The Enigma of Free-Will

If there is no free-will, then what are the implications of determinism and what does this say for the quality of our experiences?

If there is no free-will, then what are the implications of determinism and what does this say for the quality of our experiences?

I believe the issue of free-will comes down to what we mean by free-will because there is certainly between what the everyday person believes and what sophisticated thinkers believe. Contrary to what many philosophers and scientist believe, I think we do need to take into account what the general public believes in spite of the fact that they may be ill-informed. Anyhow this may opinion and I mean my opinion because in all honesty, I have no clue if free-will or determinism is true and I’m not afraid to admit that. Maybe its a combo of both, who knows.

I think the reason this will always remain an issue is because  this actually may be a metaphysical and ontological issue as opposed to a scientific one but I could be wrong. I think there are two reasons as to why people believe in free-will (or want it to be true for the sake of polemics):

1) because people feel subjectively free

2) if determinism is true how could you account for moral responsibility.

For the former, I think this results from the fact that we are not paying enough attention to the nature of our subjective experiences. If one pays attention to they will realize that all our thoughts (intentions and desires included) appears in our minds. If you think in the way that I do you are left wondering about the variables behind the mechanics of thinking. I think that it is in this way that scientist develops axioms in favor determinism.

As for the latter, I understand the concern for moral responsibility but creating a justice system based on the presupposed notion that free-will exist I think is a huge problem not because of my personal opinion but the fact that people are not willing to understand the different variables that are involved in people’s actions. Instead of outright calling a psychopath a monster perhaps we should take into account their upbringing and genetics and how this influenced brain development. Of course this lack of initial judgment becomes increasingly difficult is the victim is ourselves or someone close to us.

Although my response may lean more towards determinism I am not arguing that we are completely determined which is why I am leaving out particular experiments (Ben Libet experiment for example) or arguments in favor of determinism. Again, I believe that it depends on what we mean by free-will. If we are talking about free-will that my neighbor believes in then I think we can all agree that absolute freedom of the will is probably unlikely but if we take into account thinkers like Dennett or Owen Flanagan then absolute determinism appears to be sitting on some shaky foundations itself.

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The Problem with Modern Philosophy

Can't say it any better than Dennett.

Can’t say it any better than Dennett.

When I started to become more interested in science I was becoming more and more fascinated by how much of a close relationship science had with philosophy. I never thought such a combination was possible outside of Aristotle. Then after being obsessed with the works of Sam Harris I came to realize that there are many people who could be classified as a philosopher-scientist (Noam Chomsky, Patrica Churchland, Daniel Dennett, Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, Immanuel Kant and many more I can’t name). At first I was thrilled to realize I was able to understand scientific theories and how interesting many scientist actually were. I enjoyed learning about the philosophical implications some scientific theories had. This would eventually lead to an obsession with science. At this point in time I felt the need to know everything I could about everything.

Eventually my professors stopped classifying me as a philosopher and more of a scientist. This was flattering because I am certainly nowhere close to be a scientist but it wasn’t until I graduated from my undergraduate studies that I realize a huge problem with modern philosophy: It appeared to start losing its value. But why?

Nowadays it appears that modern science is the new philosophy and there are many attempts by some scientist (i.e. Stephen Hawking) to turn philosophical questions into scientific questions. In addition there are many public intellectuals denigrating philosophy. It now appears that philosophy (or philosophers) have to become more scientifically literate in order to keep its value and I believe that this is due to much confusion about what philosophy really is and its relationship with science.

The main reason why I am writing this is because I actually lost touch with philosophy for a while in my pursuit in trying to learn a bit more about science. Most importantly I lost touch with my inner-self and I feel that is what most people are not realizing about philosophy and the contemplative life.

The problem with philosophy is actually not a problem at all: Its not that philosophy is invaluable. Its that people don’t understand its value and believe that after the 19th century it became useless. Most importantly it is believe that philosophy is completely divorced from science and that the scientific method will eventually become the standard for how to obtain knowledge. The problem with philosophy is that people don’t see the immediate impact it has on their lives int he way science and technology (we can give thanks to political interest for this). This is understandable but whats not taken into account is that it is philosophy that essentially drives science, politics, economic and a plethora of other disciplines. If you for one second do not believe that Obama has read Quintus Cicero or Machiavelli or that Allen Greenspan has read Adam Smith and Ayn Rand or that Patrica Churchland has not read Kant, then you are sorely mistaken. The only public scientist I know that appear to find value in philosophy is Sean Carroll, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky.

Most scientific thinkers I hear about talk a lot about curiosity and that such curiosity is what drives them. If this is the case then philosophy and science are not so different. I think what irks scientist the most about philosophers is that we consistently question everything, even science, which in essence should be independent of opinion. ON some level, I can understand the frustration but what philosophers really want to know is how scientific knowledge was obtained, what first philosophical principles can be established and what contingencies are involved?

Philosophers are not so different than scientist. We value reason and evidence in the same way that scientist do.

