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Brodie Bortignon
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Bill, This is slightly off-topic, but have you read 'Personal Agency' by E.J. Lowe? I just finished reading it the other day. It's absolutely fantastic and I think you'd enjoy it very much. He defends a very robust theory of libertarianism, among other things, and has a fantastic discussion of the failure of causal closure arguments to rule out dualistic interactionism. If you have access to a university library database, you can read it for free from Oxford's online service. Sorry to interrupt the discussion. I just couldn't think of anywhere else to recommend the book to you!
Doctor logic, The reliability of science to judge whether a deck of cards has been shuffled or sorted presupposes the intentions of an agent. Without previous knowledge of how decks of cards are typically ordered by their creators, we would be in absolutely no position to discern whether or not any particular deck showed signs of intentionality. All your example proves, it seems to me, is the completely trivial truth that we can reliably recognise certain examples of teleology when we know what to expect. The real question is not if science is competent to decide whether any particular teleological model is likely to be true. In certain circumstances, it can adjudicate with some reliability, such as in the case of the deck of cards, whereas in others it can't, such as in circumstances where the agent's intentions are unpredictable or inscrutable. What's at issue here is whether science is in principle able to decide, once and for all, whether there is any teleology in nature. I simply cannot see how this is possible. The only proper basis for the wholesale banishment of teleology from nature is through the adoption of a metaphysical system that is incompatible with it, the most obvious candidate being some form of materialism. But that leads us outside of science and into the realm of philosophy. *** On a naturalist worldview that denies teleology in all its forms, it isn't enough to simply say that natural selection is non-intentional, and go on talking about organisms as if they engaged in genuine intentional behaviour. The bird doesn't build the nest for it's chick, because nothing can be said to behave FOR anything; the lion didn't fail in its intention to tackle the gazelle, because the lion didn't INTEND anything; Napoleon didn't plan to invade Russia, because human beings are non-intentional, material objects, and cannot be said to PLAN anything, to act FOR some outcome. As David Stove said (Bill quoted him elsewhere), for the sake of honesty and clear thinking, those who aver a non-teleological interpretation of evolution owe us a vocabulary that is consistent enough that it avoids presuming intentionality in its descriptions and explanations, and that doesn't end up obfuscating the strange, deeply unintuitive consequences that attend such an uncompromising denial of teleology. I agree with Bill's puzzlement over Dawkins' statement. Under the assumption that nature is comprehensively non-teleological, as Dawkins' believes, by what standard can something be said to take on the 'appearance' or 'efficiency' of design? How can intentional design have a special, recognisable form of 'efficiency' if it doesn't exist, if it is identical to the thing with which it is being contrasted? (By the way, I'm well aware that 'intentional design' is a tautology!)
For the purposes of popular exposition, using teleological language to describe non-teleological processes isn't bad in itself; deployed with care, it's a decent pedagogical technique. Problems arise when the teleological implications of certain metaphors (such as the selfish gene) are wielded inconsistently--one moment implying metaphor, the next reality. It then becomes difficult to know what is and is not the proper place for teleological thinking. In something like the Dawkinsian metaphysic, where teleology in all its forms is ruled out a priori, such inconsistency wreaks havoc. Notions of 'selfishness' and 'design' are no longer innocent terms of art, teaching aids that serve an introductory purpose and are then discarded when the real science begins, because the very distinction between the metaphors and the science is hopelessly vague due to systematic imprecision. Teleological metaphors go from innocent, potentially useful terms of art to non-metaphorical explanatory principles. A perfect example of teleological metaphors reified in service of an explicitly non-teleological metaphysic is the notion of a meme, which, being essentially a little packet of intentionality, is about as teleological a thing as you can get. Yet Dawkins seems to think it's somehow consistent with his thoroughly mechanistic, anti-teleological worldview. How can teleology so deeply permeate a theory one of whose principle and most controversial claims is its utter lack of teleology? Part of the answer, I think, is that people like Dawkins (and legions of other popularisers, some of them working scientists) don't really understand what teleology is, and what a denial of teleology actually implies. If teleology doesn't exist then neither does God, at least classically construed: a conclusion Dawkins is more than happy to adopt. But without teleology there can be no genuine intentionality (among other things). By his invention of 'memetics', and his constant equivocation on words like 'design', Dawkins seems to have some inkling that his wholesale denial of teleology leads to certain evident absurdities, such as there being no such thing as intentionality at any explanatory level. Claim that God doesn't exist and you aren't saying anything particularly controversial or unexpected, at least in academia; but start claiming that nobody ever intends anything and you start to look embarrassingly extreme, like a over-enthusiastic Victorian kook. That the dominant varieties of evolutionary theory up until mid-last-century were explicitly teleological (evolution is the mechanism of progress) seems to have made it particularly hard for philosophical illiterates like Dawkins to break out of the teleological thinking they so vigorously deny yet so criminally and opportunistically assume. It's one of the many reasons I barely read pop-science anymore. There is so little science and so much crappy philosophising. And I don't think it's ever going to go away. Grand, shocking theories sell books, no matter how bone-headed and simplistic they may be. Careful discussion and sober, tentative conclusions don't stir the interest of a public who read pop-science for gee-whiz factoids to shock their friends. Chesterton had more insightful things to say about science in his 'Ethics of Elfland' than almost the entire output of modern popular science put together. Contempt for philosophy is the death of good science, and Dawkins is a perfect example.
