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Illusion of Freedom
Posted: 10 May 2011 01:39 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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Sam believes that freedom is an illusion. Humans act according to the laws of nature, which completely determine our behaviour. Therefore, the notions of “acting”, “choosing”, “deciding”, “doing”... are all mere illusions. I have a few questions related to this topic.

1. Morality is about what persons ought to do. But doing is a mere illusion. Therefore, there is no place for morality. What’s wrong with this reasoning? Why does Sam write books about morality?

2. If freedom is an illusion, then why does this illusion exist? Are there scientific reasons for the illusion of freedom?

3. If freedom is an illusion, then why do we have developed a conscious mind? What is the function of conscience if not to guide our actions? Or does Sam believe that conscience is an illusion too?

All the best

Kikl

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Posted: 11 May 2011 04:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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A new opinion is presenting itself to the mental world, kikl, and background noises from this opinion have been in the air for several years now. It may just be a secular reaction to use of the term free will, which is a term derived out of theistic religion. The new way of seeing things is a philosophical take that relies in part on an extremely fine level of reality’s tiniest detail (as with butterfly-wing effects), but in a practical sense, the potential for human freedom remains entirely intact.


Harris, in TML, addresses the issue poorly in my opinion, as he comes to the unfortunate conclusion that our brains order us around puppeteer-like. Since neurological functioning largely takes place beneath the surface of consciousness, we’re now informed that we have no choice but to blindly follow the impulses our brains send us. These people (neuroscientists) are leaving out the part about how “we” operate our brains in ways analogous to how we operate our computers. We have no need the view—or even be capable of viewing—the trillions of low-level calculations or optical-configuration manipulations that end up resulting in cognitive activity on the user level. Harris et al are letting themselves get confused by the subtle and complex interactions between these various levels of concept and figure manipulation.


Neuroscience as a field of inquiry has a vast and crucially important future. For the present, it seems only to be presenting brain farts to its waiting public.

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Posted: 11 May 2011 05:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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nonverbal - 11 May 2011 08:56 AM

...


Neuroscience as a field of inquiry has a vast and crucially important future. For the present, it seems only to be presenting brain farts to its waiting public.

Yes, neuroscience is a very young field of research that only took off after the invention of functional MRI. So scientists like Sam Harris look at the pictures recorded of the brain and conclude: The brain is a machine run by deterministic laws of nature. Strange enough, the tool he is using - fMRI - is based on a non-deterministic physical effect called spin. Now, somehow there is something wrong with this kind of reasoning. How can the measurement of a non-deterministic effect result in a deterministic phenomenon?

I think Sam should really reconsider his take on freedom. I thought Laplace’s demon had long been buried by quantum mechanics and Sam Harris’ opinion reminds me of a vulgar kind of materialism comparable to la Mettrie’s l’homme machine. Then he tries to convey that utilitarianism - this time happiness is replaced by well-being - is scientifically proven and undeniable moral truth. Many people would disagree since a utilitarian calculus cannot provide a justification for universal human rights.

In this way, I think he is doing a disservice to the cause of atheists and/or agnostics. He resembles the prototype of a materialist, the cliche that religious people love to attack.

In my opinion an atheist/agnostic must start with first principles when reasoning about morality, which cannot be proven scientifically. So we may just as well admit that we BELIEVE in these principles and provide respective arguments for our belief. That would be honest. One of these principles is actually the possibility of freedom.

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Posted: 14 May 2011 03:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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I was pretty irked by that section in reading the moral landscape myself. I thought it was pretty bold of him to just say in bold letters that Free Will is an Illusion.

Nonetheless I do understand where he is coming from. It is evident that some of our behavior(s) are influenced by bio-chemicals such as endorphins, oxytocin, adrenaline, etc. some of these bio-chemicals can distort our perceptions of reality and as well influence our behavior.

In regards to free-will, I think Harris and many other neuro-scientist are incorrect. The way determinism is explained from a neuro-scientific perspective is that our brains simultaneously decides that we should pick up our cup and drink the water from it. I think that with any action there first has to be a “thought”. So in regards to drinking water from a cup we would first have to “think” about picking up the cup as opposed to our arms moving without us even thinking about what is going on.

