Sunday, February 03, 2013

Morality not dependent on behavior being unpredictable

By Mathew Goldstein

In the monthly WASH bulletin there is another article on free will titled "Free will and Hell" written by he coordinator of the Baltimore chapter. As before, it describes Daniel Dennett's perspectives as he discussed them at John Hopkins University. I will spare the readers a discussion of every one of my disagreements and agreements with that article in detail. Instead I will briefly comment on the start of the third paragraph which follows:

"A concept of free will is necessary for morality because no individual can predict exactly what another will do. Many human actions are based on internal motivations or patterns of neurons that can't be observed. The actions appear random to anyone who doesn't know the person. The behavior is not free in the sense of being undetermined by physical causes, but it is free in the sense of being unpredictable by a casual observer."

We are free provided that we are not compelled to act according to someone else's dictate. This distinction between self-originating action and actions that are intended to comply with a behavioral demand of someone else is important. Even to the extent our behavior may be predictable it is still free provided it is an action that is self-selected. It is not true that we are free because our actions are not predictable.

Anything that is complex can be difficult to predict, not necessarily because it isn't predictable in principle, but because we would need to know about many physical properties and interactions that would require technology that we don't have. Also, the process of measuring things on the small scale can disturb the activity that is being measured. Predictability tends to diminish with time, so even with future technology we may be able to predict a given behavioral choice only a second or less in advance. That future is almost here as neuroscientists have demonstrated that they can translate information obtained from monitoring neurons into behavioral predictions, albeit in restricted contexts and without complete accuracy. But even to the extent that we could reliably predict behaviors, those predicted behaviors would still be free behaviors.

I also disagree that behaviors being unpredictable equates with free will or that either is necessary for morality. Free will is about minds having agency that is free from materialistic cause and effect constraints. Morality is about actions or inactions that harm or constrain people and our environment. They are different concepts and morality is not dependent on behaviors being unpredictable.

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