Language Perception

The link between language and cognition is interesting though not entirely grasped.

VIDEO: TED Talk on YouTube — Lera Boroditsky

“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

― Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (probably not, but whatevs…)

Perspective

In the West, we tend to be quite self-centric. We are the centres of our universes, and this has several implications. Firstly, we orient conversation around ourselves; occasionally, we orient conversation around others. Instead, some cultures orient themselves around their world.

Self as Centre

Ordinarily, if a Westerner is asked which is their dominant hand, they might answer left or right. If they are asked to describe where something is spatially, one might answer on my left or right or above or below me. If the person asking is present, they may simply point to the object as a gesture.

Other as Centre

In some cases, we might feel it necessary to orient relative to another? The answer to the question, “Where is the book?” might be, “On your left”, or “You’ve got something on your left cheek”.

Terrain as Centre

In the West, we have notions of cardinal directions—North, East, West, and South—, but we still tend to orient communication around ourselves or others. In some regions, the use of cardinal directions is more prominent than in others. For example, when I am in Boston, I didn’t find many people reference places by cardinal directions, but when I am in Boston, much conversation is relative to head north or head east. I notice that Google Maps tend to employ this. It’s often confusing when I am in an unfamiliar place, and the voice instructs me to travel west toward Avenue X. If I happen to have remembered where Avenue X is, I might internally orient toward that. Otherwise, I head in some direction until Google reinforces my choice or it rather recalculates based on my bad choice, if even nonjudgmentally.

In some cultures, this cardinality includes the body, so in comparison with the aforementioned self-as-centre dominant hand query, the response would depend on which way the subject was facing. Were they a southpaw (lefthander) facing north, they would respond that their west hand is dominant. But if they were facing south, it would be their east hand. This may seem to be confusing to a Westerner, but to a native, they would explicitly understand because they would be intimately oriented. As Lera relates in the video, someone might point out an ant crawling on your southwest leg.

To be fair, this space is not entirely alien to some Westerners. For example, mariners can shift the conversation from themselves to their ship or boat. Rather than left and right, relative to themselves or another, they might refer to port and starboard relative to the vessel. Being on the vessel and facing front (the bow), left is port and starboard is right; however, facing the rear (the stern), left is not starboard and right is now port. So, if someone asks where the lifeboat is, landlubbers may say it’s on their left whilst a sailor might say it’s on the starboard side.

Centring Time

Time is another aspect we centre on ourselves. I won’t even endeavour to raise the circular notion of time. If an English speaker thinks about a timeline, we would likely configure it from left to right equating with past to future. This aligns with our writing preference. For native Arabic or Hebrew speakers, they might naturally opt to convey this from right to left in accordance with their preferred writing system.

For the Aboriginal Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia, their rendition of time was contingent on their orientation in the world. Essentially, time flows from east to west, perhaps in accordance with the apparent movement of the sun across the sky relative to Earth. Facing south or north, they rendered time left to right and right to left, respectively. When they faced east, time came toward the subject, with time moving away from the body when facing west.

Counting

So-called modern or advanced societies have developed number systems, but some cultures either have no counting or limited counting, having systems that might extend 1, 2, many, or 1, 2, 3, many. This means that tasks we learn like accounting, inventory management, or comparing counts of apples and oranges are not only not available to these people, they are irrelevant to them.

Categorical Imperitive

Lera tells us about the blues. Not B.B. King Blues, but the categorisation of blue, blues, and colours more generally. I’ve discussed this before in various places. As with numbers, some languages have a lot and some have few; some have only distinctions for light and dark, or equivalents of white, black, red, and so on. Colour names are typically added to a language in a similar order based on the frequency within the visual colour spectrum. I may have written about that earlier as well if only I could find it.

Different cultures and languages categorise colours differently, subdividing them differently. In many non-English languages, pink is simply light red. English opts to assign it a unique label. On the other hand, blue is basically one colour name in English whilst it is further broken down in Russian to goluboi (light blue, голубой) and siniy (darker blue, синий). This mirrors the pattern of pink (lighter red) and red (darker red) in English, a distinction not prevalent in other languages. Of course, we also have variations of reds and blues such as crimson or cyan, but this is rather second-order nuance.

