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What philosophers believe
December 9, 2009 4:39 AM   Subscribe

Want to know what philosophers, those people you pay to think on your behalf, actually believe? David Chalmers and David Bourget recently canvassed several thousand professional philosophers for their views on a range of central philosophical issues.

The authors call this an exercise in the sociology of philosophy, rather than providing reason for anyone to change what they think. Some results are unsurprising (81.6% are non-skeptical realists about the external world) where others are more curious (41% think aesthetic value is objective).

(Mostly) wikipedia pages on the philosophical problems surveyed:
a priori knowledge; abstract objects; aesthetic value;
analytic-synthetic distinction; epistemic justification; external world skepticism; free will; god; knowledge claims contextualism v relativism v invariantism; knowledge rationalism v empiricism; laws of nature Humean v non-Humean; logic classical v non-classical; mental content internalism v externalism; meta-ethical realism v antirealism; metaphilosophical naturalism v non-naturalism; mind physicalism v non-physicalism; moral judgement cognitivism v non-cognitivism; moral motivation internalism v externalism; Newcomb's problem; normative ethical positions; perceptual experience; personal identity; proper names; scientific realism; political positions; teletransporter thought experiment; time; trolley problem; truth; zombies.
posted by leibniz (115 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting that 72.8% of philosophers "Accept or lean toward" atheism, 14.6% to theism.

Compare that to scientists where a survey has 51% believing in God, 41% not.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:52 AM on December 9, 2009


Man, this really makes me happy to see. Particularly since, back when I was teaching Freshman Philosophy Surveys, one of the most common questions was "People actually believe this?!" Now, I can say, yes, yes they do.

Me, I'm still with Kant. I think there's an external word out there, but I'm really not sure we can know jack all about it really, thanks to our minds, and going much beyond that gets sticky and very complicated.
posted by strixus at 4:55 AM on December 9, 2009


I'm surprised that 59% accept or lean towards compatibilism, which seems to me like a philosophical cop-out.
posted by Pyry at 5:08 AM on December 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


I was frankly surprised that there were so many theists- though I suspect the theist won't often be of a denominational sort.

Happily surprised to see so many mental externalists as well, though I wonder if this is due to more young philosophers responding.
posted by leibniz at 5:08 AM on December 9, 2009


Fascinating. Of course aesthetic value is objective. If it's not objective, aesthetics is no longer really a branch of philosophy, but has to be handed over to psychologists or worse)
posted by Phanx at 5:13 AM on December 9, 2009


Don't you mean those people you pay to think on your behalf.
posted by larry_darrell at 5:18 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was very surprised by many of the results, if only because I expected the contrarian position to be more popular in many of them. For instance, I was suprised by the poor performance of moral non-realism and non-cognitivism, biological theories of personal identity, trolley non-switchers, and deflationary theories of truth.

It suggests to me that most working philosophers probably don't revisit most of these questions most of the time, and may have settled for some kind of comfortable common sense in non-specialties, the better to focus on developing highly idiosyncratic views within their own sub-fields.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:23 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Y'all really need to click on that last link. Philosophical zombies, indeed.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:47 AM on December 9, 2009


I was relieved to see moral-non-realism and non-cognitivism fair so poorly.
posted by oddman at 5:52 AM on December 9, 2009


The nice things about p-zombies is that when they eat your brain you get can derive some small satisfaction from the fact that they don't enjoy it.
posted by oddman at 5:53 AM on December 9, 2009 [19 favorites]


Leibniz-Good to see you. Let's have lunch!
posted by wittgenstein at 5:56 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


"That's right!" shouted Vroomfondel, "we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!"
posted by DreamerFi at 5:58 AM on December 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


I was relieved to see moral-non-realism and non-cognitivism fair so poorly.

Ehh... I don't hold those views, I just meant that many people who work in ethics do hold some view like quasi-realism or emotivism, so I expected that view to have more support in the survey.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:58 AM on December 9, 2009


I see two highly questionable points in the study cited by the LA Times, TheophileEscargot. First, they found that social scientists are significantly more likely to believe in god, which means they are including social scientists. Second, they polled the AAAS which is "the worlds largest general scientific society," which means even their natural sciences results are including lab techs who don't even hold a PhD. In comparison, the study cited here canvases only philosophers who hold professorships at universities.

I think the clearest comparable data about physical scientists belief in god come from the surveys of members of the National Academy of Sciences in 1914, 1933, and 1998. Personal belief dropped from 28% in 1914 to 7% in 1998. Disbelief rose from 53% in 1914 to 72% in 1998, which exactly matches the philosophers.

You might argue that the NAS is actually a more rarified body than the surveyed philosophers, only about 500 as opposed to a "couple thousand". I expect however your biggest decline comes either when you restrict to PhDs or when you restrict to professors. It's also possible the NAS is slightly more politicized given their role in government, thus inflating the believers count.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:58 AM on December 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


The questions seemed a bit crude for a purportedly sophisticated enterprise. Two classic (sometimes musty) positions and "other." It's just a web survey, no reason you couldn't have three or four options there. Except of course the question on zombies, Chalmers's bailiwick, where suddenly there are more possiblities.

Disappointed to see that even split with the Platonists, though. I have no idea what kind of jackhammer-powered wooden stake we have to drive through the hearts of those people to finally break the curse, but I'm up all night thinking about it.
posted by el_lupino at 6:04 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, and if you like the Trolley Problem, you should check out Michael Patton's version. No, Mike's not much on web design. But it'll be nice to have 37 philosophical problems answered once and for all when we're done.
posted by el_lupino at 6:09 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, e_lupino, you could try coming up with an alternative that works.
posted by oddman at 6:10 AM on December 9, 2009


Two things I should point out: first, quite a lot of grad students and even a few undergrads answered the survey (see the page on demographics). Second, the answers always included 'lean towards', 'intermediate view' and 'other' options rather than just straight out accept or reject.
posted by leibniz at 6:14 AM on December 9, 2009


jeffburdges: Actually, I think the poll was of people registered at philpapers.org. I got a notification and started taking it, but stopped because it was taking too long to re-visit and nail down what I thought about everything. (And I'm definitely no phil. phd)

pyry: I always thought compatibilism was a cop-out too, but I really like argument in Susan Wolf's paper "Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility", as well as the "Free Will" chapter from Thomas Nagel's book "The View From Nowhere". (Nagel isn't quite a compatibilist. He makes an argument that the problem is insoluable because the idea of a free action is self-contradictory, and then has some Wolf-like recommendations about how to act in light of that fact).
posted by mathtime! at 6:17 AM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yean, mathtime! I've always like Wolfe and Nagel for those points too, and used to teach Wolf's sanity paper as a cap to the free will problem section, along with Nagel's theory of moral luck.
posted by strixus at 6:20 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course aesthetic value is objective. If it's not objective, aesthetics is no longer really a branch of philosophy, but has to be handed over to psychologists or worse)

I'm hope you have a more sophisticated argument for your "of course" besides "because if I'm wrong we're in trouble."
posted by grumblebee at 6:33 AM on December 9, 2009


I don't need to pay a philosopher to think on my behalf. My wife does it for me free.
posted by Postroad at 6:35 AM on December 9, 2009


Also, I disagree that philosophy is useless for doing work with subjective claims. Almost all systems (or should that be ALL systems?) start with unprovable axioms. For instance, I'm guessing that there are philosophers who are materialists in practice but aren't 100% sure that a material world exists. Such thinkers may say, "Let's ASSUME it exists. If it does, we can conclude that...."

Along the same lines, logicians regularly say things like "if p then q." Yes, it's interesting and important to discuss whether or not p is, in fact, true. But the claim "if p then q" itself holds interest whether or not p is true. It posits a relationship between p and q which is a different issue than p's truth or falsehood.

I have some aesthetic values that you may not share. However, you and I could have a rational discussion about the ramifications of my values. In fact, I would argue that we'd be a lot better off if we regularly (temporarily) accepted axioms that we don't believe.

For instance, I'm pro choice. If I'm trying to SOLVE the abortion debate (i.e. make the debate go away so that we can live in harmony), what would be a better strategy? Asserting over and over that a fetus is not a person or saying, "Okay, I don't agree with this, but I'm going to accept your axiom that a fetus is a person, because I know you hold that as a key belief and you're unlikely to change your mind about it. Let's see if we find a peaceful solution given that assumption."

"All stories should have happy endings." I don't agree with that, but I can take it as a given and deduce various things from it.
posted by grumblebee at 6:46 AM on December 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Grumblebee, the best option might be to recognize, as many philosophers argue, that the question of the person-status of the fetus is actually not relevant to the debate.
posted by oddman at 7:01 AM on December 9, 2009


I'm surprised that 59% accept or lean towards compatibilism, which seems to me like a philosophical cop-out.

