To be fair, this is a response I get from my Pragmatist colleagues: don’t get your knickers in a twist arguing semantics. But in my noggin, I envision this Venn diagamme. (Well, not exactly. I just made this up, but you get the point.) Since the topic happened to be on the definition of Conservative, I’ll retain the context, but this is arbitrary.
Before I get to this, I want to set the stage with a more common and arguably more agreeable term: tree. If we ask a large number of people on the street to provide attributes of a tree, we might get something like this image abstraction below.
Although people may have different ideas, there will be some key core elements—trunks, branches, and roots. Of course, within the taxonomy of trees, there are types—pine, oak, willow, redwood, birch, and so on—each sharing these key attributes. These trees have some distinct attributes—coniferous versus deciduous, green versus red, flowering versus non versus, fruit-bearing, nut-bearing, height, and age. I think I can stop.
In general, I think it’s safe to say that if you point to a tree, and ask what it is to a person with sight and language, they will either respond ‘It’s a tree’ or ‘It’s an elm’. Even the elm response can be quickly qualified with a follow-up question, “What is an Elm?”
I understand that a botanist or an arborist may have a more nuanced definition. In fact, when I lived in a rental property outside of Chicago, my wife at the time defended the life of a tree that looked rather like a berry-bearing ficus, but that the village elders said was a weed and not allowed to remain. Here, we get into whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable or a squash is a berry or a fruit, or is corn a vegetable or a grain—or are we discussing maize? I get it. Even here, we can quickly come to terms. I said chips; I meant fries.
I could even get into the political conversation where the US justice system tried to redefine person to strip the rights away from those they didn’t want to have them. Of course, the United States has a history of not considering people to be people, though some were given 3/5ths and 4/5ths of personhood. Mighty white of them.
Back to trees. There are natural and artificial trees, but these are just simulations—hullo, Baudrillard. In the English language, there are non-arboreal trees, some not even rendered from fibres. We’ve got shoe trees—for which I fail to see the relationship to trees—and bell trees. We even have tree structures, like a taxonomy or a family tree, leveraging the branching metaphor. Some of these things escape the main bubble, but the connexion is never lost and is easy to navigate to a core understanding.
I think we are amicably on the same page here and ready to move on from tree to conservative. Here, the circles are much more varied and divergent. Although there is common ground, as well there are points where there is no intersection in meaning.
I’ve discussed a simpler abstract term before: fairness. To recapitulate, most people will tell you they want situations in the world to be fair. Only fair means entirely different things to different people. I’ve written about this in several places, so I’ll continue on our conservative journey.
Not only has the term conservative morphed over the years, it has different meanings—though to be fair, probably fewer than ‘liberal’. As I’ve discussed here before prior to the recent post, liberals are conservatives, but no one is really defending this position because the goal is identity, and identity involved separation to be distinguished.
Like fair, conservative has some common ground. The challenge is to understand which flavour is being used. Are you communicating by using the same term, or are you talking across each other? In some cases, this can lead to what I’ll call false positives (borrowing the language of statistical errors) where you think you are in agreement, except you aren’t. The other side of this coin is the false negative, where you think you are in disagreement when in fact you are talking about two different things.
This happened to me. A mate asked me to meet her at a certain time and place —I’ll just use McDonald’s because it is so ubiquitous. I went to the McDonald’s and waited. After a while, she called.
“Are you close?”
I scan the car park.
“I don’t see you. Maybe I missed you. I’m parked on the side near Taco Bell, not the oil change place.”
“There’s no Taco Bell at McDonald’s. What McDonald’s did you go to?”
It turns out that she was a distance away and wanted me to meet her halfway—like two-thirds to be honest. I assumed she meant the one we’d commonly visit.
This is a false positive. Communication was presumed to occur. It did. It just wasn’t useful. And since the reason for the rendezvous in the first place is to save time—one might say to ‘conserve’ time, but even I wouldn’t stoop to such a low target.
Wrapping up, the challenge is that trees are objects in the world. We can quickly recalibrate ourselves by reference. This is not possible for abstract concepts. I tend to refer to these are weasel words. Some use these words unknowingly. Whenever I hear some yahoo wintering on about freedom or justice, my first impression is that this bloke is tripping on a Kool-Aid propaganda overdose. Most common people falsely believe that people can understand what’s in their heads.
And to be fair—the left sort, not the one on the right—, when these yahoos utter the term, they are probably using it like their neighbour. But walk a few blocks or miles, and that bet is off. Sure, if the people have a common connexion, this might moderate the differences. But if one attempts to triangulate across worldviews, all bets are off. You may or may not be singing from the same hymnal.
I am trying to avoid commenting on the recent SCOTUS decision and how it is symptomatic of how the United States remains a failed state—at least a zombie state—, so this preamble should suffice for now.
I was chatting politics into the wee hours with my son, who’s been on this earth for almost 25 years now. I consider myself to be on the left of traditional political scales. He considers himself to be on the right, but he’s trying to make sense of the scales and dimensions. He had two questions: First, ‘What are the crucial dimensions and positions that define left and right?’ Second, ‘Where do Liberals fit into the equation?’
Knowing me, he wanted to provide some context and confer with me his knowledge that would also serve to frame and anchor the conversation. A key point was to have clarified the adopted nomenclature and positioning on a theoretical map.
We started with the origins of the left-right distinction, which was barely a valid dichotomy even as it was coined in France. There was no duolith. Those on the left or right had features in common but taken holistically, this was a reductionist categorisation, as tends to happen. Exacerbating this, as it does today, still, the politicians with voices remained to the right of the unvoices masses.
He asked about the difference between freedom and liberty because his sources differentiate the two. Whilst connotation and nuance may enter the picture, etymologically speaking, freedom is a native English word whilst liberty is French via Latin. Connotatively, freedom is an absolute measure whilst liberty is granted within a political framework. Positive and negative liberties aside, liberty is an attenuator. It restricts freedom even if it allows most of the signal through. Effectively, liberty is permission by the state to act in certain ways.
By the end of the conversation, he was framing the key difference around notions of national identity and nationalism—I versus we. I shared my thoughts on the construction of identity, thus making for a poor foundation, though we both agreed that national narratives have been the impetus for much activity. (I am reluctant to insert the word progress here.)
After our conversation, I began researching dimensions established or otherwise proposed by political science. This led me to a place I found interesting—the distinction between radical, progressive, conservative, and reactionary positions. For some reason, this never really occurred to me.
I’m not sure one can employ these terms in general discussion without definition and qualification, but I feel they are useful in their own right. Typically, I view the political landscape—at the highest level and with a US-bent—as Left (communists, socialists, anarchists, progressives) and Right (conservatives, liberals, and fascists). I also know that this is imprecise, but maps always are.
