My Web of Beliefs (Feb. 2011)

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 20, 2011 in General Philosophy

This is an update to My Current Philosophical Positions, inspired by Richard Chappell’s annual Web of Beliefs posts. I post this because it makes my positions easier to understand and criticize. Also, my positions change so frequently that I suspect a common reaction to a recent post is, “But wait. Six months ago you said…” Frequent updates on my web of beliefs may help.

Philosophy

Philosophy is not a matter of opinion. As in science, some positions are much better supported by reasons than others are. I do philosophy as a form of inquiry, continuous with science.

But I don’t have patience for the pace of mainstream philosophy. Philosophical questions need answers, and quickly.

Scientists know how to move on when a problem is solved, but philosophers generally don’t. Scientists don’t still debate the fact of evolution or the germ theory of disease just because alternatives are (1) logically possible, (2) appeal to many people’s intuitions, (3) are “supported” by convoluted metaphysical arguments, or (4) fit our use of language better. But philosophers still argue about Cartesian dualism and theism and contra-causal free will as if these weren’t settled questions.

How many times must the universe beat us over the head with evidence before we will listen? Relinquish your dogmas; be as light as a feather in the winds of evidence.

Epistemology

My epistemology is one part cognitive science, one part probability theory.

We encounter reality and form beliefs about it by way of our brains. So the study of how our brains do that is central to epistemology. (Quine would be pleased.) In apparent ignorance of cognitive science and experimental psychology, most philosophers make heavy use of intuition. Many others have failed to heed the lessons of history about how badly traditional philosophical methods fare compared to scientific methods. I have little patience for this kind of philosophy, and see myself as practicing a kind of ruthlessly reductionistic naturalistic philosophy.

I do not care whether certain beliefs qualify as “knowledge” or as being “rational” according to varying definitions of those terms. Instead, I try to think quantitatively about beliefs. How strongly should I believe P? How should I adjust my probability for P in the face of new evidence X? There is a single, exactly correct answer to each such question, and it is provided by Bayes’ Theorem. We may never know the correct answer, but we can plug estimated numbers into the equation and update our beliefs accordingly. This may seem too subjective, but remember that you are always giving subjective, uncertain probabilities. Whenever you use words like “likely” and “probable”, you are doing math. So stop pretending you aren’t doing math, and do the math correctly, according to the proven theorem of how probable P given X is – even if we are always burdened by uncertainty.1

Language

Though I was recently sympathetic to the Austin / Searle / Grice / Avramides family of approaches to language, I now see that no simple theory of meaning can capture every use (and hypothetical use) of human languages. Besides, categorizing every way in which humans use speech and writing to have an effect on themselves and others is a job for scientists, not armchair philosophers.

However, it is useful to develop an account of language that captures most of our discourse systematically – specifically for use in formal argument and artificial intelligence. To this end, I think something like the Devitt / Sterelny account may be the most useful.

A huge percentage of Anglophone philosophy is still done in service of conceptual analysis, which I see as a mostly misguided attempt to build a Super Dictionary full of definitions for common terms that are (1) self-consistent, (2) fit the facts if they are meant to, and (3) agree with our use of and intuitions about each term. But I don’t think we should protect our naive use of words too much – rather, we should use our words to carve reality at its joints, because that allows us to communicate more effectively. And effective communication is the point of language, no? If your argument doesn’t help us solve problems when you play Taboo with your key terms and replace them with their substantive meaning, then what is the point of the argument if not to build a Super Dictionary?

A Super Dictionary would be nice, but humanity has more urgent and important problems that require a great many philosophical problems to be solved. Conceptual analysis is something of a lost purpose.

Normativity

The only source of normativity I know how to justify is the hypothetical imperative: “If you desire that P, then you ought to do Y in order to realize P.” This reduces (roughly) to the prediction: “If you do Y, you are likely to objectively satisfy your desire that P.”2

For me, then, the normativity of epistemology is: “If you want to have more true beliefs and fewer false beliefs, engage in belief-forming practices X, Y, and Z.”

The normativity of logic is: “If you want to be speaking the same language as everyone else, don’t say things like ‘The ball is all green and all blue at the same time in the same way.’”

Ethics, if there is anything worth calling by that name (not that it matters much; see the language section), must also be a system of hypothetical imperatives of some kind. Alonzo Fyfe and I are explaining our version of this here.

Focus

Recently, the focus of my research efforts has turned to the normative (not technical) problems of how to design the motivational system of a self-improving superintelligent machine. My work on this will eventually be gathered here. A bibliography on the subject is here.

