Moving Naturalism Forward: my summary

This is part 2 of today’s summary of the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop (Part 1 is my Powerpoint presentation given below), a meeting that ended yesterday. It makes no attempt to be as complete as Massimo Pigliucci’s account of the conference which he’s posting in bits on Rationally Speaking. (Kudos to Massimo, who was “live-blogging” the conference—or rather, taking copious notes during the discussion that he’d turn into website posts overnight—while also making substantive contributions to the discussion.) My account is more idiosyncratic and personal, and will concentrate on the discussion of free will (see my presentation in the preceding post), and on my own reaction to the meeting.

Massimo’s website gives a pretty accurate account of the discussion of free will two days ago, though he erroneously claims, I think, that the Libet experiments (misspelled “Libbett”) on when “decisions” are made in the brain have been discredited both philosophically and scientifically. In fact, they have been repeated scientifically: one recent study that has been claimed in the press as a failure to repeat Libet et al. (and as a vindication of the notion of “free will”) doesn’t show any such thing; it shows that in one study the “action” potential in the brain indicating an upcoming decision may occur closer to the event than Libet showed (though others have shown, in other cases, that it can occur farther in advance than Libet et al. showed). And, in any case, the “disconfirming” study also showed, like Libet, that one can predict with reasonable accuracy which of two buttons one will press before that decision is reported as being made consciously. This predictability can precede the conscious decision by as much as ten seconds! In my take, that study (I don’t have the reference at the moment as I’m in Boston) does nothing to discredit the Libet and Soon et al. experiments (Soon et al. confirmed Libet’s result using a different form of brain-scanning). And instead of taking the implications of that work seriously, compatibilists do all they can to discredit it.

Massimo’s account of the free-will discussion is fairly accurate, though I think a wee bit self-serving in a few respects, like claiming that Libet’s experiments are no longer credible and say nothing about so-called “free will”. I disagree. But his summary of what agreement transpired is accurate:

Terrence Deacon asked why we insist in using the term “free” will, and Jerry had previously invited people to drop the darn thing. I suggested, and Owen elaborated on it, that we should instead use the terms that cognitive scientists use, like volition or voluntary vs involuntary decision making. Those terms both capture the scientific meaning of what we are talking about and retain the everyday implication that our decisions are ours (and we are therefore responsible for them). And dropping “free” also doesn’t generate confusion about contra-causal mystical-theological mumbo jumbo.

I agree in general with deep-sixing the definition, though the saying that “our decisions are ours” seems to me tautological, and doesn’t buttress any meaningful form of free will.

I add that Dan Dennett himself said he was willing to drop the term “free will” if it were replaced by the term “morally competent volition.”  I can’t sanction that one, because I think the term “morally competent” is irrelevant: if we can’t really choose what we do, but are totally constrained by our genes and our environments (something everyone agreed on), then nobody is any more “competent” than anyone else in making decisions. Further, the value of “morality” goes out the window, becoming a shorthand for “how society wants us to behave.”

There are just different strategies for to sanctioning and rewarding those who do good or bad acts depending on which factors motivated those acts, and how punishment, for instance, affects the person’s susceptibility to be rehabilitated, protects society from future bad acts, and deters others from committing them. These are empirical matters that can be decided independently of “competence” and “morality.”

At the end of the meeting we were all asked to give our take on it: did we really move naturalism forward, did we change our minds about anything, and what are the exciting questions that remain?  I will speak only for myself here (Massimo will likely give a more complete summary of everyones views soon).

I found the conference interesting but inconclusive. We did not even agree (or much discuss) what naturalism really is, and most people agreed that we disagreed in general: we didn’t come to many conclusions about anything. Nick Pritzker, who sponsored the meeting, agreed with this take. (My slide on “where we agree” below didn’t meet with much disagreement except from Steve Weinberg).

One conclusion, though—one that gratified me immensely—is that several people who did change their minds on an issue said something like: “I decided during the workshop that free will is a philosophical black hole (something that Owen Flanagan asserted at the meeting’s outset) and that we shouldn’t discuss any longer whether it exists.”  I think by this they meant that since we are all determinists, discussing whether we have free will becomes a semantic game. Dan Dennett’s claim (see Massimo’s summary) that society will fall apart if we don’t retain some notion of “free will” was not widely shared. I don’t believe it for a minute. That was the claim made for religion, too, but largely atheistic societies, like those in Scandinavia, are pretty damn harmonious!

We all agreed that dualism (often called “nonphysical libertarian free will”) is dead, and that our decisions are determined largely before we become conscious of “making” them.  Surprisingly, Steve Weinberg was the one person who seemed to disagree with this, saying that his consciousness had a “role” in making his decision. I claim that consciousness of making a decision may be merely a phenomenon that follows a decison made unconsciously, and, indeed, may have evolved just for that purpose. That is, confabulating may be an adaptation.

At any rate, most didn’t think that we should continue debating whether or not we have free will. I consider that as a small personal victory of sorts. As I noted in my presentation below, that doesn’t mean that substantive, interesting, and socially relevant questions about the illusion of “personal agency” don’t remain.

For me the main value of the meeting was meeting: getting together with some of my intellectual heroes and making contact with them in a way that will help me interact with them in the future. I liked everyone at the meeting and hope to continue discussions with several of them, particularly about the relationship between theology and science (something I’m much interested in, but wasn’t discussed at the workshop). I greatly enjoyed Alex Rosenberg’s hard-core determinism, which has given me much food for thought, and thought Steven Weinberg was an awesome intellect—and not just in science. I am now in contact with physicist Janna Levin, and hope in the future that she’ll help me understand the thorny questions of modern particle physics and cosmology (Sean Carroll has been helping me here as well for a while.) Sean did a terrific job of organizing the meeting and doing interim summaries of where we were in each discussion.

What I wished we had talked more about:

  • What is real? Weinberg at one point said “Santa Claus is real.” (This was in response to him saying that everything was real, whereupon I asked him whether God was real. His response was “Yes—in the same sense that Santa Claus is real.”) That is confusing; I think: what Weinberg clearly meant was that “the concept of Santa Claus (and God) are real.” That’s a big difference.
  • What is naturalism? How can we move it forward if we don’t know what it is? My own take is that the lucubrations of academics can move naturalism forward only slightly, and I argued was that really moving it forward involves changing society in a way that won’t enable or strengthen superstition, which truly impedes the advance naturalism. In other words, vote for Obama, lessen income inequality, give everyone health care, and so on.
  • Are there ways of knowing other than science? In his presentation about “scientism” on the last day—a presentation, by the way, that was admirably clear—Massimo talked about ways of knowing that come from areas other than science. I don’t recall them all, but think that they include mathematics and logic. I am open on this issue (except that I don’t thing religion and revelation are “ways of knowing”), but, sadly, we had little time to discuss these issues. I am particularly interested in whether mathematics is a way of finding out things that are true about the universe, i.e., whether math is continuous with science, and will be thinking more about that in the future. Dan recommended that I consult a philosopher of mathematics on this issue (I didn’t know such a field existed!), because it was not in his realm of expertise.

What did I change my mind about? On the morning before the last day of the conference, I wrote on this site that I didn’t think the formal philosophy of science had made any contribution to the progress of science. I now think I was wrong, because I raised that question in the meeting shortly thereafter. Folks like Janna Levin, Sean Carroll, Rebecca Goldstein, and Dan Dennett convinced me that philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics have influenced work in physics, philosophical speculations about “the arrow of time” have influenced cosmology, and philosophers like Peter Singer have inspired work on the consciousness and behavior of animals. We all agreed that most science proceeds completely independently of the work of philosophers, but, as Massimo said in his presentation, “Philosophy is not in the business of advancing science.”

Finally, some of my best intellectual times occurred on the drive to the conference with Richard Dawkins and Dan, since we had lively discussion of many things (including theology), and the drive back to Cambridge with Dan which, as I noted yesterday, helped me sharpen my thoughts on the value of morality.

It was a good time, but my brain needs to recover for a few days. Sadly, I have more theology to read.

112 Comments

  1. couchloc
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting your perceptions of the conference for those who couldn’t attend. Also, thanks for your honesty about changing your mind on whether formal philosophy of science had ever (you misspelled this word) contributed to the progress of science. It’s nice to see you were open to changing your mind on this point. As a philosopher, I think it is good to see a group of scientists and philosophers discussing things and interacting in useful ways over matters that interest us all.

    On a side note, you’ll find more on the philosophy of mathematics here:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-mathematics/

  2. Marksman
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Ten seconds is nothing. I can predict that my brother will smoke a cigarette hours before he actually does it. Therefore, he can’t refrain from smoking it.

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. It’s a shame the complex phenomenon of addiction can’t be dispelled completely by mere snark.

  3. david
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    “We all agreed that dualism (often called “nonphysical libertarian free will”) is dead, and that our decisions are determined largely before we become conscious of “making” them. Surprisingly, Steve Weinberg was the one person who seemed to disagree with this, saying that his consciousness had a “role” in making his decision. I claim that consciousness of making a decision may be merely a phenomenon that follows a decison made unconsciously, and, indeed, may have evolved just for that purpose. That is, confabulating may be an adaptation.”