In what way? Compatibilism seems as plain as day to me: the intuition that humans have free will comes from the fact that our actions have no external causes. Libertarian free will means that you intuitively seem to have free will, therefore there is some grand metaphysical woo that you act outside of the normal operation of the universe. Compatibilist free will says that the libertarian definition has nothing to do with the sense one has of freely acting. It's a case where philosophers have stopped and said "how this term is being used doesn't make sense at all, let's re-evaluate what it really means."

To me, compatibilism is one of the better outputs of modern philosophy, as opposed to the Problem of Universals, which is one of the areas that seems to generate the most woo to me. I'm disappointed that Platonist positions have the plurality here.
posted by graymouser at 7:06 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, I have a philosophy degree, and I knew only about 1/2 or 2/3 of the problems on the site. Time to hit the books (or at least wikipedia, geez).

And what is up with 39.3% of philosophers being Platonists? I just re-read all of the Dialogs, and I have to say that there are some pretty laugh-out-loud logical acrobatics swirling around in their pages. Sure, later philosophers clarified and extended the theory of forms, etc. but I have to say that reading the pre-socratics and Aristotle are way more satisfying than Plato.

Makes me want to punch A.N. Whitehead in the face.
posted by imneuromancer at 7:09 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Grumblebee, the best option might be to recognize, as many philosophers argue, that the question of the person-status of the fetus is actually not relevant to the debate.

That only works if all participants in the debate accept it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:15 AM on December 9, 2009


In what way? Compatibilism seems as plain as day to me

If the world is deterministic, then the type of will people have is the same as that of a calculator, yet we wouldn't speak of a calculator 'choosing' to return 15 as the answer to 5*3.

If the world is nondeterministic*, then the will people have is the will of an unstable atom 'choosing' to decay at a given time, which seems just barely less ridiculous.

Compatibilism reads to me like apologetics, where its proponents are trying to justify belief in free will not because it's true, but because they desperately want it to be.

* Nondeterminism is of course by definition a type of "woo" unexplainable by any set of rules, but it seems to be the direction modern physics is leaning towards.
posted by Pyry at 7:41 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I didn't think there was very much that was surprising in the results. Plenty of them didn't go the way I wanted, of course, but I expected they'd be unpopular. I was shocked that so many people believe in the a priori and the analytic/synthetic distinction. I had no idea they were in such good repute! (They are dead to me, personally.) The number of non-Humeans about laws and the number of self-proclaimed naturalists were also surprising. Oh, and the objectivism about aesthetics. That was unexpected.

quite a lot of grad students and even a few undergrads answered the survey

You can filter the results to show only faculty or only grad students. I was interested in seeing the differences between the two, thinking that I could pick out some trends, but the two groups were nearly identical in most respects. Breaking it down by age would probably be more useful. They haven't done any correlations on the demographic information they have, and that's where the exciting stuff will happen.

And what is up with 39.3% of philosophers being Platonists?

"Platonism" has almost nothing to do with Plato, nowadays.
posted by painquale at 7:49 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


The questions seemed a bit crude for a purportedly sophisticated enterprise. Two classic (sometimes musty) positions and "other." It's just a web survey, no reason you couldn't have three or four options there.

They're only showing the results here as yes/no/other, but the actual survey was a bit more nuanced... you could choose "strongly believe" or "lean towards" (or their inverses), and there were a number of different "other" options you could choose, each tailored to the question, and usually about six or seven per question (eg. indeterminate; some combination of the two; the question is meaningless; insufficiently familiar with issue, etc.).
posted by painquale at 7:54 AM on December 9, 2009


Doubleplus for the video link portraying "philosophers"!

I'm also really happy, *bwahaheuadhaha*, to see this attempt at quantifying the amorphous field of philosophy. I would expound upon the potential uses and abuses of this survey, but would rather let my money-thought-consortium known as the philosophical community take a stab at it... and because I'd rather spend my post-space talking about compatibalism.

Pyry, I am a compatibalist with respect to the mind-body "duality", (Who cares?) which is at the root of the free-will versus determinism debate. I believe that mental "substance" entirely physical, but that the mental descriptions of beliefs, desires, etc. are distinct from the physical systems. There are abstract logics and representations that are non-material, but must be realizable only in physical systems. I don't posit an idea-reality, but would find myself in the Platonists camp despite needing to be dragged kicking and screaming over there. Seriously, I still don't buy into the forms, but don't see how to posit my abstracta without being branded a Platonist.

With respect to free-will and determinism, I feel strongly that everything is deterministic, excepting projective measurements in quantum mechanics, but that "choice" is a process or sub-routine of cognition. In other words, I don't believe in unconstrained (or even fully unpredictable) choice, but I think that the appearance or representation of choice and the structure of accountability and responsibility are necessary in a social ethic. Also, choice actually happens... deterministically: brain "decides" to order chicken wings despite moral grief on the matter. The outcome is a result of a quasi-pandemonium in the brain (Dennett)... where one side wins for a whole variety of reasons.

[Anyway, just wanted to show how it may or may not be a cop-out... you decide, *bwhawauhadhaahaah*]

But who the hell am I? Should philosophy writ large really care? That'd be a question I'd like to see answered by philosophers and scientists alike... the amateurs (not crack-pots, but well-trained amateurs).
posted by quanta and qualia at 7:55 AM on December 9, 2009


Compatibilism is a cop-out in the sense that it solves the problem of free will by changing the subject. That may actually be a useful thing to do, but from the perspective of someone who is into the arguments, it can seem like a bit of a letdown. And, as I said before, while I think there are some interesting and useful compatibilist views, I also don't think they address the traditional problem, and it's important to acknowledge the difference.
posted by mathtime! at 8:02 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Compatibilism reads to me like apologetics, where its proponents are trying to justify belief in free will not because it's true, but because they desperately want it to be.

I view it differently. To me, libertarianism (and to clarify, when I was in college, not a philosophy major but interested in the subject, I was quite ardently a libertarian) is a desperate desire for some metaphysical freedom greater than, to use d'Holbach's more famous analogy, a billiards ball. Compatibilism is not about a desire to have free will, but to create a philosophical framework in which we can discuss free will as most people talk about it without going into some wild metaphysical journey about how human choices are absolutely free from prior determining factors.

* Nondeterminism is of course by definition a type of "woo" unexplainable by any set of rules, but it seems to be the direction modern physics is leaning towards.

Ok, but it doesn't mean anything relative to free will. To use your calculator analogy, let's say that the calculator's input is really 5 * [a number based on the spin of a given quantum particle]. The calculator returns 15. It wasn't deterministic that the calculator would return 15, given absolutely identical starting conditions it could've returned 10 or 20, depending on the particle's spin, which is nondeterministic. This does nothing for libertarian free will, since it is a gap in general determinism but not one in which free choice exists.

More than that, quantum indeterminacy exists mostly at the sub-atomic level. By the time it gets to the point where it's really impacting thoughts, everything averages out and acts deterministically. The idea that it saves libertarian free will is unrealistic to me.
posted by graymouser at 8:14 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Compatibilism reads to me like apologetics, where its proponents are trying to justify belief in free will not because it's true, but because they desperately want it to be.

I just listened to a long (20-hours or something) survey course from The Teaching Company on Free Will. The course was really well taught, but it disappointed me because (a) I expected to learn some new ideas, but I didn't. I've been thinking about this stuff most of my life, but I haven't read much about it. I figured the real philosophers would have come up with some more sophisticated arguments than I did in my armchair. If that course is accurate, they haven't.

(b) I was stunned by the number of philosophers, throughout history, who have let wishful thinking be at least part of their argument. Many of them have been honest about that, too, which I guess is good if you're going to do it. But I don't see how wishful thinking belongs anywhere near rigorous thought.
posted by grumblebee at 8:20 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


If the world is deterministic, then the type of will people have is the same as that of a calculator, yet we wouldn't speak of a calculator 'choosing' to return 15 as the answer to 5*3.

You can predict the outputs of a calculator from its inputs alone; you can't do that with a human brain.

It's you non-compatibilists who are evasive; the point is not to deny or assert the phenomenon, but to explain.
posted by Phanx at 8:22 AM on December 9, 2009


That's fair enough, mathtime!, but I don't understand the let down. If the answer is that choice is constrained by the physical systems it's manifest in, and then you throw in a bit of the compatibilist mind-body mumbo-jumbo that I was espousing earlier, then I think the question is being answered. From my perspective, the concept of free will is an abstraction, and this abstraction, if meritorious, must be physically realizable. Otherwise, it goes the way of zombies and utopian fantasies. The question about choice is not an either/or... free will versus hard-determinism, and the compatibilist is looking to thread that needle. If it's unsatisfying because it's no longer pure, that doesn't make it a cop-out. In fact, the joining of these two abstractions: free will and determinism seems more nuanced and interesting... much, much less than a cop-out.

A cop-out would be: free will exists, but we can never know it's origins or mechanisms. A cop-out would also be: everything's deterministic, and so no one is responsible for their own actions... this last cop-out is an ethical cop-out.
posted by quanta and qualia at 8:22 AM on December 9, 2009


Compatibilism is a cop-out in the sense that it solves the problem of free will by changing the subject.

