Tag Archives: dualism

Compatibilism for incompatibilists: free will in five steps

FreeWill Along with cats and cowboy boots a long-running theme of Jerry Coyne’s website has been Jerry’s arguments against any form of “free will”. This usually leads to long comment-thread arguments between the incompatibilists (or “hard determinists”) and the compatibilists amongst Jerry’s readers.

I get the impression that sometimes the incompatibilists don’t properly understand a compatibilist view. They often accuse compatibilists of disliking determinism, of hankering after dualism, hoping that something will turn up that will overturn current science, or of just equivocating. Here I want to explain compatibilism to those determinists who take an incompatibilist stance (“hard determinism”). It is not aimed at libertarian dualists!

First, let’s be clear on the two stances. Compatibilism asks whether, given a deterministic universe, one can arrive at sensible and coherent meanings of terms such as “choice”, “freedom” and indeed “free will”. The compatibilist says yes; the incompatibilist says no, regarding such terms as too tainted by the dualistic idea that humans have a non-material “soul” that can make “choices” that are independent of the physical state of the brain and which thus violate the laws of physics.

Second, we should also be clear that the compatibilist is not disagreeing with the incompatibilist over any aspect of science. The compatibilist is only disagreeing over the meaning of concepts such as “choice” and “freedom”. Thus: Continue reading

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On Wieseltier on Pinker: How to misunderstand scientism in one easy step

One theme runs through most discussions of scientism: two sides are talking past each other because they have very different conceptions of science and interpret the word very differently. Never has this been so exemplified as by Leon Wieseltier’s response to Steven Pinker’s widely discussed piece “Science is not your enemy”.

Those defending scientism conceive of science broadly. They see the universe as a unified whole and take an overview of our attempts to gain knowledge of this whole. They see a separation into different disciplines as a useful labelling, but not as reflecting any underlying rifts or divisions in how the world actually is, or in our knowledge about it. Between any arbitrarily defined academic disciplines there always lies a seamless transition of inter-disciplinary learning.

The essential commitment of scientism is the attitude that the same underlying rules of evidence and logic and reason apply everywhere, across all academic disciplines. Thus the different disciplines differ not in fundamentals, but in the subject matter and in the practicalities of investigating different topics.

Further, a scientist sees humans as very much a product of the natural world, as one species that has evolved among millions of others over eons of time, and very much bearing the stamp of our origins. To those espousing scientism, learning about social interactions among humans is just as much a science as learning about social interactions among chimpanzees or zebra. Studying humans as they are now or as they were one thousand years ago transitions seamlessly into studying humans as they were a hundred thousand years ago, or how their ancestors were ten million years ago.

All biological processes are continua, and to set a rigid date and declare that investigation of humans as they were earlier than (say) 6000 years ago is “science” but that investigations of humans more recently is not a science, but instead an arts/humanities subject, is utterly arbitrary and alien to how scientists think.

Further, to pick one species out of the 30 million extant species and to declare that studying that one is not a science, whereas studying any of the other 30 million would be, is contrary to our whole scientific understanding of humans as a natural part of the natural world.

Thus, to a scientist, it is natural to think of the study of humans (history, economics, politics, and the study of the literature and art that humans create) as a branch of anthropology, the study of ourselves. This isn’t just semantics, it’s the way that evidence has led scientists to think about humans. Continue reading

Nagel’s bat doesn’t demonstrate incompleteness in materialist science

Philosopher Thomas Nagel is well known for rejecting the idea that science can explain all aspects of the human condition, a view expounded in his influential paper “What is it like to be a bat?”, and recently in a book trying to overturn materialist Darwinism as an inadequate explanation of life (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False). Nagel sums up his argument in the New York Times:

… it seems natural to think that the physical sciences can in principle provide the basis for an explanation of the mental aspects of reality as well …

However, I believe this possibility is ruled out … The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves … but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience — how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.

So the physical sciences, in spite of their extraordinary success in their own domain, necessarily leave an important aspect of nature unexplained.

Let’s clarify what the materialist account of a “subjective experience” is. The brain is a network of neurons, connected to each other by dendrites and synapses. Electrical and chemical signals flow through the network in complex patterns. Those patterns are our thoughts. Our thinking and deliberation and decision-making are patterns of electrical firing flitting around our neural-network brain. A particular thought, a particular sensation, or a particular subjective experience, are all particular patterns of electrical firing.

Nagel is asserting that we can understand every physical aspect of this phenomenon, having a complete knowledge of the network and the electrical signals, and yet not understand “the subjective essence of the experience”, and thus not understand what it is like to be a bat. From there he rejects materialism as incomplete, and goes on to reject any materialist account of life.

My reply is, yes, Nagel is right, indeed we cannot always appreciate the subjective essence of an experience, but that is not a limitation of materialism and not a limitation of materialist science. Continue reading