So yes it is true that bio-chemicals in our bodies can influence our behavior.  It is also true that we think at such as fast rate that sometimes we are not aware of our thoughts and it is true that our bodies are governed by physical laws but this is by no means a basis that free-will is an illusion. I think the capacity to think is what really liberates us.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 01:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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kikl - 10 May 2011 05:39 AM

1. Morality is about what persons ought to do. But doing is a mere illusion. Therefore, there is no place for morality. What’s wrong with this reasoning? Why does Sam write books about morality?

The way Sam approaches morality is more practical. If someone does something that most of us think is wrong and destructive (to other people, direct or indirect) that person must be dealt with. Either by correcting that person’s behavior or by removing him/her from society. Morality in this sense is about promoting and preserving the greatest wellbeing for the greatest number of people. Being moral in this context is doing just this.

2. If freedom is an illusion, then why does this illusion exist? Are there scientific reasons for the illusion of freedom?

No doubt there are reason for it. Maybe you could do research on this?

3. If freedom is an illusion, then why do we have developed a conscious mind? What is the function of conscience if not to guide our actions? Or does Sam believe that conscience is an illusion too?

Consciousness could be an illusion. Or not. It isn’t known yet. Nor is the function of consciousness known yet, if it even has any.

The bottom line is that a lot of people want to believe in freewill even though the evidence points the other way.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 01:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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ohawkins21 - 14 May 2011 07:33 PM

So yes it is true that bio-chemicals in our bodies can influence our behavior.  It is also true that we think at such as fast rate that sometimes we are not aware of our thoughts and it is true that our bodies are governed by physical laws but this is by no means a basis that free-will is an illusion. I think the capacity to think is what really liberates us.


How is thinking free? Do you decide what you think before you even think it?


Lets say it’s like this:


brain processes——> thought——> behavior


What does it matter if thought is in between the cause and the outcome? There is still no room for freewill.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 01:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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nonverbal - 11 May 2011 08:56 AM

These people (neuroscientists) are leaving out the part about how “we” operate our brains in ways analogous to how we operate our computers. We have no need the view—or even be capable of viewing—the trillions of low-level calculations or optical-configuration manipulations that end up resulting in cognitive activity on the user level. Harris et al are letting themselves get confused by the subtle and complex interactions between these various levels of concept and figure manipulation.

We do not operate the brain like an computer. Things appear within our consciousness, but we have not created those things, nor do we exert any control over these things. The sense of authorship is an illusion. If these things within our consciousness (and there is no evidence for it now) influence our brain than they do it in the way of a feedback mechanism, without any interference of something independent (from this process) deciding what to do.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 01:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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kikl - 11 May 2011 09:29 AM

The brain is a machine run by deterministic laws of nature. Strange enough, the tool he is using - fMRI - is based on a non-deterministic physical effect called spin. Now, somehow there is something wrong with this kind of reasoning. How can the measurement of a non-deterministic effect result in a deterministic phenomenon?

I doubt that fMRI is really based on a completely “non-deterministic physical effect”, there must be enough about the technique that conforms to determinism, otherwise it wouldn’t be useful.

I think Sam should really reconsider his take on freedom. I thought Laplace’s demon had long been buried by quantum mechanics

I don’t really understand quantum mechanics, but I have it seen used to “prove” many kind of metaphysical believes. I’m alway really skeptical when this happens.


However, understand that randomness does not provide a solid basis for freewill either. The real problem is that people believe there is something separate from the processes which govern our lives (deterministic or not) that has the power to influence or create our behavior. They call this I, mind or soul. There is no evidence for this.

mechanics and Sam Harris’ opinion reminds me of a vulgar kind of materialism comparable to la Mettrie’s l’homme machine. Then he tries to convey that utilitarianism - this time happiness is replaced by well-being - is scientifically proven and undeniable moral truth. Many people would disagree since a utilitarian calculus cannot provide a justification for universal human rights.

Many people might, but not with good reason.

In my opinion an atheist/agnostic must start with first principles when reasoning about morality, which cannot be proven scientifically. So we may just as well admit that we BELIEVE in these principles and provide respective arguments for our belief. That would be honest. One of these principles is actually the possibility of freedom.

Ah! So you have just given up on science. Finally you can go beyond that irksome demand for evidence and just believe what you want.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 04:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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lente - 15 May 2011 05:06 AM
kikl - 10 May 2011 05:39 AM

1. Morality is about what persons ought to do. But doing is a mere illusion. Therefore, there is no place for morality. What’s wrong with this reasoning? Why does Sam write books about morality?

