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Agency and Will

Free Will or Determinism

Paul K. Moser on Expectations of God

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Human talk of God is often cheap and easy, and self-serving too. It thus leaves us with a god unworthy of the morally perfect title “God.” This book takes a different route, in order to move away from counterfeits and toward the real article. Our expectations for God, if God exists, often get in the way of our receiving salient evidence of God. We assume that God would have certain obligations to us, even by way of giving us clear evidence, and when those obligations are not met we discredit God, including God’s existence. This is a fast track to atheism or at least agnosticism. We need, however, to take stock of which expectations for God are fitting and which are not, given what would be God’s perfect moral character and will.

The Underground Man on Free Will

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Dostoevsky’s unprecedented short story, Notes from Underground, is a philosophical treatise of striking originality. In the early nineteenth century, with the remarkable successes of science in controlling nature, social and political theorists began to conceptualize human persons as just one more cog in the Newtonian “world machine“. As such, it was thought, human society could likewise be controlled through social engineering, ensuring its proper functioning toward desired outcomes. In this excerpt, Dostoevsky voices his revulsion toward this mechanistic view of humans, renouncing the notion that humans can be relied upon to act in the predictable, law-like fashion that characterizes the physical world. On the contrary, we humans are radically free, often acting irrationally and self-destructively for no other reason than to assert our independence from custom, convention, and social pressure. The larger story, from which this excerpt is taken, recounts the inner dialogue of an isolated and contemptuous civil servant whose quest for vengeance against perceived slights leads him to alienate himself from all others. Though this “Underground Man” is especially unseemly, Dostoevsky takes it that his rationalizations will resonate with the reader’s own inner thoughts, and will thereby undercut the deterministic, materialistic view of man current in his day. Dostoevsky’s protest on behalf of free will remains a spirited rebuke to the standard narratives of human events that offer explanations only in terms of psychology and instinct, of nurture and nature, both geared towards self-preservation. ~ Nate

The Boob Tube for Brooders

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Recently a number of philosophically arresting moments have managed to insert themselves into the television landscape. True to form, Ronald D. Moore and company continue to address contemporary political, philosophical, and religious questions in the alternate world of Caprica, territory he brilliantly charted in his groundbreaking Battlestar Galactica. If the pilot is any indication, Caprica promises to explore even more pointedly themes of religious and ethnic tolerance, terrorism, technology, and the nature of the soul. ABC’s FlashForward, clearly aimed at continuing the legacy of Lost and retaining its audience, has somewhat disappointed so far, but has nonetheless woven several provocative existential questions into its narrative, including one powerful Sartrean moment in particular. On the comedic front, NBC’s Community had the temerity to devote an episode to whether humanity is intrinsically good or evil, and did so superbly. I’ll admit to being prone to vegging in front of the tube even when the viewing is less cerebral, but a couple of these moments had me off the couch cheering for the writers.

Mind, Brain, and Free Will

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Mind, Brain, and Free Will presents a powerful new case for substance dualism (the idea that humans consist of two parts — body and soul) and for libertarian free will (that humans have some freedom to choose between alternatives, independently of the causes which influence them). Richard Swinburne argues that answers to questions about mind, body, and free will depend crucially on the answers to more general philosophical questions. He begins by analyzing the criteria for one event being the same as another, one substance being the same as another, and a state of affairs being metaphysically possible; and then goes on to analyze the criteria for a belief about these issues being justified. Pure mental events (including conscious events) are distinct from physical events and interact with them. Swinburne claims that no result from neuroscience or any other science could show that interaction does not take place; and illustrates this claim by showing that recent scientific work (such as Libet’s experiments) has no tendency whatever to show that our intentions do not cause brain events. He goes on to argue for agent causation, and claims that — to speak precisely — it is we, and not our intentions, that cause our brain events. It is metaphysically possible that each of us could acquire a new brain or continue to exist without a brain; and so we are essentially souls. Brain events and conscious events are so different from each other that it would not be possible to establish a scientific theory which would predict what each of us would do in situations of moral conflict. Hence given a crucial epistemological principle (the Principle of Credulity) we should believe that things are as they seem to be: that we make choices independently of the causes which influence us. According to Swinburne’s lucid and ambitious account, it follows that we are morally responsible for our actions.