I was always taught to look at the world from different perspectives. I just wish the relationship between philosophy and science would go back to where you couldn’t distinguish the two or at least no one cared to because arriving at the truth was the main concern. If philosophers can learn from scientist and scientist are willing to learn a bit of philosophy, well that would make for an interesting world wouldn’t it?

Science may explain how we got here. It could never tell me why my life is meaningful or why I should value my moment to moment experiences in the first place.

Reductive Materialism: Ethics

What exactly can science say about ethics/morality?

What exactly can science say about ethics/morality?

This is going to be tough to talk about; mainly because I don’t think reductive materialism is the proper method to go about moral philosophy or if I’m simply trying to conflate the two. I do have to admit that an empirical approach to ethics/morality serves a suitable purpose to moral discourse.

Now it is true that ethics is in the values business but does this mean that values are deprived of empirical inquiry? I do agree with Sam Harris that when we are talking about right and wrong, good and evil, we are concerned, on some level about the well-being of conscious creatures.

I also agree that consciousness has to be the starting point since to suffer, we have to know what its like to suffer and to know this requires that one is aware that one is suffering. Knowing which actions brings about well-being and suffering requires some sort of empirical inquiry, juxtaposed with logic and rational thought.

For thinkers like Harris, this could be realized through all of science, particularly neuroscience. At this point, such a science is in its infancy and it may take decades to come up with anything conclusive. If consciousness and therefore, experience (which includes a sense well-being and suffering) are to be realized at the level of the brain, then this goes back to my original point: we need to find out if brain states are equivalent to mental states?

In some sense such a approach would require reductionism. For Harris facts and values, at the level of the brain, are not discriminated. The same apparently uses the same facilities to answer questions of fact (is New York City a state?) and questions of value (should we burn our children alive?).

So what can we make of this? Well for starters I see some issues with Harris position and my own. Harris has admitted that neuroscience isn’t the only approach. The issue I see with reductionism in this regard is that brain scientist can tell us how oxytocin can translate to good moral behavior. Brain scientist can tell us what mechanisms are going on at the level of the brain, when we are thinking about compassion and empathy.

None of this even comes close to the actual experience of being compassionate to a village of people. It doesn’t even explain why Is should value a principle like compassion in the first place.

Secondly, we can talk about mirror neurons, we can talk about differences between conservative and liberal morality from the point of view of cognitive science (i.e. George Lackoff) and we can talk about which regions of the brain shows the most amount of blood activity (i.e. FMRI) when one is talking about justice.

The problem is, none of this comes close to telling us what justice is and quite frankly, I don’t think the question of justice is a scientific question. This does not mean that science has no influence on what we “ought” to value. I thin it is necessary for science to inform our moral reasoning. We wouldn’t have a stable foundation for environmental ethics, politics and justice without science.

As for morality in genera, I don’t think we are at the point where “science can determine human values” on it’s own and we’ll always need the aid of philosophy, even if philosophy never provides the answers that we seek.

Reductive Materalism: Subjectivity

Which approach is better to understanding the nature of our minds: philosophical idealism or materialism?

Which approach is better to understanding the nature of our minds: philosophical idealism or materialism?

Reductive Materialism: Mental events can be grouped into “types” and be correlated with physical events in the brain.

For many philosophers reductionism is a problem. It is also a fallacy, especially when people believe that physics can be reduced to biology and biology into chemistry and chemistry into physics and so on. In regards to this, philosophers may have a point but I also believe that there is much confusion about reductionism. Before I continue, I would like to point out that what I find odd about people who despise reductionism are the same people who use it when its convenient in an argument.

I believe the confusion comes from not understanding the purpose of reductionism and how it is vital tot he scientific method. In some cases, reductionism is perhaps of the only approach to understanding or deeming something falsifiable but this of course depends the science one is doing.  Let’s take into account this sentence: “you are your neurons”. For those who are concerned about reductionism (and its a great concern to have depending on the context) the statement is saying we are nothing more than brain cells. This way of thinking is what really provides the justification for some philosophers and postmodern thinkers to attack science (and perhaps with good reason).

I admire philosophers for questioning this and placing concern but I believe at times this is a false concern to have for two reasons:

1) I doubt very few (if any) scientist truly believes that we are “just” neurons. That is like Lawrence Krauss saying we are “just” star dust and molecules. That would be ridiculous.

2) To state that “we are our neurons” is no different than saying we are animals because in all actuality we are both but both are taken as pejoratives.

What is meant by saying “we are our neurons” is to understand that our neurons are vital components to understanding who we are not only as humans but as individuals. Without reductionism we would not be able to understand the relationship between our subjectivity (experience) and our brains.

In regards to neuroscience I believe this reductionistic approach is very important in understanding the enigma between mental states and brain states. For any scientist of the mind who is intrigued by the relationship between mind and matter in general, a reductionistic approach is very important because the implications are profound–If it turns out that there is indeed no relationship between mind and matter or that consciousness is completely independent of the brain this would not only change how physicality and subjectivity is perceived but science as a whole. Given that there is no conclusive evidence that the fabric of our experiences reside in the brain, the best we can do is postulate using good reason and evidence that brain states appear to be equivalent to mental states.

