Some Problems with Incompatibalism

by E. John Winner

Social determinism and compatibilism

I gave up worrying about the “free will vs. determinism” debate back around 1990.  At that time, I was studying Pragmatism, especially (in the present context) that of Dewey [1], George Herbert Mead [2], and the little known but nonetheless important Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior by Morse Peckham. [3]  I learned that there was another way of addressing the seeming predictability of how humans behave, as well as the human predilection for individuation and diversity, without engaging in metaphysical absolutes, the fundamental ground of traditional “free will vs. determinism” debates.

The basic presumption of Pragmatism is that human thought originates in quite natural needs and desires, realized in the actions we take to satisfy them.  This is true of the simplest and most mundane matters as well as for the highly complex and esoteric.  We build better plows in order to increase the amount of food we can eat.  We create gods because we want to feel loved.  The logic of our sciences and the longings expressed in our poetics both arise from our animal nature.

But while Pragmatism begins by recognizing our animal nature, its understanding of how our behaviors are formed takes the cast of what has been understood as a social determinism.  Social determinism is not a metaphysical position but a theory about how individuals develop within a social context.  There are several major versions of such theory, appearing in philosophies East and West, but basically, they rest on this understanding: education (which begins in the cradle), culture, and social psychology are what make us into the individuals we are.  We’re never free of social influence, and even one’s sense of individuality arises through such processes as peer pressure, social responses to verbal challenge, perceiving outcomes of decisions as positive or negative, etc.

The social determinism of Pragmatism is what in current variations of the “free will vs. determinism” debate referred to as “compatibilistic” – that is, compatible with some definition of ‘free will,’ in the sense that Pragmatism allows for both innovations in thought and behavior, as well as the possibility of changing one’s mind.  Education, culture, psychological processes, etc., are quite complex phenomena and require complex explanation.  But generally, we find ourselves enacting beliefs received from others, including those about ourselves.  However, for many, perhaps all, there come moments when deeply held beliefs, helping to provide orderly epistemic structure to our experiences, are suddenly presented with contradictions and conflicts that cannot be denied.  Through a multi-level play of responses thought or felt (or unconscious), our beliefs undergo a re-structuring, re-prioritizing, and sometimes even replacement with entirely new beliefs.   This in turn generates new combinations of old understandings and in the process, generates new responses to those understandings – new thoughts, new behaviors, and ultimately new understandings.

Having learned from Pragmatism, I lost interest in the “free will vs. determinism” debate.  Traditional versions of this debate, both ancient and recent, are essentially metaphysical in nature and don’t treat very well the social issues that go into enculturation or practical decision making, or changes of mind.  Most people experience the world as if they have free will, and it requires considerable effort and study to see this, not as “illusory,” as some people claim, but as habituation and enculturation: our actions become habitually perceived as voluntaristic, and this perception receives strong cultural re-enforcement.  This seems true for most cultures, and has functioned pretty well to balance the need of the individual (born of particularities of situation and experience) and the need of the community.  Generally, as people age, I think the tendency is to reach a compromise position, in order to come to terms with mistakes made in the past, many of which, in hindsight, we thought we controlled but did not.   (“Did I really want to go into accounting, or was that my parents talking from the back of my head?”)  But habituation and enculturation are amenable to change through personal response to personal experience, in the manner discussed before.  So, for me, the “free will vs. determinism” debate ultimately devolves into personal experience and the individual’s own learning curve, within a complex web of social influence.   Otherwise, as a metaphysical debate, it’s one of those endless conflicts that can never be resolved theoretically, as long as someone is willing to mount an argument on one side or the other.  No matter how one conceives the nature of the universe, whether as theistically centered or as simple clump of material stuff, one can plump “Human Being” into it as puppet or master.  That’s because, although we are physical entities bound by certain physical forces and we are biological entities, bound to certain biological necessities, we don’t actually have any clear relationship to the “nature of the universe,” other than that we’re here.  Metaphysics, in its more esoteric form, decides nothing for us.

A couple of years ago, however, I had to come to terms with the debate in different terms, with the rise among some scientists and thinkers of what I will here call incompatibilist determinism (ID).  This position holds that: (1) all science is reducible to physics; (2) physics being a deterministic science, any higher order system – such as life in general, and human life specifically – must be deterministic; and (3) such determinism is wholly incompatible with even the loosest definition of free will or otherwise non-deterministic behavior.   So far, just metaphysics.  But ID is also developing a political agenda.  A primary expression of this addresses how the justice system deals with criminal behavior (the argument being that, given that all behavior is predetermined, no justice ought to be dispensed on the basis of any presumption of personal responsibility). [4]  Secondly, advocates of ID have assumed that the knowledge that the sciences give us is complete enough to assure the correctness of their position.  This has problematic consequences: (a) those advocating “scientism,” the position that only the sciences can produce any knowledge of the world, tend to dismiss other ways of knowing, such as philosophic inquiry, and use ID as a weapon to implicate philosophy as a whole as some exhausted form of “de-theistic” theology; and (b) ID advocates have become rigidly, ideologically contemptuous of any form of compatibilistic thought. [5]  The presumed “positive” side of this strategy would realize scientists as achieving considerable political influence well beyond their professional fields of inquiry.  But is ID really secure enough to warrant such hubris?

Incompatibilism incompatible with itself?

Let’s consider some of the problems with the ID position, especially as it presents itself as an ideological and political argument.

ID advocates speak of their position as though it were well grounded in scientific theory. But this is simply not the case!  To date, no science has given us an adequate description of the physical processes leading to a decision to drive a car to work or take a bus instead.  There is no modeling, of which I am aware, that depicts which electro-chemical process in the brain triggers such decisions, let alone those having lasting impact, such as what college to attend or whom to marry.  ID advocates seem to think this a trivial matter, but it’s not.  Without a fairly precise description of the process, all we have is really an argument by analogy: as electrons interact, so do genes interact, so do neurons interact, so do humans interact.  One is reminded of similar reasoning from the Middle Ages: “as the stars revolve around the earth, so do the people revolve around their king.”  It is true that electrons, genes, neurons, and people are all made of physical stuff, but the complexities in our social interactions cannot be adequately reduced to the functioning of electrons, without considerably speculative extrapolation. [6]

  1. Lacking such a precise description of the process, ID has no means of accounting for changes in the “programming” they claim we’re running. That is, it has no account for how we change our minds, or how we imagine and develop new ideas, or how reason can convince us or rhetoric persuade us.  When pressed on this matter, I see ID advocates resort again and again to what are social determinist arguments – socialization, response to the environment, etc.  The problem is that all forms of social determinism are compatibilistic.  They have to be, if only in order to account for education, and the manner in which education shows divergent results in individuals educated in the same way.  Furthermore, social determinism is a social theory with no metaphysical implications and thus, makes no claim on the nature of the universe. Consequently, ID advocates have to hold that social determinism is incomplete, according to their schema, yet resort to it to fill in gaps of their own arguments.

2. The political agenda of ID, primarily identifiable in its effort to reform the justice system, is lacking any systemization or political strategy. A couple years ago, biologist Anthony Cashmore made an argument – in a science journal (cited endnote 4) – that if biologists and other public intellectuals would just accept ID, they could influence the justice system to abandon old “free will” based notions of responsibility and guilt.  Cashmore seems to be relying on the Court’s reliance on expert testimony; if biologists and psychiatrists, etc., can all get on the same page, then presumably judges will be so impressed that they will be defining their sentencing of convicted criminals without resort to guilt (in the sense of blame) or personal responsibility.  This is a simplistic reading of how laws are established and how they are enforced. [7]  At one point Cashmore remarks, revealing the larger scope of his project, “the role of the jury would be to simply determine whether or not the defendant was guilty of committing the crime; the mental state of the defendant would play no part in this decision.”  Anyone who thinks that motivation is not going to play a role in the construction of the case by opposing lawyers and in the minds of the jury is fantasizing.  Such a reconstruction of the process would effectively disempower the defense as much as the prosecution.  A jury would not even be necessary.   But an Amendment to the Constitution would be.

