Statistical Laws of Choice

I noted in an earlier post the necessity of statistical laws of nature. This will necessarily apply to human actions as a particular case, as I implied there in mentioning the amount of food humans eat in a year.

Someone might object. It was said in the earlier post that this will happen unless there is a deliberate attempt to evade this result. But since we are speaking of human beings, there might well be such an attempt. So for example if we ask someone to choose to raise their right hand or their left hand, this might converge to an average, such as 50% each, or perhaps the right hand 60% of the time, or something of this kind. But presumably someone who starts out with the deliberate intention of avoiding such an average will be able to do so.

Unfortunately, such an attempt may succeed in the short run, but will necessarily fail in the long run, because although it is possible in principle, it would require an infinite knowing power, which humans do not have. As I pointed out in the earlier discussion, attempting to prevent convergence requires longer and longer strings on one side or the other. But if you need to raise your right hand a few trillion times before switching again to your left, you will surely lose track of your situation. Nor can you remedy this by writing things down, or by other technical aids: you may succeed in doing things trillions of times with this method, but if you do it forever, the numbers will also become too large to write down. Naturally, at this point we are only making a theoretical point, but it is nonetheless an important one, as we shall see later.

In any case, in practice people do not tend even to make such attempts, and consequently it is far easier to predict their actions in a roughly statistical manner. Thus for example it would not be hard to discover the frequency with which an individual chooses chocolate ice cream over vanilla.

The Practical Argument for Free Will

Richard Chappell discusses a practical argument for free will:

1) If I don’t have free will, then I can’t choose what to believe.
2) If I can choose what to believe, then I have free will [from 1]
3) If I have free will, then I ought to believe it.
4) If I can choose what to believe, then I ought to believe that I have free will. [from 2,3]
5) I ought, if I can, to choose to believe that I have free will. [restatement of 4]

He remarks in the comments:

I’m taking it as analytic (true by definition) that choice requires free will. If we’re not free, then we can’t choose, can we? We might “reach a conclusion”, much like a computer program does, but we couldn’t choose it.

I understand the word “choice” a bit differently, in that I would say that we are obviously choosing in the ordinary sense of the term, if we consider two options which are possible to us as far as we know, and then make up our minds to do one of them, even if it turned out in some metaphysical sense that we were already guaranteed in advance to do that one. Or in other words, Chappell is discussing determinism vs libertarian free will, apparently ruling out compatibilist free will on linguistic grounds. I don’t merely disagree in the sense that I use language differently, but in the sense that I don’t agree that his usage correspond to the normal English usage. [N.B. I misunderstood Richard here. He explains in the comments.] Since people can easily be led astray by such linguistic confusions, given the relationships between thought and language, I prefer to reformulate the argument:

  1. If I don’t have libertarian free will, then I can’t make an ultimate difference in what I believe that was not determined by some initial conditions.
  2. If I can make an ultimate difference in what I believe that was not determined by some initial conditions, then I have libertarian free will [from 1].
  3. If I have libertarian free will, then it is good to believe that I have it.
  4. If I can make an ultimate difference in my beliefs undetermined by initial conditions, then it is good to believe that I have libertarian free will. [from 2, 3]
  5. It is good, if I can, to make a difference in my beliefs undetermined by initial conditions, such that I believe that I have libertarian free will.

We would have to add that the means that can make such a difference, if any means can, would be choosing to believe that I have libertarian free will.

I have reformulated (3) to speak of what is good, rather than of what one ought to believe, for several reasons. First, in order to avoid confusion about the meaning of “ought”. Second, because the resolution of the argument lies here.

The argument is in fact a good argument as far as it goes. It does give a practical reason to hold the voluntary belief that one has libertarian free will. The problem is that it does not establish that it is better overall to hold this belief, because various factors can contribute to whether an action or belief is a good thing.

We can see this with the following thought experiment:

Either people have libertarian free will or they do not. This is unknown. But God has decreed that people who believe that they have libertarian free will go to hell for eternity, while people who believe that they do not, will go to heaven for eternity.

This is basically like the story of the Alien Implant. Having libertarian free will is like the situation where the black box is predicting your choice, and not having it is like the case where the box is causing your choice. The better thing here is to believe that you do not have libertarian free will, and this is true despite whatever theoretical sense you might have that you are “not responsible” for this belief if it is true, just as it is better not to smoke even if you think that your choice is being caused.