I think understanding the fundamental constituents of anything is important. I’m not asserting that reductionism is the only method of understanding but I think it is important to some aspect of knowing about ourselves, the world and the universe if we are at all concerned about establishing stable values off irrefutable facts.

Confronting Nihilism and the Abyss

can meaning to our live be established when we are face to face with the absurdity of existence?

can meaning to our lives be established when we are face to face with the absurdity of existence?

I don’t think there is any inherent purpose, meaning and value to life. I don’t think the universe exist for that reason. I think many people, especially religious people, would like to believe that the universe was created for some greater purpose they don’t want to go through the painstaking task of having to justify their existence for themselves, which is a very tedious task.

Now as depressing as this may sound, this does not mean that life is without meaning, purpose or value. For me, the task is creating it for ourselves. If you ever come face to face with nihilism (or the absurd as Albert Camus called it) I feel as though one has 3 choices:

1) Blow out your brains (suicide).

2) Turn to religion or any sort of value system (political parties, art, philosophy).

3) Stare down the dark abyss, say “fuck you” to the meaninglessness universe  and embrace the nothingness that surrounds you.

This nothingness, this lack of purpose I feel allows you to create life, value, purpose and meaning for yourself. The convoluted part is being comfortable with this. Nietzsche said something down the lines of “its not suffering that concerns us, its meaningless suffering, suffering for not reason at all that is terrifying”.

I think the one reason why people kill themselves is because they believe that their life lacks purpose (not saying this is the only reason). This goes to show that there may be some things in life that are worse than death itself. One should keep in mind that all because there may not be a god or ultimate telos to our existence, this does not mean life lacks meaning. It just mean that we are left to create it for ourselves and this may ultimately be the paradox of existence.

On coporations and people getting laid off

The idea that corporations are people is nothing short of absurd and that's an understatement.

The idea that corporations are people is nothing short of absurd and that’s an understatement.

It never occurred to me how people can get laid off work with by a company knowing full well that part of one’s well-being and livelihood is dependent upon how much money one has. I never understood that. Maybe that’s just part of the invagrancies of life but when I hear that its like someone telling me “I guess its ok for a family to live on the side of railroad tracks as long as the company is saving millions”.

Morally this doesn’t make any sense how the high stationed managed to convince “we the people” that the society we living in is ok. Yes, life is imperfect, yes the system is imperfect because humans are imperfect but still, some things in life are just obviously wrong. We can come up with any reason or justification  we want but if we can relate to our fellow humans and the basic necessities like food, water, shelter and clothing. We would understand how people w/o these thing feel. What experience they go through.

What’s even more perturbing when corporations feel as though they can dictate your life. They can schedule you how they want, pay you how they want and for less fortunate souls, treat you how they see fit. Sure there is an ethical aspect to running a business and corporation but what may go unnoticed is they create the ethical guidelines for the company and the country alike.  The injunctions for a corporation are simple:

“Obey the higher ranks without question and if you don’t we’ll find someone who will”.

They do this because of the belief that money is the deciding factor to our livelihood and that grand experiences can’t be had without it. I’m honest enough to admit that money is robust and it does play a role in many area of my life but I’ll still be damned if I ever allowed it to decide how valuable my life will be and the beauty of the experiences I have. I will continue to resist anything that conventional and there wil come a time where I will no longer have to be worried about working for corporations that value profit over people, either in this lifetime or in death. If such a thing can’t be achieved at least I know I died trying to make the world, my son and life a better place.

On the Uselessness of Voting

Is it true that "if you don't vote, you don't have the right to complain"? I'm starting to doubt that.

Is it true that “if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain”? I’m starting to doubt that.

Its perturbing to hear people telling me that if I don’t vote I can’t complain. Voting or not, the policies that do come to fruition are going to affect me. I always thought that people voted for a candidate or policy because that person or proposition fit their interest. If that’s the case, great, go ahead and vote away and be proud.

On the other hand, if you don’t see the candidate or proposition that fits your interest then why would you vote in the first place? My choice not to vote isn’t fueled by my indignation to the system. Its not because my anarchist views lead me to not believe that votes don’t matter (I think on the state and federal level votes don’t matter but local/city votes I do believe are important).

My reason is that the district I live in only gives me two choices and the policies are mirrored in accordance with the two popular parties. If there were more representation for third parties I wouldn’t feel like I’m picking between the lesser of two evils. This doesn’t mean I’d automatically choose to vote for the third party. I just feel that with more options (because there will be more values on the table) I’d make more of an informed decision with my vote. I voted once In ’08 because I felt that policies and candidate at the time met my interest. So I don’t see my reasons not to vote as a bad thing. I think I’m just as informed as those who do vote.

Personally I think the ol motto of “if you don’t vote you can’t complain” is backwards logic. If you vote for something you are pretty much saying this is what you want. So how does that give you a license to complain? One of my professors told me that its a way to deligitmize dissidents and I’m starting to think he was correct.