3.  Perhaps Cashmore believes that an ideologically unified body of scientists can go to legislatures and convince politicians to accept such a radically new perspective.  In which case, ought he not also accept that these scientists must also go before the public and convince voters to elect legislators favorable to their cause?  Or perhaps we need a whole new form of government, operated by an elite, consisting of scientists?  If any of these programs are the one Cashmore imagines, he won’t say.  And while there are judges who use their sentencing to punish criminals, in fact the laws that guide sentences have long been grounded in ideas concerning rehabilitation and the removal from society of imminent threats.  Obviously the system doesn’t work very well, but it’s hard to see how the system suggested by Cashmore would work any better, since the problems with our criminal justice system derive from a number of difficult social problems, such as bureaucratic intransigence, unresolved ethnic tensions, and economics, rather than any theory of free will or personal responsibility.

  1. But regarding Cashmore’s argument against the notion of personal responsibility, I felt something was askew. What, precisely, remained unclear to me, until I read Andrew Eshleman’s article on “Moral Responsibility” for the Stanford Encyclopedia [8], which includes discussion of P. F. Strawson’s attempt to reconcile determinism and libertarianism. [9]  What Strawson says is that our understanding of moral responsibility isn’t derived from any notion of metaphysical free agency, but expresses the social connectivity of our human natures.  That’s putting it somewhat simply, but let me take the general idea further.  The kind of ethical responsibility we use to underwrite our laws and our general sense of personal behavior really have to do with our community’s determination of whether individuals as actors belong to the community in a proper way.  Punishments and rewards – both concerning criminals, but also those we distribute (and receive) in any social interaction – are simply part and parcel of our living as a certain kind of social animal.  If this is true, social determinism still has relevance as a guide to understanding, but ID hasn’t.  Because it doesn’t matter whether ID is true or false, the behaviors will continue pretty much as they do today, with (hopefully) progressive modification achieved, not just through reasoning, but through improving the sense of community such behaviors express.
  1. Here might be a good place to note the historical problem ID has: as a deterministic enterprise to humanize certain aspects of our culture, it trails behind a number of social deterministic efforts that have been ongoing for decades. In the context, consider the long struggle against capital punishment.  When this struggle was most successful, it was partly because of social deterministic arguments.  That it hasn’t been so successful lately might be partly because the ‘will-to-punish’ is too strong among the electorate right now.  It’s hard to see, then, how switching the debate to one of adopting ID will prove more effective.  Social deterministic based political theories have had limited success in democratic societies, where people take pride in their sense of agency while voting.  So how would ID prove more persuasive?  If your position is that the voter is determined bio-chemically to vote in a given fashion, why shouldn’t they “go along with the programming?”  And the greatest political success stories of any social determinist theory have been the Communist revolutions – most of which were undertaken by the impoverished, not because they saw themselves as determined to struggle for the proletariat, but because they were hungry and abused beyond tolerance.  As a social theory, social determinism is best used as a tool of understanding; in politics, only to remind us that our past has made us who we are.

I think that the political agenda of ID advocates gets them into serious trouble.  The notion that science is the purification of reason; that consequently, scientists are capable of the most reasonable explanations and the most reasonable projects for human improvement; that this can produce some sort of “great awakening,” at least among the educated, leading to massive social reform – How far do we take this, before absurdities and utopianism become palpable?  The Communist hope of deriving political revolution out of a philosophical social theory ended in disaster.  Fortunately, the notion of deriving major political reform out of a scientistic metaphysics doesn’t even get off the ground.   But insisting on ideological purity and utopian achievements actually fragments political movements and dampens the spirit of their participants. It is asking too much and promising more than can be delivered. Persuasion often takes a long time, and people respond better to carrots than sticks.  Thus, ID advocates’ ideological demands may be getting in the way of accomplishing the humane social goals they say they wish to achieve.

But it has gained attention and influence among certain scientists, who otherwise would pass publicly unnoticed were their writing confined to papers in their professional fields.  I’m not suggesting that scientists should not involve themselves as intellectuals in the public sphere.  But in writing as a public intellectual, while one certainly ought to engage in advocacy of one’s political positions, one should beware of alienating readers by advocating a rigid ideological agenda – especially one so obviously self-serving as that discussed here.

Notes

  1. See, for instance, John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41386/41386-h/41386-h.htm
  1. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mead/
  1. http://www.amazon.com/Morse-Peckham/e/B001HPPL6K
  1. See: Anthony Cashmore, “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system,” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2842067/

Although Cashmore claims a biological determinism, he is careful to avoid genetics (genetic determinism has a bad track record).  Instead, his argument hinges on the ID claim that biology is deterministic because it reduces to physics.  Cashmore tries to pretend to some philosophic sophistication; but the pretense is belied by his attempt to adjudicate between Descartes and Hume, as if philosophy just stopped by the mid 18th century.  Yet although he is presenting his position as science in a scientific forum, in fact he is engaging in ontology, metaphysics, political philosophy and philosophy of law, without any credentials for any work in these areas, and with the scantiest reference to their literatures.

  1. See, for instance, Jerry Coyne, “Another unconvincing redefinition of free will” (and pay attention to the comments!) http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/another-unconvincing-redefinition-of-free-will/ In response to argument by Michael Gazzaniga that the ‘social contract’ leads us to be respectful of social opinion of our actions (thus facilitating a change of mind), Coyne writes: “But even diehard incompatibilists like myself, and all scientists, agree that interaction with the environment, and that includes other people, can modify the brain and hence one’s behavior. That’s not news!”  Use of the word ‘brain’ (rather than, say, ‘mind’), obscures the fact that this is a social determinist position, not ID (and all social determinist positions are compatibilist).  What would be news is for Coyne to produce an adequate description, with theoretical explanation, of precisely how social interaction ‘modifies the brain.’  I suppose Coyne thinks the neurosciences have done this; they have not.

Coyne’s post ends on a political demand:  “And let me say this one more time: philosophers who are truly concerned with changing society based on reason wouldn’t be engaged in compatibilism, they’d be engaged in working out the consequences of determinism, especially its implications for how we reward and punish people.”  Why would we want to do that?  Where is the compassion and humanitarian concern, that such a suggestion clearly depends on, coming from?  Recourse to an inherited feeling of sympathy or ‘moral impulse’ in our genetic make-up won’t do.  The efforts of scientists to find a strictly biological imperative for ethical behavior continually collapse under the sheer number of variation in behaviors, both in groups and individuals.  The problem is in reductively assuming that a single embedded motivator can explain social behavior.

  1. Theory reductionism – and ID depends upon it – has quite a number of problems. See discussion of the topic at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/red-ism/ . Suffice to say, that debate is ongoing.
  1. For consideration of how problematic is the relationship between the courts and scientific expertise, see, for instance: Susan Haack, Defending Science – within Reason, Prometheus, 2003; Chapter 9 “Entangled in the Bramble Bush: science and the Law.”
  1. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-responsibility/
  1. Strawson, P. F., 1962. “Freedom and Resentment,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 48: 1–25 (http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/P._F._Strawson_Freedom_&_Resentment.pdf).