The Adjustment Bureau

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Into the ever-expanding catalog1 of films predicated on our anxiety about the extent of our free will, enter The Adjustment Bureau, perhaps the most cerebral and ambivalent of the lot. The film envisions a world in which human action is directed, though not quite determined, by a confluence of chance, free will, and the nearly ubiquitous superintendency of “The Chairman”, a quasi-religious, mysterious power that influences human actions through the intervention of a minion of “clerks” who alter circumstances (and occasionally thought patterns) in order to keep the course of human events in line with “The Plan”. This is not, as some have supposed, a film about human pawns and a grandmaster who determines their fate. Rather, The Adjustment Bureau explores how the course of human events might be guided or “nudged” by such a master when the chess pieces themselves are free agents pursuing their own ends. As it turns out, this decidedly more difficult endeavor requires constant “caretaking” or “meddling”. The film itself remains surprisingly ambivalent toward this state of affairs and offers a provocative and nuanced picture of human agency, of our wills as simultaneously malleable and free. Indeed, the various kinds of interventions in The Adjustment Bureau provide a backdrop for considering just what should and should not be considered a violation of the will. Finally, though it wisely avoids any explicit religious references, the film portrays a world that bears a striking resemblance to a particular theological proposal regarding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will, namely open theism.

Personal Agency

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Personal Agency consists of two parts. In Part II, a radically libertarian theory of action is defended which combines aspects of agent causalism and volitionism. This theory accords to volitions the status of basic mental actions, maintaining that these are spontaneous exercises of the will-a ‘two-way’ power which rational agents can freely exercise in the light of reason. Lowe contends that substances, not events, are the causal source of all change in the world–with rational, free agents like ourselves having a special place in the causal order as unmoved movers, or initiators of new causal chains. And he defends a thoroughgoing externalism regarding reasons for action, holding these to be mind-independent worldly entities rather than the beliefs and desires of agents. Part I prepares the ground for this theory by undermining the threat presented to it by physicalism. It does this by challenging the causal closure argument for physicalism in all of its forms and by showing that a dualistic philosophy of mind-one which holds that human mental states and their subjects cannot be identified with bodily states and human bodies respectively-is both metaphysically coherent and entirely consistent with known empirical facts.

The Captain of My Soul

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Central to the plot of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is William Ernest Henley’s short poem of the same name. Though the role of the poem suffers some historical revisionism in the film, its role in the life of Nelson Mandela is worth consideration. The film recounts the remarkable story of Mandela’s efforts at national reconciliation through his embrace of the South African rugby team, which at the time remained a symbol of Apartheid’s ethnic segregation. In 1996, when I returned for the first time to South Africa, my childhood home, some old friends shared with me how meaningful it was when Mandela appeared at Ellis Park donning the Springbok green and gold. I’m gratified that this remarkable story of reconciliation has made it to the screen, especially while Morgan Freeman is still with us. He was born to play Mandela. During Mandela’s long internment on Robben Island, Henley’s poem adorned a wall of his cell, a constant reminder that though his freedom had been taken from him, he remained “the captain of his soul“. The words of this poem, and their significance to Mandela, underscore a central point of contention in the debate about human free will. It seems to me that one problem with some arguments for compatibilism, the idea that determinism and human responsibility are compatible, is the conflating of freedom and free will. Mandela’s story is a powerful reminder that there is freedom beyond freedom. That is, it matters whether we are captains or merely observers of our souls.

JP Moreland on Passive Liabilities and Active Power

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The Ontology of naturalism knows nothing of active powers. The particulars that populate that ontology are, one and all, exhaustively characterized by passive liabilities with regard to their causal powers. A passive liability is such that, given the proper efficient cause, it is and, indeed, must be actualized. As such, the actualization of a passive liability is a passive happening, not an action. This fact about passive liabilities is what makes their owners bereft of the sort of first-moving, active spontaneity that is a necessary condition for the exercise of free will. ¶ All natural objects with causal powers posses them as passive liabilities. Again, these liabilities are triggered or actualized if something happens to the object and, once triggered, they can produce an effect. For example, dynamite has the power (passive liability) to explode if something is first done to it. And so on for all causes. They are, one and all, passive potentialities. There actualizations are mere happenings to the relevant object. ¶ But active power is different. In virtue of possessing active power, and agent may act, initiate change or motion, perform something, bring about an effect with nothing causing it to do so. Active power is not something admitted in the ontology of the hard sciences, period.

