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Philosophy Cafe at Harvard Book Store

The Harvard Book Store (HBS) is pleased to sponsor the Philosophy Cafe, organized and moderated by a volunteer committee wanting to encourage and facilitate philosophical discourse in the wider community. The cafe was originally moderated by Tom Clark, director of the Center for Naturalism and now an advisor to the committee. October's topic and readings are below.  A calendar of academic talks on philosophy in the Boston area is here (calendar may be out of date, but scroll down for philosophy departments which list upcoming colloquia, e.g., MIT, which conveniently links to Harvard, BU, Tufts, and Brandeis colloquia).

When and where. The cafe usually (but not invariably) meets the 3rd Wednesday of the month, from 7:30 to 9:30 pm, at the Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave., Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA, in the lower level of the store (the used book section downstairs). The suggested donation is $3 to cover the cost of essential philosophical ingredients: coffee, tea and cookies. The cafe doesn't meet in July and August.

Topic information. Topics and readings will be generally be posted at the HBS event listings about a month in advance. You can subscribe there to receive the HBS calendar for upcoming events, including the cafe. For further information you can reach the bookstore at 617-661-1515. Previous philosophy cafe topics are at the following links: 2010, 2009, 2008.

Purpose and format. The Philosophy Cafe at Harvard Book Store is a philosophy discussion group modeled on philosophy cafés underway in other cities in Europe and the US. The goal is to present occasions for informal, relaxed discussion on topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real world applications.  The format consists of an introduction to the topic (5-10 minutes), then moderated discussion for about 45 minutes, followed by a 15 minute break for coffee and refreshments.  Discussion resumes for another 45 minutes or so.  Suggestions for topics and readings are most welcome. 

 

Upcoming topic:

October 20, 2010

Does Folk Psychology offer a reliable guide to human behavior?

 

We are all folk psychologists in our interactions with other people. We have internal models of what other people know, what their motivations are and how they are likely to behave in various circumstances. In particular, folk psychology sees people as having beliefs and desires and acting in ways that try to achieve the desires in light of the beliefs held. It is frequently summarized thus:

 

Knowing that Jones does not like to get wet, we may expect that he will take an umbrella if he believes it will rain.

 

In other words, even if the beliefs are erroneous or the desires misguided, we can still understand behavior as resulting from such beliefs and desires.

 

This common-sense understanding of motivation characteristic of FP has been brought into question, by a number of current philosophers and is now one of the hot topics in philosophy. The argument against FP is that it is not based on any fundamental understanding of mental processes. Thus it is likely to be facile and outright wrong, just as earlier theories like the geocentric universe proved completely off the mark even though they also seemed commonsensical in their day. How can we be sure that beliefs and desires play such a causal role. Couldn’t they just as easily be post-hoc rationalizations people use to explain their behavior, even to themselves? For instance, is depression the result of a negative belief about future prospects or is it the other way around – that whatever causes depression also causes us to entertain negative beliefs and so beliefs then do not have the causal priority ascribed by folk psychology?

 

Other reasons for doubting FP is that there is much it cannot explain. It does not explain the need for sleep, cravings, phobias, and mental illnesses which are surely phenomenon that a completed psychology should be able to explain.

 

Of course, if we cannot rely on beliefs and desires as being the true motivators of behavior, we open up a huge area of other issues, all the way to one of the really big questions – i.e. if people are not motivated by their beliefs but the their beliefs are really post hoc formulation, can we still hold people responsible for their actions?

 

So there is much to probe and discuss. Here are just a few questions we hope to talk about:

 

Discussion questions:

 

What are strengths/weaknesses of FP? What do you think is wrong in FP and what do you think is clearly right?

 

To what extent do the usual notions of individual responsibility rely on folk psychology. Is it likely that they will need to be drastically revised?

 

What are the attributes of a ‘completed psychology’ that may one day develop? (Psychology defined as a set of abstractions that together explain what the mind does.)

 

Suggested Reading:

 

Folk Psychology as a Theory.  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/folkpsych-theory/

 

Eliminativist Materialism argument against Folk Psychology: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/materialism-eliminative/

 

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September 15, 2010

Can the Banning of the Burqa be Justified in a Liberal Society?