51 Comments »

  1. EJ,
    good stuff as always. I was amused to see that ID has a new meaning. It may confuse a few people.

    I doubt this statement:

    Most people experience the world as if they have free will, and it requires considerable effort and study to see this, not as “illusory,” as some people claim, but as habituation and enculturation: our actions become habitually perceived as voluntaristic, and this perception receives strong cultural re-enforcement.

    Here you seem to be saying that habituation and enculturation are responsible for our perception of free will. But why? How does

    habituation and enculturation: our actions become habitually perceived as voluntaristic, and this perception receives strong cultural re-enforcement.

    cause this perception?

    I think there is a much simpler explanation. We really do perceive our actions as being voluntaristic as the result of ordinary, everyday experience and this results in habituation and enculturation. I think you have put the cart before the horse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with Lab on this. We empirically observe each other making decisions of our own free will on a daily basis. And we see examples (like when the Tsarnaev brothers hijacked a car after the Boston Marathon bombing) where people are forced to act against their will.

      “Free will” makes that distinction, and it is a meaningful and significant distinction. The fact that both scenarios (a choice we make ourselves and a choice forced upon us) are causally inevitable cannot be used to erase that distinction.

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  2. Nicely done. One of the ironies of hard determinism is that, when they remove individual responsibility, they also free all of us of any responsibility to fix the social problems they claim they wish to address. Oops!

    Free will requires a deterministic universe. Without reliable cause and effect, we cannot reliably cause any effect, that is, we would have no freedom to do anything.

    All of the utility of determinism comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. Knowing the strength of different materials under stress we can build skyscrapers. Knowing the virus responsible for the disease allows us to create vaccines against polio and measles. Knowing the psychological and sociological factors contributing to crime, we can build better neighborhoods.

    The mischievous corollary of reliable causation is universal inevitability. If every event is reliably caused by prior events, it logically follows that everything that happens is always causally inevitable. However, this is not an inevitability that is “beyond our control”, but rather one that incorporates our choices and our actions in the overall package of causation. We actually get to choose what becomes inevitable.

    Most people presume that deterministic inevitability is some kind of force creating a future outside our control, pulling our strings while we act as puppets with no control over our own destiny. But that’s false.

    Determinism is not a cause. It merely asserts that objects and forces within our universe behave in a reliable fashion, such that their actions are theoretically predictable. All of the causing is done by those objects and forces.

    We happen to be one of those objects. And we are three things in one.

    1) We are physical objects that, when dropped from the leaning tower of Pisa along side a bowling ball, will hit the ground at the same time as the bowling ball. Physical objects behave passively.

    2) We are living organisms with biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce. All living organisms come with this built-in purpose, and at this level be behave purposefully. Newtonian physics can no longer predict our behavior. The life sciences are now required.

    3) We are an intelligent species, with a sufficiently evolved neurology to imagine, evaluate, and choose. At this level we can behave deliberately, and neither physics nor biology is sufficient to predict our behavior. Instead we require the social sciences.

    When we decide for ourselves what we “will” do, “free” of coercion or other undue influence, we call it “free will”.

    The causes of our behavior expand at each level. At the level of free will our causes include our own purpose and our own reasons.

    The fact that it was authentically us that made the decision (free will) does not conflict with the fact that our purpose and our reasons reliably caused our choice (determinism). They are simultaneously true.

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  3. labnut,
    education begins at birth, our social experiences begin with our parents – or those others we are surrounded with in our post-birth environment. So for me, it’s really a matter of the horse and cart being inextricably embedded. Trying to isolate either misleads us. (This also changes the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate in some interesting ways.)

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  4. Marvin Edwards,
    You’re engaging in the metaphysics of the traditional ‘free will vs. determinism’ debate, and, as I argued in the beginning of my article, I have no interest in that debate or its metaphysics. Influenced by the Pragmatists I’ve mentioned, as well as certain strains of thought in German philosophy and sociology, recently, I’ve become much more interested in the way socialization generates individuals who then interact with others in conflict and cooperation in order to continue socialization, ala the philosophy of Watsuji Tetsurō. I just don’t have the time for esoteric debate; and one reason I wrote this is to ask why some scientists now seem to think they have an upper hand in a game that isn’t worth playing – Politically, metaphysics is pointless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Quite alright. I’m not interested in metaphysics either. But the Gregg Caruso’s out there and the “free will skeptics” have, as you pointed out, ceased arguing metaphysics and are now attempting to inject fatalism into the judicial process. That seems like a practical problem to me. And scientists, thinking wrongly that free will and determinism can’t mix, just continue perpetuating the problem, and opening the door to this mischief.

      So I’m resolving the paradox. For now and forever. That’s all.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It should be noted that the existence of an individual with a subjectivity and sense of agency is absolutely essential to the maintenance of a stable society. Failure to accomplish a balanced relationship between the individual and the community inevitably leads to social collapse. And this relationship is historically contingent and changes over time, let’s remember – part of the narrative of how societies come together and fall apart over time.

    Of course this works best when it works “organically” – that is, when it happens as part and parcel of our social experience, to the point that we are hardly aware of it (which is why it can only be recognized through theoretic reflection and inquiry). (Another reason it only has tangential relationship to practical politics.)

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  6. I more-or-less agree with your expressed view, though that is less than complete agreement.

    I particularly like your introduction of pragmatism. It has long seemed to me that what we mean by free will, is that most of our decision making is pragmatic rather than a matter of truth and logic. As a mathematician, of course, I use a fair amount of truth and logic. But I actually see truth and logic as themselves human pragmatic inventions.

    When we make pragmatic decisions, we are deciding on the basis of “what works for me”. But we ourselves are the sole determiner of what works for us. And that’s why we have a sense of free will.

    Where I disagree a little, is where you use the term “social determinism”. Now maybe that’s just the term of art, so I shouldn’t object. But I don’t agree that who we are is socially determined. There are strong social pressures, but I see them as falling short of being determinant. From an individual’s point of view, we see it as a pragmatic virtue to fit into those social pressures or constraints. But I still see us as making our own choices at to how we will fit within those constraints.

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  7. Marvin Edwards: Free will requires a deterministic universe. Without reliable cause and effect, we cannot reliably cause any effect, that is, we would have no freedom to do anything.

    I don’t agree with that.

    Yes, we need something like reliable cause and effect. But it need not be perfectly reliable. If it is reliable enough, that will suffice. And it can be reliable enough without a deterministic universe.

    Part of learning, is learning what we can reliably cause and what we cannot reliably cause. The old saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink” points to an example of something that we cannot reliably cause.

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    • Neil, I don’t think anyone can imagine a causally “indeterministic” universe. So I like to use this example:

      Suppose we had a dial that let us adjust the determinism/indeterminism of our universe. When we turn it all the way to determinism, I pick an apple from the tree and I have an apple in my hand. We turn the dial a little bit toward indeterminism and now if I pick an apple, I might find an orange or banana or some other random fruit in my hand. Turn the dial again, and when I try to pick an apple I find a kitten in my hand, or a pair of slippers, or a glass of milk. One more adjustment toward indeterminism — when I pick an apple gravity reverses!

      I’m not sure where the dial is set in our universe. I like to presume perfectly reliable cause and effect, because if we find free will here, then we’ve solved the paradox. And it can be argued that the less deterministic the universe, the less freedom we have to control it.

