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Progressive Humanism is not about Free Will
Posted: 20 May 2006 06:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 61 ]
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[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]That’s not the argument I’m making.  I’m not saying we skeptics love the truth.  I’m saying we love people—real, specific people (not abstractions).  And if you love someone, and want to take care of her or him, then you have to understand what that person really is; what vulnerabilities that person really has; what technologies can be developed in the real world to benefit that person.  These are all simple matters of fact.  We are driven to want to know the real facts because we wish to take care of real people.

It is in this sense that the root of all science is love.  As Bertrand Russell put it, “The good life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

Hello Bob,

Yes, this does sound like a Platonic argument—that all true love is love of the Good, which is love of the true benefit for each person, even if that person him or herself is not aware of what would actually benefit them. (And even if we ourselves don’t know!)

I agree with this. But it would be nice to flesh out a little more how a scientifically inclined skeptic has a better purchase on this than a credulous believer.

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]What better example of this could I give than Pres. George W. Bush: a person who is incredibly careless about facts precisely because he has no ability to care about other people.

Well, I suspect that Bush cares about his family and friends. He cares about his wealthy patrons. He is, however, ignorant about so many things, and totally incurious, so in fact is doing things which are of long-term harm to them, the country and the entire world.

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Posted: 20 May 2006 07:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 62 ]
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Doug:

I don’t think we’re on the same page yet.

I’m saying that, to the extent we have a genuine compassion for others, we have a MOTIVATION to try to gain the best understanding as to how we can help them.  We may screw up—we all screw up about something, God knows.  But at least we have a reason to TRY.  (I’m certainly not arguing that the skeptic should somehow be presumed to have acquired more actual understanding of any particular topic.  Religious or quasi-religious assumptions underlie the work of such great scientists as Newton and Kepler.)

It is for this reason (as I’m arguing) that the scientific skeptic should not be accused of being uncaring.  It is precisely because we ARE caring that we are trying to find out what’s really going on.

All the best,

BOB GULACK

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Posted: 20 May 2006 08:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 63 ]
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[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]I don’t think we’re on the same page yet.

I’m saying that, to the extent we have a genuine compassion for others, we have a MOTIVATION to try to gain the best understanding as to how we can help them.  We may screw up—we all screw up about something, God knows.  But at least we have a reason to TRY.  (I’m certainly not arguing that the skeptic should somehow be presumed to have acquired more actual understanding of any particular topic.  Religious or quasi-religious assumptions underlie the work of such great scientists as Newton and Kepler.)

Right ... but I don’t see how that’s fundamentally different from the way I put it. I wasn’t claiming anything about perfection either.

Of course, a non-skeptic will say precisely the same thing you just said about his or her own beliefs ...

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Posted: 20 May 2006 05:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 64 ]
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Life is filled with crucial choices, some of which sneak up on you with very little warning.  In that sense, we are all soldiers on a battlefield, and must keep our senses sharp: We must train ourselves to perform factual analysis calmly and objectively at all times.  To the extent we are non-skeptics, and allow ourselves to believe whatever suits our petty personal preferences, we train ourselves in the bad habit of rejecting harsh truths—and put whatever we care about at great risk.  For this reason, those who truly care are the truest skeptics.

BOB GULACK

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Posted: 21 May 2006 05:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 65 ]
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[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]Life is filled with crucial choices, some of which sneak up on you with very little warning.  In that sense, we are all soldiers on a battlefield, and must keep our senses sharp: We must train ourselves to perform factual analysis calmly and objectively at all times.  To the extent we are non-skeptics, and allow ourselves to believe whatever suits our petty personal preferences, we train ourselves in the bad habit of rejecting harsh truths—and put whatever we care about at great risk.  For this reason, those who truly care are the truest skeptics.

Certainly, can’t disagree with that!

:wink:

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Posted: 26 May 2006 05:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 66 ]
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Restating Where We Are

By way of restating what we’ve been discussing, in order to invite new people to come in and join the discussion, let me say that I have been arguing that the following things are true:

1) There is no reason to believe in a supernatural being or beings, with or without foreknowledge of the future.
(2) There is no reason to believe in immortality.
(3) People have internal mental processes, carried on in their brains, which obey the laws of physics and are almost certainly entirely causal in their operation.
(4) Nevertheless, the (caused) will of individual humans is often a major cause of future events, so fatalism is not true.
(5) The separation of time into past, present, and future is an illusion. There is only a single, fixed, four-dimensional space-time continuum. Every moment of time is simultaneously in the past, present, and future—as seen from the points of view of multiple observers, all of whom are equally correct.

