Tuesday, August 30, 2011

3rd Annual 3QD Philosophy Blog Post Competition

This year Patricia Churchland is doing the honors. Nominations are open.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Clown with Delusions of Philosophical Grandeur

For no particular reason, I just returned to this discussion at Butterflies & Wheels, in which Peter Beattie charges Massimo Pigliucci with two counts of deplorable argument. I was surprised to find that one of my comments had been deleted. Nobody had said anything about it. I don't follow B&W. That discussion is the only one in which I've ever participated, so I'm not sure what to think.

The deleted comment consisted of me pointing out to another commenter that I thought we had been "wasting our time on a clown with delusions of philosophical grandeur." I was speaking of Peter Beattie. I'm not sure, but I presume this is the Australian politician who was Premier of Queensland from 1998 to 2007. That's not why I called him a delusional clown. I called him a delusional clown because he was acting like one.

I don't blame anybody for deleting senseless insults, and if there was no justification for my comment, so be it. But sometimes harsh criticism is warranted. In this case, I believe the comment was both justified and accurate. I'll give a brief overview of the circumstances for those who aren't inclined to peruse the long thread. However, I do recommend the discussion to anyone interested in Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape and surrounding debates.

The problems started when I told Peter I thought he could have been a lot more charitable in his assessment of Pigliucci's review of Harris' book. Peter responded with a little condescension, telling me my "simple counter-assertion" was "not particularly helpful."

I elaborated. Peter claims that Pigliucci made two "deplorable" errors. I, in contrast, don't find anything deplorable about Pigliucci's review, however imperfect it may be.

First, Peter quotes Pigliucci, who wrote: "If these sentences do not conjure the specter of a really, really scary Big Brother in your mind, I suggest you get your own brain scanned for signs of sociopathology.” Peter responds as follows: "That anyone, let alone a professor of philosophy, should literally argue, ‘If you don’t agree with me, you should get your head examined’, is deplorable."

Let's look at Pigliucci's comment in context:

Indeed, Harris’ insistence on neurobiology becomes at times positively creepy, as in the section where he seems to relish the prospect of a neuro-scanning technology that will be able to tell us if anyone is lying, opening the prospect of a world where government (and corporations) will be able to enforce no-lie zones upon us. He writes: “Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption: that whenever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored. … Many of us might no more feel deprived of the freedom to lie during a job interview or at a press conference than we currently feel deprived of the freedom to remove our pants in the supermarket.” If these sentences do not conjure the specter of a really, really scary Big Brother in your mind, I suggest you get your own brain scanned for signs of sociopathology (or watch a good episode of Babylon 5).

Pigliucci's comment about getting your head examined needn't be taken as an argument at all, and certainly not the literal argument Peter says it is. Pigliucci's comment looks like a semi-humorous, if abrasive, way of saying that Sam Harris' views are bordering on the sociopathic. That's an observation, not an argument. Maybe Pigliucci's language was a bit unprofessional, but the tone of the review is clearly informal. I don't see anything deplorable about that. I have no doubt that Peter's interpretation is uncharitable and implausible. Yet he chose to deny this, claiming that either Pigliucci was making a deplorable argument, or he wasn't supporting his assertions with an argument at all, which would be "at least as deplorable" for a professional philosopher.

The second "deplorable" point is where things got more heated. According to Peter, Pigliucci has grossly misrepresented Harris. Here's what Pigliucci says:
Harris says: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” That’s it? The whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is dismissed because Sam Harris finds it boring? . . .