This new vocabulary helps by distilling the map to this—ordered differently:
Conservatives want to maintain the status quo. This is interesting usage adoption. Fundamentally, advocates of this view want to promote and to preserve traditional social institutions and practices. In Western culture, conservatives seek to preserve a range of institutions such as organized religion, parliamentary government, and property rights. Conservatives tend to favour institutions and practices that guarantee stability and evolved gradually. Adherents of conservatism often oppose progressivism and seek a return to traditional values
My first thoughts when I hear the term are a harkening back to the old ways—the Ozzie and Harriott mythos, white picket fences, Mom and apple pie. But this is different. Effectively, rather than reaching back, it wants to preserve the current moment in time. Where it gets more nebulous, I think, is that some people include nostalgia in the now. Duratively, perhaps a person might remember some aspect of their childhood. Though this has been lost by now, they imagine it as part of their identity. This can also extend further back as they wish some other historical aspects can be cherry-picked. Perhaps the white conservative wishes to be able to subjugate women as was the practice in the 1950s of America, but to not conserve high union participation and high marginal tax rates, as affronts to freedom (or whatever). This ends up being an exercise in selective memory and revisionist history-making.
This needs to be distinguished from a so-called traditional conservativism in the tradition of Burke or Hobbes, who want to conserve some sense of fundamental morality they feel derives from nature.
Reactionaries oppose whatever is in effect at the moment—the petulant toddler—but with a twist. Like the conservatives, there is a conservation effort but rather than a focus on the status quo, the focus is on status quo ante, which is a return to the old ways, tried and true.
Progressives support social reform. Ostensibly, they don’t oppose tradition, but they feel that old structures need to be reimagined and reinterpreted in face of social and technological change. An underlying metanarrative is the notion of progress. I am not going to comment on progressivism generally and the nuances evident in the American flavour of it.
To me, these terms operate on a gravity to now. Conservatives are heavily anchored in the familiar and seek stability. Then they see factors in the past that they imagine will also serve this purpose, so they wish to incorporate these and carry them forward. Conservatives are not unaware of the need for change, they just want to not create waves in the process.
Likewise, although placing a heavier weight on the past than even conservatives, reactionaries are not fundamentally opposed to retaining what is working currently. The term working is subjective and perspectival, so they may wish to retain something that works for them at the expense of others. This is a challenge for conservatism as well. Just because racial segregation seemed to work for an equivalent person in the past doesn’t mean it worked well for the excluded.
Like reactionaries, progressives aren’t afraid of keeping a foot in the present—and there may be plenty of lessons to learn from the past—, but they feel that given the change in the underlying terrain, some refactoring is in order.
And then there are the radicals. I suppose that radicals have different motivators, but in essence, they feel that the current implementation is substantially broken, and it needs more than a few small tweaks and a fresh coat of paint. These people are renovating rather than redecorating. They may even want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Some may wish to keep the baby.
As for me, I usually place myself in the Progressive camp, but under the definition, I am more of a radical. The system is broken. We don’t just need to delete it, we need to install a new one.
Thomas Jefferson said that the United States should rewrite the Constitution every 19 years. Why 19 years? Who knows? Given the intransigence in American politics, this would have been a disaster. And given the powers that be, the debate would be over which parts to conserve and which to progress. Being the cynic that I am, my guess is that it would devolve to worse than we have now.
DISCLAIMER: For the record, I don’t endorse the placement of the political ideologies on the horseshoe image, but I find it interesting and it grabbed my attention. I hope it grabbed yours, too.
Agency is going through the same fits as religion. When Nietzsche regarded society around him at the time, he declared that God is dead and asked now what? This is precisely the same challenge in different clothes.
Without a God to use as a bully pulpit and mechanism of fear, how could we keep people in line in cohesive societies? Without the notion of human agency to allow for responsibility and blame, how can we keep people in line in cohesive societies? Only the predicate has changed, but the question remains, do we persist in lying for the so-called greater good? This is similar to the Santa Claus myth to keep young children in line.
If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do. Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.
—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (naturalism.org)
One might like to think that lying is psychologically pathological, but it seems to be a significant part of the human condition. The fundamental question doesn’t appear to be ‘should I tell the truth’, but rather ‘Can I get away with lying?’ Despite all the talk of Truth and integrity, this seems to be the default state of humans. This renders integrity just another lie. But you knew that already, but let’s not fall into another Foucauldian rabbit hole.
We no longer have any sympathy today with the concept of ‘free will’: we know only too well what is is — the most infamous of all the arts of the theologian for making mankind ‘accountable’. . . Everywhere accountability is sought, it is usually the instinct for punishing and judging which seeks it… the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty.
— Twilight of the Idols: ‘The Four Great Errors’, 7
EDIT: Since I first posted this, I’ve discovered that computer algorithms and maths are not playing well together in the sandbox. Those naughty computer geeks are running rogue from the maths geeks.
In grade school, we typically learn a form of PEMDAS as a mnemonic heuristic for mathematical order of operations. It’s a stand-in for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. This may be interpreted in different ways, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry. It turns out that many (if not most) programming languages don’t implement around a PEMDAS schema. Instead, they opt for BODMAS, where the B and O represent Brackets and Orders—analogous to Parentheses and Exponents. The important thing to note is the inversion of MD to DM, as this creates discrepancies.
And it doesn’t end here. HP calculators interject a new factor, multiplication by juxtaposition, that mathematician and YouTuber, Jenni Gorham, notates as J resulting in PEJMDAS. This juxtaposition represents the implied multiplication as exemplified by another challenge;
1 ÷ 2✓3 =
In this instance, multiplication by juxtaposition instructs us to resolve 2✓3 before performing the division. Absent the J, the calculation results in ½✓3 rather than the intended 1/(2✓3). As with this next example, simply adding parentheses fixes the problem. Here’s a link to her video:
And now we return to our originally scheduled programming…
Simplifying concepts has its place. The question is where and when. This social media war brings this back to my attention.
As depicted in the meme, there is a difference of opinion as to what the answer is to this maths problem.
6 ÷ 2 ( 1 + 2 ) =
In grade school, children are taught some variation of PEMDAS, BOMDAS, BEDMAS, BIDMAS, or whatever. What they are not taught is that this is a regimented shortcut, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to real-world applications. The ones defending PEMDAS are those who have not taken maths beyond primary school and don’t use maths beyond some basic addition and subtraction. Luckily, the engineers and physicists who need to understand the difference, generally, do.
Mathematicians, scientists, and engineers have learned to transform the equation into the form on the left, yielding an answer of 1. If your answer is 9, you’ve been left behind.
Why is this such a big deal?
When I taught undergraduate economics, I, too, had to present simplifications of models. In practice, the approach was to tell the students that the simplification was like that in physics. At first, you assume factors like gravity and friction don’t exist—fewer variables, fewer complexities. The problem, as I discovered in my advanced studies, is that in economics you can’t actually relax the assumptions. And when you do, the models fail to function. So they only work under assumptions that cannot exist in the real world—things like infinite suppliers and demanders. Even moving from infinite to a lot, breaks the model. Economists know this, and yet they teach it anyway.