I would argue that all five of these factual propositions represent the simplest possible hypothesis that covers all currently available evidence, and that these five should therefore be adopted as our current working hypotheses.

In addition, in terms of ethical analysis, I would argue that, once we have accepted the above, we realize that those people who have been caused to desire evil have already suffered incredible bad luck, and that it adds nothing to justice to impose purely retributive punishment upon such unlucky people.  (Such a choice would be as silly and as wrong as choosing to spank anyone who leaves Las Vegas having lost at gambling.)  If punishment for past crime is ever justified, I would argue, it would be in order to deter future offenses, not just for the sake of revenge.

With that as a quick summary of where we’ve been, is everybody on board with these ideas?  Or are there points of disagreement, or areas that require further clarification?

All the best to everyone,

ROBERT GULACK

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Posted: 26 May 2007 06:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 67 ]
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Everyone:

It has now been exactly a year since I posted the message above, urging everyone to come in with questions and comments.  While over five thousand people have visited this file, nobody has posted anything.

Now, I appreciate the interest people have shown—and I understand, of course, that the lack of questions or comments is merely the mechanical result of the prior causes that were operating in your various brains and immediate environments.  So I’m just posting this message in an attempt to cause some questions or comments to be generated out there.

All the best,
Bob Gulack

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Posted: 26 May 2007 07:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 68 ]
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Bob,

Well, I think some of the lack of response may be due to topic fatigue, since this thread overlaps with the interminable free will discussions and several on retributive justice. But I don’t think you and I have had the opportunity to go over these topics, so at the risk of rehashing stale arguments, let’s see what we can agree on.

1) There is no reason to believe in a supernatural being or beings, with or without foreknowledge of the future.

Agreed. Oh, I’m technically agnostic about this, but I take “there is no reason” to mean roughly “there is no reason according to currently available evidence,” and I am in agreement completely with that.

(2) There is no reason to believe in immortality.

Agreed as above.

(3) People have internal mental processes, carried on in their brains, which obey the laws of physics and are almost certainly entirely causal in their operation.

Agreed

(4) Nevertheless, the (caused) will of individual humans is often a major cause of future events, so fatalism is not true.

Agreed. I have argured elsewhere that the nature of the causation of human deliberation and decision-making is so complex and impenetrable to our own analysis, and the intuitve sense that we actively make decisions freely so heuristically and practically useful, that I am willing to behave as if true free will were real, regardless of the unjustifiable supernaturalist origins of the concept and the fact that, underlying all our mental processes are, of course, the same laws of physics that control the behavior of what we think of as unconscious, inanimate objects.

(5) The separation of time into past, present, and future is an illusion. There is only a single, fixed, four-dimensional space-time continuum. Every moment of time is simultaneously in the past, present, and future—as seen from the points of view of multiple observers, all of whom are equally correct.

Hmm. I’m not sure I understand this one well enough to agree or disagree. I understand time can be viewed mathematically as just another dimension of space/time and that this leads to useful concepts and understanding. But the sense of past/present/future has a sort of truth in terms of how human lives proceed, so I’m not willing to dispense with it, if that is what you’re suggesting. Just as Newtonian physics is adequate for most purposes, the linear concept of time is adequate, even arguably superior, for most purposes so I’m not sure what stating that it is illusory really gets us.

in terms of ethical analysis, I would argue that, once we have accepted the above, we realize that those people who have been caused to desire evil have already suffered incredible bad luck, and that it adds nothing to justice to impose purely retributive punishment upon such unlucky people.  (Such a choice would be as silly and as wrong as choosing to spank anyone who leaves Las Vegas having lost at gambling.) If punishment for past crime is ever justified, I would argue, it would be in order to deter future offenses, not just for the sake of revenge.

