Thursday, August 31, 2017

Laws of Nature Disprove Free Will? The Internal Contradiction in Claiming That

Invoking His Sophisticated Understanding of the Law of Causality, Spinoza Commits the Stolen Concept Fallacy

Stuart K. Hayashi

Portrait of Spinoza from 1665; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Roderick Fitts’s essay on free will, “The Freedom of Human Action,” has given me new insight. It pointed out that at least some understanding of the Law of Causality — of the causal link between cause and effect — is implicit in long-term decision-making. I want outcome Y instead of outcome B. I ascertain that doing X will result in outcome Y, whereas doing A will result in outcome B. Therefore, choose to do X instead of A.

This conflicts with Spinoza’s argument that the Law of Causality precludes free will. If Spinoza is correct that the Law of Causality precludes free will, how can Roderick Fitts argue that some recognition of cause-and-effect connections is implicit in exercises of free will?

Brief Summary of What Spinoza’s Argument Is and What It Overlooks
I have already summarized Spinoza’s argument and given my rebuttal to it. But I will review briefly here. (This link to all my blog posts on free will.)

Spinoza’s argument against free will is as follows: when you observe objects and come to understand the nature/identity of each object observed, you find that one event will yield an easily predictable outcome. The event is an entity — a storm cloud — raining down on another entity, a rock. The rock erodes. Moreover, the storm cloud raining down on the rock caused the rock to erode. Due to the respective natures of both storm clouds and rocks, in any instance wherein a storm cloud drops rain on a rock, the rock will erode. That is because of the nature of rocks; the rock could not do anything else. For a rock to respond to any other manner under those conditions would be contrary to the rock's nature as a rock, contrary to the Law of Identity. If you understand the Law of Identity, and the respective natures of each entity in a situation, you know how the entity being acted upon (in this case, a rock) will act in response.

Spinoza then points out that human beings are also entities — we humans are entities no less than rocks are. Accordingly, the Law of Causality is just as applicable to human beings as it is applicable to rocks. To Spinoza, it follows that human beings are just as predictable as rocks are when heavy rain falls on rocks. It also follows that no human being is proactive but is only reactive to outside stimuli, just as a rock only reacts to outside stimuli. For a human to have free will, that human would have to be proactive, not merely reactive.

As Spinoza puts it,

...nature is always the same... ...that is, nature's laws and ordinances, whereby all things come to pass and change, from one form to another, are everywhere and always the same; so that there should be one and the same method of understanding the nature of all things whatsoever, namely, through nature's universal laws and rules. Thus the [human] passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from this same [metaphysical] necessity [meaning the same mechanistic determinism of cause-and-effect] and efficacy of nature; they answer to certain definite causes, through which they are understood... I shall, therefore,...consider human actions and desires in exactly the same though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.

Spinoza’s argument overlooks (1) in Nature, an unprecedented effect can occur (this is called an Emergent Property) and (2) that the respective Laws of Identity and Causality are valid does not preclude an unprecedented phenomenon (an Emergent Property) from occurring. What an Emergent Property means is this: when particular physical components end up arranged in most particular arrangements, usually nothing new happens. However, when those physical components end up arranged in a particularly fortuitous matter, something unprecedented can occur.

As an example, all of the chemicals that make life possible were already on Earth for billions of years before there were any organisms. When those chemicals ended up being arranged in most possible arrangements, nothing new happened — and that was for billions of years. But one day, those chemicals ended up in an arrangement that resulted in something unprecedented: the first primitive organism emerged. Hence the respective Laws of Identity and Causality being contextual absolutes, which apply consistently in most circumstances for millennia, does not preclude unprecedented phenomena from occurring. And the presence of volition in organisms started off as an Emergent Property. That is why the respective Laws of Identity and Causality can apply consistently in most contexts and remain contextually absolute even if there are natural phenomena that are not as predictable as what happens to a rock when it is rained upon heavily.

Now I will get to how, when Spinoza invokes the Law of Causality to deny free will, he falls prey to the Stolen Concept fallacy. Objectivists are familiar with how a commentator such as Sam Harris engages in this fallacy when he tries to persuade you to reject the idea of free will. (My longer rebuttal to Sam Harris is over here.) If everything you do is a foregone conclusion — being the result of unconscious processes (Sam Harris says your conscious mind only rationalizes taking the action that your unconscious reptilian brain compelled you to perform) — then it is pointless for him to try to convince your conscious mind to change its opinion. Any time a debater tries to convince you to reject the idea of free will, it is premised on the implicit recognition that what your opinion will be by that argument’s end is not a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, when it comes to Sam Harris’s case in particular, it is self-contradictory for him to attempt to appeal to your conscious mind when he argues that it is not the conscious mind that is behind the steering wheel anyway.

