Monday, April 20, 2009

Do Hogs Have Free wIll?

In an earlier post, I was speaking of hogs as a metaphor for the executives of financial firms, particularly large firms, whose greedy pursuit of higher profits ruined the world's economy. I said, "hog farms have a bad smell, even on wall street."

Now, that language has a hard edge to it and I am aware that it was emotionally driven. That is nothing for which I need apologize. We are what we are; we do what we do; and we can do no other. That said, there are questions here that merit analytical consideration.

To begin with, most metaphors are imperfect. When we speak of "X" as a metaphor for "Y" we are asserting that there are some interesting similarities between X and Y, not that they are identical in all respects. For example, George Orwell (in Animal Farm) also compared hogs to humans in a different context but no responsible critic would accuse him of saying that hogs can really become human.

The similarity that I was exploiting is simply a popular impression that hogs are driven mostly by greed and fear. That is not true of all humans (and perhaps not of all hogs) but there are many who fit that description and it is legendary about Wall Street.

What then are the important differences? Let's skip the obvious physical and intellectual differences. We are after something deeper. Human beings, when offered certain alternatives, can make choices. Well, hogs in a farm do not have many opportunities to make important choices but when given alternatives, they will also make a choice. Even well programmed computers can, and do, make choices - even to the level of competing at chess with grandmasters of the game.

So humans and hogs are similar in having the ability to make choices. But humans, it has been asserted, have "Free Will." This is not a well defined concept; perhaps deliberately so. The essence of it is that humans, because of their free will, are subject to moral judgment whereas other animals are not.

I am unable to find any discernible evidence for free will. The human brain seems to be the sole support for the human mind. When the brain is injured, the mind can fail in very numerous interesting ways. When its blood supply is cut off for too long, the mind is beyond rescue. To assume the existence of some non-physical moral entity that influences human choices is a religious doctrine for which there is no evidence whatever. Philosophically, it is a dualism and in very low repute among serious philosophers.

The scientific view is that the brain is a biological deterministic machine. Even if we were to find a quantum-mechanical component in the brain that randomly influences human choices that would not change much. QM randomness is not a moral force.

Therefore, if we are to determine that free will is an important differentiating factor between hogs and humans, it must be shown that hogs have free will. I do not hold that position, nor do I think anyone will take it seriously. It follows that there is sufficient similarity between hogs and financial executives to justify my harsh metaphor: "hog farms have a bad smell, even on wall street."

how to catch a monkey


  1. Uncle...good to see you are still active. I think often of the wild and crazy NYT fora...what a conglomeration of characters!

  2. I recall a hard right fellow from Wichita, Kansas who called himself "hoplite." He was quite intelligent and entertaining, although an admitted brawler. During the presidential campaign of 2,000 he asked me to give GW Bush "a chance." I would love to know how his opinions have evolved.