But note that if a person believes that he has libertarian free will, and it turns out to be true, he has some benefit from this, namely the truth. But the evil of going to hell presumably outweighs this benefit. And this reveals the fundamental problem with the argument, namely that we need to weigh the consequences overall. We made the consequences heaven and hell for dramatic effect, but even in the original situation, believing that you have libertarian free will when you do not, has an evil effect, namely believing something false, and potentially many evil effects, namely whatever else follows from this falsehood. This means that in order to determine what is better to believe here, it is necessary to consider the consequences of being mistaken, just as it is in general when one formulates beliefs.

Chastek on Determinism

On a number of occasions, James Chastek has referred to the impossibility of a detailed prediction of the future as an argument for libertarian free will. This is a misunderstanding. It is impossible to predict the future in detail for the reasons given in the linked post, and this has nothing to do with libertarian free will or even any kind of free will at all.

The most recent discussions of this issue at Chastek’s blog are found here and here. The latter post:

Hypothesis: A Laplacian demon, i.e. a being who can correctly predict all future actions, contradicts our actual experience of following instructions with some failure rate.

Set up: You are in a room with two buttons, A and B. This is the same set-up Soon’s free-will experiment, but the instructions are different.

Instructions: You are told that you will have to push a button every 30 seconds, and that you will have fifty trials. The clock will start when a sheet of paper comes out of a slit in the wall that says A or B. Your instructions are to push the opposite of whatever letter comes out.

The Apparatus: the first set of fifty trials is with a random letter generator. The second set of trials is with letters generated by a Laplacian demon who knows the wave function of the universe and so knows in advance what button will be pushed and so prints out the letter.

The Results: In the first set of trials, which we can confirm with actual experience, the success rate is close to 100%, but, the world being what it is, there is a 2% mistake rate in the responses. In the second set of trials the success rate is necessarily 0%. In the first set of trials, subject report feelings of boredom, mild indifference, continual daydreaming, etc. The feelings expressed in the second trial might be any or all of the following: some say they suddenly developed a pathological desire to subvert the commands of the experiment, others express feelings of being alienated from their bodies, trying to press one button and having their hand fly in the other direction, others insist that they did follow instructions and consider you completely crazy for suggesting otherwise, even though you can point to video evidence of them failing to follow the rules of the experiment, etc.

The Third Trial: Run the trial a third time, this time giving the randomly generated letter to the subject and giving the Laplacian letter to the experimenter. Observe all the trials where the two generate the same number, and interate the experiment until one has fifty trials. Our actual experience tells us that the subject will have a 98% success rate, but our theoretical Laplacian demon tells us that the success rate should be necessarily 0%. Since asserting that the random-number generator and the demon will never have the same response would make the error-rate necessarily disappear and cannot explain our actual experience of failures, the theoretical postulation of a Laplacian demon contradicts our actual experience. Q.E.D.

The post is phrased as a proof that Laplacian demons cannot exist, but in fact Chastek intends it to establish the existence of libertarian free will, which is a quite separate thesis; no one would be surprised if Laplacian demons cannot exist in the real world, but many people would be surprised if people turn out to have libertarian free will.

I explain in the comments there the problem with this argument:

Here is what happens when you set up the experiment. You approach the Laplacian demon and ask him to write the letter that the person is going to choose for the second set of 50 trials.

The demon will respond, “That is impossible. I know the wave function of the universe, and I know that there is no possible set of As and Bs such that, if that is the set written, it will be the set chosen by the person. Of course, I know what will actually be written, and I know what the person will do. But I also know that those do not and cannot match.”

In other words, you are right that the experiment is impossible, but this is not reason to believe that Laplacian demons are impossible; it is a reason to believe that it is impossible for anything to write what the person is going to do.

E.g. if your argument works, it proves either that God does not exist, or that he does not know the future. Nor can one object that God’s knowledge is eternal rather than of the future, since it is enough if God can write down what is going to happen, as he is thought to have done e.g. in the text, “A virgin will conceive etc.”

If you answer, as you should, that God cannot write what the person will do, but he can know it, the same applies to the Laplacian demon.

As another reality check here, according to St. Thomas a dog is “determinate to one” such that in the same circumstances it will do the same thing. But we can easily train a dog in such a way that no one can possibly write down the levers it will choose, since it will be trained to choose the opposite ones.

