29 April 2012

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

There are hedges that may bring about that against which they seek to guard their drafters.

Among these, one has to count this.  

The European Investment Bank, which is making loans to various Greek businesses (in order to fulfill a commitment to issue a total of 600 million euros of such loans by January 2013, and 1.4 billion euros by the end of 2015) has taken to including clauses that account for the possibility that Greece will resume use of the drachma.

As I mentioned in mid February of this year, the EIB is one party in a “troika” of institutions bargaining on behalf of the central Eurozone countries with the countries of the zone’s more troubled periphery. The EU itself and the IMF are the other members of said troika.

The key coming date is May 6. That is Election Day in Greece, and polls indicate that the coalition of political parties inclined to pursue the country’s dealings with the troika [roughly speaking, a center-right party and a center-left party] are in position to win a one vote majority in the next parliament. But this leaves open the intriguing question: what if anything will the electorate make of drachma clauses? Don’t they rather dent the we’re-all-in-this-together mood you’d want to foster if you wanted to save the unity of the Eurozone? Don’t they suggest that the troika and the nations by whom it is dominated are looking out for themselves and Greece ought to do so as well?
I suspect the governing coalition may not get that one-vote majority on which it is counting, and will not survive this election as a governing coalition.

28 April 2012

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Part 4

I’m looking at a copy of Robert Caro’s latest, THE PASSAGE OF POWER. This is the fourth book in his series THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON.
One of the themes in the early going of Vol. 4 could be summarized in the words “Johnson dithered.” It is Caro’s view that he might well have won the Democratic nomination for President in 1960 if he had grabbed for it himself with his usual decisiveness and energy. But that would have meant laying groundwork as early as 1958, and engaging in a serious hunt for delegates through 1959. Johnson did neither of those things.  Nor did he close the door on them. 

He dithered.
By January 1960, he finally seemed ready to get busy. His strategy required the Mountain West. He assumed he could go into the convention as the south’s candidate, but to be something more, his natural allies were to be found in the mountain states – on mining and other resource issues, he had a Senate record that found admirers there.

So Caro gives us the following scene from early 1960. An experienced western-states political operative, Irving Hoff, was now working there on LBJ's behalf, and Hoff spoke for example with a key figure in Idaho who had the wonderfully appropriate name Tom Boise.

These are Caro’s words:

In Idaho, where the Hells Canyon Dam was rising day by day, and where political leaders knew who had gotten them the dam at last, the Democratic state chairman, Tom Boise, had told Hoff that, despite all the Kennedy efforts, many party leaders were still considering supporting Johnson. ‘These guys were for Johnson,’ Hoff says, ‘If we had been able to tell them that he was going to run, we’d have had that delegation.’ He explained this to Johnson, and Johnson accepted an invitation to speak in Lewiston, Idaho, and afterwards to have a drink with Boise and his leaders in a hotel suite. But in the suite [Johnson still couldn’t quite bring himself to declare.] He said, ‘What the heck do you think I’m out here for – catching butterflies? Do you see me carrying a net?’ But there were future government positions at stake, careers at stake,  issues at stake – with the convention so close, rhetorical humor wasn’t enough. They pressed him further. But all Johnson would say was, ‘I’ll let you know…You’ll be the first to know.’”  

(p. 74.)

I love Caro’s way of developing – and, you might say, milking – such a scene. He even tells us that Johnson was walking around the living room of the hotel suite in his pajamas while saying these evasive things, and that he was stirring his drink with his big finger. That’s the way to do biography!

27 April 2012

Mad Men

I've been catching up with the television series Mad Men.

Regular readers of this blog are of course aware that I’m a fan. Not-so-regular readers can become aware in detail easily enough:  here.
The first episode of the new series (formally known as episodes 1 + 2, I gather, though it was seamless dramatically) drew a lot of attention for Megan Draper’s (actress Jessica Paré’s) rendition of Zou Bisou Bisou (“shoo kiss kiss” according to a quick cheap net translation).  Here’s a link courtesy of YouTube.  And certainly that’s attention getting.

But an equally fascinating subplot involved the fantasy life of Lane Pryce. To review: Lane Pryce is the fellow sent to America by the Brits, Puttnam Powell and Lowe, when PP&L briefly owned the ‘old’ Sterling Cooper, to ride herd over these unreliable Americans. He took part in the shenanigans that helped create a newly independent ad agency, and for his help became a partner in what has since been Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce.

We’ve known, or at least been given opportunity to sense, for some time already that Pryce has an inhibited and potentially troublesome sexuality. This episode seemed to bring that to a new level.

Pryce finds an abandoned wallet in a taxicab, and becomes infatuated with a woman in a photograph there. There’s also a lot of money in the wallet – Lane, a man of honor in all matters financial, returns the wallet with all the cash intact to its proper owner: a Mr. Polito. It’s a lot of cash, and Polito may be some sort of mobbed-up big shot.  Pryce has, though, pocketed the photo of the gal that both he and Polito now in a manner share: Delores.
In a brief telephone conversation, Dolores seems open at least to some flirtation with Pryce.
I’m not really taking any huge leap here when I say I smell trouble.  