Well, not exactly. Compatibilists still argue against libertarians (in the metaphysical sense) that libertarian free will doesn't exist, and in that way they agree with hard determinists. The main difference is one of emphasis. Hard determinists say that libertarians are wrong and the concept of free will is only really worth refuting. Compatibilists agree that libertarians are wrong but that there is a sense in which the idea of free will is worth salvaging. Given that I think libertarian free will is basically unjustifiable woo*, I like compatibilism for that.

* That may sound flip, but I spent a lot of hours agonizing over debates in my head, and wrote a couple of deeply unsatisfying papers, to try and justify at least to myself that it wasn't woo. I failed.
posted by graymouser at 8:27 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Good to see Hume getting the nod as the Non-living philosopher most identified with, you got to love that fat old Scot. Plus if you are a good Humean the problem of free will melts away with the bundle theory of self.
posted by afu at 8:31 AM on December 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Compatibilism seems as plain as day to me: the intuition that humans have free will comes from the fact that our actions have no external causes.

Surely you're not saying that the causal chain starts internally? That doesn't sound like it would be compatible with determinism. So really all causation is ultimately external, even if the proximate cause is internal?

I think the intuition about free will, or at least my intuition, is that the buck stops with the person, and this implies that reconstruction of the causal chain stops with the person. I don't feel particularly assuaged to be told that some mental element of mine played a role somewhere in the causal chain, so long as that element was caused by something else outside of me and outside of my control. I don't feel like I could've chosen differently if it's all ultimately causally determined by outside forces. I know that there are ways of analyzing "could" that get around this but I don't feel like they represent the kind of "could" that I'd like to have.

Also it seems to me that my actions could have internal proximate causes without their being free ... if I'm addicted to heroin, surely it's some "internal" element that causes me to shoot up?

Sorry if this is bad, it's been a long time since I've done any reading into free will. And I'm aware that the libertarian position is even worse, but that doesn't mean that compatibilism is compatible with ordinary intuitions.
posted by creasy boy at 8:36 AM on December 9, 2009


P F Strawson, "Freedom and Resentment."

IF we're going to actually discuss a philosophical issue, we should have some grounding beyond the survey. But I'd be happy to leave substantive discussion for some other thread: I know there are a bunch of folks here who might actually want to talk about the sociology of the discipline, and I'd hate to derail such a discussion in the name of another recapitulation of such a well-worn problem.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:37 AM on December 9, 2009


A cop-out would also be: everything's deterministic, and so no one is responsible for their own actions... this last cop-out is an ethical cop-out.

IF everything IS deterministic, you're using the word cop-out in an odd way. It's as if you've said, "Don't tell you can't add 1 + 1 together and get 3. That's a cop out!" IF numbers work the way we think they do, that's not a cop out. It's a law of nature.
posted by grumblebee at 8:39 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


w/r/t compatibalism being a cop out...

As graymouser points out, it's not like we're having our cake and eating it too. We're arguing that the hypothesized cake is conceptually incoherent, but that something with all the desirable qualities of cake that make any sense is available for our consumption.

To phrase that less pataphorically: the "free will" concept postulated by libertarians is non-sensical, but all of the concerns most people have about determinism are unfounded - this altered conception of free will retains all that's important to us (hence the varieties of free will worth wanting).

Read Elbow Room. It's short, and extremely entertaining as philosophy books go.
posted by phrontist at 8:43 AM on December 9, 2009


I was shocked that so many people believe in the a priori and the analytic/synthetic distinction.

I was interested in that as well, but what I'm kind of ignorant about the current state of this debate. How has it moved on post Quine?
posted by afu at 8:44 AM on December 9, 2009


Aw, man, weird. Me and Mr. WanKenobi were just talking about Chalmers the other night. About how he'd seen on facebook that either Chalmers was dressed up as Daniel Dennett for Halloween or the other way around. I wish I could find the photo to share with other philosophy nerds.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:45 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, I wrote a long post, then on preview realized I could shorten it greatly:

Please agree on a definition of Free Will before arguing about Compatibility!

I gave up on this question about 15 years ago, after reading yet another elegant treatise on why free will does or does not exist, which derived entirely from the author's initial definition and hence completely ignored the opposing side's argument.
posted by bjrubble at 8:47 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or maybe I can just propose my own hypothesis:

Free will is an illusion, not of conscious beings who think they have it, but of philosophers who think they know what they mean by the term.
posted by bjrubble at 8:48 AM on December 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


Also, nominalism FTW! So psyched to see that it is both the dominant view and growing in popularity (undergrads are much more likely to endorse it).

Deflationary truth needs more evangelizing... I should make up chick-style tracts or maybe take some ads out on a bus.
posted by phrontist at 8:48 AM on December 9, 2009


I gave up on this question about 15 years ago, after reading yet another elegant treatise on why free will does or does not exist, which derived entirely from the author's initial definition and hence completely ignored the opposing side's argument.

This is addressed very often in modern papers. Who specifically are you talking about?
posted by phrontist at 8:50 AM on December 9, 2009


I'd be curious to hear about the established definition. Because there certainly doesn't seem to be one in this thread. (And if by "established" you mean it goes by names like "libertarian" and "hard determinist" that doesn't really fix things, if you then have a blanket term like Compatibilist that smears them together.)
posted by bjrubble at 8:54 AM on December 9, 2009


I don't think our disagreement is about very much of substance, quanta and qualia. I think you're (rightly) reacting to the negative judgement implied by "cop-out", which I happily retract. I think compatibilism is doing what needs to be done to the debate.

As you say, just look at the "traditional" options: On the one side is the "no free will, no one's responsible" cop-out, and on the other, the quixotic quest of answering the question "how can we possibly be free in the way we think we are?"

Compatibilism is taking the practical measures of clarifying what substantive senses we can be free in. My only points were: (1) the senses in which we can be free are different from what most people imagine, and we should highlight how and why the new senses are superior, and (2) even though I knew the traditional debate was hopeless, it was fun, and I'm always a little sad to give up a quixotic project for a practical one (though it's the right thing to do).

I like your point that I needn't feel nostalgic for a quixotic project when I can feel excited about sorting out the new interesting complexities of reconciling freedom and determinism. Thanks!
posted by mathtime! at 9:10 AM on December 9, 2009


A cop-out would also be: everything's deterministic, and so no one is responsible for their own actions... this last cop-out is an ethical cop-out.

I disagree. This sounds to me like "we can't discard the notion of free will, because then we wouldn't be able to judge anyone". Regardless of which way the determinism issue falls, there is nothing to attach (metaphysical) responsibility to. You can no more blame a person for rolling the wrong numbers on the free will dice than you can blame him for his inescapable fate. No one is responsible for anything, no one deserves to be rewarded or punished.

This doesn't imply that we should default to anarchy, or that there is no morality or ethics. Most people would say that animals are not responsible for their actions in a moral sense, yet nonetheless we reward and punish them. We can still implement practical incentives to guide people's behavior without having to appeal to a metaphysical justification for why they deserve those incentives. We can still say that suffering is bad without having to find a target to blame for that suffering (although as a practical measure we may still blame someone to create the right incentives for others to avoid that behavior).
posted by Pyry at 9:21 AM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


bjrubble: you're absolutely right that whether or not "free will" exists depends on how you define it, and that's exactly what the debate is about: how to define it. However, since I also want to leave room for the sociology side of things, memail me and I'd be happy to try and spell out how various camps are defining it and point you towards some readable papers.
posted by mathtime! at 9:28 AM on December 9, 2009


Thanks, this is really interesting.

Is there a list of the people who participated in the survey? And I'm troubled by the fact that 2600 of the people who took the survey were professors or grad students - but who were the additional 600?
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:41 AM on December 9, 2009


It's good to hear that this is now overtly a debate about language, but that seems to upend the "what philosophers believe" part of the question. Unless the Compatibilist question is really, "can one impute moral responsibility to beings in a deterministic universe?" -- which seems to be the debate going on here, but would seem more productive (or at least more accessible to a lay audience) if it just dropped the term "free will" entirely.
posted by bjrubble at 9:48 AM on December 9, 2009



Interesting that 72.8% of philosophers "Accept or lean toward" atheism, 14.6% to theism.

This makes sense to me. If they were theistic as matter or world view then they would likely have found work in theology over philosophy. Thus are not professional philosophers and eliminated from the study.

The Christian philosophers (theologians) would be arguing over Arminianism (free will) and Calvinism (determinism) vs compatabilism. This is one the the key differences between Presbyterians (Calvinists) and Baptists (Arminians).

I am a for compatibility. Not as a cop out but I view them as a koan.

The rigidity of both sides and the labels that have been applied to them are hide the reality of both perspectives.

You can't blame the determinsts for that, they were predestined to believe in it. So it must be all you free will folks who are choosing to be narrow minded causing this rift.
posted by empty vessel at 9:51 AM on December 9, 2009


can one impute moral responsibility to beings in a deterministic universe?