    Could you clarify here please? To say that our decisions are “largely” determined prior to consciousness allows that some, neverthless, are *not*, and that consciousness is therefore *not* entirely epiphenominal. I know that Dennett, for example, doesn’t see consciousness as essentially epiphenomenal.

    Who among the perticipents saw consciousness as entirely epiphenomenal?

    • Dan L.
      Posted October 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      To say that our decisions are “largely” determined prior to consciousness allows that some, neverthless, are *not*, and that consciousness is therefore *not* entirely epiphenominal.

      No it doesn’t. Saying they are “largely” determined is consistent with believing they are “entirely” determined but wanting to qualify that statement due to the fact that it can’t be demonstrated on an evidential basis. Coyne seems to go on to conjecture that consciousness is epiphenomenal without necessarily ascribing this belief to anyone else.

      I think you’re right about Dennett, though. He is not a fan of epiphenomenalism.

      • Another Matt
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        You can find Robert Wright’s interview of Dennett on youtube for a quick summary of Dennett’s thoughts on epiphenomenalism and consciousness. It’s not entirely resolved in the video because they each seem to have a different idea of what “epiphenomenalism” means in the first place.

        • Dan L.
          Posted October 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

          I’d rather not watch anything featuring Robert Wright. I got Dennett’s thoughts from the horse’s mouth when I took his philosophy of mind class.

  4. invivoMark
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Jerry says:

    “There are just different strategies for to sanctioning and rewarding those who do good or bad acts depending on which factors motivated those acts, and how punishment, for instance, affects the person’s susceptibility to be rehabilitated, protects society from future bad acts, and deters others from committing them. These are empirical matters that can be decided independently of “competence” and “morality.””

    THIS! It bugs me to no end when discussions of free will stray into discussions of morality and personal responsibility, without first even defining a framework of morality. We’ve got a perfectly good secular moral framework (utilitarianism), on which free will has absolutely no bearing.

    Thank you, Dr. Coyne, for reiterating this notion, which so many people in this conversation seem to keep forgetting.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      invivoMark,

      I’m curious why you think utilitarianism is unlike other normative ethical theories in that it doesn’t require talking about free will.

      Surely any theory that says we are morally obligated to such-and-such will run up against the problem of moral responsibility. (If you say that the state ought not hold Smith responsible for her crimes, can’t the state reply that it’s not morally responsible for holding Smith morally responsible for her crimes?)

      • invivoMark
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        Because in utilitarianism, punishment as retribution becomes moot. Other ethical frameworks may or may not talk about punishment of crimes, but utilitarianism specifically gives us reasons for criminal prosecution as well as a guideline of how to punish offenders (write laws that result in maximal utility).

        The concept of punishment as retribution (you are punished strictly because you did the crime, and not because punishing criminals results in a lower crime rate) can only make sense if we have free will (you are punished for making the wrong choice, but you could have avoided the punishment).

        Non-teleological ethical frameworks, by definition, don’t concern themselves with what laws result in lower crime rates.

        • Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

          invivoMark,

          Suppose the state decides to punish Smith retributively. You rightly point out that the state can only justify such punishment if it can justify the existence of moral responsibility. But can’t the State say in its defense, ‘We’re not doing anything wrong; in fact, we are not morally responsible for what we do in any way’?

          Other potential problems exist with utilitarian defenses of punishment in general. For examples:

          (1) The deterrent effect can often largely be achieved by “punishing” innocent people that the majority believe to be guilty. Everyone believes Smith committed the crime; we know he didn’t; but we punish Smith, and others say, ‘I don’t want to be punished like Smith, so I won’t commit a crime.’

          (2) It will often be optimific (most maximizing of net utility) not to punish guilty people. If Justin Bieber is discovered to be killing hobos, perhaps utility demands that we let him go free, since arresting him would devastate tweens everywhere.

          (3) It will often be optimific to punish disproportionately, since it will achieve a lot of deterrence. Why not make the penalty for shoplifting death? We make an example of a couple of people, and shoplifting virtually disappears. (Objection: ‘The death penalty doesn’t deter.’ Reply: This one might, and in any case, lack of deterrence doesn’t in general help the utilitarian’s case.)

          • invivoMark
            Posted October 29, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

            In your example, the State can say anything it likes. That doesn’t make it the correct, utility-maximizing action, though, so I fail to see what that has to do with this discussion.

            Regarding your examples, all three are terrible in practical terms: you won’t realistically be able to keep Smith’s innocence a secret, Justin Bieber Hobo Killer won’t really be that popular among the tween crowd, and nobody wants their best friend sentenced to death for nicking a candy bar in the checkout line.

            However, even if we take these examples to their extremes, just as a gedanken experiment, then your examples are meaningless in the absence of free will. The notion of “guilty” or “innocent” no longer mean anything. You do not deserve to be punished for committing a crime if you cannot freely choose not to commit it, and you do not deserve a good life *because* you chose not to steal anything. Rather, everyone should live the best life possible, because nobody can overpower the laws of physics and change the decisions they will inevitably make.

            Your objections presume dualistic free will, and as such, they have no place in a discussion about ethics in a random or deterministic universe.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted October 30, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

            At your example (2) I can’t help seeing a reference to a certain cigar-wielding former TV host, a pit of horror that (I now realise) it would be crassly hyperbolic to compare with JB.

  5. Stackpole
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    JC’s last comment “Sadly, I have more theology to read.” is rather like the Washington Post’s TV critic saying about reality, dancing, and such shows (as I remember): “We watch so you don’t have to.”

    Thank you, thankyou, thankyou.

    JDS

  6. Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting, sounds most interesting!

  7. Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Here’s one reason people sometimes think mathematics is a way of learning about the world:

    ‘Mathematics, and the sciences that use mathematics, are extremely successful. This would be a strange coincidence if numbers didn’t exist. Therefore, numbers exist.’

    This argument from indispensability for the existence of numbers seems to provide evidence against nominalism about numbers. See this article more generally for more about that. A relative of the above argument might also constitute a case against conceptualism about numbers.

    In sum, the success of math and math-based science is sometimes taken to imply that numbers exist as mind-independent objects.

    • invivoMark
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      But “science broadly defined”, as I think Jerry espouses, is basically logic + evidence. So doesn’t math fall under logic, and therefore science? Therefore scientism?

    • John K.
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Much like Jerry’s Santa Claus objection, numbers and mathematics only “exist” as concepts. All the “truths” of math are built upon axioms. There is no inherent reason the square root of 2 equals i, except that it is defined that way and then expounded upon. Mathematics is immensely useful for organized thought. It is capable of both immensely broad and amazingly precise ideas. Yet, to make math a reflection of reality, we need experiments to verify the equations in our theories. As amazingly powerful a tool as math is, it is not a path to knowledge unto itself.

      It is a lot like a hammer, which cannot do carpentry by itself. Other elements are needed. To be sure, the hammer makes the carpentry much easier and better overall, but the lumber, nails, and carpenter are still required. Math still needs a physicist to make a theory, experiments, and repeatable results before it can be said to demonstrate any kind of real knowledge, or at least the kind of knowledge scientific investigation is talking about.

      • abrotherhoodofman
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        -e^i*π

      • Ivo
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

        “As amazingly powerful a tool as math is, it is not a path to knowledge unto itself.”

        Woah, wait a moment! Mathematical knowledge is knowledge too!

        As a knowledge-producing discipline, it provides a huge corpus of compressed information about all possible precise and formal models that natural scientists (or linguists, philosophers, chess players, other mathematicians…) have at their disposal as tools. Knowledge of our mental life – including concepts and mental models of space, quantities, relations, etc – is definitely a kind of knowledge, and I think that mathematics can be safely placed in this category.

        • John K.
          Posted October 30, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink

          Well, I did qualify somewhat in my very last sentence. Knowing all the books of Tolkien can be said to be a sort of knowledge as well, but not in the sense I was talking about.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

        Can we not say that Mathematics is science done with concepts, in the same way as chemistry is science done with acids and metals and gases, and biology is science done with living things?

        (obviously not exhaustive definitions, but that doesn’t affect my point)

        • Ivo
          Posted October 30, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

          I like this! It captures my own view quite concisely.

        • Posted October 30, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

          I think it’s more the other way around; “science” refers to the variety of mathematics done on the relationships within empirical phenomena, rather than the more general case of relationships among ultimately undefined abstract entities.

          Mathematics is not science; it is the mother of the sciences.

    • Brian
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      “In sum, the success of math and math-based science is sometimes taken to imply that numbers exist as mind-independent objects.”

      What do you mean by “numbers exist”? Exist where? I think what you are trying to say is that theorems about numbers remain true independent of humans thinking they are true. But that’s a far cry from declaring that numbers exist. It is rather obvious that the term “exist” means something very different for material objects and for concepts.

