Archive for category Philosophy

Hard Determinism and Personal Experience of Free Will

Continuing on a similar theme, I wish to discuss how our experience of free will can be accounted for by hard determinism and why I don’t think hard determinism truly presents a problem.

William James believed that we live in a world of possibilities — determinism does not allow for that, because for there to be an otherwise, there had to have been an otherwise in the past. Personal freedom seems self-evident from our lived experience, but I contend that the illusion of free will and free will itself are indiscernible. In terms of epistemology, we — being finite physical beings — cannot have access to every piece of information that would be required to predict and retrodict events with certainty. (I am leaving the metaphysical question of whether this is even possible for a god in the open.) I’m not denying the possibility of there being sufficiently simple events where we can have complete knowledge of the determining factors leading to those events, but I think most of our knowledge lacks such convenience. Thus, while we can conceive of these possibilities, according to determinism, there is only one that was/is ever possible — this is the best we have.

In the view of determinism, the ‘world of possibilities’ is simply a world of illusions produced from our epistemic ignorance. William James was bothered greatly by this, which is why I suspect his conclusion of indeterminism and free will was a bit rash (as discussed in the link above). Again, how does one tell the difference between true free will and the illusion of free will? I don’t think it can be done, which is why if it so happens that I’m wrong, my lived experience would remain identical. I treat my ignorance on a probabilistic basis even while maintaining the position of hard determinism.

(I titled this post with ‘hard determinism’ to prevent confusion, because while soft determinism argues for a form of ‘freedom’, it’s not free will as hard determinism and libertarianism understand it.)

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I encountered some of Kierkegaard’s writings on authenticity in philosophy class (which happens to be nearing its end). It struck me as very refreshing and unique, in contrast to the typical status quo present in society. Essentially what Kierkegaard prescribes is action that is true to our personal desires — desires which, ideally, spring from very individualistic, and, as a result, noncrowd-like thinking (“the crowd is untruth”).

In his day, Kierkegaard used the example of industrial workers, stripped of their individuality, working as mere cogs in a machine, doing essentially meaningless work. I find a similar theme in much of the content on the internet — the work is stripped of creativity, with no human spirit behind it. I looked into pay-per-article writing myself, but I quickly realized that I could never stand to do that sort of work because it’s so artificial (that was the word I used at the time; I believe it is synonymous with ‘inauthentic’ in this instance).

I may write more on this subject once I’ve done more reading and research.

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Contra Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Refer to this if you wish to get acquainted with the basics of the argument.

A formulation of the argument by William Matson goes as follows:

1. Whatever is understood exists in the understanding
2. When the fool hears of the GCB [greatest conceivable being], he understand what he hears
3. Therefore something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived.
4. Suppose the GCB exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality;
5. which is greater.
6. Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone, the very Being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived.
7. Obviously this is impossible.
8. Assuredly that than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding alone.
9. There is no doubt that there exists a Being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality. (This is God.)

Essentially, the argument works in 3 general steps:
1. Anyone can conceive of a GCB
2. This GCB would have the property of existing beyond mere thought if it is to be a GCB
3. Therefore, this GCB exists beyond conception.

I’m going to specifically address the premises (4 and 5 are dependent premises and are the target at hand) that state that a thing/being that exists is a greater than one that exists only in conception.

Let us suppose that I conceive of a circle. If my conception is to reflect that of the abstract definition, I would conceive the circle as having an infinite number of points to be able to reflect its infinite number of sides, which would allow it to be a perfect representation of the abstract definition. While the circle is the greatest circle I can conceive of, it would be greater yet if it were to exist outside of conception. Am I warranted to jump to the conclusion that such a circle must exist outside of conception? I think not. An actual infinite could possibly lead to absurdities (such as Hilbert’s Hotel). Moreover, I would argue that in this case, the conception of a circle is greater than any possible representation of a circle in our world. What’s greater about a circle drawn on paper, for instance, if it fails to perfectly represent a circle?

The possibilities are: (1) the circle would be comprised of a finite amount of matter, in which case it would not be a perfect representation, (2) the circle would be comprised of an infinite amount of matter, in which case absurdities and paradoxes may come about due to the existence of an actual infinite, or (3), no such circle could exist outside of our conception. The circle cannot be perfect if it doesn’t have an infinite number of points to allow it to have an infinite number of sides. It would be perfect if it had access to an infinite amount of matter, but an actual infinite, let alone an infinite amount of matter, makes no sense given our current understanding of the world and the theoretical problems of actual infinites. I conclude that Anselm’s argument fails on the account of premise 4 and 5.

If you’re interested in reading further, here are some standard objections to Anselm’s argument.

