Monday, August 29, 2011

Determining Free Will

The question in my head is namely what exactly is free will. When talking about theodicy, I mentioned free will as being the ability to either perform morally bad and good actions, as opposed to only having the ability to perform morally good actions. What is then the distinction between the former and latter? Namely it is power or ability. It is our ability to distinguish between and perform good and bad actions that give rise to us being able to make a choice between the multiple options available to us. It also seems to me that these choices don't necessarily have to be a question of ethics (like choosing between morally good and bad actions), but could be choices concerning more general benefit or preference.

Why then is free will traditionally only applied to humans and not other animals? Many animals have the ability to make choices between multiple different options, they can have a preference for certain items and can make choices between options with different  costs and benefits. So why then aren't animals considered to have free will as well?

I have heard the claim that animals act off of instinct and because this instinct is pre-programmed into them they essentially have no choice in the way they behave. What they are essentially arguing is the view that animals are deterministic creatures, who's "fates" and "choices" are already made for them based on their genetics and environment. This leads to the common argument against the naturalistic approach that understands our universe as completely material. If we and our actions are all just complex combinations of chemical processes we can't have a choice. The future is already pre-determined and we are unable to alter the inevitable future.

I used to hold this view as well and used to use it as an argument for Judaism and against naturalism. The question now becomes, why is this a successful argument? The problem is this isn't a very good argument at all. It only seems like a decent argument because we have a knee-jerk reaction to the notion that this world is deterministic, but just because we want something to be true doesn't make it so.

In order to resolve our dilemma it may be best to look inward and figure out why such a world would bother us so much. From what I can tell, it bothers us because it would mean that we wouldn't have any free will either. Just like animals we would be ruled by our instincts and as such have no free will as we previously defined it. Why is that a problem? It is argued that if this was the case then no one will be responsible for their actions and our actions would be meaningless. This seems to be the crux of the issue.

First off, I don't believe an animals life is meaningless simply because it is ruled by its own instincts. In addition, I wouldn't find a person who can only act on their own instincts as meaningless either (young children might be a good example or people with certain mental disabilities, if not all humans). What is meaningful and not is a very complicated question, but I am in no way convinced that simply living off of your own instincts deprives ones life of meaning. (Perhaps I will elaborate on the nature of meaning in a future post).

Secondly, being ruled by ones instincts isn't the defining factor in determining responsibility. I am sure you have heard of court cases in which people who have committed crimes claim not to have responsibility due to their upbringing or their genetic dispositions. Now while I fully recognize these factors and that they do indeed play a role in how a person acts, I would not pardon a person of their responsibility simply because they have an instinctual disposition to act in a certain way. That in of itself doesn't make it acceptable to act in that way. The reason is because when we have the power to make a choice between multiple options, that power gives us the responsibility to make sensible and moral choices. We are responsible for our actions because we, as humans, have the foresight to perceive how our actions will affect others, we can evaluate our actions in light of what other people feel about those actions and their consequences, and when we are asked for our reasons for acting in a certain way we can respond to them and explain our reasons. We have these abilities and powers and as a result we have responsibility regardless of what our natural tendencies incline us towards.

In this light we will be able to see why we are different than animals in regards to our notions of free will. Free will isn't just the ability to make choices, but also the ability to foresee the consequences of our actions, evaluate those consequences, and our ability to explain and defend our reasons for the choices we make to others. Since animals don't have these abilities, they are not responsible for their actions and thus don't have free will in the sense that we understand it.

This also helps resolve the tension between free will and naturalism/determinism. Since we have the abilities I mentioned above it doesn't matter if these abilities were granted to us by Hashem through a natural order of events, we are all responsible for actions and thus are all free regardless.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why do bad things happen?

Quick post, hopefully someone has good ideas on how this problem can be resolved.

Theodicy is basically the problem of evil. If Hashem has the ability to know and prevent all evil acts from occurring and if Hashem doesn't want evil acts to occur then how can we live in a world in which both Hashem exists and evil acts occur?

