Two philosophers guilty of “philosophism” with respect to brain differences and free will

If “scientism” is the bad tendency of scientists to pronounce on matters outside their bailiwick, them I hereby proffer a new term: “philosophism“. And I define it as “the practice of philosophers pronouncing on matters outside their expertise”.  In the article below from the Irish Times, two philosophers Helen Beebee (University of Manchester) and Michael Rush (University of Birmingham) decide that questions of brain differences between sexes and genders, as well as the existence of free will, are questions that should not be left to scientists. (It’s common for philosophers to claim hegemony over free will at the expense of neuroscience). Their views constitute a good specimen of philosophism.

To be fair, they don’t completely agree with each other, and give science some room with questions of brain differences, but they still seem confused and muddled on both issues. I’ll explain below, but first read the short piece by Joe Humphreys, who interviews them both (I’ll use their initials when quoting the philosophers).

Joe Humphreys immediately irritated me at the start of the article with this characterization:

Science and philosophy have had a strained relationship in recent times. Their roles resemble that of a wide-eyed child and her grumpy uncle. Each time the youngster runs in with a new discovery, the older relative harrumphs: “Is that all? Sure, that doesn’t amount to anything?”

Philosophical pooh-poohing of neuroscience is particularly pronounced, especially giddy claims that brain scans have unlocked the secrets of human consciousness. Atheistic thinkers like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have latched onto current research to declare that free will does not exist. Rather, they say, our every decision is encoded in nature – a stance known as determinism.

First of all, I don’t know anyone who claims that “brain scans have unlocked the secrets of human consciousness.” Further, why are Sam and I described as “atheistic thinkers”? Our atheism has nothing to do with our views on free will or gender differences between brains, views that come from a scientific standpoint, not from our rejection of gods.

But never mind. The first philosophical misstep comes from Rush, who says this (questions in bold come from Humpreys):

Every couple of weeks there is a new study out on whether men’s and women’s brains differ. The majority view among neuroscientists now seems to be that brains are, in fact, gendered but it’s due to nurture rather than nature. What role do philosophers have in this debate?

MR: “If the differences come from nurture – which seems plausible if we’re talking about gender, because gender is a social phenomenon rather than a biological one – then the differences are not in any interesting way differences between kinds of brain; they’re differences in what we do to brains, or what kind of things we can make brains into.

“If we’re talking about the sexed nature of brains – a biological rather than a social phenomenon – then it’s plausible that there are differences between male and female brains, since they are intimately linked to, for instance, hormones, and the presence and levels of certain hormones vary depending on which sex one is.

“One role that philosophers have in this debate, as they have in any debate, is keeping the discussion honest.

“Neuroscientists can tell us what differences there are, if any, between male and female brains; philosophers can explain why the mere existence of the differences wouldn’t entitle us, despite what many people seem to think, to say that they were innate or outside our control.”

Let me be brief. Contra Rush, gender may be a biological phenomenon in an important way: someone who is born, say, in a male body who feels that they are female, and takes steps to look or identify as female, may well have done so because of biology. Transgender people often say that they feel they are of a different gender from their birth sex from a very young age. While this feeling could be socially conditioned, it may well be—and must often be—the result of cryptic biological phenomena, including wiring in the brain.

At least Rush admits that there could be biological differences between male and female brains: I hope so, because there’s plenty of evidence for that.  But what is this with philosophers “keeping the discussion honest”? Do we scientists tend to dishonesty? Further, what is this about scientists being unable to tell us which differences are “innate” (presumably biological differences that may be evolved) or “outside our control.” Both of these are empirical determinations that are the bailiwick of scientists and empiricists, not philosophers. Philosophers can add clarity to discussions, and help weed out bad arguments, but they cannot tell us what is empirically true. Whether a phenomenon is “innate” or “produced by social forces” are empirical questions.

And who is going to keep the philosophers honest? (Curmudgeons like me, I guess.)

The confusion between social conditioning and inborn biological features continues, but let’s pass on to what really interests me: free will.  Note when you read the discussion that neither Beebee nor Rush ever explicitly define what they mean by free will when they pronounce on it. At least “atheist thinkers” like Sam and I define it (we think of it as libertarian “you could have done otherwise” free will). In the bit below, Rush claims that free will is not a scientific matter because you cannot “run an experiment” on it. Jebus! What a canard! (That’s an insult to ducks.)

Another battle ground between neuroscience and philosophy surrounds the question of free will. Is there an experiment that could be designed to settle the matter once and for all?

MR: “No. Whether there is free will is not the sort of thing we can tell by looking. It’s easy to get carried away with the widespread successes of the scientific method and start assuming that it is the only – rather than just a really fruitful – way of getting to know things about the world.

“Some things, like what happens when you chuck caesium in the bath, are most easily discovered by, well, in that particular case, grabbing some caesium and chucking it in the bath. And standing well back.

