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Freethinking Cannot Be Darwinized

Photo credit: Mustang Joe, via Flicker (cropped).

Simon McCarthy-Jones is an associate professor of clinical psychology and neuropsychology at Trinity College in Dublin. He wrote an essay at The Conversation on the human right to freedom of thought. While otherwise good, however, the piece falls into a Darwinian trap of illogical causation. More on that in a bit; first, let’s cheer his advocacy for humans beings to be free to think. Arguing that freedom of thought includes our mind’s extension into the words we write and speak, he says,

Speaking aloud can also be regarded as a form of thinking — we sometimes speak to find out what we think. As novelist E.M. Forster asked: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

But we also speak aloud in order to think with other people — and we may think better with others than we do alone. Thought can be at its most powerful when it is social, rather than the solitary act depicted by Auguste Rodin. So, for thought to be truly free, we require public as well as private thinking spaces.

To facilitate this, we may need a new legal concept of “thoughtspeech”. This would represent the thinking aloud we do with others in the name of “good faith truth-seeking”. Thoughtspeech could be protected as absolutely as the thoughts inside our head: while one could (and should) still disagree with others, attempts to silence or punish thoughtspeech would be a human rights violation. [Emphasis added.]

Those of us who have been canceled for wrongthink about intelligent design can say amen to that. McCarthy-Jones reminds readers of the ultimate thought-crimes in Orwell’s novel 1984. In the article’s embedded trailer of the movie version of 1984, Winston is shown being condemned for not believing in his heart that he loved Big Brother, even though he pleaded “I love Big Brother” to his torturer. Thought crimes like that are daily norms for theists in North Korea, who dare not indicate in any way that they believe in God because the punishment for such thought crimes is often deadly.

Freethought in a Technological Age

McCarthy-Jones has been active in clarifying the nature of freethought in the current age when corporations use AI to peer into our minds, collecting clues to what we are thinking to push ads at us. In the hands of law enforcement, data even about Internet search history can be used as evidence against a person accused. Who does not fear Thought Police punishing citizens for thought crimes, as in Orwell’s dystopic vision of a regime whose ruling party aimed to “extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought”?

Worrisome trends threatening freedom of thought led UN consultant Ahmed Shaheed in 2021 to propose four pillars of this human right: mental privacy, mental immunity, mental integrity, and mental fertility. McCarthy-Jones agrees with these pillars but sees additional questions in each one that need to be addressed. For instance, under mental integrity (“People and organizations cannot alter others’ thoughts without permission“), when does persuasion become manipulation? The U.S. Constitution preserves the right to assemble and petition for redress of grievances (which involves persuasion), but what if authorities deem such protected rights “hate speech” meriting “trigger warnings” that might harm the mental integrity of others? Which right must give way?

Nudging as Manipulation

More subtle attempts at persuasion border on manipulation. Powerful organizations, including governments, have become enamored with the “Nudge” technique promoted by Sunstein and Thaler. Nudging means prodding the populace to make what they deem “right” choices by making it harder to choose “wrongly.” Internet businesses engage in this by making their own preferences, such as opting in for ads or cookies, the default choice. It gets spooky when you search the Internet for “red shirt” or even mention the phrase to Alexa and then start seeing ads for red shirts on your computer or phone, with directions to the nearest store. By hijacking our attention, is technology violating our mental integrity and privacy?

I believe the right to freedom of thought should protect thinking wherever it occurs — in our heads, our diaries, on the internet, or when we’re engaged in good faith truth-seeking when thinking aloud with others. And crucially, to keep thoughts free, our environment must be designed and regulated to let us control our attention, think logically and reflectively, and not fear punishment for our thoughts. Unfortunately, new technologies threaten this ideal.

Counterintuitively, well-meaning attempts to not manipulate people’s thoughts can manipulate them. 

The designers of systems need not even intentionally play on our mental biases for their products to be problematic. For instance, listing candidates in alphabetical order on a voting ballot paper may seem neutral, but the candidate named first gains a small but measurable advantage. This is partly because we have a mental bias to prefer the first item on a list.

Some US states don’t use alphabetical ordering on ballots for this reason. Instead they randomly rotate the order of candidates’ names on ballots across districts. Yet, elsewhere, including in the UK, this alphabetical practice continues. Alphabetical ordering arguably violates voters’ right to freedom of thought.

In The Design Inference, William Dembski and Winston Ewert recall the case of Nicholas Caputo, a country clerk who was supposed to randomize the names but somehow got his own party’s candidate in the first position 40 out of 41 times during his term. Intuitively unfair as that case seems, Dembski and Ewert show that proving it was not due to chance was not as straightforward as it might first appear (pp 199-211).

Attentive Reading Required

McCarthy-Jones’s article is worth reading, provided one is alert to his biases. His favored spokespersons tend to be on the liberal side: Bertrand Russell, Woodrow Wilson, antiracists, and the U.N., for example. This is certainly his right as much as it is his readers’ right to think differently. He characterizes leftists as “egalitarian” and those on the political right as “hierarchical.” And he roots freedom of thought in ancient Greece and in the so-called “Enlightenment” (a self-serving label if there ever was one) instead of granting any power of place to the west’s Judeo-Christian heritage. Another “amen” to this balancing statement, though:

Free thought is not merely about gaining more perspectives. It is about dueling perspectives. The left and right could find common ground not in a commitment to mutual cancellation, but in a renewed dedication to debate. We must embrace the value of thinking.

The aspect calling for most scrutiny in his essay involves a point of logic. Can he derive free thought — and the free will that it requires — from Darwinian evolution? The late evolutionist William Provine was emphatic that Darwinian evolution means that we have no free will. And he chose to say that with gusto! This writer follows suit:

Unfortunately, we often find thought a painful effort. Evolution has shaped us to make decisions using minimal energy, pressuring us to become cognitive misers who are “as stupid as we can get away with”, as psychologist Keith Stanovich argues….

If we abandon free thought, homo sapiens will have been a brief candle between ape and AI. Humanity’s flame cannot continue to burn in an authoritarian vacuum – it requires the oxygen of freethinkingA right to free thought can give us this air, but we still have to breathe in.

Creative writing, yes, but logically consistent? If thoughts are mere secretions of a material brain, are they free at all? His arguments collapse into determinism, which implies that he doesn’t believe them himself, because belief presupposes the freedom to choose a perspective based on an evaluation of evidence. C. S. Lewis, a master of clarity, stated this in memorable words from his book Miracles:

The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event, and that therefore something other than Nature exists. The Supernatural is not remote and abstruse: it is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.

By trying to defend freethinking as if it is possible and morally good within a Darwinian perspective, McCarthy-Jones’s essay collapses into its own defeater. The candle blows out for lack of oxygen. To keep the light on, one must move the candle to a suitable causal foundation that includes the oxygen of rational free will.

For an updated presentation of C. S. Lewis’s argument from reason, and why free thought is inaccessible from naturalism, see this paper by Timothy Stratton and J. P. Moreland, “An Explanation and Defense of the Free-Thinking Argument.”