Thursday, July 19, 2018

Can morality exist independent of God?
A refutation of the atheist claim

A Psychology Today article asserts in the subtitle: "Morality is within us independently of God." I will use this article as an outline to address atheistic claims currently prevalent on this subject. The author is atheist Gad Saad, professor of marketing and holder of the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption. I intend to show that the arguments in the article, although common in modern atheistic circles, do not withstand scrutiny. Toward the end of this blog post, I will critique several other atheist professors and scientists.

In the attempt to demonstrate that "morality is within us independently of God," the article includes 3 main arguments:
  • Not all religions have an identical view on all moral questions
  • Many atheists have done moral things in the past
  • Scientists have written books explaining the evolution of morality
Let's review these 3 assertions to see if they support the claim: "Morality is within us independently of God."


The first assertion states there are:
extraordinarily contradictory positions taken by religions on every imaginable issue of human import, let alone the fact that there are thousands of religions and Gods. Which God/religion should one use to guide his/her moral system? ... [There is a] conundrum of religious contradictions...
This is followed by a list of moral views by different historical religions that aren't in agreement.

There are many problems with this line of thinking. First, moral truth's validity is not dependent on the absence of competing claims to the truth. A moral truth is true whether there are one or ten thousand false assertions surrounding it. It is true even if it is a "conundrum" to identify it. From the Catholic perspective, deviations in moral claims are explicable in a number of ways, such as the principle of Original Sin, that man sometimes acts contrary to reason, or develops his conscience and understanding of natural law over time.

Dismissing the possibility of a reliable religious tradition on account of it being a "conundrum" to discover it is the fallacy of personal incredulity. This is to run from a problem by claiming it's too tough to solve.

Second, remember, the article opens with the subhead "Morality is within us independently of God." But not all atheists, secularists, scientists, pagans, nor whomever else, have an identical view on every moral issue. One atheist believes abortion is the taking of a life and another doesn't. One secularist believes homosexuals should marry and another doesn't. We could imitate the article's hyperbole and just as validly claim there are contradictory positions taken by the non-religious on "every imaginable issue."
The article dismisses religion as unreliable because diverse moral views exist in religions. But, by the end, the article depends on non-religion as reliable despite diverse moral views existing among the non-religious.

Using Saad's definition of "conundrum," the atheist abandoning religion in favor of "non-religion" is just trading one conundrum for another. But, if "morality is within us independently of God," why is that hypothesis not held to the same standard of producing uniformity as is demanded of "religion"? If morality is in us independent of God, and man is just misidentifying that inner voice by producing a variety of non-religious morals, why couldn't human error also explain man's various misinterpretations of God? The atheist argument here is not consistent. If we are to believe we don't "need" God because non-religious traditions can produce contradictions too, then you could also say following a religious tradition is just as good as being non-religious.

But all this avoids the issue. Is God the source of morality? Are man's moral sensibilities only conceivable in relation to God? Does science reveal moral truths? Pointing to this or that group's contradictory teaching doesn't address those kinds of questions. The "contradictory positions" argument is a straw man that can neither categorically discredit nor credit religious nor non-religious traditions.

Third, why are the similarities in moral teaching across religion not credited to God as their source?
The idea in the article that religions contradict on "every imaginable issue" is an obvious exaggeration, considering the overwhelming unity in religious history on many issues such as murder, honesty, robbery, or that due worship should be given to supernatural authority.

The article only cites deviations in moral teachings as evidence against religion's moral reliability. For example, it asks whether we should employ Kosher slaughter rituals as in Judaism or Halal slaughter rituals as in Islam. But, although there are differences in the specifics of these tenets, there are also similarities. For example, there is a larger moral obligation behind both of these religious teachings that beg a different question: Why do both religions believe human action is required in regard to a supernatural deity in the first place? One would be hard pressed to find a religious tradition lacking a similar teaching.

That Saad is even able to cognitively categorize religions as associated with "God" is an unwitting admission that they are overwhelmingly in agreement that some form of other worldly power exists. If all religions are unreliable on account of them having some differing moral precepts, then isn't it fair to say all religions are reliable in areas where they agree? At least that is what the atheist should conclude if he seeks to discredit all religion on account of them having some moral variation.

Saad concludes this section:
Incidentally, I have never received a reply from a religious person as to how to resolve this conundrum of religious contradictions other than to state: “Well, the other 9,999 religions are false. I know this to be true because my religion is the correct one. It states so in my holy book.”
It is not uncommon to hear atheists to mock Christians (or other religions) as having no concept of moral truth beyond "the book says so." But, an atheist who has "never" heard a religious argument "other than" "it states so in my holy book" is grossly unfit to speak on this topic.1

There is an abundance of material, certainly in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, that delve much deeper into moral concepts rooted in natural law, philosophy of the human person, and other arguments not merely dependent on "my book said so."  Many names come to mind like Albert, Aquinas, Chesterton, Newman, Kreeft, Ratzinger, Sheen, Sheed, Augustine, Chrysostom, and apologists like those at Catholic Answers or EWTN, just to name a minuscule few. And many of them build on philosophies of the human person such as Socratic or Aristotelian thought foundations.

Such study of religions would serve well in solving the "conundrum," by actually scrutinizing their most revered teachers and apologists, instead of throwing one's hands up and saying "Well, they don't agree, how can I tell if one is right! On to atheism!"2

There are endless instantiations of moral, compassionate, and kind acts that are committed by atheists. How are such non-believers able to engage in such acts without a belief in any supernatural deity?
From the Catholic point of view, this argument attacks a straw man. Catholics don't deny that atheists can commit good acts. Consider the following magisterial, scriptural, and theological quotations:
Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator who gives him mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good. The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie. ... The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties. ... The natural law is a participation in God's wisdom and goodness by man formed in the image of his Creator. It expresses the dignity of the human person and forms the basis of his fundamental rights and duties.(CCC#1954,1956, 1978)
St. John Paul II wrote similarly:
The conscience is "the voice of God," even when man recognizes in it nothing more than the principle of the moral order which it is not humanly possible to doubt, even without any direct reference to the Creator. (Dominum et Vivificantem, 43a, 1986)
[T]he moral order, as established by the natural law, is in principle accessible to human reason. (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 74b, 1993)  
Paul, writing of the Gentiles before they heard the gospel, teaches similarly:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts. (Rom. 2:14-15)
In Genesis, Cain is held accountable for murder by God despite the murder occurring prior to the issuance of the Ten Commandments.

Venerable Fulton J. Sheen expounds on this very matter in regards to natural virtue in all persons:
As for natural truths, there may be considerable resemblance (between Christians and pagans), because natural truths may be known to anyone endowed with reason. God has illumined every man coming into the world. The first principle of the practical reason and the first principle of the speculative reason are the foundation upon which every man may build the rational edifice of art and science, morality and philosophy. Human minds, whether pagan or Christian, unlettered or learned, have a natural curiosity that inquires into the why and the wherefore of existence, as well as the origin and purpose of all their inspirations and yearnings. The uniformity of elementary doctrines, general liturgical themes, and rudimentary practices reveal the fundamental identity of human nature in all places and at all times 
Pagans have natural virtues, for they have, as St. Paul tells us, the law of God graven on their hearts. Man can, without faith or grace, know the difference between good and evil, immortality, supreme happiness, and at least in a vague way, sanction and retribution, all of which are elements of religion as such, and hence common to all humanity. 
(Fulton J. Sheen, Philosophy of Religion, p. 215-216, 1948) 
A Catholic should have no problem recognizing anyone's capacity to identify a natural good because he is created in the image of God. So, when Saad asks what he thinks is a strike against religion with the rhetorical comment: "Would we all engage in nihilistic crime sprees of unimaginable depravity lest we were guided by religion?" I might answer: No, just look at multiple millennia of Church teaching.

If a person who lacks formal belief in God commits a moral act, this hardly suggests there is no God. I would even submit that atheists calling for morality is evidence of morality inscribed in man's heart by an Inscriptor. Modern atheists claim morals are derived from science or evolution, but we will see later how this claim collapses under scrutiny.

The matter of moral obligations
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) posits:
The recognition of morality is the real substance of human dignity; but one cannot recognize this without simultaneously experiencing it as an obligation of freedom. Morality is not man's prison but rather the divine element in him... [T]here are not only natural laws in the sense of physical functions: the specific natural law itself is a moral law. Creation itself teaches us how we can be human in the right way. (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, A Turning Point for Europe, 1994)3
Both the Church and the atheist might agree, in a basic sense, that natural truths, such as morality, are discernible through natural reason. One studying such things may seek to determine whether the Church's or atheist's or anyone else's claims are consistent with sound reason. Let the following two assertions suffice for the purpose of this section: one, as we see in the above quotes, the Catholic understanding of man and morality is consistent with atheists committing naturally good acts; and, two, neither science nor atheism can reveal moral truth.

What many modern atheists call morality, as we will especially see in the next section, is not a moral code but a tool for evolutionary advantage. One of the attributes that disqualifies atheistic "morality" as authentic morality is its lack of moral obligation.