- Can there be a legitimate public interest in regulating clothing and appearance? -

- If Western societies have the right to ban the burqa and still be liberal, are liberals wrong to criticize societies that require the burqa? -

In France, Britain and Belgium amongst other nations, there are attempts to ban the burqa (a form of dress, worn by a small minority of Islamic women, that completely hides the body and face). According to some Muslims, garb that is all-covering is required to ensure female modesty.  Since modesty is a virtue that is important in the Islamic tradition, the banning of the burqa would, in their view, discriminate against their religious practice. Moreover, since cultural and religious freedom implies the right of individuals to wear any garb that is religiously or culturally important to them (so long as the rights of others are not impinged) banning the burqa would, critics argue, violate the society’s commitment to liberal rights.  In response, advocates of the burqa ban argue that the public wearing of the burqa hurts other individuals by promoting the subordination of women and theocratic ideology.  For these advocates of the ban, the ban is necessary to defend the liberal nature of their society, for which gender equality and a secular public sphere are essential. Advocates of the ban also suggest that there is something problematic about people being masked in public.  In September’s Philosophy Café, we shall attempt to address philosophical issues that the proposed bans raise, particularly relating to the extent to which liberal societies can restrict cultural and religious expression. 

Readings:

About the Burqa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burqa 

About Modesty as a value within Islamic Ethics: http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/21/

Opinion pieces arguing both sides:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/05/opinion/05cope.html 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/opinion/15iht-edsokol.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=france%20burqa%20public%20face&st=cse  

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/veiled-threats/

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/beyond-the-veil-a-response/

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/covered-face-breaks-social-contract/story-e6frg6ux-1225894262637

 

 

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Previous Topics, 2010

June 16

Consciousness: What Is It? What Is It Good For?

We commonsensically draw a sharp distinction between things that are conscious, like human beings, and things that are not, like rocks. But what is consciousness, precisely, and what sorts of things can host conscious states? Could machines be conscious? Are ants? We also tend to assume consciousness plays an essential role in controlling action, but some philosophers are skeptical. The brain seems perfectly capable of perception, cognition and issuing motor commands on its own, so what does consciousness do that the brain can’t?

Readings:

~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on consciousness.

~ Christof Koch & Giulio Tononi at IEEE Spectrum: Can machines be conscious?

~ David Chalmers on How can we construct a science of consciousness?

~ Gerald Edelman on Naturalizing consciousness: a theoretical framework.

~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on mental causation.

~ Naturalism.Org: Respecting privacy: why consciousness isn’t even epiphenomenal.

~ David Rosenthal: Consciousness and its function.

 

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May 19

Autonomy and Its Limits: Is There a Right to Die?

Some think human life has a value that trumps an individual's desire to choose the time and manner of her death. Others believe that life gains value as we gain control over it, even in choosing to die. How do we arbitrate this conflict? Is life ours alone to dispose of, or are we obligated to live for reasons that transcend our own interests?

Readings:

~ UPI: The right to die vs. the value of life

~ Public Agenda overview on the right to die

~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on voluntary euthanasia

~ Wikipedia on the right to die (see this entry's further readings)

~ The constitutionality of the right to die

~ Against euthanasia: http://www.euthanasia.com/

~ Physician assisted suicide in Oregon and the Supreme Court decision

~ Is there a duty to die? See here and here

~ Polly Toynbee on right to die

~ Bishops oppose euthanasia in Britain

~ Mary Warnock on the ethics of suicide

 

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April 21

Addiction: Disease or Disorder of Choice?

Controversy about addiction has centered on the virtues and drawbacks of the disease model: is addiction justly portrayed as akin to mental illnesses such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, and perhaps even physical illness? Or does the disease model conceal important dissimilarities to these conditions, and therefore compromise our efforts to treat and prevent addiction? Is it, as some contrarians claim, a disorder of choice?

 Readings:

~ Addiction: A Disorder of Choice, book by psychologist Gene Heyman.  

~ Disease model of addiction at Wikipedia. 

~ Addiction is a brain disease, and it matters, by Alan Leshner, former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

~ Objectivity in mental health: who has a real disease? by Ron Pies, clinical professor of psychiatry, Tufts-New England Medical Center.