    • Posted October 30, 2012 at 5:09 am | Permalink

      This view, while popular, can be overcome by a Bunge-style theory of reference, where it becomes (somewhat) clearer that in factual science, numbers are in fact, not referred to. Things are numbered; they do not thereby somehow involve *numbers*, which are fictions. (See vol. 1, 2 of his _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_.)

      • Another Matt
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        Can you say how this would work with the observation that certain species have evolved prime-number reproduction cycles? Most explanations invoke properties of numbers themselves, like “indivisibility,” rather than just years numbered.

        I agree that “numbers” are fictions in the way you described, but linguistically it seems to be difficult to make this kind of explanation without reference to numbers as real things in the same way we refer to the “center of gravity” in a binary star system, say, as some kind of real thing.

        • Posted October 31, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

          This doesn’t require numbers any more than a sexually reproducing species which needs (say) two individuals to reproduce requires access to a number two. You can have things which (to speaking with deliberate fiction) represent numbers without there being any such things.

  8. shakyisles
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    “At any rate, most didn’t think that we should continue debating whether or not we have free will.”

    That’s the funniest thing I’ve read all week

    Now Jerry, you don’t have to read the theology, you know. You can choose not to :)

  9. shakyisles
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    May as well post my 2 cents worth while I’m here;

    We have Free Will. Usually we have only 1 choice to make at any given time. It’s binary. Up or down? Left or right? Sink or swim?

    The choices we make do not affect the overall causality of our universe. There is some room for warp and woof. The bottom line is; the choices we make catch up with us some day (known to some as karma)

    • Sastra
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      shakyisles #9 wrote:

      The bottom line is; the choices we make catch up with us some day (known to some as karma)

      Not necessarily.

      Karma (a ‘force’ which ensures that Nature is “fair”) is not only supernatural — it’s testable.

      • shakyisles
        Posted November 2, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        It’s quite simple – someone chooses not to agree to feed their neighbours cat when requested because of some petty long-standing grudge. The next time the refusing neighbour needs help, he gets refused help. Wheras if he’d chosen to feed the kitteh..he would have earnt himself some good karma. Nothing supernatural about that

        • shakyisles
          Posted November 2, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

          That being said, there is also the possibility that by not feeding the neighbours cat, the neighbour (with feline) wakes up to the fact that he has been such a jerk that he can’t even call in a favour from a neighbour. So even a ‘wrong’ or selfish decision can go ‘right’ or have positives spin-offs further down the line. Wrong turns can turn out to be right

    • invivoMark
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      So, babies who die of measles a few months after birth have used their free will to do something horrible to someone, and the measles is just karma catching up to them?

      That, or you believe in reincarnation. Since this MUST be your belief (the alternative is too absurd!), then *how do you know* reincarnation is real?

      Or do you just have to have faith? And if you’re relying on faith in your argument, why are you bothering to discuss it with rational people?

      • Bebop
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

        Buddhism has an interesting perspective on free will. It asserts that causes and effects are not just physical phenomenons, they also have a psychological and moral resonance who continue to affect what is left of the ego when the body stops functioning.

        And it says that unless you are enlightened, you’ll continue to be subjected to a complex chain of causes and effects. In this life and in the next one because if consciousness is at its core uncreated, the ego, who is fed by the senses and discontinuity, has no desire to disappear and return to its unborn, unconditioned “primal” state. That is why it will prefer to “suffer” again.

        So when somebody reaches nirvana while alive, his karma has ceased because there is no more ego, just a direct awareness, that just let it be. So there is no doer anymore, in the sense that the egoless individual isn’t acting accordingly to his desire because there is one who desires anything anymore. Again, just plain direct awareness who remains in a forever now, where consciousness is experienced directly, without the egotic filter.

      • shakyisles
        Posted November 2, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        No, it doesn’t work like that. Babies don’t die for being horrible to someone, they die because there is no measles vaccination programme in their locality for whatever reason.

        Sorry if I’ve upset you

  10. Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I also don’t believe in free will, though I’m wary of using the Libet experiments to justify anything. While the methodology and results may be perfectly sound and ably replicated, I think it’s the interpretation of those results that’s a problem – there are more convincing and solid reasons for discarding the notion of free will.

    Before I had read much more about Dan Dennett’s views, I long suspected that his fundamental reason for trying to establish a new free will “worth wanting” was because he was concerned about the effects of social acceptance of the idea that we don’t have it. I think this kind of redefining actually halts social progress – the quicker we get people to accept that we don’t have free will, the quicker we can reform the judicial system so that it isn’t such a travesty against human dignity, and the quicker we can come to a more compassionate understanding of the actions of our peers. I don’t think that we have any reason to fear that people will act irresponsibly or criminally, first because we will always be talking about the lack of free will in the context of no diminished accountability, and second, more importantly, that our evolved illusory sense of moral freedom is too strong for such an intellectual awareness to significantly overhaul our behaviour.

  11. Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Sounds like a roaring success, even — nay, especially — if everybody left with more questions than answers.

    b&

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Yea, verily.

      If it had been a conference on “Moving Theism Forward” we’d have heard things like this:

      Father Coyne: Praise God, for I consider that as a small personal victory of sorts, but of course Our Lord in heaven is the real victor.

      Pastor Dennett: You certainly are quite the Doubting Thomas, my young friend in Jesus. I encourage you to consult the Dead Sea scrolls to better comprehend the my revelations, although to every thing there is a season, turn, turn…

      Bishop Weinberg: God is real. Can I get an amen, brothers?

      Right Reverend Rosenberg: God may not be as real as a popcorn fart, but He clearly lives in our minds. This explains the peaceful expressions of our lucky brothers currently flatlining on hospital operating tables.

      etc.

      • Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Pope Dawkins: Only the ignorant and uneducated could possibly be unaware of the glory of God and His only begotten Son, Christ the Everlasting Redeemer.

        b&

        • abrotherhoodofman
          Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

          Amen, Brother Ben!
          :)

  12. Myron
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, the download link for Armstrong’s paper suddenly doesn’t work anymore. So, Mr. Coyne, please delete it! Thanks!

    • Myron
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      If that is not feasible, you may delete my entire post, and then I can repost it without that download link.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      I just checked the website; your post didn’t get posted because it had too many links. WordPress automatically stops those, though I can override it Do you want a shorter version posted? If so, write it again, not so long this time, and resend it I’ll check the dashboard in an hour or so and make sure it gets posted.

      Alternatively, I can go back and recover your post and put it up without the Armstrong link.
      What’s your preference? But I urge you not to put up such LONG posts (against the Roolz).

      • Myron
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        How many links are allowed?
        Sorry for the length of my post! I’m just so enthusiastic about these topics…
        I’m going to post a shorter version.

        • Myron
          Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          The meta-posts 15-19 can now be deleted.

  13. Myron
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Now I see why the download link doesn’t work: the essential .pdf-ending has been cut off from the underlined active part of the link. If you add it, the link does work if you click on it.

  14. Another Matt
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I can’t sanction that one, because I think the term “morally competent” is irrelevant: if we can’t really choose what we do, but are totally constrained by our genes and our environments (something everyone agreed on), then nobody is any more “competent” than anyone else in making decisions.

    Do you say this just about decision making, or also about other kinds of activity?

    I mean, the whole point of natural selection is to show that the constraints of genes and environment combine to create certain competencies. It seems to me you throw all that out the window if you say “nothing is really more competent at ____ than anything else because determinism says that whatever happens will have happened unavoidably.”

  15. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    …then nobody is any more “competent” than anyone else in making decisions.

    Surely the world chess champion has demonstrated more competence than anyone else at choosing chess moves.

    …and how punishment, for instance, affects the person’s susceptibility to be rehabilitated… These are empirical matters that can be decided independently of “competence” and “morality.”

    But “susceptibility to be rehabilitated” is precisely what we mean by “moral competence”. People who lack such susceptibility (for whatever genetic or environmental reasons) are genuinely, objectively less competent at living peacefully in civilized society.

    I claim that consciousness of making a decision may be merely a phenomenon that follows a decison made unconsciously, and, indeed, may have evolved just for that purpose. That is, confabulating may be an adaptation.

    I don’t follow this logic. If all decisions are made unconsciously, with no input from consciousness, then what possible adaptive advantage could conscious confabulation confer? If consciousness serves any adaptive purpose, it must be to influence behavior. So Weinberg is right: consciousness does play a role in decision-making, else why have it?

    The very fact that we can talk about consciousness demonstrates that it plays a role in speech generation at minimum. So I don’t see how you can escape the conclusion that consciousness is part of the causal chain of (at least some) decision-making and behavior generation.

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      People who lack such susceptibility (for whatever genetic or environmental reasons) are genuinely, objectively less competent at living peacefully in civilized society.

      Environmental reasons? You mean like “civilized society’s” fair and balanced influence on their developing brains, for instance?

      “People who are messed-up by society can’t live in society?”

      Can you spell t-a-u-t-o-l-o-g-y?

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, I’m not seeing the tautology. A car that gets wrecked on the highway can’t drive on the highway anymore. It might even be the highway’s fault, but that doesn’t change the fact that a wrecked car is unsuitable for driving, however it got that way.

