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Stefano Cossara
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Gregg, this is a very interesting topic, and Nichols’s paper is great. Notice however his footnote 3, in which he recognizes that ‘the appeal to reference in these arguments only works if one assumes a substantive rather than a deflationary account of reference’. If the correct approach to reference is a deflationary one, then the ‘flight to reference’ (to quote the Stich and Bishop’s paper that has inspired Nichols) is simply impossible. And I think there is every reason to be a deflationist about truth, and by extension about reference (and existence). It would be great if you could improve on Shaun’s treatment and show me why I should not be a deflationist about these topics. Secondly, irrespective of which is the correct theory of reference, it seems to me that your way of framing the revision/elimination dilemma presupposes that free will is a substantive property. I do not think it is, and I do not think that the correctness of our practice of ascribing responsibility depends on ‘having’ something. This is just a misleading way of speaking that we might have inherited from the Christian tradition, which is committed to a conception of free will as the substantive property that makes us responsible in front of God. But now that many of us are prone to look at responsibility in a purely secular way, there is no reason to retain that outdated framework. Thirdly, I think that phenomenology is a very shaky ground to assess those issues. It is based on mistakenly modeling introspection on perception, and think that one can learn things by watching the internal world in the same way as one learns things by watching the external world. But I would not even accept that there is such a thing as the internal world. However, I admit I do not have much to say here. Phenomenology, introspection and experience are not my words.
Hello Marcus, I am not sure I can understand the 100% of what you say in this post. Still, here’s a couple of comments from somebody who is hostile to metaphysics, and even more to metaphysics done along the lines of the Matrix. First point: you seem to consider the fact of showing a possible implementation of a form of libertarian free will as a point of strength of your theory. But, to put it a bit brutally: why should I care for libertarian free will if I came to be convinced that I live in a simulation – that is to say, that reality as I am used to think of it is essentially illusory? I mean, the good in libertarian free will (for those who think there is some good in it) is primarily that it vindicates our intuitions about self-determination. But your position vindicates those intuitions only at the price of screwing intuitions about reality that are even more basic. Don’t you think that the cure is, as it were, worse than the disease? Second point: you may want to say that your theory is based on scientific evidence and that as such it deserves attention irrespective of vindicating or failing to vindicate our intuitions. But I think that the substantive metaphysical conclusions you reach can only be reached by coupling scientific evidence with substantive (and controversial) philosophical assumptions. To get started, you must be committed to the idea of a ‘fundamental’ layer of reality; this is already a substantive philosophical assumption (I think you also make substantive and controversial assumptions about the nature of consciousness, but I won’t enter into that, for I am not sure). Once you have this on the table, it seems to me you must either admit that such fundamental reality is something we cannot know (something akin to the Kantian noumenon), or that we can in some way know it. You seem committed to the idea that we can know it and that we can theorize about it by employing a certain vocabulary (of quantum physics? or computer science?). I see no reason to accept this last step – no reason to think that there is one single vocabulary that connects with a privileged layer of reality. It is a trivial fact about mankind that there are different vocabularies we employ, different language games that we play in the interaction with the world. There are certainly many interesting and difficult issues about how the different areas of our linguo-conceptual practices interact and influence each other, how we revise them and abandon some parts of them. But I see no reason to think that only one vocabulary connects with ‘fundamental’ Reality.
One of the topics that recur in Hanna’s discussion is the connection between criminal behaviour and some forms of psychopathology. I do not have the quote at hand, but I think she somewhere said that most criminals suffer of some psychopathological syndromes (primarily psycopathy, I suppose). As testified by an interesting exchange following the publication of a paper on the topic by Neil Levy few years ago, whether psychopathy should be accepted as an excusing factor is itself controversial. It is certainly true, however, that the perpetrators of the most gruesome crimes often have personal stories of poverty, deprivation and abusive childhood (no need to mention the all-present Robert Harris case). Hanna suggests that awareness of these factors should lead us to modify the most hostile of our reactive attitudes. It seems to me, however, that there comes a point at which we may well want to switch, as it were, from modus ponens to modus tollens. Suppose that we discover (and it wouldn’t be implausible) that Hitler’s adult behaviours have been determined by the mistreatments he received during his childhood. Should this lead us to dismiss the anger and hate we feel for him? I do not think so. The atrocity in his actions was too much. Moreover, there are people who survive their abusive childhood without becoming adults that harm other people. Having an abusive childhood is not a sufficient condition for becoming a violent criminal. Of course Hitler represents an extreme case – even more extreme than those mentioned above by John. The point, however, is more general: it is not the rarity but rather the diffusion of unfavourable developmental conditions in cases of criminal behaviour (but also in cases of people who grow up without becoming violent criminals) that may push us to reconsider and downsize its excusing and anti-retributive import upon reflection.
