Tag Archives: ethics

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

Ethics Lifestyle

Vegetarian Ethics: It’s not black and white

What is an ethical amount of meat for a vegetarian to eat?

The answer seems obvious: Zero, right? I’ll argue this is incorrect. I’ll begin with the story of a chicken sandwich, the vegetarian atheist who ate it (me), and who almost felt badly enough about it to pray.

I’ve been a vegetarian for about 3 years now for ethical reasons. I want to cause as little suffering as reasonably possible. It’s the right thing to do.

Two weeks ago, Ellen Lundgren and I were on a 6-hour drive to the CFI Leadership Conference in Buffalo, NY. Around 8, we stopped for dinner. We were on a tight schedule and didn’t want to stop anywhere too time-consuming.

The only restaurant we could find that was open, nearby, and quick was Wendy’s. Wendy’s does have several non-meat items, but they are all sides or desserts. If you’re at Wendy’s, and you want the nutrition—and hunger satiation—that comes only from protein, you’re going to have to order something with meat. So I did, for the first time in several years.

I prefer chicken to beef because chickens are stupider than cows, and are physically less capable of suffering. (Similarly, I feel less bad about Caesar salads, which contain anchovies, than chicken sandwichs).

Despite my atheism, when I sat down, I had a very strong urge to pray for the chicken, though I knew it was superstitious. I think this was left over from the days when I prayed before eating—I became a vegetarian around the same time I became an atheist.

I believe it was a bit of déjà vu. Ellen thought it was funny; I decided to blog about it.

Many vegetarians, and especially vegans I think, tend to be more judgmental and dogmatic about their food. A friend once asked me if I think I’m better than she is because I’m a vegetarian. I told her yes, I do think vegetarianism is morally superior; if we’re defining “better” as “acting more ethically,” then it follows that I think I’m better. Integrity is one of the more useful measures of quality in a person. However, I don’t think this makes her a bad person, nor me a good person. My friend is great in other ways, and more ethical than me in many.

I don’t see vegetarianism as an inconvenience most of the time, not more than, for example, holding the door for someone. You learn to do it as part of living in a peaceful society. Not eating animals is the moral choice if reasonably possible—and it’s usually easy, for most people in 1st-world countries. It’s the environmentally-sound choice. Vegetables are delicious and nutritious. And you sleep better. What’s not to like?

Vegetarianism does not mean simply cutting meat from your diet. It means replacing animal sources of protein with vegetable sources of protein, like nuts & beans. In the words of Leo Tolstoy:

One can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.

I’m not vegan—I eat eggs, dairy, etc if I know they came from ethical sources. By ethical I mean that as little unnecessary suffering was involved as reasonably possible. Although one can avoid any unnecessary suffering by never contributing to demand, I find this DOES cause unnecessary suffering—to me. It is very inconvenient, if not impossible, to forgo the use of all animal products.

Vegetarianism is not an all-or-nothing way of life. I wouldn’t ask someone to give up meat entirely, but you can certainly eat less and just replace it with other protein. On similar utilitarian grounds, I’ll eat meat when it maximizes happiness. It would’ve caused me more “suffering” to wait 4 more hours to eat something on this road-trip than it would have to eat part of a chicken that was dead long before I deliberated over whether or not to order it.

It’s also acceptable for vegetarians to eat meat on utilitarian grounds if otherwise-edible meat is going to waste, to be “enjoyed” only by bugs and microbes: I’ve no problem eating it instead. I will enjoy it much more than microbes will.

I desire to contribute to net demand for meat as little as possible. This is something we should all strive for. It’s not necessary to eat meat in order to live healthily, and it’s the most ethical choice.

Until next time,

Dave

Ethics Opinion

“If there’s no God, what would stop me from raping & killing you?”

Hello all,

Dave here. Roughly every week while the weather is nice, SASHA does an Ask an Atheist table on the University of Missouri campus. We get asked a lot of questions, sometimes serious, sometimes not. This isn’t a terribly common one, but it comes up enough that it’s worth mentioning, and it’s terrifying enough that I feel compelled to discuss it.

SASHA members Seth & James answer Mizzou students' questions

The question generally goes something like this: “If there are no consequences, what’s stopping you from killing people?”

When I hear this question, it scares the shit out of me. The purpose of this post today is to convince you that it should scare the shit out of you, too.

When someone asks this question, it tells me something about the way their mind works. Specifically, it tells me that I am very likely talking to a sociopath. A sociopath, somewhat synonymously known as someone with antisocial personality disorder, is someone who, among other things, lacks a conscience or a sense of empathy. Sociopaths are often said to “use” people, in that they care about others only insofar as they can get something out of it, often in a calculating and “cold” manner. They can be friendly, charismatic even, and have mastered the ability to appear normal. There is a classic work in this field with a title that fits perfectly: The Mask of Sanity by Harvey Cleckley. If you’ve seen the movie “American Psycho” with Christian Bale, you are somewhat familiar with some of the classic signs. The lead character plays a Wall Street suit who lacks empathy.

Sociopaths do not feel guilt. That doesn’t mean they commit any act they desire, though. They are not mentally separated from reality. Rather, they are acutely aware of social consequences and legal consequences and game theoretical consequences; they are just not motivated to act morally by any other internal drive that the rest of us have. They understand that if they kill someone and are caught, they will go to jail. They understand that if they cheat on their taxes, or their partners, or their term papers—and they are caught—there are consequences. They just have no problem doing such things when they feel very confident that they will not be caught.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 0.6% of people have antisocial personality disorder. Assuming my campus at the University of Missouri—Columbia contains a representative sample (it almost certainly doesn’t—a lot of sociopaths end up in jail), out of 36,000 students, that means about 215 people simply lack empathy. It’s not impossible that I’ve spoken to a few of them during my 2 years of doing Ask-an-Atheist tabling.

When I’m asked this question, I could try to explain something about the fact that there ARE consequences for our actions—that if you raped and killed me, you would almost certainly be caught, and go to prison. Your career would be ruined, your family crushed, your friendships over and your relationships gone. But that’s not the kind of thing you say to someone who has just said something like the title of this article to you.

In my experience, there is really only one good way to answer this question. I say to them the following:

“If your belief that you might be punished after you die is the only thing keeping you from raping and killing me or anyone else, then I have no interest in trying to convince you that your god is imaginary. Someone who only forgoes needless evil on the basis of possible consequences is called a sociopath, and I have no interest in dying today. Keep your beliefs, please just keep them away from me.”

I also want to point out that this really doesn’t have anything to do with whether God exists or not, but rather whether hell exists or not. There is an important distinction. A lot of Christians seem to have trouble separating their belief in God from their belief in an afterlife. You can believe in one and not the other, and an argument in favor of God is not an argument in favor of an afterlife necessarily, and vice versa.

Until next time!

– Dave