Free will, Beanie Babies, and beer

Zeno writes about Dinesh D’Souza’s argument for the soul, based on “free will.” Here is D’Souza’s reasoning argument.

[I]s the long-standing human belief in the soul a fiction? We can answer this question by examining the issue of free will. Let me illustrate. I am sitting at my computer with a cup of coffee on my desk. I can reach over and take a sip if I choose; I can knock the coffee mug onto the carpet if I choose; I can just leave the cup alone and let the coffee get cold. Now I ask: Is there anything in the laws of physics that forces me do any of these things? Obviously not.

This argument fails to take into account at least two things: Beanie Babies, and beer.

I don’t believe it’s still the fad it once was, but not so very long ago, the small, plush animal dolls known as Beanie Babies were quite the rage. Younger kids everywhere wanted one, and not just one, but one of each. Even grown-ups began to take an interest, as some of the more rare varieties started showing up on eBay with unbelievably high prices. Ty got rich, and other companies got jealous. Competitors tried to imitate Ty’s products, but the Beanie Babies were far and away the big winners.

Do Beanie Babies have a soul? Obviously not. They’re just toys, after all. But how do we account for this strange phenomenon? Other plush toys have been on the market for years, without becoming such sought-after collectors items. Is there some invisible intelligence, some god or goddess of marketplace success, making rational and intelligent decisions about which toys to bless and which to yawn at? Or is the Beanie Baby fad the result of a combination of simpler factors like timing, marketing, and ever-fickle consumer tastes?

Beanie babies were a fad, and fads are a complex and fascinating phenomenon, neither wholly random nor wholly predictable. There is no “magical” law or formula we can exploit to deliberately start new fads (and if there were, Microsoft or somebody would probably patent it). But neither is it mere chance. You’re probably not going to achieve overnight wealth by marketing fireplace logs as a preschool toy, for instance. There are certain limits, certain things you can know about fads. You can study them, and spot emerging trends, and make predictions once the trends are spotted. But you can’t reduce your studies down to some simple law of physics that makes fads happen.

Fads are an example of the kind of complex, predictable-yet-unpredictable phenomena that arise through the interactions of relatively simple, independent processes. Toy manufactures want to sell, kids want to play, and parents want toys that are affordable, safe, fun, and stimulating. Sometimes these three relatively simple influences combine to produce a fad, sometimes not. The forces driving the craze are relatively simple in and of themselves, but the ways in which they interact can be subtle, complex, and well-nigh impossible to trace.

The same thing can be seen on the biological level. Relatively simple biochemical processes interact in ways that produce results of amazing subtlety and complexity, and that defy any attempt to reduce them to a simple law of physics or chemistry. And to further complicate things, the results themselves become part of the interaction, leading to even more complex and sophisticated results. Identifying the end result can be easy, and identifying the basic elements that interact can be (relatively) easy, but tracing the connection between the fundamental elements and the end result may well turn out to be impossible except in exceptional cases.

Nevertheless, we can very easily determine that mental phenomena like thought, will, memory, desire, emotion, and so on, are physical, biochemical processes. In fact, D’Souza can verify this for himself. All it takes is beer. Let him stand up behind a podium, or sit down at his computer keyboard, and begin to make his arguments for why the soul exists immaterially. He can argue all he wants, and in fact the more the better. The one catch is that he has to take a big drink of beer after each and every sentence.

Beer contains a physical chemical called ethanol, made of two carbons, six hydrogens, and one oxygen. This chemical has the physical effect of interfering with the physical processes of the brain. A little of it produces a mild impairment, increasing in proportion to the amount consumed until it ultimately shuts down all thought, will, memory, emotion, desire, and even perception. These things are all physical processes, and are subject to physical influences like alchohol, drugs, age, fatigue, injury, disease, oxygenation, and so on.

Let D’Souza argue all he wants for an immaterial soul, but no immaterial exertion of any immaterial will is going to be able to ignore the physical effects of ethanol on the brain. And once the ethanol shuts down the physical processes of his brain, there is no longer any meaningful sense in which D’Souza could rightly be said to be exercising any sort of free will. The physical, biochemical component of the will is both the necessary and the sufficient condition for the manifestation of the will. Take away the physical aspect, and you’ve taken away the will itself.

Free will does not mean free from physical constraints. We’re not free to choose to breathe water without drowning, or to walk naked through the fire without being burned. Free will is simply what we have when our choices are not arbitrarily and unjustly restricted by others. It’s a good thing, and a worthy goal. But it’s not an argument for the existence of a soul.

(Hat tip to Pharyngula.)

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