Hello Hanna, thanks for these stimulating posts. One theme that seems to recur in your discussion is the importance of changing our attitudes towards the offenders. This is a very important point; also, I’d say, it seems to be a realistic goal (say, at least partially achievable) insofar as it concerns a limited number of people (for example prison officers) that can be educated and trained to react in certain ways during their interactions with prisoners. You add, however, that change would be important to pursue within ‘society at large’. This goal seems to be far more difficult to achieve. What I have in mind is some work on this topic done by Darley and Robinson (see for example their ‘The Utility of Desert’ and ‘Intuitions of justice: implications for criminal law and justice policy’). To put it very bluntly (I do not have the pretention to do justice to the complexity of their views) they argue that people’s intuitive judgments about punishments are A) in line with retributivism and B) plausibly difficult to modify. They also maintain (this is the provocatively interesting thesis they defend) that neglecting those judgments in the administration of the law may cause a drop of compliance of citizens with the law itself; this is why, they say, there is some utility in desert. Do you know the work I am referring to? If that is the case, what do you think about it?
I’d like to have a better grasp of your position (forgive me if I have not yet read your book). In your last post you seem to hint at series of connections between A) the wrongness of the systematic theory-based approach, B) lacking objectivity in blameworthiness judgments, C) problems in justifying the current penal system, D) which could be solved by incorporating restorative justice elements. It seems to me that all of these connections are far from evident. But I find the first step particularly problematic: I can’t see why the wrongness of the systematic theory-based approach should entail a lack of objectivity in blame. It seems to me that one can reject systematic theorizing while remaining committed to the idea that there is something objective in blameworthy behaviour. Alternatively, one could also be a systematic subjectivist. Aren’t these two positions somehow orthogonal?
Hello Tamler, this is a great post! And one that from my point of view cuts much deeper than its caricatural style may suggest. I have many ideas in the my head but I will try to confine myself to just a couple for the sake of brevity (which I will still fail to achieve). First, while I think there is much good sense in the distinction that several people above have drawn between norms of belief and norms of decision, I am not sure that this is enough to put the busybody charge to rest. I want to draw a parallel with theorization in metaphysics. I see there at least two distinct attitudes about the relation between theorization and commonsense. Kit Fine, in ‘The Question of Realism’, recognizes that ‘many of us are inclined to doubt that philosophy is in possession of arguments that might genuinely serve to undermine what we ordinarily believe’, and sets up for himself the task of developing a form of anti-realism that avoids conflict with commonsense. But other authors (Timothy Williamson for example) have strongly and sometimes aggressively restated a conception of philosophy that sees it as essentially directed to the revision or ordinary beliefs. It seems to me that for people like Williamson philosophy is essentially ‘imperialistic’, to put it in Brandom’s terms. I think that a similar polarity is present within the free will debate, where forms of scepticism defended by authors such as Derk Pereboom, Neil Levy and Tamler Sommers’s past self (with the revisionary implications they carry) could hardly be represented in the literature if it were (metaphilosophically) clear that ‘teaching ordinary people how to think’ were not the job of the philosopher. Consider moreover that on this view philosophy is entitled to correct our practices not less than science; and if this were true, this would provide a powerful justification for philosophical theorizing. I think this is false, and that philosophy is not entitled to suggest radical revisions of our practices, be it at the level of personal relations or of the penal system. But admitting this commits me to the necessity to find an alternative justification for philosophizing. For if philosophical theorizing is simply an intellectual divertissement, completely devoid of impact on the life of the broader community (as some of the posts above seem to suggest), are we sure we have the means to justify its existence at the dawn of the 21st century? (see Kitcher’s ‘Philosophy Inside Out’ for a view on these matters inspired by the classical pragmatists).