Catholic apologist Karlo Broussard describes atheism and moral obligation thusly:
There are many atheists and agnostics whom we theists could look to and lock arms with in the pursuit of a just and peaceful society. However, only the theist would be consistent in saying that just and peaceful behaviors are morally obligatoryOne can get away with personal moral codes without God, but not moral obligation. (Broussard, Can Atheists Be Good Without Belief in God?, 2015)
Moral theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand identifies a problem among religions that lack conception of a personal God. His statement would also apply to the moralizing atheist. Von Hildebrand writes:
[W]herever no conception of a personal God is to be found, the notion of an authentic moral obligation, of moral responsibility as well as a call directed to our conscience, seems missing. The formal character of morality is hardly grasped. That does not mean that no concrete moral prescriptions are known. Far from it, for many prescriptions which are, objectively, moral commandments (not to lie or not to kill) are honored, but without a real understanding of their specific moral character. (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Graven Images: Substitutes for True Morality, p 179, 1957)
This is similar to the atheist's dilemma. In a hypothetical atheistic universe, what does it matter if one fails to act in a way the atheist calls moral? What obligation is there to act morally? So what if society isn't "nice?" So what if man obliterates himself? What does it matter if mankind persists in existence at all? At best the atheist call to morality is to achieve some temporal desire. But there is no atheistic basis upon which the atheist can even call a human desire morally "good." Certainly "moral goodness" is not observable scientifically under a microscope.

There is no atheistic basis that answers why joy or prosperity is "good." In order to declare these things, the atheist must first attribute a dignified value to human life that makes him a moral creature: both in acting toward others and to be acted toward. Such value in human beings is not shown by science and is arbitrarily assumed by modern atheists. They are not wrong to recognize human dignity and morality, but they would be wrong to think these things are revealed by something like science.

Many atheists are also materialists. To claim that humans have special moral character in a materialist universe is likewise arbitrary. It is to say the cluster of atoms that comprise humans have moral character whereas a cluster of atoms that comprise, say, deep sea marine algae or a tumbleweed in the wind have no moral character. But a microscope doesn't reveal why one cluster should have moral character versus another. As we also saw in a prior blog post about science and morality, the moralizing atheist merely presupposes morality in mankind. And, ironically, the atheist presupposition that morality in man even exists supports the Church's notion that God's law is written on man's heart.

The atheist appeal to morality to achieve some end, such as people behaving "nice," makes morality a tool that could be set aside if not needed to achieve the same desire. (We saw this suggested by atheist Sam Harris when he fantasized about some future medicinal "cure for human evil.") In this purview, morality is not obligatory, nor ontological, but a tool of man to achieve a biological or evolutionary goal. And, without obligation, any reasonable definition of morality isn't even met. The obligation to act morally is absent in an atheistic universe.

Dr. Stephen M. Barr, professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Delaware, likewise identifies the meaningless of atheistic "morality" in a First Things article:
It is quite meaningless to ask, for example, whether one “should” build a dam that will cause the snail darter to become extinct. We can only ask whether building it would be conducive to human survival, or to snail darter survival, or to some other arbitrarily chosen end. People may, of course, have feelings of moral obligation; but only the feelings are real, not the obligations(Stephen M. Barr, The Devil's Chaplain, Aug. 2004)
You see Dr. Barr cover here what we have reviewed: that human survival is only arbitrary called "good" without a prior establishment of man's dignity. This dignity is logically absent in the atheist worldview.

As we will see later, the atheist will claim to desire morality to attain a "nice" society where people "reciprocate" niceness. But, again, if we use only an atheistic purview, what does it matter if people are nice or hostile, survive or don't survive? Animals live and die all the time. Molecules assemble and disassemble all the time. So what if a combination of molecular activity that matches what we call "death" or "suffering" occurs? Certainly, atheists feel a sense that survival is "good," but they cannot draw that conclusion using only science or atheistic epistemology.

Peter S. Williams, assistant professor in communication and worldviews at Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication in Norway, addresses this very point:
The question is not: Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives? There is no reason to think that atheists and theists alike may not live what we normally characterize as good and decent lives. Similarly, the question is not: Can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God? If the non-theist grants that human beings do have objective value, then there is no reason to think that he cannot work out a system of ethics with which the theist would largely agree. ... [A]lthough the non-theist can do the right thing because they know what the objectively right thing to do is, their worldview can’t cogently provide an adequate ontological account of the objective moral values they know and obey. (Peter S. Williams, Can Moral Objectivism Do Without God? Theofilos, 2012)
In other words, atheists often behave as if man is made in the image of God Who is eternal goodness itself, toward Whom man turns during acts of moral goodness, toward Whom man finds his eschatological end.4 But there is no atheistic praxis that can substitute for God and moral goodness in this way.

As we have said, the atheist can commit a good act. But in failing to have a firm ground upon which morals are built, the atheist's call to morality is brittle and collapses under scrutiny. Let's examine further in the next section.


Saad states:
Countless philosophers and scientists (including no lesser a man than Charles Darwin) have offered very compelling scientific-based arguments to explain the evolution of morality (especially in the context of social species). Hence, to repeatedly utter the banal canard that morality is outside the purview of science is astonishingly false. Innumerable books and scientific articles have been written to explain the evolution of morality, empathy, kindness, cooperation, altruism, parental love, romantic love, love for one's friends, and numerous other emotions that constitute integral elements of our moral fortitude.
Remember, the article's premise is: "Morality is within us independently of God." Does what the article describes as scientific studies about the "evolution of morality" reveal that conclusion? As we are about to examine in detail—no.

Certainly, one could conduct a scientific study of what cultures taught what moral beliefs. Or one could study what "evolutionary" benefit various "moral" beliefs in certain cultures had for that culture's perpetuation. However, this dodges the question. The science doesn't tell us whether or not some act in any of those cultures is "moral." It only can show "this act had this result." Science doesn't reveal that any act or belief was morally "good" or "bad." Moral arguments cannot be "scientific-based" because science never can reveal the prerequisite dignity in man in order for morality to even be considered. Let's examine several scientists and professors asserting some form of the claim that morality is within the purview of science (particularly evolutionary science).

The topic of evolution and morality has been addressed by pop atheist Richard Dawkins, himself an evolutionary biologist. Dawkins begins his book The Selfish Gene with the following caveat:
This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution.* I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. ... My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. This book is mainly intended to be interesting, but if you would extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 2-3)
Dawkins here admits he does not advocate for morality "based on evolution" and that "biological nature" is no guide either. The reason he says this is because he believes humans are characterized by "universal ruthless selfishness" that results in a "very nasty society." His scientific studies showed him how various cultures behaved in history. From there, it is Dawkins' own beliefs as to what constitutes "nasty" that is added to the scientific observation. This isn't to say there is no basis to call, say, the Aztec sacrifices of slaves to fictional gods an objective evil, but rather that raw science offers no qualitative interpretation other than what can be observed. It is the observer who then identifies "evil" in the action. Without a conscious or subconscious recognition of man's inherent dignity, Dawkins cannot declare biological phenomenon in any form as moral or immoral.

You'll also notice the asterisk in Dawkins' quote. It refers to an endnote which also belies science as a basis of morality. In the endnote, Dawkins expounds:
Others, perhaps because they read the book by title only or never made it past the first two pages, have thought that I was saying that, whether we like it or not, selfishness and other nasty ways are an inescapable part of our nature. This error is easy to fall into if you think, as many people unaccountably seem to, that genetic 'determination' is for keeps—absolute and irreversible. In fact genes 'determine' behavior only in a statistical way... A good analogy is the widely conceded generalization that 'A red sky at night is the shepherd's delight'. It may be a statistical fact that a good, red sunset portends a fine day on the morrow, but we would not bet a large sum on it. (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 267)
The sunset analogy in this endnote is Dawkins' way of saying genetics determine behavior, but it's not a foolproof barometer. Consider the consequences of that sentiment. It means, even Dawkins does not believe raw biology should govern behavior, even if scientific observation shows those behaviors to arise through the scientific laws of biology. Simply because a society behaves a certain way because of their inherited genes, it doesn't equate to those behaviors being morally good, according to Dawkins. But this is just another evidence of the atheist deriving his principles of morality from somewhere other than science.

That being said, the question continues to loom: on what basis does Dawkins say that any action receives the moral quality of "nasty"? According to his own caveat, the source is neither "based on evolution" nor "biological nature." Remember, Saad said the idea that morality is outside science's purview is "astonishingly false."