Toggle Commented May 26, 2009 on The Concept of Design at Maverick Philosopher
I meant to delete the line "But there is an equivocation in the argument", because while there might be a sort of equivocation over the use of the term 'soul', it signifies a central conceptual difference rather than a surreptitious rhetorical shift, and so doesn't constitute a good reason to reject the Humean approach. What I meant to say was that the Humean approach as I've loosely stated it, if coherent, avoids the conclusion of Bill's argument only by adopting a premise that to my mind is much more problematic than the idea that, strictly speaking, it is the soul that thinks, not a soul-body compound: namely, that there is no thinking thing at all, neither body nor soul. There are just thoughts and their contents.
Toggle Commented May 7, 2009 on Could I Have Parts? at Maverick Philosopher
As far as I can tell, the dualistic version of the argument as Bill presents it (and which I find quite convincing) assumes that there is such a thing as an immaterial self that is persistent through time and numerically singular. The same argument might not go through on a Humean account, however, which denies a robust and continuous conception of the self, identifying it with (or dissolving it into) the procession of the thoughts themselves, rather than with a substance that has thoughts as properties. If we assume a Humean notion of the self, then perhaps the idea of a composite (soul and body) thinker could work, with 'soul' suitably redefined in Humean terms. Taking into account that many thoughts have some basis in perception as mediated through or deriving from bodily processes, and assuming that there is no substantial self to own those thoughts as properties, then I don't see any particular problem in saying that the composite object thinks. But there is an equivocation in the argument. In Bill's exposition, the self is assumed to be temporally persistent and numerically singular; whatever thinks, or, better, is the subject of and instigator of thought, cannot be claimed to be two separate objects, soul and body. That would mean that when I think, it is really two things thinking, my soul and my body, which is absurd. The soul might be deeply dependent on the body; but it is ultimately the soul that does the thinking, with the body providing the conditions necessary for that thinking to take place. The Humean gets around the difficulty of 'too many thinkers' not by claiming that the two objects can think, but by claiming that nothing is thinking at all: there are just thoughts, lots and lots of thoughts, interacting and developing in very complicated ways. What I thought might be a neat way around the argument for the thinking soul against composite dualism probably doesn't work, or, rather, does work, but does so by making a claim almost as ludicrous as there being two thinkers: that there is no real thinker at all. So to make this post actually worthwhile, here's an excellent article by Eric T. Olson where he puts forward an argument very similar to Bill's:
Toggle Commented May 7, 2009 on Could I Have Parts? at Maverick Philosopher
Daevid, You're right about the title of the newest Hofstadter book. 'The [Eternal] Golden Braid' is the subtitle of his 'Godel, Escher, Bach'. 'I Am A Strange Loop' is the book I was referring to as his latest. My mistake. When you've finished reading Lucas and some of the discussions of the notion of 'illusion' anent consciousness on this site (and how the claim that consciousness is an illusion--made by Hofstadter, Dennett and others--presupposes the existence of conscious experience and is therefore incoherent as a 'refutation' of consciousness), I recommend you read this useful reply by Penrose to critics of his book 'Shadows of the Mind', available here: You can probably just ignore Penrose's biological explanations (I do). His anti-computationalist arguments don't in any way depend on them.