And still another: a relatively simple robot, programmed in the same way. We don’t need a Laplacian demon, since we can predict ourselves in every circumstance what it will do. But we cannot write that down, since then we would predict the opposite of what we wrote. And it is absolutely irrelevant that the robot is an “instrument,” since the argument does not have any premise saying that human beings are not instruments.

As for the third set, if I understood it correctly you are indeed cherry picking — you are simply selecting the trials where the human made a mistake, and saying, “why did he consistently make a mistake in these cases?” There is no reason; you simply selected those cases.

Chastek responds to this comment in a fairly detailed way. Rather than responding directly to the comment there, I ask him to comment on several scenarios. The first scenario:

If I drop a ball on a table, and I ask you to predict where it is going to first hit the table, and say, “Please predict where it is going to first hit the table, and let me know your prediction by covering the spot with your hand and keeping it there until the trial is over,” is it clear to you that:

a) it will be impossible for you to predict where it is going to first hit in this way, since if you cover a spot it cannot hit there


b) this has nothing whatsoever to do with determinism or indeterminism of anything.

The second scenario:

Let’s make up a deterministic universe. It has no human beings, no rocks, nothing but numbers. The wave function of the universe is this: f(x)=x+1, where x is the initial condition and x+1 is the second condition.

We are personally Laplacian demons compared to this universe. We know what the second condition will be for any original condition.

Now give us the option of setting the original condition, and say:

Predict the second condition, and set that as the initial condition. This should lead to a result like (1,1) or (2,2), which contradicts our experience that the result is always higher than the original condition. So the hypothesis that we know the output given the input must be false.

The answer: No. It is not false that we know the output given the input. We know that these do not and cannot match, not because of anything indeterminate, but because the universe is based on the completely deterministic rule that f(x)=x+1, not f(x)=x.

Is it clear:

a) why a Laplacian demon cannot set the original condition to the resulting condition
b) this has nothing to do with anything being indeterminate
c) there is no absurdity in a Laplacian demon for a universe like this

The reason why I presented these questions instead of responding directly to his comments is that his comments are confused, and an understanding of these situations would clear up that confusion. For unclear reasons, Chastek failed to respond to these questions. Nonetheless, I will respond to his detailed comments in the light of the above explanations. Chastek begins:

Here are my responses:

That is impossible… I know what will actually be written, and I know what the person will do. But I also know that those do not and cannot match

But “what will actually be written” is, together with a snapshot of the rest of the universe, an initial condition and “what the person will do” is an outcome. Saying these “can never match” means the demon is saying “the laws of nature do not suffice to go from some this initial condition to one of its outcomes” which is to deny Laplacian demons altogether.

The demon is not saying that the laws of nature do not suffice to go from an initial condition to an outcome. It is saying that “what will actually be written” is part of the initial conditions, and that it is an initial condition that is a determining factor that prevents itself from matching the outcome. In the case of the dropping ball above, covering the spot with your hand is an initial condition, and it absolutely prevents the outcome being that the ball first hits there. In the case of f(x), x is an initial condition, and it prevents the outcome from being x, since it will always be x+1. In the same way, in Chastek’s experiment, what is written is an initial condition which prevents the outcome from being that thing which was written.

If you answer, as you should, that God cannot write what the person will do, but he can know it, the same applies to the Laplacian demon.

When God announces what will happen he can be speaking about what he intends to do, while a LD cannot. I’m also very impressed by John of St. Thomas’s arguments that the world is not only notionally present to God but even physically present within him, which makes for a dimension of his speaking of the future that could never be said of an LD. This is in keeping with the Biblical idea that God not only looks at the world but responds and interacts with it. The character of prophesy is also very different from the thought experiment we’re trying to do with an LD: LD’s are all about what we can predict in advance, but Biblical prophesies do not seem to be overly concerned with what can be predicted in advance, as should be shown from the long history of failed attempts to turn the NT into a predictive tool.

If God says, “the outcome will be A,” and then consistently causes the person to choose A even when the person has hostile intentions, this will be contrary to our experience in the same way that the Laplacian demon would violate our experience if it always got the outcome right. You can respond, “ok, but that’s fine, because we’re admitting that God is a cause, but the Laplacian demon is not supposed to be affecting the outcome.” The problem with the response is that God is supposed to be the cause all of the time, not merely some of the time; so why should he not also say what is going to happen, since he is causing it anyway?