During a 2006 talk by Dawkins, an audience member asked the following question:
Question: [Y]ou accuse people, I suppose Christians, of saying that we get our morality from the Scriptures. But clearly this cannot be the case because humanity from every civilization throughout time has a sense of morality, and clearly most of them have had not have not had access to the Bible. So I'm curious then what you think is the origin of this morality. If someone comes in here with a gun and began shooting all of us we would call that bad. Why? Why is that bad? 
You can hear Dawkins' full response in the above link. Keep in mind the two questions asked here: What is the origin of morality? and What makes something bad? You will notice that Dawkins does not answer either question.
Now if you're asking me where we get our morality from I think that's an extremely complicated question and one that I'm very interested in. I've got a whole chapter on it in the book which I didn't have time to read from. I think that a sort of bedrock of it probably comes from our Darwinian heritage as a kind of misfiring byproduct of our Darwinian past, when we lived in small villages or small roving bands, which meant that we were surrounded by close kin and that, as you no doubt know, is one good prerequisite for the evolution of altruism under Darwinian rules. And also in those small villages or roving bands we would have been surrounded by people who we are likely to meet again and again throughout our life which provides the basis for the other main Darwinian reason to be moral or altruistic—that, I think is the Darwinian origin and I suspect that, although we no longer live in small bands, the same rule of thumb, rules of thumb, which were honed in our Darwinian past are playing themselves out under the alien conditions of modern urban society. 
The rule of thumb used to be—be nice to everyone you meet. Because everyone you meet is likely to be either a cousin and/or somebody you're going to meet again and again, and therefore in a position to reciprocate. Darwinism doesn't forecast, doesn't suggest, that we should be all wise and do what is actually going to be best for our selfish genes. Instead it says that it builds into our brains rules of thumb which worked in our ancestral past. That rule of thumb—be nice to everybody—is still in our brains. It is a lust which is rather similar to sexual lust which is still in our brains even though we may use contraception and therefore are not actually using copulation to reproduce. 
Dawkins' answer does not address whether evolutionary science can demonstrate moral origins. Dawkins does say that our brains were conditioned in our ancestry to be nice to others we'll run into later because they might "reciprocate" niceness. That explanation of morality's origin, assuming hypothetically it was true, does nothing to reveal whether any given act is moral or even whether morality exists. All Dawkins is able to assert is that man in history did things to get something he liked in return. The origin of the moral values Dawkins assigns to those behaviors are not given an explanation.

The questioner had also asked, "Why is that bad" if someone came in and shot everyone? Dawkins did not address the why. He instead diverted to ancient tribes being nice to get nice things in return—a non-confrontation of the real question. If Dawkins' is implying a shooter is "wrong" to kill on the basis that he will not be shot in return, his answer still fails to address why any human merits not to be shot in the first place. 

Dawkins seems to know the inadequacy of his answer. Despite his theory about tribes and reciprocal niceness he is still left baffled as to morality's origin. During a later part of the Q and A, Dawkins states:
I think it is actually fairly baffling where our morality comes from and why we're in fact as nice as we are. ... If I ask myself why I don't steal, why I pay my taxes, why I do that all the things that keep society going, I suppose it's a slightly irrational feeling that I wouldn't wish to live in the kind of society where people behaved in the sort of ways that I wouldn't wish them to behave in.
While Saad claims "scientific articles have been written to explain the evolution of morality," Dawkins—an evolutionary biologist atheist—says it's "fairly baffling where our morality comes from." Dawkins proceeds to explain that his own reasons for being moral are "irrational." One could certainly interpret these two atheists as disagreeing on whether morality is explicable by science. This would also be a strike against non-religion as a source of morality on account of their disagreement—at least it would be a strike according to Saad's article.

In another book, Dawkins candidly asserts: "Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical." (Dawkins, The Devil's Chaplain, p 34, 2003) He goes on to argue that science reveals various biological data, but that it's up to "individuals and society" to make ethical determinations, not science. Of course, this leaves Dawkins in the position of his other quote: "I think it is actually fairly baffling where our morality comes from...", perhaps because he does not recognize man's inherent dignity in the image of God.

Earlier, we saw Dawkins attempt on the fly to explain morality in light of "our Darwinian heritage." Saad similarly declares morality has been scientifically claimed by scientists including "no lesser a man than Charles Darwin." Thus, it is worth looking at how Darwin was able to excuse some of the "blackest" behaviors in the animal kingdom because it contributed to the species' survival:
It is often difficult to judge whether animals have any feelings for each other's sufferings. Who can say what cows feel, when they surround and stare intently on a dying or dead companion? That animals sometimes are far from feeling any sympathy is too certain; for they will expel a wounded animal from the herd, or gore or worry it to death. This is almost the blackest fact in natural history, unless indeed the explanation which has been suggested is true, that their instinct or reason leads them to expel an injured companion, lest beasts of prey, including man, should be tempted to follow the troop. In this case, their conduct is not much worse than that of the North American Indians who leave their feeble comrades to perish in the plains or the Feegeans, who, when their parents get old or fall ill, bury them alive. (Darwin, The Descent of Man, p.77, 1871)
Later, Darwin attributes morality in man not as an obligatory attribute but a tool for the perpetuation of a tribe:
It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that [such tribes] ...were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase. (Darwin, The Descent of Man, p. 166, 1871)
In this Darwinian—evolutionary—explanation of "morality," we see no consideration of moral objectivity. Nor is there anything resembling moral obligation. Rather, "morality" is simply "one element" a tribe uses for survival success. Remember, atheists who appeal to these "evolutionary" explanations of morality are imposing onto the scientific observation the notion that man's survival is morally "good." They seem to hallucinate, in a sense, that they have observed "morality" in scientific observation, when they have not. As well, to interpret "morality" as a tool for the fittest group's survival is to strip its worthiness of the word morality. It's a nonsensical use of the term "morality."

Worthy observations are made by Theologian Dr. Scott Hahn and Ethicist Dr. Benjamin Wiker speaking of Darwin's specious use of the term "moral":
Note that neither the evolutionary process nor the results are themselves moral. Natural selection itself is pre-moral and the result (some particular "moral" trait) is not itself moral according to an objective, eternal, or immutable standard any more than a particular shape of a bird's beak is good or evil. A particular shape for a bird's beak is good for this kind of bird, under these conditions, pertaining at this historical time. But a duck's bill, while good for the duck, is not good for the eagle. And even for the duck, if conditions change, that particular shape may actually prove detrimental or not as fit as some modification. The same is true for every kind of trait, including those that we would call "moral." So, when we say "good for" or "bad for" in regard to evolution we must remember that these are not moral terms. For this reason, there cannot be intrinsically evil actions among animals, and human beings are one more kind of animal. (Dr. Scott Hahn and Dr. Benjamin Wiker, Answering the New Atheism, p. 104, 2008)
This point about natural selection being "pre-moral" is important. Atheists pointing to evolution as some kind of barometer of morality commit, perhaps unwittingly, a bait and switch. The listener is primed to see a scientific demonstration of morality, but the content is then switched to evolutionary advantage while still calling it "morality."

By appealing to evolution as a barometer for morality, the atheist also falls into moral conundrums such as the evolutionary advancement of one tribe that obliterates another, enforced euthanization of any weak members of a clan, the enslavement of rivals, etc. In any occasion where such perpetrators consistently avoid detrimental retaliation, their actions can only be considered moral according to the Darwinian principle of defining morality as "one element in their success."

And, once again, all this presupposes the perpetuation of any species, especially humans, is morally "good." The atheist really has no basis to assume natural tendencies in the animal kingdom are necessarily "morally good." This is why it is said natural selection is "pre-moral."

Regardless of the original article's histrionic claim that the existence of morality outside science is "astonishingly false," morality is not revealed by "science." It's an untenable position once scrutinized.

Patricia S. Churchland, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California and adjunct faculty member at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, is another atheist who argues for the evolution of neurobiology as the platform of morality. In her article The neurobiological platform for moral values, she sets up her case for "morality" thusly:
Values are not in the world in the way that seasons or the tides are in the world. This has sometimes provoked the idea that moral values come from the supernatural world. A more appealing hypothesis is that moral values are not other-worldly; rather they are social-worldly. They reflect facts about how we feel and think about certain kinds of social behavior. Those processes are drivers of behavior.  
The values of self-survival and self-maintenance are not in the world either. But we are not surprised that they shape the behavior of every animal. No one suggests self-survival values are other-worldly. Instead, it is easy to see how the biological world came to be organized around such values.
Notice from the onset, Churchland admits that "values" are not an empirical phenomenon in contrast to seasons or tides. She then attempts to tie morality back into science by presupposing that moral values are connected to "survival" in the "biological world." Keep in mind, the Catholic can fully agree with the goodness of various cures or ministries. Catholics themselves have contributed much to the sciences, hospitals, and more over the centuries. However, the Catholic sees the human tendency to survive as the inherent recognition of the value of human life because it has dignity in the image of God, the numinous eternal goodness. But, as we just discussed, natural selection is pre-moral. Using a strictly scientific perspective, what animals or man have done throughout the millennia is just neutral data. Using a strictly scientific perspective, that animals or man tended in history to behave certain ways or tend toward survival tells us nothing about the moral value of those behaviors.

Churchland continues:
The evolution of the mammalian brain marks the emergence of social values of the kind we associate with morality... The evolution of the mammalian brain saw the emergence of a brand new strategy for having babies: the young grow inside the warm, nourishing womb of the female. When mammalian offspring are born, they depend for survival on the mother. So the mammalian brain has to be organized to do something completely new: take care of others in much the way she take cares of herself.
Churchland then attempts to explain maternal love as a chemical phenomenon:
Why do mammalian mothers typically go to great lengths to feed and care for their babies? After all, such care can be demanding, it interferes with feeding, and it can be dangerous. Two central characters in the neurobiological explanation of mammalian other-care are the simple nonapeptides, oxytocin and vasopressin. The hypothalamus regulates many basic life-functions, including feeding, drinking, and sexual behavior. In mammals, the hypothalamus secretes oxytocin, which triggers a cascade of events with the end result that the mother is powerfully attached to her offspring; she wants to have the offspring close and warm and fed. The hypothalamus also secretes vasopressin, which triggers a different cascade of events so that the mother protects offspring, defending them against predators, for example (Keverne, 2007; Porges & Carter, 2007; Cheng et al., 2010).
In the conclusion to her essay, she goes so far as to say:
The capacity for moral mammals depends on nonapeptides oxytocin and vasopressin, as well as on elaborated cortical structures that interface with the more ancient structures mediating motivation, reward, and emotion.
For the moment, let's accept that euphoric rewards associated with biological chemicals are the "central" reasons why mothers care for their young. But it is a disconnected conclusion to observe a body's chemical phenomena and then apply the term "moral." Why should the label "moral" be associated with release of oxytocin but not sweat or adrenaline? Higher levels of oxytocin in meerkats has been observed to increase the meerkats' willingness to share food. Is the meerkat more moral if it let's another cat eat more food? Some studies show oxytocin to magnify a person's current mood, including magnifying bad memories. What should that mean for morality if oxytocin is a platform for morality?