Mauri-Lynne Heller on Infancy, Empathy, and Psychopathy

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It is facile and erroneous to believe that some people are born evil and must be destroyed. The pretty blonde demon-child, Rhoda, featured in the 1960’s kitsch movie, “The Bad Seed,” was an amusing caricature. A fortuitous lightening strike might have concluded the movie, but it shed no light on a very complicated social concern. It is much more painful to acknowledge that a great deal of sociopathy might be preventable. While individuals suffering from criminal illness must be removed from society, it is imperative to remember that the cause of their pathology is very complex. ¶ Devoid of humanity, these people are grossly damaged. Because they never experienced secure interpersonal attachments as infants, they are incapable of forming any relationships defined by mutual concern or reciprocity. Their empathy software is missing. While the damage inflicted by sociopathy on a nuclear family is tragically unquantifiable, the emergence of these character traits in our social midst has tremendous import for society, government and culture.

JP Moreland on Determinism Twice Over

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This story is physically deterministic in two ways. First, the physical state of the universe (and everything in it, including you) at a particular time and impersonal laws of nature are sufficient to determine or fix the chances of the next successive state. This is temporal determination. Second, the features and behavior of ordinary-sized objects like glaciers, rocks, human beings and animals is fixed by the states of their atomic and subatomic parts. This is bottom-up or parts-to-whole determinism. If genuinely mental consciousness exists, it is a causally impotent epiphenomenon. Among other things, this means that a feeling of thirst never causes someone to get a drink; thoughts and beliefs play no role in directing or bringing about our behavior. Many philosophers right think that if a view implies epiphenomenalism, the view must be rejected.

Of Liberty and Necessity

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In Of Liberty and Necessity James A. Harris presents the first comprehensive account of the free will problem in eighteenth-century British philosophy. Harris proposes new interpretations of the positions of familiar figures such as Locke, Hume, Edwards, and Reid. He also gives careful attention to writers such as William King, Samuel Clarke, Anthony Collins, Lord Kames, James Beattie, David Hartley, Joseph Priestley, and Dugald Stewart, who, while well-known in the eighteenth century, have since been largely ignored by historians of philosophy. Through detailed textual analysis, and by making precise use of a variety of different contexts, Harris elucidates the contribution that each of these writers makes to the eighteenth-century discussion of the will and its freedom.

Merit, Meaning, and Human Bondage

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Perhaps everything we think, feel, and do is determined, and humans — like stones or clouds — are slaves to the laws of nature. Would that be a terrible state? Philosophers who take the incompatibilist position think so, arguing that a deterministic world would be one without moral responsibility and perhaps without true love, meaningful art, and real rationality. But compatibilists and semicompatibilists argue that determinism need not worry us. As long as our actions stem, in an appropriate way, from us, or respond in some way to reasons, our actions are meaningful and can be judged on their moral (or other) merit. In this highly original work, Nomy Arpaly argues that a deterministic world does not preclude moral responsibility, rationality, and love — in short, meaningful lives — but that there would still be something lamentable about a deterministic world. A person may respond well to reasons, and her actions may faithfully reflect her true self or values, but she may still feel that she is not free. Arpaly argues that compatibilists and semicompatibilists are wrong to dismiss this feeling — for which there are no philosophical consolations — as philosophically irrelevant. On the way to this bittersweet conclusion, Arpaly sets forth surprising theories about acting for reasons, the widely accepted idea that "ought implies can," moral blame, and more.

Good and Real

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In Good and Real, Gary Drescher examines a series of provocative paradoxes about consciousness, choice, ethics, quantum mechanics, and other topics, in an effort to reconcile a purely mechanical view of the universe with key aspects of our subjective impressions of our own existence. Many scientists suspect that the universe can ultimately be described by a simple (perhaps even deterministic) formalism; all that is real unfolds mechanically according to that formalism. But how, then, is it possible for us to be conscious, or to make genuine choices? And how can there be an ethical dimension to such choices? Drescher sketches computational models of consciousness, choice, and subjunctive reasoning—what would happen if this or that were to occur?—to show how such phenomena are compatible with a mechanical, even deterministic universe. Analyses of Newcomb’s Problem (a paradox about choice) and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a paradox about self-interest vs. altruism, arguably reducible to Newcomb’s Problem) help bring the problems and proposed solutions into focus. Regarding quantum mechanics, Drescher builds on Everett’s relative-state formulation—but presenting a simplified formalism, accessible to laypersons—to argue that, contrary to some popular impressions, quantum mechanics is compatible with an objective, deterministic physical reality, and that there is no special connection between quantum phenomena and consciousness. In each of several disparate but intertwined topics ranging from physics to ethics, Drescher argues that a missing technical linchpin can make the quest for objectivity seem impossible, until the elusive technical fix is at hand. ~ Product Description