I agree that prophecy in the real world never tells us much detail about the future in fact, and this is verified in all biblical prophecies and in all historical cases such as the statements about the future made by the Fatima visionaries. I also say that even in principle God could not consistently predict in advance a person’s actions, and show him those predictions, without violating his experience of choice, but I say that this is for the reasons given here.

But the point of my objection was not about how prophecy works in the real world. The point was that Catholic doctrine seems to imply that God could, if he wanted, announce what the daily weather is going to be for the next year. It would not bother me personally if this turns out to be completely impossible; but is Chastek prepared to say the same? The real issues with the Laplacian demon are the same: knowing exactly what is going to happen, and to what degree it can announce what it knows.

we can easily train a dog in such a way that no one can possibly write down the levers it will choose, since it will be trained to choose the opposite ones.

Such an animal would follow instructions with some errors, and so would be a fine test subject for my experiment. This is exactly what my subject does in trial #1. I say the same for your robot example.

(ADDED LATER) I’m thankful for this point and developed for reasons given above on the thread.

This seems to indicate the source of the confusion, relative to my examples of covering the place where the ball hits, and the case of the function f(x) = x+1. There is no error rate in these situations: the ball never hits the spot you cover, and f(x) never equals x.

But this is really quite irrelevant. The reason the Laplacian demon says that the experiment is impossible has nothing to do with the error rate, but with the anti-correlation between what is written and the outcome. Consider: suppose in fact you never make a mistake. There is no error rate. Nonetheless, the demon still cannot say what you are going to do, because you always do the opposite of what it says. Likewise, even if the dog never fails to do what it was trained to do, it is impossible for the Laplacian demon to say what it is going to do, since it always does the opposite. The same is true for the robot. In other words, my examples show the reason why the experiment is impossible, without implying that a Laplacian demon is impossible.

We can easily reconstruct my examples to contain an error rate, and nonetheless prediction will be impossible for the same reasons, without implying that anything is indeterminate. For example:

Suppose that the world is such that every tenth time you try to cover a spot, your hand slips off and stops blocking it. I specify every tenth time to show that determinism has nothing to do with this: the setup is completely determinate. In this situation, you are able to indicate the spot where the ball will hit every tenth time, but no more often than that.

Likewise suppose we have f(x) = x+1, with one exception such that f(5) = 5. If we then ask the Laplacian demon (namely ourselves) to provide five x such that the output equals the input, we will not be able to do it in five cases, but we will be able to do it in one. Since this universe (the functional universe) is utterly deterministic, the fact that we cannot present five such cases does not indicate something indeterminate. It just indicates a determinate fact about how the function universe works.

As for the third set, if I understood it correctly you are indeed cherry picking — you are simply selecting the trials where the human made a mistake,

LD’s can’t be mistaken. If they foresee outcome O from initial conditions C, then no mistake can fail to make O come about. But this isn’t my main point, which is simply to repeat what I said to David: cherry picking requires disregarding evidence that goes against your conclusion, but the times when the random number generator and the LD disagree provide no evidence whether LD’s are consistent with our experience of following instructions with some errors.

I said “if I understood it correctly” because the situation was not clearly laid out. I understood the setup to be this: the Laplacian demon writes out fifty letters, A or B, being the letters it sees that I am going to write. It does not show me this series of letters. Instead, a random process outputs a series of letters, A or B, and each time I try to select the opposite letter.

Given this setup, what the Laplacian demon writes always matches what I select. And most of the time, both are the opposite of what was output by the random process. But occasionally I make a mistake, that is, I fail to select the opposite letter, and choose the same letter that the random process chose. In these cases, since the Laplacian demon still knew what was going to happen, the demon’s letter also matches the random process letter, and my letter.

Now, Chastek says, consider only the cases where the demon’s letter is the same as the random process letter. It will turn out that over those cases, I have a 100% failure rate: that is, in every such case I selected the same letter as the random process. According to him, we should consider this surprising, since we would not normally have a 100% failure rate. This is not cherry picking, he says, because “the times when the random number generator and the LD disagree provide no evidence whether LD’s are consistent with our experience of following instructions with some errors.”

The problem with this should be obvious. Let us consider demon #2: he looks at what the person writes, and then writes down the same thing. Is this demon possible? There will be some cases where demon #2 writes down the opposite of what the random process output: those will be the cases where the person did not make a mistake. But there will be other cases where the person makes a mistake. In those cases, what the person writes, and what demon #2 writes, will match the output of the random process. Consider only those cases. The person has a 100% failure rate in those cases. The cases where the random process and demon #2 disagree provide no evidence whether demon #2 is consistent with our experience, so this is not cherry picking. Now it is contrary to our experience to have a 100% failure rate. So demon #2 is impossible.

