About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Wittgenstein vs. Schopenhauer
Here is what Wittgenstein says: "The proposition that your action has such and such a cause is a hypothesis. The hypothesis is well-founded if one has had a number of experiences which ... agree in showing that your action is the regular sequel of certain conditions which we then call causes of the action. In order to know the reason which you had for making a certain statement ... no number of agreeing experiences is necessary, and the statement of your reason is not a hypothesis."
OK, Witty is always difficult to read, but it seems that what he is saying is that causes are hypotheses about how events are connected in the world. Reasons, on the other hand, are justifications that we give for certain actions or propositions. Perhaps an example will clarify: if I hit your knee with a small hammer, your leg will move because of a reflex. I.e., the hit, through a series of physical connections, caused the leg to move. However, if I ask you to raise your leg and you do it, your reason for doing so is that I asked you to perform the action. Wittgenstein is saying that reasons aren't causes, they are an altogether different kind of beast. This distinction does have great intuitive appeal, as we all realize that there seem indeed to be a big difference between the two cases concerning your knee just described.
Arthur (Schopenhauer), on the other hand, said about such matters: "Motivation [i.e., reason] is causality seen from within. ... Motivation [is only] causality passing through knowledge."
I'll be darn if this also doesn't make a lot of sense! The idea here is that in fact there is no real distinction between causes and reasons, because the latters are simply an awareness that we have of the causes of certain events or actions. So, for example, when I say that I got up and went to the refrigerator to get me a beer because I was thirsty, I am giving both a reason and a cause: indeed, my reason is a first-person description of the underlying cause (I was thirsty). (Incindentally, current neurobiological research seems to support Schopenhauer's contention.)
Wittgenstein seemed to prefer a distinction between causes and reasons for two, well, reasons! First, he was always distrustful of excessively scientifical or physical explanations of the human condition, especially of mental phenomena. Second, he felt that if one explains actions in terms of causes, then one is committed to an automatic form of determinism, and there goes free will out the window. Consciousness, then, is an after-the-fact illusion, a fiction that allows us to think that "we" make decisions, when in fact it's all a matter of physical causes.
The problem with Witty's position seems to me twofold: first, I don't see why causes have to be deterministic. We know (for example from quantum mechanics) that there is such a thing as probabilistic causality (though that still doesn't rescue free will, since we would at most have a random will). Second, Wittgenstein, like so many anti-physicalists, simply (conveniently) neglects to give an alternative explanation. If reasons are not a particular instance of causes, what are they, exactly? Inquiring minds want to know, and for good reasons.
(By the way, if you are wondering what all of this has to do with Freud, it is because Wittgenstein accused Freud and his disciples of confusing causes and reasons in setting up their psychoanalytical explanations.)