Harvey Fergusson on Morality, Free Will, and Human Behavior

Harvey Fergusson does have a Wiki page, but he’s not exactly a household name today. Remembered mostly as a writer of fiction, he produced some great Western novels, and some of the characters in his “Capitol Hill” will still be familiar to anyone who has worked in the nation’s capital to this day. His name turns up in the credits as a screenwriter in a few movies, including “Stand Up and Fight,” starring the inimitable Wallace Beery, and his work even drew a few lines of praise from H. L. Mencken. As it happens, Fergusson wrote some non-fiction as well, including a remarkable book entitled Modern Man.

The main theme of the book is what Fergusson refers to as “the illusion of choice.” As one might expect of a good novelist, his conclusions are based on careful observation of human behavior, both in himself and others, rather than philosophical speculation. In his words,

It struck me sharply how much of the conversation of my typical modern fellow-being was devoted to explaining why he had done what he had done, why he was going to do what he intended, and why he had not done what he had once professed an intention to do. Some of my more sophisticated subjects would describe these explanations, when made by others, as “rationalizations” – a term which is vague but seems always to imply a recognition of the necessarily factitious nature of all such explanations of personal behavior. But I found none who did not take his own explanations of himself with complete seriousness. What is more, I have not found either in conversation or in print any recognition of what seems obvious to me – that these explanations typically have for their effect, if not for their unconscious motive, to sustain what I have termed the illusion of choice. This may be more adequately defined as the illusion that behavior is related more exactly and immediately to the conscious mental processes of the individual than any objective study of the evidence will indicate that it is.

Consider this in light of the following comment by Seth Schwartz who writes one of the Psychology Today blogs:

In a controversial set of experiments, neuroscientist Ben Libet (1985) scanned participants’ brains as he instructed them to move their arm. Libet found that brain activity increased even before participants were aware of their decision to move their arm. Libet interpreted this finding as meaning that the brain had somehow “decided” to make the movement, and that the person became consciously aware of this decision only after it had already been made. Many other neuroscientists have used Libet’s findings as evidence that human behavior is controlled by neurobiology, and that free will does not exist.

Fergusson was not quite as bold as “many other neuroscientists.” He made it quite clear that he wasn’t addressing the question of determinism or free will, but was merely recording his personal observations. In spite of that, he certainly anticipated what Libet and others would later observe in their experiments. What is even more remarkable is how accurately Fergusson describes the behavior of our current crop of public intellectuals.

Consider, for example, the question of morality. Some of them agree with me that moral judgments are subjective, and others insist they are objective. However, their moral behavior has nothing to do with their theoretical pronouncements on the matter. Just as Fergusson predicted, it is more or less identical with the moral behavior of everyone else. They all behave as if they actually believe in the illusion that natural selection has planted in our brains that Good and Evil are real, objective things.  And just as Fergusson suggested, their after-the-fact claims about why they act that way are transparent rationalizations.

In the case of such “subjective moralists” as Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt and Jerry Coyne, for example, we commonly find them passing down moral judgments that would be completely incomprehensible absent the tacit assumption of an objective moral law. In common with every other public intellectual I’m aware of, they tell us that one person is bad, and another person is good, as if these things were facts. To all appearances they feel no obligation whatsoever to explain how their “subjective” moral judgments suddenly acquired the power to leap out of their skulls, jump onto the back of some “bad” person, and constrain them to mend their behavior. Like me, the three cited above are atheists, and so must at least acknowledge some connection between our moral behavior and our evolutionary past. Under the circumstances, if one asked them to explain their virtuous indignation, the only possible response that has any connection with the reason moral behavior exists to begin with would be something like, “The ‘bad’ person’s actions are a threat to my personal survival,” or, “The ‘bad’ person is reducing the odds that the genes I carry will reproduce.” In either case, there is no way their moral judgments could have acquired the legitimacy or authority to dictate behavior to the “bad” person, or anyone else. I am not aware of a single prominent intellectual who has ever tried to explain his behavior in this way.

In fact, these people, like almost everyone else on the planet, are blindly responding to moral emotions, after seeking to “interpret” them in light of the culture they happen to find themselves in. In view of the fact that cultures that bear any similarity to the ones in which our moral behavior evolved are more or less nonexistent today, the chances that these “interpretations” will have anything to do with the reason morality exists to begin with are slim. In fact, there is little difference between the “subjective” moralists cited above and such “objective” moralists as Sam Harris in this regard.  Ask them to explain one of their morally loaded pronouncements, and they would likely justify them in the name of some such nebulous “good” as “human flourishing.” After all, “human flourishing” must be “good,” right? Their whole academic and professional tribe agrees that it must be “really good.” To the extent that they feel any constraint to explain themselves at all, our modern “subjective” and “objective” moralists seldom get beyond such flimsy rationalizations.