In a deterministic universe one will or won't impute moral responsibility. It won't be a choice.
posted by grumblebee at 9:52 AM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Compatibilism is not about a desire to have free will, but to create a philosophical framework in which we can discuss free will as most people talk about it without going into some wild metaphysical journey about how human choices are absolutely free from prior determining factors.

Does anyone these days actually take the position that "human choices are absolutely free from prior determining factors," or is that just a straw-man argument? I consider myself a libertarian, but I find that an implausible assertion. If I'm correct in calling myself a libertarian, then this misunderstanding might partly explain why libertarians are so often blithely dismissed as if they're not even worth taking seriously. Seems to me that any libertarian in the present day who remotely respects modern science (as opposed to, say, Descartes) would acknowledge that external physical causes contribute to human decisions. They simply don't believe human decisions are 100% determined by external forces.

If I'm wrong about all this, then I should call myself a compatibilist rather than a libertarian. But I join Pyry (and John Searle) in thinking compatibilists are missing the point. It's one thing to be a determinist -- but if you are, you shouldn't claim you also believe in free will. You should simply admit you're a fatalist. I've seen many assertions (in this thread and elsewhere, including an upper-level college course) that free will is "plainly" compatible with determinism, as if believing otherwise is a silly superstition popular with the hoi polloi. But I've never seen a clear explanation of how I could "freely" decide to blurt out a particular sentence if everything is purely determined by past events (plus causal laws), any more than a calculator could be said to "freely" blurt out "4" after the user enters "2+2=."
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:02 AM on December 9, 2009


can one impute moral responsibility to beings in a deterministic universe?

In a deterministic universe one will or won't impute moral responsibility. It won't be a choice.


That's a cute riposte, but I think the above sentence was obviously asking whether moral responsibility could be coherently imputed to beings in a deterministic universe.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:05 AM on December 9, 2009


That's a cute riposte, but I think the above sentence was obviously asking whether moral responsibility could be coherently imputed to beings in a deterministic universe.

I think you're right, but I'm stunned by how often I hear something along these lines: if free will doesn't exist SHOULD we judge people based on their actions?
posted by grumblebee at 10:16 AM on December 9, 2009


I think you're right, but I'm stunned by how often I hear something along these lines: if free will doesn't exist SHOULD we judge people based on their actions?

Yes, I see your point -- the question of whether we should impute moral responsibility to someone is, itself, a moral question. But I don't think this leads to a contradiction either way.

If you believe that moral responsibility "shouldn't" be imputed to people, then of course it would be contradictory to judge such imputing as morally wrong. But what you'd actually mean by "shouldn't..." would (if you're consistent) actually be an amoral assertion: that the judgment itself is false (as opposed to, "Shame on you for uttering such a judgment!").

Of course, if you believe the opposite -- that people do have moral responsibility -- then it's entirely unproblematic to say we should impute moral responsibility to people.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:28 AM on December 9, 2009


42
posted by oddman at 10:30 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I see an error in my comment above, namely 72% philosophy faculty "lean towards" atheism while 72% of NAS members "disbelieve", and 14% of philosophy faculty "lean towards" theism while 7% of NAS members "believe". So numerous "effectively" agnostic philosophers are counted as theists and atheists here. Otoh, philosophers are much less likely to self-identify as agnostic per se, maybe they know the correct definition. ;)

I imagine the fact that this survey was preformed via web site also selected heavily against participation by religious philosophy professors, maybe communists and others got short shrift too. You'd likely see more atheists if you survey science faculty via web form too.

Ironically, the largest jump in atheism among philosophers appears between the "graduate student" category and "PhD" category. Do you think people lose their faith in graduate school? Or maybe theists are less likely to complete their PhD?
posted by jeffburdges at 10:38 AM on December 9, 2009


Ironically, the largest jump in atheism among philosophers appears between the "graduate student" category and "PhD" category. Do you think people lose their faith in graduate school?

It's that first year on the job market. Destroys faith in God, love, order, the invisible hand of the free market and half a dozen other things.
posted by el_lupino at 10:40 AM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Free-will arguments are entertaining to me, because while free will is "unjustifiable woo", a deterministic universe is also unjustifiable woo. If both determinism and libertarianism cannot be proven, worrying about which one is less provable is silly.

Also, I take exception with the comment up-thread that equated scientists with PhD holders. Anyone who conducts experiments and documents the result is a scientist, and amateur and non-PhD professional scientists do a lot to contribute to our understanding of the universe.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:41 AM on December 9, 2009


Moral responsibility arguments tend to go out the window once you have a Frankfurt-style counterexample. (Short version: a person intends to do X, and then is forced to do X. Is he or she morally responsible for doing X?) I think it really hurt libertarianism's moral appeal, and without that there isn't much going for the position aside from postulating an indeterminate universe, which doesn't really live up to the classic notion of a "truly" free will.
posted by graymouser at 10:50 AM on December 9, 2009


My cousin has a BA in philosophy. He says it's just a license to bullshit.
posted by Daddy-O at 10:58 AM on December 9, 2009


Um, graymouser, Frankfurt actually extends the concept of moral responsibility. His examples give us more moral responsibility not less.
posted by oddman at 11:22 AM on December 9, 2009


Um, graymouser, Frankfurt actually extends the concept of moral responsibility. His examples give us more moral responsibility not less.

Enh? I meant that it was devastating to libertarian arguments that hinge on moral responsibility. I think that's pretty well played itself out, as this survey indicated.
posted by graymouser at 11:31 AM on December 9, 2009


Free-will arguments are entertaining to me, because while free will is "unjustifiable woo", a deterministic universe is also unjustifiable woo. If both determinism and libertarianism cannot be proven, worrying about which one is less provable is silly.

It's all the fun of arguing about god, except hopefully less emotionally charged.
posted by Pyry at 11:34 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Moral responsibility arguments tend to go out the window once you have a Frankfurt-style counterexample. (Short version: a person intends to do X, and then is forced to do X. Is he or she morally responsible for doing X?) I think it really hurt libertarianism's moral appeal...

That sounds like a variation on the concept of moral luck, but I don't see how it refutes libertarianism. Normally, yes, if you're forced to do act X, you're not responsible for it. This itself wouldn't seem to bother libertarians; even they would concede people don't always act freely. It's just an exotic coincidence that, in the above hypo, the person also wanted to do the very same thing, X. What's wrong with the libertarian's claim that the wanting itself is done freely and can therefore be morally praiseworthy or blameworthy, notwithstanding the coerced (and thus unfree) actual performance of X?
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:57 AM on December 9, 2009


Do you think people lose their faith in graduate school? Or maybe theists are less likely to complete their PhD?

Most theologians can find work with a Masters of Divinity and work in the Church or teach at a seminary. The need for a PhD is limited to those are employed in secular academia or choose to pursue one for other purposes.
posted by empty vessel at 12:03 PM on December 9, 2009


Freewill is pretty easy. If the universe is deterministic, but we act as if we have free will, what have we lost? Nothing. If the universe is undetermined, but we act as if there's no free will, then we have lost our free will.

As far as ethics are concerned, well, think about your hypothetical calculator. If your calculator returns "11" when the input is "5 + 7" then the calculator is obviously flawed. Punishment is one way we try to reprogram the neurochemical biases in the offender so that the (pre-determined) output is correct in the future. Why should we bother trying to affect a future outcome? See my first paragraph. If it was determined that we were going to do it anyway, then we did it for that reason. But if it was not determined, then thank goodness we at least made the attempt.

"And I'm troubled by the fact that 2600 of the people who took the survey were professors or grad students - but who were the additional 600?"

dhoyt
posted by Eideteker at 12:11 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like what Alan Watts has to say about free will. He proses that you have free will to the extent that you know who you are. The more you know about who you are the more free will you are able to exercise.

Not sure if that means all the deterministic folks are just less self aware than those than the free will believers.

The issue of moral responsibility is so clumsy. Causality is closer to the reality of it all.

Causality precludes the need to figure out the whole determinism\free will thing. In a deterministic universe your existence is cause, in a universe where free will exists your choices\decisions\actions are cause.

Who is responsible usually ends up being determined by who someone says is responsible.

Cause can be observed in the world, in reality, out side of language.
posted by empty vessel at 12:17 PM on December 9, 2009


The more you know about who you are the more free will you are able to exercise.

I don't get it. Bill knows he has brown hair. Fred has no idea what color his hair is. How does that make Bill more of a free agent than Fred? Sure, Bill might be able to make more INFORMED choices (about, say, what clothes would look good matched to his hair color), but a free agent needn't make informed choices -- just choices.


Cause can be observed in the world


How? What does cause look like. If I drop a ball and it falls, all I am observing is a ball being released and then a ball falling. I am not observing cause. I am inferring it.
posted by grumblebee at 12:39 PM on December 9, 2009


If the universe is deterministic, but we act as if we have free will, what have we lost? Nothing. If the universe is undetermined, but we act as if there's no free will, then we have lost our free will.

