Philosophy for Real Life: Monday Discussion Group

The reading for this time continues the discussion on free will: "Workout in the Prefrontal Gym," here: http://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=898.

This group typically reads a short article, often a blog post by Bill Meacham, ahead of time and discusses it at the meeting. We approach philosophy as free human beings engaged in the world. The discussion format is free-form, and it is always quite lively. Links to the articles will be posted in advance of each meeting.

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  • gary

    I just uploaded a file, MDG_FREE_WILL_03_11_13.pdf, to the APDG file sharing area. It's a response to the blog post on free will and quantum theory, which we'll be discussing next Monday.

    1 · March 5, 2013

    • Guy J

      You made a couple of points I also wanted to make there, Gary. Thanks for sharing.

      March 7, 2013

    • Bill M.

      Thanks, Gary. I expect we will have an interesting discussion about all this.

      March 7, 2013

  • James I D.

    I have lost track of the Monday night schedule. Is there a meeting tonight or is not until next Monday? Thanks

    March 4, 2013

  • James I D.

    Anine: "Causal" means connected and "Uncertainty" means not deterministic. "Causal uncertainty" simply means that there is a one-to-many connection between past and future. Whether multiple or single "causal" factors are involved is irrelevant. An isolated system specified to what ever present state you would like will evolve into a multiplicity of future states; and if there are multiple causal factors, there is still a one-to-many connection. The idea that "causal" could somehow imply "disconnected" or that "actions have no consequences" would clearly be, by definition, a contradiction of terms. Causal events are always significant even if we are not always able to make a unique connection between a past event and a future event. P.S. I liked the Chomsky reference, but he clearly needs some more physics lessons. Condensed matter physics deals with highly complex systems involving trillions by trillions of particles.

    February 26, 2013

    • a.m.

      Neuroscience and psychology have shed light on seemingly irrational human behavior. Irrational here just means what can't be explained or reasoned. I regret I don't know how qu

      March 2, 2013

    • a.m.

      I'm amending my thought to say that your and Bill's propositions connecting the mind with quantum mechanics is new to me.

      March 2, 2013

  • Bill M.

    For those interested in quantum mechanics, causal uncertainty and their applicability to understanding how the brain works, come next time. The reading is "Beyond the Causal Veil," at http://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=424.

    February 28, 2013

  • a.m.

    Here's something really lovely, profound, and non-political:
    https://vimeo.com/45232468

    February 28, 2013

  • a.m.

    Thanks, Gary. I'll find that book. Chomsky is candid. I find his reasoning to be a source of comfort in this hectic world. The truth matters.

    February 26, 2013

    • Gene R.

      That the right wing New Criterion bashes Chomsky should not come as a surprise. One does not have to be even a right-winger. Any number of establishment’s obedient servants in the academia would be happy to do the job. It pays.
      Surely he said lots of thing that give people (me included) cringing moments. But he also said some interesting things that others were afraid to say. In 1992 his critique of the media, Manufacturing Consent, sounded perhaps a bit too gloomy and alarmist. Today it’s an accurate, perhaps even mild, description of reality. Willfully ignorant, subservient to power “lame-stream” media actually surpassed his expectations.

      February 28, 2013

    • a.m.

      The New Criterion reads like an erudite Fox News.

      February 28, 2013

  • a.m.

    one more post: http://www.nytimes.com/video/2013/02/14/science/100000002039719/the-fda-approves-a-bionic-eye.html
    Science is amazing. To think that it's not taught to the majority of students in Texas is a real crime.

    1 · February 28, 2013

  • gary

    Annine, thanks for the link to the interview by Chomsky. It was a great article. Much of what he said early on - about the distinction between science that merely makes statistical predictive models, and science that does that and also *explains* - is discussed by the quantum physicist David Deutsch in a book I'm reading, entitled "The Fabric of Reality". I think you might find this book readable and enlightening. Some of the things Chomsky said towards the end of the interview seemed only partly thought out, and not quite ready for prime time. But Chomsky is famous for shooting from the lip.

    February 26, 2013

  • a.m.

    Jim: I can understand that there are multiple causal factors that bring about an event. But it seems to me that the uncertainty is not knowing what those factors are, thus a mystery to be solved. Is that what you mean by "causal uncertainty?" Can we say that everything has some determined cause, even if we can't identify precisely the cause? Like in the days of yore when people believed witches caused misfortune, like a child's illness for example. We know that there were other material factors. It seems to me that the problem with asserting "causal uncertainty" is that it gives license to assert that things are disconnected, that actions have no consequences, and that "free will," as Bill Meacham described it last night, renders any causal event to be ultimately insignificant. (Like stuffing a ton of lead into a baby. :-s)

    February 26, 2013

    • Guy J

      Determinism becomes a red herring or at least a moot point in this view of causal uncertainty. A predictable causal link (ie. determinism) remains in place as the photon is split or the species evolve, and all the rules which determine the process's possible outcomes are well understood and reliably demonstrated. But none of that makes predicting the next photon's specific and singular detected location reliable. Instead we can only reliably say it will be detected exactly here, here, here, here... some % of the time for each location. In other words, determinism reigns, however it is a determinism with limits because the number of determined possible outcomes for any given set of causes, even if the causes could be known complete (which they can't) are greater than 1.

