D’Souza’s Rhetorical Tricks Regarding Free Will

I was following the links over at the recent Philosopher’s Carnival, and I ran into this post (warning: Incredibly long and wonderfully dense) which led to this op-ed by Dinesh D’Souza.

I don’t really like what I’ve seen of D’Souza – my impression is that he’s been fed, clothed, and housed by the wingnut welfare machine since his time at Dartmouth – and what I just read doesn’t do anything to disprove that notion.

D’Souza’s claim, at face value, is that the idea of free will somehow leads to the existence of the immaterial world. It’s a wonderfully readable argument (he is a good writer) designed to prove a negative and then sell it as a positive.

I’m not buying. In fact, I’m sort of insulted. But I’m not surprised…

[Puts on hip waders and digs in.]

D’Souza:

There is a powerful strain of atheism that teaches that human beings are nothing more than matter. In this materialistic view, the soul is a fiction, a “ghost in the machine” that has been invented by religion for its own purposes. After all, we never encounter this ghost within the material frame of human beings.

What we do encounter is brains, arteries, blood and organs. These are all made up of the same atoms and molecules as trees and stones and are assembled by a process of evolution and natural selection into this intricate machine we call Homo sapiens. From this perspective, man is a kind of intelligent robot, a carbon-based computer. Consequently, man should be understood in the same material terms that we understand software programs.


I’ve heard of this, mainly from a friend of mine in a PhD program in the snowy north. D’Souza’s labeling of the position “atheist” is a rhetorical move designed to set it in opposition to the “Christian” position (not “religious” – D’Souza is all about Christianity) even though the two positions are not really all that opposed. His labeling of the position “powerful” is designed to make the reader impressed when he “defeats” the position.

I’d also call it a rather simplistic explanation better attributed to determinism. I would call what D’Souza describes “scientific determinism.”

The point is that D’Souza is already arguing, arguably, against at least a partial strawman; he’s working on one small corner of belief and then claiming a victory against all atheism.

Moving on:

Morality is an empirical fact no less real than any other experience in the world.


I was going to add the context to this quote, but I realized it still makes no sense. How is morality an empirical fact? Only from the perspective that what we perceive as real is real – and that’s a perspective that I can almost guarantee that D’Souza, who argues for a Platonic understanding of reality, does not buy into. It fits one of my crazy Sociology profs, who repeated it constantly, better.

Some consistency would be nice.

Here’s what really got me:

Kant follows this train of reasoning to its remarkable conclusion. We enjoy at least some measure of freedom in the operation of our will. This freedom means doing what we want to do or what we ought to do, as opposed to what we have to do. Freedom implies autonomy, which Kant distinguishes from subservience to natural inclination. So at least some of what we think and do is not governed by the necessity imposed by the laws of science. If I give a dollar to a man on the street, the movements of our bodies are determined by nature, but my choice to give and his choice to take are free decisions that we both make.

It follows that there is an aspect of our humanity that belongs to the world of science, and there is an aspect of our humanity that is outside the reach of scientific laws. Simultaneously, we inhabit the realm of the phenomenal, which is the material realm, and also the realm of the noumenal, which is the realm of freedom. It is the noumenal realm, the realm outside space and time, that makes possible free choices that are implemented within the realm of space and time. Materialism tries to understand us in two dimensions, whereas in reality we inhabit three.


Notice the jump between the paragraphs?

Actually, the latter does not follow from the former. D’Souza just proved that there is something we don’t currently understand (does he really think his scientific determinist atheists don’t have a rejoinder to his simple argument? No – he’s omitted any obvious counterarguments to make himself appear smarter), not that there is something we can’t ever understand. Good lord, does he think scientists are done discovering new fundamental parts of the material world?

D’Souza seems to think that by proving the existence of something we can’t fully explain using existing Western science – free will – that he has in fact proved the existence of the soul and the spiritual world. Nope. Sorry.

I’ll say this: He’s written a heck of an undergraduate essay on Kant. See Duck at DuckRabbit for why D’Souza gets Kant at a very simplistic level.

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