Episode 3 is Betty-centric, and gives us a chance to catch up with Betty and her new husband, Henry Francis. Betty is wonderfully portrayed by January Jones, as a woman facing weight gain and, as the show develops, fears that something much worse is behind it.

The writers use Henry Francis to comment on contemporary (2012) politics.  After all, it is now certain (as certain as such things can be) that the Republicans will this summer nominate Mitt Romney for the office of President of the United States. Mitt is the son of George Romney, who was a rather big wheel in the Mad Men era.
In the summer of 1966, when George Romney was Governor of Michigan, and the former CEO of American Motors. He was widely considered serious presidential timber (a status he would eventually – in 1967 -- forfeit with an ill considered remark about how he had been “brainwashed.”) Romney was also seen as the heir to Nelson Rockefeller as the moderate/liberal Republican most prominent in the presidential sweepstakes. After a loss to Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Republican convention, Rocky seems to have lost interest in presidential contention and in effect he was thereafter a supporter of Romney’s own jockeying in 1966.
So much for reality: what about the fictive world? Henry Francis was an aide to Nelson Rockefeller when his relationship with Betty Draper began. He has left Rocky’s employ, and is now working for the Mayor of New York City, John Lindsay. So Francis is making a career for himself on the leftward end of the viable intra-party spectrum within the GOP. Francis is exactly the sort of person most likely to have been an enthusiast of George Romney at this time.
It is startling, then, to see Francis briefly on the phone, apparently with somebody who works for Gov. Romney. Francis is refusing an offer of a joint Lindsay/Romney photo op because, he says, “Romney is a clown.”
You can see a clip here.
I have no reason to argue with the opinion that Mitt Romney is a clown. But George Romney was not especially clownish, certainly not from the perspective of a Henry Francis. Nor was he clownish from the perspective of electoral success – that November he would win re-election by an impressive margin. I think it odd and unfortunate that the writers of Mad Men would let 2012 exert a sort of backward causation into their plot in this way.
Still … the show makes us think. And I enjoyed both (all three!) of these episodes.

26 April 2012

Is it just me?

Is it just me, or does the new Blogger system really stink?

I have a great deal of trouble just typing these posts now. The best approach seems to be to write out a post in a Windows-file, then paste it here. Then it is relatively simple to make some slight changes after the pasting is done.

But why would they require this? What exactly did they do?

Against whom should I seek vengeance?  Bill??

22 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Wrapping It Up

Let us go through Kane's book one more time, with appropriate links:

I bought the book because I had heard that Kane brought up to date the incompatibilist tradition of James and Isaiah Berlin.

Kane structures his own work in two parts: an ascent (showing why we have and value these strong intuitions about moral philosophy that are incompatible with determinism) and a descent (showing that indeterminism of the necessary sort may well be part of the natural physical world.)
Martin Luther was free even when, as he said, he could “do nothing else” than what he was doing. But this just means that his inability to do anything else at a given mature moment is the consequence of a long life of diverging paths at many points of which he could have done otherwise.

The issue of whether freedom and moral responsibility in strong sense of the terms are compatible with determinism necessarily brings us through some discussion of ordinary language, seeking help from that quarter. This has some interest, but is not dispositive.

The problem is brought to something of a head by B.F. Skinner’s portrayal of Walden Two, and its covert non-constraining controls on its happy campers.
We get to the top of our ascent, we understand the incompatibility of certain deep intuitions with determinism, when we come to understand our own development as individuals, from infancy onward, as ever-more-sophisticated attempts to accommodate a primordial desire.

But now, how do we get back down the mountain and find a place for this primordial desire in the real world? Consider certain critical willings as the subjective manifestation of genuine neurological uncertainties all the way down to the electron level. These are our self-forming willings (SFWs). I have presented my reasons for believing that Kane is overly elaborate  in his descriptions of the different types of SFW: that, following a cue from William James, we might better reduce them all to a single form, the sustaining of attention.

In his conclusion, Kane comes back to the writings of B.F. Skinner as a negative example, and argues that a belief in free will as a metaphysical and psychological matter may help contribute to a society that is free in the political sense.

21 April 2012

A Challenge to Anarcho-Capitalism

One of my Facebook friends, Matt Dubuque, recently posted on his wall a link to a BBC report on a "disaster zone robot competition announced by Pentagon."

According to Matt, this sort of development shows that government is or can be a good thing, a source of original and valuable ideas that, even if originally military in conception, will carry over into civilian applications. This is a rebuke (in his view) to those of us, emphatically including yours truly, who don't see government as the cause of any net benefit in human life at all.

I challenged him on this, saying that I think the $2 million involved in the disaster-zone-robot competition would "almost certainly be better spent if left in the hands of the Chinese who lent it."