Is it possible to defend “human flourishing” as a “moral good” that is at least consistent with the reason morality exists to begin with? I think not. To the extent that it is defined at all, “human flourishing” is usually associated with a modern utopia in which everyone is happy and has easy access to food, shelter, and anything else they could wish for. Such a future would be more likely to end in the dystopia comically portrayed in the movie Idiocracy than in the survival of our species. Its predictable end state would be biological extinction. Absent the reason high intelligence and the ability to thrive in diverse environments evolved, those characteristics would no longer be selected. If we use the survival of our species as the ultimate metric, “human flourishing” as commonly understood would certainly be “bad.”

Fergusson was an unusually original thinker, and there are many other thought-provoking passages in his book. Consider, for example, the following:

The basic assumption of conservatism is that “human nature does not change.” But it appears upon examination of the facts that human nature from the functional viewpoint has undergone constant change. Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size, and nature of the human group has changed, and without such change the race could hardly have survived. That human nature will change and is changing seems to be one of the few things we can count upon, and it supports all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.

Here we see Fergusson as a typical denizen of the left of the ideological spectrum of his day. His comment encapsulates the reasons that led to the radical rejection of the existence of human nature, and the disaster in the behavioral sciences we now refer to as the Blank Slate. Like many others, Fergusson suffered from the illusion that “human nature” implies genetic determinism; the notion that our behavior is rigidly programmed by our genes. In fact, I am not aware of a single serious defender of the existence of human nature who has ever been a “genetic determinist.” All have agreed that we are inclined or predisposed to behave in some ways and not in others, but not that we are rigidly forced by our “genes” to do so. Understood in this way, it is clear that evolved human nature is hardly excluded by the fact that “Hardly any reaction of the human organism to its social environment has failed to change as the form, size and nature of the human group has changed.” Properly understood, it is entirely compatible with the “changed reactions” Fergusson cited.

In reality, rejection of the existence of human nature did not “support all our valid hopes for the amelioration of human destiny.” What it really did was bring any meaningful progress in the behavioral sciences to a screeching halt for more than half a century, effectively blocking the path to any real “hope for the amelioration of human destiny.”

The fact that I don’t always agree with Fergusson does not alter my admiration for him as an original thinker. And by the way, if you happen to live in Maryland, I think you will find “Stand Up and Fight” worthy of a couple hours of your time and a bowl of popcorn.

Even More Fun with Free Will

That inimitable and irascible physicist Lubos Motl, who blogs at The Reference Frame, sought to vindicate the existence of free will in a recent post entitled Free Will of Particles and People.  To begin, he insisted that he must have free will because he feels like he has it:

The actual reason why I am sure about the existence of free will (and I mean my free will) is that I feel it.

Well, I feel it, too, but human beings have been known to feel any number of things that aren’t true, so I don’t find that argument convincing.  Lubos’ second argument is based on the fact that the universe is not deterministic in the classical sense.  We live in a quantum universe, and quantum phenomena appear to be random.  Since free will, at least as defined by Lubos, exists at the level of atomic and sub-atomic particles, and single particles can change the state of cells, and single cells can change the state of the human brain, then we, too, must have free will.  I’m not so sure about that one either.  True, the outcome of a measurement at the quantum scale is unpredictable, and therefore appears to be random, but we don’t really know that it is.  We can never measure exactly the same thing twice.  We can repeat experiments, but we can never measure exactly the same particle at exactly the same time in exactly the same place twice.

Then there’s the problem of what all this stuff we’re measuring really is.  We know how matter behaves at the atomic scale in great detail.  The fact that the atomic bomb worked demonstrated that convincingly enough.  We can use Maxwell’s equations and the Schrödinger Equation to make particles of matter and energy jump through hoops, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we don’t really know what they are at the most fundamental level, or even why they exist at all.  In short, I have a problem with making positive claims about things we don’t understand.  Positive claims about free will assume a level of knowledge that we just don’t have.

On the other hand, I have no problem at all with assuming that we do have free will.  As Lubos says, it certainly feels like we do, and if we actually do, then we are merely assuming something that is true.  On the other hand, if we don’t have free will, then assuming that we do couldn’t change things for the worse, for the very good reason that, lacking free will, we would be incapable of changing anything.

