Nat Hentoff, you’re too late! In the last paragraph of “The Holocaust, Rwanda—Never, Ever Again!” (FI, August/September 2009), you say “Some years from now, at a memorial for the Darfur dead, some U.S. president will be swearing: ‘Never again!’” President Obama already did that on April 19, 2009. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a memorial that includes Darfur. It is called “From memory to action, meeting the challenge of genocide.” I toured the exhibit looking for Rod Serling, thinking I was some extra in a bizarre Twilight Zone episode. As a country, we have done little for Darfur, but we do have a nice memorial. Talk about the cart before the horse! Sadly, as long as China holds vast amounts of U.S. debt and wants oil from Sudan, I think that the people in Darfur are only going to get what’s on our dollar: “In God We Trust.” As a freethinker I know what that will get them.
San Jose, California
Free Will Willies
Tibor Machan writes in “Without Free Will” (FI, August/September 2009):
No one is guilty of anything, . . . since no one could have done anything other than what he or she did. . . . Regret is out; so is pride. Apologies are pointless. . . .Certainly no one can be blamed for anything. Or praised. Just as it makes no sense for blaming the weather for being unpleasant, even horrible, or to praise it for being great.
Machan seems to say that if the weather is horrible, we will nonetheless stay outdoors and endure it instead of doing everything possible to protect ourselves. He confuses lack of free will or determinism with predestination. If there were a God and he predestined us to be damned, then there is nothing we could do to evade that destiny. (Thank God there is no God!)
In our courts, at present, the judge may choose the ruling “Not guilty by reason of insanity.” If the convicted person is deemed to be insane, he or she is not set free; rather, that person is consigned to a mental institution. Machan seems to assume that the purpose of a criminal trial is to establish guilt or lack of it, the intent being to punish if found guilty. (This is a religious, not a legal, concept. Such an aim derives from a very real human emotion—the desire for revenge.) This is not (or, at least, should not be) the purpose of a trial. The purpose ought to be to discover if that person did commit the crime as charged and, if guilty, whether that person is likely to commit the same or a similar act in the future.
It is comparable to a wolf killing your dog or killing your child. Whether or not the wolf has “free will” is absolutely beside the point. We can assume that the wolf will kill again if able. You therefore kill the wolf or lock it in a cage where it can no longer harm you or society. You do not perform this action in order to punish the wolf; you do it for your own protection and the protection of society.
In the same way, a murderer may not have free will (does it matter?), but the fact that said person will very likely repeat his/her crime is enough to kill that person (if you believe in capital punishment—which I do not) or lock him or her into a prison cell in order to protect society—not as punishment!
As for having no reason to praise a talented artist, what does “free will” have to do with it? We praise that person for his/her exceptional creative talent—attributes many of us lack, however we may will it otherwise.
Long Beach, California
I don’t know if Tibor Machan is serious or if he’s just jerking our chain to get our attention when he––in effect––says the world would be a better place if we all believed in free will.In any case, he’s got my attention, and there is one question I would like to ask:When a two-year-old child is told by her parents that there is a god who created us whom one must obey, genuflect to, and pray to, does the child use her free will to consider whether she’s being told the truth or whether she’s being lied to? And what about when, over time, she is force-fed the idea that she has free will?
Mt. Sinai, New York
Tibor Machan’s idea of free will is a fraud that has been perpetuated by religious apologists for many centuries because it helps justify the idea of hell. The phrase “God so loved humans that he gave them free will” has been repeated ad nauseam. After all, poor God can’t help it if his creatures make bad choices and must end up suffering eternal torment.
The concept makes no sense if we just stop and think about it for a minute. We do have autonomy all right. We can do what we want. We just don’t get to choose what we want. That comes from our biology, past history, and present circumstances. We can see that the idea of free will is an absolute fantasy. Where would it come from? Professor Machan gets around that problem by listing the consequences of free will, a straw man of preposterous proportions.
The rejection of the free will concept doesn’t lead to the absurdities that Machan lists, but I am proud of the freethought movement because it has been nontheists who have been in the forefront of prison reform, human treatment for the insane, and a little help for working people who are down on their luck. A particularly pertinent point is that we don’t demand punishment unless it alters behavior—and that can happen even without free will. Our only point is that behavior is caused. We can abide prisons to protect society from people with defective behavior, but the emphasis is not on cruel conditions and punishment. Even when rehabilitation is unrealistic, it should still be a goal.