It is intriguing that when people try to make this kind of point, they so often focus on the military. The manner in which Japan was defeated in 1945 gave rise to a desire (a penitential one, perhaps) to show that atoms could be split for peaceful ends.  An effort upon which Japan itself became overly dependent, a fact highlighted by last year's Japanese tsunami.

Matt doesn't want to argue that the Hiroshima/Nagasaki blasts have worked out for the best because they have given us nuclear power plants. Indeed, when I asked him about that point he called it a "very big and very public" mistake.

So the case for government goodness based on Pentagon sponsored inventions comes back to those robots working in disaster zones. The military need for such robots is clear enough. If you bomb a place into rubble you'll want to have robots explore the rubble first. The military benefits can hardly be considered net benefits for humanity bestowed by governments!  We don't sing hymns to the rivalry of governments which produces the wars and the chaos which also produces more efficient ways to conduct that rivalry. At best, clever robots in the context of war will mitigate some of the awfulness of war.

Ah, but there will be civilian benefits ... someday, maybe. If we don't look at such claims with some skepticism, after all, we might find ourselves encouraging warfare-based statism, in the expectation that it will create ever more wonderful stuff (for those who survive long enough to enjoy the stuff.)

A more promising candidate for Matt's point then is the internet. He asked me whether I was asserting that:

 "1. The government and the Defense Department played no central role in the development of FTP.

"2. That FTP was not central to the founding of the Internet and its subsequent offspring the world wide web.

"3. That, on balance, the Internet and World Wide Web are simply of marginal utility?"

I begged off, saying I would address such points in an upcoming blog entry.  Which is where we are. So ....

For the uninitiated, FTP is "file transfer protocol," a critical internet building block that dates back to the early 1970s, and allows the quick transfer of text from one computer to another. And yes, of course, I acknowledge the historical truth in Matt's points (1) and (2). In 1958, as a response to the Soviet advances embodied in their Sputnik satellite, the US established an advanced research projects agency (ARPA) -- later renamed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The name change made explicit what had been clear enough anyway -- the new interest in supporting "advanced" projects was an interest in those with military significance, in the face of the threat from Soviet communism. FTP, and in the early 1980s for that matter the development of graphical user interfaces (GUI) too, were offspring of ARPA/DARPA. 

Now ... isn't that good?  Hasn't the internet brought us a lot of useful stuff, such as my ability to explain these thoughts to whoever you are, reading this right now?

Well ... yes. But as to question (3) above, I still have to say, "maybe not."   Indeed, "probably not."  

The phrase "marginal utility" is an inapt one in this context. That's a technical phrase in economics, with a meaning different from what Matt seems to have in mind. What I think he has in mind is a full cost/benefit analysis. The problem with this is that it requires alternative-path scenarios. The question is not "is a world with long-distance speed-of-light non-hierarchical communication better than one without" but something more like "is a world with long-distance speed-of-light non-hierarchical communication of the sort the world now has because of ARPA/DARPA better than whatever would exist had it not come about in that way?"!

In considering that question, one would have to consider other ways in which long-distance, speed-of-light non-hirearchical communication could have come about. Do we know it could never have happened had there been no such post-Sputnik reaction?

The problem is the old one of weighing what we don't see against what we do see. What seems obvious is that if ARPA had never existed, the money that it spent would have been spent or invested in some other way. How do we decide among different possible pathways unless we have some sense of what else might have been done with it, whether in the telecomm field or elsewhere?
As an ambitious extreme for this sort of analysis, I'm reminded of a science fiction story I read once in which mercenary time travelers had somehow changed the outcome of the Punic Wars. The protagonist had to decide whether to time travel himself and undo the mischief the first set of time travelers had done, allowing Rome to win and the 'natural' course of history to proceed from there. In this novel, there is no 'better' or 'worse.' The 21st century AD that resulted from Hannibal’s victory was neither better nor worse than the one that resulted from Scipio's victory in the natural time line. Just very different.

Now think of something much simpler. Think of a bridge, built several years ago over the river Hypothetical with public funds. There was no big market-based demand for this bridge, because both the two towns separated by the mighty river Hypothetical were small. But … due in large part to that bridge, the towns have grown large, and merged into one. Instead of East Burg and West Burg there is now the unified town of Burg.

We Burgers no longer think of the bridge as a matter for continuing expenditures. After all, the maintenance costs of this bridge are a very small part of the overall highway budget of the state of which Burg is a part, and as to whatever bonds were sold to build the bridge, they’ve likewise melded into the broad background of public finance.

You can imagine an admirer of big government waxing poetically about the wonders of the bridge over Hypothetical. Where would the Burgers be without it?  They cross that bridge all the time, a huge commerce depends on it, they would be in a terrible fix were it to disappear!