Pretending that people have free will, and responding to them, judging them, and treating them as if they have free will, is perfectly justifiable if we do, in fact, have free will. If we don't, then it's pretty horrifying.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:40 PM on December 9, 2009


How? What does cause look like. If I drop a ball and it falls, all I am observing is a ball being released and then a ball falling. I am not observing cause. I am inferring it.

You're aware that this is an argument against all knowledge whatsoever, right?
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:43 PM on December 9, 2009


If I drop a ball and it falls, all I am observing is a ball being released and then a ball falling. I am not observing cause. I am inferring it.

This is very contentious. Why do you claim that you're inferring causes but observing the ball? The considerations that I assume are making you claim that causation is inferred will probably lead to the conclusion that the ball is also inferred (from photons, or sense data, or sensations, or fill-in-the-foundational-blank). When your early visual system processes information from the three types of retinal cones to determine what color the ball is, are you inferring the color of the ball? There's a difficult question here about where in the chain from perception to cognition epistemically-evaluable notions such as inference kick in. I don't see any reason to suppose that it happens before we represent events going on outside of us as causal events. Causal concepts are acquired extremely early on developmentally (long before we even develop concepts of colors) so there's good evidence that causation is handled by low-level cognitive processes. I take that as fairly solid evidence that our representation of events as causal or non-causal is genuinely perceptual.
posted by painquale at 1:47 PM on December 9, 2009


"Pretending that people have free will, and responding to them, judging them, and treating them as if they have free will, is perfectly justifiable if we do, in fact, have free will. If we don't, then it's pretty horrifying."

I already addressed this in my previous comment (there was more than one paragraph). Even if a calculator is "broken", there's a chance you can reprogram it. You need not violate determinism to do this (because it can be pre-determined that the calculator was going to be repaired). Besides, if we don't have freewill, then we can't exactly STOP doing it. And if you find THAT aspect of it horrifying, well, you were always going to find it that way, right?

Don't get me wrong; I put a good deal of work into becoming a physicist. I am pretty hardcore invested in physical determinism. I'm just trying to show how the issue of determinism/freewill is not really relevant. Either we have free will or we don't; and if we don't then we were always going to believe what we believe about it one way or the other, so what's the problem?
posted by Eideteker at 2:17 PM on December 9, 2009


If the universe is deterministic, but we act as if we have free will, what have we lost? Nothing. If the universe is undetermined, but we act as if there's no free will, then we have lost our free will.

How does one act as if one has or hasn't free will? What does it mean to lose our free will?
posted by nathan v at 2:22 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Squander free will? Waste it? Think of all the things you could have done, if only you'd realized you could do them!
posted by Eideteker at 2:32 PM on December 9, 2009


grumblebee, just because it's deterministic doesn't mean we can predict the outcomes. It just means that we can provide a causal-historical explanation of what happened. There's no magic transition. Even in quantum mechanics, where projective measurements are probabilistic, we know the process by which the spin was projected into the up or down state. We just can't predict which it will be in assuming it's mixed prior to measurement. Quantum computation is based on the fullness of quantum states.

mathtime!, I think you gave up too soon. Heh. I was reacting to your cop-out argument because I think compatibilism is still interested in the full answer. I appreciate your retraction, but the hand-wavy argument that free will (whatever your working definition) is just part of the physical universe could be a cop-out if it ignored the abstractions of intentions and agency-- or abstractions in general.
posted by quanta and qualia at 3:27 PM on December 9, 2009


I don't get it. Bill knows he has brown hair. Fred has no idea what color his hair is. How does that make Bill more of a free agent than Fred? Sure, Bill might be able to make more INFORMED choices (about, say, what clothes would look good matched to his hair color), but a free agent needn't make informed choices -- just choices.

This leads to an interesting question. Who are you? Are you your body, your mind, your identity, your ego, on and on...

The self Watts in referring to is the transcendental self or high self that Kant, Sartre, and Emerson all allude to. The more exploration you have done to answer the question "Who am I?" the more access you have to free will.

Decision is a function of rationalization. Dissecting the the components and deciding what to do.

Choice comes from the self. With out rationalization, not for any particular reason. You have to get past all the chatter in you head the measuring of the pros and cons, the good the bad, the meaning. Choice come from somewhere else, the self. The access to this is a quieted mind. A gap in chatter is the access to the self the more access to the self the more access to choice and free will. This access to the self is why Buddhists meditate.
posted by empty vessel at 3:42 PM on December 9, 2009


Well, I began to lose faith in philosophy when I noticed that they (philosophers) are real picky about the definition of some words, but pretty much ignore precision about the words around those favored words. It leads to all sorts of mischief and basically doesn't provide any sort of final answer, just fodder for hours of mental masturbation. Philosophy started out as what we now call science: useful investigations of the world and how it works. Now, not so much. It's pretty much been stripped of all the hard sciences and is down to quasi-theology.

I'm not trolling (do I protest too much?), but am sincerely interested in how any of these beliefs one way or the other translate into anything concrete, either behaviors or evaluations. I mean, let's say one philosopher says we have no free will and the other says we do. How should that change the way we behave or evaluate a work of art or a study? Outside of the philosophical words they write, how does the behavior of the two philosophers differ. The creation of the phrase "free will" presumes an understanding in both philosophers' minds that such a thing has a clear definition. The fact that they cannot agree on whether it does exist pretty much deprecates that presumption. To me it is directly analogous to the question of the existence of "god", the slipperiest word one can concoct. For both terms, there are no solid areas by which they can be pinned to the board.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:50 PM on December 9, 2009


grumblebee, just because it's deterministic doesn't mean we can predict the outcomes. It just means that we can provide a causal-historical explanation of what happened. There's no magic transition. Even in quantum mechanics, where projective measurements are probabilistic, we know the process by which the spin was projected into the up or down state. We just can't predict which it will be in assuming it's mixed prior to measurement. Quantum computation is based on the fullness of quantum states.

What are you responding to that I said? I know that determinist doesn't mean you can predict the outcome.
posted by grumblebee at 4:29 PM on December 9, 2009


If I drop a ball and it falls, all I am observing is a ball being released and then a ball falling. I am not observing cause. I am inferring it.


This is very contentious.


I am trying to understand what you mean by "observing"? It doesn't really matter to me whether we're seeing feedback from stuff in the physical world or stuff our brains are making up (or some mixture). When I "look" at the event we're discussing, I "see" a ball leaving a hand and a ball arriving at the the floor. I don't see (observe) causation.

Do you mean it metaphorically, the way we do when we see people crying and say "I see sadness"? We are almost definitely right that the people are sad, but we don't literally see sadness. We see liquid emerging from people's eyes. We INFER sadness.


Causal concepts are acquired extremely early on developmentally (long before we even develop concepts of colors) so there's good evidence that causation is handled by low-level cognitive processes.


Agreed.

I take that as fairly solid evidence that our representation of events as causal or non-causal is genuinely perceptual.

What do you mean by "is genuinely perceptual"?

Do you mean that it's a valid INFERENCE about the real world (or the made up world that we see in our heads which, despite being imaginary seems to follow certain fixed patterns and laws)?

Do you mean that it's actually something we SEE in our map of that real world? If so, what does it look like?

Are you saying that if an assumption about the world is built very deeply into primitive parts of the brain, it's very likely that assumption is true about the material world? If so, I don't understand your logic. For something to be build into the brain, it only needs to help survival (or be a byproduct of something else that does -- or be a random fluke that doesn't cost too much or impede survival).
posted by grumblebee at 4:42 PM on December 9, 2009


Pretending that people have free will, and responding to them, judging them, and treating them as if they have free will, is perfectly justifiable if we do, in fact, have free will. If we don't, then it's pretty horrifying.

So you're saying that it's possible that people don't have free will. Let's take that as a given for a second.

People don't have free will. Therefor, according to you, we should CHOOSE not to judge them, because doing so would be "horrifying." Is that what you're saying?

If there's no free will and you judge people as if they have free will, you can't help doing so. Because you don't have free will.

It's weird to me how people seem to take "no free will" as something that applies to the group being judged but not the group doing the judging.
posted by grumblebee at 4:46 PM on December 9, 2009


Even if a calculator is "broken", there's a chance you can reprogram it. You need not violate determinism to do this (because it can be pre-determined that the calculator was going to be repaired).

If you believe that the calculator runs on FORTRAN when it actually runs a custom language written by, say, Texas Instruments, you're not going to be reprogramming anything. You need accurate knowledge to be effective, and insisting on believing a particular thing regardless of reality- refusing to even investigate reality because you like believeing that thing- absolutely destroys your ability to do anything. And that's not even addressing the fact that you're just repurposing the granddaddy of terrible arguments, Pascal's Wager.


Well, I began to lose faith in philosophy when I noticed that they (philosophers) are real picky about the definition of some words, but pretty much ignore precision about the words around those favored words.