Objectivists are familiar with that argument, but that argument only places emphasis on the implicit fact that the person to whom the appeal is being made is the person who possesses free will. I want to point out the other side. The person pitching his own argument against free will — be it Sam Harris or Spinoza — also relies on the implicit recognition of free will as he comes to that anti-free will conclusion. Indeed, Spinoza would be relying on an implicit recognition of his own free will even if Spinoza kept his own conclusions against free will in his own head and never tried to sell anyone on those arguments.

For a Philosopher to Gain a Sophisticated Understanding of the Law of Causality, He Must Recognize Free Will, At Least Implicitly

The reasons are:

  1. To make any major philosophic inquiry is a long-term decision. That means:
  2. To make a philosophic inquiry is an exercise of free will. And:
  3. To reach a sophisticated philosophic understanding the Law of Causality is a philosophic inquiry. That means:
  4. To reach a sophisticated philosophic understanding of the Law of Causality, one must exercise free will.

It is not merely the case that when Spinoza tries to convince you that you have no free will, Spinoza is implicitly recognizing that you do have free will after all. It is the case that even if Spinoza tried to convince no one else — if he only sought to form his own conclusions and keep them to himself — the very act of launching into an erudite inquiry about the Law of Causality itself is an exercise in free will. Before Spinoza initiated his inquiry about the Law of Causality, he recognized there were two possible outcomes:

  • Y – Spinoza has a confident, philosophically sophisticated conclusion about whether there is a Law of Causality, a conclusion supported by solid reasoning.
  • B – Spinoza has no firm conclusion about whether there is a Law of Causality; he is agnostic on it.

Spinoza wanted outcome Y instead of outcome B. And he recognized that action X led to outcome Y whereas action A led to outcome B. These are the two possible options available to him:

  • X – Spinoza initiates a philosophic inquiry on whether there is a Law of Causality, meaning whether causality — cause-and-effect — applies consistently.
  • A – Spinoza refrains from launching into a philosophic inquiry on this.

Per Roderick Fitts’s explanation, Spinoza wanted outcome Y instead of outcome B, and therefore he chose action X over action A. And that was an action of free will. The exercise of free will is a prerequisite into a sophisticated philosophic investigation of Causality — this applies even if the investigator never discloses his findings to anyone else. Spinoza invokes his sophisticated understanding of the Law of Causality to deny free will, and yet one must exercise free will to acquire a sophisticated philosophic understanding of the Law of Causality. Hence, even if Spinoza did not try to convince anyone else about the invalidity of the idea of free will, for Spinoza even to conclude in the privacy of his own mind that there is no free will, he must implicitly recognize his own free will and act on that free will.

Wait; Am I Contradicting Myself Over Whether It’s Recognition of Free Will or Recognition of Causality That Comes First?
At this point, a critic might say that I am the one who is contradicting himself. The critic can say,

First you stated agreement with Roderick Fitts that within every act of free will there is, at least on an implicit level, a recognition of the Law of Causality. That would imply that someone understands causation before one exercises free will by choosing one alternative over another. But then you argue that for someone to arrive at a sophisticated, philosophically literate understanding of the Law of Causality, one must both exercise free will and, at least on an implicit level, acknowledge the existence of one’s own free will. But that would imply that someone acknowledges his own free will before coming to understand causation. Well, which is it?

Here is the difference: you do not need to engage in a conscious, long-term decision-making process to grasp causation on a primitive, implicit level. However, for you to gain a sophisticated, philosophically literate comprehension of the Law of Causality, you do need to engage in a conscious, long-term decision-making process while recognizing, at least on an implicit level, that this is an implementation of free will. Therefore, this is what happened: Spinoza first understood causality on a primitive, implicit/unconscious level. It was with that primitive, implicit/unconscious acknowledgment of causality that he first exercised free will. Then he exercised free will in order to gain his sophisticated, philosophically literate comprehension of the Law of Causality.