Yet that admirer would be misguided. (At least he’d have to be judged so without much better reasoning than that!)   As Henry Hazlitt wrote long ago, thinking of precisely such cases, if you have taught yourself “to look for indirect as well as direct consequences [you can] once more see in the eye of imagination the possibilities that have never been allowed to come into existence.” What of that capital that was diverted to create this bridge and indirectly to create the Burg that depends on it? That capital would otherwise have created homes, cars, washing machines, dresses and coats, etc.

No doubt we will continue to use the bridge whatever our imagination or philosophy allows. But why suspect a priori that the world created by the diversion of that capital is better than the world strangled at that moment?

That other world – one in which the whole highway system around this river on both banks had been left to market forces let us say – would likely have had new bridges at some point, too, since bridges are valuable things for which there is a market demand. There would not have been (on our stipulation) this particular bridge built with these materials, at this particular time. Why do we know the cost/benefit ratio along that path would have been worse?

I suspect the burden of proof lies quite the other way, for bridges and for file transfer methods too, and it is a burden that cannot be satisfied.

The capital was diverted by force in one way or another. Either the bridge was built by taxed revenue or it was built with money borrowed, due to the low interest rates that can go to a sovereign because of its power to tax, and because of the further power to declare interest on its bonds tax free. Either way, it was a diversion by force.

Force is quite generally a way of doing that which free transactions among free people would not have done. How does that make it a good thing? How does that make force-built bridges magically superior to whatever the freely transacting parties would have done.

I have to deem Matt’s point yet unmade.

20 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis VIII

Kane’s chapter 10 is called “Objections and Replies.” The objections that he surveys here are from “astute and persistent critics of my view” as expressed in earlier publications, “to whom I am indebted for waking me from many a dogmatic slumber.”

I won’t go through the objections and his replies for you. They expand but marginally on the argument I’ve already presented. I will note, though, that one of the objections forces Kane to expand upon the quantum-theoretical gist of his own argument on the way "down the mountain." Could there be two people with exactly the same history, biochemistry, etc., whose deliberations on exactly the same point come to contrary conclusions? In a footnote, he explains:

“A natural objection here would be that the quantum-wave functions of the brains of the two persons would be exactly the same … combinations of the wave functions of their component particles. But these wave functions are abstract descriptions of the real brains that do not tell us what the exact positions and momenta of the component particles are. Rather they yield various probabilities that the particles will have such-and-such positions and momenta.” So, yes, so far as we know, this is possible. Just as it’s possible that in one context Schrodinger’s cat is dead and in another exactly identical context the cat is still alive when the lid is opened.

In his conclusion, chapter 11, Kane seeks to “situate the debates about free will … within broader intellectual currents of the late twentieth century and of the modern era in philosophy generally.”

Kane returns here to Walden Two, the B.F. Skinner utopia that many readers (Kane amongst them) see as an unintended dystopia. In the story, a philosopher named Castle asks some skeptical questions of the utopia’s leader, Frazier. Frazer says that scientists now know what the good life is, so it would be wrong to refuse to condition people into leading it. Castle asks, then: what is the good life?

Skinner/Frazier answers: It is a lengthy answer, beginning at p. 146 of the book and continuing into page 149. There are five points to the good life: physical and psychological health, a minimum of unpleasant labor, opportunities to exercise talents, satisfying personal contacts, and necessary opportunities for relaxation. There need be no philosophical explanation behind this list, in fact (Frazier says) efforts to get behind it philosophically are misguided, like “a centipede trying to decide how to walk,” when the thing to do is just walk.

“This response by Frazier temporarily silences poor Castle,” as Kane observers. But Kane comes to Castle’s aid. Castle's question is unanswered, and is unanswered for a reason that even the most practical of caterpillars should not ignore. The good life, including each of those five attractive things, might for all we know be satisfied in any of several or an “indefinite number” of different ways. Further, those different ways might well conflict with one another as Isaiah Berlin suggested in his writing about “value pluralism.” We might lose one way of satisfying these requirements for the good life as we grasp for another.

The idea of free will as Kane has expounded it, though, is inherently a “value experimental” idea. It suggests that we can and do remake ourselves, in ways that determine which values, in a world of competing value/projects, we will pursue. It is a justified rebuke to Skinner’s value monism.   
With that rebuke we may fittingly and freely end.

19 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will, Exegesis VII

After presenting a view of self-forming willings (SFWs) that involves "chaos, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, and neural networks," Kane presents a typology of such SFWs.

There are SFWs: of moral deliberation, where the indeterminacy lies between duty on the one hand and self interest on the other; of prudential deliberation; where it lies between long-term goals and present satisfaction; and the sustaining of attention, where it lies between the performance of an arduous task on the one hand and various “fears, inhibitions, aversions, and other countervailing inclinations” on the other.

I have to say I don’t see the point of this typology. From a psychological point of view, it may well be that the third type is the fundamental one, and the other two are only manifestations thereof. And why should the psychological point of view not also be that of the philosopher in such a matter? 