Rather, there is something more to the mother's action toward the child versus the hand wiping the brow. There is something not revealed by neuroscience that even the scientist subconsciously cites when claiming morality in the mother's love versus someone sweating in the sun, an athlete on adrenaline, or a feline's dining habits.

Additionally, to accept the conclusion that man's "capacity for moral behavior" "depends" on "oxycontin" explanation isn't to explain morality but to show cause for why morality doesn't exist. In this scenario, the mother is not acting out of love, unless love is redefined as her enslavement to bodily chemicals developed in the course of human evolution. This is not morality any more than is a sunflower turning its head toward the sun to absorb the rays.

While the Catholic can recognize a properly functioning body as morally helpful to survival in accord with man's dignity in the image of God,5 the strictly scientific atheist observes how biology acts in nature and then adds to the science by declaring that natural phenomenon "morally good."

Churchland later attempts to explain other moral actions "such as telling the truth, respecting the goods of others, and keeping promises". She describes "advantages of cooperation":
Men working together can raise a barn in one day. Women working together feed all the men and the children. Singing in a group with parts makes beautiful music. Pitching a tent is easier with two people, and hiking together provides safety.
In her explanation, Churchland again does not describe morality, but rather the utility of cooperative behaviors. This is no more an explanation for morality than the symbiotic relationship of sea anemones and hermit crabs.  This line of thinking also presupposes the goodness of erecting a barn, feeding a family, making music, or pitching a tent. If the barn is not built and the humans don't have shelter and live shorter lives, what does it matter? Science has nothing to say about this. Evolution has no capacity to place a value on this. Some molecular arrangements are in the universe are "alive" and some are "dead." Science is unable to observe "moral" value in one atomic phenomenon versus another.

Later, Churchland states:
Truth-telling and promisekeeping are socially desirable in all cultures, and hence exhibit less dramatic variability than customs at weddings. Is there a gene for these behaviors? Though that hypothesis cannot be ruled out, there is so far no evidence for a truth-telling or a promise-keeping gene. More likely, practices for truthtelling and promise-keeping developed in much the same way as practices for boat building. They reflected the local ecology and are a fairly obvious solution to a common social problem.
Here, Churchland admits there is no physical gene generating truth-telling and promise-keeping qualities across "all cultures." Instead, she hypothesizes that these traits are simply utilitarian in the same way cooperating to build a boat would be. Her thesis attempts and fails to elevate evolutionary science as revelatory of morality. Not once is "moral goodness" observed scientifically. Scientific phenomenon is merely interpreted in light of a presupposed dignity in man to arrive at a moral position. The scientific skeptic is not necessarily wrong to hold this presupposition, however, it is wrong to presume that human dignity and associated moral values even exist in a strictly material universe.

Very briefly, I will mention another pop atheist who claims morality is in the purview of science—neuroscientist Sam Harris, who devoted a TED talk to the claim. I won't repeat all his errors here, but in brief, Harris arbitrarily adds moral values to scientific observation and to a universe he claims is devoid of voluntary action. His arguments are refuted in the prior blog articles Why science cannot answer moral questions and Critiquing Sam Harris on Free Will.

I wanted to also briefly include one more atheist I studied in research of this blog post: Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy and zoology at Florida State University. Dawkins and other atheists apparently view Ruse as some sort of detriment to atheism. Ruse opens his article on morality with the words:
God is dead, so why should I be good? The answer is that there are no grounds whatsoever for being good. There is no celestial headmaster who is going to give you six (or six billion, billion, billion) of the best if you are bad. Morality is flimflam. ... 
It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection. It is as much a natural human adaptation as our ears or noses or teeth or penises or vaginas. It works and it has no meaning over and above this. ...  
Morality is just a matter of emotions, like liking ice cream and sex and hating toothache and marking student papers. But it is, and has to be, a funny kind of emotion. It has to pretend that it is not that at all! If we thought that morality was no more than liking or not liking spinach, then pretty quickly it would break down. ...  
Now you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what's to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense.
Ruse's opening words resemble what we have said about morality existing only in the purview of God. (Ruse's larger argument is that even though morality doesn't exist, man will still be moral because his "psychology will make sure you go on living in a normal, happy manner.") Ruse is an atheist who believes "God is dead," thus "Morality is flimflam."

By the end of his article, Ruse admits that what is called "morality" is just a tool like teeth, "fashioned by natural selection," one of many "emotions," but ultimately "an illusion." His description of morality follows the atheists we have studied above, but he departs with them by admitting they are not actually observing morality in their sciences. Ruse stays true to atheistic epistemology and articulates its logical conclusion that morality is an "illusion."

We have seen the flaws in the atheist claim that science reveals morality through study of evolution.  Although the greater point of this blog post is to show the fallacy in thinking morality exists in man independent of God, I'll review a brief primer on the soundness of Catholic doctrine on morality.

The Garden of Eden by Erastus Salisbury Field, ca 1860
Acquired from Wikimedia Commons.
As we have seen, the atheist appeals to something like evolutionary survival to determine moral behavior. Granted, as we have seen, the atheist has no scientific nor atheistic basis for declaring this measurement of morality. But, for the purposes of comparison, the atheist claims morality is founded on a result of an act, i.e. survival or something like evolutionary progress.

The Catholic foundation for morality begins with the object of the act itself, prior to measurement of result. Pope Pius XII explains:
The moral value of human action depends in the first place on its object. If this is immoral the action is also immoral; it is of no use to invoke the motive behind it or the aim pursued. If the object is indifferent to good, one can then question the motives or the end which confer new moral values on the action. But however noble a motive may be, it can never render an evil action good. (Pope Pius XII, Applied Psychology, II.3, 1958)
This is further developed by St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. The key paragraph reads:
The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the "object" rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas. In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "there are certain specific kinds of behavior that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil". And Saint Thomas observes that "it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused. 'There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just' (Rom 3:8)". 
The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who "alone is good", and thus brings about the perfection of the person. An act is therefore good if its object is in conformity with the good of the person with respect for the goods morally relevant for him. Christian ethics, which pays particular attention to the moral object, does not refuse to consider the inner "teleology" of acting, inasmuch as it is directed to promoting the true good of the person; but it recognizes that it is really pursued only when the essential elements of human nature are respected. (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, #78, 1986)
If these moral qualities indeed are present in the human person in relation to God, it would explain the atheist's presupposition that man's survival is something "good," even if the atheist never confronts or identifies the origin of this presupposition.

Finally, morality must be considered in the scope of man's eternal destiny:
Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man's true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness. The first question in the young man's conversation with Jesus: "What good must I do to have eternal life? " (Mt 19:6) immediately brings out the essential connection between the moral value of an act and man's final end. Jesus, in his reply, confirms the young man's conviction: the performance of good acts, commanded by the One who "alone is good", constitutes the indispensable condition of and path to eternal blessedness: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Mt 19:17). (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, #72, 1986)
You see that in Catholic teaching the goodness of an act relates to it being proper to the human condition—including in relation to man's final destiny with God. There is a divine pedigree behind all moral acts in that man is made in the image of God, Who is eternal goodness, and thus merits moral treatment and is obligated to treat others morally as well.

You notice also the them of "order" in these Magisterial quotes. This is language of the Natural Law, which is associated with the proper order of the human life. I discussed Natural Law with many Church citations in a prior blog post.

Ultimately, morality can only exist if man has inherent dignity in the image of God, which both obligates him to love his neighbor, and merits him love from neighbor.

1It is worth noting that former atheists, once also having made arguments such as "Which one is true!", have converted as a result of experiences, scrutiny of Church claims, examining apologetic works, reading source material, etc. For instance, see Why Atheists Change Their Mind: 8 Common Factors at Bishop Barron's Word on Fire apostolate.

2I recognize that there is an argument to be made that atheism and other perspectives apart from classical religious traditions can be said to be religious in themselves. The argument would say in order to be "religious," one doesn't necessarily require a formal belief in a traditional concept of God. Many atheists are dogmatic, hold unempirical beliefs (eg. their beliefs that morals exist, that certain things are "good" or "bad," that love exists, etc.), and accept numerous tenets by way of belief. In light of this argument, by choosing atheism, the atheist isn't really choosing non-religion, but merely a different religion. In this argument, the atheist isn't escaping one "conundrum" for another, but rather staying in the same "conundrum" and simply choosing atheism among the claimants of what is moral truth.

3We also see in this Ratzinger quote that morality is an "obligation of freedom." This supports the notion that freedom is a necessary ingredient when considering the morality of an act. This is one reason why it is nonsensical to claim morality exists in the universe of freedomless automatons espoused by atheist Sam Harris. See previous blog post here.