As noted by child researcher Alison Gopnik in her book The Philosophical Baby, psychologists have conducted controlled experiments on babies that evince that this is the case. In both the control and experimental samples, a baby is placed under a mobile. In the experimental sample, the mobile is tied to the baby’s leg and, when the baby moves her leg, it moves the mobile. In the control sample, nothing ties the baby to the mobile; the mobile moves independently. The babies in the experimental sample stare at the mobile for longer periods of time than do the babies in the control sample, and it is always after the baby has caused the mobile to move. From this, the psychologists infer that the babies in the experimental sample show more interest than those in the control sample exactly because the babies in the experimental sample are first coming to grasp, at least implicitly, that it is their own movements that are causing the mobile’s movements.

This suggests that when a person first comes to understand causality on an implicit, primitive level, that was not the result of some conscious decision. However, we do know that when someone gains a strong and sophisticated philosophical understanding of the Law of Causality, such as Spinoza’s, that is attributable to that person making the conscious long-term decision to study the Law of Causality. And we know that that conscious, long-term decision, picked among various possible options, was an exercise in free will.

Hence, Spinoza both exercised free will and implicitly (but not consciously) understood his own free will in order to come to his sophisticated, philosophically literate comprehension of the Law of Causality. But then he improperly invoked that sophisticated, philosophically literate comprehension of the Law of Causality to deny the existence of free will. That is how his argument commits the Stolen Concept fallacy.

And here is another way that that happens: recognition of any entity as an object that is impacted upon is contingent on the presence of a subject (a conscious observer, such as you) observing that entity as an object. In this context, “object” refers to an entity being observed and the “subject” refers to the consciousness that is observing the object. That is, the subject is a conscious person doing the observing (in this case, you in particular). In this context, the “subject” has agency; it can choose which particular objects it does or does not place its focus upon. In Spinoza’s argument, all conscious, decision-making humans are treated only as objects that are acted upon; his argument overlooks that there are any subjects possessing any agency. But no entities could be recognized as objects if not for there being a subject — you — to focus on them. And which objects you do or do not focus on, depends on your agency — that is, your exercise of free will.

No, Spinoza, an understanding of causality does not preclude free will. On the contrary, a recognition of causality, at least on an implicit and simple level, is what helps someone exercise free will.

On September 2, 2017, I changed every use of the word causation to the word causality.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'Tax Burden Justifies Immigration Restriction': Argument the Right Stole from Nanny-State Left

Stuart K. Hayashi

Screen shot from the motion picture "Born in East L.A.,"
prod. Peter Macgregor-Scott, dir. Cheech Marin (Universal Pictures, 1987).

I point out that a free republic allows for anything that is peaceful. If I want to lodge Mexicans on my land, and they want to lodge on my land, then there's no reason for the State to initiate the use of force upon us; this shouldn't even require a license from the government (visa). To this, the right-wing anti-immigrationists reply that it is their business, because we have a welfare state, and therefore, to reduce the tax burden, immigrants should be kept out. Then I say that anyone genuinely concerned about reducing the tax burden would demand cutting back government spending per se, having everyone -- native-born and foreign-born alike -- pay their own way. Then the right-wing anti-immigrationists say, "But the welfare state is never going away. Just accept it. The best we can do to reduce the tax burden is to restrict immigration." That's actually an argument they stole from left-wingers: specifically, the left-winger advocates of the Nanny State.

Attorney John Banzhaf, former Obama adviser Cass Sunstein, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg lead the left-wing health police, saying the government should police your health. They want to protect you from your own lifestyle choices, such as imposing taxes on soda and other sugary beverages. To this, right-wing people generally point out that this is none of Cass Sunstein's business; if a right-wing man wants to drink lots of Coca-Cola, that is none of the government's business. To this, the left-wing health police reply, "But it is my business! Taxpayer funds now pay for everyone's health care, and, everything else being equal, healthcare spending on the obese is higher than it is for the non-obese. Therefore, to reduce the tax burden, we are justified in policing choices that contribute to obesity." To that, right-wing people properly respond that the solution is to cut government spending on healthcare across-the-board and let everyone pay their own way.

Now, how would those right-wing people like it if the left-wing health police said this?: "But taxpayer-funded healthcare is never going away. Just accept it. The best we can do to reduce the tax burden is to police people's health-related lifestyle choices."

Don't you think that right-wing people would properly rejoin?: "No, it's still none of your business. What I do with my own body peaceably is none of your business, and your citation of taxpayer funding doesn't justify policing what I may or may not peaceably consume."