C.A. Campbell on Contra-Causal Freedom

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Before reopening the general question of the nature and conditions of moral responsibility there is a caveat which it seems to me worth while to enter. The difficulties in the way of a clear answer are not slight; but they are apt to seem a good deal more formidable than they really are because of a common tendency to consider in unduly close association two distinct questions: the question ‘Is a contra-causal type of freedom implied by moral responsibility?’ and the question ‘Does a contra-causal type of freedom anywhere exist?’ It seems to me that many philosophers … begin their enquiry with so firm a conviction that the contra-causal sort of freedom nowhere exists, that they find it hard to take very seriously the possibility that it is this sort of freedom that moral responsibility implies. For they are loth to abandon the commonsense belief that moral responsibility itself is something real. The implicit reasoning I take to be this. Moral responsibility is real. If moral responsibility is real, the freedom implied in it must be a fact. But contra-causal freedom is not a fact. Therefore contra-causal freedom is not the freedom implied in moral responsibility. I think we should be on our guard against allowing this or some similar train of reasoning (whose premises, after all, are far from indubitable) to seduce us into distorting what we actually find when we set about a direct analysis of moral responsibility and its conditions.

The Mind and the Brain

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A groundbreaking work of science that confirms, for the first time, the independent existence of the mind–and demonstrates the possibilities for human control over the workings of the brain. Conventional science has long held the position that ‘the mind’ is merely an illusion, a side effect of electrochemical activity in the physical brain. Now in paperback, Dr Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley’s groundbreaking work, The Mind and the Brain, argues exactly the opposite: that the mind has a life of its own.Dr Schwartz, a leading researcher in brain dysfunctions, and Wall Street Journal science columnist Sharon Begley demonstrate that the human mind is an independent entity that can shape and control the functioning of the physical brain. Their work has its basis in our emerging understanding of adult neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to be rewired not just in childhood, but throughout life, a trait only recently established by neuroscientists. ~ Product Description

The Illusion of Conscious Will

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Do we consciously cause our actions, or do they happen to us? Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, theologians, and lawyers have long debated the existence of free will versus determinism. In this book Daniel Wegner offers a novel understanding of the issue. Like actions, he argues, the feeling of conscious will is created by the mind and brain. Yet if psychological and neural mechanisms are responsible for all human behavior, how could we have conscious will? The feeling of conscious will, Wegner shows, helps us to appreciate and remember our authorship of the things our minds and bodies do. Yes, we feel that we consciously will our actions, Wegner says, but at the same time, our actions happen to us. Although conscious will is an illusion, it serves as a guide to understanding ourselves and to developing a sense of responsibility and morality. Approaching conscious will as a topic of psychological study, Wegner examines the issue from a variety of angles. He looks at illusions of the will — those cases where people feel that they are willing an act that they are not doing or, conversely, are not willing an act that they in fact are doing. He explores conscious will in hypnosis, Ouija board spelling, automatic writing, and facilitated communication, as well as in such phenomena as spirit possession, dissociative identity disorder, and trance channeling. The result is a book that sidesteps endless debates to focus, more fruitfully, on the impact on our lives of the illusion of conscious will. ~ Publisher’s Description

Jonah Goldberg on Human Responsibility

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Noting that we’re all human beings can be worthwhile, but it can also be a verbal white flag for abject moral surrender. Put another way: All the great political and moral conflicts have been between human beings. To date, civilization’s greatest battles — rhetorical or otherwise — have not been with Styrofoam, dog hair, gerbils, or toe jam. Nazis are human beings. Murderers and pedophiles are human beings. To say that humanity somehow exonerates rather than confers accountability is to say that humanity is in fact meaningless. Joe Blow killed a child? Well, he’s just a human being — cut him some slack. Sure, Jack the Ripper was a rough chap, but he was a carbon-based life form.