“Some things we can’t discover by running an experiment. But if we can’t send out a search party to see if we have free will, and we don’t think the question is hopeless, how else might we set about it?

“What we do first is we define in careful terms just what we mean by asking if an action is free. Once we’ve decided what we’re asking about, we consider our other theoretical commitments, and we see if free will is consistent with those. Both those essential tasks are very difficult, but neither is achievable by running an experiment.”

Ummm. . . what about the series of experiments showing that you can predict people’s decisions with a significant level of accuracy by scanning their brains? Those are experiments, aren’t they? What about experiments in which brains are stimulated to produce “involuntary” actions, giving people a sense of agency where it doesn’t exist? What about diseases that efface people’s sense of agency? These are all empirical matters, and many are experiments; all bear on at least my conception of free will.

Rush, I fear, is either ignorant of these data or is using the usual anti-science trope in which something is claimed to be true but outside of science because “you can’t run an experiment on it.” Well, it happens to be the case that a lot of science depends not on experiments but on observations, analysis, and predictions. There are almost no experiments described in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Does that mean it’s not science? What about figuring out how stars evolve over time? That’s observation, not experiment. And so on. This is not rocket science, Drs. Beebee and Rush!

I will claim that because the laws of physics affecting matter are observed to hold universally, this shows that we have no free will in the contracausal sense. Our brains are matter, what we do depends on our brains and what impinges on them, and therefore our actions must be determined by the laws of physics alone. (This includes those laws that mandate some pure indeterminism, like the behavior of electrons. But that indeterminism still comports with the physical determinism of free will because we cannot use our will to affect electrons.)

Here Dr. Beebee also gets muddled about free will:

Thinkers on free will have divided into three camps: determinists (who say all future states of mind have prior causes in line with best scientific thinking), free-willists (who reject determinism), and compatibilists (who see no contradiction between free will and determinism). Which one are you?

HB: “Well, I’m not sure about determinism; I think that’s one for the physicists to figure out. But I’m a compatibilist so I think even if determinism turned out to be true, we would have free will.

“We wouldn’t be controlled by the laws of nature, or by our brains – as though we’d just be puppets being controlled by some unseen puppet-master. To put it crudely, there isn’t enough of a gap between me and my brain for it to really make sense to think that my brain is somehow controlling me. And as for the idea that laws of nature control me, well, I’m not even sure that makes sense.”

The physicists have already figured out that determinism refutes the notion of contracausal free will defined as ‘free will’ by people like Sam and me. Read some Sean Carroll (a compatibilist), Dr. Beebee! But note that she doesn’t define free will.

But she’s a compatibilist, so she has to adhere to at least one concept of free will that’s compatible with determinism. Sadly, she doesn’t say which one. And her second paragraph, in which she denies being a puppet is confusing. Beebee’s statement that “there isn’t enough of a gap between me and my brain for it to really make sense to think that my brain is somehow controlling me” is a simple Deepity. What kind of gap is she talking about? Finally, it makes perfect sense to say that the “laws of nature control me”: that’s what physical determinism of behavior is all about. I get the sense here that Beebee may be out of her depth, or else is using philosospeak to somehow attack determinism.

Some final waffling by Dr. Rush:

What about you Michael? Is determinism a rational stance?

MR: I think the answer is ‘yes’, but there are a couple of questions worth keeping separate. Is it rational to believe that every event was fully caused by some preceding event, according to the operation of some fixed natural laws? Sure.

“Whether that’s true, and what those laws are, look like jobs for physics to concern itself with. The second question is more worrying to some people: Is it rational to believe that if determinism were true we would have no free will? I think the answer to that is ‘yes’ as well.

“It’s also rational to believe we would have free will under those conditions. Whether or not we have free will won’t be decided by whether either view is irrational, just like two scientists can both be rational but disagree about whether the evidence they share points to the existence of a new boson.

Well, at least he argues that determinism (which is true) is a rational stand. As far as the “worrying” second question, “Is it rational to believe that if determinism were true we would have no free will?”, Rush waffles. All he needs to say is “yes, we have no free will in the contracausal sense if determinism is true, but if you define free will in a compatibilist way, then yes, we might have a form of free will.” The first question, whether contracausal free will exists, has already been answered in the negative, by evidence. The question of whether we have compatibilist free will is a semantic and philosophical one, and depends on your definition. Of course compatibilists always define free will in a way that we do have it: that, after all, is why they are compatibilists.

This is not rocket science, but somehow both Beebee and Rush manage to mangle language and thought, and wind up confusing the reader.

