Tag Archives: Voltaire

Voltaire asks the right question

Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary includes a dialogue between the Philosopher and Nature, in which the Philosopher poses the following question:

We are curious. I want to know how being so crude in your mountains, in your deserts, in your seas, you appear nevertheless so industrious in your animals, in your vegetables?

Nature’s reply is to dismiss the apparent difference (“Do you not know that there is an infinite art in those seas and those mountains that you find so crude?”), but the Philosopher’s question is a good one. However impressive seas and mountains (and stars, and everything else in the universe) may be in their own way, none of it even begins to compare with the astonishing complexity of the biological world. Why this chasm?

Darwinism answers Voltaire’s question. Natural selection is ultimately the only way extremely complex things can come into being, and so every extremely complex thing in the world is created, either directly (organisms) or indirectly (technology created by organisms), by replicators such as DNA molecules. The chasm is between things that were created by replicators and things that were not.

Creationism, on the other hand, can’t really answer the question. (Paley noticed how similar an animal is to a watch and how different it is from a rock — and concluded that animals must have been made by the same guy who invented rocks!) Of course there’s no reason why God can’t have created simple things as well as complex, but creationism doesn’t know what do with the obvious correlation between complexity and reproduction. In nature we find very complex things that reproduce and far simpler things that don’t. Conspicuous by its absence is anything truly analogous to the human technology typified by the watch — very complex things that don’t reproduce. To a creationist, there’s no obvious reason for this; it must just be how God decided to do things. From a Darwinian point of view, though, the absence of true “watches” in nature is precisely what we ought to expect.

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Meaningful freedom

In his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire dismisses the idea of “the liberty of indifference… the liberty of spitting on the right or on the left, of sleeping on my right side or on my left, of taking a walk of four turns or five.” If you have no preference for any one option over the others, then any choice you make will be random and arbitrary, and such “freedom” is meaningless. On the other hand, if you have an overwhelming and obvious preference for one option — when, say, the choice is between cooperating with the police and being shot — that doesn’t feel like meaningful freedom, either. You’re not really free in such a situation; you have to do what the police say. Here it’s not that your choice is random but that it’s predetermined, a foregone conclusion, a no-brainer.

Christians will often make a similar point, focusing on how various degrees of certainty can affect our preferences or lack thereof. Two roads may in fact lead to very different places, one of them vastly preferable to the other — but if I have no idea which one leads where, my choice to take the one or the other will be random. If, on the other hand I’m 100% sure that the one road leads to paradise and the other to hell, I likewise have no real choice to make. This, the Christian will say, is where faith comes in. By giving us just the right degree of certainty — evidence but not proof, faith but not sight — God preserves our free will.

This doesn’t really work, though. It’s the same old philosophical trap of insisting that our actions be neither predetermined nor random, neither caused nor uncaused — when logically they must be the one or the other, or a combination of the two. Throwing just the right amount of randomness into a deterministic system won’t magically create meaningful freedom, and neither will a moderate degree of uncertainty. This way of thinking about freedom is a dead end. We need something better.

So here’s my approach.

First of all, meaningful freedom should be thought of as something psychological, not metaphysical. It refers not to some arcane interplay of chance and necessity, but to the kind of choice people find it psychologically satisfying to make.

Second, I think it’s useful to take the word “meaningful” quite literally. A choice is meaningful if it means something in the same way that a sentence means something — that is, if it communicates information about something other than itself — specifically, if it tells us something about the person who makes it. A random choice, made in complete ignorance or indifference, tells us nothing; it’s just noise. A no-brainer choice tells us virtually nothing, because virtually any person would have done the same thing in the situation. A meaningful choice is a choice which a different sort of person would have made differently.

Of course there are degrees of meaningfulness. The choice to order chicken rather than seafood in a restaurant is meaningful, but just barely. Really meaningful choices convey information about the things we humans care about — virtue or vice, strength or weakness, high or low social status. The most meaningful choices are those that separate the sheep from the goats, those that we can feel proud or ashamed of having made. Think about the expressions we use. “Thanks. Not everyone would have done that.” “Oh, it was nothing. Anyone would have done the same.” If anyone would have done the same, then it was nothing — meaningless.

That’s why “perfect justice” scenarios such as karma or heaven-and-hell would be dehumanizing if they could be proven with absolute certainty to be true. In such a world, the person who wants to do the right thing because it is right and the hedonist who just wants to pursue his own self-interest (the sort of person who might have been a sociopath if he didn’t live in a perfect-justice world) would consistently make exactly the same choices. Those choices would therefore be meaningless, signifying nothing about the person who makes them.

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