Arguments against the existence of free will are absurd, because they imply the assumption of free choice.  If there is no free will, then there is no point in arguing about it, because it can’t possibly change anything in a way that wasn’t pre-programmed before the argument started.  True, if there is no free will, than the one making the argument couldn’t decide not to make it, but the fundamental absurdity remains.  What could possibly be the point of arguing with me about my assumptions regarding free will if I have no choice in the matter?  The future will be different depending on whether a robot tightens or loosens a screw.  However, if the robot is pre-programmed, and has no choice in the matter, it won’t alter a thing.  Nothing will shake the future out of its predestined rut.  In spite of that, I suspect that the most insistent deniers of free will don’t really believe their arguments are pointless.  And yet their arguments would be completely pointless unless they believed in their heart of hearts, either that they could make a free choice to argue one way or the other, or that the person listening could may such a choice.

If there is no free will, then my assumption that there is won’t change a thing.  If, on the other hand, we do have free will, and my assumption that we do despite my lack of any proof to that effect actually represents a free choice, then it seems to me that it’s a choice that is likely to make life a great deal more pleasant.  Where’s the fun in being a robot?  As far as I’m concerned, the assumption is justified if I can relieve even a single person of the despair and sense of futility that are predictable responses to the opposite assumption.

We can certainly debate the question of free will as stubbornly as we please.  However, I would contend that we lack the knowledge necessary to decide the matter one way or the other.  Perhaps one day that knowledge will be ours.  If it turns out we actually don’t have free will, then it will be illogical to blame me for my assumption that we do.  If, on the other hand, we discover that we actually do have free will, then it seems that those who argued furiously that we don’t will look rather foolish.  Why take the risk?

Indulge Yourself – Believe in Free Will

Philosophers have been masticating the question of free will for many centuries.  The net result of their efforts has been a dizzying array of different “flavors” of free will or the lack thereof.  I invite anyone with the patience to attempt disentangling the various permutations and combinations thereof to start with the Wiki page, and take it from there.   For the purpose of this post I will simply define free will as the ability to make choices that are not predetermined before we make the choice.  This implies that our conscious minds are not entirely subject to deterministic physical laws, and have the power to alter physical reality.  Lack of free will means the absence of this power, and implies that we lack the power to alter physical reality in any way.  I personally have no idea whether we have free will or not.  In my opinion, we currently lack the knowledge to answer the question.  However, I believe that debating the matter is useless.  Instead, we should assume that there is free will as the “default” position, and get on with our lives.

Of course, if there is no free will, my advice is useless.  I am simply an automaton among automatons, adding to the chorus of sound and fury that signifies nothing.  In that case the debate over free will is merely another amusing case of pre-programmed robots arguing over what they “should” believe, and what they “ought” to do as a consequence, in a world in which the words “should” and “ought” are completely meaningless.  These words imply an ability to choose between two alternatives, but no such choice can exist if there is no free will.  “Ought” we to alter the criminal justice system because we have decided there is no such thing as free will?  If we have no free will, the question is meaningless.  We cannot possibly alter the predetermined outcome of the debate, or the predetermined evolution of the criminal justice system, or even our opinion on whether it “ought” to be changed or not.  Under the circumstances it can hardly hurt to assume that we do have free will.  If so, the assumption must have been foreordained, and no conscious agency exists that could have altered the fact.  If we don’t have free will, it is also absurd, if inevitable, to blame me or even take issue with me for advocating that we act as if we have free will.  After all, in that case I couldn’t have acted or thought any differently, assuming my mind is an artifact of the physical world, and not a “ghost in the machine.”  If we believe in free will but there is no free will, debate about the matter may or may not be inevitable, but it is certainly futile, because the outcome of the debate has been predetermined.

On the other hand, if we decide that there is no free will, but there actually is, it can potentially “hurt” a great deal.  In that case, we will be basing our actions and our conclusions about what “ought” or “ought not” to be done on a false assumption.  Whatever our idiosyncratic goals happen to be, it is more probable that we will attain them if we base our strategy for achieving them on truth rather than falsehood.  If we have free will, the outcome of the debate matters.  Suppose, for example, that the anti-free will side has much better debaters and convinces those watching the debate that they have no free will even if they do.  Plausible results include despair, a sense of purposelessness, fatalism, a lethargic and indifferent attitude towards life, a feeling that nothing matters, etc.  No doubt there are legions of philosophers out there who can prove that, because a = b and b = c, none of these reactions are reasonable.  They will, however, occur whether they are reasonable or not.

I doubt that my proposed default position will be difficult to implement.  Even the most diehard free will denialists seldom succeed in completely accepting the implications of their own theories.  Look through their writings, and before long you’ll find a “should.”  Read a bit further and you’re likely to stumble over an “ought” as well.  However, as noted above, speaking of “should” and “ought” in the absence of free will is absurd.  They imply the possibility of a choice between two alternatives that will lead to different outcomes.  If there is no free will, there can be no choice.  Individuals will do what they “ought” to do or “ought not” to do just as the arrangement of matter and energy in the universe happens to dictate.  It is absurd to blame them for doing something they could not avoid.  However, the question of whether they actually will be blamed or not is also predetermined.  It is just as absurd to blame the blamers.