The way Sam approaches morality is more practical. If someone does something that most of us think is wrong and destructive (to other people, direct or indirect) that person must be dealt with. Either by correcting that person’s behavior or by removing him/her from society. Morality in this sense is about promoting and preserving the greatest wellbeing for the greatest number of people. Being moral in this context is doing just this.

The bottom line is that a lot of people want to believe in freewill even though the evidence points the other way.

Promoting and preserving the greatest well being presupposes that you can actually promote and preserve something. Promoting and preserving means acting, which in turn presupposes freedom. But you reject freedom. Therefore, you are not free to act. It is absurd to reason about promoting something if you believe that you cannot act at all.

You didn’t answer the residual questions at all. What is the function of consciousness from a evolutionary point of view or is consciousness are mere evolutionary coincidence?

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Posted: 15 May 2011 04:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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lente - 15 May 2011 05:39 AM
kikl - 11 May 2011 09:29 AM

The brain is a machine run by deterministic laws of nature. Strange enough, the tool he is using - fMRI - is based on a non-deterministic physical effect called spin. Now, somehow there is something wrong with this kind of reasoning. How can the measurement of a non-deterministic effect result in a deterministic phenomenon?

I doubt that fMRI is really based on a completely “non-deterministic physical effect”, there must be enough about the technique that conforms to determinism, otherwise it wouldn’t be useful.

I think Sam should really reconsider his take on freedom. I thought Laplace’s demon had long been buried by quantum mechanics

I don’t really understand quantum mechanics, but I have it seen used to “prove” many kind of metaphysical believes. I’m alway really skeptical when this happens.


However, understand that randomness does not provide a solid basis for freewill either. The real problem is that people believe there is something separate from the processes which govern our lives (deterministic or not) that has the power to influence or create our behavior. They call this I, mind or soul. There is no evidence for this.

mechanics and Sam Harris’ opinion reminds me of a vulgar kind of materialism comparable to la Mettrie’s l’homme machine. Then he tries to convey that utilitarianism - this time happiness is replaced by well-being - is scientifically proven and undeniable moral truth. Many people would disagree since a utilitarian calculus cannot provide a justification for universal human rights.

Many people might, but not with good reason.

In my opinion an atheist/agnostic must start with first principles when reasoning about morality, which cannot be proven scientifically. So we may just as well admit that we BELIEVE in these principles and provide respective arguments for our belief. That would be honest. One of these principles is actually the possibility of freedom.

Ah! So you have just given up on science. Finally you can go beyond that irksome demand for evidence and just believe what you want.

I am a physicist and studied quantum mechanics. The standard and mainstream understanding of quantum mechanics is that it is a non-deterministic theory. Magnetic resonance imaging measures the spin of atomic nuclei in a magnetic field. Spin is a purely quantum mechanical effect, which has no classical equivalence. If you don’t believe me, then read wikipedia.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 11:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Kiki, I think you have made some solid points, however, it seems most of you are confused as to what determinism has to say about free will.

No determinist has ever claimed we cannot act, choose, decide, etc, but that we cannot do this freely due to the laws of nature and antecedent events. So there is a will, it is just not free, or within our control. For example, say you put a Coke and a Pepsi on a table in front of me, and tell me to pick one, and I pick the Coke, there is no doubt that I have chosen to pick the Coke, the question is whether or not my will was free to decide that. Determinism says I was not, that because of my past experiences with advertisements for Coke, and maybe how my brain finds the color red to be more pleasing at a chemical level than Pepsi’s blue, then if I were to repeat that same situation a million times, I would never be able to choose Pepsi. This is a fairly simple example, but hopefully it makes sense.

If determinism is true, then there can still be morality, just no moral responsibility. The reason a determinist like Harris writes about morality is because we can still have influence on other people, even if we are not free. His work on morality can be read and be the antecedent event that determines you to think about morality differently.

[ Edited: 15 May 2011 02:36 PM by Rolyat]
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Posted: 15 May 2011 01:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Rolyat - 15 May 2011 03:52 PM

...

If determinism is true, then there can still be morality, just no moral responsibility. The reason a determinist like Harris writes about morality is because we can still have influence on other people, even if we are not free. His work on morality can be read and be the antecedent event that determines you to think about morality differently.