Well, I would argue retributive justice is pointless because it accomplishes nothing. If it could be shown to work, in terms of detering crime, for example, I would support it. The fact that people’s choices are caused doesn’t, as I briefly alluded to above, seem sufficient to act as if they didn’t actually make choices. I don’t think we can know for certain that people cannot in any meaningful way inlfuence their own behavior. The causes of crime are complex both in a “macroscopic” sense (psychology, social circumstances, random chance, etc) and in a “microscopic” sense (the quantum mechanical rules that ultimately drive the behavior of brain, whcih is then mind). But those who commit crimes sometimes feel as if they made a choice to do so, and I’m not sure this is untrue in a sufficently meaningful way to say that, in fact, they did not so choose. How you believe that and avoid what you call “fatalism” above I don’t see. So ultimately, the response to crime should be whatever is most likely to prevent further crime. I happen to believe it involves mostly dealing with the macroscopic causes and predisposing circumstances, as well as restraining physically those who the evidence shows are likley to commit more crimes while at the same time making an effort to help them not to do so without physical restraint. Punishment for the sake of balancing some vague moral scales is, of course, ridiculous and non-productive, but I’m not necessarily convinced this is because of the undelrying lack of true free will so much as the lack of efficacy of the strategy, as has been repeatedly demonstrated.

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Posted: 15 June 2007 12:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 69 ]
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First, let me express my gratitude to Dr. McKenzie for waking up this thread again.

There appear to be two issues between me and Dr. McKenzie: the importance of stressing the true nature of time, and the proper manner in which to evaluate purely retributive punishment.  Let me see if I can clarify these two points briefly.

1. TIME.  (See my lecture, “How Time Goes By” at ethicalfocus.org.)  Free will advocates believe that the present moment is a unique location in which we choose from a number of potential futures.  Einstein proved more than a century ago that there is no unique present moment, and only one future in front of each observer (“Each man has but one destiny,” as Vito Corleone advised us).  Thus, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905) was the end of any traditional concept of free will.  That is why it is important to understand the true nature of time, because it clears up the true nature of human beings.

2. RETRIBUTIVISM.  By “purely retributive punishment” I mean just that—punishment that is imposed SOLELY because it is felt to be deserved on the basis of revenge for past deeds.  If the punishment is being imposed to accomplish ANYTHING other than revenge—for example, if one motive is to deter other potential criminals—then I would not call it a “purely retributive punishment.”  It could be a deterrent punishment, for example.

Given that definition, it is clear that the advocates of “purely retributive punishment” (and there are billions of them) are consciously advocating imposing suffering without any expectation of “accomplishing anything.”  They know they are accomplishing nothing except revenge, and they wish to accomplish nothing except revenge.  To point out to such people, as Dr. McKenzie does, that they are accomplishing nothing is to tell such people nothing new.

What we need to explain to the advocates of purely retributive punishment is that their reliance on free will is contrary to Einstein (and, in general, Occam’s razor) and that, EVEN IF THEY WERE RIGHT ABOUT FREE WILL, making revenge a moral goal is directly contrary to such modes of ethical analysis as utilitarianism, the Golden Rule, and Rawlsian analysis.

In other words, purely retributive punishment is BOTH scientifically crazy and morally wrong.

To clear up one last point about “fatalism”: Choices exist, just as volcanic eruptions exist.  Both are the product of complex prior causes.  Both are part of the one four-dimensional universe.  The reason that fatalism is false is that fatalism asserts that human desires and choices have nothing to do with what happens.  The truth is that human desires and choices are both the effects of prior causes AND very powerful factors in causing subsequent events.

Let us take, for example, a scenario in which lava pours out of an exploding volcano, setting trees on fire, and the burning branches destroy birds’ nests.  What would one say to someone who maintained that burning trees were not relevant to what happened to the nests, since the burning trees were just the mechanical result of the boiling lava?  One would patiently respond that the burning trees were BOTH effects and causes.  So are human choices.

All the best,
BOB GULACK

[ Edited: 15 June 2007 12:42 PM by Robert Gulack ]
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Posted: 15 June 2007 05:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 70 ]
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Mr. Gulack,

It has now been exactly a year since I posted the message above, urging everyone to come in with questions and comments.  While over five thousand people have visited this file, nobody has posted anything.

I wasn’t here in that intervening space of time (which was—apparently—at no unique location anyway) so I don’t deserve retribution. 

I’ll briefly preface my comments.

I was, for a long time, a hard determinist, and so I thought that free will must be an illusion of some sort or an epiphenomenon or something like that. 