When I transitioned from undergrad to grad school, I was taken aback by the number of stated assumptions that were flat out wrong. Not only were these simplifications flat out wrong, but they also led to the wrong conclusion—the conclusion that aligned with the prevailing narratives.
This led me to wonder about a couple of things
Firstly, if I had graduated with an English degree and then became a PhD candidate in English, would I have also learnt it had mostly been a lie for the purpose of indoctrination?
Secondly, what other disciplines would have taught so much disinformation?
Thirdly, how many executives with degrees and finance and management only got the fake version?
Fourthly, how many executives hadn’t even gotten that? Perhaps they’d have had taken a class or two in each of finance and economics and nothing more. How many finance and economics courses does one need to take to get an MBA? This worries me greatly.
To be honest, I wonder how many other disciplines have this challenge. I’d almost expect it from so-called soft sciences, but from maths? Get outta here.
Half-life of knowledge
This also reminds me of the notion of the half-life of knowledge. What you knew as true may eventually no longer be. In this case, you were just taught a lie because it was easier to digest than the truth. In other cases, an Einstein comes along to change Newtonian physics into Oldtonian physics, or some wisenheimer like Copernicus determines that the cosmic model is heliocentric and not geocentric.
If you’ve been keeping up with my latest endeavour, you may be surprised that free will, human agency, identity, and the self are all human social constructs in need of remediation. Get ready to get out of your comfort zone or to entrench yourself in a fortress of escalating commitment.
I chatted with an associate this evening about the gun debate in America. For some reason, gun control is again a hot topic. He believes that guns, like drugs, should be treated as mental health issues.
Click an image to read the referenced article.
Full Disclosure: I do not believe that the Second Amendment of the United States confers unrestricted rights to own a gun. Full stop. I believe this is a perversion by activist Supreme Court justices of the original intent of the grammatically-challenged Forefathers of that cursed country.
The mental health topic brought my attention to the question of tolerance and normalisation. Mental health, an interest of psychology has a sordid past. At its very core is the idea that humans can be normalised, that they can be categorised into normal and abnormal behaviours, and what is deemed normal might have some room for variation, but this tolerance doesn’t really allow for much discrepancy.
Normalisation expects to bring people into some basic conformity—give or take. The problem is that this is contextual and the acceptable range changes over time and place. Many behaviours previously considered abnormal are now acceptable, and some acceptable behaviours are no longer tolerated. Some of these changes have flip-flopped legal status as well. It’s just a game to some people.
Tolerance takes a position that there is no normal, per se. Some people just have different ideas.
Here is a clip of an interview with Dr Oz ( né Mehmet Cengiz Öz) where he illustrates my position. I’ll disintegrate it next.
Reporter: What is your stance on [the legalisation of] marijuana?
Dr Oz: … There are not enough Pennsylvanians to work in Pennsylvania, so giving them pot so they stay home… I don’t think [is] an ideal move. I also don’t want to breed addiction to marijuana. It’s not physical addiction; it’s emotional addiction, but I don’t want young people to think they have to smoke a joint to get out of their house in the morning. We need to get Pennsylvanians back at work you got to give them their mojo, and I don’t want marijuana to be a hindrance to that. I also don’t want people operating heavy machinery and driving by me when they’ve been taking their fourth joint of the day. But there are other issues that are plaguing Pennsylvanians. We’re a border state, practically, … because they’re flying illegal immigrants up here from the border in the middle of the night … but they’re also getting their narcotics up here really easily.
So, let’s break down this word salad. This will reveal some of Dr Oz’ and my worldview biases.
Neither Oz nor I advocate the use of marijuana or other recreational drugs. However, Oz wants to make or keep it illegal and criminalised. I do not agree. I feel they should regulate it and tax it. Although I neither advocate nor endorse the use of any of these herbs and chemicals, I feel they should do this for all drugs. [And if we are going to make these chemicals illegal, let’s not be hypocrites and make nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine illegal.] I’m not advocating this. I’m just saying adopt a position and maintain it with integrity.
There are not enough Pennsylvanians to work in Pennsylvania.
First, Oz is a wage slaver. Next, the unemployment rate for PA was 4.9% in March, so this does not appear to be a problem.
so giving them pot so they stay home… I don’t think [is] an ideal move.
Oz makes an unsubstantiated connection between the legalisation of marijuana and staying home—being lazy or unmotivated.
I also don’t want to breed addiction to marijuana.
Marijuana is not known to be addictive. As a doctor, Oz knows this.
It’s not physical addiction; it’s emotional addiction
Here, Oz backtracks, but he also introduces an unsubstantiated claim. If you are interested in why I consider psychology pseudoscience, follow this link to explain DSM changes in this area.
but I don’t want young people to think they have to smoke a joint to get out of their house in the morning
Oz makes a total non-sequitur here. Nothing he has mentioned this far would lead to this conclusion. If someone already feels this way, its legal status is irrelevant. Enough said.
We need to get Pennsylvanians back at work you got to give them their mojo, and I don’t want marijuana to be a hindrance to that.
This is more Calvinistic wage slavery advocacy. Again, he is equating the consumption of marijuana with being unmotivated. Perhaps he should challenge Micheal Phelps to a swimming race. If motivation is the issue, perhaps he rather favours legalising amphetamines—but I supposed he’d have a preconceived rationale for that, too.
I also don’t want people operating heavy machinery and driving by me when they’ve been taking their fourth joint of the day.
Where does the number four come from? Is four different to one or two? Has this been studied? Is he saying this doesn’t already happen? Does he believe that current intoxication laws and incapacitation regulations aren’t in place?
We’re a border state, practically…
Where to start… Pennsylvania is a border state. It borders New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia. If one counts for the water border of Lake Erie, one might be able to argue that it shares an international border with Canada—although, I feel that’s a stretch. At that point, one wouldn’t be far from considering Hawaii to border California. It’s only water. He does say practically, so perhaps that’s his out.
because they’re flying illegal immigrants up here from the border in the middle of the night
Wait a minute… Geezer’s talking about the southern border between the United States and Mexico. (That’s where brown people live.) The fewest number of states between Mexico and Pennsylvania is four, but that’s stretching it. Something tells me that Oz is at least an elitist and at worst a racist. I’m a sad panda.
Another non-sequitur. Somehow, Oz is trying to create a link between marijuana and narcotics whilst also contending that legalising marijuana would somehow affect these illegal flights. Wait, are the flights illegal or just the passengers? How does he know that either is illegal? And does it have to be at night? I get the feeling that Oz watches too much television. Perhaps that’s what we should criminalise. So many questions.
but they’re also getting their narcotics up here really easily
OK? Perhaps we should contract with them to transport the marijuana up here if they are so efficient. Or would it be better to grow it locally? Racists tend to be nationalists and would likely favour a Made In America policy—unless they can exploit brown people. Or Oz can employ otherwise unemployed Pennsylvanians on his pot plantations. Where does it end?