Harris entirely evades philosophical criticism of his positions, on the simple ground that he finds metaethics “boring.” But he is a self-professed consequentialist — a philosophical stance close to utilitarianism — who simply ducks any discussion of the implicatons of that a priori choice, which informs his entire view of what counts for morality, happiness, well-being and so forth. He seems unaware of (or doesn’t care about) the serious philosophical objections that have been raised against consequentialism, and even less so of the various counter-moves in logical space (some more convincing than others) that consequentialists have made to defend their position. This ignorance is not bliss . . .
Here's what Peter says in response:
Harris excuses his omission of philosophical jargon by (only half-jokingly, I suspect) asserting that it every piece of it “directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe” (TML, 197n1). Pigliucci says this amounts to a dismissal of all of metaethics, that Harris finds it boring, that TML as a whole “shies away from philosophy”. (And so on and all-too-predictably on.) Not only is this implausible even given the quote that Pigliucci used; Harris explicitly gives his reasons for “not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy”: he arrived at his position not because of that literature, but for independent logical reasons; and he wants to make the discussion as accessible to lay readers as possible. Again, in such a way to distort a position beyond recognition is deplorable.
Peter's claim about jargon is plainly wrong. Harris explicitly says that he is avoiding many metaethical "views and conceptual distinctions." He is avoiding "much of the literature." He's not just leaving out the jargon. True, Pigliucci is being hyperbolic when he says Harris is dismissing the whole field of metaethics, but his criticism isn't so far off the mark. Other professionals have responded to Harris in a similar fashion. For example, in another review of Harris' book, Troy Jollimore writes:
It would be one thing to try to write intelligently about moral skepticism while avoiding the language of academic philosophy—or at least, the unnecessarily finicky aspects of it—with the hope of reaching a general audience. But to try to avoid not only the terminology, but large portions of the subject matter itself—the “views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible”—is to commit oneself to providing an incomplete and highly distorted account of the subject.
I pointed Jollimore's review out to Peter, but he was implacable. Instead of accepting the point and acknowledging his error, Peter insisted that Harris was just leaving out academic jargon that would make his ideas inaccessible. He accused me of being "more than careless" and said that my interpretation of Harris is "the least charitable one the text will (barely) support." When I pushed the point that Harris was not simply leaving out jargon, but dismissing arguments and ideas, Peter took issue with the word "dismiss" to the point of parody, insisting that Harris explained why he was not tackling so much of the literature in his book. But I never said Harris was dismissive without reason. The point is that Harris does, in fact, dismiss much of the literature, and that this has consequences for the value of his book. Perhaps it makes his book more accessible, but that does not invalidate Pigliucci's and Jollimore's criticism.

I was also getting fed up with Peter's tone. I took offense at the accusation that I was being careless, but Peter refused to apologize. He said he was just making a "factual statement" about my behavior. It appeared that I didn't "care enough" about the discussion. Yes, calling somebody a delusional clown is making a factual statement, too, but clearly there's room to disagree about whether or not that is appropriate. Instead of an apology, I received only condescension from Peter and thus ended the discussion.

After witnessing another participant arguing in circles with Peter, whose argumentative strategies and philosophical acumen were consistently poor, I then made the comment about having wasted our time on a clown. It was a fair assessment, I think.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Venemous Martin Luther

I won't be blogging so much in the coming months, since the school year begins in little more than a fortnight. I'm starting with King Lear, and this marks my first pedagogical venture into Shakespearean territory. To prepare, I'm reading a number of canonical texts from the Early Modern period and which I ashamedly admit I have not before read, including Bacon, Montaigne, and Machiavelli. Today, I looked at Martin Luther's famous De Servo Arbitrio ("The Bondage of the Will"), an impassioned rejoinder to Desiderius Erasmus. (Roughly, Luther's position was that mankind is not free to choose good or evil, but is determined to do so by divine providence. Erasmus believed that the question of freewill was itself unnecessary.) Without analyzing the philosophical or theological issues, I just want to draw attention to Luther's rhetoric (in the first six sections of De Servo), which is pretty extraordinary. It betrays a desire to not simply counter Erasmus, but to pummel him into desperate submission.

Luther begins by responding to Erasmus's assertion that Erasmus is "so far from delighting in assertions, that [he] would rather at once go over to the sentiments of the skeptics, if the inviolable authority of the Holy Scriptures, and the decrees of the church, would permit [him]." The issue, then, is about assertions, whether we should delight in them, and how they relate to the authority of Scripture and the decrees of the church.

