Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Spinoza

Those who wish to seek out the cause of miracles, and to understand the things of nature as philosophers, and not to stare at them in astonishment like fools, are soon considered heretical and impious, and proclaimed as such by those whom the mob adores as the interpreters of nature and the gods. For these men know that, once ignorance is put aside, that wonderment would be taken away, which is the only means by which their authority is preserved.

- Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (1677)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Free Will: The Compatibilist Alternative

To this point most of my posts on free will have centered on the two extremes of the debate, libertarianism and determinism. But there is a middle way that has often been proposed, namely compatibilism, which will be very appealing if it can preserve what we know about the causal structure of the world as well as the elements of a theory of free will we desire. Over at The Stone Eddy Nahmias (who I have never heard of) has offered the framework of an account of a compatibilist alternative to the problem of free will and determinism. He argues that the apparent problem of reconciling free will with physical determinism is at least in part attributable to the use of a bad account of what free will is. Once this bad definition is replaced by a better one, we can see that free will, while still unexplained in detail by neuroscience, is much less of a philosophical puzzle than it appears.

Cause for celebration, amirite? Get it? Celebration?

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale

 This is one of the best beers in the universe.

Appearance-- Beautiful deep coppery color. Full head and nice lacing on the glass.

Smell-- Crisp hoppy aroma, very nice.

Taste-- Delicious, complex. Strong hop flavor. Not exactly balanced, but enough malt character to hold the thing together.

Mouthfeel-- Light, smooth.

Overall-- Fantastic beer. One of my favorites.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Happy Birthday, Carl Sagan

If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.
--Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Hume on Freedom of the Will

Hume recognized that any account of free will has to be made compatible with our knowledge of the causal operations of the world around us. Given that his Treatise is an attempt to detail a "science of man" we should expect that Hume's explanation of human freedom to fit within his naturalistic and empiricist philosophy of nature. This is, in fact, exactly what we get. Hume puts his theory of the will within his general casual account and in doing so offers an interesting solution (or rather, dissolution) to the problem of the compatibility of free will and determinism.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Leibniz on Freedom of the Will

Leibniz had a strange belief that the essence of a substance ("monad" in his terms) contains everything that will ever happen to it. Every event that is going to occur during a substance's existence follows necessarily from its essence. Since people are substances, it's pretty obvious that this conflicts with freedom of the will, but Leibniz claims that the two doctrines can be reconciled. His concern was not the metaphysical determinism that modern compatibilists might seek to reconcile freedom with; instead Leibniz was attempting to absolve God of responsibility for the evils and sins committed by individual agents. But there are still a couple of interesting elements in Leibniz's account of freedom that make it potentially relevant to modern discussions.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Locke on Freedom of the Will

Locke defines liberty as the ability to act or refrain from action according to the will. The will, for Locke is our capacity to “order the consideration of any Idea” or the ability to “prefer the motion of any body to its rest.” The will is a faculty of the mind, not an independent agent, and we should take care not to mistake faculties for agents, or we'll fall into confusion. Only beings capable of thought or volition can rightly be said to possess liberty. Liberty is not possible for inanimate objects. A tennis ball, for example, is not taken by anyone to be an agent with volition; we do not attribute its motion or rest to its acting according to choice.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Choose

The arguments for determinism are fairly straightforward, and unlike a lot of philosophical speculation can be formulated in relatively easy to understand terms. Sam Harris has a series of posts in which he outlines, in pretty accessible terms, the basic structure of the argument for determinism. In what follows here I'll discuss some of the interesting features that Harris brings out of the arguments for determinism, and take a careful look at some of his claims about the relation of the free will problem to moral philosophy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Descartes on Freedom of the Will

In his Principles of Philosophy Descartes claims that the freedom of the will is one of the “common notions that are innate within us” and therefore does not need to be defended with argument. But as obvious as the notion of freedom of the will is the notion that God has pre-ordained all things, including our own actions. Descartes offers only our imperfect epistemic state as an attempt to reconcile these two incompatible truths. We are not in a position to understand how the two are compatible, but instead must simply assent to both propositions as known (CSM I 205-6). In his response to Hobbes' objections to the Meditations Descartes claims that the freedom of the will is “very evident by the natural light” (CSM II 133-4).