What does this have to do with normalisation and toleration?
People like Dr Oz want to mainstream people, a concept some familiar with special education might remember—get the people in line with the herd. Proper people—normal people—are supposed X and Y and Z. Toleration allows that there may be people with descriptively ‘normal’ traits and behaviours, but there should not necessarily be a penalty for noncompliance.
When I was an undergrad student, I had a side job as a shift supervisor at an Au Bon Pain in Boston. On an occasion, one worker, let’s call her Mary, was arguing with another worker that we’ll call Marie. Mary said she was not going to make any more sandwiches because she had already made twice as much as Marie. Although I understand the notion of fairness she was invoking, I reminded her that she was being paid by the hour, not the piece. As long as she was still on the proverbial clock, she would continue to make sandwiches. Although I didn’t press this point, I could have hired Marie to watch Mary make sandwiches. In fact, I suppose I was hired to watch them both make sandwiches.
The point is—Mary’s perception aside—that there was no reason to presume these two should produce an equal number of sandwiches in an hour, a day, or a month.
I mention this because—getting back to Oz’ drugs scenario—if people are happy getting high on heroin and nodding out on Kensington Ave, that’s their issue, not Oz’ and not mine. If Pennsylvania needs workers and can’t get them, figure out how to attract workers. Don’t create a situation so bad that the alternate to work is just the lesser of two evils. This reminds me of a story from my consulting days.
Without dropping any names, I was hired by a company to ‘deflect’ some costs. The high-level concept was to redirect people from a relatively expensive call centre to cheaper self-service. I reminded them of the Principle of least effort.
Essentially, I conveyed that people are inherently lazy—echoing Carl Jung. People will take the path of least resistance. If it’s easier for them to call, they’ll call; if it’s easier to self-serve, they’ll do that.
“So we should make it more difficult for customers to call?” was how this was interpreted.
“You should make it easier to self-serve.”
I’m still shaking my head to this day. What humans will do to other humans in the name of commerce.
The more I read about free will the more I feel that it is a modern invention. I don’t mean to claim that this is cut and dry, but as the image accompanying this post suggests, Sophocles’ story of Œdipus Rex is precisely about a man attempting to escape his fate. Without getting mired in a discussion about the distinction between fate and determinism, we understand that the plight of Œdipus is set in stone.
As I said, I am simplifying as I know there are authors debating free will before this, but it is also known that many people simply believed that their lives were governed. I suspect that in certain slave societies this might be a source of comfort. If Buddhist thought that life is suffering holds true, what better consolation than it was just meant to be, I might as well just make the best of it.
Enter Christianity and Aquinus. Their god may have set things up, but there can be no notion of growth or responsibility without free will, so we’d better create a narrative around this. How an omniscient creator can not know every possible plotline and twist remains a question, though rationale akin to retrograde motion has been suggested to accommodate it. Now, it seems that we’ve got a little less determined and a little freer if I think of it as a zero-sum game.
By the time Kant enters the picture, he rather spills the beans on the whole narrative. Perhaps riffing on Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him‘. Kant tells us that if we need to blame people and presume responsibility, then we need to assume free will. And so we did.
In this day and age, most people have been marinated in this worldview, so it’s difficult to see outside of this frame. The rhetoric of free will has been particularly effective. Though we have evidence of free will not being dominant in some cultural conversations, we have little idea in preliterate societies. I’d be interested to gain additional perspective from historians or anthropologists. Some may have already been published. I’ve already been so overwhelmed with the deluge of information and opinions to date. I’ve learned much and have been introduced to many new scholars. As I wrote the other day, this is somewhat daunting. I wish I were a grad student and could justify spending so much time trying to justify my position.
The Appointment in Samarra*
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
I love this story of fatalism. Originally from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a, it’s a story about one attempting to alter their determined fate. An interesting side-comment on the original version. The last line attributes fate to the servant’s feet.
A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted
Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a
This interpretation would allow for the feet to be determined but in conflict with the intellect and reason of the head, much as is said about the conflict between the head and the heart. It could be argued that the only fate this accounts for is that of death, but that’s well beyond my scope of inquiry.
Some people seem to not quite grasp the distinction between constructed and unreal. Many things are human social constructs, from money to states and countries, to nations, to governments, to ethnicities, and to gender. Even sex. All of my favourite weasel words are constructs.
But there’s a difference between money and unicorns. No amount of money can buy you a unicorn. This is the difference between fiction and figment. We can say that money is ‘real’ insomuch as it affects our everyday lives. We transact. We buy things. We sell things. It’s an agreed-upon medium of exchange. Without going into details, long before cryptocurrency, most money is in the form of computer bits and bytes—rather it has no form. The currency and coins we can touch are a small fraction of the money that exists. The money behind your credit card or debit card is not banknotes—and it’s not gold. When a central bank wants to create money, it simply has to type a number in a computer register and press enter, and it exists.
So whilst each of these is pretend, some things are manifest in our ‘real’ world and have real-world implications. Not so much for unicorns and fairies.
* The Appointment in Samarra as retold by W Somerset Maugham (1933)
Robert Kane’s chapter in Four Views on Free Will is titled Libertarianism, and I’ve just finished it. I’ve been writing in the margins, and I’ll summarise my thoughts here.
As I wrote in my last post, I don’t find the Libertarian position on free will and agency compelling. Kane made some interesting points, but none persuaded me to buy what he was selling. The biggest challenge I had was to maintain focus because I think he was chasing red herrings—at least given my focus on agency. He spent a lot of time tearing down determinism and indeterminism instead of building up his own position. I feel the debate centres around agency. I waited for him to explain how this agency operated, but he just assumes agency—or at least a self to possess agency—from the start. I am not convinced. If you are interested, my more detailed commentary follows.
The Rest of the Story
My intent at the start is to approach this chronologically as I retrace my marginalia, hoping to recall whatever prompted my notes in the first place. I’ll be quoting or paraphrasing Kane’s positions to serve as a reference in the event you don’t have access to the book.
1, Determinism and the Garden of Forking Paths
Kane starts off by mentioning that determinism implies that ‘given the past and the laws of nature at any given time, there is only one possible future‘. Within this unvarying environment, he writes, ‘We believe we have free will when we view ourselves as agents‘. I don’t disagree with either of these points, and, as agents, we are ‘capable of influencing the world in various ways‘.
Kane introduces a garden of forking paths illustration, which I’ve recreated here.
He uses this as a visual decision tree, where an actor traverses the branches and makes decisions at the various vertices. To breathe life into this tree, he gives us one of several forthcoming examples. He introduces us to Jane.