Take one of James’ examples: “The exhausted sailor on a wreck has a will which is obstructed. One of his ideas is that of his sore hands, of the nameless exhaustion of his whole frame which the act of farther pumping involves, and of the deliciousness of sinking into sleep. The other is that of the hungry sea ingulfing him. ‘Rather the aching toil!’ he says; and it becomes reality then, in spite of the inhibiting influence of the relatively luxurious sensations which he gets from lying still.”  

This example fits all the items that Kane wants kept distinct. The sailor is doing his duty to his fellow crew members, to the captain, to any passengers on board, etc. It would be selfish for him to fall asleep while he could continue to pump out water during this crisis – it would mean that if he lived it would be by the exertions of others, made more burdensome by his default. Thus, it fits Kane’s definition of an SFW of moral deliberation. Yet from the point of view of prudential deliberation, our sailor cannot be confident he would survive if he did not keep up his own efforts –he improves his own chances by doing so, however taxing it is. Thus, it fits Kane’s definition of prudential deliberation. Yet it was introduced by James into his great work on psychology specifically to illustrate the act of sustaining attention, which Kane lists as a third type of SFW.  Our sailor sustains his attention upon the “hungry sea,” and thus he keeps on with his pumping.

Assuming Kane is right about everything else (and I am at least sympathetic with him on everything else) why not just regard that matter of sustaining attention as the Ur-SFW? And others not as other types but as expressions or consequences thereof?  

We have nearly completed our project of summarizing Kane’s book, one that has required a more sustained focusing of attention on our part than is the custom for blogs, so far as I know the customs of this tribe.

Tomorrow, we shall complete this survey, with a view of Kane’s last two chapters. On Sunday, (after a Saturday diversion) we shall wrap it all up, summarizing our summary if you will.

15 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis VI

It probably won't come as too much of a surprise if I tell you at this point that in order to get us back down the mountain, in order to argue that this incompatibilist free will we've been defining might be a reality without the invocation of any supernatural or transcendental machinery, Kane invokes the indeterminacy of quantum physics.

That sounds like a bit of a cliche, and Kane acknowledges as much early in the book.

Nonetheless, he makes this move, and he does have something new (or new to me, at any rate) to contribute in the specificity with which he carries this forward in the later portions of the book.

From chapter 8: “Imagine that the indeterminate efforts of will [as we experience them] are complex chaotic processes in the brain, involving neural networks that are globally sensitive to quantum indeterminacies at the neuronal level. Persons experience these complex processes phenomenologically as ‘efforts of will’ they are making to resist temptation in moral and prudential situations.”

This sounds to me like it builds on a “dual aspect” theory of the relations of mind. There is what we subjectively (phenomenologically) experience and there is what is happening physically. Neither of these facts is unreal, nor is either the cause of the other. Each is an aspect of the same situation. Sometimes the subjective aspect of this situation is one of uncertainty and balance -- as when my desire for a smoke conflicts with my desire to finally kick the habit. At least sometimes, when that is the case subjectively, what is happening objectively is also a matter of uncertainty and balance. There is, let us say, a chaotic process underway in the brain and how it will resolve itself depends upon the way some quantum butterfly's wings will flap.

Either I pick up the cigarette or I throw away the pack. The consequences for my life thereafter may be great. And either course may well be an undetermined free willing, or a self-formed will (an SFW).

Remember the Martin Luther situation we discussed earlier? Sometimes one says, “Here I stand, I can do nothing else,” and the stand one takes then is a free act, not an unfree one. Luther was expressing the view that there was no torn will in him at that time, no conflict of purposes. Being who he was, he could not do anything else.

But it might well be that he became that Martin Luther because at earlier points in his life these critical moments of uncertainty – genuine uncertainty, all the way down to the electron level – had resolved themselves in one way rather than another. And such a proposition is necessary, Kane believes, in order for us to understand Luther as fully free thereafter despite all the web of determined effects of determined causes that his life and times no doubt spun.  

14 April 2012


Let's leave the free will controversy to the side and think about Marrakesh, Morocco.

My 2012 appointment book from American Express devotes the whole of April to the celebration of  Marrakesh as a wonderful vacation spot, where you can spend American Express traveller's checks enjoyably.

I've learned the following from perusing these pages:

1. The Majorelle Garden, a "treasured Marrakesh haven," was created in the 1920s by Jacques Majorelle back in the 1920s. Majorelle included a "bright blue studio" on these grounds, see above -- that structure is nowadays a museum of Islamic art.

2.   A traditional public bathhouse, known as a "hammam" offers a scrub-and-massage, which our friends at Amex recommend as "sure cure for souk fatigue."

3. UNESCO made the Merrakesh medina a World Heritage site in 1985.

That'll do for couch-bound tourism for today, eh?