I defy the scientifically-minded layperson to read this piece and, at least with respect to free will, come up with a summary of what these two philosophers really think. All I can discern is that they want to elbow themselves into issues of free will that are susceptible to scientific investigation, and, keeping the scientists “honest”, want to tell us, “Hey, listen to us philosophers!”  This is a prime example of philosphism.


h/t: Michael


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:11 pm | Permalink


    • GBJames
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      #me, too

    • rgsherr
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 3:29 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    It’s common for philosophers to claim hegemony over free will at the expense of neuroscience

    That’s what philosophers do. They observe other fields, considering themselves to be insightful, semi-detached observers, and then pronounce themselves experts on the “philosophy of …” that field.

    Thus they proclaim themselves experts on all sorts of things (e.g. “morality”) that are better approached in other ways (“morality” is best approached via biology and psychology, not academic philosophy).

    Sometimes their insights do have merit! (But it takes the scientists to tell them which ones.)

    • Copyleft
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Philosophy: the cultivation of opinion in the guise of knowledge. “If you can’t test it, you can’t trust it.”

    • Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      It’s more like philosophers spend centuries pointlessly arguing about something without ever bothering to check their speculations against reality because answering a question once and for all would put them out of a job; then science comes along like Deep Thought and tramples all over their ‘rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.’

    • Roo
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      I’d argue that philosophy has advanced civilization quite a bit. Just because there are bad philosophers doesn’t mean all philosophy is bad. Philosophy at its core is just applied logic (at least in most cases). It has been central to fields such as government, law and ethics, for example.

      I think the problem with the endless free will debates is that people are happy to go on defending a concept that can’t be expressed in words, much less tested for (you can show evidence that it is not present, but I can’t think of how one would prove, empirically, that it is present). If you know from the start that there is no way to really prove your point, then logic and analysis aren’t the tools you need to discuss it – it’s more like mysticism at that point.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      “Sometimes their insights do have merit! (But it takes the scientists to tell them which ones.)”

      Yes! The philosophers’ role these days seems to be to come up with all the questions that science is not asking. This is a worthwhile activity as scientists tend to keep their head down into the research. Scientists ARE concerned about these questions but philosophers are better at getting them out there in the first place. On the other hand, philosophers are not so good at answering these question but they still provide a valuable service to society.

      • Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        Maybe; can you give recent examples of philosophers raising significant questions ahead of the relevant scientists?

        • Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

          I don’t know about “ahead” but, for example, they are asking good questions about AI and its implications for society. I certainly don’t mean to imply that scientists are not asking these questions too but good philosophers can add to the discussion. At a minimum, philosophers are generally less biased by direct involvement in the work.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Shame the great Sam Cooke isn’t not around to sing lyrics like:

    Don’t know much about philosophism
    Don’t know much about the books’n’what’s in ’em
    Don’t know much about scientism
    Don’t know much about the arts’n’science schism

  4. darrelle
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    “Further, why are Sam and I described as “atheistic thinkers”? Our atheism has nothing to do with our views on free will or gender differences between brains, views that come from a scientific standpoint, not from our rejection of gods.”

    In this context, “atheistic thinkers” and “scientific thinkers” are synonymous I think. Humphreys is an accommodationist, or at least he seems to be talking just like one.

  5. Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    My summary of their view is that that believe we have free will because they want to believe we have free will.

    • Copyleft
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal made a similar observation.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      I agree. Even though I am a compatibilist, I wouldn’t want these two philosophers to defend my position.

  6. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    there’s a line in Steven Weinberg’s recent book – I think “To Explain The World” … I can’t get the quote right now, but perhaps I will later… it has to do with the relationship between experiment and interpretation. That’s as far as I’ll go right now (I wrote a longer comment but oof – let me get the book).

  7. darrelle
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Is there an experiment that could be designed to settle the matter of whether or not freewill exists once and for all?

    In principle it is something that could be answered by science. Philosophy, on the other hand, can’t answer this question by itself even in principle. It could discuss the issue to death though.

    • Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      “Is there an experiment that could be designed to settle the matter of whether or not freewill exists once and for all?”

      Yes, but only for a clear and specific definition of “free will”.

      • darrelle
        Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        Yes, couldn’t agree more. As with anything you can’t say much of anything useful about it if you can’t define it. I’d think this might be where philosophy could make a useful contribution but these two seem a bit cagey about defining terms clearly.

      • Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        Yes, they did get that part right. Not enough is said on defining exactly what is meant by “free will”. There is a strong tendency to immediately jump to a yes/no answer.

    • Posted April 26, 2019 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Is there an experiment that could be designed to settle the matter of whether or not freewill exists once and for all?

      Is there a experiment to settle the matter whether quantum mechanically models accurately reflect reality? Well they are accurate, but we do have good reason to believe they are fundamentally ‘wrong’.

      How many sigmas of confidence will we accept as settling the matter?

      • Posted April 26, 2019 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        Whether they do or not doesn’t affect the argument for physical determinism.

        • Posted April 26, 2019 at 9:46 am | Permalink

          I am not claiming otherwise Jerry.