If free will is a religious concept, why would a nontheist like Machan support it? Could it be that his judgment is clouded by a particular branch of libertarianism that he embraces? Is the idea of free will important in that philosophy because then we don’t have to be concerned about those who don’t do well in the free-market system?
Richard F. Stratton
San Diego, California
Tibor Machan responds:
I thank my critics for paying some attention to my essay, but I am disappointed with their at times gross lack of understanding. I never said, for example, the world would be a better place with—or without—free will. It wasn’t my issue. I invoked no religious idea at all, and the notion that free will has to be tied to religion is historically way off—several of the ancient Greek and even more ancient Asian philosophers and sophists advocated free will entirely outside of any religious or theological framework. I could go on but I am sure readers are able to discern for themselves the problems with my correspondents’ letters.
Reinterpreting the ‘L’ Word
I agree with Shadia Drury’s assertion (“Against Grand Narratives, Part 2,” FI, August/September 2009) that when “grand” religious narratives lost their power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were rather swiftly replaced by such “grand” secular narratives as social Darwinism, fascism, and communism. However, there are two points on which I’m still a bit confused.
First, it’s just too hard for me to use the word liberalism the way Ms. Drury does to mean arrogant, superior, and imperialist.I’ll admit I’ve never read John Stuart Mill and was raised to associate liberal
with such things as appreciating the Doonesbury comic strip and Prairie Home Companion and being in favor of interracial and gay marriage. In my mostly Republican hometown, I was often called naïve or idealistic to express a belief in the improvement of the human race (not the perfection of it, mind you, just the improvement of it), but I was hardly considered an imperializing threat. When did the definition of liberal change?
Second, the definition of the Nazi worldview as agrarian and nature-loving does not quite jibe with my visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The architecture was meant to emulate a German factory space with its love of precision and symmetry as well as to convey the overall feeling of metallic grayness and the total absence of nature.Wasn’t the whole point of the concentration camps the glorification of factory-like efficiency used to exterminate a mass of prisoners?I had come to think that Nazi Germany saw itself as the pinnacle of industrial efficiency, not a reaction against it.
Susan M. Baker
New York, New York
Shadia Drury responds:
It is natural for human beings to long for something pristine, pure, and perfect to cling to. As a result, it is disconcerting to acknowledge that the liberalism we hold dear has not had an immaculate history. It is equally disconcerting to discover that what we regard as the archetypal evil includes some apparently good and wholesome things. This upsets our natural desire for a tidy separation between the good and evil. This tidy division of good and evil, black and white, satisfies our sense of order. It also caters to our need for security. All we have to do is choose the good and avoid evil. If we always choose the good, we will have nothing to worry about. The outcome will always be good.
This would work if all the good things came bundled together in one convenient package and all the evil things came bundled together in another package. Then life would be simple. All we have to do is choose the good package. This is the way the religious mind understands the world. It is clear and simple.
The mystery is why would anyone choose the bad package? The religious answer is that the world is full of wicked people, who naturally choose evil things. Eventually, God will destroy all the evil people, so that only the good ones will be left, and all will be well with the world. The simplicity and tidiness of this vision is what has made religion so appealing.
The trouble is, life is not that simple or tidy. It is more complex and messy. All the good things do not come bundled together in one package, with all the evil things in another. You always get some evil with the good and some good with the evil. The reason that some people choose evil bundles—say Nazism—is because they are so blinded by the wholesome nuggets it includes, that they ignore, or don’t believe, it also involves so much evil. By the same token, some good things might cause havoc under some circumstances.
Having elections is a reasonable and nonviolent way to settle the competition for power. But should an illiterate and tribal country such as Afghanistan have elections and a strong central government?
Even when we choose a good bundle—e.g., American-style liberal democracy—we can cause a lot of violence, death, and suffering when we bestow our treasured gift on foreign cultures that are unwilling or unable to receive it. The greatest impediment to the success of American foreign policy has been its surrender to a democratic messianism intent on remaking the world in America’s image.
Drugs and Happiness
I have no objection to the use of mood-altering drugs for therapeutic reasons (“Designer Moods: The Ethics of Neurochemical Enhancement,” FI, August/September 2009). The future of psychiatric medicine may well depend on it. However, before we start using such medications to deliberately induce euphoria, a few caveats may well be in store.