Interestingly, in neurological studies, when measuring a person with a language that splits a colour, say a Russian looking at blues, the instruments capture the event of the subject having noticed the category shift. No such shift occurs in speakers without such a switch. I would be interested to know what the results would be for a bilingual speaker to be asked to respond in each language. Informally, I asked a Russian mate of mine if he experienced anything differently seeing blue whilst thinking in Russian versus English. He said yes, but couldn’t really provide any additional information. If a reader happens to be fluent in two or more languages, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences.

One last note on colour, I’ve read studies that claim that women on balance have more colour names than men, which is to say where a typical male only sees shades of blue, the typical woman sees periwinkle, ultramarine, cyan, navy, cobalt, indigo, cerulean, teal, slate, sapphire, turquoise, and on and on. Of course, many English-speaking males may be defensive about now, arguing, “I know cyan. I know teal. Who doesn’t know turquoise?” Knowing is different to employing, and perhaps you’re not typical. You’re an atypical male. Let’s not get into gender challenges. Rather, let’s.

Gender Problems

Yet again, gender rears its ugly head. I am wondering when people are going to start demanding fluidity among gendered nouns. Sticking with Lera’s examples, a bridge happens to be grammatically feminine in Germans and masculine in Spanish. When asked to describe a bridge, German speakers are more apt to choose stereotypically feminine adjectives, beautiful or elegant whilst Spanish speakers opted for stereotypically masculine terms, strong or long. I suppose she was reaching for laughter on that last reference.

Structured Events

Objects and subjective injection are other possible conventions. Lera mentions a tourist bumping into a vase. In English, one would be comfortable declaring, “The man knocked the vase off the pedestal.” In Spanish, the same event might more often be described as “The vase fell off the pedestal”. Notice the shift in agency and dispersion of blame. In English, we have some apparent need to inject not only a cause but an agent as a source of the cause. As I see it, one might have these several (possibly inexhaustive) options:

  1. He knocked the vase off the stand.
  2. Someone knocked the vase off the stand.
  3. The vase got knocked off the stand.
  4. The vase fell off the stand.

I decided to note the relationship between the case and the stand. I suppose this is not strictly necessary and might seem superfluous in some contexts.

In case 1, a specific agent (he) is responsible for knocking off the vase. This does not suggest intent, though even negligence carries weight in many circles.

In case 2, the agent becomes indefinite. The speaker wants to specify that the vase didn’t just fall over on its own.

In case 3, agency is not only indefinite, but it also may not have a subject. Perhaps, a cat knocked it off—or the wind or an earth tremor.

In the final case, 4, the agent is removed from the conversation altogether, All that is conveyed is that the vase fell from a stand.

One might want to argue, “So what?” but this is not simply a convention of language; it stems from perception—or perhaps perception was altered by language through acculturation, but let’s not quibble here. It determines what someone pays attention to. When an event was witnessed, people from cultures where agency is a strong component, the witness is more apt to remember the culprit, whereas a non-agency-focused witness, would not be as likely to recall attributes about the person who may have knocked it over. Practically, this leads to issues of blame and culpability. Clearly, a culture with an agent orientation might be quicker to assess blame, where this would be further removed from the conversation from a different cultural perspective. I am speculating here, but I don’t feel it’s a large logical leap.

In a retributive justice system, the language that assigns agency is more likely to mete out harsher punishments because he broke the vase, it wasn’t simply broken. The use of language guides our reasoning. This leads me to wonder whether those who are ‘tough on crime‘ use different language construction than those who are more lenient.

Enfin

I just wanted to share my thoughts and connect language with cognition. I don’t think that the connection is necessarily strong or profound, but there is something, and there are more language nuances than noted here.

To Be or Not to Be (Free)

I recently posted a YouTube Short video titled You Have No Free Will, but this is still debatable.