The classic answer to this dilemma is that Hashem wishes to grant us a greater good, that is free will. The argument goes that for evil acts not to occur Hashem must force us to do only good, which would effectively make free will impossible. Therefore to allow us the ability to have free will Hashem decided to allow evil acts to occur. Makes sense, this is a pretty good answer.

There are a few problems when taking this approach.
  1. If this is the case what about shemayim (heaven)? Is it the case that souls in shamayim have no free will, similar to angels?
  2. What about when Moshaich comes? Will we have no free will when Moshiach comes?
I have heard that when Moshiach comes we will still have free will, but it will be a choice between good and better. Evil acts will not occur. However, this only brings us back to our first problem. Why would Hashem allow evil acts to occur?

It seems that free will can exist in some form without evil acts occurring, so why allow evil acts to occur at all? If our version of free will (that is free will with the possibility of evil acts occurring) is more beneficial to us then why would we even want the Messianic era with a limited free will?

I don't have a clue.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

We'll Huff and We'll Puff and We'll Blow Your House Down!

I've always had an image of the battle of Jericho being pretty epic. The city is surrounded and circled by thousands of Israelites, there is shouting and shofars blowing and then suddenly the entire wall surrounding the city miraculously collapses. Pretty epic story.

Yet I recently reread the account and something struck me as very odd, and it is due to something that happened several chapters earlier.In chapter 2 of the book of Yehoshua (Joshua) two spies are sent out across the Jordan to spy out the land. They come to Jericho and are taken in by a harlot, Rahab, who hides them from the authorities. After which she helps them escape by going out of a window that is on the outer wall of the city, because it says:

She let them down by a rope through the window—for her dwelling was at the outer side of the city wall and she lived in the actual wall. (Joshua 2:15)

So Rahab lives in the wall. Pretty odd, but I guess before the wall collapsed she must have left the building so as not to be killed, right? Wrong. She was given specific instructions by the spies not to leave her house otherwise they would not be responsible for her death if she is killed during the battle:

But the men warned her, “We will be released from this oath which you have made us take [unless,] when we invade the country, you tie this length of crimson cord to the window through which you let us down. Bring your father, your mother, your brothers, and all your family together in your house; and if anyone ventures outside the doors of your house, his blood will be on his head, and we shall be clear. But if a hand is laid on anyone who remains in the house with you, his blood shall be on our heads. And if you disclose this mission of ours, we shall likewise be released from the oath which you made us take.” She replied, “Let it be as you say.”
She sent them on their way, and they left; and she tied the crimson cord to the window.
(Joshua 2:17-21)

So if Rahab didn't leave the house, how did she survive the collapse of the wall in chapter 6:

So the people shouted when the horns were sounded. When the people heard the sound of the horns, the people raised a mighty shout and the wall collapsed ... 
... But Joshua bade the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the harlot’s house and bring out the woman and all that belong to her, as you swore to her.” So the young spies went in and brought out Rahab, her father and her mother, her brothers and all that belonged to her—they brought out her whole family and left them outside the camp of Israel.
(Joshua 6:20-23) 

I guess the most intuitive answer must be that only part of the wall collapsed. That makes sense logically, but it sure isn't the epic depiction I had imagined.

What do you think?  

Consequentialism in Jewish Theology

 This was the question discussed in the comment section of my previous post "Problems with Deontology", namely what is the normative theory in Judaism.

It seems that Deontology is probably the moral outlook of the Tanach, it is more concerned with doing certain actions, following Hashem's will, than it is with the consequences of those actions. This is generally the theistic position.

In fact there are many events in the Tanach that present scenarios just like this. The Adam and Chavah incident, the Akeidah, the judgement against Moshe hitting the rock, the judgements of King Saul for performing a sacrifice without Shmuel, the list goes on and on. It seems to be a clear argument throughout most of the Tanach, especially Iyov (Job). Although not all of it, some parts could be viewed as consequentialist, but I think the main point the Tanach is tying to get across is, you must follow G-d's laws, even if you think doing otherwise will result in better consequences.