First, can we be so certain that “happiness” as we normally think of it is always an empirical matter—that is to say, that it is always amenable or produced by extraordinary brain chemistry? In the same issue of Free Inquiry, Paul Kurtz describes the awe-inspiring feeling one may have by contemplating the vastness and striking beauty of the universe. This is certainly a valid feeling, but it’s more of an ontological issue rather than a strict issue of brain chemistry. The “brain chemistry” involved is a necessary corresponding variable. Without the necessary functions of the human brain, thoughts of beauty and inspiration would be impossible. It does not follow that one may deduce the latter from the former. Hence, I don’t think that “happiness” is necessarily in a pill. Hallucination or even stupor may be in the pill but not happiness.
Second, who ever said that perpetual happiness is a wise goal anyway? Without an acute sense of apprehension, fear, dread, or anxiety, we would not be able to comprehend real dangers in the world, much less secure our prolonged well-being. The late French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre suggested that human virtue consists of filling or rectifying our sense of personal deficit or unhappiness in the world and that happiness has no meaning except in opposition to unhappiness. The one presupposes the other. I quite agree. So what purpose is served by getting rid of unhappiness with a drug? Such a move would leave happiness without meaning and reduce us to banality and witless mediocrity.
Third, given that “happiness” is as much an ontological matter as an empirical one, who is going to decide what happiness should mean to any particular person? If our humanist values are to mean anything at all, I think individual persons should decide this issue for themselves. I wouldn’t want religion deciding the issue for me. By the same token, I wouldn’t want psychiatry deciding the issue for me either.
I think I will pass on happiness in a pill.
John L. Indo
As a practicing psychiatrist for forty years, please allow me to correct many incorrect assertions in the article “Designer Moods” by David Koepsell. Koepsell begins by praising the contribution of Peter Kramer’s Listening to Prozac. Actually, the book turns out to be a complete hype, as Prozac and the other new antidepressants are now acknowledged by the psychiatric profession to have no better a success rate than the old antidepressants (i.e., Elavil). The only differences are in the different unpleasant side effects between the two groups. The same is true of the antipsychotics. The much-hyped new drug (the atypicals) have been no more therapeutically effective than the old ones. Again, the only difference is in the side-effect profile. The old ones can cause irreversible grimacing and tremors (tardive dyskinesias). The new ones can cause diabetes, heart disease, and death.
The author cites the reported incidents of suicide among those prescribed antidepressants but hastens to add that the overall rates of suicide among the diagnosed are down, which seems to indicate that the treatments are working. This is simply not true. According to the Journal of Preventive Medicine: “After falling for more than a decade, the U.S. suicide rate has climbed steadily since 1999, driven by an alarming increase among middle-age adults.”
Koepsell claims that the new antidepressants are “better targeting the specific brain chemistry that can lead to clinical depression.” Actually, no psychiatrist knows in advance which antidepressant will work on whom. A particular antidepressant might be effective for one person and a disaster for another. The whole affair is hit or miss (empirical).
I never understood the widely used term clinical depression that Koepsell employs. Why is clinical depression more meaningful than very depressed? The only clinical depression that I can envision is someone who becomes depressed in a clinic.
It is an established scientific fact that psychological traumas throughout one’s life can lead to depression and other emotional difficulties. The biochemical, genetic, and medical model approach, on the other hand, have never been proven. Time and time again, we read that a gene for depression or other disorder has been found, only to have those findings subsequently rejected. The latest example, reported in the media on June 17, 2009, is that “A report on a gene for depression, widely hailed in ’03, is now found to be flawed.” The medical model that categorizes depression and other examples of emotional turmoil as diseases also has no basis in fact. Every disease has some physical findings that are characteristic of it, i.e., a blood or urine test, an autopsy lesion, an antibody, etc. Nothing has yet been found for depression, schizophrenia, or other severe emotional states. There is much talk about PET scans finding brain atrophy in schizophrenics; yet it is well-known that antipsychotic medications cause brain shrinkage.
Thus, “mental illnesses” are not true illnesses in the medical model, and their unscientific construction has led to the creation of new diseases with each new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Thus, what used to be called shyness is now a disease, “Social Phobia,” with a pharmacological treatment. An earlier DSM labeled homosexuality a disease, later to be voted out of the DSM by the American Medical Association membership. Can you think of a true medical disease that is voted in or out by physicians?
Antidepressants “work” not because they are correcting a biochemical deficiency but, rather, as the psychiatrist Peter Briggin, MD, postulates, because they disable the brain. Alcohol “works” for anxiety in the same manner. Neurochemical enhancement is thus really another word for intoxification.
Charles Rosenbloom, MD
Diplomate in Psychiatry,
American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
New York, New York
David Koepsell will respond in the next issue.—Eds.