Video: You Have No Free Will

The premise of the belief in free-will is that human decisions are made approximately half a second before we are conscious of them, and then the conscious brain convinces itself that it just made a choice. This sounds pretty damning, but let’s step back for a moment.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

If you’ve been following this blog these past few months, you’ll be aware that I feel the question of free will is a pseudo-question hinging primarily on semantics. As well, there’s the causa sui argument that I’d like to ignore for the purpose of this post.

There remains a semantic issue. The free will argument is centred around the notion that a person or agent has control or agency over their choices. This means that how we define the agent matters.

In the study this references, the authors define the agent as having conscious awareness. Since this occurs after the decision is made, then the person must have had no agency. But I think an argument can be made that the earlier decision gateway is formed through prior experience. Applying computer metaphors, we can say that this pre-consciousness is like embedded hardware or read-only logic. It’s like autopilot.

In business, there are various decision management schemes. In particular, the conscious but slow version is for a person to be notified to approve or deny a request. But some decisions are automatic. If a purchase is over, say 50,000 then a manager needs to sign off on the request. But if the purchase is under 50,000, then the request is made automatically and then the manager is notified for later review if so desired.

I am not saying that I buy into this definition, but I think the argument could be made.

You might not know it by the number of posts discussing it, but I am not really concerned about whether or not free will really exists. I don’t lose any sleep over it. At the same time, I tend to react to it. Since I feel it’s a pseudo-problem where tweaking the definition slightly can flip the answer on its head, it’s just not worth the effort. On to better things.

The Meaning of Life for Sisyphus

In pursuit of my travail intellectuel, I stumbled on a thought experiment proposed by Richard Taylor regarding an old crowd favourite, Sisyphus.

Of course, Albert Camus had famously published his Myth of Sisyphus essay (PDF), portraying his life as analogous to the workaday human, absurdly plodding through existence like rinse and repeat clockwork—same gig on a different day.

Given my perspective on human agency and the causa sui argument, I felt commenting on Taylor’s essay, The Meaning of Life (PDF) would be apt.

The story of Sisyphus finds the namesake character, fated by the gods to each day push a stone up a hill only for it to roll back down for him to push it back up every day ad infinitum. Camus leaves us with the prompt, ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’. But must we.?

As Taylor puts it,

Sisyphus, it will be remembered, betrayed divine secrets to mortals, and for this he was condemned by the gods to roll a stone to the top of a hill, the stone then immediately to roll back down, again to be pushed to the top by Sisyphus, to roll down once more, and so on again and again, forever. Now in this we have the picture of meaningless, pointless toil, of a meaningless existence that is absolutely never redeemed.

Taylor wants us to consider an amended Sisyphus. He writes,

Let us suppose that the gods, while condemning Sisyphus to the fate just described, at the same time, as an afterthought, waxed perversely merciful by implanting in him a strange and irrational impulse; namely, a compulsive impulse to roll stones.

This significantly alters the dynamic. In the scenario, Sisyphus is not toiling; rather, he is pursuing his passion—following his heart. This is the athlete, artist, politician, or mass murderer following their passion. In fact, one might say that he is being his authentic self. He has no control over his self or his desire to roll stones, but he is in his element.

Taylor’s ultimate point is that in either case, the life of Sisyphus is just as devoid of meaning. Ostensibly, nothing can provide meaning. The best one can do is to have the perception of meaning. He writes,

Sisyphus’ existence would have meaning if there were some point to his labors, if his efforts ever culminated in something that was not just an occasion for fresh labors of the same kind. But that is precisely the meaning it lacks.

Although we cannot control what is within, contentment and happiness derive from perception. As we might be reminded by the quip attributed to Schopenhauer,

We can want what we will,
but we can’t will what we will.

In the end, Taylor wants us to know that nothing out there can make us happy.

The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in both its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.


I’ve subsequently read some critiques of Taylor’s position, but I don’t want to take the time to rejoin them. Suffice it to say that I find them to be weak and wanting.