4See, for example, Aquinas' Five Ways for a proof of God's goodness.

5In 4 ways pre-marital sex is harmful, I specifically addressed how the release of oxytocin and vasopressin during sexual activity tends toward monogamy as their addictiveness tends toward attachment (as opposed to attempting detachment by promiscuity). Churchland acknowledges a similar result between mother and baby when she later writes: "[O]xytocin facilitates attachment of mother to baby. And of baby to mother." The Catholic needn't deny "meaning" in the body because a body in proper order is consistent with the whole person in proper order. (St. John Paul II spoke on a related topic about the "nuptial meaning" of the body in Theology of the Body.) The mother's love is in accord with her proper dignity in the image of God. The body's positive chemical response is simply consistent with the divine moral foundation of the act, without which it cannot be called moral. 

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Critiquing Sam Harris on free will

Sam Harris, a popular atheist neuroscientist, believes free will is an illusion. He also believes morality exists. This blog post will review Harris's 2012 book Free Will. I'll review the illogic of morals in a universe devoid of free will as well as other characteristics of such a universe. I'll also take a look at other perspectives from scientists on free will.


In Harris's 2012 book Free Will (the current cover of which features marionette sticks dangling the words "Free Will), Harris repeatedly argues against the notion that humans have free will. I could cite manifold examples of this claim from the book, but here are several, including their page number references.
  • Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. (5)
  • The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false. (5)
  • [W]e know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware. (16)
  • My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. (19)
  • But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being. (34)
  • From the perspective of your conscious awareness, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world. (34)
  • Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. (39)
  • What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature... (40)
  • Every person is "a biochemical puppet" who is "ultimately being steered." (47)
  • People are "neuronal weather patterns." (48)
I'll delve deeper into the science in the second part of this blog post. But it may be worth giving a condensed summary of the science from which Harris derives his claim that humans have no free will. He cites the Libet experiment and a couple subsequent experiments, summarized thusly:
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain's motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. ... Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. (8-9)
These experiments form a foundation for Harris's quotes in the above bullet points. As Harris insists, we are "no more responsible" for our very thoughts than for being born—meaning we have zero responsibility for our actions. None. What we will "do next" is "fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature."

In order to maintain this view, one must believe that group X of automatically interacting atoms are one subjective quality and group Y are of another. We know that Harris believes no one is ultimately responsible for any action occurring in the universe. Yet, Harris still makes subjective qualitative distinctions between one act of nature versus another.

For example, in one place Harris describes someone who is "lazy." (35) But, there is no room for "lazy" in Harris's description of the universe. The action of atoms that resulted in what was called "lazy" did not operate by some substandard of physics. In Harris's strict "chain of causes" universe, everything is operating correctly, so to speak. The laws of nature are just doing what they do, in every person, in every drop of water in a river, in a deserted island in the Pacific, or in any windstorm on Jupiter.

For Harris to make such qualitative judgments on actions of the laws of physics is arbitrary and nonsensical. There are no "hard-working" processes of physics and other "lazy" ones. Similar to concepts like "hard work" or "laziness," which cannot truly exist in Harris's universe, concepts directly associated with free will cannot exist either, for example "guilt" or "regret." 

Arbitrary values are echoed in Harris's view on morality. Consider another example Harris makes specific to crime. He supposes you might think about killing a king in this way:
If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide. Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: Everyone else will be better off this way. Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter -assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc. (52)
If you read this excerpt in light of everything Harris has established prior in the book, it is nonsensical.  In this excerpt, Harris claims it is irrelevant that the killer in question has no free will.  Harris wants to incarcerate the killer even though the killer had no freedom to act otherwise. Could we incarcerate the killer? Sure. But in Harris's universe, whether or not the killer is incarcerated would be the natural movement of physics in either case. It could not be rightly described as just or unjust. In fact, whether or not anyone even thinks killing is good or bad, is dependent on the biochemical puppetmaster, the cosmos. All facets of the scenario can only be described as jostling particles of the cosmos, directed by physics, just doing what they do. In Harris's material universe, the culprit in every "immoral" act would have to be the physics itself. But assigning moral qualities to natural processes of physics is nonsensical.

Now, Catholics can agree with Harris in recognizing "harm" done by the killer—but only because Catholics have a concept of man in the image of God (cf. CCC#1700). Understanding man in the image of God opens the door to qualitative judgments about various actions and situations, for something higher than merely natural phenomena is at stake. Only in this context can we say there is "harm," "risk," "innocence," "crime," or even more general value judgements like "better" or "worse." Otherwise, man is just another bundle of molecules tumbling through the universe just the same as a leaf in a gust of wind. As Doctor of the Church St. Hildegard of Bingen said, "No creature has meaning without the Word of God."

Catholics also recognize morals in light of the Natural Law. One cannot have a concept of good or bad, appropriate or not appropriate, unless one has an idea of how things should be. I discussed this principle in a prior blog post on the Natural Law. Something like sickness cannot be known without knowing what is the proper health from which the sickness deviated. In the same way, one cannot know what is "bad" unless one has an idea of what the correct concept of good should be. One has to have an idea of what the proper order should be in order to recognize some evil deviation from that standard. In the material universe espoused by Harris, everything is operating according to physics in a chain-reaction. According to these deterministic principles, there is no other way for the universe to be. Nothing can occur but the order that is unfolding according to the laws of nature. There is no room for "should be" in such a universe. For Harris to argue something wrong or immoral happened is for him to say what he believes to be the true culprit—the laws of nature—as having acted incorrectly. This is nonsensical.

By insisting there is no possibility for anyone to act "otherwise," Harris de facto describes a universe that is always operating as it "should be." There can be no violation of Natural Law in Harris's universe, for there is always one course of action possible, and thus all actions are as they "should be." There is no basis in Harris's universe for anything "bad," because every atom and cluster of atoms are behaving as the should be 100% of the time.

But Harris does not have such a notion of man in the image of God. Man's thoughts and actions are just other forms "natural phenomena" (56) tantamount to a "neuronal weather pattern." (48) Thus, as with the example of "laziness," Harris strays from his own thesis when he assigns such qualitative labels to various acts of physics that are all just atoms following the laws that govern them. He can no more call a group of atoms bouncing around as "harmful" than he could call them "helpful." He can't even think of what label to assign an action unless the cosmos so steers him. What label Harris imposes on an action is completely irrelevant. Because, according to his theory, the jostling particles of the cosmos, directed by physics, are just doing what they do.

Consider the following visual depiction to illustrate this in another way:

If you are reading a text version of this post, the animated image above depicts a row of dominoes falling. Is it rational to call one domino bump "moral" and another bump "immoral"? That is effectively Harris's basis for morality, meaning, it is baseless. Man is just another bump in a "chain of causes" that is "given by the cosmos." Harris's thesis renders some occasions of physics "moral" and other occasions—automatically operating by the exact same laws—as immoral. It is a nonsensical thesis.

In Harris's view, no one can ever have "behaved differently" in any situation. All actions in the universe, including by individual persons, are merely the product of physics, of the "cosmos" behaving as the laws of science govern. Every "atom for atom" is simply behaving as the laws of nature dictate, as an automated "chain of causes." Human thoughts and actions, Harris believes, are a "natural phenomena" comparable to "earthquakes and hurricanes." (56)

When someone claims they could have made a different choice in a situation, Harris denies the claim:
Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. ... [I]f it ever appears that I do—for instance, after going back and forth between two options—I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness. I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable. ... [T]o say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought "I could have done otherwise" after doing whatever I in fact did. This is an empty affirmation. It confuses hope for the future with an honest account of the past. (39)
In the page leading up to this paragraph, Harris makes additional declarative statements like, "You are not in control of your mind," and "You have not built your mind." But is it really an "empty affirmation" to claim one had a choice? Not based on the train of thought Harris espouses here.

He points out how one must take a "first step" toward a decision or eventually a "last one." He admits he doesn't know why. It's "inscrutable" why one makes this or that decision. But pointing out the necessity of a "last" step is irrelevant to the proof. Whether a single action was "chosen" among many or simply the result of the cosmos steering the atoms of the universe, the action accomplished is still singular. The evidence could be explained just as much by free will than by automated atoms in the universe.

According to the free will claimant, any back and forth was the time he took to consider various factors of the situation. And then he made the decision when he had ability and opportunity to make an alternate decision. As well, he might think it "inscrutable" how his free will works with with his body.

According to Harris, the laws of physics "steered" atoms and neurons in the person's brain until the right combination moved the "biochemical puppet" into the only possible action dictated by the particles jostling in his brain. The sequence of jostling atoms included planting the idea in the person's mind that he was consciously deliberating.

In a couple places in the book, Harris makes statements that absolve brutal criminals of direct responsibility. He states,
[A]ll rapists are, at bottom, unlucky—being themselves victims of prior causes that they did not create. (46)
He also does not address the role of the rape victim here. According to his thesis, the rape victim could not have been violated against her will, for she has no will. 

