Free Will, Pragmatism, and the Things Best Left Unsaid

by David Kordahl

A few months ago, the Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky released Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will. It’s a book whose thesis is as easy to state as it is hard to accept. Sapolsky argues that since our actions result from nothing more than one event following another, no one really deserves praise or blame for anything they do. Our actions are determined by physical events in the physical brain, tightly linked in a causal chain that none of us is able to control any more than anyone else. Our attitudes about all sorts of everyday issues, from financial compensation to prison sentencing, should be reformed in the light of this truth.

Sapolsky is a witty writer, but notions of agency are so deeply baked into our usual way of talking that he frequently has to catch himself. (From a footnote: “I have to try to go through the same thinking process that this whole book is about to arrive at any thoughts about [Bruno] Bettelheim other than that he was a sick, sadistic fuck.”) While one might turn to Determined for lively discussions about current debates in neuroscience, philosophers who have criticized the book point out that there’s nothing really new in his basic assertion, besides the new details.

Of course, filling in the details can be important for establishing plausibility. But the problem with determinism—at least for scientists since the time of Laplace—isn’t that the idea seems implausible. The problem is that even if determinism is plausible, it’s not clear what the consequences of this realization should be. Read more »

Mindful Murmurations I: Common Knowledge And The Will To Believe

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: A murmuration of starlings: collective action creating realities at a larger scale—in this case, resembling a whale. Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

In last month’s column, I argued for the notion that life does not neatly decompose into individual life-forms—fish, fungi, firs, and humans. Instead, we are all just part of the same life expressed in many bodies, the way the one life of the butterfly is expressed in the two bodies of the larva (the caterpillar) and the imago (the winged form we typically think of when talking about butterflies). The argument wasn’t intended to foster some kind of hand-holding-moment of ‘we’re all in this together’ (not just, at least), but instead, was meant to chip away at what I believe to be two of the greatest obstacles towards meaningful collective action in the face of global existential crisis: locality of concern and despair of scale.

By locality of concern, I don’t merely mean being of the opinion that everything revolves around one’s own particular affairs—although that may be an expression of it. Rather, I mean the notion that one’s reasons for action are mostly or wholly centered on one’s own experience within the world—and may thus be in opposition to that of others. The idea that we’re all part of the same life contravenes this, by for instance making harm to ‘other’ life a form of self-harm—something that’s not just morally wrong, as most might agree it is, but simply irrational, like cutting off a perfectly functional thumb—like the caterpillar trying to get back at the butterfly because it envies its ability to fly.

But I believe that the other factor, despair of scale, may be yet more damaging, and it is this that I’ll be concerned with here. Read more »

Clifford and James on Evidence and Belief

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Clifford & James William Kingdon Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” and Willam James’s “The Will to Believe” are yoked together in the story of philosophy. The two essays are taken as the classic starting points for reflection on the norms governing responsible belief. Clifford captures his view, evidentialism, with the stark pronouncement that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Clifford, thus, stands as the paragon of intellectual honesty; he follows the arguments where they lead, and spurns comforting fictions. In contrast, James’s doctrine of the will-to-believe is summarized by his claim that “our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.” James offers a defense of the role of the sentiments in intellectual life; he stands as the Romantic resistance to the demands of cold-blooded reason, he defends belief in the face of withering skepticism. Clifford and James are iconically opposed.

Clifford’s case is made primarily on the basis of a series of examples. The most powerful of them involves a ship owner who believes contrary to his evidence that his ship is seaworthy. The ship owner suppresses his doubts about his vessel, and sends it out to sea, full of emigrants bound for a new land; he then collects the insurance money when it sinks. Surely this man is blameworthy. But what if the ship had not gone down? What if the emigrants got to their destination safely? Would that bit of good luck diminish the guilt of the shipowner? Clifford answers, “Not one jot.” Why? Because the question of concerning the propriety of the owner’s belief does not rest on whether the emigrants were harmed, but on whether he “had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.” Clifford holds that “It is never lawful to stifle a doubt.”

William James acknowledges that this evidentialist rule is generally sound, but he holds that there are exceptions, specifically in matters of the heart. James considers the following scenario. A young man wants to ask a young woman out for a date. He is unsure that she will accept, as he does not have evidence that she likes him. What is he to do? James proposes one option: “if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have some objective evidence, until you have done something apt . . . ten to one your liking never comes.” Such an option is unacceptable, both to the young man and to the young woman. “How many women’s hearts are vanquished by the mere sanguine insistence of some man that they must love him!” James proposes another option, one that calls for an ungrounded commitment; so the young man’s “faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification. . . [F]aith in the fact can help create the fact.”

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