          I just thought the question was strange. Science tends eliminate ideas rather than create them. As someone with a scientific background who eventually thought about the matter, I came to the conclusion that I don’t have free will. Having said that I happily went through fifty odd years believing in free will and the last twelve happily not believing in free will.

          Looking for mechanisms for our free will brings on cognitive dissonance in me.

      • darrelle
        Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        I don’t disagree with the difficulty or “nebulosity” of the issue. The best answer to both questions right now is, “we don’t know.” But in both cases it is in principle possible. The only point I was hoping to make is that if a method of discovery doesn’t involve testing against reality then any answers generated by it do not warrant a degree of assuredness warranted for something so well supported by evidence that it is considered “settled.”

  8. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    “there isn’t enough of a gap between me and my brain for it to really make sense to think that my brain is somehow controlling me.”

    I would have thought that there was no gap.

    Perhaps she is some kind of duelist, such that she controls her brain and not the other way around, but what is this ‘she’ that is doing the controlling?
    What is it made of and where does it live?

    • rickflick
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      I think perhaps you’ve misunderstood Beebee’s remark. She’s arguing against dualism: if I simply am the action of my brain, then it makes no sense to say that I’m not in control of my own behavior (as determinists are fond of saying). Controlling behavior is what brains evolved for.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      “there isn’t enough of a gap between me and my brain for it to really make sense to think that my brain is somehow controlling me.”

      This is a good example of their fuzzy thinking here. To be charitable, perhaps it was just because of the shortness of the conversation. If given more space to explain, perhaps their position would have made more sense.

  9. Copyleft
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    The advent of neuroscience marked the beginning of the SCIENCE of psychology. Everything prior to that was the ‘guesswork’ of psychology.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      That’s not fair. Psychological experiments can certainly be done scientifically without actually doing neuroscience. In fact, such experiments guide neuroscience as to what to look for.

  10. Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I agree that the useful role for philosophy in these areas is to “clarify the discussion,” not to contribute empirical truth.

    Neuroscience leaves virtually no room to doubt the conclusion that every human bodily movement, and hence all human behavior, is produced by chains of causation that originate outside the person, generally far back in time. To assert the existence of free will is to negate this conclusion, and there is simply no evidentiary basis to do so.

    I believe that this way of defining free will (really only an explication of “contracausal”) is preferable to the “can do otherwise” formulations because the word “can” has multiple meanings, as eloquently described by Dennett and Honoré. These multiple meanings can be a source of great mischief as philosophers make plays on them to reach conclusions that are mistaken or misleading.

    • Posted April 26, 2019 at 4:27 am | Permalink

      No, the “contracausal” definition is supposed to be derived from the “could have done otherwise” definition. The only reason people defined free will as “contracausal” is because they thought that was necessary to secure the “could have done otherwise”. So it would be putting the cart before the horse to stick to the “contracausal” definition if that’s not required for could-have-done-otherwise.

  11. Vaal
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    (Just offering an observation here with no intention of being involved in a long free will debate)

    I can’t help adding something adjunct to the topic, because the mention of Free Will and Sam Harris is just too coincidental with thoughts that have arisen while listening to his recent podcast.

    There seems to me a tension between some of the arguments Sam uses against Free Will and the arguments he promulgates in other realms, e.g. his stance on radical Islam.

    When Sam is arguing against free will, part of his argument involves making the case we are not in control of our thoughts and ultimately of our actions – at least in part because they are a mystery to us.

    He points to “evidence” from meditation that thoughts just arise unbidden from our unconscious – hence we really DON’T KNOW why any thought arises, and also points to some experiments showing people can make up conscious stories for decisions that were known to influenced by some experimentally administered cause.

    Sam often says that the upshot is that we can’t in fact explain WHY we ever had any thought or took any action. Every single attempt at explanation will be pushed back again by “well, explain how THAT preceding notion occurred to you.” And as the causal chain can be pushed back to some point that is unknown, well…our choices are ultimately just a mystery to us.

    I (and of course others) have often pointed out that this seems to be special pleading . We do not cease our ability to identify causes on the fact that the causal chain can continue to be traced to unknown preceding causes. If that were the case, you couldn’t say “X” caused the fire, unless you could know or account for the string of causation before-hand, ultimately stretching back to the Big Bang!

    But Sam would say you couldn’t *really* explain why you chose to attend one university over the other. You don’t have access to the *real* reasons because he can keep asking “but why did you think THAT?” and stretch the causal chain ultimately to unknowns.

    And yet…Sam just repeated a podcast on his well known theme: criticizing the way liberals downplay Islam as a motivating factor for terrorism. Liberals are always trying to concoct other explanations than the ones actually given by the Islamist terrorists themselves. No, says Sam. The terrorist’s are TELLING US their motivations. I can read to you from ISIS’s own Dabiq, in which they explaining, as they have before, WHY they have chosen to do those acts. We need to listen to THEM because they have access to the reasons they do things! No reason to point to other causes!