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William James and Free Will

I’m not sure what to make of the arguments for free will in my philosophy book. The argument that William James makes doesn’t impress me much (which I summarize and interpret):

    We cannot, from events that have already occurred, conclude that they were determined. Given that the experience we have in everyday life (of what seems to be free will), we should conclude with indeterminism rather than determinism.

James states that in a world possibilities, there are genuine alternatives to events, whereas in the world of determinism, there could never be an alternative. I take it that the same conditions are assumed, from which I establish my criticism. If the conditions leading up to a certain event are unchanged, how could the event be any different? It seems that James, at most difficult point of the argument, appeals to common experience and states that because determinism cannot account for the lived experience of free will (in a way that he wishes, because determinism does account for it by referring to it as an illusion), we ought to accept indeterminism because we don’t have good reasons for accepting determinism.

Having sufficiently established free will for himself, James goes on to explain the utility of holding such a worldview (the common theme of deriving truth from utility, which I discussed in another topic). How does James deal with the implication that indeterminism potentially destroys any possibility for consistency in our world?* He doesn’t (at least, as far as the book is concerned — I hope a sufficiently complete summary of his argument is presented in the book so that I am critiquing something James hasn’t already addressed).

*Examples can come to mind, such as, in one instance, putting the keys into your car to initiate ignition starts the car’s engine, and in another instance, causes the car to spin like a top for no apparent reason (different outcome from the same conditions).

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Ayn Rand and her hatred of Kant

Having read her book, Philosophy: Who Needs It, and knowing a bit about the history of philosophy, I feel compelled to make this post. Throughout the entire book, Rand characterized Kant’s project solely as an “evil” attack upon the reason of human beings. It was a relentless assault which she attempted to justify by citing several sources (I can remember 2 clearly), which were largely uncompelling. Why pick on Kant when he was the one trying to figure out where David Hume and the entire project of Empiricism had gone wrong? If Kant is evil, is she afraid of speaking Hume’s name? Hume had taken Berkeley’s skepticism of the material world further, not only claiming that there is nothing but perception, but saying that there is no sense of “I,” no perceiver to speak of, either, because the “I” cannot be directly experienced (the possibility of there being other perceivers but yourself was already under assault by Berkeley’s time before he inserted his “wonderglue” solution of God). He also denied the concept of causality and was critical of the method of induction (it is justified by a circular argument). What wound Rand think about that?

It seems to me as though Rand is counting on the readers’ ignorance of the history philosophy to pander her opinion which she fails (in my opinion) to justify. Nevertheless, the very beginning and the end of her book was worth the read.

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Nearing the end of War and Peace

It does feel somewhat like a work accomplished, although I’ve really done nothing but read. 1240 pages in, 130 or so pages to go — pages that are easily 2 times as dense as the typical text that I read. I’m welcoming the more frequent philosophical asides, which seem to be concentrated mainly at the beginning and at the end of the boook. They originally made for a bit of a slow start to the book, but I’m enjoying the change of pace (events are coming to a “close”).

For those wondering, it took me about 3 months to get this far into the book, with various interruptions (college, other reading such as The Death of Ivan Ilych and A Confession, both by Tolstoy). This didn’t feel like a book that I could power my way through (unlike a book such as Complications) — some parts were a bit dense and I felt like I needed to take a bit of a break from reading. The chapters were partitioned in a way that it’s very easy to take a break — many chapters are 1-2 pages in length. I am quite pleased with the book.

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Tolstoy’s Views of Truth in Religion

Tolstoy believed that the truth claims of different Christian sects were invalidated by virtue of the claims being mutually exclusive. Yet Tolstoy continued to regard religion as necessary (for life). It’s surprising that he does not take his analysis further to the scope of all religion. Different religions, not just different Christian sects, have mutually exclusive truth claims. Would that not, by Tolstoy’s own thinking, invalidate religion altogether?

It wasn’t made clear in the text (A Confession) how Tolstoy came to use such reasoning as it isn’t very effective when applied to other situations. Mutually exclusive models, theories, explanations, etc. are ever-present — the content and/or argument of each isn’t invalidated solely by its relationship to another. “Guilt by association” comes to mind.

Tolstoy later mentions that “true religion” has certain principles that are shared by all religions. However, how would he determine the truth of those against what he calls “false doctrine”? It seems that when Tolstoy searched for meaning in his life, he came to the “truth” of religion by its utility — it allowed him to continue living. However, such a method for determining truth is not effective. Suppose that, when told that praying to Chuck Norris increases life span, those who did so lived longer. Did they necessarily live longer because of the truth of the statement? No! Therefore utility does not necessitate truth.

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