The idea of a free “will” has always seemed to me to be a troubling concept.  Is the “will” supposed to be an independent aspect of our selves, like an organ, a decision-making faculty of some sort?  It seems to me—simply based upon my own phenomenological perspective—that I don’t have a separate part of me called a “will”.  So I’m with you on the denial of free “will”.

Nonetheless, it also seems clear that I am free, and, that others are free as well.  So, I believe in freedom but not in a free will (as a separate faculty).  As a whole, living organism I am free—with certain definite restrictions (like not being able to levitate, etc.)—to do what I want.  So I think we have a fundamental disagreement. 

their reliance on free will is contrary to Einstein (and, in general, Occam’s razor)

Maybe you’re right about Einstein (but again, I believe in free agency, not a free “will”), but I don’t think that freedom is contrary to Darwin.  In fact I think that agential or organismic freedom forms a basis for evolution through natural selection. (Occams razor is great when all the facts are in, but it can stifle new discoveries when we’re not sure that they are.)

In short, I see a fundamental conflict within science between Darwinian naturalism and Einsteinian or Newtonian naturalism.  They seem to produce conflicting worldviews.

I’ll try to explain what I mean by addressing your summarized argument:

1) There is no reason to believe in a supernatural being or beings, with or without foreknowledge of the future.
(2) There is no reason to believe in immortality.
(3) People have internal mental processes, carried on in their brains, which obey the laws of physics and are almost certainly entirely causal in their operation.
(4) Nevertheless, the (caused) will of individual humans is often a major cause of future events, so fatalism is not true.
(5) The separation of time into past, present, and future is an illusion. There is only a single, fixed, four-dimensional space-time continuum. Every moment of time is simultaneously in the past, present, and future—as seen from the points of view of multiple observers, all of whom are equally correct. 

I agree with (1).  I consider myself a 7 on Dawkins’s scale.  He only considers himself a 6.8. 

I agree with (2) for similar reasons. 

(3) is where we part ways.  I do not believe in a determinate causal chain when it comes to living organisms. 

Let me address this point by addressing part of mckenzievmd’s response to your argument.

mckenzievmd said:
I have argured elsewhere that the nature of the causation of human deliberation and decision-making is so complex and impenetrable to our own analysis, and the intuitve sense that we actively make decisions freely so heuristically and practically useful, that I am willing to behave as if true free will were real, regardless of the unjustifiable supernaturalist origins of the concept and the fact that, underlying all our mental processes are, of course, the same laws of physics that control the behavior of what we think of as unconscious, inanimate objects.

I would disagree with two points here.  First I disagree that freedom has “supernaturalist origins” (although, free “will” may be a different story).  So that’s a minor point.  My main problem is with the statement that “underlying all our mental processes are…the same laws of physics that control the behavior of what we think of as unconscious, inanimate objects.”

My point is exactly that there is a fundamental difference between animate agents who do and undergo things and the realm of inanimate stuff in which things just happen and there are no actors.  (In fact, I think that this point defangs the supernaturalist’s argument that there must have been a first mover.)  The idea of “freedom” comes out of the fact that we are living creatures that can do and undergo things.  We are not just passively acted on by external forces (although we sometimes are).

The distinction that I am drawing between animate and inanimate things has to do with energy.  Increasing entropy is the law with regard to inanimate nature.  But disentropy or, alternately, “negative entropy” is the law with regard to animate nature.  This simply means that all living things utilize sources of energy like food and sunlight to temporarily resist increasing entropy.  So, life should not be seen as a violation of the second law of thermodynamics; it simply involves a local decrease.  Given that life on earth (and life on other habitable planets) is so small—so, so, so, so, etc. small—it’s affects on the overall thermodynamic picture of the so big—so, so, so, so, etc. big—universe is nil, completely negligible.
 
A citing is in order: perhaps the locus classicus of the “disentropic view of life” comes from Erwin Schrödinger’s “What is Life”, 1944 (http://bill.srnr.arizona.edu/classes/182/Lecture 2007-01/What is Life/What is Life.pdf). 

There’s much more to say, but that should give us enough to go on for now.

Best,
PN

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Posted: 15 June 2007 06:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 71 ]
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Dear Pragmatic Naturalist:

Why don’t we go through your communication and circle all of your errors in the order in which you made them.

