Free will, God, entropy, and IQ

Illustration: María Elena (Mani) Hinojosa

In obviously simplified form, the above are some facts posed as questions, and the responses they often elicit. I consider such responses unconvincing, hence the title.

I could easily expand the list with other difficult questions and equally dubious responses that are common among all sorts of people, such as “everything happens for a reason”, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (often true, often not), or “God works in mysterious ways”, but I’ve decided to focus here on some positions common among prominent intellectuals.

Freedom from the laws of nature — and from logic

In The Agile Gene, science writer Matt Ridley expertly describes how nature and nurture together determine behavior. Yet in the last chapter he tries to convince the reader — to reassure the reader — that, “despite nature and despite nurture, freedom of the will is true”. He claims that this is so because “the cause of behavior lies in a circular, not a linear, system”. One is left to wonder what a “circular system” has to do with free will.

Ridley’s must be some sort of compatibilistic view of free will. Compatibilism is defined as “the belief that free will and determinism are mutually compatible and that it is possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent”.

This is how philosopher Massimo Pigliucci explains it:

Compatibilism is also a position distinct from hard determinism, the notion that there is no coherent sense in which we have free will because we are like puppets whose strings are moved by the forces of the universe. We are not puppets, because the cosmic web of cause-effect goes straight through us. Things do not just happen to us, we are co-causes of our decisions, because that’s what a human being is: a highly sophisticated decision-making machine, capable of altering its own ability to make decisions by applying reason recursively to its own behavior. In lay terms: we think about stuff, and we learn from our experiences.

After an impressive word salad he at least puts it in simpler terms: “we think and learn”. There is not much more to it, really. Why is a fancy and misleading term such as “compatibilism” needed to capture that simple idea? It’s needed just to obscure that free will is an illusion, a fact that most humans viscerally dislike and thus reject as ridiculous.

The otherworldly

Immortal souls, reincarnation, life after death, karma, cosmic purpose… Supernatural beliefs can be of great comfort, and the idea of a just and loving God can feel incredibly reassuring and be a source of joy. Thus when prominent atheists claim that such beliefs are not at all needed to find meaning and peace in life they’re going a bit too far. They propose that we can find fulfilling spiritual experiences in the beauty of nature, in sublime music, in love, etc. We certainly can, but none of that quite compares to the deeply satisfying comfort and solace that religion and supernatural beliefs can afford.

To be sure, religious beliefs can also be severely distressing. The notion of a vindictive, vain, capricious, and cruel God can be a source of torment. And if one’s temperament or indoctrination (or attentive reading of holy texts) inclines him or her to believe in such a God, “conversion” to atheism would certainly offer a wonderful respite. Better to be mortal than risk being tortured in the fires of hell for all eternity. Still, I suppose that the majority of religious people choose to focus on the more benign aspects of their faith and thus find mostly comfort in it.

But the point here is that rejecting religion and supernatural beliefs can leave us with an unpleasant void, and we should be able to acknowledge this.

Evanescence

Physicists and cosmologists dutifully inform us that the Earth and the Sun and the entire universe are doomed. As entropy inexorably increases, the universe is fated to a heat death known as the Big Freeze, where no sort of life will be possible. As mentioned above, the Big Freeze is not the only theory regarding the fate of the universe, but the others are equally fatal to our future prospects.

But then these scientists are apt to cheerfully add that that’s precisely what makes our lives precious. Our ephemeral existence, both as individuals and as a species, will leave no trace, but that gives it even more meaning!

As the title of this article says: “dubious reassurances”.

Variability in IQ scores

In The Bell Curve we read: “This identification of IQ with attractive human qualities in general is unfortunate and wrong.” Further: “…one of the problems of writing about intelligence is how to remind readers often enough how little an IQ score tells about whether the human being next to you is someone whom you will admire or cherish. This thing we know as IQ is important but not a synonym for human excellence.”

Identifying IQ with human qualities we find attractive might be unfortunate and wrong, but that’s how we humans operate, and perhaps we should just accept that it’s a bummer that not everyone has the potential to be an astronaut or an aeronautical engineer.