Blaming and Naming

When I was writing my review of Elbow Room, this categorical syllogism came to mind:

P1: All agents are responsible

P2: I am an agent

C: Therefore, I am responsible

Now I want to unpack it.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

The first premise is that all agents are responsible. Of course, this hinges on how one defines agent and responsibility. It also depends on the scope, especially of the agent but to some extent also the scope of responsibility.

Leveraging the Causa Sui argument, the agent is a social construct and can only be responsible to what extent s/he has been programmed as well as the ability to maintain and process the programming effectively—so without bugs to continue with the parlance.

If the agent is immature or defective, expectations of responsibility are diminished.

If certain inputs were not given, there is no reason to assume a related command would be executed. This is why so much time and energy is spent on programming and evaluating children.

This first premise is predicated on the pathological need to blame. Unwritten behind the responsibility claim is that I feel compelled to blame. Blame requires responsibility, so if I want to blame someone, they must be responsible. In any given circumstances, I may feel the urge to blame anyone, so all agents [eligible people] are worthy of blame. There is no particular reason to exclude myself, so I too am blameworthy. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh?

Goose and Gander. Strike that pose.

As PF Strawson said, even if moral responsibility couldn’t possibly exist, it would be invented because people need to blame. This is in line with Voltaire’s commentary on God.

Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Voltaire

We can all look around and see how pervasive the god delusion is. Moral responsibility is even more insidious. In principle, moral gods were invented for just this purpose. An omnipresent judge was needed to keep the big house in check.

Where I Stand

From my perspective, I do feel that a person in the space of Dennett’s elbow room can have responsibility. Being a non-cognitivist, I have more difficulty accepting the arbitrary imposition of morality, but I understand the motivation behind it.

The problem I have is that mechanisms to ensure that the inputs and processes are all in order and there are no superseding instructions are not in place. Moreover, if the superseding instruction does not comport with the will of the power structure, it will be marginalised or ignored. This is a limitation of morality being a social construct, and none of this gets past the ex nihilo problem causa sui invokes, so we end up cursing the computer we’ve invented. O! monster of Frankenstein. O! Pygmalion.

Elbow Room

Daniel Dennet is quite the prolific writer. He first published Elbow Room back in 1984. He published an updated version in 2015. I like Dan. He is a master storyteller and has a mind like a trap, archiving decades (and centuries) of information. The approach he takes is thoughtful and methodical, and I tend to agree with most of his positions. This isn’t one of them. Interestingly, I recently reviewed John Martin Fischer’s contribution to Four Views on Free Will, which is sympathetic to his position.

Dennett is a compatibilist. I am an incompatibilist—an impossibility, really—, but I wanted to understand his line of argumentation. Like Fischer, Dennett wants to claim that an agent does possess enough elbow room—wiggle room—to be able to be granted free will or moral responsibility, depending on where you prefer to draw the line.

Dennett tends to agree with my position that free will is a semantic pseudo-problem, but he doesn’t mind calling enough ‘good enough’. Given a situation and circumstances, we have enough latitude to consider any actions to be free—with the usual exemptions for non compos mentis situations, cognitive deficits, and duress. He minimises the impact of genetics and upbringing as insignificant.

Basically, he argues that what latitude we do have is sufficient and what more could one want? Anything more would be unnecessary and excessive. Of course, this is just him drawing an arbitrary line at a point he feels comfortable, claiming that anyone asking for more is being unrealistically unreasonable. This feels a bit like a preemptive ad hominem defence. If you want this, then you are just foolish and selfish.

Dennett does agree with the notion that the world might be deterministic, but even so, we are proximately special. He also leans on the observation that people seem hardwired for blame, so there must be something behind this—instead of considering that humans seem hardwired for many things, not all of which are socially beneficial.

We want to hold people responsible, so by extension, we need to consider ourselves to be responsible.

P1: All agents are responsible

P2: I am an agent

C: Therefore, I am responsible

But the problem is in the definition of agency (as well as the scope and meaning of responsibility and the assignment of responsibility to agents.

In the end, I remain unconvinced, primarily that he fails to overcome the Causa Sui argument.

