Monthly Archives: November 2012

Lifestyle Opinion

Despite (Or to Spite?) You Moderates: Against Tolerance

I am a rather intolerant person and I think you should be too. Unfortunately, we’ve created a society in which I can’t say that, without qualification, and retain a serious audience. So allow to explain what I’m not saying. I do not think schools should be segregated, that the holocaust was exaggerated, or that marriage is legally different for homosexual couples. Additionally; I do not think violence is acceptable in almost any society, and I do think we should listen, to the best of our abilities, to any opinion.* Yet I still think the implied axiom of toleration is the slow death of any intellectual movement, especially in one as progressive as secularism.

What does toleration mean? It seems to demand that we accept the existence of things we hate, regardless of our reasons for hating it. The toleration I refer to is the kind of thing defended by people saying “well that’s your opinion.” Not only does it add nothing to any conversation I’ve ever had, it also suggests that we should accept an opinion’s existence simply because it is an opinion. Such statements ignore the obvious truth that opinions shape decisions. Jim Jones could never have convinced anyone to move with him to Guyana if opinions had no effect on decisions. Since it is something unstated, yet typically accepted, we jump to the obvious supporting factors: it means not being racist, homophobic, or what have you.

 But then how should we respond to a member of the Westboro Baptist Church? By tolerating their opinions? Insisting that we respect their hideous views? Naturally not, we should exercise our free speech to its fullest extent, and show all those who may be in doubt how destructive and pernicious these liars really are. This is justifiable intolerance. If we were to alter the object of our verbal attacks from these charlatan chaplains to, for example, black people, we would again be charged with intolerance. But now it would be unjustifiable. The question of tolerance is meaningless, the arguments behind the intolerance are the only salient details, for it is impossible to create a system of tolerance that both allows us to speak freely and critically while suppressing morally poor sentiments.

Therefore we should not tolerate religion. We should employ our free speech to the best of our abilities against it. In the very least, religion motivates people to think about reality fallaciously, and that alone is enough reason to challenge it. Whatever comfort it provides does not justify the lives lost and bunk believed. When we do tolerate religion we challenge the foundation on which all of secularism rests. We make secularism just another alternative on a long list of faiths, rather than the only rational conclusion one can come to after understanding just a few of the faiths. This is because if all of these views are above mockery and questioning, then we imply that they all have, at some level, a semblance of respectability and validity. But this is ridiculous, if we can’t laugh at those who believe the world is flat, what belief can we laugh at?

Some will object to my use of “tolerance”. They will, doubtless, insist that tolerance does not mean we must respect all opinions, only that we will not do violence on those who hold them. Ecclesiastes insists that there is a time and place for everything and I tend to agree. There is a time and place for toleration; for the respect of the disgusting. But it is not in the discussions of the skeptical. We must question everything, and we should not allow anything to go unscrutinized because of anyone’s insistence on tolerance.


* Once.

Ethics Science

Free Will and the gap between philosophy and neuroscience

Hello all,

Dave Muscato here again. Last night, a group of us from MU SASHA attended a public lecture at Mizzou from guest speaker Michael Gazzaniga, the renowned psychobiologist famous for his research on “split brain” patients: people who have had the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated from one another, in order to treat epilepsy. It was a real treat to hear someone so well-known in his field speak in person, and I was privileged to be able to attend.

He spoke about free will: Do we have it? What does “free will” mean? What are some of the implications, specifically legal, if we do not?

In a sentence, he demonstrated that from a neuroscience (indeed, scientific) context, it is quite clear that we lack free will. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the concept of “free will” is nonsensical and should be disposed of: Free from what? The laws of physics? No, each cell of our brain follows predictable patterns of behavior, i.e. is soul-less and automated, and our brains are “merely” highly parallel and complex conglomerations of cells. No where in this equation arises a homunculus, a “mind” within our brain that makes decisions separate from itself, no matter how much we might wish for this to be so, or how much it feels to us like this is the case.

Here’s where I think he lost us: Gazzaniga went on to argue that, while our brains do not have free will, persons (in a society) do. I don’t think he justified this leap. His argument, as best as I could understand it, was that individual responsibility arises on the level of a society, rather than on the level of the individual. He gave the analogy of a car, versus traffic. Regardless of one’s mechanical understanding of the operation or construction of a car, you cannot extrapolate or understand traffic patterns by observing a car in isolation. Similarly, humans in isolation lack responsibility—a single human just follows patterns of behavior and isn’t responsible “to” anyone—but in the context of living in a society, we can hold individuals responsible for their behavior.

This seems to me to call for the application of the is/ought problem. I think Gazzaniga was trying to say that, descriptively, societies hold individuals responsible for their behavior, and that this is permissible because individuals should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. What I don’t understand is, where did that “should” come in? Is he making an ethical argument here? Because up until that point, he’d been speaking descriptively. I understand why societies would do good to hold individuals accountable for wrongdoings, but that doesn’t mean “persons have free will” just because they live in societies. Persons may be responsible for their individual wrongdoings—it’s not like anyone ELSE is responsible for a person’s actions—but I don’t understand why he argues this means that they magically have free will.

It seems to me that there is a gap between what philosophers have to say about free will and what scientists have to say. From Sam Harris to Daniel Wegner to Michael Gazzaniga, those who study the brain tend to say that we lack free will, from what I have seen and read. So why aren’t philosophers agreed on this? I’m especially talking about thinkers who side toward religiosity (read: theologians). I understand that for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we are required to have free will, but that doesn’t mean that we do. Similarly, for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we must have souls, but—and I’ll put this gently—neuroscience has yet to discover them. I’m skeptical.

I’m considering writing a talk of my own about free will, based loosely on Sam Harris’s “Free Will,” the Free Will chapter in “The Big Questions” by Nils Rauhut, “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel Wegner, and some guided discussion questions of my own design. If I do, I’ll post a link to video of it here, or at least a summary, once I deliver it to SASHA and/or another group and can get film it for you.

Until next time,

Dave