      You are absolutely correct that our knowledge and our capabilities fall short of making the horse drink the water. On the other hand, if the horse was ill and dehydrated, I’m sure the vet would hook up an IV. 🙂

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      • Neil, I don’t think anyone can imagine a causally “indeterministic” universe.

        Perhaps I don’t understand what you mean by “indeterministic”. As I see it, one errant particle somewhere in the cosmos would be sufficient to make the universe indeterministic. We don’t need to imagine bananas growing on apple trees for that.

        We could, of course, imagine a world of pure randomness. And that is pretty much the world of the Las Vegas gambling casino. Yet, even there, the operators seem to find enough causation in the statistical averages to be able to eke out a handsome profit.

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        • Randomness and chaos are both about unpredictability. But it would be theoretically possible to build a machine that could flip a coin and always land it heads up. Professional knife throwers have to precisely control the number of flips the knife makes to assure the point rather than the hilt hits the target.

          Determinism asserts a “theoretical predictability” that assumes sufficient knowledge of all relevant causes. The thought experiment usually suggests an omniscient and omnipotent being who has perfect knowledge and can predict how events will play out (you know, like God, or your wife).

          Your wife may be able to predict how you will decide most issues. But to confirm her prediction you’d still have to go through the mental process of imagining your options, estimating how each choice would play out, and then choosing which option you will implement. Free will is what we call it when you decide for yourself what you will do. An unfree will would be if your wife threatens to divorce you unless you have her mother over for dinner.

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  8. EJ,
    I’ve become much more interested in the way socialization generates individuals who then interact with others in conflict and cooperation in order to continue socialization

    Yes, that is a fascinating subject that deserves exploration. We are all embedded in a social web and that has large implications for our behaviour. Of course socialisation does not remove free will. It merely puts in place constraints, or boundaries and free will is exercised within those constraints. Constraints are not the same thing as determinism. Confusing the two is the fundamental mistake that many make.

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  9. EJ,
    one reason I wrote this is to ask why some scientists now seem to think they have an upper hand in a game that isn’t worth playing – Politically, metaphysics is pointless.

    But they do have the upper hand. Their achievements are undeniable and transformative, thus they have won themselves enormous prestige and influence. Not only that, but their argument is exceedingly hard to refute. The chain of causal determinism is ironclad and no exception has ever been proven. The exercise of free will is the seeming exception but it is not a proven exception. The position of science on the matter is simple – all problems, with sufficient time and effort, yield to the the application of causal determinism. And science has a long history to support this belief.

    We wave our hands with feeble arguments that are utterly inconsequential in the face of the inevitable progress of science and its casual determinism juggernaut. We attempt compromise with incoherent arguments about compatibilism or we resort to simple denial with Wittgensteinian arguments. None of this helps. It simply makes us look like idiots.

    The really interesting question is their motivation. The clue here is that scientism is on the way to becoming the dominant ethos in our society. With that comes political power and influence. And who has not been seduced by that prospect?

    I think that ‘meritocratic‘ rule by a science elite will be a terrible disaster but that is the prospect that is becoming a possibility.

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  10. Hi EJ, I may have beat you to the disinterest/switch by one or two years. I think for me it was 1988, could have been 89. At the time I was studying Philosophy as my major and Sociology as my minor. The uselessness (even intellectually) of the metaphysical side, and the usefulness of the social side (which does extend to nature v nurture) seemed obvious.

    But as some of the recent events you mention suggest, and Marvin points out more clearly… to paraphrase Pacino in godfather 3… “the metaphysicians keep pulling me back”.

    That said, I appreciate your article because tackling the issue from outside the metaphysics isn’t done that much (at all?), especially by pointing at the “metaphysicians” and how their arguments fail.

    Coyne is especially problematic. He will heavily criticize compatibilists as being like religious people because they make an argument that believing in ID (as you have termed it) will cause harm (not true but what he claims). And yet that is almost his entire argument in support of ID!

    It is so clearly a political movement, or using political goals, to prop a theory. And yet if I start with the theory, I don’t see how it leads to advocacy for those goals. And as you argue, how would that convince the public, or address the real problems of the justice system?

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    • DB, I think its fine that they want to reform the justice system to be less punitive and more rehabilitative. But going after free will is the wrong way to do it. And many Christian churches, whose members believe in free will, are also pursuing these reforms. So why make enemies of people who should be our allies.

      The problem is not free will, but rather the philosophy of penalty that we employ. Justice is about protecting our rights. Thus it must be concerned with the rights of all the parties involved. A just penalty would seek to (a) repair the harm to the victim if feasible, (b) correct the behavior of the offender through rehabilitation if possible, (c) protect society from further harm until the offender is corrected, and (d) do no more harm to the offender and his rights than are reasonably required to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

      Rehabilitation requires free will. The goal is to return to society a person who makes better choices of his own free will. Programs will address how he thinks and feels about what he did, and give him new and better options to choose. These may include addiction treatment, counseling, education, skills training, post-release follow-up, job placement, and other programs.

      Rather than attack free will, we need to think better about what we wish to accomplish and how best to go about it.

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  11. There is nothing antipragmatic about considering the metaphysics of a particular realm or subject. Also, there is nothing inherently more interesting or practical about meat-and-potatoes politics when it comes to envisioning, comprehending, and implementing some sort of social programme or other. Especially when the ‘politics’ is perceived as or projected to be artificially detached from the underlying reality as apprehended metaphysically.

    Good for you if you became radically disinterested in X and enthralled with Y in 1990 or 1988 or whatever the case may be. But I was equally active and alive and thinking about things in those days, and I plainly disagree.

    Currently, we are witnessing a whirlwind of chaotic reorganizing of principle in the American political and social realm the likes of which we’ve not seen in a long time and which we probably have not yet come close to fully comprehending the nature of. And what is at the base of it is something very metaphysical in nature: a sudden tectonic shift in what is perceived as the value, reality, and nature and worthwhileness of truth. We might come through it relatively unscathed after a decade or so by floundering about within warring imagined pragmatisms, or we might see things deteriorate considerably further. But to really grasp what is happening requires looking behind the scenes of the outer ‘behaviorist’ layer of happenings and facts. To the extent we do so and absorb the relevant lessons, we are prepared to recognize future trends in similar directions, disguised by the idiosyncracies of that moment as they will certainly be.

    Similarly, it matters whether a justice system is in harmony with or removed (abstracted away) from our natural and authentic inner experiences about freely making decisions, being influenced by a constellation of factors, virtuously (plug for Virtue Ethics against Deontics or Consequentialism) deliberating and noticing things, being careful and considerate about situations, exercising our faculty of empathy, and a hundred other kinds of measures we can exert effort towards on the basis of our cultivated characters or not — which we generally, correctly in my naive optimism, label as exerting our will. If we morally move away from this on the basis of a thinly justified infatuation with a reductionist fervor to project determinist physics onto neurology, language, psychology, and basically any polluted humanity we can come up with, then we will be severely the worse for it. We do not and will not overcome these silly and dangerous intellectual tendencies without a healthy dose of extending our explorations into metaphysical subject matter.

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    • Well, it sort of depends upon how you deal with deterministic inevitability.

      Causation is an abstraction we use to describe how things operate. We learn how things operate by observation and experimentation. Science does a lot of this, so it is important to them that how-things-work is not constantly changing overnight. If something is not working as expected, they’ll try to discover what “caused” the variation in results.

      It’s not just the scientist though. A toddler needs gravity to work consistently or his body would not learn how to walk. The toddler is also a scientist, testing theories about where to put his feet down and how to shift his weight. If gravity were constantly changing, and perhaps pushing one moment and pulling the next, no one could walk.