  1. Obviously, we can’t apply Bayesianism to every belief we have. I’m describing an ideal. []
  2. Along with Eric Vogelstein (note 80, pg. 75), I like to make the useful distinction between objective desire satisfaction and subjective desire satisfaction. A desire that P is objectively satisfied just in case P becomes actual. A desire that P is subjectively satisfied just in case one believes that P has become actual. []

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott February 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Good lord, man, how do you stay so up-to-date on the edges of philosophy & science?

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Luke Muehlhauser February 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Scott,

Up-to-date? None of the ideas here were developed recently, except for the concern with Friendly AI.

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Thomas February 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Luke´s philosophical naturalism has gone so far that one is tempted to call it ‘dogmatic’. Theism, for example, isn´t even a live option anymore. It´s a “settled question”. One can easily conceive a religious fideist saying the same thing about the whole “theism-atheism -debate”. And notice too that the whole field of metaphysics isn´t even worth mentioning anymore.

Materialism about the mind-body -problem is a settled question? Wow. So does this mean that the truth of eliminative materialism is “settled”, then? This is peculiar. I wonder how much non-materialistic literature Luke has read before saying such bold claims. One reminded of that great line by Popper – this really is “promissory materialism” at its best.

“Promissory materialism is a peculiar theory. It consists, essentially, of a historical (or historicist) prophecy about the future results of brain research and of their impact”. (Popper, 1977, 97)

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Scott February 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm

You’re certainly closer to the cutting edge than I am, at least. I have fragments floating around in my head, but I don’t have much cohesion to it. You’re certainly now more about the current status of the fields than I do.

I like your suggestion to read textbooks – is that effective?

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Jaden February 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Luke,

Can you recommend some books and papers (or direct me to a link where you’ve already compiled them) that will acquaint me with what you’ve talked about in this post? I’m interested specifically in the “philosophy,” “epistemology,” and “normativity” sections.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 20, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Scott,

Yes. Textbooks are the quickest way to learn.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Jaden,

Can you ask more specific questions? Do you need overviews of the available positions, or do you want books and articles that argue for the positions I’ve endorsed here?

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Luke Muehlhauser February 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Thomas,

I won’t argue about whether my endorsement of atheism of materialism is so resistant to reason and evidence that it should be called “dogmatic.” But, as an exercise in trying to understand where I’m coming from, perhaps you could try this: Consider your own view that the Vedas were authored by humans. Thousands of pages of dense philosophical argument has been given throughout the centuries that the words of the Vedas are eternal, and were not authored by fallible humans. And yet you persist in believing the Vedas have human authors, and probably consider it to be a settled question in the same category as other settled questions like “Do fairies exist?” Are you dogmatic about the Vedas and about fairies? Or would you be willing to change your mind if presented with good evidence for the existence of fairies, or good evidence that the Vedas were not written by humans?

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Tarun February 20, 2011 at 5:04 pm

On quick ways of learning stuff:

There are a lot of great online lecture series available. I find they hold my attention more successfully than textbooks. Unfortunately, the pace of learning is usually slower. I’ve been using MySpeed to speed up online videos by a factor of 2.5-3. This is a highly efficient way to consume information (once you’re acclimated to the pace). You can blaze through two hour lectures in about 40 minutes. This might be idiosyncratic, but it works for me.

I’m currently working through courses on cutting edge physics from the Perimeter Institute. There are also a ton of online courses available here. For those interested in physics (and with some background in the subject) I highly recommend Leonard Susskind’s comprehensive lecture series on theoretical physics.

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Tarun February 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I’m sympathetic to many of the views you espouse here, with one small exception and one big exception.

The small exception is your claim that Bayesian conditionalization is the single exactly correct update rule. This is true only in a very restricted circumstance, when the probability of your gathered evidence goes to 1. This condition is an idealization that never actually obtains. For Quinean reasons, I believe that almost every proposition that I consider part of my total evidential set might be abandoned given some new evidence. This means that I don’t actually assign probability 1 to any of my evidence, and so Bayesian conditionalization is not the mathematically exact rule for updating on this evidence. A more plausible candidate is Jeffrey conditionalization, although this has its own problems. Bayesian conditionalization is a special case of Jeffrey conditionalization when the probability of evidence goes to 1 upon observation. I agree that Bayesianism is an exceptionally useful mathematical framework, but I think you’re illegitimately elevating a useful tool to the status of an exceptionless rational principle.

