Saturday, March 11, 2017

Part IV: Threats to free will from social psychology

Why do some people perform acts of evil? A standard answer is that there exists a subset of people that are just evil by nature. Having an evil nature could be the result of bad genes or a series of bad life experiences and decisions that led to the person having a morally defective character. There are just some bad apples out there that are rotten to the core. Many social psychologists argue that this picture of human psychology is wrong. Instead of thinking of people in terms of good and bad apples, psychologist Philip Zimbardo (2004) argues that people should be thought of as cucumbers. While cucumbers may have different qualities (e.g. genes, shape, size, color), they are all capable of being turned into sour pickles. But cucumbers will not just become pickles on their own. They need to be stored in vinegar for some time. To understand why some people perform acts of evil, we have to look at all of their exposures to vinegar. To extend Zimbardo’s metaphor in the other direction, in order to understand why some people perform acts of good, we have to look at all of their exposures to sugar. If the cucumber metaphor is right, we might not have free will. (At least not as much as we think we do.) In this post, I will argue that while I think cucumbers are a much better metaphor than apples, it would be a mistake to think that the metaphor captures everything about human behavior or that it poses a significant threat to free will.

Both psychologists and philosophers make a distinction between internal and external causes of behavior (see chart below). Examples of internal causes would be character traits, psychological states (e.g. addiction, strong desires), genetics, the brain (e.g. reflexes, automatic processes), and free will. Examples of external causes would be environmental factors (e.g. lead), third party sources (e.g. bribery, coercion and brainwashing), socioeconomic conditions, and 
situational factors. 

Social psychologists believe that role of situational factors are often underestimated in our explanations of human behavior. Some go as far as suggesting that situational factors are the sole drivers of our behavior, and others who argue that our moral character are weak drivers of behavior, easily overpowered by factors beyond our control (Doris 2002). There are even those who suggest that moral character traits (e.g. benevolence, malevolence) may not exist (Harman 1999). I will now give a brief summary of the social psychology literature on situational factors (c.f. Doris 2002, Zimbardo, 2004; 2007, and SEP for thorough reviews). 

It has been found that psychologically normal people are significantly less likely to engage in helping behaviors if they are in a hurry, surrounded by others (look up "the bystander effect"), or subjected to loud noises (e.g. a lawnmower). People are significantly more likely to engage in harming behaviors if they are a position of authority (look up "The Stanford prison experiment"), given orders by a person of authority (look up "The Milgram experiment"), or if their identity is concealed in some way (e.g. wearing a mask, cyberbullying). On the flipside, people are more likely to engage in helping behaviors if they themselves had been helped or rewarded beforehand (e.g. finding a coin in a phone booth).

Zimbardo and others suggest that situational factors can explain the occurrence of events such as the Holocaust, 9/11, and the Rwandan genocide. The idea is that many of the perpetrators of such atrocities were mostly psychologically normal people like you or I. The reason why they engaged in such acts is because of various situational factors that you or I were not subjected to. If we had been subjected to the same situational factors, then we would have participated in such atrocities. 

If the social psychologists are largely right about these matters, then both free will and moral responsibility are posed with a genuine threat. If it's situational factors that are determining most of our behavior, and we are not responsible for being subjected to such factors, then we cannot be responsible for most of our behavior. 

In a previous post, I discussed how brain scan studies were misinterpreted to provide grounds for casting doubt upon the existence of free will. I think that the situationist challenge to free will makes the very same mistake as the neuroscientific one. In order for the challenge to be devastating, you would have to assume that the findings in these psychological studies generalize to all of human behavior and to all humans. I see no reason to think that they generalize in this way. The findings are consistent with other, I think, more likely possibilities. For instance, it may be that we a majority of people are moral sheep, but that some of us are not really affected by situational factors. Another possibility is that situational factors really do affect us all in the ways social psychologists say they do, but that we are not subjected to them on a regular basis. The idea is that our conscious will regularly drives our behavior but that in certain situations, our agency diminishes. I think that social psychologists have identified a possible threat to free will, but that there is, at the moment, insufficient evidence to say that it is a genuine threat. 

Works cited

Doris, J. M. (2002). Lack of character: Personality and moral behavior. Cambridge University Press.

Harman, G. (1999, January). Moral philosophy meets social psychology: Virtue ethics and the fundamental attribution error. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian society (pp. 315-331). Aristotelian Society.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). A situationist perspective on the psychology of evil: Understanding how good people are transformed into perpetrators. The social psychology of good and evil.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). Lucifer Effect. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

*This post is part of a series on free will. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Where did everything come from?

If the universe had a beginning, it was either created ex nihilo (i.e. out of nothing) or it was created out of something. But a creation out of something just pushes the origins question a step back further, for we now need to know where that something came from. Hence, to say that the universe came from something does not give a satisfactory answer the origins question. Either that something was created or it has always existed. On the assumption that the universe was created, there are two possibilities: either the universe was created by a supernatural being (e.g. God), or it was created by natural forces. 

There are then exactly three possibilities when it comes to the creation of the world. It was either created by natural forces out of nothing, created by supernatural forces out of nothing (e.g. God), or it has just always existed and there was no such creation event. In this post, I will make two contentions. First, I will argue that while all of these possibilities are deeply counterintuitive, the eternal universe hypothesis is the most satisfying option. Second,  I will argue that creation ex nihilo by God is not any more plausible that a naturalistic creation ex nihilo. 

Why creation out of something inevitably leads to an eternal universe

In his book "A universe from nothing', theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss claims to show how the universe came from nothing, but he doesn't really manage to show this (Krauss 2012). He cheats by stipulating that 'nothing' refers to the quantum vacuum state that is found in "empty" space. Such states are teemed with energy in the form of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence. In this universe, empty space turns out contain something. However, the question that philosophers and theologians have asked for millenia has been 'why is there anything at all?' Thus, Krauss employs the old bait and switch by answering a different question altogether. 