~  Review of Heyman’s book by Sally Satel, Tom Clark’s review here.

~ Should addiction be criminalized? – with Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

~ The addictive situation of fatty food at the Situationist.

~  Obesity: addiction or free will? – Andrew Brown in the Telegraph

~ Choice and free will: beyond the disease model of addiction, at JoinTogether.Org.

~ Weakness of will at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

 

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March 17

The Constitution in Question: Is There a Founding Philosophy?

The United States was the deliberate creation of revolutionaries who felt the obligation to justify the new regime on sound principles of government. Is there a clear political philosophy enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and if so, has it served us well? Some claim that we are a nation founded on religion, but can this be discerned in the Constitution? Whatever the founding philosophy, why should the Framers’ intent continue to command our allegiance? Is it impossible that we could improve on their vision?

Readings: 

~ U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights

~ Wikipedia on the Federalist papers.

~ Federalist papers.

~ Constitutionalism at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

~ Federalism at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

 ~ Review of Timothy Ferris’ book The Science of Liberty.

 ~ NYTimes Magazine cover article about claims that the founders intended the US to be a Christian country.

 ~ Our founders were not fundamentalists by Harvey Wasserman 

~ NYTimes article on the Tea Party movement (search the article on "constitution") 

~ Washington Post: Conservative leaders to present a new manifesto.

~ The Mount Vernon Statement and commentary here.

 

February 17

Playing God: Should We Limit Self-Design?

Our rapidly increasing understanding of the human genome and the mechanisms of gene expression in biology and behavior is poised to give us unprecedented control over our characteristics as a species. Should we use this understanding to increase lifespan, intelligence, athletic ability, or modify other traits to our liking? Is there an essential human nature that we should protect by limiting self-design, or is it simply human nature to want to transgress such limits?

Readings:

Leon Kass, former head of the President’s Bioethics Commission: “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Perfection” http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/1/kass.htm.

Larry Arnhart’s reply to Kass, “Why Human Nature is Here to Stay” http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/2/arnhart.htm

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at UPenn: “Can we cope with the ethical ramifications of new knowledge of the human brain?” http://www.dana.org/news/publications/detail.aspx?id=9380.  

Essays on bioethics and human dignity commissioned by President’s Commission on Bioethics, http://www.bioethics.gov/reports/human_dignity/index.html.

Stephen Pinker comments on dignity at Bioethics Commission panel discussion, http://www.bioethics.gov/transcripts/march08/session5.html

Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine: “Is Freedom Just Another Word for Random Genes? http://www.reason.com/rb/rb040203.shtml.

At Naturalism.Org: “Playing God, Carefully”, at http://www.naturalism.org/currents.htm#PlayingGod

 

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January 20, 2010

Philosophy Off the Cuff: Are Intuitions Indispensable? 

Philosophers and ordinary folk often rely on their intuitions when evaluating claims about the nature of things, for instance the nature of mind, morality, the self or free will. But what’s the status of intuitions themselves? To what extent can we trust them, and are philosophers’ intuitions any better than those of ordinary folk? If a well-supported argument conflicts with cherished intuitions, then what?


Readings
:

Intuitions in philosophy discussed at the Experimental Philosophy blog.

Folk concepts and intuitions: from philosophy to cognitive science, by Shaun Nichols.

Descartes' intuitions: clear and distinct ideas, by Ron Bombardi.

On intuition pumps, by Daniel Dennett.

The problem of intuition, by Steven D. Hales.

Whose concepts are they, anyway? The role of philosophical intuition in empirical psychology, by Alison Gopnik and Eric Schwitzgebel.

Surveying freedom: folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility, by Nahmias et al.

Cross-cultural intuitions on free will – discussed at the Garden of Forking Paths.

Edward Feser's post on eliminative materialism raises the question of intuitions.

Journal announcement of special issue on intuitions.
 

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Previous Topics, 2009


December 16, 2009

Passing Time: What Do We Know About Now?

Right now you're reading these words. And right now you're reading these. As described by physicist Brian Greene in his bestseller, The Fabric of the Cosmos, objectively these nows simply exist, even though subjectively they're gone. How can we reconcile what physics says about time and how we experience it? Does time pass, or is it really, as Greene suggests, "a frozen river"?