The big exception is to your treatment of normativity. This is probably too big of an issue to address in a combox, so I won’t try. But here’s a more specific objection to your account of logical normativity: If you understand logical normativity as stemming from a desire for conformity with your linguistic community, then it seems that at minimum you should believe that your community’s language allows for the possibility of logical consistency. After all, if your community’s language is itself inconsistent, then conformity to the language cannot demand consistency, but in the absence of a demand for consistency there is no logical normativity. However, English (or any other natural language) is plausibly not consistent, since it contains its own truth predicate, running afoul of Tarski’s undefinability theorem.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 20, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Tarun,

Re: Bayes. Fair enough. I remain agnostic about those debates in formal epistemology, because I haven’t had time to study them. Perhaps I should have put more qualifications in that paragraph, but what I meant to express is compatible with either Bayesian conditionalization or Jeffrey conditionalization. Very few readers will know the difference between the two. As for your objection to elevating Bayes’ Theorem to an “exceptionless rational principle”, surely you don’t mean there’s a state of affairs in which Bayes’ Theorem is not true, so you must mean that there are many situations in which Bayes’ Theorem doesn’t apply? But that’s what my footnote says.

Re: the normativity of logic. I agree that English is plausibly not consistent. Where I (currently) don’t follow this particular objection to my account of logical normativity is with regard to English allowing for the possibility of consistency. Certainly, English allows for the possibility of consistency without itself being entirely consistent through-and-through. I don’t plan to have all the problems of logic solved, but at the very least we can communicate with consistency in English quite a lot if we simply bar evil monsters such as “This sentence is false.” That’s a messy and ad-hoc way to tackle the problem, but we are talking about evolved human language, after all. Logicians have a hard enough time avoiding paradox in invented symbolic languages; expecting that of natural language is setting the bar too high.

Thoughts?

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Jaden February 20, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Jaden,Can you ask more specific questions? Do you need overviews of the available positions, or do you want books and articles that argue for the positions I’ve endorsed here?  

Preferably both, please. I’d like to start with some overviews and then move along to the books and articles that endorse the more specific positions. Thanks.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 20, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Jaden,

On cognitive science and probability theory, a good introductory text is Dawes and Hastie’s Rational Choice in an Uncertain World.

On doing epistemology in a way that is informed by cognitive science and experimental psychology, I like the approach of Bishop & Trout’s Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment.

One good intro to the foundations of normative theory is Jacobs’ Dimensions of Moral Theory, though it is specifically focused on meta-ethics.

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Norm February 20, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Desires are facts.
Some of them are admirable, some reprehensible.
What is about desires that makes them normative?

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Luke Muehlhauser February 20, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Norm,

See the reduction given in the original post.

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cl February 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Luke,

But philosophers still argue about Cartesian dualism and theism and contra-causal free will as if these weren’t settled questions.

[...sigh...] Just when I thought you couldn’t get any worse. This is ludicrous and deserves to be mocked. The real hilarity comes two sentences later:

Relinquish your dogmas; be as light as a feather in the winds of evidence.

Are you freakin’ kidding me? How in the world are you going to wax poetic and pretend to be all “zen” after what you just wrote two sentences early? The “winds of evidence” are blowing all around you, not just in your preferred direction. Take a look in the mirror, Muehlhauser! You just hit us with “dogma” can you really not see it?

The only source of normativity I know how to justify is the hypothetical imperative: “If you desire that P, then you ought to do Y in order to realize P.”

I hate to break it to you, but that’s not “justification” in any useful sense. All you’re doing there is saying, “Do what you need to get what you want” in fancy, Fyfist language.

Now, all that said… I give you props for this:

Whenever you use words like “likely” and “probable”, you are doing math. So stop pretending you aren’t doing math, and do the math correctly, according to the proven theorem of how probable P given X is – even if we are always burdened by uncertainty.

Right on. I agree. Lately, I’ve been getting really annoyed with atheists who say their position is more “likely” or “probable” without even a lick of math–here and elsewhere.

Thomas,

Luke´s philosophical naturalism has gone so far that one is tempted to call it ‘dogmatic’. Theism, for example, isn´t even a live option anymore. It´s a “settled question”. … Materialism about the mind-body -problem is a settled question? Wow.

Exactly. Those claims represent poser philosophy. His response? A variant of the same nonsense he threw your way in the Marcel Brass thread [provided you are the same Thomas]. Like you, I am not impressed.

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Steven R. February 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Haha, I was wondering when Cl was gonna quote Thomas and say exactly or precisely or anything similar to that.