I am genuinely skeptical that you've done any structured work in philosophy, because if you had you'd know that philosophers tend to agonize over word choices and sentence structures.


People don't have free will. Therefor, according to you, we should CHOOSE not to judge them, because doing so would be "horrifying." Is that what you're saying?

That's not what I'm saying, though I do like how you've assumed it. The more interesting question is why you think that change requires will.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:11 PM on December 9, 2009


Well, I began to lose faith in philosophy when I noticed that they (philosophers) are real picky about the definition of some words, but pretty much ignore precision about the words around those favored words. It leads to all sorts of mischief and basically doesn't provide any sort of final answer, just fodder for hours of mental masturbation. Philosophy started out as what we now call science: useful investigations of the world and how it works. Now, not so much. It's pretty much been stripped of all the hard sciences and is down to quasi-theology.

Some great observations!

1) The inadequacy of language to describe reality. Watts and Nietzsche point to this. It is like looking at really he resolution picture with a monitor that has really low resolution and displays 3 colors.

2) Philosophy has always been an inquiry, I not sure it has ever been a scientific one, into the nature of life. It has definitely given rise and gives rise to hard scientific inquiry. It is sometimes hard to listen Physicists talk about string theory and remember they are scientists. The inquiry seems to start out as a philosophical one, then a theory involves which can then be tested. The later being science.

3) Losing faith in philosophy is valid. It is an endless stream of questions dividing and multiplying. There is nothing to take comfort or anything in and nothing in which to have faith. That is function of Theology and Metaphysics.

These are all really the same thing, they just appear separate because we have attached words and labels to segregate them. This may be why the polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci were able to accomplish what they did. They moved passed the barriers imposed by language.
posted by empty vessel at 5:31 PM on December 9, 2009


People don't have free will. Therefor, according to you, we should CHOOSE not to judge them, because doing so would be "horrifying." Is that what you're saying?


That's not what I'm saying, though I do like how you've assumed it.


I didn't assume, I asked.
posted by grumblebee at 5:36 PM on December 9, 2009


The more interesting question is why you think that change requires will.

I don't think that and I didn't say it.

Clearly people change. I see it all the time. And I don't believe in free will. So I DO believe in change without will.
posted by grumblebee at 5:37 PM on December 9, 2009


Then it should take you no effort at all to understand how a person would change in response to stimuli.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:39 PM on December 9, 2009


You're right. People do change in response to stimuli. I never said they didn't. Are you confusing me with someone else?
posted by grumblebee at 5:49 PM on December 9, 2009


The issue that grumblebee brings up may be poorly worded, but it captures something about the study of philosophy as a whole... namely, that while philosopher's agonize over their arguments and language, they don't catch everything... it is a human endeavor, and as such the evolution of philosophy involves a kind of irrational will to assert correctness... truthiness, if you will.

The great thing about human endeavors, though, is that they are typically social. There's a whole community that will scrutinize and look to contradict, preclude, or even extend previous work. This lends itself to a long-winded conversation, much like a Socratic dialogue, which may frustrate an idealistic student (like myself).

This point links in fairly nicely to the study posted above. Clearly, there's no unanimous position in professional philosophy... not even that there's an external world or whether a god exists. However, there is a consensus view among those who took the survey that there is an external world and there are no gods. (Of course the nuance of these positions deserve looking into...) Other issues, there isn't even a consensus. The question is then opened by grumblebees' frustration: what's the point of doing philosophy if the field won't come to a consensus on some long standing issues? It's a valid concern.

I posit that that's a reason why science emerged out of philosophy... in the Popperean (sp?) lens in order to test falsifiable claims rather. (Philosophy of Science is much more than Popper though, but I digress...) Philosophy cannot be restricted to this worldview, and in fact it is self-supported by a consensus about a priori knowledge, which is something that philosophy would be a main contender to develop... mathematics would be another. (Even if philosophy didn't believe in a priori knowledge, they could still collect a paycheck, and one would hope they wouldn't lie to themselves just to get paid.)

Personally, I think this survey is interesting not just from a sociological point of view (unless I misunderstand the efforts of sociology), but from a groupthink (positive connotation) point of view. There are interesting reasons why there's no unanimous consent, and the situations in which there are nearly equal outcomes, we may have to admit that the best answer hasn't been formulated in order to encapsulate all the prevailing views... this isn't to say of course that we should cop-out (heh) and say that everyone is right in their own way... but rather to say that in the case of compatibilism as debated above that there may be a better framing of the situation. If free will, any working definition, is embodied, then what does that tell us about moral permissibility or expectations... a thought I'm having concerns physical health. If our capacity to do the "right thing" depends on our physical health, then the moral agent would have to exercise frequently and eat well, etc., which are possibly non-moral concerns.
posted by quanta and qualia at 5:52 PM on December 9, 2009


By the way, I didn't mean to imply that it was poorly worded, grumblebee, just that it might be... maybe I should have said that then... but oh, well. : )
posted by quanta and qualia at 5:54 PM on December 9, 2009


That's okay. I often word things poorly.
posted by grumblebee at 5:55 PM on December 9, 2009


Do you mean it metaphorically, the way we do when we see people crying and say "I see sadness"? We are almost definitely right that the people are sad, but we don't literally see sadness. We see liquid emerging from people's eyes. We INFER sadness.

Sadness is another example of something I think that people do not infer. We see that people are sad; we don't infer it from liquid coming from their eyes (well, sometimes we do I guess, but not always). Similarly, we just see causation in the world. Sadness and causation are immediate objects of perception, and are not inferred. I do not mean this metaphorically.

There is a causal chain leading from a person's sadness to the production of tears to the deflection of photons hitting those tears to impingements of those photons on the observer's retina to transduction of that information into electrochemical processes to the formation of an idea. You draw the line between observation and inference at the person's tears. We see the tears, and then infer the sadness. But why did you draw the line right there? Why did you not say that we see the photons and infer the tears and sadness? Why did you not say that we immediately see the sadness? I'm genuinely curious why you think we infer sadness but not tears, and why we see tears but not sadness. I think it's hard to give an argument to support your position, and I can come up with a bunch of different sorts of arguments -- phenomenal, conceptual, developmental, neurological, and epistemological -- to support the notion that we see sadness directly. (I can go more into what it means for something to be "directly seen" or "directly perceived" if need be, but it sounds like you already have an idea of the distinction between direct perception and inference, and that's all that I'm adverting to.)

Do you mean that it's actually something we SEE in our map of that real world? If so, what does it look like?

Well, it looks like... causation. If you see a car hit a pedestrian and the pedestrian falls down, you see the car causing the pedestrian to fall. Same deal with sadness... a sad person looks like that [imagine me pointing to a sad person here]. It's precisely because we have such difficulty articulating how to describe these sorts of things in the world in any other way that we should think that they're directly seen. If they were inferred, we could tell you the process of reasoning that led us to get to them.

Are you saying that if an assumption about the world is built very deeply into primitive parts of the brain, it's very likely that assumption is true about the material world?

No, I'm not assuming anything about the material world here. Here's why I wasn't. (This is surely overboard, but I think it's relevant and interesting.)

'See' is ambiguous -- it has both an "intensional sense" and an "extensional sense". On the extensional sense, whatever is seen must really exist. For instance, take the sentence "Jack thought he saw a ghost, but he was wrong; he actually saw some sheets on a clothesline." That sentence uses 'see' extensionally. On the intensional sense, the object of seeing need not exist. "Macbeth saw a dagger before him" uses 'see' intensionally.

I was using 'see' in the intensional sense all through the above. Seeing sadness (without inferring sadness) does not depend on anyone in the world actually being sad, just as Macbeth can see a dagger before him even though nothing is before him. The extensional sense implies that, if we see causation and sadness in the material world, then they exist in the material world. However, that can't have been the sense of 'see' we were talking about. It's super easy to extensionally see causation in the world without inference. You don't need to recognize it as causation! If first dog Bo sees his master, he sees the president of the U.S., but he doesn't see him as the president.

If there's a question about how to draw the line between inferential reasoning processes and non-inferential perceptual processes, it's going to need to be about 'see' (or 'perceive', or any other semantic cognates) in the intensional sense. There are a bunch of representations in the head, none of which need be factive, true, or about anything that really exists. Which representations are the products of inference and which are not? That is the question.

The reason that I'm going on about this at some length is because so many people think that the immediate objects of perception need to actually exist and that perception must be veridical. they think that if we're misled, it's because of a mistake in reasoning. But this is entirely wrong and is the product of confusing the two senses of 'see'. It's precisely this error that led Russell and Ayer and all the positivists at the turn of the last century to posit sense data, and it leads people nowadays to posit thinks like qualia or an unvarnished stream of conscious experience. (Russell's argument: Macbeth sees something. There is nothing actually before him. So what does he see? Sense data! Then comes an argument to show that if sometimes we see sense data, we always do. And that leads to the conclusion that the external world is inferred from our experience of sense data. But note that this whole line of reasoning stops cold once you recognize that he's equivocating on 'see' in "Macbeth sees something.") With this in mind, I think it becomes less shocking to say that we directly see causation without inferring it. You don't even need to think that there's actual metaphysical causation in the world to agree with this.
posted by painquale at 6:19 PM on December 9, 2009


Ugh, those last few paragraphs look pretty redundant now that I look back at your comment and see where you wrote, "It doesn't really matter to me whether we're seeing feedback from stuff in the physical world or stuff our brains are making up (or some mixture)." Oh well.
posted by painquale at 6:25 PM on December 9, 2009


We see the tears, and then infer the sadness. But why did you draw the line right there? Why did you not say that we see the photons and infer the tears and sadness? Why did you not say that we immediately see the sadness?