This result is of course absurd – demon#2 is obviously entirely possible, since otherwise making copies of things would be impossible. This is sufficient to establish that Chastek’s response is mistaken. He is indeed cherry picking: he simply selected the cases where the human made a mistake, and noted that there was a 100% failure rate in those cases.

In other words, we do not need a formal answer to Chastek’s objection to see that there is something very wrong with it; but the formal answer is that the cases where the demon disagrees with the random process do indeed provide some evidence. They question is whether the existence of the demon is consistent with “our experience of following instructions with some errors.” But we cannot have this experience without sometimes following the instructions correctly; being right is part of this experience, just like being wrong. And the cases where the demon disagrees with the random process are cases where we follow the instructions correctly, and such cases provide evidence that the demon is possible.

Chastek provides an additional comment about the case of the dog:

Just a note, one point I am thankful to EU for is the idea that a trained dog might be a good test subject too. If this is right, then the recursive loop might not be from intelligence as such but the intrinsic indeterminism of nature, which we find in one way through (what Aristotle called) matter being present in the initial conditions and the working of the laws and in another through intelligence. But space is opened for one with the allowing of the other, since on either account nature has to allow for teleology.

I was pointing to St. Thomas in my response with the hope that St. Thomas’s position would at least be seen as reasonable; and there is no question that St. Thomas believes that there is no indeterminism whatsoever in the behavior of a dog. If a dog is in the same situation, he believes, it will do exactly the same thing. In any case, Chastek does not address this, so I will not try at this time to establish the fact of St. Thomas’s position.

The main point is that, as we have already shown, the reason it is impossible to predict what the dog will do has nothing to do with indeterminism, since such prediction is impossible even if the dog is infallible, and remains impossible even if the dog has a deterministic error rate.

The comment, “But space is opened for one with the allowing of the other, since on either account nature has to allow for teleology,” may indicate why Chastek is so insistent in his error: in his opinion, if nature is deterministic, teleology is impossible. This is a mistake much like Robin Hanson’s mistake explained in the previous post. But again I will leave this for later consideration.

I will address one last comment:

I agree the physical determinist’s equation can’t be satisfied for all values, and that what makes it possible is the presence of a sort of recursion. But in the context of the experiment this means that the letter on a sheet of paper together with a snapshot of the rest of the universe can never be an initial condition, but I see no reason why this would be the case. Even if I granted their claim that there was some recursive contradiction, it does not arise merely because the letter is given in advance, since the LD could print out the letter in advance just fine if the initial conditions were, say, a test particle flying though empty space toward button A with enough force to push it.

It is true that the contradiction does not arise just because the Laplacian demon writes down the letter. There is no contradiction even in the human case, if the demon does not show it to the human. Nor does anything contrary to our experience happen in such a case. The case which is contrary to our experience is when the demon shows the letter to the person; and this is indeed impossible on account of a recursive contradiction, not because the demon is impossible.

Consider the case of the test particle flying towards button A: it is not a problem for the demon to write down the outcome precisely because what is written has no particular influence, in this case, on the outcome.

But if “writing the letter” means covering the button, as in our example of covering the spot where the ball will hit, then the demon will not be able to write the outcome in advance. And obviously this will not mean there is any indeterminism.

The contradiction comes about because covering the button prevents the button from being pushed. And the contradiction comes about in the human case in exactly the same way: writing a letter causes, via the human’s intention to follow the instructions, the opposite outcome. Again indeterminism has nothing to do with this: the same thing will happen if the human is infallible, or if the human has an error rate which has deterministic causes.

“This means that the letter on a sheet of paper together with a snapshot of the rest of the universe can never be an initial condition.” No, it means that in some of the cases, namely those where the human will be successful in following instructions, the letter with the rest of the universe cannot be an initial condition where the outcome is the same as what is written. While there should be no need to repeat the reasons for this at this point, the reason is that “what is written” is a cause of the opposite outcome, and whether that causality is deterministic or indeterministic has nothing to do with the impossibility. The letter can indeed be an initial condition: but it is an initial condition where the outcome is the opposite of the letter, and the demon knows all this.

