writ large. Those examples are there merely to make the more pedestrian problem of free will (i.e., free will for most of us) clearer. Surely Plantinga, with his philosophical acumen, can recognize the thorniness of the situation: if every effect has a cause, and history is a continuous network of intercausation, then where, exactly, can freedom come into the picture? You don't need a brain-tumor example to see this problem clearly: if a person has fish on his mind when he walks into a McDonald's, it's highly likely he'll order the fish sandwich. And why did that person have fish on his mind? Surely there's an antecedent cause. And so on.

Plantinga ends his essay on an annoyingly (but unsurprisingly) theological note, claiming that there are stronger arguments for determinism to be found in the annals of Christian theology. Personally, I find that these arguments' effectiveness rests entirely on whether the hearer is a theist, which means they're not worth much in an age of casual atheism, if the goal is to provide arguments that are universally convincing. Plantinga ends up dismissing theological determinism, but his reasoning on this point is strange:

...divine sovereignty is indeed important; but there are enormously high costs associated with [Jonathan Edwards's deterministic] view. This is not the place for a full-dress discussion, but, just to indicate where the discussion could go, I note two problems for Edwards' view. First, if God is the real cause of everything, then he is also the real cause of sin; he is the real cause of every sinful action. But Christians have for the most part strenuously avoided the conclusion that God is the author of sin. God permits sin, certainly; but does he cause it? Does he cause the wickedness and the atrocities that our sad world displays? Does God cause genocide in Africa? Did he cause the Holocaust? Does he cause all the less conspicuous but nonetheless appalling sins committed by humankind? That seems impossible to square with God's perfect goodness.

The above isn't a logical refutation: the argument seems instead to be that, because determinism leads to distasteful consequences, it must be false.

So let's turn to Buddhism. The Buddhist deconstruction of the determinism/freedom problem, far from invoking Christian notions of theistic voluntarism (i.e., all is God's will, including the bad stuff), would start by noting that determinism and freedom are not-two-- that is, they exist in nondualistic relationship and are harmoniously interwoven. Buddhists would then note, along with Nagarjuna, that each cause and each effect is dependently co-arisen, i.e., each cause and effect can be deconstructed into nothingness. This makes it rational for Buddhists to speak of how we "make karma" through our choices and actions, and to contend, simultaneously, that it's possible to escape the burden of karmic momentum.

I've noted once or twice on this blog that I may actually be a closet compatibilist-- someone who sees freedom and determinism as not fundamentally opposed. I can't claim to have ironed out the wrinkles in my own thinking, though; my perspective is still a work in progress. In the meantime, though, I feel that Plantinga could have done a much better job in rebutting Harris.

ADDENDUM: I've written about human freedom before. This post might be of particular interest to the curious.


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