It's mostly arbitrary, but I'm pretty sure I'm using the conventional form of arbitrariness in this case. According to that arbitrariness, things we see MUST have shapes, colors, etc. (The conventional physical attributes). If something doesn't have those things (or seem to use to have them), we can't see them (according to conventional usage of "see" in a non-metaphorical sense).

Also, when I say I "see" something, I mean that it's very hard for me to imagine an alternative to what I saw. (People say, "It must be true because I SAW it.") If I say "Peter is sad because he's crying," I can imagine you convincing me that I'm wrong about the fact that he's sad. "It's just his allergies" or "He's crying for joy! His wife just had a baby!" But it would be much harder for you to convince me that he isn't crying. I can SEE his tears! That distinction is important to me, and I think it is important to most people.

We DO, conventionally, use "see" for things that don't have shapes and colors, but we mean the word metaphorically -- or as a sort of conversational shorthand. Again, I can imagine myself saying "I see sadness in this room," but that would be metaphorical/shorthand for "I see a person who looks sad to me." I don't actually (literally) see the sadness. I can't because it has no shape.

(I hope you understand that I'm just using shape as an example. There are many other traits that an object can have which will lead me to say that I observe it, such as sound. I will say that I hear a sound rather than observe it, but it's a similar use of words. Sadness doesn't have a sound or a shape or a smell or a taste or a color.)

You can arbitrarily choose to include shapeless things and processes in the set of things we can see, but then I'd suggest that (a) you're choosing a difficult road because you're in the minority and most people won't get what you mean, and (b) we'll then need ANOTHER useful word to describe seeing things that have shapes, because that is often a useful distinction.

But the thing we "see" (tears) and the thing we "infer" (sadness) are in our head (regardless of whether or not they are reflections of an external world), but I still think the distinction is important. There are brain regions dedicated to processing (or fabricating) data from our eyes and ears. Those regions sense color, shape and sound. The don't sense sadness. I use "see," "hear" and "observe" to describe what those regions are interested in. Again, I think that's conventional (and useful).

My brain has created a world (that may or may not be a reflection of some external world). When I "look at" that world, there seem to be objects in it that I can mentally manipulate. There are apples that I can imagine tossing into the air or biting into; there are dogs; cats; etc. But there's no object called sadness. I can't pick sadness up and toss it into the air.

Sadness -- if I believe it exists -- is something that I infer. I deduce it FROM the objects that I can see, feel, hear, smell and touch.

That distinction is important to me. It's very useful.


[causation] looks like... causation.


That's a meaningless statement, and I get that you know it. You're saying that the FACT that you can't describe it (but know or feel it exists) means you are seeing it. Have I got that right?

I'm not going to argue with that, because I think we're arguing over the definition of the words "observe" and "see." I TOTALLY understand that we have various sensations and that calling some of them observed and others inferred is arbitrary.

You can't use language without making arbitrary choices. Why make a distinction between dogs and cats (by giving them each a unique word) but not white cats and black cats? It's arbitrary. However, some of those arbitrary choices are more than convention. Some of them are useful.

There are some sensations that appear in my brain that I can also describe in words. I may not be able to describe them perfectly, but if you ask me to describe a giraffe or a person in tears, I can do it without pointing. But I can't do that with causation. I can't do that with sadness. I think it's useful to make the arbitrary distinction between those two classes of sensing.

Furthermore, I feel like I can see a ball in a hand. I feel like I see the hand let go of the ball. I feel like I see the ball fall to what I feel is a floor. I MAY be wrong about all those things, but I can't think of another plausible explanation for what my sensations. So it makes sense to me to say that I DID see a hand let go of a ball and a ball fall.

I DO feel SOMEWHAT the same way about causation, but the feeling isn't nearly as strong. It SEEMS to me like the hand letting go of the ball caused it to fall, but I actually CAN imagine another possibility -- that the ball just happened to fall when the hand opened. It could have also just stayed up where the hand was.
posted by grumblebee at 7:43 PM on December 9, 2009


According to that arbitrariness, things we see MUST have shapes, colors, etc. (The conventional physical attributes). If something doesn't have those things (or seem to use to have them), we can't see them (according to conventional usage of "see" in a non-metaphorical sense).

OK, good observation. I was really unclear. I shouldn't have treated sadness like it were a thing, and said that we see sadness; I should have treated it as a property and said that we see sad people. Sad things have colors and shapes, just like tears do. Redness and sphericality are no less abstract than sadness; red things and spherical things are no more concrete than sad things. I want to claim that you don't infer that a person is sad any more than you infer that a ball is round or red. In all these cases, you see a thing as red, as a ball, or as sad.

(Actually, I think that might be false, strictly speaking, because I'm not sure that perceived properties really do need to be predicated of objects (there are disorders that cause one to see motion without seeing anything in particular as moving, or to see a square as striped without being able to tell the direction of the stripes, etc.). But that doesn't really matter for current purposes; all that matters is that redness, roundness, loudness, sadness, causality, etc. are all treated equivalently.)

when I say I "see" something, I mean that it's very hard for me to imagine an alternative to what I saw. (People say, "It must be true because I SAW it.") If I say "Peter is sad because he's crying," I can imagine you convincing me that I'm wrong about the fact that he's sad. "It's just his allergies" or "He's crying for joy! His wife just had a baby!" But it would be much harder for you to convince me that he isn't crying. I can SEE his tears!

I dunno... it's not very hard to come up with reasons that you might be in error when you think you see tears (and you needn't resort to stories about Visine or squirt guns). Tears are tiny, after all. It could be a trick of the light. It sounds like your proposal is that seen things are more resistant to belief revision than inferred things, but I'm not sure that will get things right. Let's say I see my second cousin, and I see him crying. I think it will be extremely hard for you to convince me that he's not my second cousin; I'll be way more likely to admit that I was wrong about the tears. Are you OK with saying that I see a second cousin? (If you give me that second-cousinhood can be directly perceived, I really won't understand why you won't give me sadness or causation.)

Sadness -- if I believe it exists -- is something that I infer. I deduce it FROM the objects that I can see, feel, hear, smell and touch. That distinction is important to me. It's very useful.

Why useful? I know that you think it's useful to have a distinction between material and non-material things, but that was because of a mistake on my part -- I don't think that we see sadness as a thing on its own. The issue is whether there's any usefulness in a sense of 'see' that allows us to say "I see that it's red" but not "I see that he's sad."

There are a few points in your comment where you hint that I'm deviating far from common usage and I should pick a new word. But I don't think that true at all. It doesn't sound weird at all to say "I saw that he was sad." No more so than "I saw that he was crying." Understanding that a person is sad is conceptually, developmentally, and phenomenologically prior to understanding that they are crying. So it's hard for me to see what use there would be in rejecting the former statement but not the latter.

There are brain regions dedicated to processing (or fabricating) data from our eyes and ears. Those regions sense color, shape and sound. The don't sense sadness.

There is a brain area that is responsible for sensing sadness, though: the amygdala. A subset of amygdaloid nuclei, anyway. (We should probably stop pretending that sadness is inferred from tears; there's low-level face-recognition machinery that detects emotions through tiny changes in expression and motor behavior.) It's used for other things as well, but the areas dedicated to shape or sound processing are used for other tasks too (e.g. mental imagery).

I may not be able to describe them perfectly, but if you ask me to describe a giraffe or a person in tears, I can do it without pointing. But I can't do that with causation. I can't do that with sadness. I think it's useful to make the arbitrary distinction between those two classes of sensing.

That doesn't seem to get at the difference between what we see and what we infer, though. It looks like you're claiming that the things that we infer are the things that we can't describe. But that's kind of weird -- you'd think it would be the other way around. But...

You're saying that the FACT that you can't describe it (but know or feel it exists) means you are seeing it. Have I got that right?

... I don't want to say that's constitutive of perception. You can describe some things that you directly perceive without inference. I think we probably directly perceive snakes, agency, and instances of cheating because we have low-level modules dedicated to picking up these sorts of things, and I think expert chess players perceive (and don't infer) that a chess position is good. But these things are all explicable... the chess player can tell you why a position is good and I can describe a snake. I also think that you could infer things without being able to explain them, if the inferential processes are subpersonal. But if we can't explain how we are able to detect some feature that we do in fact detect, that is at least a bit of prima facie evidence for thinking that we're not using inference.
posted by painquale at 10:30 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wittgenstein is rolling in his grave.
posted by ageispolis at 10:42 PM on December 9, 2009


Causal concepts are acquired extremely early on developmentally (long before we even develop concepts of colors) so there's good evidence that causation is handled by low-level cognitive processes. I take that as fairly solid evidence that our representation of events as causal or non-causal is genuinely perceptual.