The Good I Do Not Want

St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

This happens because the person is divided. Simply speaking I may believe that the thing that I want to do is right; but in another way, I perceive or suppose that “the evil I do not want” is good.

This sort of division can happen in the opposite way as well, so that a person wills the evil that he takes to be good, but cannot do it, because another part of him perceives that it is evil and to be avoided.

Procrastination can work as an example of both cases. Without a doubt procrastinating is often failing to do the good that one wills; but it is also often refusing to do something that would be mostly pointless, and in this sense, it is refusing to do something bad, and thus one could say that “I do not the evil I want, but the good I do not want is what I do.”


Composing Elements

Suppose we have two elements, as for example water and earth (not that these are really elements.) How do we make something out of the elements? We can consider two different possible ways that this could happen.

Suppose that when we combine one part water and one part earth, we get mud, and when we combine one part water and two parts earth, we get clay. Thus clay and mud are two different composite bodies that can be made from our elements.

How do we expect clay and mud to behave? We saw earlier that the nature of the physical world more or less requires the existence of mathematical laws of nature. Now we could say, “Clay and mud are made of earth and water, and we know the laws governing earth and water. So we can figure out the behavior of clay and mud using the laws governing earth and water.”

But we could also say, “Although clay and mud are made of earth and water, they are also something new. Consequently we can work out the laws governing them by experience, but we cannot expect to work them out just from the laws governing earth and water.”

These two claims are basically opposed to one another, and we should not expect that both would be true, at least in any particular instance. It might be that one is true in some cases and the other is true in some cases, or it might be that one side is always true. But in any case one will be true and not the other, in each particular situation.

Someone might argue that the first claim must be always true in principle. If water behaves one way by itself, and another way when it is combined with earth, then you haven’t sufficiently specified the behavior of water without including how it behaves when it is beside earth, or mixed with earth, or combined in whatever way. So once you have completely specified the behavior of water, you have specified how it behaves when combined with other things.

But this way of thinking is artificial. If water follows an inverse square law of gravity by itself, but an entirely different mathematical law when it is combined with earth, rather than saying that the entirely different law is a special case governing water, we should just admit that the different law is a law governing clay and mud, but not water. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to include various potential interactions in your laws governing water, rather than only considering how water behaves in perfect isolation. Thus for example one would want to say that water suffers gravitational effects from all other bodies, rather than simply saying that water attracts itself. Nonetheless, even if the distinction is somewhat rough, there is a meaningful distinction between situations where the laws governing the elements also govern the composites, and situations where we need new laws for the composites.

In one way, the second claim is always true. It is always the case that something is true of the composite which is not true of the elements in themselves, since the composite is a whole composed of elements, while the elements in themselves are not. This is true even in artificial compositions; the parts of a bicycle are not a bicycle, but the whole is. And I can ride a bicycle, but  I cannot ride the individual pieces of metal that form it. Likewise, it is evidently true of living things, which are alive, and in some cases have conscious experience, even though the individual elements do not.

In a second way, the second claim is almost always true. If we consider our laws as practical methods for predicting the behavior of a physical system, in practice we will almost always need special laws to predict the behavior of a complex composite, if only because it would be too complex and time consuming to predict the behavior of the composite using laws governing only the parts. Thus people who wish to predict the weather use generalizations based on the experience of weather, rather than trying to predict the weather simply by considering more general laws of physics, despite believing that the weather is in fact a consequence of such general laws.

In a third way, the first claim is true at least frequently, and possibly always. If we consider the behavior of a bicycle or a computer, not with respect to general questions such as “can I ride it?” or “can it calculate the square root of two?”, but with respect to the physical movement of the parts, there are good reasons to think that the behavior of the whole can be determined from the behavior of the parts of which it is composed. For these are human inventions, and although experience is involved in such inventions, people make guesses about new behavior largely from their understanding of how the parts behave which they plan to put together. So if the whole behaved in ways which are significantly unpredictable from the behavior of the parts, we would not expect such inventions to work. Likewise, as said above, there is little reason to doubt that the weather results from general principles of physics that apply to earth, air, water, and so on.

I say “possibly always” above, because there is no case where the second claim is known to be true in this sense, and many instances, as noted, where the first is known or reasonably believed to be the case. Additionally, one can give reasons in principle for expecting the first claim to be true in this way, although this is a matter for later consideration.

