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Who's to Blame?

Entry 1960, on 2019-01-13 at 19:16:19 (Rating 2, Comments)

Blame is a common discussion point for individuals from many backgrounds. It is something I constantly hear about from poorly informed people who usually put little real thought into any topic they might be discussing, but it is also an issue intensely debated by the most intelligent and deepest thinking philosophers.

But neither side seems to necessarily have a very broad view on the subject. I once debated a well-known intellectual (I can't mention his name here) on free will, and how we should apportion blame, and he didn't have a well thought-out view at all. Essentially his point was that free will must exist, because if it didn't, we would have no basis to hold people accountable for their actions.

It seems to me that that argument shows a lack of logic, in fact there is a clear logical fallacy there at work (probably the argument from final consequences, or maybe a tautology). My point is: you can't claim something must exist just because you don't like the ethical consequences of it not existing.

I have a hard science background (university undergrad level biology, chemistry, computer science) although I do have some aspects of social science as well (psychology) but when I studied psych they did have a strong bias towards evidence-based studies. My opponent was an academic social scientist though, so it seems that maybe he just thought differently. And by "differently" I really mean wrongly!

There are two ways to examine the ideas of free will and responsibility: what makes logical sense from a philosophical perspective, and what the evidence from science shows us empirically.

Firstly, if we follow the logic imposed by naturalism and reject any dualist ideas then it seems to follow by necessity that there is no free will, because we are just collections of particles which are controlled by the most basic laws of physics. That means that blame cannot really be assigned to an individual. Note that the opposite is also true: if people cannot be blamed for their bad behaviour, then equally they cannot claim praise for their positive achievements either.

If there is an extra element to conscious self-awareness which is not apparent to modern physics then everything changes, but it's hard to see what that might be, and dualists are suspiciously inconsistent and vague on what the extra quality whose existence they propose might actually be.

But what about the second source of evidence? Well all the science seems to support my opinion. And the situation might be even more clear than I have previously said because there is some evidence that the old nature versus nurture debate is swinging more in the favour of nature.

I have discussed some of the research on this in the past so in this post I want to concentrate on the ideas I heard an interview with Robert Plomin, an expert on behavioural genetics. He claims that most of what we achieve and the problems we suffer from are of genetic origin, and that a DNA analysis at birth is highly predictive of success.

He is most well known for his twin studies, and he says these indicate environment has some influence, but that it is minor compared to genetics. I have heard various opinions on this, but it is hard to arrive at an overall estimate of the relative importance of the two. However it does seem that the greater significance of genetics is being more recognised as more research is done.

There is one relevant issue which should be mentioned at this point, though. That is that extreme environmental factors can make a big difference, potentially making them more important than genetics. So if a person with great genetics grows up in an abusive or deficient environment (such as having poor nutrition, no learning opportunities, etc) then the environmental factors might be the most significant. But the same could also apply to extreme genetics: it's possible that someone sufficiently gifted might overcome serious environmental adversity.

Here's an interesting outcome of this theory: what parents do isn't a big deal, and they're not to blame for badly behaved children. Plomin says parents have much less control than we previously thought. A person's personality comes mostly from their genetics, and who brings them up is not that important. they can change behaviour, but not the underlying personality. He advises parents to relax, and just let their children be what they want to be.

So the debate seems to be about how much influence people get from their genes and their environment. Note that both of these seem to be external influences beyond the individual's control. So how does free will fit in with this? Maybe it doesn't.

We are controlled by our genes, which we can't change. That is influenced by our external environment, which we can't change. And there seems to be no place for free will in any other form.

If there's no free will what right do we have to blame people for doing something, like a crime, which they have no control over? What justification is there for rewarding a person who is successful, like winning a Nobel Prize, because of talents they have through their genetics? Of course, most people don't act as if free will doesn't exist and maybe that is something they can't change either.

In the end, even if free will doesn't exist, we probably don't have any choice (see what i did there?) but to act as if it does. But we should be a bit less accusatory towards people who commit crimes, because maybe they really didn't choose to do them. And while we should celebrate the achievements of the most brilliant people we should also remember that it it's just luck that they ended up that way.

In fact all the both good and the bad actions of people are just the opposite ends of the statistical outcomes of physical laws. Who really is to blame?

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Comment 1 (4980) by OJB on 2019-01-13 at 19:29:26:

Just as I tweeted a link to this post I found this article: Genes, Environment, and Luck: What We Can and Cannot Control.

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