    I’m left wanting to ask Sam: Which is it? Is it the case we actually don’t have access to the reasons why we make any choices? Or do Islamists actually have access to the reasons they made their choices?

    If we don’t have access, why accept his argument that Islamists know why they did anything?

    If we DO have access to the experiences, emotions, and thought processes that motivated our choices…as the Islamists must in order to tell us why they do what they do…then why accept this lack-of-agency/mystery claim uses in his case against Free Will?

    • A C Harper
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      I’m currently reading ‘The Mind is Flat’ by Nick Chater that speaks about this. He argues that at any one moment we act in accordance with our innate nature and previous experiences (determinism)… but we improvise
      ‘sensible’ reasons to explain to ourselves and others why we did those things (generating the illusion of the feeling of our own free will and the appearance of free will to others).

      So it is quite possible for terrorists (for instance) to have no free will about what they do, but to improvise a ‘belief’ about their activities. A narrative that can be shared and reinforced by others with the same deterministic expectations.

      Now I haven’t completed the book yet so there may be more twists and turns… but the message is that our understanding of beliefs, morals, and psychology may be based on illusions. I guess philosophies are too.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 25, 2019 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        A C Harper,

        Indeed, but the problem is in how these claims are stretched further than is warranted (in terms of what they can actually explain).

        For one thing, back to Sam Harris, if the terrorists are telling us fictions about why they actually act as they do…why believe them? And also, why think their fictions can have any predictive quality about their behavior. Harris has argued that some beliefs are so pernicious that we could be warranted in killing someone based on what they believe. But since we can’t know what someone believes unless they tell us, and if they are going to inevitably tell us a fiction, how could it make sense that we know why we’d have to kill them merely on their stated belief? Harris is constantly telling us that beliefs matter – the consciously stated beliefs people have – because our actions are predicated on those beliefs and predict behavior. He keeps saying that we ought to accept the Terrorists belief claims because *they make sense of and explain their actions.*

        I agree with Sam. But then, it can’t make sense to propose that all our conscious beliefs about our reasons for actions are fictions.

        And the claim our conscious “excuses” are fictions doesn’t really translate in to what it would have to explain. How is it then that the “fictions” we make for why we do things seem tightly coupled enough that they are predictive of, and explanatory of those actions?

        If we ask the scientists at NASA “why did you make these series of choices in designing this mars probe?” we presume they have access to those actual reasons. They’ll provide a chain of justifications “the result of X experiment suggested to us that Y design was the way to go” etc. Their reasoning will make tight *sense* of their choices and the conscious reasons they give will be *predictive* of the types of choices they make in the future.

        What would be a more parsimonious explanation than this, that also explains and predicts just as much? “Well, maybe the air conditioner was set a bit low one day, and Fred had a fish sandwich that disagreed with him, and Ed had just watched a commercial that influenced him…”?

        Was all the math arrived at by butterfly-effect levels of coincidence to make it seem like it was people consciously going through a chains of reasoning, and really it wasn’t the math that led to their conclusions…it was…something else? A fight with the wife? Seems rather extreme and as yet unwarranted.

        This is my problem with all these appeals to the idea we don’t *really* have access to the reasons we do things. It seems to remove human rationality altogether, but leaves this massive explanatory gap. The fact that some experiments can show that in certain situations we can concoct stories that are unrelated to the truth of why we did X, doesn’t entail that we *never* have access to why we did X. If that were the case, we literally couldn’t have rational conversations or pass knowledge to each other.

        And it’s self-defeating. If everyone’s account of why they did x or what they thought were a pleasant fiction, then there is no reason to accept the account from scientists or others producing the very experiments that purport to show our consciousness is fictional. Why should I accept their account for why and how they performed the experiments, and for why they drew the conclusions they are giving me?

        This isn’t at all a denial of the results of interesting experiments, but rather a skepticism about how they are interpreted and how broad the inferences are from them.

        • Posted April 25, 2019 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

          The reasons that groups of people have for taking particular actions may be more accessible than the reasons that individuals have for taking particular actions. Groups of people are more likely to deliberate proposed actions openly explicitly, while individuals have the possibility of taking action without open or explicit prior deliberation of reasons pro and con.

          It therefore might, as Harris says, make more sense to listen to the reasons that groups give for the actions that they take.

          • Vaal
            Posted April 26, 2019 at 12:36 am | Permalink


            Interesting conjecture.

            Though even taken at face value, it would contradict Harris’ claims.

            Though I don’t see that, ultimately, there would be some hard distinction between having access to our reasons for actions in a group or as an individual.

            If we go to a nice restaurant and they serve up some on the house appetizers (as some nice restaurants do), what if they are meat based and I politely decline mine. You ask why, I tell you it’s because I’m a vegetarian. You ask why I’m a vegetarian, I tell you why (maybe I don’t like the taste of meat, maybe it’s ethical considerations, whatever).