Fischer, One of Four Views on Free Will

I’ve finally returned to the second author of Four Views on Free Will. The first author was Robert Kane. Here, I was introduced to John Martin Fischer, who wrote a section on Compatibilism. I’ve never read anything by Fischer. Indeed, I have no familiarity with him or his work. Allow me to start by saying that I was not impressed. Before diving into the content, let’s just say that he was extremely repetitive and circumlocutive. I found myself questioning whether the book was assembled with duplicate pages. Hadn’t I just read that? I’ll spare the reader the examples.

I repeat myself when under stress

I repeat myself when under stress

I repeat myself when under stress

I repeat myself when under stress

— King Crimson, Indiscipline

The topic was 44 pages on compatibilism. The first 30 pages were compatibilism before he changed to his brainchild, semi-compatibilism. Full disclosure: I am not a compatibilist. My recollection is that the majority of contemporary philosophers are compatibilists. Joining Fischer are Dan Dennett, Frithjof Bergmann, Gary Watson, Susan R. Wolf, P. F. Strawson, and R. Jay Wallace. Historically, this cadre are joined by Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Mill. This motley crew has been opposed by Peter van Inwagen and historical figures, Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, and Immanuel Kant.

Semi-compatibilism is the idea that regardless of whether free will and determinism are compatible, moral responsibility and determinism are.

At a meta-level, Fischer repeatedly—I’ll discontinue using this term as, like Fischer, it will become very, very repetitive—invoked law and common sense. Law is not a moral structure in search of truth. It’s a power structure employed to retain the status quo. And, as Voltaire quipped, ‘common sense is not so common.’ This is an argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) fallacy. It also relies on belief and perception. I suppose he’s not familiar with Descartes’ Meditations. It seems he is trying to forge Compatibilism into a cast of soft determinism with hopes that no one notices the switcheroo.

Fischer targets some quotes buy Kant, James, Wallace Matson, and Nietzsche with the general critique that they are expecting too much of an agent by expecting it to be the cause of its own actions. Nevermind, that he is guilty of just this in attempting to parse passive and active agents—passive being insentient dominos and active being conscious entities.

I’m not convinced that maths is a strong point. He sets up a hypothetical scenario where physics has proven that causal determinism is true, so 100 per cent of everything in the universe can be known with certainty. But then he does two things.

First, he exempts human agency—cuz reasons. Second, he creates a parallel scenario where 100 per cent might be 99 or 99.9 per cent.

Second, he claims that because he feels free, he must be free.

Similarly, it is natural and extraordinarily “basic” for human beings to think of ourselves as (sometimes at least) morally accountable for our choices and behavior. Typically, we think of ourselves as morally responsible precisely in virtue of exercising a distinctive kind of freedom or control; this freedom
is traditionally thought to involve exactly the sort of “selection” from among genuinely available alternative possibilities alluded to above. When an agent is morally responsible for his behavior, we typically suppose that he could have (at least at some relevant time) done otherwise.

— Fischer, p. 46

Nothing is such that thinking doesn’t make it so.

It seems that when watching a movie for the third time, the victim who gets killed in the cellar won’t descend the stairs this time. Fisher must get perplexed when she does every time. Of course, he’d argue without evidence that an active agent would be able to make a different decision—even under identical circumstances. He insists that the agent possesses this free will.

Whilst sidestepping physicalism and materialism, he simply posits that consciousness is just different and not subject to other causal chain relationships—and that these cannot be deterministic even if everything else is.

I’m going to digress on his next point—that the person who knows not to cheat on taxes, and who does so anyway, is responsible as any normal person would be. Perhaps the person feels that the taxes are being used for illegal or immoral purposes and is taking the moral high ground by depriving the institution of these proceeds.

Around 2007 or so, I paid my taxes due minus about $5,000, which was the calculated amount of the per capita cost of the illegal and immoral Iraq invasion by the United States and its cadre of war criminals in charge. I attached a note outlining my opposition and rationale.

Some months later, the Internal Revenue department sent a legal request to my employer for the withheld sum. Payroll summoned me and conveyed that they were required to comply with the request. I told them my perspective and said if they could sleep with that on their conscience, then they were in their power. And so no nights of sleep were lost.

