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, July 28, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci

* A Philosophy Talk episode about the irrationality of human decision making.
* Best democracy in the world? It ain’t that easy...
* Can one be a conscientious objector on the basis that one “hates fags”?
* Gravity doesn’t exist, according to a Dutch scientist.
* Yes, the US does have an immigration problem. No, it’s not the one that McCain & co. have been screaming bloody hell about.
* Marta Nussbaum’s follow up to her column about (not) banning the Islamic veil. Here’s why I agree with her conclusion, but not her arguments.
* Always a good topic to think about: John Rawls’ ideas about justice and the ideal society.


  1. Regarding the Stone article on free will, I don't understand the author's argument.

    He's objecting to determinism by saying "[This] assumes that the sum history of forces determining an individual exist as a kind of potentially legible catalog. The point to stress, however, is that this catalog is not even legible in theory, for to be known it assumes a kind of knower unconstrained by time and space."

    So what he seems to be assuming is that the forces that determine our actions must be KNOWN in order to be constraining our actions. But why should that be? I don't see any logical connection between (1) an entity being aware of the events preceding our actions, and (2) those events necessitating our actions.

    Weird logical non-sequitor on his part there, unless I'm missing something.

  2. Julia, are you referring to the follow-up / response article? That one really is weird (it's the one by William Eggington). The one by Galen Strawson seems to make more sense to me.

  3. Oh, sorry! You're right, I was referring to the Egginton one. Someone sent that to me this morning and when I saw your link to the "Stone article on free will" I just assumed it was the same thing.

    (If anyone's interested, here's the link I was commenting on: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/the-end-of-knowing/)

  4. @Julia: Where did the author say that? I have just read the article twice, and didn't see that quotation, and a search with my Firefox browser for various portions of that quotation comes up with nothing.

    I do agree with you, though. There doesn't seem to me to be a logical connection between (1) & (2).

    Perhaps those who argue that for linking the two rely on quantum indeterminacy, believing that it implies that determinism is false because not only can we not know in practice, but we could not calculate even in theory, the complete chain of physical events that would follow from the Big Bang, supposing we knew all the information there is to know about the laws of physics and the initial conditions of the Big Bang?

    Wow, that was an extremely long sentence. Hope it made sense. I don't know enough about physics, or the related philosophical literature on physics or free will, to know whether quantum indeterminacy has anything to do with free will, nor whether it has anything to say about the possibility of predicting future physical events if we could somehow have complete knowledge of every particle in the universe.

  5. On free will:

    This is a half-baked idea I had last night, and I'm not sure if it makes any sense, but here goes.

    The mystery here stems from two opposing facts, as pointed out in the Stone article (which I loved, because it does not talk about physics and free will, a huge mistake imo):

    (1) It is unreasonable to demand that an agent be a "casua sui" or "cause of oneself," because that would demand that an agent step outside the history of their personality and sort of bootstrap themselves into changing. The article explains this idea better than I do.

    (2) We still feel intuitively that moral responsibility exists, and that genuine choice exists.

    Now, I think our intuition of genuine choice is easy to explain away as "how the algorithm feels from the inside" (to borrow a phrase). But the existence of moral responsibility is a bit trickier.

    Here's my new half-idea: moral responsibility is not a feature of an agent, but a feature of a *situation* involving an agent and some action that has been committed. Moreover, it's a purely pragmatic concept.

    So when we say someone is morally responsible, what we really mean is "punishment of this individual would reliably achieve some social end" - usually deterrence.

    But owing to our human tendency to Platonify, we interpret this judgment as being a property of an individual.

  6. Hey Camus Dude, I was accidentally commenting on the follow-up piece, by Egginston. Link is in my comment above.

    Yeah, I've heard people make versions of your argument, that incomputability refutes inevitability. (That's my phrase; never heard anyone put it that way but I think it sums up the argument.) But I'd say my argument in my first comment applies to your formulation too. What's the connection between whether the past can be fully known, and whether it determined the present? I don't see one.

  7. I posted the following hours ago and apparently you've decided not to use it.
    "Free will simply means, or could mean, that life forms or their equivalents are free to acquire their own purposes for taking decisive action. Free to determine their own choices within the limits of those self-acquired purposes."
    There was more but I didn't make a copy so I won't try to revive it. Just wondering what was so offensive that you dropped it. Or as before, had "no idea" what I was talking about?