13 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis V

Here's the final question we have to answer in order to establish the mutual incompatibility of moral responsibility and determinism, on Kane's understanding: "Why do we, or should we, want to possess a kind of freedom ... that requires UR (as well as AP-for-some-free-actions) .... What is so important about ultimate responsibility that should make a freedom requiring it 'worth wanting'?"

Kane responds by rehearsing somewhat familiar arguments to the effect that this UR + AP freedom "is necessary for the possession of many other goods such as genuine creativity, autonomy, desert and the like." But he acknowledges that compatibilists can usually redefine creativity, autonomy, etc. in their own favored ways, ways that don't require this UR/AP combination. So, Kane asks: how break the deadlock?

He answers in a passage that reminds me a bit of Jean Piaget, a passage making recourse to the development of human ideas of selfhood, human self-understanding, from infancy to adulthood. Infants begin to perceive the difference of self and not-self. As humans grow, we develop ever more sophisticated versions of that distinction, at each stage preserving "a remnant of the idea that we are independent sources of activity or motion in the world."

An incompatibilist view of freedom in full metaphysical Magilla sense, then, is the natural culmination of that struggle that began in the cradle. It is what the toddler means to say when her body language tells Mom, "Unhand me, I want to do this walking thing on my own!"

What determinism in either hard or soft form can never do is accomodate our primordial desire to be a somebody whose contribution to the world is one' s own, which in turn is connected to "higher aspirations in human beings toward a worth for their existence that transcends transitory satisfactions."

Welcome to the top of the mountain.  Now: can Kane get us down?

12 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis IV

Last week we had reached the point of Kane's argument at which he had decided that the issue of the presence of alternative possibilities (AP) is not sufficient in explaining incompatibilism. He needed to invoke another intuition: that of ultimate responsibility (UR).

In what sense, if any, is the willer of an act the one ultimately responsible for that act?

As to moral responsibility, a classical statement of what amounts to a compatibilist position comes from the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, and Kane plays against Frankfurt through much of Kane's chapter 5. Frankfurt, in a 1971 essay, observed that compulsive behavior is a threat to some accounts of free will. If I am addicted to nicotine it certainly doesn't seem to me that my reaching for a cigarette is a free act.

Such reflections led Frankfurt to distinguish between first-order and second-order desires. My first-order desire is to get a quick smoke, to satisfy my immediate need for a fix. Beyond that, I may reflect about such compulsions, and I may be either content with my first-order desires or in rebellion against them. An addict who is unhappy about the situation doesn't "have the will he wants to have."

From this, we get a certain conception of freedom. A person will be said to "act freely" in the sense pertinent to moral responsibility, when that person's second-order volitions -- and third or fourth oreder if you like -- are all in accord with the first-order desires and the actual actions based thereon.

Kane's words here: "Though Frankfurt is reluctant to call himself a compatibilist or incompatibilist, it is clear that one of his motives was to offer a demystified account of freedom of will that would not commit one to the excesses of traditional libertarian views....As a consequence, theories of hierarchical motivation like his have been developed by ... others to defend compatibilist views of freedom and autonomy."

Yet Kane finds such arguments for compatibilism unsatisfactory. There is plenty of room, he says, for covert non-constraining controls (CNC) that would leave the objects of control in the full confidence that their whole hierarchy of wills or volitions was lined up properly -- yet which would leave ultimate responsibility in the hands of the controller, like a cult leader, or the psychologists in charge of Walden Two.

"At the very highest level of sophistication one might imagine God doing the controlling, since the problems posed by [subtle] control have their theological counterparts in problems of devine predestnation or foreordination."

We have ultimate responsibility for our own actions, he concludes, if and only if we have, at least now and then, self-creating or self-forming actions.

So, are we at the top of incompatibilist mountain yet, and can we start downward, worrying about how this self-formation actually happens, if it does? No ... there is one more point to cover before we get to the summit. I'll hold this off until tomorrow.

08 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis III

Chapter 4 continues our discussion of the notion of alternative possibilities (AP) as critical to freedom and, thus, moral responsibility.

Kane cites a discussion by Peter van Inwagen, who wrote, "If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born....Therefore the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us." The point is that we would then have no power to do anything deserving praise or blame.

This is called the "consequence" argument. Against such arguments, compatibilists often contend that we are free in any circumstance in which we "could have done" X had we wanted to do X. I'm using quote marks because this is headed in an ordinary-language direction. It doesn't matter that the fact that we didn't want to do X is a consequence of other facts back to the Big Bang  -- what matters is simply that in a range of cases we do what we want, for good or ill.  Thus, we have the "power" to do right or wrong after all.

Kane thinks that Inwagen's argument is a good one, although not decisive, and the counters to it depend upon unpersuasive non-intuitive usage of ordinary-language words like "could have" or "power." Following a suggestion in an essay by quintessential ordinary-langauge philosopher J.L. Austin, Kane asks us to think a golfer on the green lining up a three-foot putt.