The point of this anecdote is to say that morals are social constructs. Clearly, Fischer is just an old-fashioned conformist. I suspect he thinks of Valjean as a bad person.

Like many if not most people, he employs a compos mentis approach, exempting persons of reduced cognitive capacity and those under duress or coercion, but he is not a proponent of the causa sui defence.

He has an entire subsection devoted to the libertarian notion of freedom. To recapitulate, he simply regurgitated all of the standard arguments and exempts the aforementioned agents and adds people under hypnosis, the brainwashed, and so on. Nothing to write home about—not here either.

In the next subsection, his focus is on consequences. He calls out Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument.

Similarly, the skeptical argument about our freedom employs ordinary ideas about the fixity of the
past and the fi xity of the natural laws (putatively) to generate the intuitively jarring result that we are not ever free, if causal determinism turns out to be true (something we can’t rule out apriori). If this skeptical argument is sound, it calls into question any compatibilist analysis of freedom (that is, freedom of the sort under consideration – involving the capacity for selection among open alternatives). If the argument is sound, then not only both the simple and refined conditional analysis, but any compatibilist analysis (of the relevant sort of freedom) must be rejected.

Fischer p. 53

He leans on Borges’ garden of forking paths and claims (without support) that although the past might be fixed, freedom is the ability to add to the future, citing Carl Ginet as the source of this notion. He misses the point that that’s what the future is, tautologically. It adds now to the past and generates a future. Choice is not necessary for this function to operate, but he continues to insist on invoking it.

Standard Frankfort examples are referenced as well as Locke. Here he wants to point out regulative control—but he skirts the question of where the volition comes from by saying ‘for his own reasons‘, as if these reasons are somehow meaningful. In the end, he recites the scenarios, performs some hand-waving, and summons his accord with Robert Kane’s “dual voluntariness” constraint on moral responsibility.

He leaves us with the thought that if the Consequence Argument were true, it would be compatibilism’s death knell, but it’s not true (in his mind), so all is well in Whoville. Crisis averted.

Source incompatibilism is next. His focus here is on the “elbow room” necessary to exercise free will.

Elbow Room is the title of a book by Daniel Dennett originally published in 1984 and republished in 2015. I’ve recently read this on holiday, but I haven’t had time to review it. Please stand by.

His approach in this subsection is to attack opposing perspectives as reductionist. Of course, he’s right, but they are no more reductionist than anything he’s suggested thus far. Besides, simply injecting favoured concepts to add to a model to make it compatible with one’s hypothesis doesn’t make it less reductionist. It just makes the model more convoluted.

Here he attempts to elevate consciousness into a special category in order to shield it from the physics of the universe. We can’t say for sure what consciousness is, but you can bet it’s a magical place where practically anything can happen. OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole.

He uses the metaphor of trying to assess how a television works by only studying the components. Of course, if that is all one did, one would be left with questions. But that is not where one stops. To be fair, neuroscience has come a long way since this was published in 2007. Neuroscientists are asking questions beyond the hardware.

He sets up a strawman by labelling total control as a chimaera as if anyone is arguing that if a theory doesn’t allow for total control, it will not be accepted. He does allow that…

We do not exist in a protective bubble of control. Rather, we are thoroughly and pervasively subject to luck: actual causal factors entirely out of our control are such that, if they were not to occur, things at least might be very different.

— Fischer, p. 68

We agree on this point, but I feel that he underestimates the remaining degrees of freedom after all of this is accounted for.

He attempts to create a mental model with vertical and horizontal lines. At least he admits that he does “not suppose [to] have offered a knockdown argument” because he doesn’t.

Finally, he wraps up this subsection by invoking Nietzsche’s famous Munchausen Causa Sui statement in Twilight of the Idols. He attacks this rationale as being “both ludicrous and part of commonsense.” He loves his commonsense.

Next, he wants to convince us, Why Be a Semicompatibilist? Semicompatibilism just needs enough elbow room to assert freedom. I suppose that’s the ‘semi‘ part. It feels to me an exercise in self-delusion.