1.  You refer to “phenomenology,” which is the fallacious practice of assuming a distinction between the inner world of experience and the outer world of physical objects, and assuming that that the first class of experiential data is an incontrovertible source of knowledge.  The fact is that the theory that there is a physical world and a mental world is quite a complex theory, which can only be argued for if one assumes the utility of Occam’s razor.  Dividing the world into the physical and mental is the simplest theory that covers the evidence we have, but that is only relevant if one has adopted the Razor.  Once one sees that one starts with sheer undifferentiated evidence, and, using the Razor, develops the theory of the mental and the physical, one is left with two very important consequences: (1) one realizes that the mental is not superior and self-evident, as opposed to the physical, which is often regarded as secondary and less certain; and (2) one realizes that Occam’s razor is the ONLY tool for making factual analyses.

2. You refer to “freedom” without defining it, so no one can know what you’re talking about.  Still, if your “freedom” means something that is neither caused nor random, you are positing the existence of a third kind of relationship between events in space-time, so Occam’s razor places the burden on you to define what you’re talking about and give us reasons to believe you.  Please don’t come back by saying that you phenomenologically directly experience your own freedom in a manner that is self-evident and incontrovertible: that would be an example of the phenomenological fallacy covered under (1), above.

3. Obviously, there are various meanings to the word “freedom” that both exist and form part of Darwinian evolutionary theory, but there is nothing about such materialist interpretations of freedom that contradicts Einstein.  For that reason, there is no conflict between Einstein and Darwin.

4. It is almost certainly because you have fallen prey to the phenomenological fallacy, described under (1), above, that you can be so cavalier about saying that “Occams razor is great when all the facts are in, but it can stifle new discoveries when we’re not sure that they are.”  “All the facts,” as you put it, are never “in” for anyone except the Deity.  For this reason, if Occam’s razor has to wait, as you say, until “all the facts are in,” then the Razor is useless.  Or perhaps you mean that you have some undisclosed criterion by which you are sure when all the relevant facts have been gathered.  If you do, in, fact, have such an independent criterion, what is it?  Once you realize that the Razor is all we have with which to do factual analysis, you will not be so quick to toss it in the garbage.

5. You try to draw a distinction between living things and non-living things by noting that living things are responsible for localized and temporary decreases in entropy (as always, paid for by even more massive and permanent increases in entropy elsewhere).  But many non-living processes also can create localized and temporary decreases in entropy.  There is thus no validity in drawing this distinction as you attempt to draw it.  Or are growing crystals “free” in the sense you claim people are “free”?  Is the process of evaporation and rainfall that moves water up into mountain lakes more “free” than the eventual rush of the water down the mountain passes?

All the best,
Bob Gulack

[ Edited: 17 June 2007 12:44 AM by Robert Gulack ]
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Posted: 15 June 2007 06:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 72 ]
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With regard to the phenomenological fallacy, we should also note that it is not possible that one directly experiences the distinction between the physical and the mental.  If we define the mental as what we experience directly, then, by definition, all we can experience directly is the mental.  Since we do not, therefore, directly experience the physical, we cannot directly experience the distinction between the two.  (To sense the Canadian/U.S. border, it is not enough to sense the U.S.  One must also be aware, somehow, of Canada.)  If, then, we do not directly experience this distinction, we cannot be incontrovertibly aware of it in the manner necessary to satisfy the phenomenologist approach.  For this reason, we should acknowledge that the distinction we draw between the physical and the mental is merely one more factual theory constructed using Occam’s razor.
BOB GULACK

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Posted: 15 June 2007 09:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 73 ]
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My point is exactly that there is a fundamental difference between animate agents who do and undergo things and the realm of inanimate stuff in which things just happen and there are no actors.  (In fact, I think that this point defangs the supernaturalist’s argument that there must have been a first mover.) The idea of “freedom” comes out of the fact that we are living creatures that can do and undergo things.  We are not just passively acted on by external forces (although we sometimes are).

The distinction that I am drawing between animate and inanimate things has to do with energy.  Increasing entropy is the law with regard to inanimate nature.  But disentropy or, alternately, “negative entropy” is the law with regard to animate nature.  This simply means that all living things utilize sources of energy like food and sunlight to temporarily resist increasing entropy.  So, life should not be seen as a violation of the second law of thermodynamics; it simply involves a local decrease.  Given that life on earth (and life on other habitable planets) is so small—so, so, so, so, etc. small—it’s affects on the overall thermodynamic picture of the so big—so, so, so, so, etc. big—universe is nil, completely negligible.