I find it pretty funny because, ever since I can remember making the differentiation between the mind and the brain (age 5, I think…I was bored at church and I only had my mind to entertain me. Of course, I barely knew the terms but I do remember that I made a distinction between the “thinking” and “doing”…come to remember, I think “doing” came from realizing I never thought about breathing. Who know holding your breath and then becoming conscious of the breathing process could do that?), I came to the conclusion that the brain and mind were one, and this only seemed to me to be confirmed when I heard about neuroscience and other things later on in life. So, when I came across Cartesian Dualism I still remember my reaction of “people actually believed that?” since, to put it in “philosophical” terms, it always seemed to me to be intuitively obvious that the brain and mind were one and were material things…and then when I found out it was still a position discussed and taken seriously to this day, I was just, using internet slang, “lolwutting” for the rest of the day.

But yeah, I tend to agree with Luke on this, even though I still need to read the relevant literature to make sure that what I have come to conclude is at least appropriate. But ever since I came to reject my faith and argued with it, I came to view things as what is most probable and just never knew there was a mathematical way of doing things. And, I thoroughly agree with Luke on improving our language rather than focusing on the many ways our current language is used. I remember reading an essay for English that dealt with the intricacies of language and I started thinking that it would be more useful to just try and make it more concise and accurate.

Well, I probably just meandered and said nothing relevant, but…I don’t see to much to object to…inb4 this becomes an idealists Vs. materialists debate.

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Deany Weenie February 20, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Luke,[...sigh...] Just when I thought you couldn’t get any worse. This is ludicrous and deserves to be mocked.

The “pwnage” comes in here:

http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

Guess you’ll be mocking several professional philosophers too since they seem to think the issues mentioned are solved.

Reality – 1
cl – 0

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DaVead February 20, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Luke, I respect these semi-new directions in your research and philosophical positions, which are no doubt due to the ever-increasing lesswrong-ification of commsenseatheism over the past months. But I sense, probably along with many others, that your blog is taking a sharp turn from issues related directly to God, theism, atheism, philosophy of religion, Christianity, etc. Have you considered officially abandoning certain projects and/or goals for your site? Or are these other topics things you plan on getting back around to? The relevance and importance of many of these issues relies on the undecided nature of many philosophical issues that you take as already decided. Hasn’t this made your blog a place where productive debate can no longer unfold?

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Mike Young February 21, 2011 at 1:56 am

Do we have free will? We don’t have contra-causal free will, but of course we have the ability to deliberate on alternatives and have this deliberation effect the outcome.

Ummmm….no. This isn’t even coherent. where to begin?

Read Van in wagen.
If the propeerties of the atoms are not up to you, and the laws of physics are not up to you, and the causal web is not up to you, then what the hell is up to you? Answer, nothing. Your just behaving helplessly in the causal nexus, decieved into believing that your deliberation effects the outcome. Newsflash luke, the outcome of the deliberation was determined. The deliberation is merely a sensation you have where the processing of the decision isnt clear yet. The illusion of alternative possibilities is just that, an illusion. It is not the case that there were many tracks you could roll down and you had to pick one.
A better analogy is that you’re a train heading down a track. Your direction is entirely determined by the track and what the switches do. When the conducter flips the switch you switch tracks, the conducter is the laws of phyiscs, You are the train. You are deffinatly not in control of those switches, the conductor is. You, the train, might feel like your flipping the switches, but your not. it just kind of feels like you are.
Luke, if you are correct, the switches are in the neuorons in your head. Andit may at times feel like some concious thought you had decided the outcome of some event. However, this is false, Mr conducter (the laws of physics) were in control all along. those switches (neurons synapses etc) were being flipped and while you might feel like things could have gone another way (you feel this way cause the conducters switch flipping makes you feel this way), they could not have. If you cannot see the havoc this is going to bring into epistemology, reasoning, and ethics, then you need to start getting some conceptual clarity. And yes, this is the picture you are stuck with if there really is no contra-causal free will

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Taranu February 21, 2011 at 4:53 am

Luke,
do you happen to know where I can find a nice tutorial on Solomonof induction or the Minimum Message Length formalism?

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Thomas February 21, 2011 at 5:30 am

cl,

yes it´s the same Thomas and I´m also not impressed at all by his answer.

Deany Weenie,

how does the philpapers survey show that these are settled questions? Physicalism about the mind is a bit over 50 %. Chalmers has estimated elsewhere that about 50 % are physicalists, 25 (property or substance) dualists and 25 agnostic about consciousness. This is far from settled. Also about 15 % of philosophers believe in God, and interestingly, among experts (philosophers of religion), about 70 % are theists. Not settled to me.