      So we need for things to work in a reliable fashion.

      A corollary to reliable causation is universal inevitability. Every event has reliable causes, and each cause is itself an event with its own reliable causes, that are also events … . And this is the logic by which we get the “causal chains” and “dominos” (actually it is more like a tree structure).

      So it follow by that logic that everything that happens is always causally inevitable. The past had to occur as it did. The future can only turn out one way.

      And that’s all that one can rationally say about it. Anything else that anyone attempts to say is incorrect. For example, saying that inevitability means the future is out of our control is incorrect. Saying that inevitability means we have no free will is incorrect. Saying that inevitability limits our possibilities is incorrect.

      None of these things are logically implied by causal inevitability. Why? Because we happen to be part of what causally determines what becomes inevitable. Our experience of choosing is real. And our choice causally determines what we do. And what we do causally determines what happens next.

      By the way, have you tried Intersystems Caché?

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  12. “… those advocating “scientism,” the position that only the sciences can produce any knowledge of the world, tend to dismiss other ways of knowing, such as philosophic inquiry, and use [incompatibilist determinism] as a weapon to implicate philosophy as a whole as some exhausted form of “de-theistic” theology…”

    I agree about the silliness – and dangers – of not treating normal people as responsible agents. But I think it weakens your case to tie it too closely to:

    a) a defense of a particular view of philosophy; and

    b) a particular take on scientism.

    On the latter point, I agree that certain scientists say stupid things and try to apply their scientific expertise beyond the areas to which it actually applies. Also (as Dan was recently pointing out) many philosophers inappropriately model their philosophical practice on scientific practice. These are the kinds of things I would call scientism, but you seem to want a broader understanding of the term. This is unfortunate, not least because by broadening the scope of the term, you run the risk of being perceived as having an anti-science attitude.

    There are *of course* other ways of knowing than science. Animals know things, but are completely innocent of science. And humans know lots of things which don’t derive from scientific activity. But I am not aware of any other ways of engaging in the process of building a body of exosomatic knowledge than via more or less scientific methods (which I see as encompassing historical research, though not perhaps the writing of history).

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  13. “Good for you if you became radically disinterested in X and enthralled with Y in 1990 or 1988 or whatever the case may be. But I was equally active and alive and thinking about things in those days, and I plainly disagree.” That reduces to, “You read books? yeah, well, I read books too, and no! So there!” This isn’t an argument; this isn’t even a position statement. I don’t know what it is.

    It’s clear from some comments here, and some on previous articles, as well as comments on a recent post on Plato’s footnote ( https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2017/03/17/platos-reading-suggestions-episode-70/ ). it’s unfortunately clear that many people are so committed to their metaphysics on this issue, that drawing the discussion down to the level of social reality and the decisions we actually do make; and yet inclusive of philosophical positions that can consider such issues fairly from differing perspectives, is at best very difficult to bring to a public forum. I have some suspicions where some of this comes from, but that doesn’t help resolve the matter.

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  14. “Social determinism” is indeed a term of art, but one that was quite popular throughout the 20th century (and one reason I wrote this article was to preserve the honor of the term). It is a social theory, primarily a theory of education, with a long history in the West (Plato’s Republic depends on it), and in the East as well. (Catholic education theory is grounded in it; see for instance The Grammar of Assent by Cardinal Newman, probably the most brilliant Catholic theorist, at least writing in English, in the 19th Century.)

    Again, Social Determinist theories make no claims on metaphysics, on the *essential* nature of human being.

    We’re always going to be speaking metaphysics -that’s embedded in the grammar of Indo-European languages – the copula necessarily makes not only ontological claims (‘a tree is,’ i.e., exits), but metaphysical claims – ‘we live in a world where trees exist’). But we mustn’t be mislead by this. This is mere speaking. There is a necessary detachment between what we say and the world that ‘really exists.’ Even Heidegger, a self-professed “Realist,” whose “Introduction to Metaphysics” actually *is* an excellent introduction to metaphysics, despite its retrograde politics, understood this; that’s why he devoted his philosophy to the ‘deconstruction’ of Western metaphysics.

    The essential problem is very simple. In clinical psychological extrapolations of the metaphysical debate, people are sometimes asked, whether they would choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream.

    I’m sorry, at what point did we ever *’decide’* to eat ice cream? There are many cultures where ice cream doesn’t even exist. Yet we are raised in *this* culture, so we never think about that, until we stop and reflect on the matter, and realize that, this is just how we were raised.

    In Russia, at least in the 1960s, Russian children would not have understood the question; their favored treat at the time was a pickle.

    Stop worrying about whether you choose vanilla or chocolate ice cream; ask why you prefer ice cream in this culture, rather than a pickle.

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  15. EJ,
    I have some suspicions where some of this comes from, but that doesn’t help resolve the matter.

    Please share your suspicions. I am trying to guess what you mean, without any success.

    ask why you prefer ice cream in this culture, rather than a pickle.

    I would love to know your answer to that question. I have my own thoughts and I would love to compare your thinking with mine.

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  16. Mark,
    But I am not aware of any other ways of engaging in the process of building a body of exosomatic knowledge than via more or less scientific methods

    We have a vast canon of literature, both prose and poetic. Is this not exosomatic knowledge built by via the recording of experience, imagination, intuitions and emotions? Or do we understand ‘exosomatic’ in different ways?

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  17. labnut,
    for now, let’s just note that the processes by which humans identify with their most deeply held beliefs, including metaphysical assumptions grounding them, is very complicated and difficult to bring forth to greater scrutiny; and it involves assuming the naturalness and inevitability of what are, after all, merely contingent and historical.

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  18. “We have a vast canon of literature, both prose and poetic. Is this not exosomatic knowledge built … via the recording of experience, imagination, intuitions and emotions?”

    I value this canon, and I agree that much knowledge is built into it. But I was thinking specifically of the deliberate, organized process of jointly building a body of knowledge which is stored and progressively added to, reviewed and modified, etc.. I don’t see literary works as being about knowledge-building in this sense. I think where you and I might really differ would be on the status of, say, much Christian theology (which *sees itself to be* part of a shared knowledge-building process in the sense I mean it).

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  19. Currently, we are witnessing a whirlwind of chaotic reorganizing of principle in the American political and social realm the likes of which we’ve not seen in a long time and which we probably have not yet come close to fully comprehending the nature of. And what is at the base of it is something very metaphysical in nature: a sudden tectonic shift in what is perceived as the value, reality, and nature and worthwhileness of truth.

    ============

    This seems pretty overwrought to me. And I doubt it’s true.

    Like

    • I suspect the “worthwhileness of truth” is being measured in money. If the facts are the same for everyone, the person who reports the most believable but provocative fake news has a competitive advantage. And there are probably lots of people trying to earn a living through internet news sites who don’t feel the same dedication to truth, since their first dedication is to feeding themselves and their families.

      In times of plenty we can afford to be virtuous and compassionate. In times of destitution its “every man for himself”. So, somehow we need to cure the destitution.

      Like

  20. Mark,
    But I was thinking specifically of the deliberate, organized process of jointly building a body of knowledge which is stored and progressively added to, reviewed and modified,

    It is clear that you and I mean different things by ‘exosomatic knowledge‘. You are drastically narrowing the definition of exosomatic knowledge. But is that narrowed, limited definition warranted, or is it on the contrary, harmful? Our capacity for imagination is a wonderful, precious gift. It allows us to conceive of a world that could be, or even might be. And being able to conceive of a world that could be we expand our horizons, we enrich our lives, but most importantly, we become enabled to realise a world that could be. Our imagination is the source of all our progress, all that is good and all that is beautiful. When we exercise our imagination we are not “jointly building a body of knowledge which is stored and progressively added to, reviewed and modified“, we are instead enriching and expanding our lives.

