Apr 122014

Listen now to Tamler Sommers’s summary of the two Strawson articles.

On 4/6, Mark, Wes, and Seth were joined by Tamler Sommers of the Very Bad Wizards podcast to discuss the following articles:

1. P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” (1960)
2. Galen Strawson’s “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility” (1994)
3. Gary Watson’s “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme” (1987)

We also brought a bit of insight in from a great article by Thomas Nagel: “Moral Luck” (1979)

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Apr 082014

Guest Tamler Sommers (from the Very Bad Wizards podcast) summarizes Galen Strawson’s “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility” (1994) and his father P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” (1960).

Read more about the topic and get the articles.

Aug 192013

In our discussion on Jung, I brought up the issue of free will with respect to the existence of the unconscious, and I wanted to explore this a bit further:

Compatibilism is the doctrine that free will and determinism are in some way compatible, but since these terms were designed to contradict each other, any claim to be a compatibilist requires an account of how this is possible. There needs to be some level of analysis of the situation by which we’re (either collectively, or you can look at individual cases) free and another by which we’re not.

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Jul 032013

A point neglected in the moral discussion in our recent episode is free will. She-who-will-not-be-named (read her view here) on the one hand insists on the supremacy of empirical science but on the other hand insists that our freedom and hence moral responsibility is obvious and inescapable. So that should make her a compatibilist, but as usual, she doesn’t really know what that means and that there’s any real philosophical problem that such a term would need to address.

So why not forget about her and get a fresh approach informed by current debates among philosophers and scientists? The first two episodes of a newish podcast called Very Bad Wizards do just that. The podcast features a professional philosopher and a psychologist, both of which seem tied to experimental philosophy. So they spend some time talking about the results of experiments designed to gauge regular folks’ intuitions (as well as differing intuitions as evidenced in different cultural practices) about when and how much to assign moral responsibility for actions and whether a belief in determinism in fact undermines moral behavior. However, they’re appropriately skeptical about the methodology of such studies, and the underlying moral theory they exhibit–that intuitions are all there is behind any aspect of morality–is explored explicitly in subsequent episodes.

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Aug 212012

Contemporary neuroscience is not a challenge to free will, according to Eddy Nahmias:

Most scientists who discuss free will say the story has an unhappy ending—that neuroscience shows free will to be an illusion. I call these scientists “willusionists.” … Willusionists say that neuroscience demonstrates that we are not the authors of our own stories but more like puppets whose actions are determined by brain events beyond our control.

According to Nahmias, “willusionists” wrongly assume that free will requires some sort of dualism, or “an impossible ability to make choices beyond the influence of anything, including our own brains.”

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Feb 182012

Amazing!If my notes here have gotten a bit dismissive sounding, it’s largely to provide a counterweight to Dave’s discipleship. This is not to diss Dave (or Bo or other Pirsig fans posting on our board here), but my approach, and the approach I see in enthusiasts like Katie re. Foucault or Matt Evans did for Plato is yes, to try to figure how out to charitably elaborate and defend the view, but perhaps moreso to independently parse and critically appraise it: you pick it apart, test the limits, and see what remains. (Again, this is not to diss Dave, who I’m sure is seeing his role here as sharing his enthusiasm and trying to get more folks interested in Pirsig.)

While of course you want to get out of a reading every bit of richness you can (so as to make it worth your time to have read it), I’m extremely suspicious of anyone who focuses too exclusively on any one philosopher (for non-professional reasons; if you’re a Kant scholar, than of course you have some reason to get obsessed, though of course to be a good Kant scholar you’d need to really know your Hume and Leibniz and many others), whether it be Marx or Ayn Rand or Jesus or whomever. Genius is overrated… even great thinkers steal 90% of their ideas from their predecessors and contemporaries, and don’t necessary end up with the greatest versions of these ideas. The progress of ideas makes any one thinker to some extent instantly obsolete. Pirsig provides a fine model of a very smart guy thinking through things deeply to come to his own conclusions, but don’t think for a second that he invented the idea of overcoming subject-object dualism, which is one of dozen or so major themes pervading philosophical history in the 20th century (see Heidegger, for one, though arguably he was just following on to Hegel), and Pirsig’s account, taking up a whole two books of musings totaling something like 100 pages when you get rid of all the travelogue stuff, is just not going to be the most developed and comprehensive take on this however you slice it.

OK, enough with the general cautionary words to keep perspective, which no one in need of them is likely to listen to anyway. I wanted to recount here a part of Lila that struck me as a particularly stark example of casual overreach: pages 152 to 157. Here he explains how denying subject-object metaphysics solves a whole mass of traditional philosophical problems.

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Jan 312012

This is an obvious cross-reference for this group—indeed, many of you likely already read it. Peter Singer and Agata Sagan have an column in NYTimes’ “The Stone” today called “Are We Ready for a Morality Pill?” They present the conundrum of the how to factor in our growing understanding of the effect of brain chemistry not just on our mood and temperment, but also our inclination toward morally good actions. Essentially, there’s growing evidence that there are significant brain-chemical correlations not only for rather clear psychological pathologies like schizophrenia, major depression, and extreme anti-social behaviors, but also more subtle distinctions like our sensitivity for morally good behavior and our predisposition for altruistic or good-samartian-type acts. (We talk about some of this in our neurobiology episode with Pat Churchland.) Singer and Sagan conclude with:
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Nov 182011

Free will is always a sticky wicket. On the one hand, we make decisions every day that point to our having a say in what we do. Accountability, in general, relies on this notion. On the other hand, whatever our will is, it is clearly constrained: we can’t will away gravity.

