Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dangerous Ideas

Ask most people what philosophy is and they won’t be able to tell you. I was a little unclear on the concept myself as an undergraduate philosophy major. It took me a few years of adult vicissitudes and political peregrinations to begin to understand how ideas shape the society we live in.

If you need a jump-start to your philosophical program you might take a look at a book called What is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman, the publisher and editor of Edge, a website dedicated to pushing the intellectual envelope. At the suggestion of psychologist Steven Pinker, who provides an introduction, Brockman asked a range of thinkers in a variety of disciplines to discuss ideas they felt were dangerous in the sense that they threatened current conventional wisdom or, in Pinker’s phrase, “corrode the prevailing moral order”.

In his introduction, Pinker gives a long list of provocative questions: Did the crime rate go down in the nineties because of the advent of widespread abortion in the seventies? Does allowing security services to use torture make us safer? Do black men have higher levels of testosterone? Are Ashkenazi Jews smarter? Has religion precipitated more genocide than Nazism? Would functioning markets, i.e. auctions, in organs and adoption rights improve outcomes for transplant recipients and unwanted babies? Do women and men have different aptitudes?

Whatever your ideological orientation, you’re likely to find some of these questions unsettling. Pinker discusses the argument for limiting discussion of dangerous ideas but comes down on the side of rational discussion of even the most provocative notions. And then the fun starts, with contributors throwing out ideas like, “We Have No Souls”, “Everything Is Pointless”, “Groups of People May Differ Genetically in Their Average Talents and Temperaments”, “Science Must Destroy Religion” and “Science Will Never Silence God”. You may have noted that there is no particular partisan slant, which is a refreshing feature. Pinker adduces the lynch-mob response to Lawrence Summers’s suggestion that discrimination is not the only reason for women’s underrepresentation in science as an example of how even academia, supposedly the citadel of rational discussion, behaves like the Spanish Inquisition when received ideas are threatened. The book’s agenda is to open minds.

I’ve just started dipping into the book, but already I’ve found ideas I endorse whole-heartedly and others that challenge me. One essay that caught my eye was “The Evolution of Evil” by psychologist David Buss. Buss suggests that killing can be a perfectly rational response to any number of circumstances and that we have an evolutionarily hard-wired predilection to violence, particularly with regard to “outgroups”, members of another tribe. My reaction was, “Well, of course.” Why anyone should find this surprising is beyond me. But apparently there are still people who, as Buss says, “refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology or exposure to media violence.”

I’ve never had a problem with Buss’s dangerous idea: the religion I was raised with calls hard-wired evil Original Sin. But you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize it. What’s important is to recognize that we need moral codes to set limits to our violent predilections. And if you toss religion out the window, you’d better come up with some other way of encouraging people to set limits on their own behavior, and fast.

But other ideas here do unsettle me, particularly Eric R. Kandel’s “Free Will Is Exercised Unconsciously” and Clay Shirky’s “Free Will Is Going Away”, both of which call into question our traditional notion that people are capable of making choices and bear the responsibility for those choices. I’m a big fan of the idea of responsibility: if you fail to hold people responsible for their behavior you find pretty quickly that there are few limits on their behavior. I think the idea of free will has crucial social utility even if the neural scientists can’t quite pin it down. But truth is important, so we have to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion.

I’m not ready to write it off. I’d throw out the hypothesis that free will is in a sense optional: if you believe you have it you probably do exercise it at least occasionally, while if you don’t believe in it you really are allowing yourself to be buffeted by the deterministic winds. Does that mean you have an excuse for misbehavior?

That’s a philosophical question, and there are lots of them we need to be thinking about, because they determine how we arrange our institutions to handle the messiness of human life. Philosophy needs to be more than just an academic refuge for the inarticulate, and this provocative book puts it back where it belongs, smack in the middle of our public debate.

Sam Reaves


DavidK said...

"so we have to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion"
"I’d throw out the hypothesis that free will is in a sense optional"

I disagree with both of those suggestions. I have witnessed free will demonstrated as a daily occurrence by individuals in every walk of life. Confirmation of that can be found in the Yellow Pages; there lies the menu of local religious choices. A meager demonstration, but one I hold to be valid nonetheless.
Free will exists within every human being. It is society, politics, peer pressure, and law that represses or manipulates it - sometimes to an unrecognizeable level. Free will is 'choice.' Did you turn left or right? Did you eat Post Toasties or a banana for breakfast?
Are you a socialist, libertarian, republican, democrat, or did you form your own party specific to your individual beliefs or desires?
Did you molest your daughter or did you swallow the urge and bare your back against a two penny nail hammered through a hand-hewn post in the barn?
When did you pull the trigger? Did you render revenge or justice?

I am not an academically educated man, so I do not have the ability to fluently convey my thoughts in a manner on par with you, Mr. Reaves, but I do hope you can respect my position. I spent a lifetime dealing with the "free will" of those who chose to victimize those not capable of defending themselves. Yup - I was a cop and Police Chief out here in Freeport (home of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate that unveiled the "Freeport Doctrine" - we consider Chicago a suburb of ours that has yet to accept that fact}.

I only recently (today) discovered your site and books. I will be heading for the bookstore tomorrow to see if they have one of yours in stock.

Enjoying your blog,


Sam Reaves said...

Thanks for your response. I also believe in free will; I think the determinist position is incorrect. My suggestion that free will is optional is simply a recognition that some people do not reflect on their actions, do not exert themselves against their impulses, do not take the trouble to consider their choices. These people, while endowed with free will like the rest of us, do not make use of it. They allow themselves to be blown this way and that by the influences around them.
Whatever the outcome of the philosophical debate (and don't expect a resolution any time soon), if we ditch the idea of personal responsibility, we quickly get into big trouble. As a police officer, you know that. You don't have to have academic credentials to understand the really important philosophical issues. It takes years of expensive education to produce people who deny that we can (and should) make important moral choices!