    Our imagination is most useful when we share it. To do that we encode it in tangible form and then it becomes exosomatic knowledge.

    By narrowing our definition of useful knowledge we are denying the most vital thing in our human experience.

    Why should we want to do that?

    To come back to the main subject. The strongest evidence for free will is our unlimited capacity for imagination together with the existence of consciousness. These two things make a complete nonsense of the claims that we lack free will.

    I think where you and I might really differ would be on the status of, say, much Christian theology

    I’m glad you could not resist smuggling in the subject of religion. I suspect that visceral animosity towards religion is the real reason for the advocacy of absence of free will. I have argued before that the only way to disprove the existence of God is to show that we lack free will.

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    • Loved your comment right up to the end when you said, “the only way to disprove the existence of God is to show that we lack free will.” Isn’t that inviting atheists to reject free will as an indirect attack on theism? Free will is a secular concept, distinguishing a decision we make for ourselves from a choice imposed upon us by someone else. Only the theists need to use it as a “get out of jail free card” for God.

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  21. EJ,
    the heart of your opposition to ID(using your term) seems to be this

    To date, no science has given us an adequate description of the physical processes leading to a decision to drive a car to work or take a bus instead. There is no modeling, of which I am aware, that depicts which electro-chemical process in the brain triggers such decisions, … Lacking such a precise description of the process, ID has no means of accounting for changes in the “programming” they claim we’re running. That is, it has no account for how we change our minds, or how we imagine and develop new ideas, or how reason can convince us or rhetoric persuade us.

    To this they would simply reply, give us time, science is advancing and we are, step by step, filling in all the gaps. We might not be able to explain it today but we will likely explain it tomorrow. That is the history of science and we cannot deny the logic of progress. Furthermore, they would add, we have never yet encountered an in principle barrier to the advance of science, within our universe. Are you not posing a modern God of the Gaps argument, they would ask?

    This is undeniable. What could you possibly say in reply?

    1) The only reasonable reply I can see is to scold them with the accusation that it is premature to make claims that are not proven. Science takes many unexpected turns so it is unwise to to forecast the results. I would add that making unproven claims degrades the standing of science in society, so it is a harmful practice. They should leave forecasting to economists and the horse racing industry 🙂

    2) You could also add that this is ideologically directed research with an agenda and that is the worst kind of research. Research should be open, questioning, curious, untouched by ideological agendas. You touched on that with your discussion of their political agenda. I think you are wrong about their agenda, by the way.

    They would then reply, that is all very well and good, but you have ignored our most potent argument, one which supplies the direction to our research. What is that you ask?

    The iron-clad chain of cause and effect, they would reply. Causal determinism permeates everything in the universe. All of science is a confirmation of this. Never once, anywhere, have we found that the chain of casual determinism has or can be broken. And yet free will requires that the mind can interrupt the chain of casual determinism. You are asking us to believe that the mind can do something that has never been observed under any conditions anywhere else. And you are asking us to believe this without being able to give even the hint of any possible explanation(other then elaborate hand-waving compatibilistic arguments)!!!

    This is a most powerful claim that is exceedingly hard to answer.

    To all of this I would reply:

    1) We are undeniably conscious.
    2) Consciousness is an extraordinary evolutionary development that is very costly in terms of resources and energy.
    3) It must therefore perform a vital function.
    4) Consciousness has no possible purpose and function unless we can exercise free will.
    5) Free will greatly expands our capacity to adapt to the environment, making it a most substantial advantage.
    6) Therefore, since we are conscious, free will must exist, even if it is heavily constrained or directed by circumstances.

    The alternative is incoherent. Let me explain by example. Try imagining an Uber cab driver in a self driving Uber cab that lacks controls of any kind. The conscious cab driver cannot direct the cab. So what is the point of a conscious cab driver? OK, so Uber do a very clever thing, they use a force field that gives the cab driver’s mind the illusion that he is controlling the cab. But what is the point of creating such a powerful and realistic illusion? Why would the designers waste so much resources on an illusion when it cannot possible have any practical effect?

    Now we have a different kind of question. Instead of asking how it is that incompatibilistic determinism can create humankind’s great works of imagination we should be asking the question, how does our mind interrupt the chain of causal determinism? Science needs to open its mind(!) by not rejecting the possibility but instead researching the possibility.

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    • “Oh! Oh!”, said the compatibilist in the back, elaborately waving his hand…

      I love your point: why would evolution give us the illusion of free will if it had no real effect?

      But I would also like to address your question to science: “how does our mind interrupt the chain of causal determinism?”

      It doesn’t. The mind is a control link, a switch that chooses what happens next. It imagines a collection of subsequent links, and selects the one that best suits its own purpose and satisfies its own reasons. The body carries out the mind’s choice and that continues the chain of causation.

      Now, if we could all turn to hymn 347, “May the Chain of Causation Be Unbroken” …

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  22. Marvin,
    Isn’t that inviting atheists to reject free will as an indirect attack on theism?

    That is happening already. It is part and parcel of the agenda for the attack on free will.

    Only the theists need to use it as a “get out of jail free card” for God.

    I’m not sure what you mean by that?

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    • In theory, since God is omnipotent and omniscient, he is the responsible cause of all the good and evil in the world. Having Eve and Adam choose to disobey him of their own free will supposedly shifts responsibility to them. Thus any punishment due for the evil in the world falls on man rather than the Almighty. So God, supposedly, gets off the hook. (I think Augustine or somebody back then came up with this).

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  23. Hi Marvin, just to be clear I am supportive of the political agenda of reforming the justice system. So I am glad there are philosophers like Greg Carusp trying to build the best case possible. I’m just doubtful, like you, their approach is as useful (or valid).

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Hi Stolzy, just to disentangle some issues:

    I wasn’t going off on all metaphysics, just the subject of free will. So when I was complaining about metaphysicians it was only in that regard.

    Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean anyone else has to *not* like it. That said, I’m still not sure what use you’re going to get out of it, beyond…

    “If we morally move away from this on the basis of a thinly justified infatuation with a reductionist fervor to project determinist physics onto neurology, language, psychology, and basically any polluted humanity we can come up with, then we will be severely the worse for it. We do not and will not overcome these silly and dangerous intellectual tendencies without a healthy dose of extending our explorations into metaphysical subject matter.”

    Basically this is why I said the metaphysicians keep pulling me back. If we didn’t have people trying to shape the justice system (and our view of human activity) based on flawed metaphysical positions, I wouldn’t have to discuss it. But we do and so I have (writing at least three essays so far, between Massimo’s site and here at EA).

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  25. Hi Mark, I sort of disagree with you on this…

    “… I am not aware of any other ways of engaging in the process of building a body of exosomatic knowledge than via more or less scientific methods…”

    As soon as you say more or less, you are admitting other (non-scientific) methods are valid. Like science is not science. For example, learning to get dressed in the morning and understanding the ins and outs of fashion (or dress codes) will be empirical, but science is more than just empirical. There is a level of evidentiary rigor and testing that most people don’t use or need, and still build knowledge.

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  26. Hi Marvin,
    sorry to be blunt but that is a hopelessly primitive argument that completely misses the mark. To begin with, the Genesis creation account is an aetiological narrative intended for early pastoral peoples, and not a literal narrative. I could go on but that requires a lengthy post and in any case this takes us far from the topic. Another time and another place.