So Descartes will likely not be a place to find a full answer to the modern problem of free will and determinism, since he simply asserts compatibilism without arguing for it. But this idea that God causes everything is a form of determinism and it fits uncomfortably with the idea that we are responsible for our errors in judgment. So his versionof free will is in fact a version of compatibilism. Descartes also, despite his dualism, sought to provide an account of the relationship between the free mind and the deterministic world, of which the body is a part.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Or Not Do In Some Relevantly Similar Possible World

As I discussed in the first post on the free will topic, the idea that we are free seems obviously true. This is the intuitive position on the free will debate, or what we can refer to as the received view or the common sense view: we have free will. It is essentially the default position, one for which mountains of introspective evidence can be assembled.

But what is exactly meant when we say that we are free? According to just about any doctrine of free will, when I make a decision a few different things have to obtain in order for us to call the decision free. First, it must be possible for me to have done otherwise. At the moment of decision, it must be the case that given a list of possible choices, it is in a real sense undetermined which action I will select. Second, I (as an independent agent) am the cause of the action that I undertake. The decision I make is the result of my deliberation and my desires. Third, I am responsible for my decision. This follows from the conjunction of the two other, but is important enough to emphasize separately. In what follows I'll briefly sketch what is entailed by each of these components of free decisions, why we think it's important, and touch on some of the reasons for the belief that each of components really does obtain when we make decisions.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Kitcher's "Living With Darwin"

Philosopher Philip Kitcher's excellent little book Living With Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith seeks to answer two clusters of questions surrounding the opposition to Darwinism found in the Intelligent Design (ID) and Creationist movements. First, how is it possible to argue against Darwin, given scientific consensus? What are the strategies employed by critics of Darwin and how do those strategies fare? Second, why does Darwinism provoke such antipathy and recoil in the first place?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cowboy Music for the End of the World

The real people went away.

Apocalypse starts with these words--an unaccompanied voice, half spoken, half sung-- and initiates the seven song tangle of themes of isolation, artistic creation, temporality, and cataclysm that Bill Callahan's new album seeks to make sense of. As the album progresses the notion of apocalypse becomes more personalized and more closely related to artistic production, eventually culminating in Callahan's apocalypse being the album, Apocalypse, itself.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Problem of Free Will (what's the problem again?)

Are we the authors of our own actions? Do we have free will? Whether this question can be answered in the affirmative has far reaching consequences for moral theory, political discourse, and even our interpersonal relationships.

At first glance it seems like a textbook example of a question so stupid only a philosopher could ask it. Of course we are free. We experience our free choice all the time, in big and small decisions. We decide what to have for breakfast, what to wear, what careers to pursue, who to marry, and a whole host of other things. What could be more obvious than that we have free will? It turns out, though, that when you look closely at the idea of free will, especially in light of our ideas about causation, the question isn't nearly as stupid as it looks.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Of Elephants and Tortoises: Locke on Substance

There is an apparent tension in Locke’s Essay regarding the idea of substance. On the one hand, Locke spends a great deal of time discussing the origin of this idea and detailing how it fits into his overall taxonomy of our ideas. On the other hand he seems at times to dismiss the idea as having little utility, even to the point of ridiculing it at times. I think the tension is the result of Locke’s attempting to reconcile the idea of substance with his "corpuscularian" view of how bodies are constructed, which leads him in the end to substitute the notion of real (or hidden inner) constitution and real essence for the substance/accident model of Scholasticism.

Friday, August 12, 2011

It's Extra? Special? Bitter? Sign me up!

Fuller's ESB

Appearance- Nice coppery color. Two fingers or so of foam subsided fairly quickly but nice lacing.

Smell- Very nice. Biscuity aroma with some subtle spicy or floral notes.

Taste- Very good. Full flavor of malty sweetness up front with a really nice hop bite on the back end.

Mouthfeel- Nice again. Creamy, but not heavy. Smooth.

Given the relative ubiquity of this beer it's weird that I hadn't tried it until recently, but I'm glad I did. Despite having "bitter" in the title, this is actually not a bitter beer at all. It's smooth and balanced and very, very good.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

How seriously should we take Hume's skepticism?

The Treatise of Human Nature has given David Hume a reputation for being the arch-skeptic. After beginning his work with the goal of detailing a "science of man" he proceeds through the argument to undercut our confidence in the reliability of the senses, the objectivity of our notions of space and time, the reality of causal laws, and the rationality of our beliefs. By the end of Book I, he seems to have devastated human knowledge and beliefs, leaving us with the mere shell of skepticism. But then, paradoxically, he proceeds to write two more books in the Treatise as well as many other works in which these considerations appear to be largely ignored. So the question becomes: how seriously should we take Hume's skepticism?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Is "Transcendental" another word for "Terrible"?