            This would be very strange if in fact I didn’t know why I actually rejected the appetizers, and my account was fictional.
            Stranger still would be that you could use what I’ve told you to accurately predict that the next time we eat, I’ll likely be avoiding the items with meat. If I don’t really know why I make those choices, how is it my fictional version seems to explain, and predict, my action so well? What *would* an alternative explanation look like – the “real one” – that fits and predicts my actions as the explanation I gave?

            If I’d designed a new small speed boat for the market and you asked why I made the design choices I did, I’d be able to give quite a detailed, tightly interlocking account “I chose this form of steering wheel for X reasons, this part because it provided the most bang for my buck in doing what I needed it to do, bow shape for these reasons…and I can show you the math that led me to re-designing the bow shape…”

            Given the long list of interlocking decisions that seem to follow rationally from the next, the question would be, if THOSE reasons I gave weren’t the real reasons…and my unconscious self actually had entirely different reasons for all the design decisions but which still managed to produce a well designed boat…..what could they be?

            And why would we expect whatever possibly non-rational decisions led to how the boat was made to be at all reliable or predictive?
            In other words, you order a boat from me, why wouldn’t I end up producing a bicycle instead?

            What rules of inference would be happening in our unconscious if not, generally speaking, the ones that we can access consciously and describe, which do so well to often explain, constrain and predict our behavior?

            • rickflick
              Posted April 26, 2019 at 6:10 am | Permalink

              You can think of decisions as of two kinds. One type is decisions deeply grounded in circumstances that follow logically and inevitably from some initial conditions. Such as being given the instruction to design a boat with certain characteristics. Another type is simple preference decisions. You chose spaghetti instead of pork chops. These simpler type are the ones that most easily illustrate the minds difficulty in assigning reasons to actions. Probably the first, complex type, consists of some of the simple type, such as deciding to go with a two tone, black and red paint scheme. A decision that was left up to the designer’s personal preference.

              When a decision is made where some personal preference is involved, many unconscious urges are going to come into effect. These cannot be easily moved into consciousness for analysis.

              • Vaal
                Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:07 am | Permalink

                (My last reply on this…)

                Hi rickflick,

                Sticking to my critique of Sam’s argument, the problem there is that your reply seems to grant some conditions under which we can explain our choices and thought processes. In the context of Sam’s argument against free will, NO such cases can be granted. The lack of control and inability to “really explain” our actions is a fundamental part of Sam’s argument. So it would be like saying “in some conditions we have free will.”

                Again, I am not disputing that in some conditions we can discover or be provoked through test conditions that some of our decisions occur for other reasons than the conscious reasons we give. But I dispute that this grants automatic warrant to all instances of decision-making. It would be like taking the classic reflex test, rubber hammer to the bend of the knee where the knee flexes uncontrollably for the subject. And then we wildly extrapolate from this “See…NOTHING is under our conscious control!” That clearly isn’t an instance of scientific caution. “pure reflex” doesn’t come close to explaining for us all it would need to explain (e.g…why could I tell you in advance what I’m going to do and do it, or how can I refrain from doing something I’m asked to do? etc). Yes in the limited clinical situation the doctor can say “the hit on your knee caused you knee to flex, not a conscious decision over which you had control.’ But how would that grant the claim that my complex planning for a trip, or deciding which university to apply to, could be explained by my “not being in control” and pure reflex? Same problem arises in trying to explain any number of our decision-making on the claim “you don’t know why you made any of those decisions.”

                That’s why I’m suspicious of the grand inference from some controlled experiments to everything we do, and Sam’s inference from the conditions of meditation where thoughts seem to arise unbidden to his conclusion “all thought processes are mysterious in this way.” Why take very particular conditions – ones in which we are specifically NOT trying to put together chains of reasoning, as explanatory of all the conditions where we are thinking through reasons. I think it was Gregory Kusnick who put it well: The argument from meditation seems like learning to let go of the wheel, and then noticing no one is driving.

                Sam’s approach depends on pushing the explanatory chain until one hits mystery, and then declaring mystery.

                So if I chose seafood over steak and Sam asks why I made that choice, surveying my reasons I could say – because I don’t eat red meat. Sam will ask, ok, but why did you choose the scallops over the salmon? I say: because upon seeing them on the menu it reminded me that I’d read the scallops are particularly fresh in this restaurant. We continue like this until Sam can elicit a thought for which I can’t give an explanation….”why did X thought arise over some other possible thought?” Keep pushing and you will *always* likely be able to find that spot. Then Sam declares “see, it’s ultimately a mystery to you why you chose as you did!” But how is it I wouldn’t already have *explained* my choice to the satisfactory degree we accept for any other explanation or identifying a proximate cause? We don’t require an explanation, say for what starts a fire, to stretch back to the big bang or it’s not explained. We identify what is useful, the proximate cause, which can be used to predict other similar circumstances. Same with the reasons we give for a decision. If the proximate cause seems identifiable by our consciousness, it can also be predictive of future behavior, which suggests the explanation is accurate.