You’re just playing with words. You cannot influence anything if all actions are determined by the laws of nature. The abstract laws govern you’re behaviour. Morality without responsibility is also a joke. Sam’s work on morality is rendered absurd by his claim of a deterministic world.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 01:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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kikl - 15 May 2011 05:34 PM
Rolyat - 15 May 2011 03:52 PM

...

If determinism is true, then there can still be morality, just no moral responsibility. The reason a determinist like Harris writes about morality is because we can still have influence on other people, even if we are not free. His work on morality can be read and be the antecedent event that determines you to think about morality differently.

You’re just playing with words. You cannot influence anything if all actions are determined by the laws of nature. The abstract laws govern you’re behaviour. Morality without responsibility is also a joke. Sam’s work on morality is rendered absurd by his claim of a deterministic world.

You’re not reading close enough. Laws of nature AND antecdent events determine behavior. My previous post was an antecedent event (governed by the laws of nature) that caused you to respond. If what I am saying in this post is compelling to you, and it changes your mind about determinism, then this caused you to have a different opinion. Notice there was no free will involved. 

Morality without moral responsibility is perfectly coherent, just difderent than what we’re accustomed to. There is still right and wrong, and good and evil. The difference is people can’t be praised or punished retributively for their actions.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 02:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Rolyat - 15 May 2011 05:55 PM
kikl - 15 May 2011 05:34 PM
Rolyat - 15 May 2011 03:52 PM

...

If determinism is true, then there can still be morality, just no moral responsibility. The reason a determinist like Harris writes about morality is because we can still have influence on other people, even if we are not free. His work on morality can be read and be the antecedent event that determines you to think about morality differently.

You’re just playing with words. You cannot influence anything if all actions are determined by the laws of nature. The abstract laws govern you’re behaviour. Morality without responsibility is also a joke. Sam’s work on morality is rendered absurd by his claim of a deterministic world.

You’re not reading close enough. Laws of nature AND antecdent events determine behavior. My previous post was an antecedent event (governed by the laws of nature) that caused you to respond. If what I am saying in this post is compelling to you, and it changes your mind about determinism, then this caused you to have a different opinion. Notice there was no free will involved. 

Morality without moral responsibility is perfectly coherent, just difderent than what we’re accustomed to. There is still right and wrong, and good and evil. The difference is people can’t be praised or punished retributively for their actions.

Actually, notice, I responded the way I wanted to. That is my experience! Laws of nature and antecedent? So what!? It doesn’t matter! Complete Determinism means that the agent is not acting. Therefore, he/she is not responsible for his/her actions. You stop making sense and Sam Harris does to. There is no right and wrong or good and evil for a stone. There is not right and wrong or good and evil for a marionette. That’s ridiculous.

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Posted: 15 May 2011 04:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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How is thinking free? Do you decide what you think before you even think it?


Lets say it’s like this:


brain processes——> thought——> behavior


What does it matter if thought is in between the cause and the outcome? There is still no room for freewill.

I’ll number my response in the order of your response (I’m sure your smart enough to understand)

1) My response about thinking is based on the fact that most determinist (at least the ones who like to talk about determinism from the level of the brain) seem to disregard thinking before we act. For them it is in the order that you mentioned earlier (brain processes, thought, behavior) more on this later. From what I hear or even read when it comes to thought it is always stated that we think at such a fast rate that we have no control of our thoughts. It is also stated that we have no control of what we think at times. In a sense both statements are true. We do think at such a fast rate and it is true that sometimes thoughts just pop into our head without us really having any control of what we want to think about next. When we are talking about free-will we are really talking about having control of our actions; the ability to make conscious choices without any external or internal influences. So what I meant by thinking is free is in the sense of us thinking about what actions we decide to act upon (As I mentioned in the last response about thinking about picking up a cup before we actually pick up the cup with our hands). I know you may want to say that I contradicted myself but I’m just acknowledging the facts. As for the second part of your first question I would say the answer is yes and no and this is something that you know very well along with everyone else on this post. For example I am thinking about what the next thing I am going to say to you in this response. Every word that I say in this response was made possible by a conscious decision on my part. I choose which words I would like to say to you. At the same time the answer is no because there are times where I am sitting on the couch or lying in bed and all of a sudden I am thinking about my ex girlfriend or my son or even a puppy that I saw the other day (in other words day dreams).

