Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Free Will Was Overrated Anyway

I recently finished Isaiah Berlin's essay on historical inevitability (collected in Liberty); definitely a thought-provoking piece that's worth reading. However, I'm having a hard time squaring his unrestrained endorsement of the concept of free will with statements he makes elsewhere. Specifically:

Is is salutary to be reminded of the narrowness of the field within which we can begin to claim to be free; and some would claim that such knowledge is still increasing, and the field still contracting.

Where the frontier between freedom and causal laws is to be determined is a crucial practical issue; knowledge of it is a powerful and indispensable antidote to ignorance and irrationality, and offers us new types of explanation - historical, psychological, sociological, biological - which previous generations have lacked. (p. 125)

Given the above he had to recognize that his support of free will rested on a god of the gaps type argument, hoping that science would not further narrow the scope of action to the point of insignificance. Coincidentally, while I was working my way through the essay I ran across a recent article in The Atlantic discussing the biological causes of criminal acts, demonstrating that science has continued to advance in its ability to explain behavior since the original publication of Berlin's essay in 1954. You have to wonder whether he would continue to defend free will in the face of the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary?

Nevertheless, he hit the nail on the head in characterizing how determinism pulls the rug out from under most theories of morality:

What we cannot alter, or cannot alter as much as we had supposed, cannot be used as evidence for or against us as free moral agents; it can cause us to feel pride, shame, regret, interest, but not remorse; it can be admired, envied, deplored, enjoyed, feared, wondered at, but not (save in some quasi-aesthetic sense) praised or condemned; our tendency to indignation is curbed, we desist from passing judgement. (p. 125)

However, I think it goes much deeper than that. If we're nothing more than meat puppets does it even make sense to speak of "agency"? I assert that I'm self-aware, but who/what is making that assertion? The concept of "I", of an autonomous individual, seems to me to rest on the idea that there's some sort of independent pilot which resides in my head and steers the ship. But what if PZ is right and the thing which claims to be me is nothing but a thin layer of frosting over a bunch of disparate systems. If there is no "I" as that concept is traditionally understood, but merely a collection of biological circuits which happens to be able to pass the Turing test, that would seem to be an even bigger blow to theories of morality than the a lack of free will. Absent an "I" who can assert rights? An integrated collection of biological machines can flap its jaw and make the appropriate noises, but why should we care if someone steals its stuff or punches it in the nose?

The traditional answer has been something along the lines of "self-awareness", but that just brings us back to square one. Why is self-awareness special when it may be nothing more than a parlor trick to keep us motivated and thus more effective at spreading our genes? I dunno... you tell me.

Anyhow, I'll leave you now to contemplate the absurdity of automatons who worry about whether or not they're automatons.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ahhhhhh... Boom!

That, ladies and gentlemen, was the sound of my skull disintegrating into a billion tiny shard after reading Amanda Marcotte's recent post on seasteading. Specifically:

Who wants to start laying bets now that if they do pull this off, and pirates attack them---and if I were a pirate, I'd go a long fucking way to ransack a floating island specifically built for soft-handed dorks with too much money whose time spent at video game consoles has deluded them into thinking they're badass---they turn to the U.S. government for protection?

Oh... the irony. To criticize the seasteading dorks1 on the ground that they won't be able to protect themselves, a criticism which only makes sense if you believe that the primary function of government is the protection of people and property. That's the essence of the libertarian argument, a position which Amanda otherwise roundly rejects.

1 I happen to think that their hearts are in the right place... mostly... but that they ridiculously underestimate the logistical challenges of putting their ideas into practice.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Critique Of Certainty And Social Justice

Real quick-like, because I have to places to be in 10 minutes...

Kristen J over at Feministe kindly requests critiques of her stance vis-a-vis certainty and social justice. Conveniently, not too long ago I wrote a post on the implications of atheism and skepticism for social justice (among other things). Since I now have to jet in 6 minutes I'll briefly summarize the argument:

Skepticism of the type expressed by Kristen, since it rejects the notion that there's some objective, normative reality "out there" to which we can all refer, is incompatible with teleologic theories of social justice . Kristen may believe one thing and I may believe another, but both of our views are equally legitimate from an epistemic standpoint. So how do we decide who's views are to have force of law? The only avenue which seems at all fruitful is to reject substantive notions of justice in favor of purely procedural ones. However, based on the tone of her post, I suspect that Kristen would find pure procedural theories to be thing gruel indeed.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Cultural Contradictions Of Daniel Bell

I just finished reading 20th Anniversary Edition of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism; I'm not quite sure what to make of it. On one hand it reads like a standard conservative tract, bemoaning the loss of tradition and warning of the attendant downfall of society. And yet, if we value a theory by its predictive power, it appears that Daniel Bell was on to something since he foresaw many of the social shifts which have occurred since the book's publication. Finally, though he clearly believes that something should be done about the state of affairs we find ourselves in, he is unable to offer much in the way of concrete suggestions.