Manuel: indeed, I think that as you seem to allude to in your post, there are different ways of being a quietist, or at least different routes to quietism. This is at any rate my current view of the matter. One way is as a reaction to what is perceived as the historical failure of traditional theoretical philosophy. It is a matter of fact that philosophy has traditionally cultivated pretentions that go far beyond clarifying confusions. However, attempts at reform and at constructive theorizing in general have suffered from a chronic lack of norms capable to establish some of the theories in the field as the best ones. In the absence of such norms, the value of such theorizing seems to be strongly diminished even in the eyes of some of its defenders (e.g., Timothy Williamson). Some quietists conceive of their quietism as a reaction to this state of affairs (and appeal to a norm of the kind ‘let us do less but let us do it better’; let us be less ambitious in order to be more successful). But there is also a more modest and probably more defensible approach to quietism, whereby one acknowledges the legitimacy of constructive theorizing (perhaps even the possibility of reform) in some areas of philosophy (political philosophy for example), while sticking to the idea that being a quietist is the right kind of response to traditional philosophical paradoxes. The central idea here is that sheer metaphysical intuitions (e.g., intuitions about determinism and free will) are not sufficiently robust to impose justificatory constraints on our practices, especially insofar as they trade on ways of using the words that are not those peculiar to the practice. By the way, I take the opportunity of this exchange to ask you a question: are there any proceedings of the conference on Reference, Conceptual Change, and Free Will you organized last August? As you can probably imagine, this is a topic with which I am concerned. Thanks!
A late contribution to highlight a position that has not been, it seems to me, defended so far. One assumption taken for granted in the above discussion is that it is correct to think that the propriety of our practices depends in some way on metaphysics, i.e. that one can legitimately hope that developing the correct metaphysical theory will lead to make the necessary revisions to the practice. I think that this idea, however popular in the contemporary philosophical culture, is wrong: philosophy, to put it with Wittgenstein, leaves everything as it is, at least in the case of traditional philosophical paradoxes such as the problem of free will. The right way to see philosophical work is as an attempt to curb forms of confusion generated by ignorance of the specific conditions for correct word use in different domains of discourse. Notice that while this position, which I am inclined to call ‘quietism’, is not featured in its radical form within the contemporary free will debate, strands of it emerge both in and out of the debate: see the charge that Wallace makes against Kane of conflating two different notions of impossibility (Symposium on Wallace, 2002) and Mark Johnston’s minimalism (defended for example in his ‘Reasons and Reductionism’, which mentions the case of free will).
I am waiting for and interested in Robert’s response, but in the meantime want to suggest one possible reply to Gunnar’s question on behalf of the incompatibilist (which I am not). I think that some incompatibilists see their claims as theoretical claims that go beyond intuition. Take for example Christopher Franklin’s recent treatment of ‘opportunities’. Chris relies on intuition to make the point that having the opportunity to do otherwise is required for moral responsibility. But then he takes himself as going beyond intuition when he provides a possible worlds analysis of the notion of opportunity that is supposed to show what the opportunity to do otherwise actually boils down to (and more notably whether it is compatible or incompatible with determinism). Thus, those of his claims that are controversial as to the compatibilism/incompatibilism debate are settled by appeal to a methodology that is supposed not to rely on intuition (not on folk intuitions at any rate: whether the assessment of the correctness of a certain possible world analysis turns on something that can be called 'intuition' – expert intuition – is another matter). In general, one extreme reaction by the incompatibilist to the challenge presented by the Explanation Hypothesis may be to entirely reject the idea that folk intuitions should somehow constrain theoretical claims and to take their theories to be supported by their exhibiting theoretical virtues such as elegance, simplicity, etcetera. Not sure how may incompatibilists should want to go this way, but this is in principle a possibility - incidentally in line, I think, with Williamson’s philosophy of philosophy [I am aware that this post is a bit sketchy considering the complexity of the issues involved, still I hope it can somehow be useful]
Hey Gunnar! It is great to read these posts. One quick remark about a point that is somehow detached from the current discussion but that I find interesting. I think the explanation hypothesis may have (more than) something to say about the employment of brain imaging and neuroscientific jargon in the court. While neurosciences might well have something genuine to contribute to the assessment of legal responsibility, the EH predicts that allowing for a massive introduction of them in the court in the form of legal evidence risks bringing about a shift in the perspective adopted by members of the jury away from the everyday framework that characterises the ordinary practice out of the court. If the jurors’ decisions draw their legitimacy from their reflecting the moral intuitions that the citizens they represent entertain in their everyday life, a similar shift should be avoided. Thus I think that the EH may complement and perhaps strenghten the remarks made in this respect by Roskies and Sinnott-Armstrong (who, at least up to few years ago, were moderately sceptic about using brain-imaging in the court).
Hello guys, thank you for this work that is certainly going to open some interesting new paths in the research on the free will issue. I wanted to know, do you think that this tool could be used – or developed in order to be used – to usefully identify moral responsibility sceptics? They seem to be rare and I sometimes doubt that there are any outside of philosophical circles. However, I am conceiving of a study that involves them, and I would be interested in any measure that could help to identify them among non-philosophers. Thanks and keep this good work going! Stefano Cossara
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May 30, 2010