Readings
:

Brian Greene: The time we thought we knew.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on time.

Wikipedia on the philosophy of time.

Concordia University: Minkowski and the ontological status of spacetime (conference, see links at end).

Vesselin Petkov: Time and the reality of worldtubes.

Naturalism.Org: Scripting the future: spacetime and the nature of control.

 

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November 18, 2009

Irreplaceable You? The Puzzle of Personal Identity

In Alice in Wonderland, the caterpillar asks Alice “Who are you?”, to which she replies: “I hardly know, sir, just at present - at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” Philosophers explore the question of personal identity with thought experiments about duplicate selves, split brains, switched personalities and other transformations. How much can you change, divide, or merge and still remain the same person? What is it, if anything, that makes you irreplaceably you?

Readings:

~ Contemporary accounts of personal identity and Personal identity – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

~ Is personal identity what matters?  - by Derek Parfit, and his website.

~ Online philosophy course slides on The Puzzle of Personal Identity by Chris Tennberg, UC Santa Barbara.

~ The self and the future: Williams on personal identity by Carl Brock Sides, and related discussion at RichardDawkins.net.

~ Death and personal identity: Death, nothingness and subjectivity at Naturalism.Org.

~ Philpapers on personal identity.

 

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October 28, 2009

With Housing and Health Care for All:
Should We Adopt an Economic Bill of Rights?

In the founding philosophy of the United States, personal liberty trumps all other values. The Constitution declares freedoms of religion, press and speech, and prohibits slavery, unreasonable search and seizure, and cruel and unusual punishment. But in 1944, President Roosevelt argued that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” and proposed a second Bill of Rights to guarantee adequate food, housing, employment and health care. Was he right? Should Americans have inalienable rights to the material necessities of life, and if not, why not?

Readings:

~ U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights

~ FDR's proposal for an economic bill of rights

~ Jeff Jacoby's Boston Globe op-ed What “right” to health care?

~ Ted Kennedy's letter to Obama on health care.

~ Text of Obama's address to congress on health care.

~ Wikipedia on negative and positive rights.

~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the concept of rights.

~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on libertarianism.

 

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September 16, 2009

The Problem of Pain: Does it Have to Hurt So Much?

Life often seems an unnecessarily harsh proposition.  Couldn’t we get along just as well without subjective feelings of intense suffering, whether physical or psychological?  In building artificial intelligence, couldn’t we design a system that seeks to survive, but has no capacity for pain?  Or is there a necessary connection between survival and suffering?  Answers to such questions bear on the nature of consciousness and the ethics of creating artificial minds.

Readings:

Jaegwon Kim, The Mind-Body Problem at Century’s Turn:

Consider a mental event, say an occurrence of pain.  We believe – in fact, we know – that pain occurs only because a certain neural state, call it S, occurs.  S may differ from organism to organism, especially in organisms belonging to different biological species, but we do not think there are sensations that float free from the brain, without being grounded in underlying neural processes.  Assume that S is the neural substrate of pain in you: if S occurs, you will experience pain, and you will not experience pain unless S occurs.  Consider the claim that the pain caused your finger to twitch. Suppose, further, that neurophysiologists have discovered a causal chain from S, the neural substrate of your pain, to the finger twitching, establishing S as its sufficient physical cause.  I believe the existence of such a causal chain is highly likely; we already know a lot about physical causal processes underlying many sensory events.  This means your finger twitching has two putative causes, one mental (your pain) and one physical (the pain’s neural substrate S).  Given that your finger twitching is a physical event, has a full physical cause, how is a mental cause also possible?  How could one and the same event have two distinct causal origins?  Doesn’t the physical cause threaten to preempt the mental cause?   This is the problem of “causal exclusion” much discussed in recent years.  (p. 135) 