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Bill Snedden February 21, 2011 at 5:40 am

@Mike Young:

Ummmm….no. This isn’t even coherent. where to begin?

Whereas the very idea of contra-causal “free will” is incoherent per simpliciter. At least you’re no worse off.

As you see it, apparently, the will is either some sort of chaotic, random “happening” or it’s a train bound for perdition unable to switch tracks. Surely there’s a middle view? Perhaps called something like “compatibilism”? Perhaps something like Luke is describing?

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Bill Snedden February 21, 2011 at 5:46 am

@Thomas:

Also about 15 % of philosophers believe in God, and interestingly, among experts (philosophers of religion), about 70 % are theists.

Not to impugn your point re: dualism v. physicalism (which I believe is largely correct), it’s really somewhat disingenuous to refer to philosophers of religion as “experts” in what I can only imagine you to mean in this context as “knowledge of god”. It’s a priori more likely that theists are going to enter that field and so finding it largely comprised of theists isn’t really surprising and doesn’t have anything whatever to do with the truth or falsity of theism.

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Joel February 21, 2011 at 5:59 am

Mike Young,

Nonsense. Contra causal free will fails utterly, incoherent as it is

Now, as I’m sure you and most people would agree, when we act, we are motivated by our desires or our beliefs concerning normativity (e.g. moral beliefs). We can change our desires (i.e. change our personality), as anecdotal and scientific evidence shows. But how do we choose the theoretical first state of mind? I say theoretical because our personality was gradually formed during infancy, but for simplicity’s sake let’s treat it as a single set

Contra-causal free will is utterly incoherent because it says that we get to choose that first state of mind (or first personality set). We can’t. Whether natural or supernatural, that first state of mind cannot be chosen by ourselves, because choice presupposes a mind. So our first state of mind could not be chosen by ourselves, since we could not be around to do any choosing.

Your personality is either determined, or it is not (i.e. chance). Even if you engage in Kane-type dilution of partial determination with partial chance, nothing changes that fact that you COULD NOT HAVE CHOSEN YOUR FIRST STATE OF MIND. since libtertarianism requires that, it fails.

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MichaelPJ February 21, 2011 at 7:18 am

Luke,

Regarding epistemology, Luke, you might be interested in Edward Craig’s Knowledge and the State of Nature. It’s not a long book, but I think there’s a lot of stuff in there that would chime with what you think. In particular his focus is on looking at the purposes that we would expect the knowledge concept to serve, that is, getting true beliefs, which is pretty close to the less-wrong-ian idea of “winning”.

However, I think I may actually have to agree with cl on the “settled questions in philosophy” bit. I mean, the philpapers survey seems to show pretty conclusively that there isn’t a consensus among philosophers at least in favour of any of those conclusions.

Would it be more accurate to say that those are topics that you, personally, are satisfied with the answers to? I’ve got a lot of sympathy with you, if that’s the case. For example, I spent a lot of time at one point following the free will debate, but now I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all the arguments for both sides, and even my intuitions have settled down into a more coherent alignment. So I don’t follow the debate any more, and I’m not really interested in discussing it, either. That is, for me the question is “settled”.

And I think it’s fine if you want to bracket out some philosophical questions which you yourself think have been adequately dealt with elsewhere, something like “I’m going to be assuming materialism/atheism/compatabilism here, because I’m convinced of their truth, not very interested in discussing them personally, and more interested in discussing problems that follow once you’ve accepted those assumptions.”

But it is a little tendentious to say that they’re “settled”.

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Thomas February 21, 2011 at 7:37 am

Bill Snedden,

yes of course that´s true, but I think my point is at least worth mentioning. I wonder how many of analytic philosophers who describe themselves as ‘atheists’ really know anything at all about philosophy of religion and natural theology. And among those who do know, most are theists. Maybe they were theists before they started to do philosophy. But maybe most atheist-philosophers who know little about PR were atheists to start with, too.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 21, 2011 at 8:08 am

Taranu,

Here.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 21, 2011 at 8:13 am

MichaelPJ,

No, there isn’t consensus among philosophers on those debates, which exactly what I was complaining about when I said that philosophers don’t know how to move on when a question is settled. A question being ‘settled’ doesn’t mean you dogmatically refuse to respond to new evidence – it just means that one path of investigation has proven remarkably productive for decades or perhaps centuries, and the opposite path has gotten nowhere for centuries. Scientists would never be bothered to keep arguing about the logical possibility of phrenology after it had produced nothing for a century. That’s what I mean by ‘settled.’