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Artie, apologies, I had not noticed that comment waiting in the queue. In general, remember that there may be some delay between submitting a comment and its publication, since I'm not constantly online (though often enough, it seems to me!).

  10. Ugh, I hate these free will discussions. I also hate, as in the gravity article, when Physicists try to sex up their theories by using words like "illusion."

    I don't have much to add to the free will discussion that isn't covered in the comment section of the article, but I think it's worth repeating that the author smuggles a lot of assumptions in his luggage. Sloppy use of the concepts of "ultimate" and "the way you are" hides a few monkeys. He seems to say that unless you are completely in control (God) of the way you are (the universe) then you have no free will. I think it's quite reasonable to assume that we are somewhat in control (human) of somethings (our lives) though probably not as much or in the way we think (psychology, genetics). In other words, some systems are more deterministic (rocks) than others (people).

    My question for Julia and Massimo is how new is this argument?. It seems quite dusty to me. Similarly with the gravity article. It's at least a partial rehash. There may or may not be an exciting new idea there, but I don't think our lay minds should be blown by the idea that gravity is not the same as our everyday experience of it. General Relativity tells us that it's "only" a local distortion of space-time. That's as much an illusion as an entropy hologram.

    Telling quote about gravity:

    "Dr. Verlinde said he had read Dr. Jacobson’s paper many times over the years but that nobody seemed to have gotten the message. People were still talking about gravity as a fundamental force. “Clearly we have to take these analogies seriously, but somehow no one does,” he complained."

    I say that physicists may want to take these analogies seriously, but most of us should use them with extreme caution.

  11. "In some industries, dirt-poor newcomers lower wages". (from the immigration piece), I know what the phrase means, but isn't that a somwhat disingenuous way of putting it? Employers don't HAVE to engage in wage-cutting, after all.

  12. Julia,

    There are two ways to look at the incomputability idea. Soft argument:
    If ONLY God (or a perfect computer) could perfectly predict our behavior, than we are practically free.

    Hard Argument:
    If it is the nature of the universe that certain events are never completely predictable regardless of computational power or vantage point -- uncertainty is an intrinsic part of matter (Heisenberg) -- then we are actually free. Most determinists counter this by saying probability is a type of determinism. And it's true that once an event happens the probability collapses. You could argue that if you were to 're-run" the universe the outcome would be the same each time. I don't know if the "re-run" assumption is supportable, but even if it were, you would only be saying that the arrow of time is unidirectional (as it seems to be). So not being able to change the past does not mean the future is knowable. We can't change what we did, but we may have some control of what we will do.

    The other point I want to bring up is determinism isn't just a problem for free will. It also makes nonsense of things like thought and reason.

  13. Massimo, the original post is still missing, but I guess that was due to a choice made at the beginning of time itself which, by some immutable set of laws that we have yet to be allowed to understand, determined pre-determinately all future choices in the vast universe for all eternity. Apologies and acceptances determined in advance as well.

  14. Artie, the original post is missing because I deleted it after seeing you had posted another one along the same lines.

  15. OK, that brings up (to me anyway) the question as to whether the deletion was by your choice or somehow already in my destiny.

    Because If all your choices had been made before you seem to make them, or it was determined that you've had no choice at all, that's by its nature predeterminate. The bigger question then is, has the predetermined been the eternal state of nature, or was there a predeterminer that changed the course of nature to its liking by the power of its will?
    None of the references have addressed these questions, IOW the proposition that there can't be a logically determinative universe without some logical determinant.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. I'm skeptical about the relationship between responsibility and either determinism or free will. If, when we say that a person is responsible for an action, we're saying that an action occurred because of how that person is, then what does it matter how that person came to be? Why do so many hold that determinism extinguishes responsibility?

  18. OK, last try at getting a response: It's my understanding that "true" determinism means that every choice made anywhere and any time in the history of the universe that even in the smallest way will require me to decisively react, has already been accounted for in the vast causative web of decision making, so that my putative decision was actually foretold eons ago and out of my control to change.
    Is that what anyone here believes to be the actual case?

  19. The immigration piece derides worries about crime on US borders by stating that "According to F.B.I. statistics, the four safest big cities in the United States—San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, and Austin—are all in border states."

    That sounded suspicious to me, especially since there was no citation. So I found the FBI statistics and did the calculation myself. Sure enough, the article was wrong. It turns out that the safest big city in the US is Honolulu, and the cities mentioned above are merely four of the seven safest cities (New York and San Jose are the other two).