An important objection to this possibility is that the fact that the second claim is always true in the first way mentioned above, seems to imply that the first claim cannot be true even in the third way, at least in some cases. In particular, the conscious behavior of living things, and especially human free will, might seem inconsistent with the idea that the physical behavior of living things is in principle predictable from laws governing their elements.

Beyond Redemption

While discussing the nature of moral obligation, I raised this objection to an Aristotelian account of ethics: if the “obliging” or “ought” part of moral claims simply means that it is necessary to do something for the sake of an end, then someone who does not desire the end does not need the means, or in other words, such people will be exempt from moral obligations.

I would not argue that this argument is completely false. In the last three posts,  I responded to the argument that Aristotelian ethics is too flexible, not by saying that it is not flexible, but by saying that it is right in being flexible. In a similar way, I do not deny that the above argument about means and end follows in some way. But the way in which it follows is not so unfitting as is supposed.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates argues that all men desire the good, and that no one desires evil:

Soc. Well then, for my own sake as well as for yours, I will do my very best; but I am afraid that I shall not be able to give you very many as good: and now, in your turn, you are to fulfil your promise, and tell me what virtue is in the universal; and do not make a singular into a plural, as the facetious say of those who break a thing, but deliver virtue to me whole and sound, and not broken into a number of pieces: I have given you the pattern.

Men. Well then, Socrates, virtue, as I take it, is when he, who desires the honourable, is able to provide it for himself; so the poet says, and I say too-

Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.

Soc. And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?

Men. I think not.

Soc. There are some who desire evil?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?

Men. Both, I think.

Soc. And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?

Men. Certainly I do.

Soc. And desire is of possession?

Men. Yes, of possession.

Soc. And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?

Men. There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and others who know that they will do them harm.

Soc. And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them good know that they are evils?

Men. Certainly not.

Soc. Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?

Men. Yes, in that case.

Soc. Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?

Men. They must know it.

Soc. And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?

Men. How can it be otherwise?

Soc. But are not the miserable ill-fated?

Men. Yes, indeed.

Soc. And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?

Men. I should say not, Socrates.

Soc. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?

Men. That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.

In a similar way, St. Thomas says that all desire happiness in general, even if not according to its specific account:

I answer that, Happiness can be considered in two ways. First according to the general notion of happiness: and thus, of necessity, every man desires happiness. For the general notion of happiness consists in the perfect good, as stated above (3,4). But since good is the object of the will, the perfect good of a man is that which entirely satisfies his will. Consequently to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one’s will be satisfied. And this everyone desires. Secondly we may speak of Happiness according to its specific notion, as to that in which it consists. And thus all do not know Happiness; because they know not in what thing the general notion of happiness is found. And consequently, in this respect, not all desire it.

Of course there is something circular about desiring “that one’s will be satisfied,” because this means that there is something that one already wills. And according to what St. Thomas says here, that thing would be “the good” as the object of the will, and in particular “the perfect good.” So just as Socrates affirms that all desire the good and no one desires evil, so St. Thomas affirms that all desire the perfect good.

In this sense, we could argue that the original argument is moot, because all desire the end. Consequently all must choose the means which are necessary for the sake of the end, and thus no one is exempt from moral obligations.

This response is correct as far as it goes, but it is perhaps not a sufficiently complete account. While discussing expected utility theory, I pointed out that the theory assigns value only to events or situations, and not to actions or choices as such. We looked at this same distinction more directly in the post on doing and making. The fact of this distinction implies that occasionally it can happen that “doing good” and “causing good” can appear to come apart. Thus it might seem to me in a particular case that the world will be better off as a whole if I do something evil.

St. Paul discusses this idea:

But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), “Let us do evil so that good may come”? Their condemnation is deserved!

The idea is that God brings good out of the evil that we do, as for example in this case by manifesting the justice of God. But this suggests that the world is better off on account of the evil that we do. And someone might argue that it follows that we are not doing evil at all. St. Paul’s response is that “their condemnation is deserved.” It is not entirely evident whether he refers to people who do evil so that good may come, or to the people who assert that this is St. Paul’s position.

But either way, one thing is clear. “Doing evil so that good may come” is doing evil, not doing good; that is simply a tautology. And this is true even if good actually comes from it, and even if the world is better off as a whole when someone does evil.