Susan J. Blackmore on the Illusory Self

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Each illusory self is a construct of the memetic world in which it successfully competes. Each selfplex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is someone inside who is in charge. The ways we behave, the choices we make, and the things we say are all a result of this complex structure: a set of memeplexes (including the powerful selfplex) running on a biologically constructed system. The driving force behind everything that happens is replicator power. Genes fight it out to get into the next generation, and in the process biological design comes about. Memes fight it out to get passed on into another brain or book or object, and in the process cultural and mental design comes about. There is no need for any other source of design power. There is no need to call on the creative ‘power of consciousness’, for consciousness has no power. There is no need to invent the idea of free will. Free will, like the self who ‘has’ it, is an illusion. Terrifying as thought seems, I suggest it is true.

What Do We Deserve?

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The concept of desert, which once enjoyed a central place in political and ethical theory, has been relegated to the margins of much of contemporary theory, if not excluded altogether. Recently a renewed interest in the topic has emerged, and several philosophers have argued that the notion merits a more central place in political and ethical theory. Some of these philosophers contend that justice exists to the extent that people receive exactly what they deserve, while others argue that desert should replace such considerations as rights, need, and equality as the basis for distributions. Still others argue that morality involves a fitting match between one’s moral character and a degree of happiness. All of these positions have encountered opposition from egalitarians, libertarians, and those who are skeptical about the coherence of the concept of desert. The first anthology of its kind, What Do We Deserve? is a balanced collection of readings that brings sharply opposing positions and arguments together and stimulates debate over the meaning and significance of desert in current thought. The book begins with eight classical readings on desert (by Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Smith, Kant, Mill, Sidgwick, and Ross), and later turns to contemporary interpretations of the issue. The selections examine the concept itself, analyze its relationship to the ideas of freedom and responsibility, engage in the debate between John Rawls and his critics on the merits of desert, and, finally, study the wider role and significance of desert in political and ethical theory. ~ Product Description

Dallas Willard on the Mental Life

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Now we need to understand that what simply occupies our mind very largely governs what we do. It sets the emotional tone out of which our actions flow, and it projects the possible courses of action available to us. Also the mind, though of little power on its own, is the place of our widest and most basic freedom. This is true in both a direct and an indirect sense. Of all the things we do, we have more freedom with respect to what we will think of, where we will place our mind, than anything else. And the freedom of thinking is a direct order to exercise it. We simply turn our mind to whatever it is we choose to think of. The deepest revelation of our character is what we choose to dwell on in thought, what constantly occupies our mind, as well as what we can or cannot even think of.

Naturalism and Libertarian Agency

Go While most philosophers agree that libertarian agency and naturalism are incompatible, few attempts have been offered to spell out in some detail just why this is the case. My purpose in this article is to fill this gap in the literature by expanding on and clarifying the connection between naturalism as it is widely understood today and the rejection of libertarian agency. To accomplish this end I begin by clarifying different forms of libertarian agency and identify the key philosophical components that constitute libertarian agency per se. Second, three different aspects of contemporary scientific naturalism are analyzed and the relations among them clarified: the naturalist epistemic attitude, etiology, and ontology. This is followed by a presentation of six arguments for the claim that libertarian agency should be rejected by advocates of scientific naturalism. Finally, I criticize a recent attempt by Randolf Clarke to reconcile libertarian agency and scientific naturalism. ~ Abstract

Basil Mitchell on the Theatre of Irrevocable Choices

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I looked at the Gita and was deeply moved, as who could fail to be, but I was not convinced. When it came to the point I found myself quite unable to believe that what happened in the world as the result of my actions was not of ultimate importance. To be sure it mattered little what I, as a single individual, did as the German tanks rolled into France, but what thousands like me did might make a crucial difference to the course of human history. At that moment I discovered myself to be profoundly occidental. ¶ I do not suppose that even now I can render fully explicit what lay behind that conviction, but it had, I believe, something to do with the Christian pattern of Creation and Redemption and a consequent vision of the world as the theatre of irrevocable choices.

Daniel Dennet on the Illusion of Uncaused Acts

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Whatever else we are, we are information-processing systems, and all information-processing systems rely on amplifiers of a sort. Relatively small causes are made to yield relatively large effects. … Vast amounts of information arrive on the coattails of negligible amounts of energy, and then, thanks to the amplification powers of systems of switches, the information begins to do some work — evoking other information that was stored long ago, for instance transmuting it for the present occasion in a million small ways, and leading eventually to an action whose pedigree of efficient (or triggering) causation is so hopelessly inscrutable as to be invisible. We see the dramatic effects leaving; we don’t see the causes entering; we are tempted by the hypothesis that there are no causes.