Pragmatic Naturalist,

Well, I’m not sure I see a conflict between our positions. We both acknowledge that all things obey the same laws of physics, so living and non-living things are both subect to the laws of thermodynamics. One distinction between them is that living things often temporarily increase complexity in the way you describe. Another is that living thigs are often capable of more complex and deliberate actions, they are agents as you say. So there is no disagreement that I can see so far.

Now, I would say freedom (and I mean the same thing by free will, despite the historically religious origins of the term) is predicated more on consciousness than negative entropy per se. Trees have negative entropy, but I’m not convinced they deliberate or choose actions in the way people do. And I think there’s a continuum between trees and people in this regard, with different levels of deliberation and so different levels of free will/freedom.

Bob,

Well, I still don’t think Einstein’s revelatons about the nature of time make any real difference to the practical reality of how humans decide things. I think quantum uncertainty and the non-linear nature of time, the dependance of mass on velocity, and lots of other features of physical laws are misapplied to the ordinary scale of human life to mke philosophical conclusions that are not justifiable. The fact that the present doesn’t really exist and that the self is an illusion of brain function don’t realy change our perceptions of how our minds operate, and frankly I think our perceptions have developed through our evolution because they are accurate and effective at the scales at which we operate, so I think the drawing of grand philosophical/moral conclusions from contemporary understanding of deeper physical laws is a mistake.

[ Edited: 18 June 2007 10:37 AM by mckenzievmd ]
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Posted: 15 June 2007 10:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 74 ]
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Mr. Gulack,

Why don’t we go through your communication and circle all of your errors in the order in which you made them.

Jeez, you’re provocative.  Just kidding, I don’t mind a bit.

You refer to “phenomenology,” which is the fallacious practice of assuming a distinction between the inner world of experience and the outer world of physical objects, and assuming that that the first class of experiential data is an incontrovertible source of knowledge.

I didn’t mean anything philosophically pretentious by the word “phenomenology” (e.g. as it is invoked by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, or Sartre), just the mundane usage of referring to “what it is like” to be an experiencing being—i.e., the first person point of view.  I’m not saying that that point of view is “an incontrovertible source of knowledge.”  I agree that using that as an epistemological starting-point is, as you say, a “fallacious practice” (a la Descartes).  But do you deny my minimal point, that there is, at least, a feeling of freedom—of acting free of constraint?  I didn’t feel forced or compelled by a prior cause to make this post, for example.  (Of course, saying this (i.e. making my minimal point) does not rule out that you may be right, that it may be true that everything I do is, in fact, just the result of a prior cause.  I don’t expect that easy of a victory.)  Anyway, I don’t need the word “phenomenology”.  I just don’t think we’d be having this conversation if it didn’t even seem like we had “freedom”. 

The fact is that the theory that there is a physical world and a mental world is quite a complex theory, which can only be argued for if one assumes the utility of Occam’s razor.  Dividing the world into the physical and mental is the simplest theory that covers the evidence we have, but that is only relevant if one has adopted the Razor.  Once one sees that one starts with sheer undifferentiated evidence, and, using the Razor, develops the theory of the mental and the physical, one is left with two very important consequences: (1) one realizes that the mental is not superior and self-evident, as opposed to the physical, which is often regarded as secondary and less certain; and (2) one realizes that Occam’s razor is the ONLY tool for making factual analyses.

I don’t really think that Occam’s razor is to the point here.  But, I would, at any rate, dispute your claim that “Dividing the world into the physical and mental is the simplest theory that covers the evidence.”  I think that the simplest theory posits just one substance—i.e. a monism.  (I’m not sure if that’s what you meant, but….) I am certainly no substance dualist.  I do not believe in two distinct ontological realms, one material and one immaterial.  I believe only in natural phenomenon.  (I am, by name, a naturalist.)  Now, my point does countenance two different sorts of relations that natural stuff can enter into: inanimate stuff can enter into causal relations and animate, living stuff can enter into agential relations.  The former would appropriately be classed as “determined” relations, whereas the latter would not.  That is basically the crux of my position.

