September 8, 2004

Tom Clark: Davies' Really Dangerous Idea

Naturalist philosopher Tom Clark analyzes Paul Davies' worry about free will in which two types of freedom are described, one supernatural and one natural. An analysis of only one, argues Clark, is necessary for all we hold near and dear, the other being widely discounted by scientists and philosophers who are working to develop a naturalistic view of ourselves.

In other words, let's get a grip on this thing we call the "self" and any exaggerated and outdated notions about how much free will we think we might have. As Clark notes:
In fact, we might come to understand that the really dangerous idea is Davies’ insistence that we must believe (or pretend we believe) in free will as he defines it, while ignoring or suppressing the science-based truth that we don’t have type 1 freedom. It’s dangerous because the idea that we are little gods, that at bottom we just choose ourselves in some respect independently of genetic and environmental circumstances, arguably helps to motivate such things as ethnic conflict and genocide, to use Davies’ examples. After all, that’s what allows us to deeply blame and resent the “other”: they could have risen above their circumstances and been good people like us if they’d only chosen to using their type 1 freedom. Retribution, retaliation, and revenge all find their footing in the idea that our enemies are not ultimately subject to causes, but are instead self-created in some crucial respect. That way all the blame attaches to them as individuals, and little or none to the conditions that created them, a perfect prescription for inciting conflict.

On the other hand, were we to appreciate that our ideological, ethnic, and religious antagonists are fully caused to believe and act the way they do, then we cannot demonize them in the way often justified by belief in type 1 freedom. They, like us, are functions of a host of conditions and causes, according to science. If we give up belief in Davies’s free will, we would see that had we been in their exact circumstances, we would have been them, holding their beliefs and acting as they do. This insight can help undo the rigid us-versus-them polarization that’s at the root of so much violence. So, far from being a dangerous idea, undermining free will as Davies defines it is exactly what the doctor ordered for bringing the world to its senses.

Not that this will happen any time soon, partially because apologists for type 1 freedom do so much to retard appreciation of the real, science-based alternative to imagining we are nature’s chosen exceptions to causality. That’s the unfortunate thing about Davies’ thesis: it says we can’t live with the scientific truth about ourselves, when in fact seeing that truth is key to countering the arrogance, the self-righteousness, and the unforgiving vengeance and brutality justified by the supernatural supposition that we and our opponents are self-caused selves. If we can drop the idea that we humans are metaphysically special, and see that morality, dignity, and the law needs only the type 2, natural freedom of being rational agents, then we’ll be in a position to appreciate the ethical significance of naturalism: I see my enemy as myself, since there but for circumstances go I.
By the way, Clark is referring to an article that Davies had published in the most recent edition of Foreign Policy. This is a particularly notorious edition in that it lists the most dangerous ideas currently facing humanity, of which Francis Fukuyama lists transhumanism. The WTA Board is currently working on a rebuttal to this piece. I'll post more details as I get them.

Entire article

No comments: