Posted by Michael Dickens on July 30, 2012
Free will is an illusion . What does this say about moral responsibility?
If the purpose of morality is to maximize the happiness of sentient beings, as I often claim, then whether free will exists is irrelevant. In fact, whether free will exists does not matter as long as morality focuses on the consequences of actions, rather than their motives.
The traditional argument goes: if free will is an illusion, then we are not in control of our own actions, which means we cannot be held responsible for them. So it doesn’t matter what actions we take, right? We can run around killing people, right? Well, no. Our actions still matter just as much as they ever did: they affect the outside world whether they are the product of free will or the result of deterministic processes. Others are still affected by our actions. We still feel emotions, even if those emotions arise deterministically.
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Posted in Ethics, Free Will, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »
Posted by Michael Dickens on January 1, 2012
I have argued that free will does not exist. In short, I argue that any action is either deterministic or random, and neither is free. This is a well-known philosophical position that is similar to determinism. Some posit that determinism is true and free will does exist; this is known as compatibilism. I do not object to this position, so I must explain why I continue to suppose that free will does not exist.
From an incompatibilist perspective, there is no reason to support free will. Evidence (not to mention logic) clearly demonstrates that every event is either deterministic or random. But I can see the merits to compatibilism, which effectively redefines free will so that it exists. Under the definition I gave in the article linked at the beginning of this essay, free will clearly does not exist. But under a different definition, it may exist. I can understand that a different definition may be useful in a different situation. I continue to assume that free will does not exist, because it does not exist under the definition of free will that I like best.
This debate’s significance primarily lies in the question of moral responsibility: If free will does not exist, some argue that we are not responsible for our actions. However, based on what I see as the most sensible definition of moral responsibility, free will is irrelevant. The only reason to define someone as morally responsible is if that definition will influence people to do more good than they would have done otherwise. (I will write about this more in a future essay, which I will (hopefully) publish soon.)
For my purposes, the incompatibilist definition of free will makes more sense. Some prefer the compatibilist definition; as long as we are clear on what our terms mean, I have no problem with using a different definition. I simply see no reason to.
Posted in Ethics, Free Will, Philosophy, Utilitarianism | Tagged: determinism, moral responsibility | 2 Comments »
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 12, 2011
It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
-John Stuart Mill
I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
These two quotes, while they come from very different points of view, are remarkably similar. Mill discusses the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, and explains how it is better to experience higher pleasures such as art and philosophy than lower pleasures like eating and sex. (His quote above doesn’t cover his whole argument, of course; he explains in detail in chapter 2 of Utilitarianism.) Feynman addresses the all-too-common opinion that analyzing something subtracts from its beauty. Although one of these quotes is about Utilitarianism and the other is about science and beauty, they have a lot in common.
Mill’s key claim is that higher pleasures are more desirable. In his last sentence he acknowledges that people who do not understand higher pleasures often think they are better off than people who do, and asserts that such people are mistaken. Feynman provides a perfect example of this. The artist sees a scientific mindset as a burden that gets in the way of appreciating beauty. He does not see how a scientist could find pleasure in the aesthetics of a flower while at the same time analyzing its inner workings. The scientist, however, is able to appreciate the beauty of the flower as well as examine the more hidden beauty that requires scientific analysis.
Not all artists are “nutty” in this way, of course; but people like the artist Feynman describes are missing out on the pleasure and the beauty that scientific understanding can unlock. A deeper understanding can always lead to more pleasure, not less.
Feynman’s quote is from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, which is available online. I recommend it.
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Posted by Michael Dickens on August 22, 2010
More and more recently, I’ve been coming across Ayn Rand’s theory of Objectivism. Considering how widely influential it’s been, I’ve decided to look into it. Before I do, I have some preliminary thoughts that I’d like to put out in the world.
Objectivism is a cult. The more I learn about it, the more this seems to be true. The Ayn Rand Institute, which appears to be the definitive organization on Objectivism, has some very cultish properties. Their FAQ includes “Where can I read Ayn Rand’s view on . . . ?” and “Is [the Ayn Rand Institute] or anyone else formally vested with the right to speak on behalf of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism?” (the answer to which, by the way, is “no” because Ayn Rand is the Only True Authority on Objectivism).
I don’t want to learn about a person, I want to learn about a philosophy. For the most part, I couldn’t care less about Ayn Rand. I do think that the context of the development of the philosophy is important, but beyond that it doesn’t really matter who created Objectivism. What matters are the ideas.
I don’t want to learn about philosophy by reading fiction. I read the very beginning of The Fountainhead and it seems like a good book, but I don’t want to learn about Objectivism from it because it’s fictional, which means in the end its whole argument revolves around a made up story. You can make up a story to support any viewpoint you want. I would much rather learn about a philosophy from, oh, I don’t know, a book on philosophy. Like, nonfiction. Like this, or this. With actual straightforward arguments. It seems that such resources do exist, but Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are by far the most commonly-turned to sources of Objectivist philosophy.
There are two main reasons why I want to look into Objectivism.
1. It looks like a pretty original outlook on the world, and I think new outlooks are always good to learn about. Even if I don’t agree, I like to look at things from a different perspective.
2. It has been extremely influential in recent decades. Knowing about Objectivism is just required to be a part of Western culture. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little.)
In short, I’m going to learn more about the non-cultish aspects of Objectivism, because it looks interesting. I’ll probably write an essay or two within the next year or so.
Posted in Philosophy, Politics | 2 Comments »
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 7, 2010
I was just reading some Buddhist philosophy, and I came across something quite interesting. You may have heard that old saying, “life is pain.” You may have heard that people are meant to suffer, that true happiness is impossible because everyone must suffer, that all good things must come to an end. But, perhaps fortunately, this sort of thinking is flawed because of its biased perspective.
We, liking happiness and disliking suffering, naturally divide the world into happiness and non-happiness. When we do this, we see that happiness never lasts and that all good things come to an end. I do not dispute these facts. However, I offer an alternative perspective. If we look at the world from the other side, dividing it into suffering and non-suffering, then we can just as easily see that true suffering is impossible because everyone must be happy at some point. In addition, all bad things — in much the same way as all good things — must come to an end. We can never truly suffer because all suffering, just like all happiness, is temporary. In fact, in this world we live in, nothing lasts forever.
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Posted by Michael Dickens on May 25, 2010
Saying thank-you does seem to be a kind deed; and indeed it is. But giving thanks, at least in the conventional manner, is rather narrow-minded — and even could be considered selfish.
We typically give thanks for a deed that is beneficial to us. Even if it is not very significant, we are nearly always the recipient of the action that prompted the gratitude. In this way, giving thanks can be seen as a self-serving deed.
How? When we give thanks, the person we are thanking feels appreciated. This person is more likely to continue to do good things for us in the future. We are increasing the happiness of the other person, but mostly increasing the future benefit for ourselves.
Giving thanks is by no means a bad thing. It benefits both parties involved. But, at least when used in the conventional manner, it is narrow-minded and even selfish.
What would be an unselfish way of giving thanks? The best way to give thanks — the one that would benefit the most people — would be to give thanks to anyone who did an extraordinary deed. This is the most selfless way of showing gratitude. Plenty of people most certainly do give thanks in this way, but they just as certainly do not do it consistently.
Gratitude is a wonderful thing. Its benefits are exactly why it should be spread — even to those who did not help you personally.
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Posted by Michael Dickens on March 24, 2010
Apparently, if you make a grid representing days in a year, it looks like you don’t have very much time left to live.
In any event, confronting the grid and contemplating its meaning is a sobering experience for me. You cross out a square with each day passes, and no power in Heaven or Earth can bring that day back for you. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. And when another year has passed, all the squares will be crossed out, irrevocably lost. You move on to another grid.
Sure, you could cross out one square per day. But why do that? I think that, instead of making a grid for a year using days as squares, we should make a grid using seconds as squares. After all, it only takes about a second to cross off a square. So if we then made a grid representing a lifetime, what would it look like? If each square had a length and width of one centimeter, it would take over 90 seconds to walk from one end of the grid to the other. I wanted to upload a picture of such a grid, but it was nearly 70 megabytes.
Life is long. Savor it.
Posted in Philosophy | 5 Comments »
Posted by Michael Dickens on March 3, 2010
A continuation of this post. I will be critiquing the beginning of the first chapter of the Groundwork. I am working from a translated version that can be found here.
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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Michael Dickens on February 10, 2010
Cynicism is defined as the belief that people are motivated purely by self-interest. This outlook is, almost by definition, self-refuting. This is why.
It is widely accepted that cynicism is a somewhat depressing belief. The word “cynicism” itself has come to be synonymous with a bleak outlook on life, so much so that I am actually having difficulty describing what cynicism has come to mean without using the word “cynical”. The reason this is so is obvious enough: it is considered a bad thing if people are motivated by self-interest alone. But why is it considered a bad thing? Well, it’s because we consider altruism to be morally right and selfishness to be morally wrong. In some senses, selfishness is the ultimate moral wrong. So if nearly everyone agrees that selfishness is wrong, then how can cynicism possibly be correct, that is, how can people all be selfish? If everyone was purely and deeply selfish, then our morality would reflect that. But instead it reflects altruism. The very fact that cynicism is considered a bad thing is evidence that it is not the correct outlook on life, and that people are not entirely selfish after all.
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Posted by Michael Dickens on December 14, 2009
If you can conceive of morality without god, why can you not conceive of society without government?
~ Peter Saint-André
Let me answer that question with a question: If you can conceive of morality without god, why can you not conceive of peaches without apples?
(Both questions used the same logic.)
Posted in Atheism and Religion, Philosophy, Rationality | 1 Comment »