This implies a difficulty for Socrates’s argument that everyone must desire good. For sometimes one good thing comes into conflict with another, so that both good and evil are present. And in that situation, a person may desire something which is evil, knowing it to be evil, but not because it is evil, but on account of the conjoined good. In the case we are considering, that would mean that someone might desire to do evil, not because it is doing evil, but still knowing that it is doing evil, on account of the good that comes from it. And it seems clear that this sometimes happens.

To the extent that someone does this, they will begin to become evil, in the sense and manner that this is possible, because they will begin to have an evil will. Of course, their will never becomes perfectly evil, because they only wish to do evil for the sake of good, not for the sake of evil, and presumably without that motivation they would still prefer to do good. Nonetheless, just as in other matters, a person can become accustomed to seeking one kind of good and neglecting another, and in this matter, the person becomes accustomed to seeking some good in the world, while neglecting his own good as a person.

Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in the linked post of the goodness of the will, speaks of the limit of such a process:

There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

It is likely an exaggeration to suggest that a person can become so evil, in this sense, that it is literally impossible for them to return to goodness, so that “the destruction of good would be irrevocable.” Bad habits are acquired by individual actions, and it is presumably possible in principle for a person to acquire the opposite habits by an opposite series of actions. But it might be the case that for a few people, such a return is only a theoretical possibility, and not a reasonable possibility in practice.

But let us assume a case where it is entirely impossible. Pope Benedict points to the Catholic doctrine of hell as illustrating this case. Satan and the damned, in this sense, would be understood to be irrevocably evil. There is no way for them to return to the good.

And this is the case that we need to consider in order to consider the force of the original objection. Are Satan and the damned thought to be exempt from moral obligation? In a significant sense, they are. No one would bother himself about the fact that Satan is not repenting and doing good; the horror is precisely that this is impossible. Satan does not choose the means, a life of virtue, precisely because he is no longer interested in the end, at least not in any relevant sense.

The very extremity of this example shows that the objection is not so problematic after all. It would not apply to a real person unless they had already descended to a condition far below the human one. Real people continue to maintain some interest in good, and in doing good, no matter how much evil they do, and thus morality is relevant to them. Thus for example even serial killers sometimes express a certain amount of remorse, and show that they wish they could have had other desires and lived better lives.

Finally, even for someone unchangeably evil, doing evil remains doing evil, since the notion of the good comes before the notion of moral obligation.  But it is true that obligations as such would become irrelevant to them.

Good Will

St. Thomas explains what it means to call someone a good person:

He who has a will is said to be good, so far as he has a good will; because it is by our will that we employ whatever powers we may have. Hence a man is said to be good, not by his good understanding; but by his good will.

This is primarily a recognition that this is how people actually speak. When we talk about a good person, we do not mean someone who understands things well, or someone who plays the piano well, or someone who is good at driving a car, but someone who has a good will: someone who loves, wishes for, and chooses good things. But in addition to recognizing how we normally speak, St. Thomas is trying to explain why we speak this way. A good piano is a piano that functions well as a piano, and in a similar way, a good person would be someone who functions well as a person. And since the will guides all human activities, a person functions well who has a good will, and a person functions badly who has a bad will.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encylical Spe Salvi, speaks of such conditions of the human will:

Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.

The implication here is that most people are basically good at a fundamental level. They have a good will simply speaking, even if not in every respect. Some Catholics might object to Pope Benedict’s position, saying that it is not easily reconciled with previous Catholic teaching, much in the way that James Larson condemns Amoris Laetitia. If people remain fundamentally good as long as they have not “lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves,” it is not easy to see how this can be reconciled with Pope John Paul II’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor when he condemns theories that separate a fundamental option from particular acts:

67. These tendencies are therefore contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.

The idea here is that if someone does something seriously wrong, even in an individual case, the person becomes a bad person simply speaking. This does not seem to fit very well with Pope Benedict’s suggestion, which seems to imply that someone can become truly evil only through a long process which eliminates love and goodness from their life.

The tension here is real. I have touched on this issue elsewhere, as for example while discussing the human tendency to divide people into “good people” and “bad people.” Nonetheless, it is presumably possible to reconcile these statements at least in a technical sense, much as I showed that Pope Francis does not contradict Catholic doctrine in Amoris Laetitia

In any case, common sense is enough to tell us that being a “good person” is to some extent a matter of degree. Most people care about doing good to some extent, even if some care more than others, and most people wish to avoid evil, even if they do not avoid every evil, and even if they have no wish to avoid certain particular evils.