Free will is a hot topic in neuroscience these days, especially with experiments leveraging new fMRI imaging techniques in which we can “watch” the brain do its thing. One of those the neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, interviewed briefly in Scientific American to “explain the new science behind an ancient philosophical question.” Though he wants to claim “the demise of free-will,” he does seem less carelessly strident than some, characterizing the study of free-will as the study of “the nature of action.”

Philosophers, of course, continue to be in on this conversation. Recently in NYTimes’ The Stone, Eddy Nahmias asks, “Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?” The article does a nice job of pointing out common oversimplifications of the problem of free-will, particularly as a dichotomy with determinism.

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

Not too surprisingly, the way out of this all-or-nothing style free-will/determinism discussion relies on being in the messy middle where we have constraints that don’t determine. (Emergence anyone?)


Jul 092011

volition and brain

Pop science journalists / authors Bob Wright and John Horgan have an interesting debate on free will from a, well, pop science point of view.

Nothing gets resolved, as always, but I like hearing well-informed middle-aged guys argue the same debate we’ve been hearing since the university dorm room.

Highlights include Wright’s assessment of Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves:

Horgan naturally disagrees, but it’s telling that his biggest objection is his reluctance to accept a free-will-less universe. Isn’t that everyone’s biggest objection?

-Daniel Horne

Jun 062011

David EagletonWes’s recent post on David Eagleman led to my listening to the Philosophy Bites episode interviewing him.

Eagleman’s point here is that the criminal justice system assumes a model of free will that is unsustainable given what we know about neurology, and he gives examples like a normal guy with no apparent deviant impulses suddenly starts exhibiting child molester behavior. He’s subsequently diagnosed with a giant brain tumor, which is then removed, and his behavior (and self-reported desires) return to normal… but then they return, and what do you know? The tumor’s back.

Overall, I agree with his prescription for criminal justice to be forward-looking and not retributive, and that moral guilt as we normally think of it does assume a metaphysics of free will that doesn’t entirely make sense. One point in particular made me think, though, that he doesn’t understand the compatibility deliberations that have been a main project for elaboration for philosophers since Kant or before: the interviewer brought up Sartre’s notion of freedom, i.e. that to us, our actions always feel free (apart from when we’re drugged against our will or whatnot). Even if someone has a gun on me, I choose what to do next. So from a first-person perspective, we can’t use the excuse that “my neurological state caused me to do such and such;” that just doesn’t reflect how we perceive the situation.

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Nov 302010

Start at the beginning.

We are now up to the sixth and sixth and a half sittings. Today’s excerpt puts the connection between tripe (the non-humor forming the bulk of this book) and self-consciousness in terms of our attitudes towards free will:

The form and shape of the supposedly humorous is predictable, though the content is not. Unfortunately, form is part of content, as such:

“Knock Knock.”

“And knock knock to you.”

…Violates the form of said joke, and so is not funny, but unfortunately inevitable. Let me explain: It is a point of sociology that whenever you point out to people that they perform in some lawlike manner, always sitting in a public room according to certain arrangements and such, they immediately break whatever “law” that you (you being the high-paid sociologist) thought up just to be obnoxious. Now we know from our imagination about evolutionary history that over the years, the mass of people achieve greater self-consciousness, and so, for instance, get tired of asinine knock knock jokes (a redundant term) and will break the form and not be funny out of this desire to be obnoxious, to leap out, to freak out, to die and have sex simultaneously.

Plus we get Mr. Wolf in this section quoting Georges Bataille quoting the Marquis de Sade, which is always nice.

With continuing faithfulness,

-Mark Linsenmayer

Aug 242010

Discussing Spinoza’s Ethics (1677), books 1 and 2.

We mostly discuss his weird, immanent, non-personal conception of God: God is everything, therefore the world is God as apprehended through some particular attributes, namely insofar as one of his aspects is infinite space (extension, i.e. matter) and insofar as one of his aspects is mind (our minds being chunks or “modes” of the big God mind).

Also, if you’re not going to sell out and go for a university position in philosophy, should you instead grind lenses in your attic without adequate ventilation? (Hint: no) Plus, the Amsterdam of yesterday, whose heady aroma drove people to write like Euclid, property dualism rears its ugly head, and Mel Gibson as Rousseau!

Read a free version online or purchase the book.

One place to read the earlier Spinoza book I refer to, A Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being (1660), is here. The Karen Armstrong book I keep referring to is The Case for God,and at the end Wes recommends Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic. Seth also brings up Giles Deluze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy.
The dumbed down, non-geometric presentation of the Ethics that I talk about is here.

End song: “Spiritual Insect,” by Mark Lint and the Fake from the album So Whaddaya Think? (2000).