Whitney Houston’s Missing Will

Categories: Atheism, General, Psychology
by on February 16th, 2012

Steven Tyler weighing in on the Whitney Houston tragedy said, “I hate this disease.” It seems just about every celebrity is commenting on the causes of Whitney’s downward spiral even though we won’t know the toxicology results for some time. This tells me that Whitney’s drug abuse and alcoholism have been on the mind of the A list for along time. Of course, the entertainment media have been warning of this for a while with blurry pictures of Whitney disheveled and drunk plastered up for all of us to compassionately leer at and feel better about ourselves. What I find curiously missing is any sense of responsibility. Tyler talks of her demons, conjuring up the image of some malevolent force that is responsible for her addiction. Pundits speak of the burdens and pressures of fame.  Actress and yogurt spokesperson, Jamie Lee Curtis says fame has nothing to do with it. Its a disease:

Don’t let another famous person die, participate in the media spectacle, the tearful, heartfelt farewells and the blame it on the fame game and not take it into your home and circle of life that surrounds you in your own life. It is not fame’s fault. It is no one’s fault. Do you blame cancer on fame? Do you blame diabetes on fame? It is a disease and like cancer, diabetes and depression, it is everywhere. Alcoholism and addiction is ever present and it wants you dead.

Alcoholism wants you dead. Whitney had her demons and they wanted her dead. What’s missing from these heartfelt sentiments and pleas for awareness? Whitney’s will is missing. Everything is articulated in terms of what the disease will do to you. I’m not sure that is what Tyler, Curtis, and others intend. But it is coming across that way and frankly it doesn’t surprise me. Just this January, USA Today ran a column by biologist Jerry A Coyne entitled “Why You Don’t Have a Free Will”

We are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics. True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program

Coyne, explicitly rules out any Will. Because there is no such thing as the non-physical (except the laws of physics themselves) then our brains can never be acted on by some spiritual entity like a will or a soul. Whitney Houston was a drug addict because her brain followed a predictable set of physical laws. If her addiction led to her death whether by suicide or overdose, then her brain acted in this way until it didn’t act any more at all. This is no surprise. Physicalism and evolutionary psychology go hand in hand like Prime-Time TV and Christian Bashing. But this is merely a valid deductive argument. If we are nothing more than physical matter, and physical matter is completely at the mercy of physical laws, then Whitney and the rest of us are at the mercy of physical laws.

But Coyne provides us a peek into the laboratory where scientists are marshaling evidence to support that argument that we are all really just “Meat Computers”:

Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

So if I understand this correctly, since our brains alter blood flow seven seconds before we are “aware” that we have made a decision, these decisions are not conscious. But the fact that we are not aware of making a decision until after our brains have done something doesn’t really prove that our decisions are unconscious ones, let alone that our brains aren’t affected by our will. However, I’ll admit that if the only option is reductive physicalism (We are only molecules acted on by physical laws) then that conclusion would be more palatable.

Coyne’s other evidence is that experiments are showing that our sense of “willing” can be eliminated through brain stimulation, mental illness, or psychological experiments. His conclusion: “The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we’re characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics.” However, again my conclusion isn’t as strong as his. If our feeling of free will (which is my interpretation of Coyne’s “sense of willing”) can be altered, this doesn’t indicate that it doesn’t exist but rather that it can be affected by our brain. No serious Christian that I know of, would deny that what happens to our physical being can have an effect on our non-physical selves. However, there is moral responsibility to God because we are not simply our brains.

My main thought after reading Coyne’s account of the experiments in neurobiology and psychology, is that if we eliminate the possibility of any thing other than matter and energy, this sort of interpretation of the data is no less plausible than any other hypothesis that also eliminates the possibility of non-physical causes. It becomes a sort of Just-So Story, internally consistent but not compelling unless you agree in advance the story itself is the only possibility.  As Sherlock Holmes says, “Once you eliminate the impossible, then what remains no matter how improbable must be true. But of course it all boils down to whether or not we are merely a random collocation of atoms configured by time and chance doesn’t it? If we are soul and bodies joined together in a union for which death itself creates unnatural separation predicated by the fall of man, then moral responsibility and free will are extremely important.

But back to Whitney’s chemical demons and Hollywood’s lack of will. Coyne has something remarkable to say about why we might want to keep believing in free will at least in the abstract. Coyne notes, “Sociological studies show that if people’s belief in free will is undermined, they perform fewer prosocial behaviors and more antisocial behaviors.”