        • abrotherhoodofman
          Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

          What makes you so sure “driving on the highway” is the correct (or even best) way to live?

          I can hear David Hume kick-starting his dirt bike right about now…

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

            I didn’t say anything about what’s the correct or best way to live. But a wrecked car isn’t much good for off-road use either.

            I don’t know what your beef is with “civilized society”, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with my point, which is that there are real differences between people in what Jerry calls their “susceptibility to be rehabilitated” (however they got that way), and that these differences inform our ideas about “moral competence”.

            • abrotherhoodofman
              Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

              1. “genuinely, objectively less competent at living peacefully in civilized society.

              2. “I didn’t say anything about what’s the correct or best way to live.

              I can’t see how these statements aren’t contradictory. Statement 1 clearly implies a standard of living, although details (other than “peaceful” and “civilized”) aren’t provided.

              My “beefs” with “civilized” society are legion, but I won’t drive down that highway here.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                “I can’t see how these statements aren’t contradictory.”

                Then you’re not parsing them correctly.

                I can observe that different people are more or less adept at surviving life in prison without any implication that prison is the ideal life for anyone. It’s a statement about the person’s adaptability, not about the quality of the environment.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Surely the world chess champion has demonstrated more competence than anyone else at choosing chess moves.

      By the same token, there are computers far more competent than any human at chess.

      Do computers have free will?

      If so, I’d grant the existence of whatever it is that you’re defining as “free will,” but I’d also argue that most people wouldn’t recognize what you define as fitting the term.

      If not, then your position might not be coherent….

      b&

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        My position is that competence at decision-making is not an empty concept as Jerry would have it, but a real, measurable phenomenon. Seems coherent enough to me.

        I didn’t say anything about “free will”. I accept, for purposes of this discussion, that attempts to define “free will” are unproductive and will not change any minds.

        • Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the clarification. You can see where I was afraid you might have been going….

          b&

        • abrotherhoodofman
          Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

          I can observe that different people are more or less adept at surviving life in prison without any implication that prison is the ideal life for anyone. It’s a statement about the person’s adaptability, not about the quality of the environment.

          (Sorry, Gregory, I didn’t see a “Reply” button on your reply above, so I went “off-road” and replied down here.)

          Observing “survival” is trivial. The prisoner is either alive or dead. But are you saying that the big inmate who kills or maims everyone who comes near him is properly “driving down the prison highway”?

          Observing whether a particular car is “broken,” on the other hand, would seem to require a standard for what constitutes “proper” highway driving. A standard you say you haven’t imposed.

          Example. Some pebbles pass through a preset filter, and some don’t. One way to look at this is to say some pebbles are “genetically” screwed, because they were created with the wrong size or shape.

          But environmental factors? Are other pebbles screwed because the river currents failed to erode them sufficiently?

          (I know I have a valid point in here somewhere…)
          ;)

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

            I don’t impose the standard; the highway does. Or the prison, or “civilized society”.

            I’m not sure where you’re going with this, but if we can’t agree that there are real differences in capability between a wrecked car and an intact one, or between a brain-damaged human and a healthy one, then I don’t see much point in continuing the conversation.

            • abrotherhoodofman
              Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

              You’re saying it’s adaptability. But adaptability to what? To everything? Every possible condition and/or situation in life? How can you measure that? You can’t.

              I’m saying you have to have a set of pre-conditions to be able to evaluate any given participant’s adaptability to those conditions. I’m afraid your “civilized society” will have to be defined in more detail.

              Until then, nice talking with you!

  16. Myron
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    – As for the concept of reality:

    It seems to me that the mark of the real is not mind-independence but representation-independence or, to be more precise, representedness-independence.

    See Charles Peirce’s definitions: http://www.helsinki.fi/science/commens/terms/real.html
    One example:

    “Reality is that mode of being by virtue of which the real thing is as it is, irrespectively of what any mind or any definite collection of minds may represent it to be.” – Charles Peirce

    – As for the characterization of naturalism:

    I strongly recommend the following two books:

    * De Caro, Mario, and David Macarthur, eds. Naturalism in Question. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

    * De Caro, Mario, and David Macarthur, eds. Naturalism and Normativity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    “Naturalism I define as the doctrine that reality consists of nothing but a single all-embracing spatio-temporal system.”

    (Armstrong, D. M. “Naturalism, Materialism and First Philosophy.” Philosophia 8 (November 1978): 261-276. p. 261)

    “I suggest, as a plausible hypothesis, that reality, the whole of being, is constituted by the spacetime world. This is my ontological naturalism.”

    (Armstrong, D. M. “A Naturalist Program: Epistemology and Ontology.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 73, no. 2 (November 1999): 77-89. p. 84)

    My own classification of “naturalisms”:

    1. Metaphysical Naturalism:

    1.1 Ontological Naturalism:

    The natural world is the entire reality; everything is natural and nothing is nonnatural/supernatural.
    (The spatiotemporal world is the whole world, and the only kind of substances it contains are physical ones.)

    1.2 Ontological Scientism:

    The posits of well-confirmed scientific theories are the only things which exist, are real, and only the belief in them is justified and rational.
    Motto: Science, tell me what there is, and I believe in it!

    1.3 Etiological Naturalism:

    The natural world is causally closed; there are no supernatural influences on the natural course of things and no restrictions of its autonomy: if a natural event has a cause, then it has only a natural cause.

    2. Epistemological Naturalism:

    2.1 Scientific Empiricism:

    Knowledge about reality can only be attained through the empirical methods of scientific a posteriori inquiry.
    (Weaker: The empirical methods of scientific a posteriori inquiry are the most objective and most reliable methods for attaining knowledge about reality.)

    2.2 Agnostic Naturalism:

    If supernatural entities and facts exist, they are unknowable (in principle).

    3. Methodological Naturalism:

    3.1. Metaphilosophical Scientism:

    Philosophy is to be scientized, i.e. to be affiliated with or incorporated into (natural) science and to be adapted to its methods and results (as far as possible).
    Motto: The days of philosophy as an a priori Geisteswissenschaft prior to and independent of (natural) science are over!

    3.2 Metascientific Scientism:

    All non-natural sciences are but pseudosciences and thus no producers of genuine knowledge unless they are methodologically adapated to and modelled on natural science. So this is what is to be done!

    3.3 Metascientific Nonsupernaturalism:

    Always look for naturalistic explanations of all phenomena!
    Supernaturalistic explanations are to be ignored in principle during scientific inquiries.
    (Weaker: Supernaturalistic explanations are to be ignored during scientific inquiries as long as there is a reasonable chance of finding a naturalistic explanation, at least in the future.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see how that Peirce’s definition of reality is testable. So we can’t know anything by using that.

      Classical or quantum mechanics definitions (sensu David Deutsch, see his “The Fabric of Reality”) are eminently testable – in QM every observation tests the existence of reality. So we can know what reality is and that it exists.

      • Myron
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        Why should Peirce’s definition be “testable”?
        We have two different questions here:

        1. What is real? (How can we find out what is real?)

        2. What is it to be real? (What does “real” mean?)

        Peirce gives an answer to 2!

        “What is real? What is it to be real? These are two very different questions. The former is a substantive question that is best left to investigative inquiry. To find out what is real in the world we must investigate it. But the latter is a conceptual question that should be addressed by rational analysis. And only this second question falls within the purview of philosophy.”

        (Rescher, Nicholas. Reality and Its Appearance. New York: Continuum, 2010. p. 8)

  17. Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    “if we can’t really choose what we do, but are totally constrained by our genes and our environments (something everyone agreed on)…”

    More accurately: Everyone agreed that, effects of quantum indeterminacy aside, we’re fully determined in our choices. But, as I and others here have repeatedly pointed out (e.g., Another Matt in #12 above), this isn’t to say we can’t really choose, since choice making is just as real a phenomenon as our genes and our environments. By sticking with a supernatural, contra-causal definition of choice, you’re making us out to be puppets, with no internal behavior control resources – not good, since propagating this misunderstanding will retard the acceptance of naturalism.

    But your positive prescription for advancing naturalism as a worldview is right on: by “changing society in a way that won’t enable or strengthen superstition… In other words, vote for Obama, lessen income inequality, give everyone health care, and so on.”

    Progressive liberalism and naturalism are natural bedfellows, no question, so thanks for being unabashedly political on this…website.

    • Another Matt
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      By sticking with a supernatural, contra-causal definition of choice, you’re making us out to be puppets, with no internal behavior control resources – not good, since propagating this misunderstanding will retard the acceptance of naturalism.

      Quite so. The puppet metaphor lets dualism back in. “Here I am, trapped in a body I have no control over.” The only way to make it work is if you think of “me” as something separate from my body.

      It’s not an accident that Dennett wrote books on consciousness and Darwin — his views on free will require both a view of natural selection and a theory of consciousness like the one he espouses.

      The problem is that to avoid the puppet metaphor and hold onto determinism, one needs an almost radical notion of what “I” means. This is the step I haven’t seen Coyne and other incompatibilists take, so although they say emphatically they aren’t dualists, the dualist intuition about selfhood is still doing lots of work behind the scenes in their arguments.

      • Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

        I think they do take that step.

        Harris makes the same argument you’ve made here when showing that quantum indeterminacy isn’t where free will is hiding. If QI = free will, we’d find our minds simply observing, probably in horror, as our brains and bodies performed various actions. So he gets the puppet/mind/body thing.

        I also think, however, that the puppet analogy is a bad one.

        I can see where it’s weak: “you are not in control of your actions” implies the scenario in the above paragraph. In trying to demonstrate that there is no internal puppetmaster (your mind/soul), Harris has really only taken the strings away from your mind and given them to external forces, which doesn’t actually address the problem of dualism.

        But not addressing it is not the same as invoking it. I don’t think the intention (!) of puppet analogy is to invoke dualism. I think the gist is more that those external forces (genes, environment, physics, etc) control everything and make everything happen, including our desires.

        But the language is problematic. (My use of “external” has the same problem. But I’m too tired to try to find a way to put it that doesn’t have some sort of dualistic flavor. Must. sleep. now.)

        • Another Matt
          Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

          It’s kind of a shame that the cover of Harris’s book invokes the puppet metaphor. :)

          In any case, I didn’t say that anyone intends to invoke dualism when they speak as though the puppet analogy is an accurate picture — instead, I think dualism sneaks in through the back door and does some work behind the curtains.

          Same thing with “external.” You’re using genes as “external,” which is problematic on its own, but I’d argue that “environment” as external is even more insidious. Coyne seems to want to hold on to some kernel of “us” that is separate from (viz. “totally constrained by”) genes and environment. This is clearly a form of dualism, but if you want to take dualism off the table completely, you then have to externalize everything about one’s brain and body organization.

          But externalizing everything leads to the Zombie World Gregory Kusnick mentioned in another post, with the glimmer of dualism in the background threatening to leak in any time selfhood is taken seriously among these other incompatibilist beliefs about choice.

          • Posted October 30, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink

            Thanks AM, nice analysis. I hope Jerry eventually gets this and that the next edition of Sam’s book won’t commit the puppet mistake on its cover.

          • Posted October 30, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

            “…if you want to take dualism off the table completely, you then have to externalize everything…”

            If you want to use the word “external”, then yes, absolutely.

            Perhaps the way I should’ve put it is something like “we simply are the result of genes interacting with an environment in ways determined and constrained by the laws of physics.” This still delivers us into Gregory’s zombie world, however. Or you could say “we simply are our strings. They are not external.” Which sounds sort of compatibilist to me. But this implies that there is also an internal puppetmaster. We’re right back to the old homunculus. I think our language is such that neither incompatibilist nor compatibilist can avoid “letting dualism in through the back door” when discussing “us” and “the forces that act upon us.” But I also think that both are trying to describe their positions which reject dualism.

            So all I’m really trying to point out is that if you spot a seemingly dualistic turn of phrase in Harris’ arguments, it is because of language and not because the abstract notion itself requires dualism.

            And I write all this as someone who has bounced back and forth on the issue, and currently doesn’t know where to come down. Both sides make compelling points.

            • Another Matt
              Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

              Perhaps the way I should’ve put it is something like “we simply are the result of genes interacting with an environment in ways determined and constrained by the laws of physics.” This still delivers us into Gregory’s zombie world, however.

              It doesn’t have to if you’re willing to distribute “the conscious self” among the various interdependent (and unconscious) processing and action systems in the brain and body. If you do that, then there is no contradiction in saying that I decided something, because all of my conscious decisions just are what my brain does, and can do (in the normal, scientific, epistemic sense of “can”) in response to external and internal stimuli. We can even maintain the useful distinction between “voluntary” and “involuntary” on this view, depending upon how this behavior manifests.

              Or you could say “we simply are our strings. They are not external.” Which sounds sort of compatibilist to me. But this implies that there is also an internal puppetmaster. We’re right back to the old homunculus.

              OK, here’s a better puppet analogy: “We simply are our strings. There are trillions of them, and they pull on each other in synchrony – there is no one place in the system that ultimately controls all the pulling, unless you pull so far away that you can’t see the strings anymore and are forced to look at the system’s high-level behavior, in which case you can point to places whose pulls have more global effect than others’.” But that no longer sounds like a puppet!

            • Another Matt
              Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

              I take your point about language, though. Many of the discussions on this site have hinged on the structure of language and how it constrains our thought and expression.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m all for dropping the subject of whether or not we have free will, it is indeed improductive.

    we should instead use the terms that cognitive scientists use, like volition or voluntary vs involuntary decision making.

    But if you do that you run the risk that there are strict definitions for cognition science only. There may be no room for analyzing folk psychology ideas of will (free or not).

    consult a philosopher of mathematics

    That would be interesting and/or risky. Most mathematicians seems to be platonians, which is another “free will” black hole which spans dualism to naturalism depending on definition.

    If PoMs have wider views, it would be interesting to hear them! I think Chaitin qualifies, and he is fairly empiricist.

    influenced work … inspired work

    I will say it again, anything such as myths or dreams (see Kekulé) can influence or inspire science. It would have been unlikely if philosophy hadn’t done this at some time or other.

    Whether these sources inspire productively is another matter. I think philosophy are confusing issues rather than clarifying, except on such technicalities which are farthest from inspiration.

    But I have no evidence as of yet, just the analogy to theology and religion as “other ways of knowing” which isn’t giving knowledge at all.

  19. jose
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    About “our decisions are ours”: I think Piggliuci means that my decision to vote for Romney is not like smelling food nearby or having a dream when I’m sleeping, ie, that we are in control, so we are to thank or to blame for them.

  20. Anthony Paul
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    I have never understood how the Libet experiments – which as best I can tell appear to deal with extremely simple sequences of perception and voluntary physical reaction (is that right or wrong?) – can be “scaled up” to the point where all conscious thought – regardless of the intellectual complexity of the conscious thoughts – is rendered mere product (even by-product) rather than a functional process whereby the thinker actually consciously works on an idea and consciously makes a choice or decision in relation to that idea. (Is that a correct understanding of the “no-free-will” position? It appears to me that another and possibly more precise way to put it is that there is no such thing as a conscious choice or decision.)

    Since the Giants just beat the Tigers in a big way, the example that comes to mind is that of a hitter who perceives something about the pitch – maybe it’s some particular movement of the pitcher – and who then swings the bat in a particular way. I can easily imagine the perception or the “choice” to swing or both being unconscious, but I would never expect (without a lot more analysis to show me how it works) that such a sequence would scale up to be an accurate and adequate explanation of anything as intellectually complex as the discussion at the Naturalism workshop such that all the seemingly conscious thoughts were actually – what exactly? – pre-thought-out at the subconscious level? What am I missing about the Libet experiments?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think you’re missing anything, and I think you’ve hit the problem with Libet on the head.

      At best Libet is a model of impulsive behavior. (Should I twitch my finger or not? Button A or button B? Don’t think; just act.) To me it seems absurd to claim that this somehow also models complex deliberations that involve hours or days of research and rumination before arriving at a decision.

      • Jimbo
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        I’ve been trying to rationalize how the human brain absolutely determines a future action not on the “instant” timescale of the Libet experiment. When I say “I’m going to check my email in one minute” and approx. 60 seconds later do that action, doesn’t that contradict Libet’s conclusion of post facto realization/rationalization of a deliberate action? Is there a difference if I let my attention wander for about a minute before clicking the mouse, counting to sixty before clicking the mouse, or watching a stopwatch and clicking the mouse at T=60? Why?

  21. Alex SL
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    if we can’t really choose what we do, but are totally constrained by our genes and our environments (something everyone agreed on), then nobody is any more competent than anyone else in making decisions.

    Although you may believe that you believe this, I doubt that you really believe it; it would mean you would have to treat a toddler and a grown-up, a kleptomaniac and a fraudster, a rock falling on your head and a robber hitting you on the head precisely the same. Nobody ever made a decision any more than the rock, not even a government when it enacts a law! And of course you do treat these situations very differently.

    That was the claim made for religion, too, but largely atheistic societies, like those in Scandinavia, are pretty damn harmonious!

    The thing I find most uncomfortable about the reports from this meeting is how many people seem to hold their positions based on the fallacy of adverse consequences. So Dennett believes “that society will fall apart if we don’t retain some notion of free will” – and you believe that we should throw away that term essentially because you believe its retention would help the religious! None of that is a valid argument, of course, just as the fear of atheism corroding society has no bearing on its truth or falsity.

    I claim that consciousness of making a decision may be merely a phenomenon that follows a decison made unconsciously, and, indeed, may have evolved just for that purpose. That is, confabulating may be an adaptation.

    For what? If all decisions can be made unconsciously, then what do we need consciousness for? Seems like a waste of resources. If one wants to rationalize its existence in some roundabout way, e.g. it is necessary to prepare the next decision or something like that, then I don’t see how one can escape the conclusion that the influence of conscious deliberation on decision making is not just an illusion. Can’t have it both ways.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      Just so. The idea that consciousness plays no role whatever in behavior leads us straight to Zombie World, where unconscious zombie philosophers write learned papers on consciousness indistinguishable from those written by real conscious philosophers.

      • Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Well, to be fair, the term, “consciousness,” may also suffer from the same dualistic confusion as “free will.” If what we call consciousness is nothing like what we think it is, your hypothetical might not be nearly so absurd.

        b&

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Although you may believe that you believe this, I doubt that you really believe it; it would mean you would have to treat a toddler and a grown-up, a kleptomaniac and a fraudster, a rock falling on your head and a robber hitting you on the head precisely the same.

      But we should treat all of them the same. Have you no understanding of the concept of equality under the law?

      Granted, certain techniques for education / remediation / whatever will work better for one person than another, and a wise educator / therapist / parent will tailor any education / counseling / whatever for the individual.

      But, in terms of responsibility and what-not? They should absolutely be treated the same.

      b&

      • Alex SL
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Let me get this straight:

        (1) Person A steals an item because they are mentally ill, i.e. a kleptomaniac.

        (2) Person B walks out of a shop with an item because they did not realize that it got stuck to their handbag.

        (3) Person C steals an item because they come from a culture that does not know the concept of shops and commerce.

        (4) Person D steals an item because I hold a gun to the head of their daughter and tell them I will shoot her if they don’t do it.

        (5) Person E steals a (nutritious) item because they are impoverished, desperately hungry and would die if they did not steal it.

        (6) Person F steals an item because they are too lazy to work for their own upkeep.

        You would treat them all the same because of “equality before the law”? Surely you jest. Hopefully you will reconsider.

        • Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

          I think there may be some confusion from the broad nature of a phrase such as “treat them the same.”

          There should be one set of standards for determining whether or not somebody removed an item from a store’s premises without payment. Those standards, from accusation through arrest, trial, and conviction must always be equally applied to everybody.

          And, of course, those standards will present many different options for different scenarios. When the shopkeeper first approaches the (presumed) thief, the thief’s reactions will determine to a large extent what happens next. The thief might or might not plead guilty, and so on.

          Similar standards must be applied upon conviction — and, as I thought I had clearly indicated, what to do depends in large part upon the individual and the situation.

          But, again: the same standards must hold.

          That’s what it means to be a nation of laws rather than a tribe of vengeance.

          b&

          • Alex SL
            Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

            You are remarkably and perhaps even deliberately opaque here, kind of like a theologian trying to explain the trinity.

            It is really quite a simple question: Is there a relevant difference between, say, somebody injuring you with a hammer because they accidentally dropped it while you were walking below their balcony and somebody injuring you with a hammer because they wanted to kill you, or is there no relevant difference?

            Either it is all the same because our decisions are just illusions, we are all just like a rock rolling down a hill, there are no degrees of freedom etc., or it is not the same because there are varying degrees of autonomy in decision-making, and thus varying degrees of responsibility. It is rather difficult to understand how one could make the case that we are all like the rock but then proceed to lock up the malicious assailant but not the clumsy hammer-dropper. The only basis on which this different treatment would appear fair is because intent matters, which is just another way of saying that decisions matter, and that means that decision-making capability matters.

            • Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

              Is there a relevant difference between, say, somebody injuring you with a hammer because they accidentally dropped it while you were walking below their balcony and somebody injuring you with a hammer because they wanted to kill you, or is there no relevant difference?

              In the eyes of the law, in my opinion, and for the purposes of this discussion, any differences are minimal.

              If I were to die after you dropped a hammer on my skull from your balcony, the police would treat it as a murder investigation. Assuming they caught you, various evidence would be considered and the prosecutor would decide if you should be charged with manslaughter or homicide, but you would be charged with some form of murder either way.

              Assuming conviction or a guilty plea, certain sentencing standards would apply. You’d probably do time regardless. In some jurisdictions you might be executed, but that’s a serious flaw in our legal system that needs to be fixed.

              Regardless, after guilt has been ascertained, the most effective means of rehabilitating you and re-integrating you into society should be applied. That might mean extensive counseling and safety training during a period of confinement if it truly were an accident, or it might mean lifetime imprisonment if there’s no hope of rehabilitation.

              So, yes. The same standards must be applied. Those standards have (and should have) different methods of dealing with different actions, but the standards must always be the same.

              I have no clue where the charge of opaqueness comes from. This is all standard stuff that should have been covered in your civics classes.

              b&

              • Alex SL
                Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                I would like to know in what country you live so that I can avoid ever setting foot into it; I would like to avoid being jailed for assault because I accidentally stepped on somebody’s foot in a crowd.

                Where I come from, murder is intentional, and receives different treatment than accidental killing, and assault is intentional and receives different treatment from accidentally dropping something. This is considered, in my country, an advance compared to ancient Germanic were-gilt laws that did not necessarily make such distinctions.

              • Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

                I’m sorry, but you clearly did not understand a word I wrote — and you’re now strawmanning me as well.

                There’s a world of difference between killing somebody by dropping a hammer on his head (intentionally or otherwise) and stepping on somebody’s foot in a crowd (intentionally or otherwise).

                And if your country doesn’t take a similar approach to making the distinction between manslaughter and homicide as I made in the post you replied to, then I sure as hell don’t want to go anywhere near it.

                I rather suspect that it’s much more a matter of obtuseness on your part as opposed to any actual differences, though.

                b&

              • Alex SL
                Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

                Well, you were the one who introduced manslaughter and then called accidental manslaughter, and I quote, “murder”. Originally I used examples with theft and injury. And you are the one who prevaricates endlessly about “different methods but same standards” instead of simply spelling out whether decision capabilities matter or not. I am not obtuse but very clear on this: There is a clear difference between having decided to hurt somebody and doing so accidentally. If a German injures somebody in an accident, their insurance has to pay, but unless they were reckless* they don’t end up in prison like an assailant.

                And that is how it should be; the alternatives are vengeance or a myopic insistence that nothing matters anyway – either you punish a clumsy person the same way as a malicious one because they have cost you the same, or you don’t punish criminals at all because you claim they have no more autonomous decision making capability than a landslide or a virus. Which of course nobody here argues, but that is precisely my point from the beginning.

                *) I.e. they can be assumed to have been able to foresee the probable consequences of their actions – which is where decision making capabilities enter again.

              • Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

                I am absolutely flabbergasted that you think there are and should be no legal consequences for killing somebody, even unintentionally.

                May I suggest?

                Rectify your ignorance of the law before you inadvertently find yourself in serious trouble.

                According to Wikipedia, this is the relevant section of German law:

                http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_stgb/englisch_stgb.html#StGB_000P222

                b&

              • Alex SL
                Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

                I do not remember ever claiming that there should be no consequences, nor that there are none, for causing the death of a person. Quite apart from the fact that I was discussing theft and injury, I am claiming three things:

                (1) No punishment would be one of two logical conclusions from the view that a murderer does not have any more decision-making capabilities than somebody who lost control over their vehicle, or than an earthquake for that matter. (Because everything is just molecules and laws of physics anyway.)

                (2) Because nobody actually draws that conclusion, or the opposite, that the punishment for making a mistake should always be precisely the same as for deliberately harming somebody, it follows that nobody really believes that decision making capabilities/free will/volition/hurxflork don’t matter, or are an illusion, no matter what they claim to believe. (If you don’t like the other terms, just invent a new one. Semantic games FTW!) A similar situation is found with philosophers who claim that inductive reasoning cannot be justified but still use airplanes without fearing that the laws of aerodynamics suddenly change.

                (3) The law makes that distinction, and while there may be consequences, they are not the same. That was obviously not one of my original claims because I considered it self-evident. To cite from where your link goes:

                “Unless the law expressly provides for criminal liability based on negligence, only intentional conduct shall attract criminal liability.”

                “Persons who have not attained the age of fourteen at the time of the commission of the offence shall be deemed to act without guilt.”

                “Any person who at the time of the commission of the offence is incapable of appreciating the unlawfulness of their actions or of acting in accordance with any such appreciation due to a pathological mental disorder, a profound consciousness disorder, debility or any other serious mental abnormality, shall be deemed to act without guilt.”

                And so on. Again, if your country does not take intentional conduct into account, I would still like to know its name so that I can avoid traveling there.

  22. Diane G.
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    At any rate, most didn’t think that we should continue debating whether or not we have free will.

    We should be so lucky.
    ;)

  23. Jacob
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    “Dan Dennett’s claim (see Massimo’s summary) that society will fall apart if we don’t retain some notion of ‘free will’ was not widely shared. I don’t believe it for a minute. That was the claim made for religion, too, but largely atheistic societies, like those in Scandinavia, are pretty damn harmonious!”

    My position on this is that free will is largely a philosophical proposition. It may help us construct better institutions to govern society and mediate between its members (for example, in education or law), but knowing that “free will” doesn’t exist hasn’t really changed the way in which I view myself in relation to the world. I suspect that the same may be true for others. The loss of religion, in my opinion, represents a much larger shift in one’s worldview, because one’s moral precepts must change along with it. If society can indeed withstand the loss of religion, then it should be able to withstand the loss of free will.

