Like so many contemporary evangelists for humanism, Pinker takes for granted that science endorses an Enlightenment account of human reason. Since science is a human creation, how could humans not be rational? Surely science and humanism are one and the same. Actually it’s extremely curious—though entirely typical of current thinking—that science should be linked with humanism in this way. A method of inquiry rather than a settled view of the world, there can be no guarantee that science will vindicate Enlightenment ideals of human rationality. Science could just as well end up showing them to be unrealisable.True enough: Science could do that. In his book, Straw Dogs, Dr. Gray seems convinced that it has done that: that humanity's free will is a sort of illusion. He is joined in this assertion by many neuroscientists:
Of course, people still commit innumerable bad actions, but the idea that people make conscious decisions to hurt or harm is no longer sustainable, say the new brain scientists. For one thing, there is no such thing as "free will" with which to decide to commit evil. (Like evil, free will is an antiquated concept for most.) Autonomous, conscious decision-making itself may well be an illusion. And thus intentional evil is impossible.
We have spoken about this problem before, but it's worth taking a moment to note that the notion is doubly self-rejecting. The most obvious self-rejecting sense is when you ask about the consequences of these ideas. If we believe this, shouldn't we reform criminal justice in order to avoid punishing those who are merely being driven to evil? But if we can reform the criminal justice system, in response merely to a concept that troubles our conscious minds, doesn't that mean that we do have some degree of free will after all? In that case, we shouldn't reform the system after all.
One of the scientists interviewed gets this.
Marks' paper warns of "aggressive marketing" of fMRI scans by intelligence-contractor types as "lie detector" substitutes that could be used to select candidates for "enhanced interrogation" if their fMRI indicates potential deception under ordinary interrogation.
And he offered what I thought was one of the wisest responses to the debate over the existence of evil (and thus free will):
What he suggested is that we ought to act as if we had free will to choose good or evil.That happens to be Kant's solution to the problem as well, from the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals. "I say every being that cannot act except under the idea of freedom is just for that reason in a practical point of view really free[.]" Well, in order to act to change the system, you must have the idea that you are free to act to change the system.
The second way in which the argument is self-refuting is the one in which the rejection of evil produces very clear examples of evil. The reviewer is clear about this in spite of himself.
He actually goes so far as to say, "Some people will need to be taken off the streets," on the basis of their fMRIs, "for a longer time (even a life time)." Neuroscientific totalitarianism invades your brain! The ultimate panopticon. No one seemed to notice or to care. It's science!
No mention of constitutional rights or preemptive detention or the Orwellian implications of this for radical dissenters, say, those whose rage against injustice might need to be toned down in the brain gyms.
I hesitate to say it, but these are evil ideas.So the concept refutes itself insofar as it suggests an action we should not be able to take if the concept is actually true; and the concept refutes itself in that it produces clear examples of what it denies exist. Dr. Gray and the others following this line are simply mistaken.
That is not to say that the Enlightenment view can be recovered in the wake of what we have learned about neuroscience. I think it cannot be; it is clear that both sub/pre-conscious decisions are often made, and that we are much more informed by the physical nature of our surroundings than was obvious previously.
Yet it is also clear -- follow the third link above for the argument -- that we do make decisions consciously that inform these pre/sub-conscious processes. We do have some degree of mastery over our fate, at least some free will. What does that mean?
I suspect it means that the neoplatonists were right after all. We need a new model for consciousness, one that recognizes both the connection between all things that Plotinus and others saw (an animating force, anima in the Greek, that St. Augustine appears to accept in some of his writings), and also the individual spirit that both Plotinus and the Christian neoplatonists agree upon (for Plotinus, this is the daimon). Insofar as you have a spirit, you are free. Insofar as you participate in the life force that binds the world, naturally you are infused and moved by it. A ship is not free of the ocean that gives it purpose and defines its structure, and which moves the ship as well.
This is a subject that needs much more argument, but it is the place where I think the truth must lie.