Also, I don’t understand why you say that “Occam’s razor is the ONLY tool for making factual analyses.”  That seems rather strong to me.  What about observation and experimentation, for example? 

You refer to “freedom” without defining it, so no one can know what you’re talking about.  Still, if your “freedom” means something that is neither caused nor random, you are positing the existence of a third kind of relationship between events in space-time

By “freedom” I don’t really mean anything other than acting rather than being acted on.  If causal determinism is true then we are not really actors, we don’t DO anything, we are simply acted upon.  Our movements and thoughts are just effects of prior causes and they had to happen—we could not have done otherwise, as the saying goes.  So you are right to think that by “freedom” I mean “something that is neither caused nor random.”  I do think that both of those options would rule out freedom.  If our “actions” were just effects of prior causes in a causal chain then we would not be free—they would be out of our control.  And, if our “actions” were just random (indeterminate) they would not be free either.  What I am calling actions—and what I see as falling under the purview of “freedom”—are what living organisms do and undergo in the course of pursuing the disentropic enterprise. 

It is almost certainly because you have fallen prey to the phenomenological fallacy, described under (1), above, that you can be so cavalier about saying that “Occams razor is great when all the facts are in, but it can stifle new discoveries when we’re not sure that they are.” “All the facts,” as you put it, are never “in” for anyone except the Deity.  For this reason, if Occam’s razor has to wait, as you say, until “all the facts are in,” then the Razor is useless.

You’re right that that comment was rather “cavalier”, but I hope I have put the “phenomenological fallacy” thing to rest by what I said above.  Anyway, you are also right that all of the facts will never be “in”.  What I meant was just that scientists can often single-out certain objects for study, like the solar system or the brain, for example.  And when we do that we can at least limit what is relevant to our study.  For example, occam’s razor should inform us that when studying the brain it is “simpler” to deal with what we can see and observe rather than positing some unseeable, immaterial cause. 

You try to draw a distinction between living things and non-living things by noting that living things are responsible for localized and temporary decreases in entropy (as always, paid for by even more massive and permanent increases in entropy elsewhere).  But many non-living processes also can create localized and temporary decreases in entropy.  There is thus no validity in drawing this distinction as you attempt to draw it.  Or are growing crystals “free” in the sense you claim people are “free”?  Is the process of evaporation and rainfall that moves water up into mountain lakes more “free” than the eventual rush of the water down the mountain passes?

Only living things can be free because only living things can do and undergo things.  A crystal cannot do anything, nor can it undergo anything, like pain or hunger.  And, saying that crystals “grow” is really a metaphorical use of the world “grow”; technically speaking, only living things can “grow”.  Growth is a special sort of disentropic process that can only occur under very specific circumstances.  Now, I wouldn’t want to say that every living thing is “free”.  I would probably want to restrict that term to higher animals—organisms that at least know they are alive.  That would rule out sponges, slime molds, amoebae, clams, and probably most living organisms.  I don’t know where to draw the line—it may not even be possible to find a hard-and-fast line, it may just be a matter of classificatory preference.  But, “freedom” as I am employing that term could not come about were it not for living organisms disentropically doing and undergoing things.  That sort of activity is what set the stage for more complex life-forms to evolve. 

TTFN

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Posted: 16 June 2007 12:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 75 ]
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I’d like to thank both Dr. McKenzie & our Pragmatic Naturalist for a very high level discussion.  Allow me to focus on one point, which I believe is the most critical one.  Pragmatic Naturalist cites observation and experiment as an alternative to Occam’s razor.  What we need to realize here is that, for any particular experimental result, or any particular observation, there are an infinite number of theories that “explain” that result or observation (in the sense of being consistent with it).  If I note that heavy and light objects accelerate at the same rate, it could be because invisible demons like playing with heavy objects, for example.

So the basic question is, what is it that science does to narrow down the list from infinity to the few theories that are genuinely worth considering?  And the answer is, you go with the simplest theory that covers all currently available evidence.  That becomes your working hypothesis until more data becomes available.  That is the principle known as Occam’s razor.  It is not an alternative to observation and experiment.  It explains what you DO with observations and experiments.  It is the sole and only method for analyzing factual claims, and, for that reason, it is not only relevant to the issue of human freedom, but the sole means we have of speaking intelligibly about the issue.

All the best,
Bob Gulack

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