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Darwin and Determinism
All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.
James Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791)
Are we the conscious authors of our actions or do our actions happen to us? A casual discussion of this critical question quickly deteriorates into an abstract metaphysical argument between determinism and free will and settles nothing. Instead of opposites, the experience of conscious will and psychological determinism can both be understood as evolutionary adaptations which function in tandem to promote the fitness of the individual. In Michael Ruse's Darwin and Determinism a biology-based discussion of evolutionary thought is presented and its implications on humanity's notions of free will. Ruse's major thrust is to present his perspective on biology and teleology. This perspective can be understood as arguing that one's motivations and decisions are inherently based on biological principles (food, sex, survival) and that there is no room for free will or an objective morality outside of biology. What moral choices we do make are instead the byproduct of selection acting on evolutionary variation. In short, Ruse argues that free will and morality are illusions masking the true deterministic framework of our minds which has been molded by evolution via natural selection. This position naturally has tremendous implications for ethics, philosophy and social policy.
Ruse's central thesis comes out of an argument over adaptation vs. design. The core Darwinian question of whether humans are inherently defined through their genes or a product of socially-constructed adaption is broached directly. Traditionally, determinism is conceived as a general concept for a smorgasbord of anti-free will philosophies. What Ruse is discussing is about the laws of nature as defined by Darwinism. It is the argument that everything which occurs is the byproduct of biologically defined conditions. Therefore, the position espoused by Ruse that there is no room for free will in this conception is called incompatablism. The incompatibilist such as Ruse argues that if determinism were valid, it would also be true that we don't have, and have never had, free will. In contrast, the compatibilist rejects the deductions of the incompatablist and argues for the possibility of free will despite biology's laws. The philosophical problem of free will and determinism is the problem of understanding, how, if at all, the truth of determinism might be compatible with the truth of our belief that we have free will. That is, it's the problem of deciding who is right: the compatibilist or the incompatibilist.
Prior to analyzing the logic or Ruse's arguments, it is critical to detail the central question being raised. If the incompatablists are correct that there is no free will then there is no place to put morality. We might ask whether there is any objective basis for having some morality or other rather than none at all; or we might ask the very different question whether some specific system of morals, such as, one's own, has an objective basis. It is not clear which question Ruse has in mind. I am inclined at times to think that Ruse has the first question in mind - Why have any morality? - since throughout his various discussions he talks about morals in very basic terms. Yet at the same time the examples he gives of failed attempts to provide an objective justification for morals are attempts which concern specific normative systems. Here it seems his question is: Where does morality come from in a deterministic world?
The question is important because biology may be able to provide an objective basis for morals in answer to one question but not the other. In fact, this is precisely how the matter stands. Biology, in particular, the kind of evolutionary story that Ruse and others have sketched, promises to give an objective basis for morals in answer to the question "Why have any morality at all?" without being able to do the same for the more specific question "Why have such and such particular morality?" Put in the simplest terms, the argument rests on the normative but non-moral principle that having some morality rather than none is justified for every member of the group if having some morality rather than none overwhelmingly improves the life prospects of everyone in the group. Since the biological explanation for the existence of morality implies that having some morality rather than none overwhelmingly improves the life prospects of everyone in the group, it follows that having some morality rather than none is justified.
Ruse's main argument is that there is no objective justification for free will. His argument is best interpreted as a form of inference to the best explanation. To pick one of his favorite examples of alleged objective justification, suppose it is claimed that the belief that gratuitous cruelty is wrong is objectively justified because the belief is self-evidently true. Here it appears we have two competing explanations for why a person have free will. On the one hand, there is a biological explanation and, on the other, an appeal to self-evidence. One explanation implies that the belief has no truth value and that the semblance of objectivity is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes (Sharpe, 1992); the other implies that the self-evident truth of the proposition that gratuitous cruelty is wrong explains why it is believed. But if the biological explanation gives the true story of why the belief in free will is held, then, in explaining best why the belief is held, it undermines the imputation of objectivity implicit in the competing explanation.
In fact, it is possible to conceive of free will and morality as having true value without violating the spirit of the biological account. For one needn't identify present moral beliefs with moral dispositions. One could instead take the moral dispositions described in the account as "proto-beliefs" which have been replaced by full-fledged beliefs which imply that these moral dispositions are justified. The justification, involving practical principles could turn out to be objective. Another example where the biological explanation is justified practically on the basis of its contribution to these ends which are antecedently desired. There is no need to suppose that the principles of practical reason guiding the choice of means to these ends represent or refer to a transcendent realm of moral facts or indeed to any natural moral facts. The justification for morality, though objective, would not therefore compete with the evolutionary explanation of how these ends have involved and hence would not be vulnerable to Ruse's objection. Moreover, since this kind of justification does not presuppose that the evolved moral ends are optimally desirable, the justification allows that another morality may be more justifiable than the current one.
In conclusion, Ruse's perspective is ultimately similar to B.F. Skinner's in Science and Human Behavior that the notion of behavioral responsibility should be abandoned stating that, "We do not hold people responsible for their reflexes -- for example, for coughing in church. We hold them responsible for their operant behavior -- for example, for whispering in church or remaining in church while coughing. But there are variables which are responsible for whispering as well as coughing and these may be just as inexorable. When we recognize this, we are likely to drop the notion of responsibility altogether." The experience of conscious will, in contrast, allows an organism to be both the author and the unwilling subject of its behavior. The phenomenon allows for behavioral flexibility to work alongside psychological determinism in regards to particular behaviors to promote the fitness of the individual vs. its conspecifics.
The understanding put forward by Ruse has significant ramifications for morality. In the past, behavioral determinists have expressed similar arguments to Derk Pereboom in Living Without Free Will where he states that as, "Factors beyond our control ultimately…[continue]
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