We’re far better disposed, by the way, to accept as fairly obvious that not everyone has the natural talent and constitution to become a top footballer or basketball player, but for some reason we tend to face a psychological barrier when applying that logic to cognitive potential. Perhaps this is because we recognize the value of intelligence as superior to athleticism, and are thus more sensitive to innate differences. After all, an elite basketball player has an advantage in a very narrow domain, but very high intelligence can be far more valuable: it can help us excel in numerous and varied fields: entrepreneurship, academics, business, prestigious professions, etc.

I don’t know whether a more plausible or forceful reassurance could be devised to deal with the unfortunate reality that innate cognitive talent is not equally distributed. I wish it were the case, for example, that our happiness and well-being were but poorly correlated with our IQ, but it isn’t. At any rate, and to reiterate, I’m afraid that proposing that IQ should be irrelevant in our estimation of others won’t do. It won’t do because whatever our professed views on intelligence, it’s intrinsic to our nature to consider it an attractive quality–and with good reason, I might add. Yes, it has nothing to do with moral worth, it tells us nothing about how good and decent a person may be, but we will still value it (irrespective of how much nature and nurture may each contribute to it).

Whatever our take on the above, it goes without saying that we should do our best to have an environment in which everyone has the opportunity to maximize their potential and flourish.

Tentative conclusions

So what are we to make of all this? Why bother with questionable reassurances in the first place? If certain false or groundless beliefs help us carry on, if they can aid us in living happier and more productive lives, why not leave them alone? One could debate endlessly to what extent, if any, erroneous, unfounded, and superstitious beliefs can be a net positive. Many insist that, on the whole, they’re always detrimental, even if the alternative, that is, naked reality, can prove disconcerting or even distressing. Whatever their merit, once one realizes they’re evidence-free or even plainly absurd, there’s no going back. Even if I decided that it would do me good to believe in a loving God, I’d find it impossible to do so.

While these reassurances I’m calling “dubious” are of a nature entirely different from that of unfounded beliefs, in that they tend to be relatively well-reasoned and intelligible (free will being a notable exception), they remain uncompelling. At least I myself don’t find them persuasive.

I’d rather we were immortal, the universe remained hospitable forever, we all had the potential to become Einstein or Mozart, and we had the ability to reprogram our nature to make it more aligned with our nobler aspirations (I won’t say I’d rather we had free will, because in my view free will doesn’t mean anything that makes sense even just theoretically).

Nevertheless, I sympathize with the sentiment behind the types of responses I’m criticizing, and fully agree that we should make the best of our circumstances and try to find meaning in our lives, even if there’s none in the cosmic scheme of things. I just object to denying the tough aspects of reality, or to pretending that their toughness is actually something to be cherished because it is a blessing in disguise or something.

I suppose we can also just not think about deep and existential questions. In fact that’s how most of us live, and whether it’s by deliberate choice or not, there’s some wisdom to it. But if we find ourselves unable to ignore or mask these issues, would a sort of Buddhist resignation be the best approach? Maybe. But resignation involves acceptance, and acceptance can be defeatist. Had we decided that disease, say, was part of nature and that as such it was futile to fight it, life would have continued to be full of misery and our life expectancy at birth would have stayed at about 30 years, as opposed to the current worldwide average of about 72.

So perhaps wisdom consists in discerning when acceptance is sensible, and when it is less so.

We can just accept that differences in innate intelligence reflect an unfair, far-from-ideal aspect of biology, rather than pretend that this fact doesn’t much matter. Or we can accept it while still being perturbed by it, which might result in a future in which we manage to endow each and every one who so wishes with genius-like mental powers.

We can accept the inevitability of death, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything to postpone it when possible. There’s nothing we can do about our ultimate mortality, but we don’t have to be elated about our short years. An acceptance that’s only tentative and reluctant may one day result, thanks to medical and technological advances, in much longer and healthier lives. Why not aim for indefinite lifespans and interplanetary life? Maybe one day we’ll even figure out how to stop the Big Crunch, or the Big Freeze, or whatever it is that the universe is planning to do to kill us. Yes, this last thought is a dubious reassurance of my own making — isn’t it encouraging, though?

Interested in natural selection, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, science in general, human nature, consciousness, philosophy and ethics.

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