This golfer has made three-foot putts before. He has also missed from that distance. Indeed, you can get elaborate here: he has made putts at three feet with slants of the ground comparable to this, wind conditions etc., comparable to this, etc. -- and, in his long golfing career, he has also sometimes missed them. This is a level fo difficulty beyond a predictable gimme but well short of hopelessness for him.

Now, in ordinary language, we would happily say that our golfer has the power to make the putt. But if he misses, we will not treat this as proof that he didn't want to make the putt. Thus, the significance of terms like "power" are not very closely tied to the "could have done X if he wanted to" conditionals employed by Inwagen's adversaries. Arguments that rely on their synonymity, then, fail, and Inwagen's case for incompatibilism looks plausible again.

Plausible but, in Kane's eyes, not dispositive. To get beyond the impasse between compatibilist intuitions and incompatibilist intuitions, we have to get beyond the notion of AP. There is another intuitive characteristic of freedom we have to bring in as a supplement at this point: the idea that in some sense I am the one with Ultimate Responsibility (UR) for my actions.

Free will consists not just in AP, nor just in UR, but in AP + UR. Arguments like Inwagen's fail to persuade because UR is left implicit, tucked inside words like "power." Hereafter, Kane vows to be explicit about it.

And here I will leave things until next week.  Happy Easter.

07 April 2012

Fermat's Last Tango

Last week, here, I provided a few lyrics from one of the songs in the musical, "Fermat's Last Tango."

Today, as a bit of a break from our heavy-duty discussion of free will in moral philosophy, I offer a bit more information.

The only performer in the cast who seems to have had a prior theatrical reputation was Christianne Tisdale (whom you see to the left of these words, if I've done this right.) Ms Tisdale plays Euclid in the AfterMath scenes - she also plays one of the nameless reporters who quiz Daniel Keane [aka Andrew Wiles] about his accomplishment at the beginning and end of the show.

Tisdale made her Broadway debut six years before the making of Fermat's Last Tango. She played the lead, Belle, in the stage version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

The rest of the cast list? There was Gilles Chiasson (Carl Friedrich Gauss/Reporter), Edwardyne Cowan (Anna Keane, supportive/suffering spouse), Mitchell Kantor (Pythagoras/Reporter), Jonathan Rabb (a wonderfully foppish Fermat), Chris Thompson (Daniel Keane) and Carrie Wilshusen (Isaac Newton/Reporter).

Props especially to Ms Cowan, who did a surprising but fitting bluesy number called "Math Widow." She is, professionally, more of a singer than an actress. IMDB tells me that she has appeared in a couple of Carnegie Hall Concerts, including "Mad About the Boy: A 100th Birthday Celebration of the Timeless Words and Music of Noel Coward."

06 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis II

In his first chapter, Kane writes that he wants to keep the notion of the will as a human function, indeed as a faculty. This is itself a curious point.

Personally, I believe we can get rid of the idea of will, and that applying Ockham's razor to psychology rather demands that we do so. We call the actions on behalf of which we want to make this claim our willed or voluntary actions (as distinct from the beats of our heart, or the reflex jerk of a knee when it's tapped with the doctor's hammer). Still, the freedom of the actions of humans is the main thing, surely, and the "will" in the phrase "free will" is a convenient shortcut to denominating them, not the name of a subjective faculty.

James' admirers will remember that for James as a psychologist the will is, essentially, the act of paying attention. I get out of bed when I pay attention to my need to be out of bed, rather than to any tempting contrary thoughts about how nicely warm the blankets are.

It appears that Kane is contending otherwise, and here I suspect he errs. Furthermore, my initial guess -- without having read the whole of his book -- is that the material in which he advances his views on the nature of the "will" could come right out of the book without loss.

In his second chapter, "Responsibility," we get to the heart of the matter.  Kane discusses the "Alternative Possibilities" (AP) idea, once expressed (by Immanuel Kant) as the idea that "the act as well as its opposite must be within the power of the subject at the moment of its taking place."

Then, though, he quotes Daniel Dennett, a prominent compatibilist, making a point about Martin Luther. In connection with his break with Rome, Luther said: "Here I stand. I can do no other."
Dennett tells us that Luther wasn't denying that he was morally responsible for that break. He was saying, being Martin Luther, this is what he had to do. He was accepting and concentrating moral responsibility, not avoiding it.

Kane acknowledges the force of this point, and revises AP a bit, dropping one element of Kant's statement of it.  Kant, as you see from the quote above, said that "at the moment" of an act's taking place, the subject must have had the power to do other. Kane, agreeing with Dennett, agreeing then with Luther's self-knowledge, says that this may not be the case. We do think Luther was free when he was defying a papal commission or nailing protesting theses to a church door. But ... he was free there because at earlier moments in his life he had chosen among paths that genuinely diverged. He had voluntarily made himself the man who, at those moments, could no longer do anything else.

AP retains its plausibility in the face of such counter-examples, then, if it is applied to the whole of a life rather than separate moments, and: "Those who know something about Luther's biography know about the long period of inner turmoil and struggle he endured in the years leading up to that fateful 'Here I stand.'"