Let us now turn to sensory states.  Suppose we are given another engineering project.  This time, we are to design a machine that responds to punctures and abrasions to its skin (“tissue damage”) by taking evasive maneuvers to separate itself from the source of damage (“escape behavior”); in addition, we are told to make this device experience pain when it suffers damage to its skin.  That is, we are asked to design into the machine a “pain box” which, in addition to its causal work of triggering an appropriate motor response when it suffers damage, gives rise to pain experience.  We can, I am sure, easily design into a machine a device that will serve as a causal intermediary between the physical input and the behavior output, but making it experience pain is a totally different affair.  I don’t think we even know where to begin. What we miss, something that we need to know in order to design a pain-experiencing machine, is a connection between the causal work of the pain box on the one hand and the fact that a sensation of pain arises in it when it is activated.  Why pain rather than an itch or tickle? The machine would try to flee when its skin is punctured even if we had, wittingly or unwittingly, designed itch or tickle into the box.  What this shows is that we cannot distinguish pain from itch or other sensations by their causal work; our strong intuition is that even if pain is associated with scratching behavior (like itch) or squirming behavior (like tickle), as long as it is felt as pain – as long as it hurts – it is pain.  Pain may be associated with certain causal tasks, but these tasks do not define pain.  Pain as a sensory quale is not a functional property.  In general, qualia are not functional properties.  (pp. 142-3)

~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on pain.

~ Murat Aydede and Guven Guzeldere: Some foundational problems in the scientific study of pain.

~ James Rose: The neurobehavioral nature of fishes and the question of awareness and pain.

~ Thomas Polger and Kenneth Sufka: Closing the gap on pain.

~ Thomas Metzinger's Edge commentary on consciousness and the problem of suffering:

The theoretical blind spot of current philosophy of mind is the issue of conscious suffering: thousands of pages are being written about color qualia or the contents of thought, but almost no theoretical work is devoted to ubiquitous phenomenal states like physical pain or simple everyday sadness ("subclinical depression"), or to the phenomenal content associated with panic, despair and melancholy — let alone to the conscious experience of mortality or of losing one's dignity. There may be deeper evolutionary reasons behind this cognitive scotoma, but I am not going to pursue this point here (didn't Jaron Lanier talk of "death-denial" some years ago?

The ethical/normative issue is of greater relevance. If one dares to take a closer look at the actual phenomenology of biological systems on our planet, the many different kinds of conscious suffering are at least as dominant a feature as are color vision or conscious thought, both of which appeared only very recently. Evolution is not something to be glorified. One way — out of countless others — to look at biological evolution on our planet is as a process that has created an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion where there previously was none. As not only the simple number of individual conscious subjects, but also the dimensionality of their phenomenal state-spaces is continuously increasing, this ocean is also deepening. For me, this is also a strong argument against creating artificial consciousness: we shouldn't add to this terrible mess before we have truly understood what actually is going on here...

~ Creating artificial consciousness: The Blue Brain Project, news article here. Given Metzinger's worries above, should it be built?

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June 17, 2009

Supernaturalism vs. Naturalism: Any Common Ground?

Supernaturalists suppose that existence is divided into the natural and supernatural, while naturalists suppose that existence is a unity, what we call nature. This fundamental disagreement about reality drives debates about religion, morality, cognition, personhood, free will, consciousness, and other basic questions. What underlies this disagreement, and is there sufficient common ground for productive argument? If not, can supernaturalists and naturalists agree to disagree?

Readings: 

David Papineau’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on naturalism.

Jon Jacob’s Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on naturalism.

Wikipedia on naturalism, here and here.

CreationWiki on supernaturalism.

Catholic Encyclopedia on the supernatural order.

Alvin Plantinga on naturalism ‘ad absurdum’.

At Naturalism.Org: 

·        Reply to Plantinga: Is naturalism self-defeating?

·        Two naturalists debate the commitments of naturalism.

·        When worldviews collide: root differences between theism and naturalism.

·        Review and exchange on Naturalism, a book critical of naturalism written by two supernaturalists.

·        Reality and its rivals: putting epistemology first.

 

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May 20, 2009

The Good Life: What is It, and How Would We Know?

Conceptions of the good life, of human flourishing, are as diverse as cultures and personalities. For some, the unexamined life isn’t worth living, while for others direct experience – of pleasure, excitement, novelty, triumph – is all that counts. Are we living lives worth living? What standards apply in deciding this question, and how do we justify them?