  24. Myron
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    “What is naturalism? How can we move it forward if we don’t know what it is?” – J. Coyne

    Two very good questions!

    “Here are some things ‘naturalism’ has been taken to mean or imply:

    1. Philosophy should ‘respect’, ‘be informed by’, ‘wholeheartedly accept’ the methods and claims of science.

    2. When a well-grounded philosophical claim and an equally well-grounded scientific claim are inconsistent (whatever ‘equally well-grounded’ means), the scientific claim trumps.

    3. Philosophical questions are not distinct from scientific questions—they differ, if they do differ, only in level of generality.

    4. Both science and philosophy are licensed only to describe and explain the ways things are.

    5. Both philosophy and science are, in addition to the businesses of description and explanation, in the business of giving naturalistic justifications for epistemic and ethical ideals and norms.

    6. There is no room, or need, for the invocation of immaterial agents or forces or causes in describing or accounting for things.

    7. Mathematics and logic can be understood without invoking a Platonic (non-naturalistic) ontology.

    8. Ethics can be done without invoking theological or Platonic foundations. Ethical norms, values, and virtues can be defended naturalistically.

    9. Naturalism is another name for materialism or physicalism; what there is, and all there is, is whatever physics says there is.

    10. Naturalism is a form of non-reductive physicalism; there are genuine levels of nature above the elemental level.

    11. Naturalism is a thesis that rejects both physicalism and materialism; there are natural but ‘non-physical’ properties, e.g. informational states.

    12. Naturalism claims that most knowledge is a posteriori.

    13. Naturalism is indifferent to claims about whether knowledge is a priori or a posteriori, so long as whatever kind of knowledge exists can be explained, as it were, naturalistically.

    14. Naturalism is, first and foremost, an ontological thesis that tells us about everything that there is.

    15. Naturalism is, first and foremost, an epistemic thesis, which explains, among other things, why we should make no pronouncements about ‘everything that there is’.

    I could go on.
    ([Footnote:] I really mean that I could go on. I have developed lists of the meaning of ‘naturalism’ that I won’t subject to the reader, but which remind me of Paul Simon’s song ‘Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover’.)”

    (Flanagan, Owen. “Varieties of Naturalism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, edited by Philip Clayton and Zachary R. Simpson, 430-452. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. pp. 430-1)

  25. Myron
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    It should be mentioned that there is an ongoing debate among those philosophers who endorse “hard” naturalism, i.e. scientific/scientistic naturalism or natural-scientism, and those ones who endorse “soft” naturalism aka liberal naturalism. For more see (above!) the two books edited by De Caro&Macarthur!

    “Liberal Naturalism, as we understand it, is not a precisely defined credo. It is better seen as a range of attempts to articulate a new form of naturalism that wants to do justice to the range and diversity of the sciences, including the social and human sciences (freed of positivist misconceptions), and to the plurality of forms of understanding, including the possibility of nonscientific, nonsupernatural forms of understanding (whether or not these also count as forms of knowledge). …Liberal Naturalism…is best thought of as occupying the typically overlooked conceptual space between Scientific Naturalism and Supernaturalism.”

    (De Caro, Mario, and David Macarthur. “Introduction: Science, Naturalism, and the Problem of Normativity.” In Naturalism and Normativity, edited by Mario de Caro and David Macarthur, 1-22. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. p. 9)

    • Myron
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      For example, the following is an expression of a liberal naturalism:

      “I myself am persuaded that the only sort of naturalism that can lay claim to a promising future will have to be one that is sufficiently broad in its range and its sympathies to allow both the nature-geared scientistic version of the doctrine (geared to Naturwissenschaften, broadly construed) and the thought-geared insights of the humanistic sphere (the Geisteswissenschaften, broadly construed) to figure in cooperative coordination.
      In the end, then, it seems to me that the sort of naturalism that has a promising future will be one that is neither exclusively scientistic nor exclusively idealistic in its ethos but is humanistic in the sense of being sufficiently ample in scope to do full justice both to the works of nature itself and to those of humankind and mind operating within its realm. Such an ampler humanistic naturalism would view the way intelligence works as an integral part of a nature that has facilitated the evolutionary development of a being able to act freely—that is, to make use of intelligence for the guidance of action to meet its needs and desires within the operative setting that nature affords.”

      (Rescher, Nicholas. “The Future of Naturalism: Nature and Culture in Perspectival Duality.” In The Future of Naturalism, edited by John R. Shook and Paul Kurtz, 15-23. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books/Prometheus, 2009. p. 23)

  26. Myron
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Here’s John Dewey’s definition of “naturalism”:

    “Naturalism [Lat. naturalis, natural]: Ger. Naturalismus; Fr. naturalisme; Ital. naturalismo. The theory that the whole of the universe or of experience may be accounted for by a method like that of the physical sciences, and with recourse only to the current conceptions of physical and natural science; more specifically, that mental and moral processes may be reduced to the terms and categories of the natural sciences. It is best defined negatively as that which excludes everything distinctly spiritual or transcendental. In this meaning it is about equivalent to positivism.”

    (Dewey, John. “Naturalism.” In Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, edited by James Mark Baldwin. New York: Smith, 1901.)

    This is a definition of scientific/scientistic naturalism, of natural scientism.

  27. Brian
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I think the term “ways of knowing” is a BS term. I mean, eyewitness testimony is a way of knowing things, but it’s highly unreliable. The issue is not ways of knowing but how reliable various approaches knowing things that people use are and how those various approaches to knowledge work.

    I think your question of “whether mathematics is a way of finding out things that are true about the universe, i.e., whether math is continuous with science” is a better and far more interesting question. My thoughts from doing math professionally:

    Mathematics in itself is not about finding out things that are true about the universe, rather it is about finding out things that are true about mathematics. Much of mathematics is very abstract. Questions about Riemannian geometry or Abelian groups are studied independent of real world applications and deal with abstract objects that have no real world counterpart. Exotic spheres are important for the mathematics, but exotic spheres aren’t real world objects. The math I myself study is primarily applied to more mathematics.

    Also, it’s important to notice that math works very differently from science. The real world doesn’t come with axioms, the real numbers do. So you can prove theorems regarding real numbers without any empiricism, say without examples. I think examples in math are important, for example to check for reasoning errors (if there is a counterexample your theorem/argument is wrong!). But in principle you could do math without any empiricism whatsoever. Note that for some fields of math it is hard to produce explicit examples. With science, you don’t start with axioms, you need evidence to learn anything about the universe.

    That said math can be a way of uncovering truths about the universe. If you have a correct model of the universe, a mathematical theorem could tell you tell you something interesting about the model and thus about the universe. You still need to check what you learned from the math experimentally (the model may be wrong). But math can certainly suggest scientific hypotheses and thereby teach you facts about the universe. I usually just regard that as part of science.

    • Ivo
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      As another working mathematician, I completely agree with this view.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      I appreciate the perspective from a mathematician…but I think you might be missing something important from the world of empiricism.

      Do mathematicians often spend a great deal of effort on things that might well have no bearing at all on reality? Yes, of course.

      But so do empiricists.

      I think you’d agree that Euclidean Geometry is perfectly valid mathematically, yet it has only superficial application to the actual geometry of the Einsteinian universe we inhabit. Epicycles and the Luminiferous Aether are similarly theoretically valid, but also have no bearing on reality.

      And I’m sure you must be well aware of the countless variations on String Theory and other Theories of Everything that are every bit as fanciful as what a mathematician might work on.

      It’s not just physics. Lamarckism is theoretically sound and only falls down upon empirical observation.

      At the same time, math, at its inception as well as its foundation, is entirely empirical. I hope you don’t think that Pythagoras (or whomever) dreamt up that relationship about right triangles; rather, I assure you, it came about from drawing figures, seeing what sense could be made from them, and verifying those hypotheses — pure empirical science.

      The only difference I see between science and math is the relative emphasis on imagination as opposed to observation. Both are critical for both disciplines; it’s just that each have different emphases.

      It should hardly be surprising as a result that science tends to be more fruitful with immediate results…but it also shouldn’t be surprising that math gets in a good number of solid runs as well. Or that the two of them are constantly feeding off of each other.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Peter
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        “I think you’d agree that Euclidean Geometry is perfectly valid mathematically, yet it has only superficial application to the actual geometry of the Einsteinian universe we inhabit.”

        Well, that’s not at all true, is it? Euclidean geometry does correctly describe the geometry of the universe on small scales, and that’s very important to how one actually does theoretical and experimental physics. Right?

        That said, I have no idea how that affects the rest of the discussion here.

      • Brian
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        I think your description of empiricist spending time on things that have “no bearing at all on reality” is wrong. Scientists only claims things within experimental error. As Peter correctly points out, things like Euclidean geometry are used because they often approximate reality up to experimental error. The universe is (approximately) a space-time manifold and the curvature of time-space really only matters at the speed of light or large scale. Euclidean geometry is a perfectly good description of the universe at the scale of humans, cars, and the like. As for theoretic physics, the whole point of that is to gain insight in how the universe could in principle work given the theory in hopes of coming up with theories that describe how the universe actually does work. So things like Euclidean geometry and string theory are pursued because they do/could have a lot to do with reality.