The impossibly-aptly-named theologian Matt Slick has an argument he calls the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God (TAG). The really short version of this is: Logic, therefore God. The argument suffers from a couple of fatal flaws. First, his characterization of logical absolutes leads him to seek a cause or a source where one isn't really necessary. Second, even if we accept his characterization of logical principles, his argument doesn't  really prove what he thinks it can prove.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The "Critique of Pure Reason" in 10 words or less

Kant’s slogan “[t]houghts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” is the core idea of the Critique. By unpacking this ten word phrase we can outline all the key ideas necessary to understanding his whole critical project. The slogan indicates what components Kant thinks are necessary in order to have a cognition that leads to knowledge while setting limits on the scope of what we can claim to know. It also serves as a summary of Kant’s critique of both the Rationalist and Empiricist traditions and provides the foundation for his own philosophy of Transcendental Idealism.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The (Not So) Thin Line Between Sinner and Saint

I've just finished Christopher Hitchens's little polemic against Mother Theresa, The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice, and let's just say that the old bird doesn't come out too well. Hitchens's main charges against her can be grouped into three broad categories:
  • Despite being ostensibly apolitical, Mother Theresa consistently associated herself with right wing causes and despotic leaders throughout the world. She stumped against abortion at every opportunity, calling it a "threat to peace." She supported the Duvaliers in Haiti, she backed the right wing contras in Nicaragua. She associated with Reagan and Thatcher.
  • She accepted large sums of money as donations from corrupt businessmen. For instance, she accepted over a million dollars from Charles Keating, who was a prominent (and convicted) player in the Savings and Loan scandals in the 1980s. Then, when he was brought up on charges, she didn't give back the money so that it could be returned to the people Keating had swindled; instead she wrote a letter on his behalf to the judge presiding over the case.
  • Her real mission was never to help the poor and sick improve their lot; instead her true goal was the furtherance of her own preferred version of austere Catholicism, in which suffering was viewed as something that has intrinsic value instead of something that should be avoided or mitigated as far as possible. To aid in this point, Hitchens marshals testimony from medical professionals who had visited the Missionaries of Charity home for the dying in India, who nearly unanimously decried the unacceptable conditions under which people were receiving treatment.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Your tuning fork is off pitch, Francis.

If you're a scientist who wants to show that science and faith are compatible and that the deep mysteries of physics or biology point to the existence of a creator in order to be adequately explained, then getting the endorsement of Richard Dawkins is basically a rhetorical homerun. And, apparently, Francis Collins has done just that. He claims, and we have no real reason to doubt him, that Richard Dawkins admitted in a private conversation that the argument for the existence of God based on the "fine tuning" of the universe is "the most troubling argument for nonbelievers to counter."

And why wouldn't it be?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Everything he touched turned into terrible, terrible beer

Dogfish Head Midas Touch, some kind of spiced ale.

This thing is made from King Midas's toenails or something. Here's the story according to the brewery:
This recipe is the actual oldest-known fermented beverage in the world! It is an ancient Turkish recipe using the original ingredients from the 2700 year old drinking vessels discovered in the tomb of King Midas. Somewhere between wine & mead; this smooth, sweet, yet dry ale will please the Chardonnay of beer drinker alike.
Well, ok. Let's see.

Appearance- Nothing special on the pour. Decent golden color, some foam, not much retention.

Smell- Spicy, but not in a good way. More like pungent. Grape smell dominates. I don't think this beer is for me.

Taste- Putrid. Really very bad. The grape flavor dominates, and to me it tastes more like fake grape flavoring.

Mouthfeel- OK mouthfeel, fairly smooth, but nothing special.

This beer probably seemed like a good idea, but I thought it was really awful. I couldn't even finish it. Glad I just bought a single.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

McCarthy, Metaphysics, and the Moral Structure of the World

Cormac McCarthy is a philosophical novelist, even if he might not apply such a label to himself. He combines a subtle portrayal of the complexities of human nature and moral judgments with metaphysical ruminations on the deep structure of the world. He does this without explicitly invoking philosophers or having his characters engage in much lofty dialogue. His characters, with few exceptions, do not contemplate deep questions. And yet, those deep questions pervade his works and form the logical structure under which events unfold in his narratives.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

You Die and then You're Dead and Here's an Equation to Prove It

Physicist Sean M. Carroll has a recent interesting post at the Scientific American arguing that what we know about the operations of our minds makes it extremely improbable that life after death is possible. His argument is a simple one: we know that mental faculties are the product of physical interactions in the brain, so my accepting the idea that some nonphysical thing (a soul) that is "me" in any relevant sense could outlast the demise of the body would require me to reject much of what we know about physics. Dualism is false and the proposition that the soul is immortal depends on dualism, so immortality is false.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Inadequacy of Traditional Supports For Faith

In my discussion of the problem of reconciling faith with reason and empirical evidence, I set aside the issue of alternate means of support for claims of faith. In what follows I will try to analyze a cluster of related problems regarding other potential supports for faith, problems which give us reason to doubt faith can provide an alternate route to justified beliefs. The three main sources of justification that are often put forward as grounding faith claims are authority, tradition, and revelation. I'll tackle these in turn.