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  27. labnut

    You are making all sorts of leaps in your reply to my reply as well as claims about motivations (visceral animosities and so on). I won’t try to deal with everything here. In my original comment, I was arguing for a narrower and more focussed definition of scientism than was employed in the OP. A too-broad definition leads to (at least the perception of) *anti-science-ism*, as I see it. I wanted to say that science, maths and historically-oriented scholarship *are* in fact the only ways to build, step by (usually) boring step, a certain kind of knowledge. Where does philosophy fit in? There is no simple answer. But just because you may not want to put it in the same category as science and historical scholarship – i.e. not see it as being primarily in the business of this kind of knowledge-building – does not necessarily mean that you devalue it.

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  28. dbholmes

    “… learning to get dressed in the morning and understanding the ins and outs of fashion (or dress codes) will be empirical, but science is more than just empirical. There is a level of evidentiary rigor and testing that most people don’t use or need, and still build knowledge.”

    I talked about building a body of exosomatic (stored outside the body, in libraries and so on) knowledge, and I was thinking of science and certain kinds of scholarship. I elaborated in my first reply to labnut: “… I was thinking specifically of the deliberate, organized process of *jointly* building a body of knowledge which is stored and progressively added to, reviewed and modified, etc..”

    I explicitly said that much of our knowledge is not in this category.

    (See also my second reply to labnut.)

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  29. Hi Mark,
    I agree with you that EJ made an overly strong claim for the nature of scientism when he said

    … those advocating “scientism,” the position that only the sciences can produce any knowledge of the world

    But then you made a similarly strong claim when you said:

    But I am not aware of any other ways of engaging in the process of building a body of exosomatic knowledge than via more or less scientific methods

    The only difference being that EJ said “any knowledge” while you limited it to “exosomatic knowledge”. That is hardly a difference.

    In your penultimate comment you went on to qualify your statement by saying

    I wanted to say that science, maths and historically-oriented scholarship *are* in fact the only ways to build, step by (usually) boring step, a certain kind of knowledge.

    Here you have heavily qualified your original claim by talking about “a certain kind of knowledge” and not “exosomatic knowledge“. I think we can all agree on your last statement, provided we understand what “a certain kind of knowledge” means, but that really is not scientism.

    You concluded by saying:

    I explicitly said that much of our knowledge is not in this category.

    And of course I agree with that, but this statement is a long way from your first claim, which provoked the dissent. I would have been happier if you had instead said that “much of our worthwhile knowledge is not in this category.”

    That is the heart of the matter when talking about scientism.

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  30. The really interesting question is this – how can we possibly create knowledge if we lack free will? Let’s take Shakespeare’s love sonnet 116 as an example of creative knowledge(Let me not to the marriage of true minds). If it was not the result of creative free will then one of the following must hold:

    1) it was the result of randomness. But the monkey at a typewriter theory is no longer seriously entertained.
    2) it was embedded in the prior arrangement of particles and fields. If that was the case we would produce far more nonsense than knowledge.
    3) it is the natural outcome of the expression of the laws of nature. In that case knowledge should naturally occur. But it does not. An even bigger objection is that our science has failed to reveal the slightest inkling of an idea of how the laws of nature would produce such a result. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 is not encoded in the laws of nature.
    4) it is the natural outcome of the laws of nature working through the mechanism known as evolution. But evolution has produced 8.7 million eukaryotic species. Only one in 8.7 million can create knowledge and we cannot trace that knowledge back to evolution, so it hardly looks like the natural outcome of the laws of nature expressed through evolution.
    5) it is the result of strong emergence. The problem with that statement is that ‘strong emergence’ is not an explanation but a label used to conceal our ignorance of the mechanism. It is as much hand-waving as is compatibilism.

    If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and looks like a duck then we might as well call it a duck. It is time we discarded our ideological aversions and recognise that creative free will is a real part of our nature.

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    • Nicely worded, and I would agree that “creative free will” is a real part of our nature. But our nature is part of Nature. I would disagree that we are the only species that possesses intelligence and knowledge. Not all knowledge is verbal. Knowledge is socially acquired in many other species, where the young are raised by a parent and taught how to get along in their environment, before they set out on their own. And porpoises even appear to have a working language. So we shouldn’t be too quick to discount intelligence in other creatures.

      Any species with sufficient intelligence to consider more than one option, imagine the outcomes of each choice, and choose what it will do next, is exercising a mental process of deliberation, and thus has free will.

      Liked by 1 person

  31. EJ,
    you said:
    our actions become habitually perceived as voluntaristic, and this perception receives strong cultural re-enforcement.”

    I questioned this, maintaining that the experience of exercising free will was the simple explanation for our belief in free will and that therefore culture reflects our belief in free will.

    You maintained that habit and cultural re-inforcement were responsible for our perception of free will.

    I question that once again. I might be wrong here, but it almost seems as if you are reluctant to admit the existence of free will(why?) and therefore discount the widespread perception of free will by maintaining it is habitual and cultural. But on what grounds?

    You go on to say in reply

    education begins at birth, our social experiences begin with our parents – or those others we are surrounded with in our post-birth environment.

    That is undeniable, but what has that to do with the belief in free will? Do you really believe that we set out to inculcate in our infants a belief in free will? Far from it. We consciously work to make them compliant to our will and are usually quite distressed when they discover a will at cross-purposes to our own.

    An infant, soon after birth, discovers needs, and instinctively calls attention to them in a variety of ways that we parents find quite distressing.

    Their mind develops and then they discover voluntaristic agency, which is the next step after instinctive reaction to needs. They set out, in a variety of ways, to manipulate us to care for their needs. They are no longer the docile, compliant creatures that we need them to be. As their sense of agency develops and is rewarded by their ability to manipulate their parents, they turn it towards exploration of the home, their environment, their society and their pleasures. They become rambunctious, disruptive, daring and uncompliant.

    We poor parents are bamboozled, perplexed and gobsmacked by this seemingly uncontrollable force that is unleashed in our darling little creatures. This sets the stage for a decades long competition between the will of the parent and the will of the child. This competition of wills often has unfortunate consequences. If you are fortunate it is finally resolved when one day you discover your daughter is your best friend, as I have. That happens when the parent finally accepts and respects the agency of the child, in toto. But that takes a long time and some parents never reach that stage, hence the irreconcilable gulf between them and their children.

    So no, belief in free will is decidedly not the result of habituation and cultural reinforcement. It is an irrepressible inner force that expresses itself despite the powerful parental and societal forces working against it. Even Mao and Stalin could not repress voluntaristic agency(or whatever code you use for the term free will).

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  32. Marvin,
    I would disagree that we are the only species that possesses intelligence and knowledge

    But I never made that claim!

    So we shouldn’t be too quick to discount intelligence in other creatures.

    That was also not done!

    Any species with sufficient intelligence to consider more than one option, imagine the outcomes of each choice, and choose what it will do next, is exercising a mental process of deliberation, and thus has free will.

    Agreed, with some qualifications. But that is not ‘creative free will‘. Note the adjective. I gave an example of creative free will by referring to Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, ‘Let me not to the love of true minds’. Creative free will is evidenced by the exercise of the imagination to create new knowledge. And we alone, of all species, can do this. We are completely unable to account for this ability in evolutionary terms. We cannot show that it is the natural and inevitable outcome of evolution.

    But our nature is part of Nature

    Yes, we are part of nature and therefore everything we do is, by definition, natural. The implication is that everything works according to the laws of nature. The laws of nature are based on casual determinism so therefore our lives are dictated by casual determinism and therefore we lack free will, or so it is claimed.