In his scenario, Jane is faced with a decision with one of two possible outcomes, and ‘she believes there is more than one possible path into the future available to her and it is “up to her” which of these paths will be taken‘. He continues, ‘This picture of different possible paths into the future is also essential, I believe, to what it means to be a person and to live a human life‘.
And herein lies the rub. Jane is not making these decisions in a vacuum. She is a puppet to forces beyond her control. I shouldn’t be so hard on psychology and Freud, but as Luke 23:34 of the Christian Bible relates, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’.
Then Kane reinforces that if determinism were true that Jane would not have free will before bringing up the idea of responsibility, that ‘free will is … intimately related to notions of accountability, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness for actions‘. I agree with Kane here.
Next, he invokes an emotional appeal-to-nature argument, asking us to imagine a ‘young man [who] is on trial for an assault and robbery in which his victim was beaten to death.’ He suggests that our tendency to blame this man is natural, but that we might search for mitigating circumstances that might account for his actions. He leaves us with a question, Did these influences entirely determine his actions, or did they “leave anything over” for him to be responsible for?
I have this question, too, but as I said, this is an appeal to emotion in the way Westerners have been conditioned to believe. There is little reason to accept this as some sort of universal law or principle.
2. Modern Challenges to Libertarian Free Will
He starts this section as follows, ‘I will be defending the libertarian view of free will in this volume. We libertarians typically believe that a free will that is incompatible with determinism is required for us to be truly morally responsible for our actions, so that genuine moral responsibility, as well as free will, is incompatible with determinism.’
He continues his setup, ‘A goal of this essay is therefore to consider this modern attack on the traditional libertarian view of free will and to ask how, and whether, it can be answered. Much is at stake, it seems to me, in knowing whether we do or do not have a freedom of the will of the ultimate kind that libertarians defend. The modern attack on it has two parts‘.
‘Part 1: The first prong of the modern attack on libertarian free will comes from compatibilists, who argue that, despite appearances to the contrary, determinism does not really conflict with free will at all.‘
‘[A]ccording to compatibilists, esoteric questions about whether determinism is true or not – in the physical or psychological sciences – are irrelevant to the freedoms we really care about in everyday life. All the varieties of free will “worth wanting” (as a modern compatibilist, Daniel Dennett, has put it) do not require the falsity of determinism for us to possess them, as the traditional libertarian view of free will suggests.‘
He informs the reader, ‘Influential philosophers of the modern era, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill, were all compatibilists‘.
Kane ends part 1 with, ‘If compatibilists are right, we can have both free will and determinism; and we need not worry that increasing scientific knowledge about nature and human beings will somehow undermine our ordinary convictions that we are free and responsible agents.’
I agree with this statement. It’s also why I consider agency to be the pivotal target, not determinism.
In part 2, he writes ‘The second prong goes further, arguing that libertarian free will itself is impossible or unintelligible and has no place in the modern scientific picture of the world.‘
He conveys that ‘modern defenders of libertarianism, such as Immanuel Kant, have argued that we need to believe in libertarian free will to make sense of morality and genuine responsibility, but we can never completely understand such a free will in theoretical and scientific terms.’
This is a good point, and Kant is correct. As a moral non-cognitivist, I feel that morality is a non-sensical human social construct. Inventing free will to make sense of another invention doesn’t get much sympathy from me. Kant finishes with an appeal to noumenism, yet another concept I’ve got no time for.
Next, Kane introduces us to another foe of free will, indeterminism. ‘Events that are undetermined, such as quantum jumps in atoms, happen merely by chance. So if free actions were undetermined, as libertarians claim, it seems that they too would happen by chance.’
He ends this section with two issues a libertarian must address:
The Compatibility Problem: free will really is incompatible with determinism
The Intelligibility Problem: indeterminism can be made intelligible and how, if at all, such a free will can be reconciled with modern scientific views
3. Is Free Will Incompatible with Determinism?: The Consequence Argument
Kane opens with a plea, ‘[L]ibertarians who believe free will is incompatible with determinism can no longer merely rely on intuitions about “forking paths” into the future to support their view that determinism conflicts with free will. These intuitions must be backed up with arguments that show why free will must be incompatible with determinism.‘
If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born; and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our own acts) are not up to us.
Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983, p. 16
Then he sets up The Consequence Argument:
There is nothing we can now do to change the past.
There is nothing we can now do to change the laws of nature.
There is nothing we can now do to change the past and the laws of nature.
If determinism is true, our present actions are necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature.
Therefore, there is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions occur.
In other words, we cannot now do otherwise than we actually do.
Indeed, I agree in principle with the logic, but I’ll reiterate that I feel that the entire determinism angle is a red herring. Next, Kane goes into a discussion about the Transfer of Powerlessness Principle.
In essence, TP ‘says in effect that if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.‘
As I don’t think it’s’ important to my ends and I agree with Kane’s critique of this tailing logic, if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.
Finally, he argues that there is a likely insurmountable semantic challenge that accepting one meaning of ‘can’ and ‘power’ (and some other terms) will determine [pun intended] if one is a compatibilist or not.
4. Ultimate Responsibility
Carrying over from the previous section, Kane reminds us that ‘as a result of this impasse, philosophical debates have multiplied about just what “can” and “power” (and related expressions, such as “could have done otherwise”) really mean‘. But he also concedes that ‘The problem is that focusing on “alternative possibilities” (or “forking paths” into the future) or the “power to do otherwise” alone, as the Consequence Argument does, is too thin a basis on which to rest the case for the incompatibility of free will and determinism.’
He sets up his position.
Free will seems to require that open alternatives or alternative possibilities [AP] lie before us – a garden of forking paths – and it is “up to us” which of these alternatives we choose.
Free will also seems to require that the sources or origins of our actions lie “in us” rather than in something else.
This second point he terms ultimate responsibility [UR].
‘The basic idea of UR is this: To be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient cause or motive for the action’s occurring.‘
‘To be ultimately responsible for the choice, the agent must be at least in part responsible by virtue of choices or actions voluntarily performed in the past for having the character and motives he or she now has.‘
This is what I am waiting for him to resolve. A red flag that has me on alert is the term character. This is on my list of weasel words. He also cites Aristotle as a reference—also relative to character—, so that’s a double red flag in my book.
He returns to his post that free will ‘does require that we could have done otherwise with respect to some acts in our past life histories by which we formed our present characters. I call these earlier acts by which we formed our present characters “self-forming actions,” or SFAs‘.
My causa sui post already illustrates that Kane doesn’t actually answer the question of how the self forms the so-called self-forming actions. He just invents the term, appeals to idiomatic notions of self and declares victory. I recent post discussed the challenges with self.
In the sense that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he name-drops Daniel Dennett and a story Dennett had cited involving Martin Luther initiation of the Protestant Reformation. Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
Kane then argues that Dennett’s deterministic interpretation is incorrect, but given that Dennett is a compatibilist, he doesn’t care if Luther was free or determined in a deterministic universe.
