Friday, March 28, 2008

Do You Have to be Good to be Guilty?

We're transitioning from free will/determinism to ethical theory in Intro this week. The literature of action theory is old and hoary, so I'm not hopeful of plowing new ground, but it sure is fun. Here's today's discussion (7:30AM, no less): it appears that the notion of responsibility involves us in a paradox.
1) A free action must be the action of an agent: agents are free.
(I take this to be the indubitable compatibalist point of the empiricists. "Free" is an adjective. You've got to be somebody in order to be free, because you've got to exist in order to be a cause; if you're not the cause, then it's not your act.)
2) To be someone, one must have a nature/essence/character/personality.
(We recognize you from one time to the next, not just on the basis of your physical constancy, but on the basis of your psychological and behavioral constancy as well. Otherwise we could not say that you were a person. You must have at least that much stability and continuity. This is why quantum indeterminacy, for example, cannot underwrite freedom of action. Randomness or chaos or absence of causes may be real, but their consequences are not your acts, and it's your acts that are free or not.)
3) But to have a nature appears to be equivalent to being determined.
That is the paradox of responsibility. R. M. Hare captures the paradox nicely in the title of his book Freedom and Reasons: to the extent that I have reasons, we can say that my actions are my own (those that are caused by my reasons). But to the extent that I have reasons, it appears that I am not free. Hobbes doesn't mind this. He thinks that the only coherent definition of freedom is "the ability to pursue my desires." Hume says that "Reason is the slave of the passions." And it is Mill's view that values emerge in a world where there are beings that have experiences that are good and bad, this fact being entirely contingent.
I think that this empiricist compatibalism is right. The problem for Sartre and the existentialists, say, is that freedom vanishes along with the concrete (psychological) self, whereas Plato, Kant and the rationalists lose freedom in the grip of logical necessity. But this still leaves much to be said. How can I do good, if I am a good person by nature? That is, what can be praiseworthy about my action, if it follows from my essential good nature? And how can the bad man (that other man!) be said to do wrong? When we say that the good person is good, isn't that like saying that he's lucky, or good-looking? But that's not how we mean ethical praise, is it?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Kant's Cure and the Disease

This morning I'm thinking about Kant. Usually these days for me, Kant is a big source of a sort of rampant Cartesianism that I see in the classroom and in the popular culture. This is a teacher's perspective. His idea that the mind projects a conceptual structure onto the world (Kant thought that space and time, cause and effect, were more creations of the mind than perceptions of real being) is variously presented as obviously the thesis of Plato and as obviously the thesis of Nietzsche, and I've even encountered people who insisted that Plato and Nietzsche were complete opposites and that they were both Kant. All the facile rhetoric of "I believe what I believe, you believe what you believe" that we swim in seems to smell of Kant (is it the same river that smells of Kant from day to day?). It also appears to me that Kant, in his insistence that a transcendent rationality was what set humans (to be fair, he's careful to always say "any rational beings") apart from the rest of creation, and that ethical thinking is just equivalent to rational thinking applied, is indeed very like Plato. So I often think of Kant (Hume guy that I am) as the representative of the old regime, a synthesis of Plato and Descartes to be undone by the "bottom-up" post-Enlightenment scientists.
So I got to thinking when I saw in a post on Tractatus Blogico-Philosophicus that cited Schopenhauer as writing that Kant "had circumnavigated the world and shown that because it is round, one can not get out of it by horizontal movement." Kant saw himself as saying something new, notoriously comparing his own insight to that of Copernicus. I think that roughly the idea is that the classical tradition sought for an external cause of the intelligibility of the world (The Good, God), whereas Kant had demonstrated that the intelligibility of the world could only be understood as a property of the mind. So the irrationality of faith that is emphasized in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche is present in Kant's formulation that God, like freedom, must be a part of the ineffable noumenal world. But on Kant's view Mind is just as metaphysically separate from matter as Form ever was for Plato. He just took over from Descartes the task of additionally sticking us in our heads. Still it's technically speaking very modern for Kant to argue that a lot of traditional metaphysics just couldn't be done, as things couldn't be known otherwise than as how our minds organize the representations of things. Totally Cartesian.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Two Senses of "Eliminativism"

Any number of theories of mind might be described as "eliminativist," but there are two very different senses of that term depending on the theory on offer. "Operational" theories of mind such as behaviorism and functionalism are eliminativist in the sense that they deny the existence of non-physical, Cartesian minds (or at least the need to refer to such entities in order to do psychology). In general materialist theories are eliminativist in this sense (by definition materialism eliminates the non-physical). More specifically, behaviorism, for example, eliminates internal symbols, or mental representations (that's really what is most significant about behaviorist approaches). If we redefine "Cartesian" to mean representational models of mind, this type of elimination also turns out to be a feature of materialist theories in general. Wittgenstein understood this, and he also extended the point to philosophy of language: there can no more exist semantic properties than there can be intentional properties, both must turn out to be figurative language at best. The other sense of "eliminativism" is the one promoted by Paul Churchland. This is the claim that the traditional categories of intentional states ("beliefs," "desires," etc.) will not survive the maturation of neuroscience. But materialism does not necessarily imply this. A behaviorist sees the traditional categories as categories of behaviors, and the reductive materialist sees them as categories of physical states. The problem of multiple realizability, an essential motivation behind the development of functionalism, is predicated on the ineliminative nature of the categories, in fact. I think that Churchland makes the mistake of assuming that psychological predicates must refer to states that are "in the head" one way or another, while Wittgenstein understands that the key is to see that psychological predicates necessarily refer to public phenomena (and note that the Churchlands disdain Wittgenstein in their disdainful way; they don't grasp him). In fact the eclipse of representational models of mind would not entail the elimination of the traditional intentional categories. I doubt that they are eliminible at all. They pick out basic features of persons. They are not part of a theory. Meanwhile I doubt that there are anything like symbols (or language) in the head, the current vogue for representationalism notwithstanding.