Is this true about linguistic or prelinguistic causal vs color concepts?

Plus do you have any links for this stuff? I'd love to read it.
posted by afu at 11:53 PM on December 9, 2009


Is this true about linguistic or prelinguistic causal vs color concepts?

Causal concepts definitely come early (before 6 months or so?) and are prelinguistic. Alan Leslie has some nice dishabituation experiments that are generally regarded as the definitive word. (1, 2, 3, third is a pdf). Grumblebee, you should check out those papers: Leslie explicitly tests the "Michotte" hypothesis (causation is perceptual) against the "Hume" hypothesis (causation is inferred from spatial location). And he concludes that infants encode an event as casual without encoding the locations of the objects in the causal event. Looking over the papers reminds me of another data point in favor of the claim that we see causation: we are subject to illusions in which we experience causation even when we know that there is no causation there. This is typically indicative of processing going on in a low-level perceptual module that is encapsulated from world knowledge.

Color concepts... do come pretty early too, now that I think of it. Color terms come exceptionally late, but children can make color discriminations before then (that's pretty standard evidence against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). I was only thinking of the latter, mea culpa. Berlin and Kay are important figures in the color nomenclature literature, but the color literature is vast. (My favorite color researcher is Kimberley Jameson, she's great.) I have no idea whether children can discriminate colors before or after they can discriminate causal from non-causal events. They're both pretty much at the floor age at which we can run dishabituation experiments anyway. Babies any younger are too fussy to learn anything from.
posted by painquale at 12:58 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Only assholes define reality.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 1:02 AM on December 10, 2009


Only assholes define assholes.
posted by Eideteker at 4:26 AM on December 10, 2009


With regard to an assault on knowledge - yes. Yes it is. I stopped believing in knowledge when I read an article on Pen & Teller, where they shared their obsession with the "cups and balls" tricks. It gets so weird, they replace the original ball with a duplicate, and then switch it back before the reveal. Why? It serves no purpose but to entertain the magician... any hypothetical audience for this trick would just assume the right ball had been under the right cup the whole time. Justifiable true belief, right out the fucking window. It's impossible to know anything with absolute certitude, therefore it's impossible to prove the universe is deterministic, therefore determinism is unjustifiable woo.

And even if you manage to get past that with hand-waving and wishful thinking, you need to side-step Hume's Wrecking Ball and not get suckerpunched by Goedel's Brass Knuckles before you can say you know anything.

The philosophical constructs of libertarianism and determinism and - dare I say it? - free will itself are simply not sophisticated enough to cover the territory. Acknowledge it as an anthropocentric conceit, an oversimplification that appeals to our psychology, and move on.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:25 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Justifiable true belief, right out the fucking window.

Not quite. At most, your example shows that we can have justifiable true belief but it's not sufficient for knowledge.

I do agree with that -- if "knowledge" means absolute, 100% certainty. But I don't agree that knowledge isn't humanly possible. We just need to redefine it to make room for a residual amount of doubt.

Sidenote: What's with the sudden popularity of the phrase "unjustifiable woo"? I had never heard it until this thread. A Google search yields just 3 results, one of them being this thread.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:08 AM on December 10, 2009


justifiable true belief but it's not sufficient for knowledge

It should be justified true belief. I dunno, I thought that was a pretty clever Gettier case and I think I might use it in the future when describing JTB accounts of knowledge. The only problem is that knowing who Penn & Teller are and knowing you're watching a magic trick is probably a defeater for any justification you would normally have in the ball being in the cup.

Actually, if you're in a magic show audience, you probably can't be justified in anything that's happening on stage. Defeaters abound. You probably can't even be justified in thinking that the magician is actually there... it might all be done with mirrors. And what if you can't be justified in thinking that the magic show has even started yet? Then you can't be justified in thinking that you have a defeater! "I am in a magic show audience" becomes a kind of epistemic liar paradox. Oh snap.

(Note to Wittgensteinian whingers: this is silly, I know. I stand behind the perception stuff though.)
posted by painquale at 11:39 AM on December 10, 2009


I like the way it sounds, someone used it upthread and appropriated it for my own purposes.

But I don't agree that knowledge isn't humanly possible. We just need to redefine it to make room for a residual amount of doubt.

Then we have a definition of knowledge that's incompatible with determinism.

(Also, this is a very interesting problem - I was using the "demented magician trick" to describe one of the Gettier Problems, which torpedos the definition of knowledge, Justified True Belief, and upends epistemology. One "fix" is to include a fourth factor to JTB, like your allowance for doubt (which sounds like a defeaseability condition), but it's also argued that the whole deal needs to be tossed out and re-worked from first principles, that JTB+G approaches to Gettier introduce more problems than they fix. I'm leaning towards this point of view.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:52 AM on December 10, 2009


(Also, here's a more elaborate demented magician trick, also by Pen and Teller. Wish I could find the original article... I think it was in Wired in the aughts. I learned about Gettier later.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:00 PM on December 10, 2009


I thought that was a pretty clever Gettier case and I think I might use it in the future when describing JTB accounts of knowledge.

Yeah, I agree ... although there are simpler examples that won't give rise to the objections you mentioned (e.g. one shouldn't believe anything in a magic show). My favorite is: a friend drops by my apartment and notices I have some ordinary-looking Russet potatoes on my kitchen counter. My friend says, "Oh, so you like Russet potatoes." Turns out I actually got them to use as props in a play and had no intention of eating them. I actually do like Russet potatoes, but my friend hadn't seen any genuine display of my liking of them.

So, yeah, these Gettier cases may be interesting as far as JTB, knowledge, etc. But I still don't see how they undermine free will.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:38 PM on December 10, 2009


Or how about this: take your magic hypo except change it so it's a very skilled clandestine magician doing the trick in front of people who have no idea they're watching a "magic show" as opposed to everyday life. Then there's no longer the objection of "but they shouldn't have believed it if they knew it was magic."
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:41 PM on December 10, 2009


The least unrealistic Gettier example is the case of the stopped watch. If your watch stopped at 9:12 last night and you check it at 9:12 in the morning, you form the true justified belief that it's 9:12 but you don't know that it's 9:12.

Implications of white lies also give rise to real-life Gettier cases. If Jenn can play three musical instruments, but tries to impress Angela by telling her that she can play five instruments, Angela will form the true justified belief that Jenn can play at least three instruments. But she doesn't know it because it was founded on a lie.

Analyses of knowledge don't have much to do with free will that I can see. They don't have much to do with anything, IMO. (I strongly dislike conceptual analysis.)
posted by painquale at 1:20 PM on December 10, 2009


The least unrealistic Gettier example is the case of the stopped watch. If your watch stopped at 9:12 last night and you check it at 9:12 in the morning, you form the true justified belief that it's 9:12 but you don't know that it's 9:12.

Do we have a precise definition for the words "know", "justified", and "belief" in this sentence? Because it seems to me they are being used in a fashion that dichotomizes usual meanings for an unclear purpose. Being right about something and knowing something are usually the same. Here, the two are being split based on a call by an omniscient observer, someone who doesn't exist. Any real observer can be as easily fooled as the putative subject of the example and none of these statements seem to recognize that. It's like the p-zombie argument: one side makes an enormous assumption that if they assert that such a thing is possible, it is. The other side, based on its framework, asserts that such a thing is impossible. Distance traveled in philosophy space: 0.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:11 PM on December 10, 2009


The Gettier Problems don't undermine free-will, but the argument against free will - which is that if you can trace back everything to its source, you can calculate future results by following the forward progression of events. This is intuitively obvious, and like most things that are intuitively obvious, wrong. You can never predict future outcomes on past performance... you can only make an intelligent guess based on probability.

Three great thinkers are arrayed against determinism... Hume, then Goedel, and finally Gettier, by chronological order.

On he other hand, this does not diminish the fury of Determinism's attack - IF you could actually trace back all results to their causes, then free will does not exist. In a purely platonic world, you can trace every re-action to an action.

We don't live in a purely platonic world... so we cannot say with dead certainty that this action will have that reaction. You have no guarantee of the future (Hume), you have no guarantee that the system you determined the future with is without error (Goedel) and you have no certitude that you know what happened (Gettier.)

So... free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe, but we can't prove we live in a deterministic universe.

This means that both the concept of free will (libertarianism) and an ordered universe (determinism) are false when contemplating either with human sensibilities. This indicates a deeper truth we are not biologically capable of thinking about with any degree of accuracy.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:22 PM on December 10, 2009


Sounds like Miller time to me!
posted by empty vessel at 1:03 PM on December 12, 2009


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