From Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” (180 AD)

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“Soon, very soon, thou wilt be ashes, or a skeleton, and either a name or not even a name; but name is sound and echo. And the things which are much valued in life are empty and rotten and trifling, and like little dogs biting one another, and little children quarrelling, laughing, and then straightway weeping…

What then is there which still detains thee here? If the objects of sense are easily changed and never stand still, and the organs of perception are dull and easily receive false impressions; and the poor soul itself is an exhalation from blood… Why then dost thou not wait in tranquility for thy end, whether it is extinction or removal to another state? And until that time comes, what is sufficient? Why, what else than to venerate the gods and bless them, and to do good to men, and to practise tolerance and self-restraint; but as to everything which is beyond the limits of the poor flesh and breath, to remember that this is neither thine nor in thy power.

Thou canst pass thy life in an equable flow of happiness, if thou canst go by the right way, and think and act in the right way. These two things are common both to the soul of God and to the soul of man, and to the soul of every rational being, not to be hindered by another; and to hold good to consist in the disposition to justice and the practice of it, and in this to let thy desire find its termination.”

From Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” (180 AD)

From Immanuel Kant’s “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784)

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“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment. Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on—then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind—among them the entire fair sex—should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.”

From Immanuel Kant’s “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784)

Hermann von Helmholtz on the Instrumental Benefit of Basic Research (1862)

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“We are convinced that whatever contributes to the knowledge of the forces of nature or the powers of the human mind is worth cherishing, and may, in its own due time, bear practical fruit, very often where we should least have expected it. Who, when Galvani touched the muscles of a frog with different metals, and noticed their contraction, could have dreamt that eighty years afterwards, in virtue of the self-same process, whose earliest manifestations attracted his attention in his anatomical researches, all Europe would be traversed with wires, flashing intelligence from Madrid to St. Petersburg with the speed of lightning? In the hands of Galvani, and at first even in Volta’s, electrical currents were phenomena capable of exerting only the feeblest forces, and could not be detected except by the most delicate apparatus. Had they been neglected, on the ground that the investigation of them promised no immediate practical result, we should now be ignorant of the most important and most interesting of the links between the various forces of nature. When young Galileo, then a student at Pisa, noticed one day during divine service a chandelier swinging backwards and forwards, and convinced himself, by counting his pulse, that the duration of the oscillations was independent of the arc through which it moved, who could know that this discovery would eventually put it in our power, by means of the pendulum, to attain an accuracy in the measurement of time till then deemed impossible, and would enable the storm-tossed seaman in the most distant oceans to determine in what degree of longitude he was sailing? Whoever, in the pursuit of science, seeks after immediate practical utility, may generally rest assured that he will seek in vain.”

Hermann von Helmholtz on the Instrumental Benefit of Basic Research (1862)

From Karl Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” (1934)

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“The empirical basis of objective science has thus nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop, when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.”

From Karl Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” (1934)

From Carl Hempel’s “Philosophy of Natural Science” (1966)

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“Scientific explanation is not aimed at creating a sense of at-homeness or of familiarity with the phenomena of nature. That kind of feeling may well be evoked even by metaphorical accounts that have no explanatory value at all, such as the ‘natural affinity’ construal of gravitation or the conception of biological processes as being directed by vital forces. What scientific explanation, especially theoretical explanation, aims at is not this intuitive and highly subjective kind of understanding, but an objective kind of insight that is achieved by a systematic unification, by exhibiting the phenomena as manifestations of common underlying structures and processes that conform to specific, testable, basic principles. If such an account can be given in terms that show certain analogies with familiar phenomena, then very well. Otherwise, science will not hesitate to explain even the familiar by reduction to the unfamiliar by means of concepts and principles of novel kinds that may at first be repugnant to our intuition.”

From Carl Hempel’s “Philosophy of Natural Science” (1966)

Conceptual Revision and Incompatibilist Free Will

“Successful theory must indeed explain the facts, but it would be madness to make it a constraint upon acceptable theory that it explain the ‘facts’ as they may currently be conceived by us… The ‘facts’, as currently conceived and observed by us, form the starting point for theoretical inquiry, but its successful pursuit may well reveal that we should vacate that starting place as hastily as possible. Large-scale intellectual progress will involve the wholesale rejection of old explananda as frequently as it involves the wholesale introduction of new explanantia.” ― Paul Churchland

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I’ve come to think that disagreements surrounding whether or not free will is incompatible with determinism often hinge on more fundamental disagreements concerning the nature of conceptual revision. Take, for instance, the following common argument in favor of incompatibilism:

P1) If the existence of actions that actualize metaphysical possibilities is a necessary condition for free will, then incompatibilism is true.
P2) The existence of actions that actualize metaphysical possibilities is a necessary condition for free will.
C) Therefore, incompatibilism is true.