If that's the case, then when it comes to immigration, the legitimate rejoinder to these right-wing anti-immigratoinists is, "No, it's still none of your business. The national origins of whom I invite peaceably onto my own land is none of your business, and your citation of taxpayer funding doesn't justify policing whom I may or may not peaceably invite onto my land."

Yet many of the same right-wing people who accept, as valid, that final rebuttal against the health police are the same people who arbitrarily reject that very same rebuttal when applied to the issue of immigration control.

When someone point outs that the real way to reduce the tax burden is to de-socialize medicine and let everyone pay their own way, the Nanny-State health police refuse to relent on their need to police your health. From that, I conclude that their claim to care about rolling back the tax burden is disingenuous; the real priority is to micromanage other people's lifestyle choices.

Likewise, when someone points out that the real way to reduce the tax burden is to shrink the welfare state for everyone and let everyone pay their own way and to have private charity, the anti-immigrationists refuse to relent on the supposed need to restrict immigration. From that, I conclude that their claim to care about rolling back the tax burden is disingenuous; the real priority is to block immigrants from poor countries in general.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

My Three Arguments for Free Will

Stuart K. Hayashi

There are three arguments repeatedly given against free will; I shall address them here.

Portrait of Spinoza from 1665; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

1 of 3: Does the Law of Cause-and-Effect Preclude Free Will, As Spinoza Insists?
For a long time, I struggled with Baruch Spinoza's argument against free will, which says that the Law of Causality/the Law of Cause-and-Effect precludes any entity from possessing free will. You may recall that I dealt with that argument before here, but, as a refresher, the argument goes: when we observe the Law of Identity with natural objects, we find that once we understand their nature, they become eminently predictable. For example, rain clouds, rocks, asteroids, and comets are all entities, each has its own nature. We can think of what happens when a rain cloud drops rain drops on a rock. What happens is that the rain pouring down on the rock will cause the rock to erode. Based on the respective natures of rain clouds and rocks, we know that any time a rain cloud rains down on a rock, the rain pouring down will cause a specific effect, the effect being the erosion of the rock. Once we know the natures of entities, we observe that under the same circumstances in the future, the entities will behave in the same manner as they did before; they are mechanistic and predictable. When rain falls on a rock, the rock will erode, and we know that the rock, by its nature, will not behave in any other manner; for the rock unexpectedly to react differently would be contrary to the rock's identity.

Spinoza's argument continues that humans are entities. Doesn't this mean that once we know the nature of human beings, and then observe how humans usually behave in a specific circumstance, that circumstance's re-occurrence will cause the human to behave exactly the same as before? Doesn't that mean that human beings, then, are just as mechanistic and predictable in their actions as a rock that has rain drops pouring down on it? Does the application of the Law of Identity and the Law of Causality (and the Law of Causality is the Law of Identity as applied to action) preclude free will in human beings? Spinoza says the answer is yes.

In Spinoza's words,

...nature is always the same... ...that is, nature's laws and ordinances, whereby all things come to pass and change, from one form to another, are everywhere and always the same; so that there should be one and the same method of understanding the nature of all things whatsoever, namely, through nature's universal laws and rules. Thus the [human] passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from this same [metaphysical] necessity [meaning the same mechanistic determinism of cause-and-effect] and efficacy of nature; they answer to certain definite causes, through which they are understood... I shall, therefore,...consider human actions and desires in exactly the same though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.

I like neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga's reply to Spinoza. Spinoza overlooked the occurrences of emergent properties. To recognize emergent properties in Nature is to reconcile the Law of Causality with free will. The idea behind Emergent Properties is that a set of components can be arranged in various fashions and, usually, nothing new happens; those components remain nothing more than the sum of the parts. However, there are cases in which those components, being arranged in a particular fashion, will educe an unprecedented phenomenon.

An example would be how the first microorganisms emerged from nonliving matter. For billions of years, the exact same chemicals existed on Earth. The chemicals react with one another but, for the most part, those reactions do not educe any unprecedented phenomenon. But one fateful day, when those chemicals were arranged in a particularly fortuitous fashion, it resulted not only in a chemical reaction, but a chemical reaction unlike any other. If you arrange chemicals in most arrangements, nothing new happens. However, one day four billion years ago, the chemicals were arranged in such a fashion that the first primitive organisms emerged: living organisms emerged from nonliving matter. That new phenomenon is the Emergent Property.