Luther immediately admits a need to bite his tongue: "I consider, (as in courtesy bound,) that these things are asserted by you from a benevolent mind, as being a lover of peace. But if any one else had asserted them, I should, perhaps, have attacked him in my accustomed manner." So Luther is giving us a restrained criticism, one deserving of a good-hearted opponent, and not as he is apparently wont to give someone of less worthy metal. And yet, Luther makes clear, Erasmus has touched a nerve.

Luther then proceeds to say that a Christian would not make the argument Erasmus has made: "
What Christian would bear that assertions should be contemned? This would be at once to deny all piety and religion together; or to assert, that religion, piety, and every doctrine, is nothing at all." He makes the same point a little later, in equally forceful language: "As though you could have so very great a reverence for the Scriptures and the church, when at the same time you signify, that you wish you had the liberty of being a Sceptic! What Christian would talk in this way?"

Luther says Erasmus presents a position both "absurd" and "impious."
Yet, Luther soon reminds us that he is holding back his true feelings: "What I should cut at here, I believe, my friend Erasmus, you know very well. But, as I said before, I will not openly express myself." Later, he says that Erasmus has put forward statements which are "without Christ, without the Spirit, and more cold than ice." Even better: "What shall I say here, Erasmus? To me, you breathe out nothing but Lucian, and draw in the gorging surfeit of Epicurus. If you consider this subject 'not necessary' to Christians, away, I pray you, out of the field; I have nothing to do with you." Shortly thereafter: "And it is difficult to attribute this to your ignorance, because you are now old, have been conversant with Christians, and have long studied the Sacred Writings: therefore you leave no room for my excusing you, or having a good thought concerning you."

Luther presents a complete and utter rejection of Erasmus, not only as an intellect, but as a person, and such is ever magnified by the assertion that Luther is holding back!
I gotta say, philosophy and theology aside, that's some awesome writing. And it sorta puts recent debates about religion, atheism and rhetoric into perspective.

Luther is also known for writing harshly against the Jewish people, where the power of his rhetoric is just as evident, even in the opening lines:

I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that those miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews and who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them.
As terrible as his words are, and as damaging as they were and have been, I cannot help but admire Luther's ability to wield language to his ends. Can we not admire the art even when it is designed to such ill effects?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Science Phiction #3: Gender in Mind

Philosopher Alva Noe is discussing gender and neurobiology on the NPR blog (see here and here). His primary goal is noble. He wants to counter the cultural forces which stereotype men and women and which, in some cases, lead us to devalue ourselves and sabotage our own potential. He appeals to a work of popular science by Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender, which he says draws the following conclusion: "Whatever cognitive or personality differences there are between men and women cannot be attributed, except in a few isolated cases, to intrinsic biological or psychological differences between men and women, at least not in the current state of knowledge." I haven't read Fine's work, so I cannot say how well Noe has represented her conclusion. In any case, the conclusion he attributes to her is much weaker than the three claims Noe himself puts forward in the name of science. 

First, Noe says the science clearly tells us that there are "no cognitively significant neurobiological differences between men and women." This is surely too strong, and not at all what Fine seems to conclude. It certainly isn't supported by any of the evidence Noe discusses. 

"You are looking in the wrong place," Noe also says, "if you look to the brain for an understanding of what makes us different." This also goes against Fine's conclusion, which says that there are intrinsic biological or psychological differences which account for some personality differences between men and women. Indeed, considering just how obvious it is that neurological differences can cause behavioral differences, it is rather stunning to see anybody making such a flat claim as Noe's. Why suppose that neuroscience is incapable of furthering our understanding of gender differences? Noe makes no clear argument for this remarkably strong statement. (It was Noe's lack of argument that originally made me suspect a philosophical bias at play here. Perhaps Noe is showing some bias concerning the relationship between brains and behavior, though this is not so clear). 

Finally, he suggests that biology alone cannot account for human differences, and that we must also take "ways of thinkinginto account. Noe seems to think that ways of thinkingcannot be analyzed as biological phenomena. He says what makes us different is our own behavior, our ways of identifying ourselves in such ways. But why suppose this sort of activity is not biologically determined? Why suppose that ways of thinking are not behavioral dispositions like any other? Why suppose they are not a matter of biological development? 