2) For me it is not Brain Processes——-> Thought———> and then Behavior

its more like Thought——> Brain Processes———> Behavior

That is where you are wrong. It does matter very much and there is room for free-will if my notion is correct (I will acknowledge that I may be wrong but until that can be proven with 100% that free-will is an illusion I will have to go with what I know). Anyhow the reason why it matters is because if your notions are correct then we have absolutely no control of our actions. I understand that Brain Processes does play a factor in our actions but what you are saying is that our brain just fires at random without us not knowing what is going on until afterward. There is so many ways I can say this without sounding redundant but when it comes to actions it first starts with thought or thinking about what actions we are going to take (whether or not we are contemplating our thoughts or we think and then the next second we act)

So once again when we are thinking about free-will we are talking about the ability to make conscious and rational choices, which leaves room for free-will

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Posted: 15 May 2011 04:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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I don’t know where you are getting this idea that if determinism is true we are no longer acting.  This is hardly the case.  If determinism is true, we are acting, we are choosing, deciding, etc. (as I said above, no determinist has ever disputed this), however, we are not doing this freely.  As I wrote in the Coke/Pepsi analogy, I was able to chose Coke, but the reason I chose it was not because of my free will.  It was because of antecedent events in my life that had to do with Coke, such as their advertising, or whatever experiences I’ve had while drinking a Coke that my psychology now equates with happiness.  Furthermore, my brain could be predisposed on a chemical level to find a red to be more pleasurable than a blue can.  These are all things that are outside of my own free will, and are what caused me to choose the Coke.

When you said you responded the way you wanted to, a hard determinist would say no, you responded the way you were causally determined to, and that you are only under the illusion that you responded the way you wanted.  You are probably shaking your head.  Let me ask you something that might give you a better understanding of determinism: Do you choose your beliefs?  Think carefully about this.  The knee jerk response is to say yes, you choose what to believe, and what not to believe.  But what causes you to choose?  I think it’s safe to say we make choices to believe things or not based off evidence, good arguments, reason, etc.  You are probably nodding, asking me what my point is.  My point is that you do not choose to believe evidence, but that evidence compels you to believe something.  Thus, there is no free choice in the matter.  For example, you believe in the force of gravity (I assume).  Do you choose to believe in this?  No.  Evidence, such as when you jump in the air and touch back down, compels you to believe that there is an invisible force that keeps you planted on the ground.  Similarly, you did not choose to respond the way you did.  You were compelled to do so by antecedent events, namely, events that have given you the illusion that you have free will. 

As for morality, the agent is acting and choosing, however, because of antecedent events and the laws of nature, they are determined to make whatever choice it is they will make.  If they made the morally good decision, there is no way, to that point in their life, they could have chose the morally evil decision, and vise versa.  This is why if determinism is true, there can be no moral responsibility.  If I understand correctly, what you are saying is that it makes no sense to write about morality if there is no moral responsibility.  This is not so. 

Imagine a businessman goes away on business, and on his trip, rapes, and murders a prostitute.  He does this, and nobody ever knows.  A hard determinist would say he is not responsible for what he did, given he had no control over this.  But does this change the fact that he brutally murdered a prostitute?  No.  Thus, he is not responsible, however, he still has broken what we would call a moral rule, which is to not rape and murder prostitutes, or anyone else.  Furthermore, imagine this businessman is perfectly sane and believes in determinism, and he tells his friend this story.  His friend, who also is a hard determinist, says “John, that is wrong, you shouldn’t have done that.”  The business man explains how it’s not his fault, how he cannot be held responsible.  His friend replies by saying “I know you’re not responsible, but think of the pain you caused that woman before ending her life.  What if she had a child or a boyfriend?  Think of all the pain you would have caused them.  Would you want somebody to do that to your wife?”  The business man says no, and now that his friend has pointed out these facts about suffering to him, he decides that he shouldn’t have brutally murdered the prostitute, nor should he ever murder anyone again. 

Now, I know this is a simple analogy, so you don’t need to point that out.  Notice though, how a person can do wrong, even though he is not morally responsible for it.  Furthermore, notice how after doing this wrong, and not thinking anything of it, someone’s guidance can be the antecedent event that changes a person’s disposition.  The friend offered reasons why John ought not to rape and kill prostitutes, and those reasons compelled, just as they ought to compel any sane person, not to rape and murder prostitutes.  This is how a hard determinist, like Harris, and myself, can believe there is no moral responsibility, yet still be interested in how people ought to live.

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