The main idea behind semicompatibilism is to shrink the target size of compatibility and focus centrally on moral responsibility and agent control rather than the larger realm of free will.

Fischer makes what might be considered to be a religious argument. We should adopt this perspective because it feels better and is in our best interest. He cites Gary Watson’s view of using indeterminism to undermine determinism, but he feels that rather etiolates control rather than strengthening it because it “becomes unclear that our choices and actions are really ours.”

In the next subsection, he leads with the argument “that moral responsibility does not require regulative control, but only guidance control, and further that it is plausible that guidance control is compatible with causal determinism.” At least, this is the story he’s sticking to.

In Fischer’s “approach to guidance control, there are two chief elements:
the mechanism that issues in action must be the “agent’s own,” and
it must be appropriately “reasons-responsive.””

As for the “agent’s own” constraint, he simply notes that counterclaims exist, but he asserts that he doesn’t accept them.

As for reasons-responsiveness, he cites his own publication written with Mark Ravizza, Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility, and declines to elaborate in this essay.

In the final subsection, he writes about the Lure of Semicompatibilism. I do feel he is lured by the concept and makes light of the label. He advances the notion that “Kant believed that compatibility and incompatibilism are consistent“. Say what? But he takes a weaker position on this claim, using the Kant name-drop for cover.

As I said at the start, I don’t know anything about Fischer, but he is obsessed with legal theory as if it has any bearing on philosophical standing. Perhaps I’ll include a summary from a quick internet perusal. After I’ve wrapped this up. He mentions moral desert, which is a concept employed in matters of restorative and retributive justice.

The section concludes with a list of publications by him and others. Perhaps I’ll list them here in future as an addendum. For now, I’ll pop outside of this edit window and see what I can find on John Martin Fischer.


John Martin Fischer (born December 26, 1952) is an American philosopher. He is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside and a leading contributor to the philosophy of free will and moral responsibility.

Against Moral Responsibility

We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.

Bruce Waller
Bruce Waller, Against Moral Responsibility

Nothing really to add here now, but more on the way. Meantine, sharing this for reference.

Blame

Even the moral sceptic is not immune from his own form of the wish to over-intellectualize such notions as those of moral responsibility, guilt, and blame. He sees that the optimist’s account is inadequate and the pessimist’s libertarian alternative inane; and finds no resource except to declare that the notions in question are inherently confused, that ‘blame is metaphysical’.

PF Strawson, Freedom and Resentment
Quote from Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays by PF Strawson

Part of my central thesis of non-agency is centred on the notion of blame, and it seems PF Strawson has a lot to contribute in this arena. In short, given my lack of belief of material human agency, I wish to investigate the connection between seemingly innate impulses to project blame and the absence of a blameworthy object.

In order to devote more time to researching and writing my thesis and less time editorialising elsewhere, I may post some shorter content such as these gems that I stumble upon along the way. This facilitates my desire to create and share content without the burden of devoting hours to render it. It also gives me places to come back to.

I only hope that you don’t blame me for doing so.


Meantime, indulge my recording my thoughts here in the public space.

What is blame?

We don’t have very precise definitions of blame, we have an intuitive sense of what it means. There is a subject (or object, as the case might be) that creates (or has been attributed to have created) an action that results in an interaction on an object (or process) with a subsequent effect and a notion of intentionality. But we have to parse casual effect, responsibility, and blame as they are not strictly equivalent. Let’s begin with a causal event.

I believe that on balance the causal event process and object interaction is uncontroversial. A billiard ball (Object A), through directed (or undirected) motion, collides (action) with a second billiard ball (Object B) with the subsequent effect of displacing the second ball.

What we can claim in this scenario is that A → B, A causes B to move. Except in the loosest of idiomatic speech, we can’t really extend this causal relationship to claim that A is responsible for B’s movement. Even further removed, one can’t claim that A is to blame for B’s movement.