The net profit in utility that emerges from voluntary trade and cooperation is also an Emergent Property. Suppose that when you and I work alone, you produce 100 units of wealth, and I produce only 17. However, what if we work together to produce a new machine that is more efficient than what any one person could do through manual labor? As a consequence of our working together, you produce 10,000 units of wealth, whereas I produce 300. That net gain in productivity is also an Emergent Property.

The Big Bang would also be an Emergent Property. For an unspecified duration, the universe existed in one particular form. However, some components within the universe formed a particular fortuitous arrangement, setting off the Big Bang, causing the universe to take on another form (the present form).

Michael Gazzaniga says that the emergence of free will from entities that previously had no free will, is itself an Emergent Property. The first organisms, such as bacteria and protists and insects, are relatively mechanistic and predictable; beetles and cockroaches are like machines made out of meat. But mutations happened and caused organisms to grow ever more complex. In our primate ancestors, the matter eventually became arranged in some fortuitous fashion that sparked some new unprecedented phenomenon: volition.

Hence, the Law of Causality does not preclude free will. Rather, the cause-and-effect chain of events ultimately produced one particularly fortuitous effect, the fortuitous effect being that our species possesses the faculty of volition.

2 of 3: "The Very Fact That Every Choice of Yours Is a Response to Something External to You, Means Your Choices Are Never Proactive"
There is another type of argument that tries to cite the Law of Causality in an attempt to discredit the concept of free will. I call this argument "You only possess free will if you make choices in a vacuum."

The argument goes: in order for you to have free will truly, you would have to be proactive: you would have to perform actions that are not caused by -- that are not a response to -- any stimulus external to yourself. But the fact is that everything you do is a reaction to some stimulus. Hence, you are purely reactive; everything you do is a response to forces that are external to your conscious control. For example, you might take a particular course of action to obtain food, but that is merely in response to your body first indicating to you that it is hungry. Hence, you do not have free will; you are that rock that merely educes a predictable response to forces outside of itself.

That argument is a straw man, because the fact that you must make choices within a context, in consideration of conditions external to yourself, does not erase the fact that various options remain open to you and that you take the initiative to select among those options.

This notion that you only have free will if you take an action that is independent of any consideration or stimulus outside of your conscious control, is what I call the Rationalistic Interpretation of free will; this (mis)interpretation is quasi-Platonic and quasi-Kantian. The idea is that you make choices outside of any contextual considerations, not prompted by anything outside of yourself. That is, you make choices within a vacuum.

But reality is not like that. Of course there are entities and phenomena that exist outside of yourself. Of course there are circumstances outside of yourself that, despite not having been chosen by you, nonetheless necessitate action (and therefore decision-making) on your part. The Rationalistic argument simply takes for granted that you only have free will if you make choices regardless of context. And, of course, it is impossible to make choices regardless of context, because the "context" consists of the factual considerations all around you. Therefore, the Rationalists conclude that free will is nonexistent. But their argument consists of question-beginning. It is rigged. They try to pre-define free will, describing a situation that cannot exist. Then they simply point out the situation does not exist and thus declare victory over the concept of free will.

But we don't have to accept that false definition of free will. Instead, we define free will according to the facts; we recognize that there is some faculty of choice possessed by human beings; that faculty is what is to be recognized properly as free will.

Yes, the facts of reality cause you to feel hunger, and you must act in response to that; you don't have control over the fact that when your body needs food, you feel hunger. But, contrary to the Rationalists, that your actions constitute a response to such a fact of reality -- a fact you did not choose -- does not preclude you from having any choice per se. You must take a course of action to satisfy that hunger, but there are many avenues available to you by which you might go about to try to address this physiological need. You might forage for food; you might go hunting for it; you might become a farmer and grow it. You might go up to someone with food and ask for some of it. You might do a job to create wealth and trade that wealth for food. Sadly, some people choose to starve themselves (another psychiatric condition that involves selflessness).

We have the "You didn't build that" attack on free will. It is said that Steve Jobs never really produced his wealth, because he was born into fortuitous circumstances that caused him to do what he did; he was just as passive receptacle responding to the external stimuli around him. Steve Jobs was raised in that part of California where there were already computer engineers around him; his friends were the sons of computer engineers. Hence, Steve Jobs had a head start over someone born somewhere else -- say, in the American South -- who easily might have been interested in the same industry if he grew up around people from that industry.