At the beginning of the book, Harris gives a lengthy analysis of a gruesome detail a murder that occurred in 2007 committed by two men. He asks himself if the murderers could have acted differently in the moments of the crime. He concludes they could only have acted as they did. In fact, Harris argues that had he been in the place of one of the killers, he, too, would have committed the murder:
As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him. There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or resist the impulse to victimize other people. ... If I had truly been in [the murderer's] shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. (4)
Notice what Harris leaves out of the equation. He does not suppose that he could have inherited the murderer's free will as well. Later in the book, he returns to the subject of crime. He asserts:
[I]ronically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us. Viewing human beings as natural phenomena need not damage our system of criminal justice. ... If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.  (55)
Ignore for the moment, the irony in assuring us he is not dehumanizing humans just as he compares them to "natural phenomena" like "earthquakes and hurricanes." And remember his reference to man as a "neuronal weather pattern." But arguing man is just a "biochemical puppet" who is "ultimately being steered" is about as dehumanizing a view one can imagine. It renders man as just another cluster of atoms or a "neuronal weather pattern" in Harris's own words. Hypothetically, if Harris was right, then any meaning of "humanity" would indeed be stripped. In Harris's universe, "humanity" can be nothing more than a label to distinguish one "natural phenomena" from another. By saying his interpretation of science isn't dehumanizing is merely to say he isn't changing the etymological label.

If his thesis ever became the norm, every criminal defense attorney would be wise to insist the client was innocent of the crime and that the crime isn't even really evil. That is, of course, if the cosmos so "steered" the attorney to think of that idea.

Harris also uses the concepts of earthquakes and hurricanes to argue that we can recognize evil even in things that don't have free will. But these things are only considered "evil" insofar as they are natural evils—not moral evils—that harm persons. No one argues a storm on Venus is committing evil that we would "incarcerate" if we could —because no one is harmed by it. And Harris's thesis does not even allow for an Earthly storm to cause evil because man is just as much a natural phenomenon as the storm. We certainly don't say a storm is behaving "immorally." It's just doing what the laws of nature dictate. And, one cannot recognize evil done to man without having a view of man beyond just another natural phenomenon. Catholics believe man is in the image of the eternally good God and only in this light can a hurricane be said to cause evil. Otherwise, it's just one cluster of atoms colliding with another cluster, like a storm on Venus knocking dust around.

To a certain degree, Harris recognizes the absurdity of using language indicative of free will since he doesn't believe in it himself. For example, he writes:
For most purposes, it makes sense to ignore the deep causes of desires and intentions—genes, synaptic potentials, etc.—and focus instead on the conventional outlines of the person. We do this when thinking about our own choices and behaviors—because it's the easiest way to organize our thoughts and actions. (60)
Thus, when you read or hear Harris talking about decisions or culpability, you shouldn't understand him to mean man is actually responsible for his choices. He simply believes it's "easiest" to think about choices that way. To him, it's not accurate to think of choices, but he finds utility in the language and/or concept (Or, to be more accurate, he believes the cosmos made him think it's the easiest way to organize his thoughts.). This makes interpreting his word use in the book a careful enterprise. For when he says choice, he doesn't mean choice. When he says man can "steer" his life, he really means man is "being steered." He just finds the language of free will an easy "way to organize our thoughts."

He then proceeds to use this language of culpability to justify incarceration of criminals. He writes:
[I]t is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefit to society. … It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe, but once we break the spell of free will, we can do this precisely to the degree that it is useful. ... In improving ourselves and society, we are working directly with the forces of nature, for there is nothing but nature itself to work with.  (62-63)
This quote nonsensical in Harris's universe. Harris says here that we should hold people responsible for their actions. Yet, as we've analyzed above, it is meaningless to assign qualitative terms to the automated mechanics of the universe. There can be no "moral" or "immoral" activity in Harris's description of the universe. There are only jostling particles of the cosmos, directed by the laws of nature, just doing what they do.

Remember, Harris says a rapist is the "victim of prior causes." According to Harris's thesis, the rapist is just another cluster of atoms getting "steered" by the cosmos. The whole "murder" scene, in Harris's universe, is just "what happened" because all the atoms lined up as they did. What we call "murder" and "death" can be, in Harris's universe, nothing more than the natural course of jostling particles of the cosmos, directed by laws of nature, just doing what they do.

We see in the previous quotes where Harris speaks of one type of thought as "making sense." He speaks of some actions as being a "benefit" to society. He speaks of "improving" ourselves and society. He speaks of finding an act "sickening." But none of these concepts can actually exist in Harris's universe. The absence or contrary of every action to which Harris assigns these terms would equally be the result of the laws of physics doing what they do. The concept of "sickening" as Harris uses it in this context is to condemn what occurred. But in Harris's universe, everything is happening exactly as the cosmos conducts. No physical collision of atoms is more or less "sickening" than another. There is no "otherwise," as he himself argues. There is no such thing as "improvement" by the same reasoning. Any prior or future state of an object, person, or situation is always in perfect order as dictated by the laws of nature. Nothing can ever be "improved" upon. Nothing can ever get "worse."

In Harris's material universe, there is really only one set of laws, and those are the "laws of nature." These laws, Harris believes, are never violated. "The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature," (12) he declares of the brain as a physical system. Nothing can happen in physical systems, according to Harris's thesis, that "shouldn't" have happened. So firmly does he believe everything, including every aspect of humanity, is physical, at one point he says:
[C]onsider what would happen if we discovered a cure for human evil. ... Evil would become nothing more than a nutritional deficiency. (55)
But "evil" cannot occur in Harris's universe. Everything that happens is perfectly going according to the laws of nature. There is never a "wrong" thing that can occur, thus no "evil" thing. The only reason Harris even believes "evil" exists, according to his own thesis, is because the cosmic puppeteer, aka laws of nature, delivered that idea to his consciousness.

Any "civil law," according to Harris's thesis, is simply an "idea" in the form of physical particles of the brain, delivered to human minds in a string of particles colliding like dominoes until the idea of that law existed. Any "moral law" one holds would be placed into human minds the same way. "My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos," (19) Harris believes. Humans are "ultimately being steered," (47) he declares.

Therefore, if the idea that "murder is wrong" was planted into the mental life of many humans, and if one of those humans commits "murder," the entire drama would simply be what the particles of the cosmos did, exactly as the laws of nature "steered." Everything unfolded exactly in the only way it could have unfolded. There can never be an occasion of "wrong" taking place in Harris universe. Harris wants to both believe every action in the universe is just another natural phenomena while still claiming some are "good" or "bad," but both propositions cannot coexist.

Consider this, perhaps more profound, thought experiment. Imagine telling your spouse or child: "I love you only because the cosmos steers me as a biochemical puppet to love you. I'm certainly not loving you of my own free will!"

Yet, according to Harris's thesis, this is the base to which "love" must be reduced. After all, the rapist is just "unlucky...the victim of prior causes..." We saw Harris claim: "I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath." So too, in Harris's universe, can no one take credit for having the soul of a lover. Neither the concept of "love," nor "evil," nor "harm," nor "morals," nor "crime," etc. can exist in Harris's universe regardless of his claiming as much.

Supposing what an objector might say, Harris claims:
"If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?" This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen... 
And the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they don't matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn't have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. ... But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being. (33-34)
So what is wrong with this train of thought here? For one, Harris does not confront the challenge issued by his hypothetical inquisitor. Why not just sit around all day? If a person did that, it would simply mean the laws of nature orchestrating the universe eventually steered that person into sitting around all day. So what if nature's puppeteer steered that outcome? There wouldn't be anything more or less "consequential" about physics steering a man to sit all day versus write a book. The laws of nature don't suddenly "matter less" when thy direct a person to sit around all day versus read a book. In either case, the laws of nature would just be doing exactly what they do, and the person in question would still be, according to Harris, just a "conscious witness" of what the cosmos handed his brain.

When Harris says his "choice" is the "primary cause" of an action, it's important to read the next few sentences. In this context, when Harris says his "choice" is the primary "cause" of an action, he means that "choice" was the proximate physical action in a chain of impersonal physics leading to the action. This is essentially the domino effect illustrated earlier. To amplify the essence of Harris's thesis, consider this scenario: Someone pushes you into a bush instead of a tree. Harris's thesis essentially would assign the word "choice" to you, as the proximate subject that went to the bush instead of the tree. If you are confused by Harris's use of the word "choice" here, you are probably not alone. After all, Harris clearly says in the above quote that your "choice" ultimately comes out of "the darkness" of other "causes" that you "did not bring into being." Only in this instrumental sense are you the "primary cause" of your actions, according to his thesis.

Religious students might recognize the resemblance Harris's thesis has to some deterministic Calvinists.
According to [some forms of] Calvinism we are pots and God is the potter; we are only instrumental causes.
(Kreeft and Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1994, Kindle Loc 1616)
These type of Calvinists and Harris attribute "cause" to persons, but only in the sense that they are the instrument through which an act is done. The only difference is the Calvinist says God is steering humans, and Harris believes the "laws of nature" are ultimately "steering" them.

In another section of the book, Harris similarly assigns different values to what would equally be the laws of nature doing what they do. The following quote also includes another example of Harris using words incorrectly.
Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one's thoughts and feelings can-paradoxically-allow for greater creative control over one's life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered). (47)
So what do we have here? First, the idea that one's body can affect mood is hardly a development in scientific or historical thought, much less one that demonstrates the absence of free will. Jesus said to his disciples: "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matt. 26:41) Just recently, I happened across a quote from the late sixth/early seventh century ascetic St. Thalassios the Libyan who wrote in his Four Centuries on the Spiritual Life about things that affect "the body's temperament." These include "lack of restraint in our diet" and "a change in the weather." St. Thalassios also believed in acts "freely chosen." Such an understanding of diet and mood doesn't "reveal" anyone to be a biochemical puppet. The concept of "body and soul" still fits the evidence here. The classic understanding of free will recognizes the influence of the body and even the environment, but rejects the notion that these factors must determine human action independent from the will.