Responsibility and blame are different moral claims attributed to an agent. I feel I am safe to claim that a billiard ball has no agency. Whilst human agency is defined as an individual’s capacity to determine and make meaning from their environment through purposive consciousness and reflective and creative action (Houston, 2010), an agent in a more general sense is a being with the capacity to act, and ‘agency’ denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity.

The word blame is infused with negative connotations. Praise is a loose antonym with positive connotations, but I won’t focus on it because it is not nearly as heavy and operates semantically differently. In any case, I feel justified to cross blame from the list of possible qualifiers for the billiard ball scenario.

Is A responsible for B? Again, I believe that most people do not assign responsibility to inanimate objects—notwithstanding animism, pantheism, and possibly panpsychism.

Here are some diagrammes.

Above, there is only cause and effect. We can intuit that the movement of Object A is not uncaused. Even so, it careens into Object B, causing it to move. And while one could say A is responsible for moving B, this would be non-standard English language use.

If one pulls back to catch a wider glimpse, one can see that the cause of Object A striking Object B, was a person striking Object A (possibly with a cue stick). Here, the casual event chain is the person causing A to strike B. Two cause-effect relationships at a macro level. However, in this case, we can also say that the person is responsible for the event to set A into motion. We can also say that the person caused B to move (by the way of Object A). Even here, blame would be inappropriate to assert.

We may be able to reframe the scenario slightly differently to get blame into the picture, but let’s take a short detour and create a praise situation. If Object B is hit into a pocket, we can praise the person. Perhaps this shot wins the game. The person is responsible for making the shot.

In scenario B, the person misses the shot. Moreover, Object A does collide with Object B, but perhaps Object B is the 8 ball, and it was not supposed to be pocketed yet. Or perhaps the cue ball deflects off of Object B causing A to scratch because it falls into a pocket. Either of these situations might cause the person to lose the match. A mate may blame this person for being responsible for the loss.

Before moving on, I’ll point out that one distinction that affords blame more weight than praise is the ongoing psychology. Whilst with praise, a person may reflect fondly on a positive event, there is not really a counter to a grudge in the case of blame. And while praise can be misattributed with benefits to social capital, misdirected blame can result in a loss of social capital with longer-term implications.

Perhaps someone unseen pushes you into another person causing them to be injured. You may have been the cause of this person being injured, but like the billiard ball, Object B, you are not morally responsible. Moreover, you may be the target of blame.

These are rather low-stakes scenarios. Imaging these as legal negligence or in a criminal setting. Innocent people are routinely convicted for crimes they never committed. Perhaps, they had been previously unaware of any of the actors or events, yet they are blamed and fined or incarcerated.

This isn’t my interest to discuss at the moment. This is a different scope, so let’s return to the main theme.

In the low-stakes billiards example we can say that the person seems to have agency. For trivial events, we can ignore whether this is more than seeming. In essence, we can ignore the antecedent event arrow that caused the person to be in a situation to have the opportunity to strike the ball in the first place. We’ll return to this later.

Can We Just Stop Talking About Free Will

The problem with free will is that we keep dwelling on it. Really, this has to stop.

Owen D. Jones, The End of (Discussing) Free Will, 18 March 2012

This quote was made by Owen Jones in an article published in 2012. I share it because I feel the author is not only being cavalier but wrongly so. According to the bio at the end of the article, Owen D. Jones is a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University. As I see it, the problem is not some theoretical—What is the sound of one hand clapping?—pseudo-problem. Human agency is the basis of our legal and jurisprudence systems.

Like good magicians, people like Owen want to redirect your focus to neuroscience and consciousness rather than have to explain how the causal engine that is the brain manifests itself ex nihilo.

Doubling down on my causa sui position, humans may be able to make constrained solutions, and yet they never have control over the constrained system they inherit. I discuss this at length elsewhere, but I wanted to address this comment forthright.

I’ll leave with a quote I tend to trot out a lot.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

— Upton Sinclair, prepared speech, I, Candidate for Governor (1935)

Free will is a necessary illusion for power structures to propagate or they will lose a cornerstone of their control mechanisms. And since humans want to feel they are in control, they are willing to accept the downside for the illusion of an upside.