Readings:

Stanford Encyclopedia on well-being, see the various theories, e.g., hedonism.

Wiki on the good life.

Wiki on eudaimonia.

Owen Flanagan on eudaimonia, his related Beyond Belief lecture is here.

Christopher Grau on the Matrix and Nozick’s experience machine.

Scott Young on 7 rules for a life worth living- current U.S. pop psychology. Thought experiment: imagine variations of these as written in different cultures and times.  

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, co-editor, A Life Worth Living - on positive psychology, see his introduction to the book available in full at the link. 

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations – the Roman emperor’s self-help manual on rules for a life worth living: transcending the self for the public good, finding consolations in philosophy. Browse this to see what seems plausible.

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April 15, 2009

Conservatism: Relic or Relevant?

In the aftermath of the 2008 election, conservatives are asking tough questions about their philosophy. What are the core tenets of conservatism? Should they be revised to reflect new political realities, and to respond effectively to pressing social concerns? Can conservatism change, and need it change, to offer a relevant alternative to a resurgent liberalism?

Readings:

The fall of conservatism by George Packer.

Conservatism at Wikipedia.

Political conservatism as motivated social cognition by J.T. Jost et al.


Newsweek on conservatism and its discontents:

 ~ A conservative’s case against Rush Limbaugh by David Frum.

 ~ The Republicans’ road back by Yuval Levin.

 ~ You can’t go home again by Jonathan Darman.

 
The culture warriors get laid off by Frank Rich.

Obama’s moral majority by Jonathan Haidt, on why Obama should recognize conservative moral concerns.

When morality opposes justice: conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize, by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham. 

 

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March 18, 2009

Compatibilists vs. Incompatibilists: Who’s Right About Free Will?

In one of the longest running debates in philosophy, compatibilists claim free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism, while incompatibilists claim they aren’t. Who’s right about this, and how do we decide?  So-called experimental philosophers are collecting data on what ordinary folk (non-philosophers) believe about free will and determinism. Should folk intuitions count in deciding the truth about free will, and if so, how much?

Readings:

[Suggestion: write down your own definition of free will before reading anything, then see where you end up in the traditional categories.]

Galen Strawson on free will at the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy – in nice bite sized chunks, this not too technical article gives the lay of the land regarding free will, compatibilism, incompatibilism and moral responsibility.

Michael McKenna on compatibilism (and incompatibilist objections to it) at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – a pretty thorough, somewhat more technical survey of the issues with further references.

Experimental philosophy on folk intuitions about free will:

 

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February 18, 2009

The Limits of Altruism:
Why Do You Give What You Give
–and Should You Be Giving More?

with guest presenter, Hillary Rettig, author of The Lifelong Activist

There are lots of explanations for altruism, or selfless giving, ranging from the mystical (karma), to the sociological (community standards), to the sociobiological (we “give” in ways that maximize our genes’ propagation). Whatever the mechanism, it's clear that some people give a lot, while others not so much. Is there a proper level of giving, and how do we, as members of a wealthy society, justify not giving more to those in dire need, for instance in Nepal or Malawi–or even here in the U.S.? And what happens when a monetary reward or other incentive enters the picture?

Readings:

Kidney Karmarama, or… how my kidney found Mr. Right, by Hillary Rettig.

Desperately seeking a kidney - Sally Satel in the New York Times.

Waitlisted to death: improving incentives for organ donations, from the Wall Street Journal.

Putting a price on compassion, from the New York Times.

Some things are sacred - scroll down to sidebar in New Scientist article, "Immoral advances: is science out of control?," page 3.

Famine, affluence and morality by Peter Singer.

What should a billionaire give, and what should you? - Peter Singer in the New York Times Magazine.

The Life You Can Save - Peter Singer's latest book.

Oprah's Big Give - altruism on reality TV.

 

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January 21, 2009

Reality: A Necessary Fiction?

We commonsensically distinguish between how things seem and how they really are in themselves. We suppose there’s a real world “out there” independent of cognition that we sometimes grasp accurately, whether in conscious experience or in scientific theories. But do we ever encounter the world directly, unmediated by our models of it?  If not, is the very idea of a cognition-independent reality suspect, or must it survive as a necessary assumption of cognition itself?