That argument overlooks the fact that many people born in the same circumstances as Steve Jobs could have done what he did, and yet they did not. Many other people around Steve Jobs were born in that area and had friends who whose fathers were computer engineers; some of them were the children of computer engineers. Many people were in the same fortuitous circumstances as Steve Jobs and had the same resources available to them, but did not do what he did. The reason that Steve Jobs did what he did -- which others in the same privileged position did not do -- is that he chose it. He took the initiative to do it. When both person A and person B start off in the same circumstances but person A does something creative and that person B did not do, person A is being proactive. That person A is acting within some context that precipitated action on his part, does not preclude his action from being recognized, properly, as a proactive initiative. Proactivity does not mean acting in a vacuum, absent of any prior considerations or stimuli; to be proactive means that, in light of one's circumstances, one takes the initiative to go beyond what has long been the conventional and expected course of action that has been taken in response to those circumstances.

Free will does not mean that one must act independently of considerations of context. Rather, it is the context in which human beings find themselves that gave rise both to the need and ability to make the very choices that are the exercise of free will.

3 of 3: Your Conscious Mind Makes No Choices; It Only Rationalizes the Action Your Subconscious Pre-Selected for You?
I want to address a final attack on free will, which I have addressed in a previous post: Sam Harris's argument that all conscious decision-making is simply a rationalization for actions that your unconscious "reptilian brain" -- driven by instinct and emotion -- preselected for you.

Sam Harris cites experiments by Benjamin Libet on very simple, specific motor movements, such as whether you move your left index finger instead of your right index finger. The experiments supposedly show that when you are asked to perform a simple task involving such simple movements, the unconscious part of your brain is activated many seconds before the conscious decision-making prefrontal cortex is activated. From these rather simple results, Sam Harris makes the sweeping conclusion that all human actions are therefore governed by the subconscious, and when you activate your prefrontal cortex, what your conscious mind does is not part of the decision-making process at all. Citing Benjamin Libet's experiments, Sam Harris says that your conscious mind definitely does not initiate the decision-making process; the subconscious does. Therefore, concludes Harris, your conscious reasoning has no functioning other than to rationalize the course of action that was already put into motion by your subconscious.

Here is why Sam Harris's argument is one big straw man: Benjamin Libet's experiments only test physiological responses with respect to an isolated motor movement, and a long-term life decision -- such as embarking on a career in chemistry -- is not just one isolated motor movement; it's not one flick of the left index finger.

That your unconscious mind can precede your conscious mind in detecting the need for a decision is not the same as the unconscious mind making the decision for you. Moreover, a conscious choice -- which you can change -- consists not of one motor action but of many motor actions. For example, today I might choose to walk to the grocery store. If I do that, I don't consciously think out of every step of the way: "First I raise my left foot; then I lower my left foot; then I raise my right foot; then I lower my left foot." Of course my conscious mind does not think out every motor movement. Contra Sam Harris, recognition of that fact does not imply that going to the grocery store today was not a conscious choice on my part.

Buried in Sam Harris's citation of Libet's experiments is the assumption that Libet and other researchers can pinpoint the exact moments, on the noumenal level, where the decision-making process respectively begins and ends. Sam Harris has arbitrarily decided that the point in the experiment where the unconscious parts of the brain are activated is the time where the decision-making process begins. And he has arbitrarily decided that the point where the prefrontal cortex experiences blood flow is the time where the decision-making process ends.

In reality, the decision-making process is ongoing; it goes on continuously throughout all of waking experience. One small choice is part of a series of steps encompassing a much larger choice. I have made the life choice to be a writer. When I was six years old, I was drawing monsters (the drawings looked how you would expect a little boy's drawings to look, and I remain proud of them) and my mother, not taking it as seriously as I would, asked me if I wanted to staple the sheets together to make a book. I did that. Days later I stapled other sheets together to make other books. Each page had a drawing on it. Eventually, each drawing had a caption on it. I ended up adding more and more narrative prose. My mother said somewhat casually, "Maybe when you're older you will try to write as a your job." I laughed and said, "Ha ha; maybe." As this went on, I began to contemplate the prospect of that more seriously. Today I do try to write as a job. Sometimes I get very frustrated and wonder if I should quit. My refraining from quitting, counts as part of the choice to take the action of writing. Part of a long-term decision is maintaining one's commitment to it.