Dr. Peter Kreeft and Dr. Ronald Tacelli, SJ, from the University of Boston explain the classic view with a simple formula:
H + E + FW = A 
Heredity plus environment plus free will equals the human act. Heredity and environment condition our acts, but they do not determine them, as the paints and the frame condition a painting but do not determine it. They are necessary causes but not sufficient causes of freely chosen acts.
(Kreeft and Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1994, Kindle Loc 1609)
Going back to the bickering scene, notice Harris assigns negative character to "bickering" and a "bad mood." But, remember, according to Harris's thesis, the bickering action and the mood came "out of the darkness of prior causes." All the actions, thoughts, and illusory decisions in this scene were given by the "cosmos." It's just a scene of "neuronal weather patterns" in the form of persons. The bickering and bad mood were the laws of nature operating correctly, so to speak. There is no "could have happened otherwise" in this situation. Harris decrying the bickering and bad mood is tantamount to saying even though only one scenario could possibly have unfolded here, the wrong things unfolded. His analysis is unsound.

Notice also in this very quote, Harris asserts that man is a "biochemical puppet." Despite that, Harris says in the same paragraph that man can get "creative control" and "steer" his life in a "more intelligent" way. Then, he finishes by saying we are "of course...ultimately being steered." These latter words are actually the entire theme of the book. When he says a person has "control," he really means that person is a "biochemical puppet." This is another example among many where Harris uses language negligently in the book.

If we understand this bickering scene through the principles of Harris ' thesis, the "chain of causes" unfold this way: the laws of nature steered biological processes, which resulted in a man's blood sugar count to reach a certain level, which, induced the man to have a certain "mood" (which Harris deemed "bad"). Because the cosmos had previously "given" the man's "mental life" an awareness of his biochemical puppetry, the brain process known as a "bad mood" caused the man to eat something in order to move the blood sugar level that resulted in him having a different brain process known as a "better mood." The man and the woman in the scene were "no more responsible" for anything that happened in the scene than that they "were born."

According to Harris's thesis, there was no "control" exerted by the characters in the scene (even though Harris wrongly attributes the term to them). In other parts of the book, Harris even says if you tell a story about what you did, that you are describing "events that you did not control" (35) and that "You are not in control of your mind". (37)

And, to reiterate an earlier discussion, the qualitative statements in the quote are gratuitous. When Harris says a mood is "bad" or a course of life is "more intelligent," he is saying some processes of the laws of nature are "bad" or "intelligent." This remains a nonsensical pattern in the book.

Another way Harris attempts to argue against free will relates to will power. He appeals to occasions when a person desires to accomplish, say, a diet, yet fails to do so. At first, Harris supposes the person fails in losing weight.  Then, one day, the person succeeds in losing weight. He writes:
Yes, you can decide to go on a diet—and we know a lot about the variables that will enable you to stick to it—but you cannot know why you were finally able to adhere to this discipline when all your previous attempts failed. You might have a story to tell about why things were different this time around, but it would be nothing more than a post hoc description of events that you did not control. (35)
Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline—but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t—and you cannot make your own luck. (38)
What is peculiar about this whole section of his book is that the conventional idea of free will doesn't say all physical feats are as easy to do as another. Remember also Jesus saying "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." And a person who believes in traditional free will certainly can understand the dieter as having strengthened his will with practice, just as with any other discipline that improves with practice. To reiterate the classic free will formula as described by Kreeft and Tacelli, human action is heredity plus environment plus free will. Pointing out the influence of the body or environment is not evidence against traditional free will.

But let's analyze Harris's words closer. We already know by this point that Harris has dismissed the existence of free will. So, his example of the dieter trying and failing several times is irrelevant. Harris would deny the dieter free will if the dieter had succeeded on one attempt.

Harris claims that if a person had a "soul" it wouldn't offer any freedom either. He asserts this early in the book:
The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature—and there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional state and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions. But even if the human mind were made of soul-stuff, nothing about my argument would change. The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does. (12)
He makes a categorical error here by assuming the soul operates according to the same sort of "laws of nature" that the physical processes of the brain do. His assertion only has merit if the soul operates by the same laws of nature he has assigned to it, otherwise his position unravels. But his assertion is gratuitous. At best, Harris can only say he doesn't know how the soul operates if it existed because he has never observed it scientifically.

When Harris described the murder scene at the beginning of the book, he also briefly touched on the idea of a soul.
Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in [the killer's] shoes... if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive. (4)
Here again, Harris treats the soul as something interchangeable with the operations of the physical brain. And we know Harris believes the brain is "entirely beholden to the laws of nature." After asserting that the soul and brain are subject to the same laws of nature, subject to think only what the dominoes of the cosmos knock into to it, Harris claims no "intellectually respectable position" can be used to deny his conclusion. But, not only will we see scientists later in this article who do not share Harris's understanding of the science, but Harris's categorical conflation of the soul with the brain renders his position logically defective.

Harris denies that his argument depends on "materialism." (11) However, his book is fixated on the material. As we just saw, he dismisses the idea of a soul's influence on the grounds that it, too, must operate by material laws. At one point, Harris imagines a fictional "brain scanner" (23) that can predict 100% of human action. He says of this fictional brain scanner:
We know we could perform such an experiment, at least in principle, and if we tuned the machine correctly, subjects would feel that we were reading their minds (or controlling them)." (23) 
But even this fictional brain scanner can only detect physical activity.  By assuming the soul would operate in the same way, Harris's argument indeed depends entirely on "materialism." His interpretation of material "laws of nature" are his only recourse in the book.

Later, Harris goes on the offensive against religion:
This shift in understanding [i.e. what Harris believes is a movement toward his way of thinking] represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity—and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics. Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin–which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next. (55)
His assertions are nonsensical. First, his qualitative assertions of "progress" and "deeper," "more compassionate," "cruelty," and "harsh" are not merely unscientific claims, but, again, cannot exist in Harris's universe. The culprit for all those things is ultimately the laws of nature, not the idea of the immortal soul, which Harris believes was planted in human minds by the cosmos anyway.

Second, Harris has his own concept of "sin." As we saw earlier, we saw Harris refer to some acts as evil. He even hypothesizes about a "cure for human evil." His doctrine includes some type of "sin" in his material world (which, of course, makes no sense since everything is steered standardly by the laws of nature and never deviates from those laws). Harris merely doesn't use the word "sin." He just argues for different consequences to such evil acts, such as "incarceration," an imposed medicinal "cure," or no consequence if the subject can get away with it.

Third, his aversion to an "immortal soul" is stated with no apologetic but rather that sin can lead to "eternal punishment." Yes. But so what. Harris also ignores the selfless virtue many saints believing in the immortal soul have achieved. But the truth of a concept is not dependent on whether it can lead to harsh or nice consequences. Harris commits here a basic Appeal to Consequences fallacy.

Harris might do well to be less hasty in rejecting the idea of an immortal soul. For an immortal soul endowed with a free will would account for everything about this issue that confuses him. Consider Harris's admitted confusion in this sample montage from his book:
Why didn't [a different choice] arise this morning? Why might it arise in the future? I cannot know. (8) Why didn't I decide to drink a glass of juice? (19) [H]ow can you account for... How can you explain... How can you explain... you cannot know why... you cannot know why... reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable... (36-37) What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery (40) [W]hen I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. ... But why did I read this book? I have no idea. And why did I find it compelling? And why was it sufficient to provoke action on my part? And why so much action? ... What in hell is going on here? [T]he actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me. (43) Why did I order beer instead of wine? ... Why do I prefer it? I don't know... (60) [W]e can't make sense of [free will] in scientific terms (64) Why didn't I put an elephant in that sentence? I don't know. ... [H]ow could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice. (65)
It would serve the likes of Harris well not to deride what he sees as a "religious" answer when he has "no idea" what is truly behind his choices. Imagine the irony of Harris writing a book about a mystery solved by the very things his thesis denies.


Let's take a closer look at where Harris derives his view that free will does not exist. He describes early in the book an experiment known as the "Libet experiment" and others like it. The Libet experiment of the early 1980s showed certain activity in the brain prior to a person's conscious awareness of making a decision. Subjects were told to identify at what moment a moving dot on a clock they became aware of having made a decision. Harris describes it thusly:
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain's motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. (8)
In the remainder of that paragraph, Harris cites two other similar experiments since that time. He then asserts:
One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this "decision" and believe that you are in the process of making it. (9)
You can see from this conclusion why he elsewhere asserts he is just the "conscious witness of my experience." (42) You can see why he asserts "My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos." (19) You can also see how, in Harris's understanding of the universe, man can be understood as nothing less than an automaton, equally enslaved to the laws of nature, a "biochemical puppet, a "neuronal weather pattern."

Is Harris's conclusion that neuroscience disproves free will universally accepted by other scientists?