So the ability to do otherwise (“could have done otherwise”) or AP, says Dennett, is not required for moral responsibility or free will.
In the end, we are back into a language game—a semantic pissing match.
Continuing with Luther, Kane concedes, ‘We can grant that Luther could have been responsible for this act, even though he could not have done otherwise then and there and even if his act was determined. But this would be so, if UR is required, only to the extent that Luther was responsible for his present motives and character by virtue of some earlier struggles and self-forming actions.‘
I’m still left wondering how and when Kane is going to prove this argument.
Kane provides more context by telling us that an agent requires sufficient cause of motive, but he never does define sufficient. He is also aware that a causal chain can lead us back to the dawn of time, so he’s devised an angle:
‘The only way to stop this regress is to suppose that some acts in our life histories must lack sufficient causes altogether.’
Perfect. Let’s see how this works.
Now he’s bringing in his SFAs and character. No thank you, please.
‘UR makes explicit something that is often hidden in free will debates, namely that free will – as opposed to mere freedom of action – is about the forming and shaping of character and motives which are the sources or origins of praiseworthy or blameworthy, virtuous or vicious, actions.’
This is where the psychobabble word salad comes in full force. It feels that Kane is employing circular reasoning and claiming that free will is necessary to shape the character necessary to have free will. Perhaps I am missing something.
‘If persons are responsible for the wicked (or noble, shameful, heroic, generous, treacherous, kind or cruel) acts that flow from their wills (characters and motives), they must at some point be responsible for forming the wills from which these acts flow
This ‘forming’ argument feels like a non-sequitur. Let’s keep going.
5. Ultimate Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities
‘When one argues about the incompatibility of free will and determinism from alternative possibilities or AP (as in the Consequence Argument), the focus is on notions of “necessity,” “possibility,” “power,” “ability,” “can,” and “could have done otherwise.” By contrast, the argument from UR focuses on a different set of concerns about the “sources,” “grounds,” “reasons,” and “explanations” of our wills, characters, and purposes. Where did our motives and purposes come from, who produced them, who is responsible for them?’
These are my questions as well. He provides his answers to his own question:
‘To understand the connection between AP and UR, alternative possibilities and ultimate responsibility, we must first note that having alternative possibilities for one’s action – though it may be necessary for free will – is not sufficient for free will, even if the alternative possibilities should also be un-determined. This can be shown by noting that there are examples in which agents may have alternative possibilities and their actions are undetermined, and yet the agents lack free will.’
I can’t wait.
Next, he witters on about God and determinism and leaves us with the conclusion that ‘persons in such a world lack free will‘. Whew! Good thing.
I haven’t really addressed the issue here, but the very concept of will doesn’t sit right with me. It feels a bit magical, but let’s just leave that here.
This assertion relies on volition, cause, and motive—volition and motive feeling pretty weaselly.
Around here, he conveys a story about an assassin that I feel totally misses the mark. Pun intended because in this story, the assassin intent on shooting the Prime Minister gets an involuntary twitch and kills the aide instead.
‘UR captures this additional requirement of being the ultimate source of one’s will that is lacking in this imagined world. For UR says that we must be responsible by virtue of our voluntary actions for anything that is a sufficient cause or a sufficient motive (or reason) for our acting as we do.’
Kane says that the will of the assassin is sufficient motive and reason. I disagree. I’ll circle back to this in a moment with a robot assassin analogy. Kane goes on to say ‘Anything else he might do (miss the prime minister, kill the aide) would be done only by accident or mistake, unintentionally or unwillingly‘.
This second part is particularly interesting to me. If his intent was to kill the Prime Minister and failed but killed the aide without intention, does this mean he’s not culpable?
Kane tells us that ‘we are interested in whether they could have acted in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally, rather than only in one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally and in other ways merely by accident or mistake, unintentionally or irrationally.‘
Kane revisits UR: If (i) free will requires (ii) ultimate responsibility for our wills as well as for our actions, then it requires (iii) will-setting actions at some points in our lives; and will-setting actions require (iv) the plurality conditions, the ability to act in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally and rationally.
I’m feeling strongly that a person agreeing with this line of argumentation has to already agree with the underlying conditions. In fact, one cannot will oneself to believe in free will if one doesn’t and vice versa. I’m not inclined to agree.
Kane injects pangs of conscience into the equation. I’ll ignore it, as conscience in this context is wholly constructed. I understand that Kane wants to say that conscience is an impetus for free. I’ll disagree and level it at that.
‘If we are to be ultimately responsible for our own wills, some of our actions must be such that we could have done otherwise, because some of them must have been such that we could have done otherwise voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally.‘
We are still in agreement. Now what?
He closes with a dual regress of free will. We need to be ultimate sources of our actions and ultimate sources of our actions wills.
6. The Intelligibility Problem: Is Libertarian Free Will Possible?
‘Can we make sense of a free will that requires Ultimate Responsibility of the kind described in the previous section? Can we really be the ultimate designers of our own ends and purposes? There are many skeptics about free will who think not. They argue that being the ultimate source of one’s will and actions is an incoherent and impossible ideal…‘
Please. Are we there yet?
The “Intelligibility Problem” says that incompatibilist free will requires that ultimate responsibility is intelligible or possible and can be reconciled with modern scientific views of human beings.
Kane articulates how indeterminism and probability might affect free will and how, given the ‘exactly same past’, can possibly arrive at different outcomes on our forking paths. He provides an example. I’ll relate it, but mostly to critique his narrative.
Recalling the forking paths we have two scenarios. The premise is that, in the first scenario, John has to decide whether to travel to Hawaii or Colorado. Based on the state of his person, he chose Hawaii.
This can be illustrated about be following the green line from point T0 to T4b. At decision point T3a, John had to choose between Hawaii and Colorado. T4a represents his Hawaii preference.
Still looking at the same chart (above), under the second scenario, something ever so slightly changed and John could have chosen the top branch rather than the lower branch, thus choosing Colorado instead.
‘“If the past had been just a tiny bit different, then John might have sensibly and rationally chosen differently (chosen Colorado instead).” Determinists and compatibilists can say this.’
The problem (referring to the chart below) is that a different choice at T2, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, would have put him on a different path, choosing T3b on the lower branch over T3a on the upper branch. Therefore, the T4b option stemming from the upper T3a branch is not the same T4c option on the lower branch. Instead of a choice of travelling to Hawaii or Colorado, the choice may have between chicken or steak for dinner.
Whilst it is conceivable that the Colorado versus Hawaii decision might still occur, the person at T3 is not the same person.
Kane reintroduces Kant’s noumenal self by name, but he quickly discounts it on the grounds of obscurantism or mystery or “panicky metaphysics”. He’s right in doing so.