Readings:

Realism at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP): “There are two general aspects to realism, illustrated by looking at realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties. First, there is a claim about existence. Tables, rocks, the moon, and so on, all exist, as do the following facts: the table's being square, the rock's being made of granite, and the moon's being spherical and yellow. The second aspect of realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties concerns independence. The fact that the moon exists and is spherical is independent of anything anyone happens to say or think about the matter…. The realist wishes to claim that apart from the mundane sort of empirical dependence of objects and their properties familiar to us from everyday life, there is no further sense in which everyday objects and their properties can be said to be dependent on anyone's linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, or whatever.”

Charles Sanders Pierce on truth and reality at SEP: “While acknowledging that there is ‘nothing immediately present to us but thoughts’, Pierce continues: ‘These thoughts, however, have been caused by sensations, and those sensations are constrained by something out of the mind. This thing out of the mind, which directly influences sensation, and through sensation thought, because it is out of the mind, is independent of how we think it, and is, in short, the real.’ (EP1: 88)”

Can Quantum Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? at SEP: “Initially Einstein was enthusiastic about the quantum theory. By 1935, however, his enthusiasm for the theory had been replaced by a sense of disappointment. His reservations were twofold. Firstly, he felt the theory had abdicated the historical task of natural science to provide knowledge of, or at least justified belief in, significant aspects of nature that were independent of observers or their observations. Instead the fundamental understanding of the wave function (alternatively, the "state function", "state vector", or "psi-function") in quantum theory was that it provided probabilities only for "results" if appropriate measurements were made (the Born Rule). The theory was simply silent about what, if anything, was likely to be true in the absence of observation. In this sense it was irrealist.”

Time and Reality of Worldtubes by Vesselin Petkov:  “A hundred years after his profound insight we still owe Minkowski a resolution of the issue of the reality of spacetime and worldtubes. Many physicists do not see the need to address this issue despite that they freely discuss extra dimensions and parallel universes. Some believe it is a philosophical question. Others say this is not a real issue since relativity can be equally represented in a three- and four-dimensional language. However, neither of these reasons make the issue of the reality of spacetime disappear. …The very fact that the issue of the reality of spacetime has not been resolved so far appears to suggest that the majority of physicists in the last hundred years trusted more their senses than the arguments demonstrating that reality is not the three-dimensional world of our perceptions.”

 
Question: c
an merely evolved creatures make reliable contact with what's real?

 No – Alvin Plantinga’s review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion: “The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology. In fact he'd have to hold that it is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It's as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.”

Yes – Empiricism and Naturalism by Glen Davidson: “…since most of what actually concerns us is empirical knowledge, we are more or less stuck with science to deal with information that is important to us. With “Truth” being well outside of our abilities, we assign truth-values to statements collectively in a manner that agrees with our sensory and intellectual abilities, and then we use such truth-statements to model the world–including evolution.”

Is experience a virtual reality? at Naturalism.Org: “The difficulty in realizing the truth of our situation, of becoming undeluded about consciousness, is exactly what we should expect, suggests Thomas Metzinger in his book Being No One (a précis of the book is here, and he discusses dreaming here). He theorizes that consciousness centrally involves the fact that as cognitive systems we can’t directly grasp that the higher level, informationally integrated and behavior-controlling modeling of the world that the brain accomplishes is a model. Because we-the-system can’t see this, the model perforce becomes for us an untranscendable reality. The existence of the 3D world as we experience it from moment to moment in waking life is just that modeling of the world that we can’t directly recognize as a model. We therefore become, as he puts it, naïve realists; we feel we are in direct contact with reality.”  

Reality and its rivals at Naturalism.Org: “Faith-based religions and other non-empirically based worldviews routinely make factual assertions about the existence of god, paranormal abilities, astrological influences, the power of prayer, etc. So they are inevitably in the business of representing reality, of describing what they purport to be objective truths, some of which concern the supernatural. But having signed on to the cognitive project of supplying an accurate model of the world, they routinely violate basic epistemic standards of reliable cognition.”

CFN philosophy cafe in the news:  A Boston Globe article on philosophy cafes in Boston, including the former Davis Square Philosophy Cafe, is here.  


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