Dortmunder? I hardly know her!

Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, bottle poured into a pint glass

Appearance: Nice golden color, two fingers of foam. Good lacing down the glass as I drank.

Smell: Very subtle. A little bit of citrus.

Taste: Excellent. A little bit biscuity, but with a nice hop crispness and a smooth, sweetish finish. Very complex for a lager.

Mouthfeel: Light and creamy, not heavy at all.

Overall: This is my favorite beer by Great Lakes. Really very good.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Is Faith a Virtue?

The epistemic status of faith is problematic on the face of it—to believe a proposition on faith is to believe without relying on either empirical evidence or the endorsement of reason. This much seems uncontroversial, for if reason or evidence were available to support the belief faith would be redundant. When someone claims to belief in something "on faith" they are bypassing reason and empirical evidence and asserting that they are justified in doing so. The issue I'd like to address here is twofold. One, can faith be reconciled with the demands of reason and empirical evidence? Two, if it cannot, then is faith a responsible way to form beliefs?

One way to answer this question is to say "No" to the first part and to simply assert that the dictates of faith outweigh the dictates of reason and evidence. This is the stance taken by those who claim that the world is around 6000 years, evidence of geology be damned. I'm not going to address this position here. Let it suffice to say that if you're uninterested in acknowledging that claims of faith need to be reconciled with what we know about the world, the rest of this post is not for you.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Happy birthday, David Hume

The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer: as perhaps the most perfect philosophy of the moral or metaphysical kind serves only to discover larger portions of it. Thus the observation of human blindness and weakness is the result of all philosophy, and meets us at every turn, in spite of our endeavours to elude or avoid it.
From An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What's wrong with the Ontological Argument?

The Ontological Argument is a strange little argument that rears its head periodically in the history of philosophy.

One traditional version goes like this:

P1. God is the maximally perfect being (possesses every perfection).
P2. Existence is a perfection
C. Therefore, God exists

Descartes' version of the Ontological Argument

For Descartes, anything that is perceived clearly and distinctly must be true. Therefore, when we know the essence of some idea, we have a clear and distinct idea of what that idea necessarily contains. In this ability to see as true or real any idea of a property contained in the essence of an idea Descartes sees another avenue for the demonstration of God’s existence.He claims to see clearly and distinctly that it is in the nature of God that he always exists. It is clear, he says, when he pays careful attention to the idea of God that God’s existence cannot be separated from his essence, any more than having three angles is separable from the idea of a triangle (CSM II 45-6). With this simple argument Descartes takes himself to have demonstrated the necessary existence of God.

Descartes anticipates an obvious objection: the fact that a property is part of the essence of an idea and cannot be separated from it doesn’t mean that entity that the idea represents actually exists.  Descartes responds that because the property in question contained in the essence of God is his existence, it does in fact entail his real existence.  It is not the thought or the definition that makes God necessary, rather it is his necessary existence that produces the necessity we clearly perceive in the idea of God. Descartes claims we are simply not free to think of God as not existing, for this would be to think of a supremely perfect being without a perfection (CSM II 46). He adds (without argument) that it is only in the case of God that existence is contained in the essence, so this argument could not be used to demonstrate the existence of anything else (CSM II 47).

One problem with this is the so-called "Cartesian Circle" in which Descartes may have employed a vicious circle in his defense of the veracity of clear and distinct ideas. According to some interpreters, Descartes needed the existence of God to provide the foundation for the reliability of clear and distinct ideas, which he then employed in his proof of the existence of God. Thus a vicious circle. This interpretation is contested, however (see here for more details). But even if we set that problem aside as unresolved there are major problems with this argument.

The notion that existence is a property contained in the essence of the idea of God is problematic. If Descartes means existence is a necessary condition (as part of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions) of being God, then the claim is uncontroversial but extremely uninformative. Also, the idea of God doesn't contain existence in any special way on this construal. In this sense existence is also a necessary condition of being a hammer (i.e., if something does not exist, then it isn't a hammer). But we can't infer anything at all about whether there actually are any hammers on the basis of this definition.