As Kane also admits creating the external actors tend to render supporters of these notions as nutters. Besides, if the external actor is the agent, it’s no different than a god doing it.
Before we move to the next section, I want to return to the assassin. My argument is that anyone, including the assassin, is a product of their environment. Full stop. Therefore, one cannot be responsible for anything. To illustrate this, let’s replace the human assassin with a robot assassin. We want to be sure the robot doesn’t twitch and miss.
The robot gets into place and does the assassination task as designed without a hitch (or a twitch). Is the robot in any way responsible for its actions? Not many would argue that it was. It was a victim of its own circumstances. Here, one might argue that the robot has no conscience, and so has no ability to do otherwise. The robot has been programmed. Even if this robot could acquire new information, it could only interpret it relative to the information and processes it already had. The human is no different. The human cannot transcend itself to invoke a different outcome. And any new input would. by definition, be an external influence.
7. Indeterminism and Responsibility
Kane wants to set the stage, so he conveys that ‘The first step in this rethinking about the Intelligibility Problem is to note that indeterminism does not have to be involved in all acts done “of our own free wills” for which we are ultimately responsible … only those acts by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are, namely the “will-setting” or “self-forming actions” (SFAs) that are required for ultimate responsibility.’
Kane believes that ‘believe these undetermined self-forming actions or SFAs occur at those difficult times of life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become.’ Thus, he reintroduces character.
Next, he makes an assertion that I disagree with: ‘The uncertainty and inner tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation is thus reflected in the indeterminacy of our neural processes themselves.’ It should be obvious that I object to the notion of soul-searching from the start.
Kane advances another assertion: ‘Just as indeterminism need not undermine rationality and voluntariness of choices, so indeterminism in and of itself need not undermine control and responsibility.’ I suppose it may ‘need not’, but let’s see if it does.
Then he introduces an example from communications theory, suggesting that a person can willfully concentrate on the signal to overcome noise: ‘Whether you are going to succeed in solving the problem is uncertain and undetermined because of the distracting neural noise. Yet, if you concentrate and solve the problem nonetheless, we have reason to say you did it and are responsible for it, even though it was undetermined whether you would succeed. The indeterministic noise would have been an obstacle that you overcame by your effort’. My margin note reads ‘silly’. I’ll just leave it at that.
8. Parallel Processing
I’ll admit at the start, that this section was just an annoyance, adding little to Kane’s position. My commentary will be brief.
Kane brings in his SFAs and suggests that if we are at a decision point with two (or multiple) options, each option is processed on its own thread. Reflecting on a woman faced with a decision, he tells us that ‘the choice the woman might make either way will not be “inadvertent,” “accidental,” “capricious,” or “merely random” (as critics of indeterminism say) because the choice will be willed by the woman either way when it is made, and it will be done for reasons either way – reasons that she then and there endorses.‘
NB: Underlined words in the paragraph above represent Kane’s italicised words in the chapter text.
Here, Kane continues down a rabbit hole wintering on about SFAs. I’m not convinced. It’s getting late. I’m getting cranky. I’ll will myself to continue. [Yes, that’s a joke.]
9. Responsibility, Luck, and Chance
Kane now wants to remind us that although one might ‘still find it hard to shake the intuition that if choices are undetermined, they must happen merely by chance – and so must be “random,” “capricious,” “uncontrolled,” “irrational,” and all the other things usually charged‘, and that ‘such intuitions are deeply ingrained‘.
Fair enough. Also interesting is how ingrained the sense of self and soul is, but never mind that for now.
Kane continues to unwind the bias he notes. His punchline is this:
‘(Imagine the assassin’s lawyer arguing in the courtroom that his client is not guilty because his killing the prime minister was undetermined and might therefore have failed by chance. Would such a defense succeed?)’
The ‘law’ is not seeking this truth. it is seeking blame and will go to great lengths to do so. Law is about closure. This feels like a strawman on a non-sequitur. Nothing to see here. Let’s keep on.
Kane’s final blow is that if ‘they endorsed the outcomes as something they were trying and wanting to do all along, knowingly and purposefully, not by mistake or accident‘, then they are responsible.
This reminds me of something that may or may not have been uttered by the Dalai Lama explaining the mechanics or scoring system that karma operates by. There are effectively three dimensions of karma:
Intent is the desire to do something, whether to give a gift or assassinate a Prime Minister.
Action is the activity itself: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.
Reaction is your emotional response: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.
Exploring this, say a person gains or loses a karmic point for each good or bad thing and receives no point where an event did not happen.
Let’s start with the assassin.
If your intent is to kill someone, you lose a karma point. Sort of a thought crime, I guess. [-1]
If you do kill the Prime Minister, you’ve lost another point. [-1]
Now, if you feel good about your success in this case, you lose yet another point [-1], netting you with minus 3 [-3] all tolled. However, if you feel remorse, you gain a point [+1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].
Let’s say you have no intent to kill the Prime Minister, yet you lose control of your vehicle and smash into them. S/he dies instantly.
You get no intent point—positive or negative. 
You lose a point for the action. Sorry, Charlie. [-1]
Now, if you feel remorse about this event, you gain another point [+1], netting you with zero  all tolled. However, if you didn’t really like the Prime Minister and start singing—even in your head—Ding, Dong, the witch is dead, you lose another point [-1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].
Let’s try gift-giving.
If you want to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]
If you don’t follow through, you lose a karma point [-1], leaving you with zero . There is no cause for reaction, so you remain at zero.
Let’s up the game a bit and instead of just wanting to buy a gift, you promise to buy one.
If you promise to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]
If you don’t follow through, you lose a point [-1], leaving you with zero .
If you feel good about the ensuing disappointment, you lose another point. [-1]
If you feel bad about it, you regain a karma point [+1], so you are ahead of the game. And this, boys and girls, is how you game karma. But karma is ahead of your sorry ass, and it takes back the point. And then it takes away a penalty point if you don’t feel sorry about being a jerk.
But I digress. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, I do not endorse Kane’s endorsement idea.
10. Choice, Agency, Efforts, and Causes: Further Objections Considered
‘If indeterminism is involved in a process (such as the woman’s deliberation) so that its outcome is undetermined, one might argue that the outcome must merely happen and therefore cannot be somebody’s choice. But there is no reason to assume such a claim is true‘, Kane relates. More subterfuge.
‘Self-forming choices are undetermined, but not uncaused‘, Kane says. Tell me more.
‘They are caused by the agent’s efforts.’ Them’s fighting words.
He continues, ‘Perhaps indeterminism does not undermine the idea that something is a choice simply, but rather that it is the agent’s choice. This objection raises important questions about agency. What makes the woman’s choice her own on the above account is that it results from her efforts and deliberation, which in turn are causally influenced by her reasons and her intentions (for example, her intention to resolve indecision in one way or another). And what makes these efforts, deliberation, reasons, and intentions hers is that they are embedded in a larger motivational system realized in her brain…
‘A choice is the agent’s when it is produced intentionally by efforts, by deliberation and by reasons that are part of this self-defining motivational system and when, in addition, the agent endorses the new intention or purpose created by the choice into that motivational system as a further purpose to guide future practical reasoning and action.’