                And, back to my critique, this is pretty much what Sam argues out of the other side of his mouth when criticizing Liberals on Islamic beliefs. That we should listen to the conscious reasons someone gives us for their actions, because it explains and predicts their actions better than any other explanation.

                Anyway, thanks. I think I’m out…


              • rickflick
                Posted April 26, 2019 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

                Thanks for the extended response. I think we are more or less on the same page. The semantic issues prevent determining exactly how exactly we can make and receive explanations. My small contribution, I think, (see, even I don’t know what I mean), was meant to say that simple decisions of preference seem to show more clearly that that we are unaware of immediate sources of our decisions. More complex ones like designing to a specification may disguise our lack of such ability. I’m a hard determinist(acknowledging the dodgy way quantum events can confuse things).

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted April 26, 2019 at 12:00 am | Permalink

      I’m not au fait with Sam Harris’s latest thoughts on free will, but I read this exchange between Vaal and A C Harper with great interest, if not complete understanding; and there’s much to contemplate. But as I read, one thought kept nagging me — a lot of what’s said, whether conjecture or not, comes perilously close to the postmodernist rejection of objective reality and the corollary that, ergo, reality is nothing but a convenient construct and consensus, a useful fiction; so reality is fiction and fiction is reality and we can all find “our truths,” my truth, your truth, everybody’s got their own truth (and truth value), scientific or personal, and ‘our truths’ are true insofar as there is a consensus on who has the most compelling narrative. Narrative psychology is built on such a foundation! Should I go read Feyerabend? Please say no.

      • A C Harper
        Posted April 26, 2019 at 2:15 am | Permalink

        Fear not. The argument is more ‘Objective reality is hidden from your introspection so you justify your (objectively driven) actions by an improvised excuse that sound reasonable’. This doesn’t reject objective reality at all – it suggests that we justify our actions too readily.

        So your reasons for not eating meat (say) may not be available for introspection, but if they keep determining that you don’t eat meat then eventually you adopt ‘I’m a vegetarian’ or ‘I think eating meat is cruel’ as a handy social explanation.

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted April 26, 2019 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          Can you recommend some reading so that I can clarify things? I’ve been pondering some different matters that seem similarly inscrutable as far as their quiddity. Perhaps gaining a greater understanding of one will help me with the others.

  12. Posted April 25, 2019 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Rush acknowledges it’s “plausible” that biological differences between male and female brains exist. Then, without batting an eye, he asserts that “philosophers can explain why the mere existence of the differences wouldn’t entitle us … to say that they were innate or outside our control.”

    I don’t think he understands the meaning of the word “innate”.

  13. Posted April 25, 2019 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    If there is anything more confusing to me than a philosopher, it is two philosophers.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I see they are promoting a book called “Philosophy: Why It Matters”; Helen Beebee, Michael Rush;; January 2019 [ ].

    I hereby proffer a new term: “philosophism“. And I define it as “the practice of philosophers pronouncing on matters outside their expertise”.

    That is interesting; let me level some sophistry onto philosophy.

    Since I noted the philosophic use of “scientism” but took it to mean pronouncing on all matters (the universe, essentially), I took to name the untestable claims of philosophers on all matters including on how science work (“philosophy of science”) “philosophism”. Fair use and all that.

    Their claims are – after 3,000 years [!] – “untestable” since they themselves demand impossible 0 % uncertainty in their truth value models. You can as well take sciences facts “proven beyond reasonable doubt” and make it philosophy truth “proven beyond unreasonable doubt”. Some philosophers puts facts before philosophy in some matters (but never science of science before “philosophy of science”, say). But that is like observing that a cat sometimes is where its servants wants it to be.

    Speaking of which, “free will” is such a philosophic concept, unreasonable from start to end. To misquote Simpson from the other day:

    “What is philosophy? No matter. What is matter? Never philosophy.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I forgot. On the notion that philosophy can add clarity and help weed out bad arguments, that seems like a losing game based on examples such as this. Especially when they cannot do so in their own field.

      But sure, helpful pointers are welcome. If they realize it is not because there is some intrinsic value to philosophy, and insist on dragging their own baseless ideas into it. When they freely doodle in public science commentary, I can’t see the harm.

  15. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    But what is this with philosophers “keeping the discussion honest”? Do we scientists tend to dishonesty?

    No, but some scientists do sometimes overinterpret their own work, drawing conclusions that aren’t warranted by the evidence. Rush is saying that philosophers can help them avoid this pitfall by pointing out examples of overinterpretation.

