“Human exceptionalism” and free will…


Being human is just the bees’ knees and the cat’s pajamas!

In an issue of the “Human Exceptionalist,” a newsletter put out by the naturalism deniers at the Discovery Institute, an infamous Creationist outlet, there was a passage concerning free will that I thought illustrates well some of the arguments used to defend it, as well as the relation between the fairy tale of free will and the fairy tale of Creationism.

RationalWiki explains “human exceptionalism” in this way:

The most recent usage of the term can be found in Discovery Institute propaganda. Like intelligent design, it’s basically creationism (specifically, baraminology) in a funny hat…

The rationale is that western civilization “depends on accepting the moral importance of being human,” and a conspiracy of “powerful and bounteously financed ideological forces in seemingly unrelated but actually symbiotically connected fields such as bioethics, radical environmentalism, neo-Darwinism, scientific materialism, animal rights, and futuristic transhumanism, assert with mounting vigor that being human is morally irrelevant.” Western civilisation is good, therefore creationism should be true…

So let me get into the article, which starts with “Dear Exceptional Human:” (if you remember that this newsletter is exclusively for Creationists, you will get the irony of that). It continues:

Free will is one of the crucial moral attributes that distinguishes human beings from animals.

Already we’re in troubled waters. Apparently human beings are not animals but… something else. Well, that’s the natural consequence of believing in free will. But let’s soldier on:

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take the increasing attacks on free will seriously, such as the proselytizing atheist, Sam Harris’s, newest book Free Will. If we have no free will, moral agency is actually a fiction. Without free will, we are reduced to so many automaton slaves of our genes, chemicals, whatever, overlords. In such a worldview, no one could be held morally accountable for their own actions since their biology would have made them do it.

Moreover, if humans have no free will, we are not really moral agents. Once we accepted that premise, the bases for judging behavior and establishing moral standards would eventually collapse.

This is a wonderful Argument from Armageddon. Every time I hear such an argument, I can just imagine the person declaiming this from a pulpit somewhere, with a thundering booming voice, slamming their fist on the pulpit at the right times.

The funny thing about all such arguments is that they are basically correct. The rejection of free will does entail a major crisis in Western civilization. And it’s coming, whether they like it or not. They know it, and it makes them want to rant and rave. They want to raise their hind legs and proclaim “human exceptionalism” to all and sundry.

That being said, I don’t believe that naturalism entails that we are not really moral agents or that there are no moral standards; all it means is that we can’t have “absolute” moral standards, of the kind Christians profess allegiance to (but don’t actually have).

Destroying the unique dignity of man, would, for many, make God go away. Ironically, that would elevate us back into sense of superiority (as opposed to exceptionalism), since in a Godless milieu, our unique “god-like” capabilities would make us even more remarkable, with no theists around urging humility in the face of a Creator. Perhaps, that is the point.

I don’t really understand what this passage means. We have no “god-like” capabilities (insofar as the concept of God means anything). Free will would definitely be a “god-like” capability, if we had it, but we don’t. There is nothing that clearly distinguishes us from other animals, not even the eagerness in which humans adopt absurdly false beliefs like Creationism.

And now we come to the treat:

Of course, if humans are just another animal in the forest, why not treat some of us—those with the least power and who are the most vulnerable—as mere natural resources. Alas, some of the wealthy among us look to the bodies of the destitute as so many corn crops to be harvested, or rented. Biological colonialism strikes just such a beat, for example, purchasing the kidneys of the destitute and renting the wombs of poor women—sometimes with deadly result.

I wanted to analyze this because the belief that determinism leads to tyranny through objectification is a point I haven’t gone into yet. I have, however, stated that determinism leads to the end of demonization, and objectification is often a result of demonization. But that’s not quite enough.

What I can say, however, is that the reasoning above is flawed because it fails to consider that “the wealthy,” of course, see themselves as having free will, and it is their victims that they consider to be “mere natural resources.” They do not see themselves as “mere natural resources.” So to use this as an argument for determinism is a straw man. In the determinist perspective, everyone is equally blameless and equally “just animals.”

It is incongruous for Christian Creationists to pretend that they don’t support hierarchical systems, as they believe in the hierarchies of Creator/created, saved/unsaved, God/men/women, and so on. It is also extremely ironic that in a country where Christianity backs capitalist exploitation and has wholeheartedly adopted it as its mode of operation, Discovery Institute is trying to badmouth capitalist exploitation. Neo-liberalism (and by extension, modern capitalism and our Western lifestyles) is predicated on treating half of the world as a natural resource to be exploited. Is the Discover Institute ready to fight against that, too? No… no they are not.