Premise one is uncontroversial. If determinism were true, then there would be no actions that satisfy the proposed necessary condition, and hence incompatibilism would follow. The truth of the second premise, however, is questionable.

For comparison, consider the now superseded biological theory of vitalism. Vitalism was an attempt to explain the difference between organic and inorganic matter. The theory claimed that while living things possess a vital spirit, non-living things do not. Put another way, the vitalist held that a necessary condition for life was the possession of a vital spirit, resulting in a strict dichotomy between living and non-living things. As the science of biology matured, it was eventually discovered that the vitalist concept of life was mistaken. It was realized that biological entities are composed out of the same kinds of elements as non-biological entities. The difference was not in the kinds of things that living and non-living things are, but rather the ways they are arranged. Unlike non-living things, the components within biological entities are suitable organized so as to perform certain functions (e.g., metabolism, maintaining homeostasis, developing, responding to stimuli, reproducing, etc.). This alternative functional conception of life, however, meant that the vitalist concept of life needed to be revised, replacing the necessary condition with a prototypical structure capable of accounting for the diversity of the functions involved, as well as the fact that each function can be exemplified to a greater or lesser extent within individual entities.

What I take the vitalist example to show is that obtaining an increased understanding of a phenomenon often requires revising concepts that are defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions into more nuanced concepts capable of accounting for a plurality of factors, each of which can be exemplified to a greater or lesser degree. Furthermore, such a realization would appear to have direct implications concerning the above argument. In the absence of a principled reason for thinking that the revision of the incompatibilist notion of free will is inherently illegitimate, I fail to see how premise two is defensible.

One possible incompatibilist response would be to assert that the comparison of incompatibilism with vitalism rests on a false analogy. While it may be true that the vitalist conception of life can be revised, the incompatibilist conception of free will cannot. This is because in the case of vitalism, once one comes to learn that the phenomenon of life can be conceived of functionally, one achieves a state of katanoesis, wherein which one intuitively apprehends that the proposed explanation has sufficiently explained the phenomenon. In the case of the incompatibilist concept of free will, however, no possible revisions exist which can enable katanoesis, and hence there are grounds for maintaining that no possible revisions are possible.

I think this response is misguided for several reasons. First, I fail to see why we should accept the existence of katanoesis as a criterion for legitimate explanations. Second, I think there is both historical and contemporary evidence that providing vitalists with evidence in favor of the functionalist conception of life regularly fails to generate katanoesis, and hence the suggestion that the comparison is disanalogous, for that reason, seems incorrect. And third, even if katanoesis were taken as a criterion for legitimate explanations, given that our empirical understanding of the mind is still in its relative infancy, it remains an open possibility that as more is learned about the structure and dynamics of volitional action that katanoesis will someday be achieved.

Conceptual Revision and Incompatibilist Free Will

From Hilary Putnam’s “The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy” (2002)

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“To force all the descriptive terms that we employ in our everyday discourse into one side or the other of the dichotomy ‘observation term or theoretical term’ is to force them into a Procrustean bed. The logical positivist fact/value dichotomy was defended on the basis of a narrowly scientistic picture of what a ‘fact’ might be, just as the Humean ancestor of that distinction was defended upon the basis of a narrow empiricist psychology of ‘ideas’ and ‘impressions.’ The realization that so much of our descriptive language is a living counterexample to both (classical empiricist and logical positivist) pictures of the realm of ‘fact’ ought to shake the confidence of anyone who supposes that there is a notion of fact that contrasts neatly and absolutely with the notion of ‘value’ supposedly invoked in talk of the nature of all ‘value judgments’… It is time we stopped equating objectivity with description. There are many sorts of statements that are not descriptions, but are under rational control, governed by particular functions and contexts. Enabling us to describe the world is one extremely important function of language, but it is not the only function.”

From Hilary Putnam’s “The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy” (2002)