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Luke Muehlhauser February 21, 2011 at 8:33 am

DaVead,

Regarding your final question: Just because I see a philosophical question as sufficiently ‘settled’, doesn’t mean I won’t respond to new evidence or argument. The phrenology debate is ‘settled’, but if there was suddenly strong evidence in its favor, I would respond to that evidence.

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Taranu February 21, 2011 at 9:13 am

Thank you!

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Tarun February 21, 2011 at 10:37 am

Luke,

I was being a little pedantic about the Bayes business. And I take your point about my “exceptionless rational principle” comment. I guess my point was that the conditions for the exact applicability of Bayesian conditionalization never (or rarely) obtain.

But given your view of normativity, shouldn’t you be down with the idea that Bayes’ theorem is in some sense not an exceptionless rational principle? The rationality of being a Bayesian is presumably relative to your ends. So while something like “If you want to avoid Dutch books, then be a Bayesian” might be true, it might also be true that “If you want to conform with majority scientific practice, be a frequentist”.

In fact, I’m being a little charitable to Bayesianism here. Given your translation of the hypothetical imperative, I’m not even sure the first conditional holds. The translation would be “If you are a Bayesian, you are likely to objectively satisfy your desire to avoid Dutch books.” But this is not true. In order to successfully avoid Dutch books, Bayesianism is not sufficient. You’d also need to be logically omniscient (or close to it). And of course this condition is never satisfied by anyone except me.

On the inconsistency of English: I agree that if you sufficiently modified English you could escape semantic paradoxes. But I don’t see why that possibility is relevant. The language spoken in my community is English, which has a unrestricted truth predicate. Surely a desire for this community to understand me doesn’t compel me to speak a modified version of their language. People understand me just fine when I speak regular colloquial English, and when I say things like “That’s true.” So the hypothetical imperative that is supposed to ground the normativity of logic does not make sense to me.

I’ll grant that the desire to conform with my linguistic community makes it inadvisable to say things like “The ball is both red and not red” (side note: the example you chose in your post isn’t actually a logical contradiction). But it doesn’t make it inadvisable to adopt a language in which it can be proved that “The ball is both red and not red.” I would hope a view of logical normativity would get me the latter, not just the former.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 21, 2011 at 11:25 am

Tarun,

On Bayes: If you desire to have more true beliefs and fewer false ones, I suspect you will draw out Bayesian calculations rarely, because that is so time consuming. But an intuitively Bayesian way of thinking about evidence and belief and so on might help one’s goal to have more true beliefs and fewer false ones. This is one of the points of the Strategic Reliabilism introduced in Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, which is just an update to Herbert Simons’ “bounded rationality.” Humans have very limited processing capacities, and so they must use heuristics and tools to improve the accuracy of their beliefs. Actually applying something like Jeffrey conditionalization for all beliefs is computationally intractable.

On language: This is the part I disagree with: “Surely a desire for this community to understand me doesn’t compel me to speak a modified version of their language.” No, I think that is precisely what is required. There are many superstitions inherent in conventional English. Many English concepts do not match up to reality very cleanly. Many are so messed up by cultural history as to carry almost no coherent meaning at all. Modifying English can help us communicate better. So can the barring of monsters like “This sentence is false.” Really, does a sentence like that help you communicate? I think not.

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cl February 21, 2011 at 12:15 pm

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” –Bertrand Russell

To me, it’s maddening that most if not all atheists in this thread–who are supposed to be more rational and all that–apparently don’t see the problem. Just a few years ago, Luke would have told you it was a “settled issue” in favor of God. Now, he tells you it’s a “settled issue” in the other direction, and no atheists seem to be protesting! Is this simply because Luke’s newfound certainty confirms the pre-existing atheist view? Should we really lower our standards for acceptance of truth claims just because they tickle our own confirmation bias? Is not certainty chief amongst those you all like to denigrate as fundamentalists? Isn’t certainty at least partly responsible for the most egregious of human atrocities? How is this not simply a swapping of one strain of dogmatic thinking for another?

Steven R.,

…I was wondering when Cl was gonna quote Thomas and say exactly or precisely or anything similar to that.

No problem, I was wondering when you were going to intelligently address anything that was said as opposed to being coy. I’m still wondering.

But yeah, I tend to agree with Luke on this, even though I still need to read the relevant literature to make sure that what I have come to conclude is at least appropriate.

So, you rely on your own intuition regarding dualism, and agree with Luke, despite the fact of not yet reading the relevant literature? Well, I suppose the least I can say is that I respect your candor.

Thomas,

I thought so.

Deany Weenie,

Nice argument from popularity.