Putting capitalism aside, I come back again to my factory analogy. If you say that some people might break into the factories and start using the machines for their own gain, I’d say you’ve lost the plot of the analogy: we are all machines, not just some of us. And the idea of a machine trying to exploit another is just silly. It is just aberrant programming that needs to be corrected.

The thing with free will is that it’s not something that some people can have and not others: either we all have it, or no one has it. You can’t come out and say that a tyrant has free will but his victims don’t. From a naturalist perspective, the tyrant is just as blameless as his victims, and should be considered as a defective machine like any other violent criminal or psychotic. What we should be doing, first of all, is finding out what power they are using to bring about their tyrannical ends, and abolish the sources of that power or, if this is found impossible, equalize the power as much as possible.

The belief that naturalism entails seeing others as a means to an end relies on the same fallacy. To whose end would anyone be a means for, if no one is in control? In order to see people as means to an end, we must first posit someone who is more than part of a causal chain and who can turn others into tools for eir ends. But there is really nothing that exists to be an end for, just causality.

Another theory, this time from the Left, is that without agency we cannot fight back against tyranny and propose alternative structures. But this is as abstruse as the claim that without free will we can never change our mind. At the very least, it remains unproven that the free will perspective can deal more effectively with tyranny than a naturalist perspective. It seems to me that a frank analysis and uprooting of the causes of evil is a more effective way to deal with evil than punishment without any sort of change.

Tyranny doesn’t come from seeing people as machines, but rather from not seeing yourself as a machine, as something greater (contra-causal), while believing that everyone else is innately evil and depraved. This can only come from belief in free will. In the free will perspective, the dispossessed are responsible for their own powerlessness, and indeed deserve to be powerless. No matter how much they insist on the reverse, the free will perspective does not and cannot allow for human dignity, because any human being’s worth will always depend on eir self-created “choices.”

The relation between Creationism and free will is not discussed at all in this piece, but it is implied that this Creationist newsletter supports free will because God is its source, and that this all has to do with the Christian worldview. Creationists do well to panic about the imminent defeat of free will, since Creationism relies on divine free will, supernatural creation from thought alone.

Evolution, on the other hand, is incompatible with the existence of free will, because natural selection and mutations operate on physical factors, through DNA. There can be no evolution or adaptation of supernatural processes in evolution, because the reproductive processes that act on the information in DNA synthesize proteins, not supernatural entities.

This, of course, would be a surprise to those who argue for some secular form of free will. I don’t expect to convince them that they believe in a spook, even though they are. To them, the “intuition” that they have free will trumps both evidence and basic logic.

As for the topic of human exceptionalism, studies have shown that it is actually natural for people to believe that humans somehow function differently than other things around them, even when they are told to assume determinism. So perhaps human exceptionalism, in a more sophisticated form than that presented by vulgar Christians, is one of those mental models that will be hard to root out of popular culture even after determinism wins the day.

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3 thoughts on ““Human exceptionalism” and free will…

  1. Zero Miya July 7 2013 at 7:40 Reply

    A simple debunk is also does anyone think of thinking a thought? Many times free will supporters will weakly counter this statement saying “then why do people have different opinions and thoughts, given similar or the same conditions and circumstances” Well…. Why is a PC slightly different from a Mac? Is it because the PC and Mac have freewill? No.. Also For the mathematically knowledgable peoples apparent freewill could be likened to person’s having different algorithms or equations with which they process happenings.
    For example Fred’s equation may look like this: 2x+4x+8×-5 and Anne’s may look like this: 2x^2 – 4x + 7 let’s input 2 into each Fred’s “opinion” is 23 and Anne’s “opinion” is 7. Seems like freewill to an observer who is really thinking… and there are many of these equations out there. There’s more too what about us all as the animal called humans thinking thoughts wed have never come up with on our own had we lived in solitude or somewhere else. Our minds essentially a storage unit for societies’ opinions and beliefs. Freewill just isn’t real.
    Well written article, Francois Tremblay thought inspiring and intelligent.

    • Zero Miya July 7 2013 at 7:43 Reply

      * line 9: …. obsever who isn’t really thinking…

  2. […] “Human exceptionalism” and free will […]

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