Toggle Commented May 7, 2009 on The Value of Consciousness at Maverick Philosopher
Hi, Daevid. If you're interested in the reasons that, whatever it may be, consciousness can not coherently claimed to be an illusion, I would point a few posts down the main page of this blog where a title asks that very question. I would also point you to a post I made towards the bottom of the following page in reply to 'Blue Devil Knight'. Here is the link: As for Hofstadter, to be perfectly honest, I don't see him discussed very much in the philosophy of mind. His popularity in non-academic circles seems to be far greater than his influence in more professional circles, but perhaps I'm just not reading the right stuff. I do know that he is a staunch defender of computationalism, and wrote a book called 'Godel, Escher, Bach' on that very topic, and released a new one more recently called 'The Golden Braid'. The title of the former is, I think, a variation on the title of a 1961 paper by J.R. Lucas called 'Minds, Machines, and Godel'. Hofstadter disagrees, obviously, with Lucas on the verity of computationalism. Nevertheless, I recommend that you visit Lucas's Oxford website and read his Godelian papers for what is, to my mind, a supremely forceful refutation of computationalism; more effective than Searle's, though Searle is more popular. His article, 'Turn Over the Page', is probably of most interest to you, as it engages Hofstadter directly. I also recommend his book 'The Freedom of the Will' (OUP 1970), which can be ordered from the OUP for an outrageous price, or bought second hand, which is how I got it. Here is his website: I hope this helps. There is a good bibliography of computationalism on his site, too, which alone would merit a visit.
Toggle Commented May 6, 2009 on The Value of Consciousness at Maverick Philosopher
Congratulations on five years. Your posts are always of a very high quality, and equally importantly, so are the replies and ensuing debates. Your and Edward Feser's blogs are the only two I ever visit. Between the both of you, I've learned a lot about philosophy. Thanks! Brodie.
Toggle Commented May 5, 2009 on Five Years of Blogging at Maverick Philosopher
Reason might work slowly, and it might sometimes be very difficult to reason through the more intractable problems effectively, and even harder to say something new; and we're often unsure if we've reasoned correctly at all--if there isn't something we've missed. But the claim that reason works "badly" strikes me as completely absurd. Reason works just fine. The huge advances made across the whole spectrum of human thought attests to the fact. Yes, there were blunders along the way, often serious blunders, but these only throw the great successes of human reasoning into even sharper relief. Taking a realistic view of human reasoning doesn't at all lead to the belittlement of reason, the adoption of this sort of no-big-deal attitude, where reason is so radically redefined that rocks can be said to calculate and soap films solve problems. All it means is that we must admit our fallibility; a point on which the atheist and the theist are in perfect agreement. But perhaps, in this instance, there is a significant difference. The theist believes that, in spite of human imperfections, in spite of human ignorance, there is such a thing as objective truth, and that by the proper exercise of reason this truth can be discovered and understood. The (materialist) atheist obviously can't believe in any sort of transcendental truth; whether they can believe in objective truth at all is questionable, relying as it does on the idea that reason somehow 'emerged' out of a series of adaptations whose primary function was not the conferral of reasoning faculties for the discovery of truth, but the maximisation of physical utility. The idea that adaptation is at all likely to lead to cognitive faculties that produce true beliefs is very questionable indeed; I'm sure you're aware of Plantinga's arguments to the contrary. But even if ratiocination we're purely adaptive, that would still leave activities of human reason that have no obvious evolutionary advantage, such as higher mathematics and metaphysical speculation, unexplained. Perhaps they could be claimed to be the result of hypertrophied faculties that have an adaptational origin: counting is plausibly an adapted trait, but set theory isn't, and perhaps the latter is just an accidental result of the former. Maybe so. But if a view leads me to the conclusion that the profoundest aspects of human reasoning are just the reasonless outgrowths of unreasoning processes, and that we can't even be sure that they tell us anything true about the world, then I'd sooner reject that view as inadequate than give up my position on the ultimate reliability of reason, and its, admittedly sometimes wayward, connection with objective truth. So I guess I pick your first option, though my question isn't really how reason works so well, but how it even exists at all, and from where our sense of objective truth comes from. Perhaps from God directly (which I'm not at all comfortable with), or from an inherent teleology in nature towards the creation of rational creatures (with which I am more sympathetic), or some other explanation--I doubt we'll ever know. But I won't belittle reason in the name of some dubious piece of metaphysics; in the words of J.R. Lucas, to do so would be a 'counsel of despair'. It would lead to all sorts of irrationalism and, taken far enough, self-refutation. It is a position of absolute last resort.