Although I think ultimately Jews and most theists are consequentialists. The idea of deontology, to me, doesn't play out all that well. Deontology states that we should do good, because it is good. But what makes it good?

If something being good is divorced from all consequences and the consequences do not mattter with regards to morality, then would you do something "good" even if it resulted in the suffering of all humanity, including yourself? If doing what is "good" resulted in G-d causing endless suffering to people (not something I think anyone believes, I know) then  would you still do it? I don't think anyone would.

I think that ultimately people follow Hashem's laws not for their own sake, but because following Hashem's laws will cause the most amount of good in this world (bringing Moshiach, no more suffering or war, etc). While I think you can argue that G-d's laws are all totally moral, in terms of a consequential view I would understand that to mean that they bring about the best consequences for everyone and thus are moral. It is totally beyond me to imagine an action being moral, regardless of the consequences.

If morality is rooted in the Golden Rule and the rest is commentary as Rabbi Hillel said, then it stands to reason that morality is based in our empathy for others. When we have empathy for others then acting in ways to benefit those we have empathy for is what is moral, doing the opposite is immoral.

There may be actions that if done will always cause benefit with no suffering to anyone and other actions that may always cause suffering  with no benefit to others and in this sense those actions would be immoral. However, most actions are relative to the context of the situation.

Lying for instance. Sometimes lying will hurt someone, sometimes it will help. If the situation is such that lying will save lives, I have been told that Halachah commands us to lie.

So is Jewish theology really not concerned with the consequences of ones actions? Should one do a mitzvah regardless of the consequences, or do the consequences of an action determine whether or not something is a mitzvah?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Problems with Deontology

I have been thinking about moral philosophies recently and have been debating which seem the least problematic to me. Specifically I have been thinking about normative ethics, which is the branch of ethics that asks the question "How should one act?"

First I will summarize the two major normative theories on ethics.

  • Deontology - the normative theory that judges the morality of actions based the action itself, with no regard to the consequences of the action.
  • Consequentialism - the normative theory that judges the morality of actions based on the consequences of those actions alone.
There are other normative theories, virtue ethics for instance, but these two are the most popular and in my opinion the least problematic.

So to help explain what these normative theories are I will present the classic trolley thought experiment.

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

So the basic question is should you let the 5 die and save the 1 or kill the 1 and save the 5. Intuitively, I think most people will choose the latter, which is what the consequentialist theory would support. If you tweak the problem just a bit you may likely change your decision though:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

In this scenario most people would probably not push the fat man, killing him in order to save the 5. Why the consequences are the same? This inclination of many people seems to support deontology, where it is more important to do what is right, "not murder", regardless of the consequences. The ends do not justify the means.

Until recently I would side with deontology over consequentialism precisely because I felt that the ends do not justify the means. However a few things have been leading me to believe otherwise.

First of all the latter scenario may not have the same consequences as the first. The consequences of pushing the man off the bridge are not the same as flipping the switch.

  1. I think there are different consequences between indirect action and direct actions in terms of the guilt that are likely to be felt as a result of the action. Killing someone directly with your hands and flipping the switch will not have the same emotional consequences.
  2. This may lead to others not to trust you or others. If you are willing to use others as tools to achieve "better" ends you may be ostracized. If actions like this were taken regularly by all people this would also greatly destabilize society which would be a very negative consequence.
 Not only are the consequences worse, would people feel the same if the stakes were higher? What if instead of saving 5 you would be saving 50? 500? 500,000? What if instead of saving 5 adults you were saving 5 innocent children? What if the five children were your children?

The point being, the higher the stakes the more likely people will be willing to push the man off the bridge, in essence supporting the view of consequentialism. Is doing the right thing really that important that all consequences become mute?

It also seems that deontology could be viewed as essentially a selfish normative theory, in that it doesn't seem to be concerned with the well being of others, but rather is focused on the moral "purity" of the person performing the moral act. It doesn't matter if hundreds die, as long as I am in the right and can't be condemned of any wrongdoing.

What do you think?

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