Fallacies: 1 | Deany Weenie: 0

Luke,

So can the barring of monsters like “This sentence is false.” Really, does a sentence like that help you communicate? I think not.

I’m glad you’re finally coming around to this idea. For a long time, “monsters” like that were par for your course. Cheers to the desire to improve and clarify.

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Mike Young February 21, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Bill, Randomness has nothing to do with freedom of the will. To believe it does is for you to be conceptually confused. Seconod, compatabilism is dead. See Vaninwagens “An essay on free will.”

Joel, you claim:
“Now, as I’m sure you and most people would agree, when we act, we are motivated by our desires or our beliefs concerning normativity (e.g. moral beliefs). We can change our desires (i.e. change our personality), as anecdotal and scientific evidence shows.”

Ummm not if your detemined. If you are determined, you are not the one changing anything. The laws of physics acting on atoms moving in fields of forces do all the work. If you are correc about materialism I can explain every movment of every atom in your entire body using nothing but physics. Why bring in Motivations, intentions goals desires etc when you can explain everything using Nothing but laws of physics? (which would be true if materialism were true) We may have them….but they dont change or do anything. They are, as it were, causally impotent. If you say that your motivations play some causal role…where? I can explain all the movements of all the atoms using laws of physics, and the laws of physics will be both necessary and sufficient to explain the movements of all the atoms.
Seond, Libertarian free will does not require me to choose my initial state of mind. All it requires is that State one does not determine state two. That, and nothing more. YOusee, for the libertarian states of mind are not individual states that interact with other invidual states. There is an enduring “I” or “self” that has states of mind, it is this “I” that does the causing, not the initial state. I do not choose my first state, I do not need to.
Besides, no libertaria has ever said that choosing the first state of mind is required, ever. Asserting that without providing an argument for it is ad hoc.

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Joel February 22, 2011 at 12:35 am

Mike Young

Two points.

First. You attack compatibilism by simplistic reductionism. First, a relatively inexpensive observation: just because X is composed or constituted by Ys and dictated by the rules of Y-types does not mean that X does not exist or, is not real. Your key contention is that of “Why bring in intentions if physical laws explain intentions”. Because intentions exist, as introspection demonstrates, and the fact that they are constituted by bags of atoms (a perojative term used by Christian philosophers) doesn’t change the fact that intention exists. Just because I (my personality, desires, state of mind) am determined does not mean that my actions are not determined by myself (my state of mind, personality, desires etc). You might want something more than that in terms of freedom, but fufilling my desires, without other intentional agents interfering, is freedom enough. It is freedom enough in a moral sense – there is enough elbow room – because I (with, say, my desire to X) can be blamed for producing X where X is a bad thing. It is true that I don’t choose to desire to X, but I am constituted by, and is simply the aggregate of, my desires, so yes, I (my desires) can be blamed.

Second. You show libertarianism’s utter incoherence. Really, if state one does not determine state two, if my actions are not determined by my desires, then I am determining nothing. Even if you talk about an ‘enduring “I” or “self”’, that self must either A) be necessarily existent or B) contingently existent. If A) you didn’t choose to be yourself, and this is no different from materialist compatibilism where you don’t choose State 1. If B, compatibilist materialism.

Honestly, I have no idea what that “enduring self” can be constituted by. Could you clarify? Is it bound by laws, even if the laws are supernatural? You can shift the problem of free will to another world, but it doesn’t change that basic Humean problem of determinism vs chance.

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Bill Snedden February 22, 2011 at 6:38 am

@Mike Young:

Bill, Randomness has nothing to do with freedom of the will. To believe it does is for you to be conceptually confused

I do not believe randomness has anything to do with freedom of the will, rather, it is a material implication of the claim of “contra-causality”. That which is not caused is random by definition. Of course, libertarians don’t actually claim “contra-causal” free will, but I like to imagine they use the term because it makes their position sound much cooler than “nuh uh!”.

Seconod, compatabilism is dead. See Vaninwagens “An essay on free will.”

Please. One libertarian crying in the wilderness does not signify the “death of compatibilism”.

From the “PhilPapers” survey linked previously:

Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?
Accept or lean toward: compatibilism 550 / 931 (59%)
Other 139 / 931 (14.9%)
Accept or lean toward: libertarianism 128 / 931 (13.7%)
Accept or lean toward: no free will 114 / 931 (12.2%)

Hmm…59% of the academic philosophers surveyed accept or lean toward compatibilism…yeah, sounds pretty dead to me… *rolleyes*

Joel has already responded to the substance of your claim, so I’ll just note that my agreement with him and leave it at that…

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Thomas February 22, 2011 at 11:44 am

Bill,

That which is not caused is random by definition.