    • Posted April 25, 2019 at 8:32 pm | Permalink


    • Posted April 26, 2019 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      Libet, it so happens, interpreted his results as not ruling out free will. Was that an ‘over-interpretation’?

      Libet’s findings (which have been repeated many times) are alluded to in the OP as evidence against contra-causal free will. Is that an over-interpretation?

      Dennett is a compatibilist while other philosophers are determinists or free-willers. And there are dualists and monists. So what we have is an unresolved and seemingly interminable debate among philosophers as to the ramifications of the scientific findings. IOW, philosophy has yet again been unable to provide a definitive answer on anything.

      Anyhow, what grants philosophers superior ability over scientists to interpret the latter’s results when, as Rush & Beebe show, philosophers are often grossly ignorant of the science they insist only they can properly interpret? It’s hubris.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        I don’t expect every working scientist to be an expert mathematician, statistician, and logician in addition to mastering the skills of their own discipline. I do expect them to consult experts in those other fields when they encounter problems that require those skills.

        Philosophers have specialized training in identifying and dissecting flawed arguments that the general run of working scientists don’t have. Scientists ought to be willing to avail themselves of that expertise just as they do that of other specialists.

        • Posted April 27, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          The only example you’ve provided are Libet-type experiments, and you still haven’t explained how Libet, et al. misinterpreted their findings. I’d really need more concrete examples before accepting that philosophers have any value-add.

          Since philosophers can never agree on the answers to the most basic questions, or even the form of logic to employ, I’m not sure all that specialized training is doing much.

      • Posted April 27, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        “IOW, philosophy has yet again been unable to provide a definitive answer on anything.”

        Yes, but this is due to the nature of philosophy, not the failure of philosophers to do their job properly. Their explanations are in terms of pure reasoning rather than experimental evidence. If a philosopher ever provided experimental evidence for one of their ideas, we would instantly call it science. Philosophical ideas are by their nature contextual and culturally relative and, therefore, tending to change with time.

        • Posted April 27, 2019 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

          And I’ve had philosophers tell me that, since the empirical evidence doesn’t jive with their ‘pure reasoning’, the evidence must be invalid. FTS.

          Even within a given context and time frame, philosophers can’t agree with each other. They’re as useless as economists.

  16. Scientifik
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    While we are on the subject, it looks like the debate on free will went mainstream in Warsaw, Poland 😉

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

      That’s Hili’s doing!

  17. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    See for example Dennett’s critique (in Freedom Evolves) of the incompatibilist interpretation of Libet experiments.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 26, 2019 at 12:55 am | Permalink

      Sorry, this was meant as a reply to Matt above.

  18. Posted April 26, 2019 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    Ironically, Beebee didn’t notice that the clearest reason for compatibilism is given to us by science. Sadly, that’s common. Luckily, we have Bertrand Russell, who wrote:

    The view [that there is any conflict between the subjective sense of freedom and physical determinism] rests upon the belief that causes compel their effects, or that nature enforces obedience to its laws as governments do. These are mere anthropomorphic superstitions, due to assimilation of causes with volitions and of natural laws with human edicts.

    Russell, the author of The ABC of Relativity, knew how wrong our intuitive concept of time was, and thus our intuitive concept of causality. The intuitive concept of causality drives incompatibilism. The scientific one dispels it.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that Russell quote. I’m saving that one for a special occasion.

  19. Posted April 26, 2019 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    … there isn’t enough of a gap between me and my brain for it to really make sense to think that my brain is somehow controlling me.

    What of Beebe’s “me” is there, that does not reside in her brain? I wish they’d just come right out and admit they’re talking about a soul.

    • Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Eyes, ears, hands, feet …? I can think of a lot of things that count as part of me.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      It seems like their are several definitions of “me” being used in that sentence, though I haven’t reasoned it out in detail. It’s just an offhand statement and I give her the benefit of the doubt.

      • Posted April 27, 2019 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        Nah. Scratch the surface, and I’m sure underneath you’ll find a dualist.

  20. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    The gendered brain nature vs nurture reveals a clear contradiction in the dogma of the Cult of the Woke: If any brain differences among males, females, and trans-sexuals are a matter of nurture, who exactly is nurturing male bodied children to shape their brain into female patterns or vice-versa and why? Why does my male grandchild pick up trucks and stuffies given a virtual infinity of toys targeted at both major genders, while my granddaughter, faced with the same selection of toys, picks up dolls and stuffies? Her parents are very deliberately not pointing out gender specific choices, yet those kids made those choices since the were old enough to pick things up. Similar observations have been made for decades by scientists examining the nature/nurture question and the evidence all points to a certain degree of sexual dimorphism in initial brain wiring.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      Helena Cronin has a neat trick when presenting: she first introduces the findings of studies on the different toy preferences between male and female children, then reveals a photo of the subjects — young chimps.

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