My reaction is that this so-called agent is just an invention.
‘Since those causally relevant features of the agent, which can be counted among the causes of the woman’s choice, are her reasons or motives, her conscious awareness and her deliberative efforts, we can also say that she is the cause of the choice by virtue of making the efforts for the reasons and succeeding.’
Next, Kane conveys a situation where a guy smashes a glass table and blames it on chance events, ending with this argument.
‘We tend to reason that if an outcome (breaking a table or making a choice) depends on whether certain neurons fire or not (in the arm or in the brain), then the agent must be able to make those neurons fire or not, if the agent is to be responsible for the outcome.’
Let’s see if he comes up from this rabbit hole in the next section.
11. Responsibility and Control: Three Assassins
Watch out. Kane is doubling down—nay, tripling down—on the assassins. His primary argument appeals to emotion and indoctrination—the social programming of the reader.
‘Is the assassin less guilty of killing the prime minister, if he did not have complete control over whether he would succeed because of the indeterminism in his neural processes?’
Robert Kane, Four views on Free Will
Kane recalls the dilemma that I discussed in my Citizen Kane post of a woman to continue to the office or to help someone being mugged, and asserts (without evidence) that this is volitional and ‘is coming from her own will‘.
‘There must be hindrances and obstacles to our choices and resistance in our own wills to be overcome, if we are to be capable of genuine self-formation and free will. Compare Evodius’s question to St Augustine (in Augustine’s classic work On the Free Choice of the Will).‘
This seems like plausible logic, I suppose. But it doesn’t follow from this definition that self-formation—genuine or otherwise—or free will exists.
I tuned out at the God talk.
12 Conclusion: Complexity and “Being an Author of One’s Own Story”
Finally. The last section of this chapter before I turn to John Martin Fischer’s chapter on Compatibilism.
Kane introduces the complexity of chaotic systems next.
‘Agents, according to this modern conception with ancient roots, are to be conceived as information-responsive complex dynamical systems. Complex dynamical systems are the subject of “dynamical systems theory” and also of what is sometimes popularly called “complexity theory.” They are systems (which are now known to be ubiquitous in nature) in which new emergent capacities arise as a result of greater complexity or as the result of movement away from thermodynamic equilibrium toward the edge of chaos.’
‘Only when creatures attain the kind of inner complexity capable of giving rise to conflicts in their wills, or motivational systems, between incommensurable values does the capacity for self-formation characteristic of free will arise.’
Supposing a reaction by critics, he asks himself, ‘Even if one granted that persons, such as the businesswoman, could make genuine self-forming choices that were undetermined, isn’t there something to the charge that such choices would be arbitrary?‘
His response is that we can’t really answer this question and tries to redirect the reader’s attention to the semantics of the word arbitrary. In the end, his final position is that this is the right approach because he can feel it in his bones.
I like David Guignion’s channel, and I’ve been taking in several perspectives on Kant’s article, ‘What is Enlightenment?‘
Feel free to watch from the start, but I’ve cued it to the place where David shares my thoughts around Agency. He brings up the point that absent official authority such as a political or religious structure, we are still influenced—subconsciously—to some degree by mass media and culture. These are the embodied norms and customs that most people just take for granted without question.
As David suggests, we can’t just slough off this inherited skin. First, because we do not even question it, and, two, it’s ingrained, one would likely deny the influence or be subject to escalating commitment under so-called critical inspection.
This is akin to asking a person of a certain religious persuasion if they would have the same religious beliefs if they had not been indoctrinated with them. I feel that a vast majority would defend their religion and the underlying or resultant morality as being obvious, so at the very least they are kept in the lane with guide rails. The extent of this influence and the degree it subtracts from autonomy is my question. I believe if pressed, the individual would defend the prescribed morality to be self-evident and they would have acted the same way even without religious instruction.
The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.
Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Other Essays (Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 91)
I’ve been cycling through The Righteous Mind and Moral Tribes, respectively by Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene. These blokes are social psychologists and moral philosophers. I started each of these books with the conception that I would neither like nor agree with the content. As for like, I suppose that’s a silly preconception better captured by whether or not I agree; that with which I don’t agree, I don’t like.
This said, I like the style of both of the authors, and I am finding the material to be less contentious than I first thought. I can already envisage myself agreeing with much of the substance but waiting to disagree with the conclusions.
Although I committed myself to document The Righteous Mind in situ, I am finding that I am listening to the audiobook whilst driving and so getting ahead of myself, so I’ll have to rewind and retread in order to do this. In fact, the reason I switched back to Greene’s Moral Tribes is so I wouldn’t progress even further in Haidt’s work.
I am writing this post to acknowledge this. I’d also like to document that I don’t believe that humans are good reasoners, a situation both Haidt and Greene cite to be generally true. Humans are post hoc rationalisers, which is to say that they make up their minds and then create a narrative to justify that position. Haidt uses an analogy of an elephant and a rider, and he asserts that humans might more accurately be described as groupish than selfish. Certainly not shellfish. Greene notes that people have been shown to concede self-interest to political party interest, which helps to explain how people continually and predictably vote against their own self-interests. This also supports my position that democracy is a horrible form of government. Of course, Haidt would argue that this proves his point that people tend to adopt facts that support their perspective and diminish or disregard those that don’t.
Haidt suggests that reason is overvalued, but then he proposes intuition as a better alternative. I agree with him that reason is overvalued and for the same reasons (no pun intended) that he does. But it doesn’t follow that intuition is (1) better, (2) significantly better, or (3) good enough for (a) long term viability or (b) grasping complexity.
Whilst I am not immune to this any more than someone else. I recall Kahneman writing in Thinking Fast and Slow that even though he is well aware of cognitive biases and fallacies, he himself can’t escape them either. When I used to teach undergraduate economics, I’d give some sort of policy assignment. As a preamble, I’d instruct the students that without exception, all policy decisions have pros and cons. In their submissions, they’d need to gather both supporting and detracting arguments and then articulate why one should be adopted over another. Minimally, I’d expect at least three pros and cons.
The students would almost invariably complain about how difficult it was to imagine a counter-position. Even when they’d include some, they were usually weak tea fodder. Oftentimes, the students already shared the same perspective, so they couldn’t usually even get the opposing side until we debriefed after the assignments had been graded. Although I do recall instances where students would admit that they hadn’t considered this or that opposing view, I can’t recall a case where a position was flipped after hearing new evidence—not that this was my intention. People do engage in escalating commitment, doubling down on existing beliefs and generating defensive—sometimes tortuous—arguments to support their positions.