Before our universe existed, it is assumed that there was something (i.e. quantum vacuum states) that already existed. From the brewing of quantum energy comes the big bang, the evolution of matter (i.e. fermions and bosons), and eventually complex life. But what created the quantum energy? Or the laws of nature that govern the behavior and interactions of such energy? To say that energy had a beginning would be to push the question back one step further, as we now need a creation story for energy. Why would Krauss go through the trouble of explaining how the universe was created out of something when he still has to explain the origins of that something? One way out of this problem would be to say that quantum energy has just always existed, and that there never was a state of absolute nothing. If the quantum energy has always been there, then we now have an eternal universe model. If the energy was not always there, then physicists have some more explaining to do. 

Naturalistic creation ex nihilo

Naturalistic ex nihilo means that the universe came into existence out of nothing without any cause. Here I use "nothing" in its strongest sense; the absence of anything. To illustrate ex nihilo creation with a culinary metaphor, there were no ingredients in the recipe for creating the universe. That is to say, there wasn't any matter or energy (0r even protomatter and protoenergy) that came together to create the universe. As theist philosopher William Lane Craig sometimes mockingly describes this view, "The universe just pops into existence." This view does seem to be rather implausible. But if a eternal universe model is rejected, one must accept this radical conclusion, regardless of one's views about God. The Universe either popped into existence without a cause or popped into existence with the help of God. Religious believers seem to think that claims of creation ex nihilo can be rendered plausible with the addition of an all powerful timeless agent that exists outside the universe. I will now show why this is not the case.

Divine creation ex nihilo

Before the universe, there was God; an immaterial, timeless agent that is omniscient, omnipotent and, perhaps, omnibenevolent. Additionally, God is a mind, but quite different than the minds familiar to modern science. Not only is the mind of God immaterial--lacking a physical substrate, such as a brain--God also has the capacity for telekinesis. That is to say, God can alter or even create matter and energy by mere thought. In creating the universe, there were certain thoughts in the mind of God that triggered the big bang. One could accurately describe this as magic. The creation event resulted in somethingness (e.g. a primordial cosmic stew of particles) that presumably evolved over time into the present state of the universe. What are we to make of this creation story? 

It may be argued that this account is incomplete. Perhaps God did had some basic "ingredients" to cook up the universe. What kinds of ingredients would they be? There seem to be only two options: physical or nonphysical. If there were physical ingredients (e.g. protomatter and energy) then there existed something before God's telekinetic creation of the universe. But this would mean that he God didn't create the universe ex nihilo. If the ingredients of creation were purely nonphysical (e.g. thoughts), then there are certain thoughts which have the power to create universes, presumably the kinds of thoughts only a God could have. This means that the universe was created by God by thinking it into existence out of nothing. The conclusion is inescapable. Since God is immaterial and nonspatial, there would be no other means for such a creation to take place. Thoughts were the only tools at God's disposal for creating the universe.

The accounts compared

Naturalistic creation ex nihilo amounts to the universe popping into existence out of nothing without a cause. Divine creation ex nihilo amounts to God thinking the universe into existence out of nothing. In order for the latter to be possible, one must accept that minds can just exist on their own (without brains), and further, that certain minds can have the capacity for telekinesis. Lastly, the eternal universe model would entail that there is an infinite number of past events.

Evidence for the big bang is taken to be strong support for a beginning to the universe. While there is a consensus among cosmologists that a big bang occurred (roughly 14 billion years ago), few are in agreement that it was the beginning of everything. There are some physicists that think that the big bang sparked the existence of our own observable universe, but that another universe may have existed before it. For instance, physicists have proposed cyclical universe model where universes, 0ver long stretches of time, decay and collapse into a big bang singularity, giving rise to a new universe. An alternative view would be Andre Lindei's eternal inflation model which involves an infinite number of parallel worlds created from an ever-flowing stream of energy. 

It may be argued that both the cyclical and eternal inflation theories are highly speculative and not supported by rigorous mathematical models. However, as cosmologist Sean Carroll points out, there are eternal universe theories that are supported by rigorous models (e.g. Aguirre and Gratton 2003). That doesn't mean that those models are true, but only, that eternal universe models do not violate known laws of physics. Since cosmology is still a fairly premature science, we expect there to be conclusive answers to these questions, nor should we give much weight to the available evidence.

Comparably, I find the eternal universe account to be the least crazy. First, it is consistent with cosmological evidence, such as the big bang. Second, an infinite number of past events does not appeal to anything unfamiliar or mysterious. It involves just a succession of physical states, extending backwards in time infinitely.

On the other hand, the creation ex nihilo hypotheses involve either a supreme nonphysical agent with psychic powers or a universe just popping into existence without any cause. I think there are good reasons to be skeptical of the God creation story, mainly due to my skepticism about the existence of God, and that the naturalistic creation story is deeply unattractive because there could be no explanation for why the universe popped into existence. The origins of our universe would be just a brute fact. Since it is stipulated that there was no cause, what other kind of story could be told about the origins of the universe? 

An eternal universe entails that something has always existed in one form or another. The existence of matter, as well as the present state of our universe might just be a temporary and rare phenomenon that has fluctuated in and out of existence an infinite number of times. As crazy as that may sound, look at what the only other alternatives are. 

Works cited

Aguirre, A., & Gratton, S. (2003). Inflation without a beginning: a null boundary proposal. Physical Review D, 67(8), 083515.

Krauss, L. M. (2012). A universe from nothing: Why there is something rather than nothing. Simon and Schuster.