Determinism and Addiction

I recently saw a short video about how hard determinists respond to people with an addiction (addiction to alcohol was the example used).

The premise of the video is simple. If an alcohol addict comes to a hard determinist and asks for help, what advice could they offer the addict that would not make him or her despair? If they just tell the addict that they don’t have free will, the addict might lose hope.

The hard determinist in the video responds that they could help the addict by identifying the influences that are contributing to their addiction and offering the addict a series of steps that they could follow to recover. This is what agencies like Alcoholics Anonymous do. We can’t just tell the addict “you’ve got to recover, or else!” We have to tell them how to do that.

Here is my response, as a libertarian about free will.

First of all, it’s not clear to me why we can’t tell the addict “you’ve got to recover,or else!” The addict has the ability to choose whether he will continue drinking alcohol. It will be very difficult for him, but in the vast majority of cases the addict does have the ability to quit by will power.

Nevertheless, there are ways of making it easier for an alcoholic to quit using alcohol, and it is useful for the addict to be made familiar with these so that he will be more likely to recover. This is not inconsistent with free will, since the existence of libertarian free will is consistent with there being limitations on our consciousness.

The fact that there are limitations on our consciousness has very important epistemological and moral implications. Specifically, it means that I can’t expect more out of my mind than it can deliver. I need to keep the fact that my consciousness has limitations in mind when I am planning out how to study for a test, e.g., I shouldn’t make a plan to study for ten hours straight, since that would cause exhaustion. This process of forming plans in light of what one’s mind is capable of is an important responsibility that every adult has.

The fact that some means of recovering from addiction make it easier to recover than others is not a refuge from responsibility, it is an instance of responsibility. If someone is addicted to alcohol, they have a responsibility to think about the problem and seek out the most effective means of escaping their addiction, like joining Alcoholics Anonymous. If an alcoholic tries to quit on his own, fails, and does not seek out a more effective means of quitting, then that is a form of irresponsibility on his part, albeit one less severe than not trying to quit at all.

So, to return to the main issue at stake: Is libertarianism a more effective framework for quitting an addiction than hard determinism?

In spite of the arguments in the video, I say yes. Libertarianism implies that the addict can usually quit on his own, by his own will power, or find an effective method of quitting that is based on research other people have done. This is a more encouraging message than the video’s brand of determinism, which implies that he is helpless to quit unless someone else saves him by spoon feeding him the steps required to quit.


Debate About Dennett’s Theory of Consciousness

This is a pretty good exchange about Dennett’s theory of consciousness. It explains the theory clearly and lays out some objections to it, then the responses that Dennett might make to those objections and so on.

Atheism is The Belief That There is No God

Let’s think of a few clear examples of atheists:

– Richard Dawkins
– David Hume
– football running back Arian Foster
– Sir Richard Branson, a wealthy businessman
– a teenager who reads Camus

What do these examples have in common?

Some are wealthy and famous, others are not. Some defend their atheism with elaborate arguments, others find such arguments unnecessary. Some are swayed by reason or common sense, and others are, perhaps, swayed by aesthetics. They live in different time periods and countries, they have different worldviews, they take atheism to have different implications, and they act differently in real life.

What they all have in common is a grasp of the concept of God and a conscious rejection of that concept. If they did not meet both of these criteria, we would not call them atheists. There would be no surprise or outrage if Richard Dawkins simply had not heard of God, or if Arian Foster had announced that he didn’t know what God was. The teenager reading Camus would not have felt edgy if he simply lacked an understanding of theism. We attach a lot of significance to atheism that we don’t attach to ignorance of or inability to grasp the concept of God.

So, I think it’s pretty clear that atheism should refer to the belief that no God exists, not to a simple absence of belief in God in a person.

Non-Cognitivism and True Ethical Statements

It turns out that there are non-cognitivists who think that ethical statements can be true or false.

Indeed there is no reason why a non-cognitivist should refuse to call ethical sentences ‘true’ or ‘false.’ He can say ‘”Smith is good” is true if and only if Smith is good.’ He can even say things like ‘Some of Buddha’s ethical sayings are true’, thus giving to understand that he would be in agreement with some of the attitudes expressed in Buddha’s sayings, even though he is not telling, and even may not know, which ones these are.

Source: Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams

Evidence: A Definition and Example

There was a discussion of the concept of evidence on one of the forums I post to, so I posted the following analysis.

Evidence is a body of observations that have been logically integrated to their cause. I will give an illustration using one of Jerry Coyne’s lines of evidence for the theory of evolution in Why Evolution is True.

According to Coyne, the species of animals found on islands near continents bear significant similarities to the animals on the mainland, but they differ from the animals on the mainland in ways that allow them to fill the specific niches available on the island, and the only species of animals found on the island are ones small enough to be blown by the wind or carried on driftwood to the island. Therefore, they must have been carried from the mainland to the island and evolved into a variety of new species once there.

Let’s take this apart into its components.

First, Coyne’s argument depends on observation. Scientists had to make countless measurements of species that live on islands near a continent and the species on the nearby mainlands to arrive at this conclusion. For example, in one case, they had to measure the beaks of birds on the island to show that they were adapted to eating nuts as opposed to the beaks of the birds on the mainland.

Second, Coyne’s argument integrates these observations. The observations are put together into a coherent whole that encompasses the fact that the species on the island are similar to the species on the mainland, the fact that there are specific niches on the islands that these species have adapted to fill, and the fact that the species on the island are all relatively small or have the ability to swim. These are all made part of a unified narrative.