Bell seems to acknowlege that there's something about the tone of the work which invokes images of old men grumbling about kids these days. In the foreward to the 1978 edition he discusses how he's been called as a "neo-conservative", but defends himself by saying that this is a facile categorization and that his critiques "transcend the received categories of liberalism"1. I'll buy that; I don't know what it meant to be "neo-conservative" in 1978, but he certainly wouldn't merit the title now. When writing of things which are empirically verifiable his views are generally well-reasoned, grounded in history and, as he claims, not easily reducible to "left" or "right".

At the same time, however, he longs for the high culture of the traditional canon and doesn't bother to hide his disdain for Modernism, Post-Modernism, and the cultural anarchy which followed. Sure, there was (and is) a lot of unadulturated intellectual garbage associated with the postmodern era; one need look no further than Sokal's infamous prank to know that something is rotten in Denmark. But it doesn't necessarily follow from there that the blurring of boundaries and disregard of traditional forms is A Bad Thing; part of the joy of contemporary culture is watching people do interesting things with this new liberty. Bell may not have cared much for Burgess, Vonnegut, or Kesey2 but to state, at this remove, that those writers had nothing of interest to say seems indefensible.

The good news is that this particular prejudice (or, to be charitable, "reflexive blind spot") doesn't detract much from the work as a whole. The bulk of its value can be found in the theory of "cultural contradictions" that Bell puts forward to explain how society in the West came to be in the state it was in circa 1976. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism might have been written of as another Just So Story except for the fact that it made a number of predictions which subsequently turned out to be true. Bell foresaw the coming insecurity of the middle class3 and the rise of interest-group politics4 which, as I alluded to above, suggests that he was on to something. His predictions have long since passed their "due by" date, so the book's utility as a guide to the future is limited, but the fact that he got some of them right tends to validate his underlying theory.

The Cultural Contraditions of Capitalism shines as an explanation of the origin of some of the ills of modern society but fails to offer a coherent prescription for how they might be addressed. Bells sees the root of all evil in the dissolution of behavioral boundaries and calls, in the Afterword to the 1996 edition, for a return to boundaries set by a sense of the numinous:

For me, religion is not the sphere of God or of the gods. It is the sense, a necessary one, of what is beyond us and cannot be transgressed. ... One of the charges I made against capitalism and modernism is that in their insatiable bursting of all bonds, there was "nothing sacred". The failure of capitalism and now postmodernism to establish the boundaries of transgression - which is what a doctrine of "natural law" would provide - indicate that the cultural contradictions of the two modes remain.

Setting aside obvious problems with the statement above (what if you think "the sacred" is a complete fabrication?) there remains the problem of squaring Bell's recommendation with his stated commitment to political liberalism. He quotes, with seeming approbation, Isaiah Berlin:

The notion that there must exist final objective answers to normative questions, truth that can be demonstrated or directly intuited, that it is in principle possible to discover a harmonious patern in which all values are reconciled, and that it is towards this unique goal that we must make; that we can uncover some central principle that shapes this vision a principle which, once found, will govern our lives - this ancient and almost universal belief, on which so much traditional thought and action and philosphical doctrine rests, sems to me invalid, and at time to have led (and still to lead) to absurdities in theory and barbarous consequences in practice. (p. 279)

To me that looks an awful lot like the motivating spirit of postmodernism itself, albeit dressed up in slightly nobler clothes. If Truth is unknowable, and that the only things which can be known with any certainty are brute, material facts, where does that leave us? Bell would have us live our lives bound by an arbitrary truth intuited through some sense of the sacred, which seems an odd thing to say for someone who otherwise behaves like a rationalist. I might go so far as to say that its an act of intellectual cowardice; Bell surely knows that The Void is there and is just trying to find some way to avoid looking into it. Much better to acknowlege that we're making it up as well go along and then try to find a means (natural law or something else) to live with that reality.

1 P. xi
2 P. 138. Though I'm with him in thinking that Thomas Pynchon might be an elaborate joke that got carried away.
3 P. 189 - 190
4 P. 197 - 198
5 P. xi
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