Noe suggests a false dichotomy between nature and nurture, between biology and culture. Cultural differences, however historical and arbitrary, can also be biological differences. 

Let's look at the details of Noe's analysis to see how this all plays out. Following Fine, Noe surveys various studies showing that adopting a persona can have significant effects on our performance. If you think of yourself as a cheerleader, you will likely do less well on certain sorts of tasks than if you think of yourself as a professor. Other research suggests that female students at a private college do worse when they are primed to think of themselves as women than when they are primed to think of themselves as private college students. Men, in contrast, do better when primed to think of themselves as men. 

Perhaps when we think of ourselves according to particular stereotypes, we prime our brains to act in certain ways. We might alter the structure of our cognitive capacities just by identifying ourselves one way rather than another. Noe does not go into the neurobiological aspects of this phenomenon, though it presumably has a neurological basis. Noe focuses instead on the relationship between behavior and society. It is because we think of ourselves in certain ways that we act in certain ways. The categories we use to define ourselves--man, woman, heterosexual, homosexual, cheerleader and professor--only exist by virtue of a "matrix of ideas," he says, which is reinforced by cultural institutions. 

Of course, Noe says, we can distinguish between thick and thin categories. For example, we can identify homosexual behavior in various times (and even species) which do not have the requisite discourse for thick homosexuality. Similarly, we need not postulate a matrix of ideas to identify or account for instances of masculinity and femininity throughout the animal kingdom. But, Noe insists, there are also thick personality differences: behavioral differences which are based on ways of thinking, and not instinct. 

While I do not challenge the thick/thin distinction, I do question Noe's interpretation of it. Surely we would be wrong to ignore culture and discourse when trying to understand human behavior, including gender. However, it is an old misconception to suppose that culture begins where biology ends. William James made the point well when he said human behavior is distinguished, not by an absence of instincts, but by a warring abundance of them. Yet, Noe concludes, "If biology is the measure of all things, then many of the categories we use to group ourselves into kinds of persons . . . are, in fact, unreal." Apparently, Noe thinks cultural differences exist in some realm beyond the limits of biological analysis. This looks more like a philosophical bias than a scientifically supported conclusion. The thick/thin distinction does not entail that thick personality differences are less biologically determined than thin ones. Not unless you assume that culture is not a matter of biological development. 

Noe's own views aside, I want to make two brief remarks about Fine's conclusion (as Noe states it), because it looks potentially misleading. Again, it is: "Whatever cognitive or personality differences there are between men and women cannot be attributed, except in a few isolated cases, to intrinsic biological or psychological differences between men and women, at least not in the current state of knowledge." First, there is the mention of "intrinsic" differences, which are presumably differences which are not influenced by culture or other environmental factors. Since human biological development involves culture and other environmental influences, it is not clear what makes a biological difference intrinsic. Perhaps Fine is talking about genetic differences, though, as biologists often point out, even genetic differences are expressed through biological development, and so are sensitive to the environment. So it's not clear how cleanly Fine is distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic biological differences, and this makes her conclusion a little suspicious. Second, even if there are few "intrinsic" differences (whatever that means), there can be many "extrinsic" biological differences. So, while a certain, limited view of biological influence may not account for a great deal of the gender differences we perceive, a broader view of biological difference might do the job. 

The research shows that the way we think about ourselves can have unintended consequences for the way we act, and even on our very ability to perform. This is not exactly surprising, nor is it very new, though the particular studies Noe discusses are indeed interesting. However, I see no evidence that there are no (or even few) cognitively significant neurobiological differences between men and women, nor that there are anysalient behavioral/personality differences between men and women which cannot be traced to biology. Noe's views do not have the weight of science behind them, but rather suggest a naive view of the relationship between biology and culture. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Libertarian Free Will?