The question to ask Sam Harris here is: what point in Stuart's journey here marked, on the noumenal level, the beginning of the decision-making process when it came to his deciding to be a writer? I can tell you that I don't know, at what point, marks the true beginning of the decision-making process. And I'm not too worried about finding what I can call the precise starting point. What matters to me is whether I maintain commitment. The very fact that you keep at a task, when the option of quitting remains possible to you, evinces the presence of free will.

On September 1, 2017, I added the quotation from Spinoza. On November 28, 2017, I revised the grammar of the paragraph about Spinoza assuming that humans must be predictable. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Evolutionary Psychology Has Made Accurate Predictions: Marlene Zuk's Examples

Stuart K. Hayashi

Diorama of Homo erectus at the National Museum of Mongolian History;
source: Wikimedia Commons.

An unfair proclamation I commonly hear is that evolutionary psychology should be dismissed because its theories have never been tested according to their predictive power. The criticism goes,

Evolutionary psychologists only speak of what happened in the past. But if it were a real science, then the principles it describes should apply consistently. And if the principle applies consistently, evolutionary psychologists should be able to apply that principle to make predictions in experiments. That doesn’t happen. Therefore, evolutionary psychology consists entirely of just-so stories wherein evolutionary psychologists observe some current social arrangement and then work backward, coming up with some story to explain how that arrangement came about.

I won’t argue that evolutionary psychology is perfect. Often evolutionary psychologists do come up with rationalizations for social and political collectivism. As I have pointed out before, many enthusiasts of evolutionary psychology, such as Jonathan Haidt and Michael Shermer, try to cite evolutionary psychology to proclaim that biology itself disproves Ayn Rand’s ethical theory. And even after frequently acknowledging that voluntary trades are win-win positive sum games, many evolutionary psychologists still subscribe to a fallacious neo-Malthusian economic paradigm that presumes that human beings under free enterprise will fritter away all nonrenewable natural resources and destroy themselves.

However, it is actually untrue that evolutionary psychology has not been applied to making accurate predictions. Zoologist Marlene Zuk provides several examples in Riddled With Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Makes Us Who We Are, (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2007).

Predictions and Tests of Evolutionary Psychologists’ Theories on Polygyny
Here is one example of a longstanding theory in evolutionary psychology. There are species that are called polygynous. The more polygynous a species is, the more it is a “harem species.” This means that many males compete against one another in displays of machismo. The male that wins the competition gets to have sex with many females, and the males that lose the competition will die without having mated at all. Some species are more severely polygynous than others, and evolutionary psychologists tend to describe our species as “mildly polygynous” (this is one reason why so many feminists disparage evolutionary psychology as one big rationalization for patriarchal gender norms).

The more aggressively polygynous a species is, the more different the males will look from the females -- the extent to which males and females of the same species look different is called sexual dimorphism. Generally if a species is aggressively polygynous, either the male is much more colorful than the female (males compete for female attention according to how they look; this is in birds) or the male is much larger than the female (as the males outright fight one another).

Evolutionary psychology continues that the more polygynous a species is, the more testosterone the males produce -- the testosterone contributes to the competitive aggression. Simultaneously, testosterone production weakens the immune system. This means that if the evolutionary psychologists’ theory about polygynous species is true, then -- everything else being equal -- the more polygynous a species is, the more vulnerable old-age males of the species will be to parasites than females of the same age. Note that this theory was developed before scientists put the theory to the test in experiments. And Marlene Zuk describes how this theory was indeed put to the test. Was the prediction accurate?

Sarah Moore and Ken Wilson from England found an ingenious way around the problem using a simple surrogate for the degree of male reproductive competition: the size differential between the sexes. Species in which the males are relatively larger are presumed to have experienced more male sexual competition in their evolutionary history. They used information available in the scientific literature on body size and parasites from 106 different mammals ranging from deer to elephants to mice, and they also used sophisticated methods for taking into account the ancestral relationships between species. The parasites included single-celled organisms, worms, mites, fleas, and ticks. Viral and bacterial infections, though potentially extremely important in the lives of the animals, are simply too difficult to document in wild populations, so Moore and Wilson left them out of the analysis. 
Moore and Wilson first found the same pattern that had been established in smaller studies: Males had persistently higher levels of parasitism than females. As they predicted, the greater the difference in size between males and females, the greater the disparity between male and female parasite levels. The scientists also gathered data on longevity in the sexes, and found that when males died at a younger age, they also had a disproportionately higher level of disease. Furthermore, where they could at least classify species into those in which males had the potential to mate with more than one female and those that were monogamous, Moore and Wilson showed that male-biased parasitism was more likely in the former. This is consistent with the idea that intense male competition leads to males being the sicker sex. [Marlene Zuk cites Sarah L. Moore and Ken Wilson, "Parasites as a Viability Cost of Sexual Selection in Natural Populations of Mammals," Science vol. 297, year 2002: pages 2015-2018.]