Third, Coyne’s argument integrates these observations in accordance with logic. Coyne does not appeal to mysticism to explain the observations he cites, and he does not invent his explanation out of whole cloth. Rather, he logically infers the conclusion that is necessitated by the available facts.

Finally, Coyne’s argument logically integrates these observations to their cause. Causality is an entity acting according to its identity. Coyne’s argument reveals that the observations he cites are all manifestations of entities acting in an orderly fashion, according to their identities. The only entities that get to the islands are the ones that have the ability to do so due to their size or ability to fly or swim, and the only entities that survive on the islands are the ones that are adapted to fill the available niches, in obedience to causality.

I hope this has helped clarify the concept of evidence for you.

Was Kant an Atheist?

An interesting quote:

Scheffner was only too much aware of Kant’s belief that there was nothing to be expected after death. Though in his philosophy he had held out hope for eternal life and a future state, in his personal life he had been cold to such ideas. Scheffner had often heard Kant scoff at prayer and other religious practices. Organized religion filled him with ire. It was clear to anyone who knew Kant personally that he had no faith in a personal God. Having postulated God and immortality, he himself did not believe in either. His considered opinion was that such beliefs were just a matter of “individual needs.” Kant himself felt no such need.

(Source: Kant: A Biography, by Manfred Kuehn, p. 2-3)

There may be some controversy about this among Kant scholars.

Anthony Kenny on History of Philosophy

In this post, I will summarize Anthony Kenny’s description of his approach to history of philosophy, as given in the general introduction to his massive one volume history of philosophy, A New History of Western Philosophy.

Kenny first distinguishes his approach to history of philosophy from that of philosophers who view the history of philosophy as leading up to their own system, as, for example, Aristotle and Hegel did. Kenny says that he lacks the “supreme self-confidence as a philosopher” to approach history of philosophy like that, and for that matter, he thinks it is legitimate to question whether philosophy makes progress at all.

Kenny says that philosophy can be compared either to science or to art. If we compare it to science, we will see philosophy as producing an ever expanding body of scholarship that has surpassed the great philosophers of the past, like Plato. If we compare it to art, we will see a great work of philosophy as a product of individual genius that never gets outdated.

The view Kenny himself adopts, however, is in between these two views. Philosophy is not a matter of acquiring new knowledge but of organizing what we know, and this is so difficult that only a small number of geniuses can do it. The rest of us are forced to look up to them and take what we can from their ideas.

Kenny claims that philosophy is the discipline that the sciences emerge from, and that “a discipline remains philosophical as long as its concepts are unclarified and its methods are controversial.” He gives two examples. First, the issue of whether our ideas are innate or learned from experience was originally philosophical, but then was partly taken over by psychology, with certain issues pertaining to a priori knowledge remaining philosophical. Second, Aristotle believed that there was a branch of philosophy called “theology,” but “when we read what he says of it today, it seems to us a mix of astronomy and philosophy of religion.” Philosophy has no distinctive subject matter, only a set of methods.

At this point, Kenny considers the view that philosophy only has the therapeutic role of untangling confusions that people have gotten themselves into. To emphasize that this view is consistent with the existence of philosophical progress, Kenny gives the example of when Plato clarified Parmenides’ mistake over two senses of the verb “to be”:

Plato, in one of his dialogues, sorted out the issues so successfully that there has never again been an excuse for mixing them up: indeed, it now takes a great effort of philosophical imagination to work out exactly what led Parmenides into confusion in the first place.

Progress of this kind is often concealed by its very success: once a philosophical problem is resolved, no one regards it any more as a matter of philosophy.

Another example of philosophical progress that Kenny says is consistent with the therapeutic view of philosophy is making new distinctions; for example, philosophical discussions of free will are now required to take compatibilism into account, not merely phrase the issue as a dispute between libertarianism and hard determinism.

Another example of philosophical progress Kenny gives is reinterpreting classic works of philosophy, and he claims that one example of this is recent progress in scholarship on Aristotle and Plato. Here he makes a couple of points about history of philosophy. First, a historian of philosophy has to be a philosopher, because otherwise he would not be able to paraphrase past philosophers and fill in gaps in their reasoning as is required to do history of philosophy. Second, a historian of philosophy has to know about the historical context in which past philosophers wrote. He also points out that original philosophy requires engaging with the history of philosophy, as when Frege spent the first half of his book The Foundations of Arithmetic discussing rival theories.

Kenny next discusses exegesis. He distinguishes between internal exegesis, which attempts to provide a coherent and charitable interpretation of a philosophical text, and external exegesis, which attempts to relate one philosopher’s views to the views of other philosophers in order to bring out their significance. He also distinguishes between historical philosophy, which attempts to look for the justifications of the ideas in the text, and history of ideas, which looks for the motives that led a thinker to put forward the ideas that they did. He points out that a good original philosopher can be a poor exegete, as when Wittgenstein attempted to explain Augustine’s theory of language in the beginning of Philosophical Investigations.

Kenny points out that the skills of the historian can be more important than the skills of the philosopher or vice versa, depending on the purpose of the inquiry in question. The relative importance of these skill sets also varies depending on the area of philosophy in question. For example, ancient metaphysics will seem pointless to someone without a deep concern for the philosophical issues it addresses, and ancient political theory will probably be misinterpreted by a philosopher who projects democracy in its modern form back onto Plato or Aristotle.

Finally, Kenny concedes that he knows much less about the details of the philosophers he is discussing than a specialist on those philosophers would, but argues that it might still be valuable to provide a bird’s eye view of the history of philosophy.