Alternatively Descartes could mean that there is a real metaphysical entity that is God's actual essence (like a Platonic form, perhaps), of which existence is a property in a way that existence is not a property of other real essences. Setting aside the profligate multiplication of entities this sort of metaphysics requires, Descartes gives us no reason for thinking that the essence of God is necessarily unique in this regard. Rather he repeatedly simply asserts that it is only the essence of the idea of God that has this necessary connection to existence; all other existences are contingent.

Ultimately, I think the only way to construe Descartes' argument without attributing a non sequitor to him is to read it as an argument for the psychological certainty that God exists. Unfortunately for Descartes, this means that he proves much less than he intended. The psychological version would go roughly like this:
  1. We are psychologically unable to doubt the veracity of clear and distinct ideas 
  2. We see clearly and distinctly that the essence of the idea of God contains existence as a property
  3. We are unable to doubt that God's existence is entailed by the idea of God
  4. We unable to doubt God exists
Of course, this argument merely points at a failure of human imagination rather than entailing anything at all about the existence or nonexistence of God.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Descartes' Argument from Personal Existence

Is it possible for me to exist if God does not? For Descartes, given that our existence is indubitable (I think, therefore I am), a negative answer to this question would serve as a demonstration that God's existence follows as a logical certainty from the indubitable proposition that I exist. In the Third Meditation Descartes seeks to establish the existence of God through just such an argument. He places the existence of God among three possible alternative causes for his existence: himself, his parents, or some other confluence of causes less perfect than God (CSM II 32-3).

Descartes surveys the other possible sources of his existence, dismissing each in turn.

First, if it were possible for him to bring himself into existence, then he should have given himself all the perfections he lacks, which would make him God. If he possessed the power of self-creation then he would possess enough power to give himself all other perfections. In addition, the power to create is the same as the power to sustain existence. Therefore, if he were self-created, then he would be responsible for maintaining his own existence. He does not do so, so he must not have been responsible for his own creation (CSM II 33-4). The key component of this portion of the argument is that Descartes is asserting that the power to create something is the same as the power to sustain the existence of something. There seems to be no reason to think that creative acts and sustaining acts--even those by God--are necessarily connected in the way Descartes supposes. Now, it seems fairly clear that I am not the source of my own being, even without Descartes' argument, but Descartes will deploy this notion of the equivalence of sustaining and creating later on in the argument.

Second, his parents cannot be considered to be the source of his being; they do not sustain him, and so insofar as he is a thinking thing, they did not make him, even if there is a sense in which they can be considered to be the source of his being in the world (CSM II 35). The dismissal of his parents as a legitimate explanation for his existence is based on the equivalence of creating and sustaining just mentioned as well as on Descartes' conception of the soul as thinking substance being somehow independent of the physical body. Descartes could accept a limited sense in which his parents brought him as a physical being into existence, but not that they are in any way responsible for the "thinking thing" that he identifies with himself. Cartesian dualism is implicit here, even though Descartes does not attempt to prove the thesis until later on in the Meditations.

Third, he cannot be the effect of a composition of causes because then he would have no source for the idea of God; the idea of God is a unity, and so cannot be a composite of other ideas (CSM II 34). This argument depends on Descartes' argument from conceptual content which I have discussed (and found wanting) previously.

Having dismissed three of the four alternatives in his quadrilemma, Descartes feels justified in taking this line of thought to have demonstrated the existence of God. Whether his argument really accomplishes what he thought it did is, as we've seen, debatable at best. 

What is perhaps more interesting in all this is that Descartes felt that the fact of human existence was so mysterious a feature of the world that it required a special causal story to be told. If we reject dualism, then there is no reason to require any special explanation. If the mind is simply the loose moniker we give to the different capacities we have as the result of having big brains (rather than some extra thing that supervenes on the physical or is mysteriously associated with it somehow) then Descartes' problem dissolves to a large extent.

Human existence (including the existence of human intelligence) is a contingent fact about the world that is the result of a probably innumerable confluence of causes, any combination of which can be picked out depending on which aspect of human existence we find interesting. Answers to the question "why are we here?" could be explanations about what makes the universe in general or the earth in particular hospitable to life or about genetics and developmental biology or about human evolution or about human history or.... 

You get the point. There isn't any one answer for "why we're here," and Descartes' need to have one answer is derived from his insistence that there is something unnatural about our ability to think.

Cottingham, J. G., Stoothoff, R., and Murdoch, D. (eds), The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 2 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1985