Those were from pages 136–37 of Marlene Zuk’s book.

You may recall my mentioning that William Donald “W.D.” Hamilton is the scientist who coined kin selection. With W. D. Hamilton, Marlene Zuk conducted her own experiment to test this theory. The brightness of a male peacock’s feathers indicates its resistance to disease. If a peacock is very bright blue, that does not indicate the absence of parasites in its system. Rather, the peacock’s bright blueness indicates that there are many parasites in the peacock’s system but that its immune system is so strong, the peacock is able to survive in spite of the parasites anyway. According to this understanding, then, evolutionary psychology predicts that the brighter blue a male peacock is, the more parasites should be found in its family history. Marlene Zuk and W. D. Hamilton ran a test on this and found that the evolutionary psychologists’ theory proved correct. (William D. Hamilton and Marlene Zuk, “Heritable True Fitness and Bright Birds: A role for Parasites?”, Science vol. 213, year 1982: pages 384-387.)

Does the Evolutionary Psychologists’ Prediction About Polygyny Apply to Human Societies As Well? Another Test
Moreover, evolutionary psychologists such as Bobbi S. Low have found that this theory has accurately predicted findings in human societies. According to evolutionary psychology theory, it is the case that -- everything else being equal -- the more severely polygynous a particular human society is, the more parasites will be found in the systems of the men. Is that the case?

That part, of course, could still be important, and Bobbi Low, a biologist at the University of Michigan, looked at human societies around the world to see whether parasites were more prevalent in cultures where polygyny, the practice of a single man having many wives or concubines, was more common. She reasoned that this was similar to our prediction about heavier parasite burdens leading to higher degrees of sexual selection and hence showier plumage in the birds. Indeed, societies where polygyny is common are more plagued by diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, and various worms.

That is from pages 160–61, citing Bobbi S. Low, “Marriage Systems and Pathogen Stress in Human Societies,” American Zoologist vol. 30, no. 2, year 1990: pages 325-339.

Evolutionary Psychologists’ Theory About Collectivism, Xenophobia, and Disease
Here is another evolutionary psychology theory -- one developed by W. J. Freeland in 1976: it is that particularly insular, collectivist, xenophobic societies are that way on account of communicable disease. The theory is that they started out as rather open to contact and trade with foreigners but, as a consequence, they contracted communicable diseases. The members of the society who survived the original epidemic were able to maintain their society by becoming less welcoming toward contact with foreigners and also more keen on enforcing social conformity.

If that theory were correct, then it follows that if you check the history of communicable diseases among various societies, the most insular and xenophobic of societies should also be the ones with the most severe histories of communicable diseases being passed from person to person. In 2009, a Canadian team led by Randy Thornhill conducted such an investigation. The team’s findings corroborated Freeland’s theory. See Randy Thornhill, et all., “Parasites, Democratization, and Liberalization of Values Across Contemporary Cultures,” Biological Reviews vol. 8 (no. 1, February 2009): pages 113–133.

Yes, evolutionary psychology theories have been used to make accurate predictions in experiments concerning human behavior and human societies.

The problems with evolutionary psychology normally come from the evolutionary psychologists’ misinterpretations of their own data. As I wrote of previously, evolutionary psychologists frequently observe the trend that hunter-gatherer societies foster a collectivist interpretation of ethics and morality, and thereby conclude that a modern, liberalized, industrial society also ought to be collectivist, making an ethics of peaceable self-interest unworkable. However, it is terribly inaccurate to proclaim that evolutionary psychology theory has never made accurate predictions that scientists have tested. No, evolutionary psychologists’ theories on how specific behaviors arose do not amount to mere “just-so stories.”

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Posing As Winston Smith from '1984' ≠ Recovery

Remember what Winston Smith's job was in 1984 -- to cover up the past and try to rewrite accounts of what really happened.

Pretending that a traumatic event never happened should not be confused with having gotten over the trauma or having triumphed over it -- especially not when your morbid gestures alluding to the trauma are still all over the place, in public even.  There is a big difference.