Hilary Bok on free will:
As a philosopher, I often find speculation about the implications of neuroscience for free will perplexing. While some neuroscientists describe free will in ways that I recognize, others, including some distinguished and thoughtful scientists, do not. Thus Benjamin Libet: If “our consciously willed acts are fully determined by natural laws that govern the activities of nerve cells in the brain,” then free will is “illusory.”
Most philosophers disagree.
Among philosophers the main division is between compatibilists, who believe that free will is compatible with causal determinism, and incompatibilists, who believe that it is not. Almost all compatibilists think that we are free. Most are not determinists, but they believe that we would be free even if our actions are fully determined.
With the exception of those who work within a religious tradition, philosophers tend to be naturalists who see individual mental events as identical with events in our brains. When we say that a person’s choice caused her action, we do not mean that she swooped in from outside nature and altered her destiny; we mean that an event in her brain caused her to act. On this view, the claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it.
For compatibilists, therefore, the problem of free will is not that neuroscience reveals our choices as superfluous. It does not. Nor do compatibilists deny that our choices cause us to do things. The problem of free will for compatibilists is not to preserve a role for deliberation and choice in the face of explanations that threaten them with elimination; it is to explain how, once our minds and our choices have been thoroughly naturalized, we can provide an adequate account of human agency and freedom.
How can we reconcile the idea that our choices have scientific explanations with the idea that we are free? Determinism does not relieve us of the need to make decisions. And when we make decisions, we need some conception of the alternatives available to us. If we define an alternative as an action that is physically possible, then determinism implies that we never have more than one alternative. But since we cannot know in advance what we will choose, if we define “alternative” this way, we will never know what our alternatives are. For the purposes of deciding what to do, we need to define our alternatives more broadly: as those actions that we would perform if we chose them.
A person whose actions depend on her choices has alternatives; if she is, in addition, capable of stepping back from her existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among them, then, according to compatibilists, she is free.
Whether this view provides an adequate account of free will is not a problem neuroscience can solve. Neuroscience can explain what happens in our brains: how we perceive and think, how we weigh conflicting considerations and make choices, and so forth. But the question of whether freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with free will is not a scientific one, and we should not expect scientists to answer it.
Whatever their views on the compatibility of freedom and determinism, most philosophers agree that someone can be free only if she can make a reasoned choice among various alternatives, and act on her decision; in short, only if she has the capacity for self-government.
Neuroscience can help us to understand what this capacity is and how it can be strengthened. What, for instance, determines when we engage in conscious self-regulation, and how might we ensure that we do so when we need to? If the exercise of self-government can deplete our capacity for further self-government in the short run, what exactly is depleted, and how might we compensate for its loss? Does self-government deplete our resources in the short run while strengthening them over time, like physical exercise, or does it simply weaken our ability to govern ourselves without any compensating benefit?
Neuroscience can answer those questions, and it can provide causal explanations of human action, but it can’t resolve the question of whether or not such explanations are compatible with free will.
Say that, tomorrow, a Superman appears. He is largely as described in comic books: incredibly strong, able to move extremely fast, nearly tireless, able to fly freely, brilliant, nearly invincible, and a truly moral soul. And he is alone, having come from a now-gone alien world.
Arriving on Earth, Superman should be able to quickly discern that Earth is unlike his utopian home world. Here there is crime, poverty, disease, natural disaster, and more. Unlike in the comic books, Superman finds himself in a 24/7 position. There is no time of the day in which there are not lives that he could be saving, lives which would be lost should he opt to neglect them, whether it be for recreation or even for sleep.
Superman would then be in a position where he must decide how many lives that his recreation and own health are worth. If he’s been up for 40 hours, should he neglect the passengers of that downed plane in the middle of the Pacific to get some shuteye? If he’s not taken a moment’s break from his duties for years, should he neglect both of the two separate incidents where hostages have been taken so that he can have a friendly conversation with a romantic interest?
The main question: At what point, if any, would it be reasonable for a Superman who always had lives which needed saving to not save those lives in favor of his personal life?
At what point, if any, is a moment of Superman’s personal life more important than the entirety of a human’s life?
Kripke resigns as report alleges that he faked results of thought experiments
Saul Kripke resigned yesterday from his position as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. While similar allegations have been circulating in unpublished form for years, a team of philosophers from Oxford University has just released a damning report claiming that they were systematically unable to reproduce the results of thought experiments reported by Kripke in his groundbreaking Naming and Necessity. The team, led by Timothy Williamson, first became suspicious of Naming and Necessity after preliminary results raised questions about related work by Hilary Putnam. While the group was initially unable to confirm that water is H2O on Twin Earth, the results turned out to be due to contaminated research materials—one of the researchers’ minds had been contaminated by Chomskyan internalist semantics.
Since 1969, Daniel Dennett has turned philosophers’ names into usable words in the Philosophical Lexicon. Some of my favorites:
buber, v. To struggle in a morass of one’s own making. “After I defined the self as a relation that relates to itself relatingly, I bubered around for three pages.” Hence buber, n. one who bubers. “When my mistake was pointed out to me, I felt like a complete buber.”
derrida, n. A sequence of signs that fails to signify anything beyond itself. From a old French nonsense refrain: “Hey nonny derrida, nonny nonny derrida falala.”
frege, n. (only in the idiom, to beg the frege) To acknowledge the inconsistency of one’s position but maintain it anyway.
heidegger, n. A ponderous device for boring through thick layers of substance. “It’s buried so deep we’ll have to use a heidegger.” Also useful for burying one’s own past.
hume, pron. Indefinite personal and relative pronoun, presupposing no referent. Useful esp. in writing solipsistic treatises, sc. “to hume it may concern.”
immanuel, n. (from im-, not, + manual, guide or rulebook) A set of instructions for doing something that kant (q.v.) be done.
kripke, adj. Not understood, but considered brilliant. “I hate to admit it, but I found his remarks quite kripke.”
marcuse, v. To criticize vehemently from a Marxist perspective. “Je marcuse!”
wittgenstein, v. To enumerate. “Don’t bother to wittgenstein all these pages; the fax machine will do it automatically.”