      February 26, 2013

    • Guy J

      What all this means to us is that the future really is fundamentally uncertain, but cause and effect do indeed still hold sway. It's not pure chaos, and "laws" are being followed, but the outcomes we will experience are only predictable within a set of possibilities, so what "is" or "becoming" must necessarily be a revelation in time.

      February 26, 2013

    • Guy J

      Cool article, Annine! Thanks for sharing! I tend to agree very much with Mr Chomsky. He used a key phrase there in the middle which I think is crucial: "IS THERE SOME POINT to understanding what's going on outside the window?" [my caps]

      February 26, 2013

  • James I D.

    Leonard: I think you are correct, the traditional issue has been determinism versus in-determinism. I believe it is necessary to realize that we can maintain causality without the need for strict determinism. What we have is causal uncertainty. Said another way, there is no one-to-one connection between past and future; rather there is a one-to-many connection, which results in uncertainty, a type in-determinism.

    2 · February 26, 2013

    • William

      Jim, this is a wholly honest and sensible pint of view.

      February 26, 2013

    • William

      ...POINT of view, that is.

      February 26, 2013

  • William

    Good times. Too bad La Madeleine doesn't serve brandy.

    February 26, 2013

  • gary

    I agree with many of Guy's conclusions, but not necessarily the supporting arguments.

    For me, "free will" is the name I give to the experience of consciously acting or failing to act. There are two parts, "free" and "will". "Will" describes my *feeling* that I am the agent that caused an event to happen in the world, through conscious action or inaction. If I accidentally contribute to event A happening, I never say, "my actions led to A, so I willed it". Responsibility has no direct bearing on "free will". "Will" is what I call it when I feel like I've been a conscious causal agent.

    "Free" has to do with my conscious ability to entertain counterfactuals. I experience a past occurrence of will as a decision to choose among alternatives, but I can imagine having chosen otherwise. I strongly feel that I could have chosen any physically possible alternative. I can reason similarly about the future, and imagine choosing any physically possible alternative.

    <continue>

    February 25, 2013

    • gary

      The proposition "I think, therefore I am" is a lot more compelling (to me, at least) than the proposition "I willed therefore I caused". The fact that it may strongly feel that way does not convince me, because the link between experiencing thought and existing seems very close to definitional (to me), but the link between wanting to cause A by my actions or inactions, and *actually* being the cause of A, seems tenuous.

      I know that my knowledge of the entire causal web leading to A is incomplete. In fact, I can prove to myself that my knowledge of my own part in it is incomplete. How it feels to me seems only marginally relevant. Nonetheless, I cannot escape this feeling, and in all things that matter, I feel I have no choice but to act as if I have free will.

      February 25, 2013

    • Leonard H.

      It seems that the notion of free will that has been debated by philosophers for centuries is being ignored here. Free will vs. determinism is "supposed to be" what the free-will discussion is all about.

      2 · February 25, 2013

  • Gene R.

    Guy, I tried your link using 2 different browsers and get the same page that says the following:
    "Guy's Lifetoward Wiki : MeachamPrefrontalGym
    You aren't allowed to read this page."
    Hmmm....

    February 24, 2013

    • Guy J

      Fixed. Sorry for the inconvenience.

      February 24, 2013

    • Gene R.

      thanks!!!

      February 25, 2013

  • James I D.

    Gene and Guy: Hope springs eternal that philosophers such as Strawson will soon grasp the fact that there is a lot of "space' between the limits of strict determinism and strict in-determinism. Nature is governed by laws that feature causal uncertainty. The past does not determine a single future, but rather the world (and your personal world) evolves causally into a virtual infinity of futures. This does not require the adoption of a many-worlds doctrine. It simply means that given your past experience, there is not a unique path from the past to a particular future.
    Does this mean we have free will? I don't know. It seems to mean that we are dealing with an undecidable proposition, i.e. there is no way that the debate can ever be settled.

    February 25, 2013

  • Gene R.

    An entertaining little piece on free will by G. Strawson, who is now at UT phil. dept.
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/your-move-the-maze-of-free-will/

    February 24, 2013

    • Guy J

      However, I disagree with most of it. The problem with it is the complete lack of recognition of the nature of emergence. Moral responsibility and so many other attributes of sentience emerge in time from a less interesting (perhaps deterministic perhaps just uncontrolled) substrate. That new level of existence which emerges can and does engender real moral responsibility and a real ability to make real choices in most people. Even so there are limits to "real" choices, but the free will that matters and convicts us as your article is concerned with is real and unmitigated by the inadequate arguments used in the article.

      I hope we will get into this idea of culpability in tomorrow's discussion. I think that's where this thread is leading us.

      February 24, 2013

    • Guy J

      BTW I would assert (and invite comment on) that the causal/deterministic link from the lower-order substrate to the higher-order mode of being which emerges from it is neither direct nor deterministic even though some form of link between them does exist and is relevant.

      February 24, 2013

  • Marty S.

    Guest Carl Ehlert

    February 24, 2013

  • Guy J

    This is a response to this week's short article: http://wiki.guyjohnson.org/MeachamPrefrontalGym

    February 24, 2013

  • a.m.

    I'd like to get a solid working definition of "Free Will." When discussing philosophical Free-Will, I presume one means actions or behavior that is non causal and metaphysical. It sounds to me like Bill means "will power."

    February 23, 2013

  • James I D.

    I have a conflict and will be unable to attend.

    February 24, 2013

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