No. Let's take a look:
First of all, it does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it.  It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions.  If we assume that conscious decisions have neural correlates, then we should expect to find early signs of those correlates “ramping up” to the moment of consciousness.  It would be miraculous if the brain did nothing at all until the moment when people became aware of a decision to move.  … The early neural activity measured in the experiments likely represents these urges or other preparations for movement that precede conscious awareness. (Eddy Nahmias, associate professor at Georgia State University department of philosophy and the Neuroscience Institute, Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? Nov. 13, 2011). 
The evidence for conscious causation of behavior is profound, extensive, adaptive, multifaceted, and empirically strong. However, conscious causation is often indirect and delayed, and it depends on interplay with unconscious processes. Consciousness seems especially useful for enabling behavior to be shaped by nonpresent factors and by social and cultural information, as well as for dealing with multiple competing options or impulses. It is plausible that almost every human behavior comes from a mixture of conscious and unconscious processing. (Roy Baumeister, social psychologist, Florida State University - College of Arts & Sciences; E. J. Masicampo, post-doctoral fellow in Psychology, Tufts University; Kathleen Vohs, PhD in psychological and brain sciences, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities - Carlson School of Management, Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior? Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 62, pp. 331-361, 2011)
In a modified version of Libet’s experiment in which participants were asked to press one of two buttons in response to images on a computer screen. The participants showed “readiness potential” even before the images came up on the screen, suggesting that it was not related to deciding which button to press. (Steve Taylor, PhD, senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK, Benjamin Libet and The Denial of Free Will: How Did a Flawed Experiment Become so Influential?, Psychology Today, September 5, 2017)
In addition to that quote, Dr. Taylor's article lists at least 4 other problems with citing the Libet experiment as evidence disproving free will:
  • It relies on the participants’ subjective claim of intention.
  • The complexity of most decisions aren’t clearly binary as in the experiment.
  • It is not clear that the electrical activity of the “readiness potential” is related to the decision to move.
  • Others have suggested the “will” is associated with a different part of the brain that what Libet measured.
Benjamin Libet has argued that electrophysiological signs of cortical movement preparation are present before people report having made a conscious decision to move, and that these signs constitute evidence that voluntary movements are initiated unconsciously. This controversial conclusion depends critically on the assumption that the electrophysiological signs recorded by Libet, Gleason, Wright, and Pearl (1983) are associated only with preparation for movement. We tested that assumption by comparing the electrophysiological signs before a decision to move with signs present before a decision not to move. There was no evidence of stronger electrophysiological signs before a decision to move than before a decision not to move, so these signs clearly are not specific to movement preparation. We conclude that Libet’s results do not provide evidence that voluntary movements are initiated unconsciously. (Judy Trevena, Department of Psychological Medicine, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, New Zealand; Jeff Miller, Department of Psychology, University of Otago, New Zealand; Abstract of Brain preparation before a voluntary action: Evidence against unconscious movement initiation; Consciousness and CognitionVolume 19, Issue 1, March 2010)
Another interesting scientific perspective on this matter comes from Dr. John-Dylan Haynes of Charit√© - Universit√§tsmedizin in Berlin. The following two quotes suggest he reversed position on this matter between 2008 and 2016. Compare:
Our decisions are predetermined unconsciously a long time before our consciousness kicks in. I think it says there is no free will. (Haynes, quoted in Machine detects our decisions before we know them, New Scientist, April 16, 2008) 
A person’s decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves. They are able to actively intervene in the decision-making process and interrupt a movement. Previously people have used the preparatory brain signals to argue against free will. Our study now shows that the freedom is much less limited than previously thought. (Haynes, quoted in Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce, February 3, 2016)


There are at least two ways to react logically to Harris's thesis that free will is an illusion.

First, consider the character of the universe Harris asserts. Everything is physical and "beholden to the laws of nature." Man is a "biochemical puppet," a "neuronal weather pattern," who is "ultimately being steered." Man's mental life is "given" to him "by the cosmos." Every action is "fully determined" by preceding states of the universe, like dominoes obedient to physics. Due to these and similar sentiments in Harris book, the idea that morality can still exist in such a universe is nonsensical. His arguments about "good" or "evil" contradict a universe that is always unfolding exactly as the laws of nature prescribe. In Harris's universe, the "wrong" thing can never happen.

Second, according to comments by many other scientists, Harris's interpretation of certain experiments is by no means universally accepted. It's important to recognize Harris's view on free will is an interpretation of science, not something he empirically observed. Professor Nahmias articulates this when he states of Libet-esque experiments: "[I]t does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it.  It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions."

Related post: Why science can't answer moral questions

Thursday, December 14, 2017

How Colorado unwittingly sided with Masterpiece Cakeshop in the SCOTUS hearing

During the Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC) case before the Supreme Court of the United States, an attorney for Colorado unwittingly sided with Masterpiece Cakeshop.1

A quick summary of the case is that a gay couple in 2012 wanted Masterpiece Cakeshop to make them a rainbow-filled custom cake in celebration of their gay "wedding." Shop owner Jack Phillips is a religious man opposed to the concept of gay "marriage" and so chose not to affiliate his cake artistry in celebration of a gay "wedding" ceremony. Attorneys for Masterpiece argued that free speech protects their client from being compelled to make speech—in this case the artistic expression of a custom cake—contrary to his beliefs.

There are many facets to this case and the December 5 SCOTUS hearing worth discussing, including free speech, what verdicts should be rendered, or what laws might be best in a free market. But the purpose of this blog post is to focus on the apparently inadvertent concession made by CCRC.


In the middle of the hearing, an exchange took place between Justices Alito and Sotomayor and Frederick Yarger, solicitor general on behalf of CCRC.
YARGER: Mr. Phillips would not be required to sell a cake to a gay couple that he wouldn't sell to his other customers.
Justice Alito interjected:
JUSTICE ALITO: Mr. Phillips would not— do you disagree with the fact that he would not sell to anybody a wedding cake that expresses approval of same-sex marriage?
Yarger does not answer the question directly but admits his case requires the presence of discrimination based on the identity of the customer:
YARGER: What he may not do as a public accommodation that offers to the public ... is decide that he won't sell somebody a product that he would otherwise sell because in his view the identity of the customer changes the message.
JUSTICE ALITO: No, he didn't say the identity. He said the message.
Crosstalk occurred until Justice Sotomayor interjected:
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: I'm sorry, could you answer the question asked?  Let's assume this couple did come in and wanted the rainbow cake. ... And this gentleman says one of two things:  If you're same-sex, I'm not going to provide you with a rainbow cake or I don't create rainbow cakes for weddings because I don't believe in same-sex marriage.  I'm not going to sell it to you. I'm not going to sell it to a same (sic)— a heterosexual couple.  I just don't want to be affiliated with that concept of rainbowness at a wedding, any kind of wedding.
Yarger then repeated the parameter which would unravel his own case if true:
YARGER: Justice Sotamayor, in that latter case, if that was truly a product he wouldn't sell to any other customer, he wouldn’t sell to any other customer, he would not have to sell it to this customer.
In these words, Yarger has conceded his own position. Both Justices Alito and Sotomayor asked if it was okay if a business refused to sell even a heterosexual couple the same cake for the same purpose. Alito even referred to it as "fact" that Phillips would not serve to anyone a cake celebrating a gay "marriage." Thus, Yarger cannot say the refusal of service was based on the identity of the customer.

To look at it another way, if a heterosexual couple entered the store to buy a cake, the heterosexual couple would be the customer. If that heterosexual customer wanted a rainbow cake to bring to a gay "wedding," Mr. Phillips would have refused. The sexual orientation of the customer is not a determining factor in producing the cake in question. The customer could be gay or straight, and the business owner would refuse either way. Therefore, CCRC cannot argue that Masterpiece would sell the same product to one identity but not another. CCRC, by the admission of their own counsel, have no case.


Shortly, thereafter, Justice Alito and Yarger held another exchange to the exact same effect:
JUSTICE ALITO: So if someone came in and said: I want a cake for— to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and I want it to say November 9, the best day in history, okay, sells them the cake. Somebody else comes in, wants exactly the same words on the cake, he says: Oh, is this your anniversary? He says: No, we're going to have a party to celebrate Kristallnacht. He would have to do that?
Notice what Alito did here. He came up with a scenario that 1) excludes the identity of the customers; 2) features the identical product for both customers; and 3) features a different purpose for the product. Yarger is thus forced to ignore the identity of the customer or any features of the product. Yarger is forced to address whether the purpose of the cake is a viable reason for refusing service. And, once again, he concedes exactly that:
MR. YARGER: Your Honor, that wouldn't be— 
JUSTICE ALITO: It's exactly the same words. 
MR. YARGER: It is, Your Honor. I haven't— I don't— that would be a question about whether there is a even-handed, genuine policy applied by the baker that doesn't have to do with the identity of the customer. And if it has to do with a message that is apart from the identity of the customer, then he can refuse that.
Phillips has additional precedent because he has knowingly served multiple gay customers in the past. Their identity cannot reasonably be said to be a factor if Masterpiece only refuses service to those customers—and customers of other identities—for the same type of event. Clearly, the event—in this case the celebration of a gay "wedding"—is the catalyst in refusing service, not the identity of the customer. Phillips has also refused service for a variety of other messages independent of the customer's identity, including refusing to make Halloween cakes, divorce cakes, and even cakes that have anti-gay messages on them.

Because customer identity is not a determining factor in this case nor in the hypotheticals posited by the Justices quoted above, CCRC has no case by their own unwitting admission.