Putting together a few thoughts on free will which I've been toying with lately, I've come to consider two possible views of libertarian free will. One might be possible, I think, but the other doesn't seem to work. (I should mention at the outset that I'm not considering any version of metaphysical libertarianism that postulates supernatural entities.)

First, some general observations about free will and what it means to make a decision.

To be an alternative is to be represented as an alternative. To have an option is to have a representation of something as an option. Whether or not that representation corresponds to a physical possibility, or whether or not the choosing of that option is physically possible, is irrelevant. Viable options must be logically possible, not physically possible. All that matters for people to have options is for them to have processes of a particular sort which regard options as such.

If somebody snaps their finger to my left, and I turn my head to look, I have not necessarily made a choice. I only chose to turn my head if part of my behavior involved regarding turning my head as an option. This need not have been a conscious act. I don't see the harm in supposing that we can make unconscious choices. However, I think it is evident that we do make conscious choices. Sometimes turning our heads to look at something is a conscious choice, and sometimes it isn't. To say it is a conscious choice is only to postulate a certain amount of reflective awareness (or control) over the deliberating process.

When we make a choice, we utilize a certain sort of process which can be wholly deterministic. However, I'm not sure it has to be deterministic for our choices to be valuable to us.

Libertarian free will is, on some accounts, the ability to make choices which are in line with our beliefs and desires, but which are not determined by our causal histories. This sort of free will is commonly rejected on the grounds that, if the choice is not based on our causal histories, then it cannot be based on our beliefs and desires--it can't be our choice.

Yet, if the generation of options (which, remember, are options by virtue of the fact that they are represented as options in our decision-making processes) utilizes a purely random process (such as quantum physics might allow), then we might have a decision-making process that uses our beliefs/desires to choose between alternatives which are not fully determined by our causal histories. I wouldn't assume that we have any such random-option generators, but I see no reason to discount the possibility. So this sort of libertarian free will may be worth having.

Interestingly, even if we don't have this sort of free will now, we might be able to develop it. Imagine a computer which, given a particular problem, produced possible solutions by utilizing a purely random process. If we acted on an option generated by the computer, then we will have, in a very real sense, chosen an alternative that was not determined by our causal histories, and yet which was based on our beliefs and desires. This sort of libertarian free will is thus a theoretical possibility for our futures, even if it is not a fact about our present.

What must be clear, however, is that we don't need libertarian free will to make decisions. What makes a behavior a decision is the choosing between alternatives. It doesn't matter how the alternatives were generated.

The final point is that we don't need libertarian free will to have genuine responsibility. Freedom from causal history cannot make us more responsible for our actions. At least, not in a way that matters. When we judge people by their decisions, our judgment does not depend on their alternatives having been detached from their causal histories. The judgment is about what they chose to do, and the fact that they had other options to choose from. If I'm guilty of X-ing and not Y-ing or Z-ing, then it doesn't matter if I represented any of those options via some quantum indeterminacy. I'm guilty because I intentionally X-ed when I shouldn't have. Maybe I represented X, Y and Z to myself thanks to a quantum generator. Maybe I didn't. It doesn't matter.

Consider the paradox that would result if we took the opposite view, and said that we can only be responsible for choices if we were not determined to have them as choices. In that case, I could not be responsible for using quantum indeterminacy. But, then, how could I be responsible for the outcome of my use of quantum indeterminacy, if I wasn't responsible for the use of it in the first place? I certainly can't be responsible for the outcome of the randomizing process alone, since that was random. And yet I can't be held responsible for the utilization of the process. So there is nothing left for me to be responsible for.

We are responsible for our actions, not the processes which ultimately make them possible.

If libertarian free will is the idea that responsibility requires that we make decisions which are not determined by our causal histories, then I don't think it is a viable option. If, however, libertarian free will is just the idea that we can make choices in accordance with our beliefs and desires, and yet which were not determined by the past or the laws of nature, then I think it's a legitimate possibility. However, I don't see any legal or social matters riding on it. It's an interesting question, and it would be a great discovery about how our brains work, but it won't change how we think about responsibility.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mathematical Intuitions

I recently had a brief discussion about the non-existence of numbers with a friend and student of physics. I'm a skeptic when it comes to the existence of numbers. I think math is something we do, and that numerals and their corresponding words are tools without referent. There is no number 2, but only various roles filled by the numeral "2" and the word "two." I wouldn't even say the numeral "2" denotes a rule (or rules) for its use.