Philoponus favourably mentioned Wegner's book "The Illusion of Conscious Will", and commends us all to read it. Well, I would counter-commend E.J. Lowe's recent book, "Personal Agency" (OUP 2008), which directly addresses, and to my mind refutes, the remarkably weak reasoning that leads Wegner to conclude that conscious will is illusory. At risk of seeming lazy, which I am anyway, I'll just quote the relevant (pretty long) passage from Lowe in full (pp. 83-84): "Such empirical data allegedly show that human actions and human experiences of volition are 'doubly dissociable': someone can be acting in a certain way even though he or she has no experience of exercising their will to act in that way, and someone can have the experience of exercising their will in a certain way even though they are not in fact acting in that way. Some of the actual examples of such cases can be intriguing and unsettling, but really it is not at all surprising that they can occur. They go no way at all toward showing that, even in normal circumstances, our volitions do not really cause the physical actions that we intend to cause when we have the experience of exercising our will. If volitions are causes of physical actions, then of course it must be possible to have a volition without a corresponding physical action, or a physical action without a corresponding volition--at least, on the standard assumption that causes and effects are logically independent of one another. In fact, one of the reasons why some philosophers are sceptical about the very existence of volitions is that they think volitions couldn't be logically independent of actions in the way they would be required to be if they were causes of actions: this is the basis of the famous 'logical connection' argument against volitions. It is ironic, then, that these philosophers dismiss the existence of volitions on the grounds that volitions and actions couldn't 'come apart' as they would have to for the former to be causes of the latter, while the psychologists appeal to the fact that volitions and actions can come apart to support their view that volitions are not causes of actions. The right thing to say, it seems to me, is that volitions and actions can indeed 'come apart' and that is why the former are eligible as causes of the latter."
J.R. Lucas has been thinking and writing on the topic of computationalism and its relationship with reason, rationality and freedom for over four decades. No one, as far as I'm concerned, can have an informed opinion on this topic without having read him. Most of his published work is available at his Oxford website under 'Godelian Arguments': I highly recommend his (in my opinion) classic book 'The Freedom of the Will', published in 1970 by the Oxford Clarendon Press. I don't know if you've ever read anything by him, Joseph A., but his opinions on this topic are very close to your own.
Even the most convinced determinists are unable to live their lives as if they don't make choices. In their more metaphysical moments they might conclude, for whatever reason, that free will is impossible. But once they step back into the world, the primal quality of free will reasserts itself, completely and unavoidably. Though it's possible to promote determinism, and even on some level to believe it, it's impossible to adopt it existentially. As Poincare once said: "no determinist argues deterministically". Just so.
Nietzsche's comments on free will are nowhere near as breathtakingly idiotic as most if not all of the materialist exegeses. Fortunately, it seems like libertarian free will is becoming more and more popular amongst philosophers, particularly young philosophers, probably under the influence of people like van Inwagen and Chisholm. I also think that the recrudescence of interest in dualism might have something to do with the reconsideration of libertarian free will, seeing as historically the two have tended to go together, even though there's no necessary logical connection. Work done by van Inwagen, Lucas, Lowe, O'Connor and others really show up just how question-begging and weak so many of the old arguments against libertarian free will are, derived as they so often are from some sort of deterministic, mechanical view of the universe and a strange aversion to the notion of agent causation. Dennett and others call it 'mysterious', but I don't see how event-causation is any less mysterious. Nietzsche mentions the 'half-educated' and what the 'half-educated' believe. If there's one thing I find contemptible in so much philosophy, it's this barely concealed contempt some of them have for the common person. The contempt runs so deep, in fact, that if a philosophical analysis leads to a conclusion that seems to support some common sense intuition held by non-philosophers (the 'milk maids' whom Voltaire so derides) then this agreement with common sense is considered a decisive mark against its truth. "The common man believes he makes genuine choices?" they say. "Well, he would, the idiot. If only they were marvelous enough to understand my devastating arguments--if only they knew of the mechanical philosophy..." Dennett is a prime modern example of this sort of behaviour. In his book Freedom Evolves he equates the average person, still fettered to common-sense beliefs, to Dumbo, and the contumacious and clear-eyed philosopher (i.e. Dennett) to the crow that tells Dumbo he no longer needs the feather to fly--the implication being that people are libertarians (or dualists) because they're afraid of determinism, or afraid that death is the end--or in some way just tender-minded wimps unwilling to face up to the truth. His smug condescension (and rambling) was too much for me and I never finished the book. The recent flurry of interest in Thomas Reid, once considered the common-sense philosopher par excellence, may be a sign that the contempt for the common sense of the common person promulgated by people like Nietzsche, Voltaire, Dennett, etc. is going steadily out of fashion. As for the claim that people believe they have libertarian free will because of pride, well, that's obviously wrong. People believe they are centres of action that make genuine choices because it's just obvious that that's the case. It's a pre-theoretical intuition, and so far as I can see, it's one that isn't at all derived from some sort of overweening pride. The fact that many of these people also believe that such freedom makes them ultimately responsible to a transcendent moral order, completely outside of their control and incomprehensible to finite minds, sounds closer to humility than pride. It seems to me that Nietzche's claim that belief in libertarian freedom stems from the delusions of human pride exposes just how little he actually understood common humanity.