    But the evidence overwhelmingly shows we possess free will despite the universal applicability of the laws of nature with their inevitable concomitant, casual determinism. This seems to be an irreconcilable contradiction. How can that be possible? We simply don’t know. In the absence of an explanation we respond according to our ideological priors. As a Catholic I believe that consciousness is a property of God that we share with God. David Chalmers believes that consciousness is a property of the Universe. An eliminative materialist will deny the existence of free will as being an illusion. The ordinary person will intuitively believe in free will while believing in the inevitability of the laws of nature, believing that two contradictory ideas are compatible with each other. Such a person is a compatibilist. But this ordinary, everyday compatibilism is a belief and not an explanation, just as my theism is a belief and not an explanation. We still lack an explanation.

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    • Lab: “The laws of nature are based on casual determinism so therefore our lives are dictated by casual determinism and therefore we lack free will, or so it is claimed.”

      Let me see if I can’t re-sort that for you. (a) Causal determinism is based upon the reliable behavior of natural objects and forces. (b)So therefore our lives dictate what is causally determined.

      What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

      And that is not a meaningful constraint. It’s just us being us.

      Reliable causation is the blood running through our veins and the thoughts and feelings running through our brains.

      In Nature we present as (1) physical objects, subject to gravity and other physical forces, (2) living organisms, animated to find in our environment the means of our survival, even climbing up trees and walking up hills despite the force of gravity, (3) intelligent species, imagining possibilities, evaluating options, and deliberately choosing what we will do next according to our own purpose and our own reasons (free will).

      None of this happens outside of reliable causation.

      None of this CAN happen without our ability to reliably cause effects!

      Lab: “But the evidence overwhelmingly shows we possess free will despite the universal applicability of the laws of nature with their inevitable concomitant, casual determinism.”

      So the evidence supports us having free will and causal determinism.

      Lab: “This seems to be an irreconcilable contradiction.”

      Apparently not. Therefore the contradiction itself must be the illusion.

      I believe the illusion comes from our human tendency to assign agency to concepts (Bible: love chapter, Science: evolution).

      When we say that “our lives are dictated by causal determinism” we are anthropomorphizing determinism, imagining that it is some being that controls us against our natural will.

      But determinism doesn’t cause anything. For that matter, reliable causation doesn’t cause anything. And causal inevitability doesn’t cause anything either.

      Only objects and forces can actually cause stuff. And we happen to be one of those objects. And the nature of this object that is you or me is that we come with a built-in “biological will” to survive, thrive, and reproduce plus an intelligence that can imagine, evaluate, and deliberately choose what we will do (deliberate will).

      Lab: “How can that be possible? We simply don’t know.”

      We don’t know why anything at all should exist. But here we are and there it is.

      “Free will” is what we call it when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. The fact that our will is causally determined by our own purpose and our own reasons should not bother us. Why would we choose anything other than what we have chosen?

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  33. Hi Mark, I probably shouldn’t have been so glib with my examples. When you said exosomatic, I assumed you mean outside one’s own body and so that would include passing information on verbally (as much of history was preserved until writing). So things like learning to get dressed in the morning is usually a taught custom. The ins and outs of fashion I did consider written down as well as gained through social interaction.

    Anyway, let me be less glib. Knowledge involved with many trades (farming, plumbing, tailoring, construction, etc), arts (painting, music, moviemaking, etc), and sports (you get the idea) has been built and preserved without requiring scientific methods. It is possible to approach any of those with scientific methods, but I’d argue there is plenty of valuable knowledge about all of them without going there. Empirical, yes; scientific, no. And I did consider philosophy to contain some level of knowledge building, without being science.

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  34. Hi Labnut, while forcefully argued, and well written, I am with you up until you jump to religious reasoning.

    “The problem with that statement is that ‘strong emergence’ is not an explanation but a label used to conceal our ignorance of the mechanism. It is as much hand-waving as is compatibilism.”

    I disagree with your position on emergence and compatibilism. Neither requires or involves hand-waving. Some (depending on the subject) involves a lack of complete knowledge regarding mechanisms, but so what? Science as a project is based on the whole idea that there are more mechanisms of which we are not certain and would like to discover.

    And I’m not sure how invoking religion gets one past “ignorance of mechanism” or “hand-waving.”

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  35. DB,
    [strong] emergence and [ordinary] compatibilism. Neither requires or involves hand-waving. Some (depending on the subject) involves a lack of complete knowledge regarding mechanisms,

    In neither case have I seen any satisfactory explanation. It is merely a label obfuscated with many words. Remember that I used the term strong emergence. Of course if you wish to show me that good, rigorous explanations are available I will be glad to listen.

    And I’m not sure how invoking religion gets one past “ignorance of mechanism” or “hand-waving.”

    Did I make that claim? It is good practice to quote actual words when disputing a statement.

    until you jump to religious reasoning.

    Did I use religious reasoning? See my words above about quoting.

    Here are my words:

    As a Catholic I believe that consciousness is a property of God that we share with God. David Chalmers believes that consciousness is a property of the Universe. An eliminative materialist will deny the existence of free will as being an illusion. The ordinary person will intuitively believe in free will while believing in the inevitability of the laws of nature, believing that two contradictory ideas are compatible with each other. Such a person is a compatibilist. But this ordinary, everyday compatibilism is a belief and not an explanation, just as my theism is a belief and not an explanation. We still lack an explanation.

    You will see that I listed some forms of belief lacking explanation, that of myself, Chalmers, materialists and ordinary people. And I explicitly noted that beliefs are not explanations!! That cannot be called religious reasoning nor does it in any way claim that “religion gets one past “ignorance of mechanism” or “hand-waving.”“.

    You are plainly attributing something to me that I did not say. Which is why it is a good idea to quote your interlocutor’s words when you wish to object to a statement he makes. It helps to avoid the kind of mistake you made.

    I made a plain statement of fact that is entirely unexceptional(by enumerating certain forms of belief that lack explanation). So why take exception, unless of course the mere mention of religion is undesirable and should be rebuked. Is that the case?

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  36. Hi Labnut, fair enough, I guess, but…

    “The ordinary person will intuitively believe in free will while believing in the inevitability of the laws of nature, believing that two contradictory ideas are compatible with each other. Such a person is a compatibilist. But this ordinary, everyday compatibilism is a belief and not an explanation… You will see that I listed some forms of belief lacking explanation, that of myself, Chalmers, materialists and ordinary people…”

    Except I *am* a compatibilist and don’t hold what you just said. And neither do most compatibilists I know. So…

    “You are plainly attributing something to me that I did not say. Which is why it is a good idea to quote your interlocutor’s words when you wish to object to a statement he makes. It helps to avoid the kind of mistake you made…”

    I was reacting to a misattribution by you regarding emergent properties and compatibilism. Though I guess I don’t know how you define strong emergence from emergence, or if you require that to be part of compatibilism?

    As for an explanation, I’m not sure how hard emergence is to understand. At a certain level of complexity of a system, parts of a system can be treated as acting holistically (as entities themselves) which interact according to a different set of rules than those of the original, lower level system. A common example is the difference between classical and statistical thermodynamics. There is no extra explanation” or “mechanisms” needed. When consistent patterns emerge they can be considered holistically.

    Same for compatibilism. There are no extra explanations or mechanisms needed to “join” or “bridge” free will (agency) with causation. But I and Marvin have already described it in this and prior threads (going back to So’s recent essay).

    In any case, sorry for attributing something incorrectly to your statements/position.

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