05 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis I

Prof. Kane was kind enough to email and tell me that I was wrong in one detail of my earlier post about his book. I gave its date of publication as 1998. I should have said 1996. The paperback edition, which is the one I own, appeared in '98.

At any rate, for today I'll simply single out one sentence from the work. Kane uses the following striking figure of speech in his introduction: "The air is cold and thin up there on Incompatibilist Mountain, and if one stays up there for any length of time without going down the other side, one's mind becomes clouded in mist and is visited by visions of noumenal selves, nonoccurent causes, transempirical egos, and other fantasies."

He is making a couple of points here. First, he is saying that a free-will incompatbilist has to make a two-part case. First, that we have deep moral intuitions with which determinism is incompatible (that is the way up the mountain). Second, that we can -- in a secular scientific manner -- construct a vision of ourselves that does justice to facts and that accomodates those moral intuitions better. That second step gets up back down the mountain to the thicker air.

The reference to "noumenal selves" of course is an allusion to Immanuel Kant. The other two references are less obviously identifiable, at least to a philosophy amateur such as myself. A little web surfing yields the secret. Non-occurent causation is an idea within the stockpile of Roderick Chisholm . The idea is this: we normally think of one event as causing another event -- the striped ball moves along the pool table until it hits the solid ball. Then the striped ball stops and the solid ball starts to move. The movement of the first caused the movement of the second. Both movements were events, i.e. they occurred.

But with human volition: do we have to say this? Can't a free-willist simply say that my action is caused by who I am? not by anything that has occurred?  And, if so, isn't this non-occurent causation, causation by a who rather than a what-happened-earlier, the essence of free will?  So Chisholm would argue. Kane is obviously signalling here that he is not making this point, that non-occurent causation ranks up there with the noumenal self as one of those ideas by which we will be afflicted if we get up the mountain but never make our way back down again.

Trans-empirical ego? That is, as you might by now have cottoned, sort of the bastard offspring of noumenal self and non-occurent cause. It is a phrase associated with John Eccles, an Australian physiologist-turned philosopher, author of How the Self Controls Its Brain (1994).  We needn't go into detail about how Eccles thinks the trans-empirical self controls the empirical brain. The point is simply that this is part of what Kane rejects. He wants to get up the mountain to an incompatibilist conception of freedom, then down the mountain again, into naturalistic explanations of psychology and choice.

01 April 2012

Pump Gas on April 15th!

Damn.  It is happening again. In this year as in several other recent years, an email is circulating urging people to boycott the mean old oil companies. On one day. Without changing consumption patterns.

I first saw it on Facebook. Many of you may have seen it by now too, or may recall its incarnations in earlier years.

Please don't be suckered into this. It's just another incarnation of the bad old meme that we can solve the world's troubles without, well ... taking any trouble.

If only everyone would just refrain from pumping gas on April 15, we'd tame the oil oligopoly, bring peace to the middle east, and so forth.

Um ... no.  You will accomplish absolutely nothing this day. Look at that notice. It actually encourages you to gas up on the 14th so you won't need to pump on the 15th.

How does that hurt the oil companies???

If you buy gasoline a day earlier than you otherwise would, you've actually done them a favor. They have your money a day earlier, and money has time value. It earns them some interest that extra day!

More generally, the oil companies might worry if you and a lot of other people changed your consumption habits to something that didn't require so much of their product. But that's a more long term and more difficult commitment on your part. It might involve, for instance, moving closer to your place of business.

If your consumption is going to stay the same, then the stream of revenue going to the sellers of the products you consume will be the same, even if you jigger and re-jigger the timing a bit.

"Ah, but they tell us it worked in 1997," you remind me. No, it didn't. What "worked" to bring prices down in 1997 was the oil-for-food program with Iraq. A brief history lesson: after the first Iraq War, during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush, much of the world imposed sanctions upon Iraq in an effort to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, which that war itself had left standing.

Saddam survived the sanctions, and in 1995, President Bill Clinton, in response to arguments that ordinary citizens in Iraq were being hurt by the continuation of these sanctions, announced a program that would lessen the hardship without, it was hoped, making life any easier for the government. The idea was to allow Iraq to barter sell its oil, but to put the revenues into an escrow account and ensure that they would be available only for foodstuffs and medicines.

Saddam's government signed a Memorandum of Understanding in May 1996 agreeing to participate in their program.

By 1997, then, Iraqi oil was again flowing into world markets. It was this that pushed down the price through that year, not some silly one-day-only boycott.

And, by the way, I challenge any one to show me any evidence from 1997 that any such boycott took place that year at all!  The earliest one I can find any evidence of was two years later. And that had no impact on prices whatsoever.
So pump gas, or don't pump gas on April 15th, confident in the expectation that nothing is going to happen that day at the retail outlets across the US or the world that will make any dent on ... anything.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.