    I keep trying to come up with a way of spinning the low crime rates in these three additional cities into an anti-immigration lesson, but have not yet been successful. But perhaps something can be done with this factoid: The most dangerous big city in the US is a border town. Yes sir. Just across the river from Windsor.

  20. If you want to see a good picture of Arizona's crime rates, here is a link to their stats from 2001 thru 2009 from the AZ Department of Public Safety. It gives you everything and sliced and diced about every which way, if your willing to take the time to review it.


    I have read thru these a bit. I dont think there is an arguement either way. If someone says we need to do such and such because the crime is exploding or someone is saying were fine because the crime is decreasing (like the new Yorker Post), both sides are being disingenuous.

    My take is that it really doesnt matter what the crime rate is. Arizona should be allowed to do what they want and self govern themselves. The Federal government trying to rule over a state is a form of Tyranny. We live with an administration that will not obey the rule of law. That in itself is Tyranny. You may laugh that I choose to use the word tyranny. I feel a sense of desperation when I see the executive branch picking and choosing what laws they want to follow. there is a law on the books and they dont have to worry about repealing it? Does the left not see what is at stake here? This is about more than immigration.

  21. Jim,

    If you use up the word "tyranny" on Obama, I got to wonder what word you have left for Bush. You must be more worried about immigration than Civil Liberties or you would be deeply disturbed by Bush's "rule of law" issue. While I think it's a travesty that Obama hasn't done more to repudiate such things as extraordinary rendition, torture, warrantless wiretaps. At least he didn't lead us into an illegal war. Did you notice the article about 9 billion dollars being unaccounted for in Iraq? And don't get me started on WMD's or lies about Al Qaeda in Iraq. And then there's Dick Cheney flouting the law like no other VP in history.

    No, this member of the left doesn't see tyranny in the federal government tending to immigration. And I honestly don't think immigration is such a big deal one way or the other. I'd rather have a hundred illegal aliens slip into the country to clean toilets than let one American citizen be forced to show her papers on the street or be detained because some sheriff didn't like the color of her skin.

  22. @Jim:
    "My take is that it really doesnt matter what the crime rate is."

    That's handy.

    "I feel a sense of desperation when I see the executive branch picking and choosing what laws they want to follow."

    Very principled of you. Now, show that you made similar arguments during the Bush years (which even conservatives agree saw a huge expansion of executive power).

  23. 1Day and pollock,

    I don't blame the the damage to the separation of powers or the reluctance to follow our constitution solely on Obama (although he is doing his fair share). The last 100 years as been a progressive movement away from it. If you want me to align myself with Bush and Cheney, that is not going to happen. Bush has done his fair share of damage as well. I will confess that I was not speaking out as much at that time and should have been. Believe it or not I am glad Obama has made it to office and accelerated the problem of unconstitutional government, otherwise the American people would still be lulled to sleep by gradual acceptance of unconstitutional governing. I personally think FDR did more damage then any president recently.
    So pollock, you are correct that I should have been speaking out against Bush. Better late than never. I wish I had that in my back pocket (that I was speaking out)
    The left is desperate to align people like myself and the tea party with republicans. Although the 3 core principles of the tea party theoretically align with Republican theology, it does not align with most (almost all) republicans in office. Through this organic movement, we will grow our own candidates. Many will be republican, some will be libertarian, you might even see a democrat. But make no mistake, we will change the direction of this government to follow its constitution.

    BTW pollock, in saying that I dont care what the crime rate is, did not mean literally that I dont care. I meant in using it to justify the Arizona law. I figured that was clear, but I am saying it anyhow before anyone else runs with it. If they get to enact the entire law (you know the one already on the books for the Fed) we will get to see exactly how much relates to illegal immigration. That is the only way we will know. We should not have illegal immigration, whether it adds to the crime rate or even it it could somehow lessen it. We should have an easy yet thorough way for these people to be American citizens and be counted and assimilate.
    I wonder why so many that posted on M's veil post against making laws prohibiting the action, cannot apply the same logic here? The founders wanted the states to have power to rule themselves over the Fed. It doesn't matter if you and I view it as an issue, Arizona does. They should be allowed to govern themselves.
    And the whole racism thing 1day? It is really not about racism. I don't want to get into it because it detracts from my point, but is that really the argument? that someone might have to show their papers because of a racist sheriff?


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