Is that any surprise? If I don’t have free will then I’m not responsible. If I am not responsible to anyone, why bother to chose to be decent, loving, or even sober? Speaking as an addict myself, if I blamed my misbehavior on my demons, it would become a whole lot easier to get rid of that nagging sense that I am accountable to God or anyone else. Coyne says with a nonchalance that makes me cringe:

But the most important issue is that of moral responsibility. If we can’t really choose how we behave, how can we judge people as moral or immoral? Why punish criminals or reward do-gooders? Why hold anyone responsible for their actions if those actions aren’t freely chosen?

Coyne rightly cautions that this does not mean we can’t punish criminals because it will protect society and make the person better. To which I have to disagree. It means what would be best for society is that we can lock people up and maybe start manipulating there brains to better match our current evolutionary needs.  What will be gone is any sense that people deserve to be in prison for their actions. But what is curious is that he sees this as having no real downside. We can treat the addicted and punish the criminals for pretty much the same reason: it changes our brain chemistry. Furthermore, there is no real difference between a Nelson Mandela and  Bernie Madoff for both are “victims of circumstance–of the genes we are bequeathed and the environments we encounter.”

Then in a leap that should be preserved as one of the record long jumps to an conclusion in modern print, he finishes with this:

[B]y losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we’re bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.

Seriously? In response to Coyne’s just-so story, I will end this particular post with my own just-so story: I will agree that if we are all determined by physical laws this doesn’t guarantee that we will be lazy, addicted, cruel, and passive when it comes to our own moral improvement. It is much more likely, however, that there will be more not less addiction, shirking of duty, and crime and those people will be more likely to quote neuroscience in their defense. And that can’t be a good thing.

 

 

3 responses to “Whitney Houston’s Missing Will ”

  1. cdlight says:

    thanks for your article. So sad when there is a “cure” for all this. If alcoholism was a disease, Jesus would NOT have condemned drunkenness. He never condemned the lepers who had a disease. Got me wondering: where does the information for these physical laws come from anyway and why does every physical thing obey them in the same way? i.e. Why does every thing “obey” the law of gravity? Who/what made those rules that apply consistently across the board yet to very different things? The earth will turn completely around in 24 hours today and will do the same tomorrow. Where does it get that info? ; )

  2. Brandon Byrd says:

    Coyne is a biologist, not a philosopher. His concept of free will seems to be a century or more behind the times. Moreover, his defense of punishment (i.e. that it will lead to good consequences) has been objected to countless times, and hasn’t been seriously defended by anyone (to my knowledge) since Strawson’s “On Freedom and Resentment” (1962).

    According to many contemporary philosophical accounts, free will is both compatible with both metaphysical naturalism and determinism. This would doubtless surprise Coyne, but shouldn’t surprise anyone who has spent any degree of time studying action theory in a philosophy department in the past two or three decades. For example… In “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person” (1971) Harry Frankfurt denies that for us to be free and responsible we must be able to have done/chosen otherwise. His argument explicitly addresses cases of addiction, in which a person experiences their behavior as caused by an overpowering desire. We judge the addict by how they respond to this desire… do they want to be addicted? Or do they experience their addiction as an alien force over which they have no control? The person seems to act freely in the first case but not in the second. The unwilling addict experiences something akin to compulsion or coercion, albeit from an internal rather than external source. Frankfurt claims that in cases of unwilling addiction, the addict does not act of their own free will. Frankfurt’s account, if successful, appears to reconcile moral responsibility, determinism, and addiction. It’s far more interesting than Coyne’s arguments.

    Jonathan: You appear to be suggesting that it is possible for a desire to lead unstoppably to behavior. This is an empirical question, as is the question of how common uncontrollable desires are (if they are possible). It is telling, though, that for many addiction treatments (e.g. Alc/Narc Anon) one of the first steps is admitting that one has no control over one’s desire for drugs and alcohol.

  3. his defense of punishment (i.e. that it will lead to good consequences) has been objected to countless times, and hasn’t been seriously defended by anyone (to my knowledge) since Strawson’s “On Freedom and Resentment” (1962).

    While I agree that Coyne’s view is wrong and “behind the times” philosophically, he and sam harris are the most recognized atheists now that Hitch has passed. I didn’t mention it but I was reminded of Carl Menninger’s theory that all criminal behavior is a sign of mental illness since only the mentally ill would not form the conscience necessary to refrain from criminal behavior. Menniger argues that given the fact that criminal behavior is determined we should neverpunish only sentence criminals to therapy. If Coyne is correct then the therapy model might lead to better consequences.

    As for Frankfurt, I’m glad you brought him up. He is an antidote to the a great deal of determinism. :-)

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