My friend agreed there was something obviously correct about my approach, but said that we still have to wonder about the correspondences. I didn't have time to respond, but the remark seemed to betray a common intuition about mathematics: that mathematical equations and theorems in some way correspond to facts. I don't think there's any reason to suppose this is true. Math does not correspond to anything, just like hammers don't correspond to anything. I don't think there's anything corresponding to the number two, for example. Nor must there be anything corresponding to the equation 2 +2 = 4, or to any of Peano's axioms, and so on.

What we might want to account for isn't correspondence so much as utility. Why does math work? The obvious answer is: because organisms have evolved to do certain things. Roughly speaking, math is the formalization and utilization of systems of quantification in the identification and deployment of patterns. Why does that work? Well, why does the heart work? This is something that we are able to do, for some evolutionary reason. There is a good answer, or set of answers, but not a philosophically puzzling one, even if we don't know all the details yet.

There might be another aspect of math that seems philosophically puzzling: that is, why does it seem like mathematical theorems are discovered, and not invented? In some sense, the theorems of mathematics seem to already be "out there." But where is "out there?"

One possible answer: As we develop our mathematical system (or systems), we constrain the possibilities for their development. A mathematical theorem is not simply invented out of nothing. So what is "out there" are the parameters of possible mathematical theorems determined by the mathematical system we are already using--or, perhaps even better: determined by our innate capacity for mathematical invention, which is often integrated with the constraints of our current mathematical system.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Free Will and Randomization

A thought just occured to me. If we are capable of utilizing a purely random process, such as quantum mechanics might offer, then we could presumably use it in our formulation of potential plans/intentions prior to conscious deliberation. The randomization need not be in the conscious selection of a course of action--in the making of a decision itself--but in the unconscious production of options. Thus, we might choose to do X (as opposed to Y and Z) according to our beliefs and desires, and yet we come to identify X, Y and Z as options--and, indeed, come to have them as options--by a process which was not completely determined by past events. This only requires neurological processes devoted to randomly generating and selecting possible intentions. So, in choosing X, we are choosing something that was not determined by our causal history, and we are still acting on our beliefs and desires. We still choose what our physiology, psychology, etc., determines is the best option.

So, if there is something like quantum indeterminacy, we could have evolved a way of utilizing it. And it therefore seems that we could act in accordance with our beliefs and desires while also having alternatives which were not determined by the past or by any physical laws.

Somebody else must have put forward an argument like this before. It seems too simple to have gone unnoticed. I haven't read much of the literature on free will, but still, I'm a little surprised I hadn't thought of this before.

The Consequence Argument

I recently wrote about the consequence argument and suggested that it might involve a notion of power which we don't necessarily need in order to have an influence over the future. I just came up with a much better response to the argument, however, which does not require any fussing over the word "power."

The consequence argument is as follows: If we have no power over X, and X completely determines Y, then we have no power over Y. Since we have no power over the past or over the laws of nature, and the past and the laws of nature together completely determine the future, then we have no power over the future. Thus, free will and determinism are incompatible.

The problem with the argument seems to be that it regards agents as existing outside of the causal nexus comprising the past and the laws of nature. If we think of ourselves as part of the past and the laws of nature, and we accept that the past and the laws of nature determine the future, then we are part of what determines the future. To the extent that we are part of what determines the future, we have power over the future. This looks pretty obvious.

The problem is the desire to situate ourselves entirely in the present, as if there was a decisive break between the past and our present moment of reflection. On the one hand, when we reflect on ourselves as rational agents, we are reflecting on the past as well as the present. We might thus put it this way: The past and the laws of nature determine the future via the present. Therefore, what exists in the present determines the future.