In short, I propose we all stop arguing and accept the default.  If there is no free will, then obviously I am proposing it because of my programming.  I can’t do otherwise even if I “ought” to.  It’s possible my proposal may change things, but, if so, the change was inevitable.  However, if there is free will, then believing in it is simply believing in the truth, and a truth that, at least from my point of view, happens to be a great deal more palatable than the alternative.

The “Worry” that we don’t have Free Will

In the last couple of posts I’ve been looking at some of the more interesting responses to the “annual question” at Edge.org.  This year’s question was, “What *Should” we be Worried About,” and answers were submitted by a select group of 155 public intellectuals, scientists, philosophers, etc.  An answer that is interesting if only because it is counterintuitive was submitted by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological science and neurology at Stanford.  In his response, entitled, “The Danger Of Inadvertently Praising Zygomatic Arches,” we find that Sapolsky is worried that we will make wrong choices because we don’t have free will.  In his words,

I don’t think that there is Free will. The conclusion first hit me in some sort of primordial ooze of insight when I was about 13-years old, and that conclusion has only become stronger since then. What worries me is that despite the fact that I think this without hesitation, there are times that it is simply too hard to feel as if there is no free will, to believe that, to act accordingly. What really worries me is that it is so hard for virtually anyone to truly act as if there is no free will. And that this can have some pretty bad consequences.


But it is so difficult to really believe that there is no free will, when so many of the threads of causality are not yet known, or are as intellectually inaccessible as having to automatically think about the behavioral consequences of everything from the selective pressures of hominid evolution to what someone had for breakfast. This difficulty is something that we should all worry about.

To this, I can only answer, “Why?”  Why be worried about things you can do absolutely nothing about?  Why be worried that people won’t “truly act as if there is no free will” when it is perfectly obvious that, lacking free will, they can have no choice in the matter?  Why be worried about how difficult it is to “really believe that there is no free will” if we have not the faintest control over what we believe?  This is supposed to be a difficulty we all “should” worry about?  Surely it must be obvious that “should” is a completely meaningless term in a world without free will.  “Should” implies the freedom to choose between alternatives.  Remove free will, and that freedom is removed with it.  Remove free will and worry becomes absurd.  Why worry about something you can do nothing about?  It makes no more sense than poisoning your whole life by constantly worrying about the inevitability of death.

I by no means mean to imply that I am taking sides one way or the other on the question of whether we have free will.  I am simply pointing out that the very suggestion that we worry about it implies that we do.  If we have no free will then the question of whether we will worry about it or not is completely out of our control.  In that case it turns out I am in that happy category of people who are not worried about it.  If we do have free will, then the rationale for worrying about the lack of it is removed.  In either case, I am happy to report, I have no worries.

Neither do I imply any disrespect of Prof. Sapolsky, a brilliant man whose work I admire regardless of whether I have any choice in the matter or not.  See, for example, his work on the Toxo parasite, which strongly suggests that we must throw manipulation by other species into the mix along with genes and culture if we are ever to gain a complete understanding of human behavior.  Work of this kind, by the way, is so critical to the human condition that it cries out for replication.  There are only a few groups in the world doing similar work, and one must hope that they are not so intent on charging ahead with their own research that they neglect the scientific imperative of checking the work of their peers.

On the lighter side, readers of Prof. Sapolsky’s response will note that he throws in the disclaimer, “… lack of free will doesn’t remotely equal anything about genetic determinism.”  The Blank Slaters must have gotten to him!  In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is not nor has there ever been such a beast as a “genetic determinist.”  They are as rare as unicorns.  The term was invented by cultural determinists to use in ad hominem attacks on anyone who dared to suggest that our behavior might actually be influenced by something other than environment and learning.  Their ideology requires them to blindly insist that “there is no evidence whatsoever” that anything but culture influences our behavior, just as the fundamentalist Christian must blindly insist that “there is not one iota of evidence for Darwinian evolution,” and the right wing ideologue must blindly insist that “there is not the faintest scrap of evidence for global warming.”  Of course, Prof. Sapolsky has just supplied even more compelling evidence that they are wrong.

In closing, I will include a poetic statement of Prof. Sapolsky’s philosophy by Edward Fitzgerald, who cloaked his own world view in his whimsical “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:

With earth’s first clay they did the last man knead,

And there of the last harvest sow’s the seed,

And the first morning of creation wrote,

what the last dawn of reckoning shall read.