        Modern mathematics is not Pythagoras’ theorem. In fact, most of modern mathematics can not be empirically investigated at all. You can’t run experiments on n-dimensional hypersurfaces for n > 2. You can write down examples and counterexamples, but they are represented in terms of mathematics. Often you have a mere handful of examples that merely suggest what might be true (and sometimes not even that). Even with a richer wealth of explicit examples, it’s well known that proof by example can and has gotten it wrong. You need a deductive argument to prove something is true, not experimental data.

        This isn’t to say there isn’t a back and forth between science and math or empiricism and deductive logic. Obviously there is. That’s partially why “ways of knowing” and things like NOMA are utter BS, the ways humans approach knowledge frequently overlap.

      • Ivo
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:41 am | Permalink

        Brian: “But in principle you could do math without any empiricism whatsoever.”

        vs

        Ben Goren: “At the same time, math, at its inception as well as its foundation, is entirely empirical.”

        In fact, you’re both right – for different values of “empirical”. At the most basic, it is certainly the case that mathematical intuition starts with our (biologically endowed and empirically informed) intuitions about space, quantity, collection, actions, etc. Also, the actual daily activity of any mathematician – no matter how abstract and divorced from reality her subject is – consists largely NOT in deriving long logical deduction, but rather in trying out numerous tentative ideas and hopeful computations on a blackboard, an activity that surely looks and feels pretty empirical (hypothesis -> test -> corrected hypothesis -> test it again etc). The formal and tidy deductive part usually comes up only when the result has been “found” (verified for sufficiently varied examples) and we want to write it up nicely in a paper.

        On the other hand, our intuition has been trained to go very far from the basic ones (anyone here got a feeling for quantum groups?) and the (mental and formal) reality we test our hypotheses against is very different from the (external and physical) reality that guides the natural sciences.

        It’s more complicated than this of course, since maths and the natural sciences strongly influence each other even at very advanced levels, but the difference in *goals* is very clear to me.

    • Peter
      Posted October 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure if this is just a quibble, but real numbers don’t *come with* axioms. We’ve made up a small set of axioms that we use to describe all the important things we think about when we think about real numbers, but the reals came first, then the axioms were invented and refined later (much later, I think).

      • Another Matt
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Hmm. Defining “real number” in any way is to carve out something axiomatic in conceptual space, whether or not it’s treated explicitly as a set of axioms at any given point in time.

        I think the reals and their arithmetic relations are “co-axiomatic” (for lack of a better term — I’m no mathematician) — in the sense that the reals and their relations have to be defined at the same conceptual level… the definitions depend on one another to stand as a logical whole.

        Your quibble probably does have some historical merit though — one of the reasons making “discoveries” in math feels similar to making empirical discoveries in science is that it takes a lot of work and we end up with new knowledge at the end of the process. Conceptually it’s not at all the same, though.

      • Brian
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        It’s a quibble over word choice mostly.

        Historically most math initially was done very intuitively. This eventually got mathematicians into some trouble. They discovered things like continuous functions that aren’t differentiable and learned that they needed to be more careful. Thus the created a more rigorous logical foundation for mathematics. In modern (rigorous) mathematics, the real numbers are defined by the axioms of the real numbers. If someone were to ask me how I know the square root of two exists, there is a proof in terms of the axioms, in particular the completeness axiom.

        Note that I’m not talking about mathematics “historically” here. There was a time in the past where mathematicians often did work in many different fields including surveyor work, engineering, and physics. Mathematics was far less rigorous. That’s not the type of mathematics many mathematicians do today, the mathematics is far more rigorous and frequently more abstract.

        • Ivo
          Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:59 am | Permalink

          “In modern (rigorous) mathematics, the real numbers are defined by the axioms of the real numbers.”

          To be even more rigorous, it has been known for decades that certain statements about the real numbers cannot be decided from the axioms that are usually used to define them. For a famous example, the Continuous Hypothesis (a statement about the possible cardinalities of subsets of real numbers) is neither true nor false with respect to the usual set theory that provides the context in which the real numbers are defined to students. Thus this particular statement could be taken to be true OR false, in effect further refining the concept of real numbers (which thus in general remains ambiguous).

          (It is even more interesting than this: according to the ambient set theory you adopt, what according to the usual set theory and for most mathematicians are *equivalent* ways to define the real numbers can actually yield *different* notions of real numbers, with different properties and uses.)

          Still, the mathematics of most professional mathematicians does NOT depend on choosing about these specific features of the real numbers, so in practice we pretend that they are uniquely and unambiguously defined by the usual axioms.

  28. Myron
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of mathematics, mathematical platonism, according to which there is a language- and mind-independent abstract reality, is incompatible with ontological naturalism, according to which Reality = Nature and Nature = MEST (the matter-energy-space-time system).

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      It’s not a major incompatibility, as long as you’re willing to distinguish abstract-reality from empirical-reality, with the latter 1-to-1-onto mappable to some sub-portion of the former, and consider the associated senses of “existing” as distinct concepts.

      Or in other words, as long as you consider Graham’s Number to “exist” in a different sense of that word than considering a hammer to “exist”, not a big deal.

  29. Ivo
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Jerry: if one considers mathematics to be part of science (as I do), then it can be used to provide plenty of examples of the direct influence of philosophy on science.

    As I had already mentioned once on this site, a big one is the field of mathematical logics, which is a rather direct descendant of philosophical logic, and also (in a delicious self-referential twist) of certain questions in the philosophy of mathematics itself! – what is a proof? what is a function? what is a computation? Can mathematical knowledge be grounded on a firm base once and for all? Now these (philosophical) questions have (mathematical) answers, and the process of answering them has produced much new mathematics – and also some unpredicted byproducts such as computers.

    Indeed, much of the mathematical activity around the turn of the (other) century was foundational in nature and thus oriented towards philosophical questions. Just think of Bertrand Russell (who was definitely both a mathematical and a philosophical logician), or Georg Cantor (who had a rather theologically informed view of his transfinite numbers), or Alfred Tarski (who “defined truth”!), or Kurt Gödel (who explicitly cites Kant as a source of inspiration for some of his most celebrated work).

    A similar story could be told for geometry and algebra, but I’ll refrain…

  30. Posted October 30, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I may have missed the complete list of attendees at the Naturalism meeting but I was wondering if Gazzaniga was there. Someone in a previous post made a reference to him. Just curious about what he had to say(if he was there). I think his latest book has much to say about this issue of intentionality, agency, and responsibility. There was an interesting Gifford series of lectures that he presented a few years ago that helped me with understanding the limitations of intentionality. Gazzaniga did make the case for “downward causation.” In other words, at one particular moment in time, unconscious physical states in the brain may lead to conscious awareness, and this state may influence the next physical state of the brain(unconsciously)at time 2, and influence the next conscious state. He had a diagram that explained it very well- my attempt to illuminate this concept is poor but I tried( and wasn’t entirely responsible!). Ha! Any thoughts about this model?

  31. krzysztof1
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    You wrote: //What is real? Weinberg at one point said “Santa Claus is real.” . . . That is confusing; I think: what Weinberg clearly meant was that “the concept of Santa Claus (and God) are real.” That’s a big difference.//

    Yes; so that would apply to ALL concepts, then–including unicorns, orbiting teapots, and the co-existence of Homo and dinosaurs. Isn’t the idea of a concept being ‘real’ similar to the ‘reality’ of Beethoven’s Ninth as expressed in the little data pits on a CD? (Or does the music not exist until perceived and interpreted by a human? I don’t think music exists for, say, a beetle–that may be sensitive to the vibration, but it would have no meaning for the insect.)

  32. Posted October 30, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I am particularly interested in whether mathematics is a way of finding out things that are true about the universe

    I would say, only in the same way that “is” answers can illuminate “ought” questions.

    Abstract mathematics ultimately involves the relationships between unspecified entities. Not all truths of mathematics are necessarily instantiated in the empirical. Contrariwise, in so far as there are mathematical relations specifically instantiated in the empirical, mathematics can talk about what other relationships are implied to exist. Science may then go out and find those mathematically predicted relations (as led to the discovery of Uranus)… or not (such as the continued failure to find the luminiferous ether).

    Nowhow, the failure of phenomena to correspond with the particular mathematics does not make the mathematics wrong. It just means that it does not correspond in that way to those phenomena.

    Mathematics thus illuminates the is, but to be specific requires an additional philosophical referent (the information of experience). Similarly, science can illuminate factual questions (does pushing this blue button cause the 40MT bomb to go inert, or to immediately explode in the middle of Manhattan), but only in so far as a moral axiom to bridge from is-to-ought is specified (would Manhattan’s destruction be a good thing compared to the alternative of it continuing to exist, or a bad thing?)


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