Well of course most libertarians think that choices are caused by agents but they are still undetermined and ‘up to the agent’. And non-causal libertarians say that although choices are uncaused, they are still explained teleologically in terms of purposes, and thus not random.

In any case, there are many anwers to the problem of luck.

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mojo.rhythm February 22, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Cl,

Just a few years ago, Luke would have told you it was a “settled issue” in favor of God. Now, he tells you it’s a “settled issue” in the other direction, and no atheists seem to be protesting! Is this simply because Luke’s newfound certainty confirms the pre-existing atheist view.

Luke just started doing the research into the issues a few years ago mate. Last time I checked, it is okay to revert your position in the light of new evidence (I assume this is your stance?). The fact of the matter is that most authorities in metaphysics and epistemology concede that the traditional and modern arguments for God’s existence are specious. The general project of contemporary research into natural theology is to give weak arguments that establish the rational acceptability of theism. This means that the purpose of all the sophisticated syllogisms, elaborate Bayes arguments and so forth is to buttress a pre-existing belief in theism. Most philosophers of religion will admit that the arguments are not strong enough to rationally compel belief in someone who does not believe.

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Steven R. February 22, 2011 at 7:18 pm

To Cl:

:( Way to misinterpret my comment. I was merely amused because when I read Thomas’ comment I thought to myself “this is exactly the sort of comment I would expect Cl to agree with” and, sure enough, when I checked back later that night, there you were saying exactly what I had imagined. Not meant to be offensive in the least. Then again, “haha” can, unfortunately, come across as rude or sarcastic over the web when it isn’t meant that way.

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Mike Young February 22, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Joel, you missed the point, I never claimed there were no intentions, read my posts carefully. What I said about intentions (and motivations) was:
“We may have them….but they dont change or do anything. They are, as it were, causally impotent. If you say that your motivations play some causal role…where? I can explain all the movements of all the atoms using laws of physics, and the laws of physics will be both necessary and sufficient to explain the movements of all the atoms.” (This is called epiphenominalism)
That is what I said I never denied intentions, I said given Materialism, intentions are causally impotent. You see, the intention is the effect of what the atoms do and has nothing to do with causing what the atoms do (that yould be saying that intentions ar squirted out and then do some causal work). Take for example water. The wetness of the water does not cause the atoms to do anything at all, it is the atoms movement that creates the wetness to begin with. It is not like the atoms crate the wetness and then the wetness makes the atoms do things. If materialism is true, intentions are like that. Now, you might try to get out of this by saying “they are not caused by, but rather constituted of atoms” This gets you nowhere, The only way to make that work is to say that an intention is a brain state, or atomic state or some such thing. But even then your finished. why? because you said :
“Because intentions exist, as introspection demonstrates, and the fact that they are constituted by bags of atoms (a perojative term used by Christian philosophers) doesn’t change the fact that intention exists.”
And I hate to break it to you, but you will never be able to give me a description of the atomic state of your brain based on introspection. That means what you know through introspection is not an atomic arangement, it is something else, and that something else does not do any work because laws of physics and atomic properties provid all the necessary and sufficient conditions for me to explain all your behaviour.
Seond, you better hope your actions are not determined by your desires, Read davidsons essay “Actions, Reasons, and causes.” to get some clarity on this. Further Ought => can. If you admit you could not have done otherwise, then no, we cannot blame you. You may want to read up on that last bit. OR, try this, deny that ought implies can and see how far you get. If I could not have done other then what I did given the state of affairs then no, you cannot blame me.

Bill, you said abot randomness that: it is a material implication of the claim of “contra-causality”
This is false, if you think otherwise I expect an argument from you with a conclusions that follows from premesis. And “things are either random or caused” does not count because that is the unsaid premise I want you to prove.. Thomas nails it, see his comment

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Bill Snedden February 23, 2011 at 10:08 am

@Mike Young:

Bill, you said abot randomness that: it is a material implication of the claim of “contra-causality” This is false…

I don’t think so. It seems to me that it’s implicit in the meaning of the words “caused” and “random”. But note that this is why I wrote that libertarians don’t actually mean “contra-causal” when they say it. They mean “contra-non-agent-causal”.

Thomas nails it, see his comment.

Um…no, he didn’t. In fact, Thomas’ post seems to supports my point: “…most libertarians think that choices are caused by agents…”. Of course, the issue then turns on the fact that agents are contingent entities and themselves caused. Additionally, Aristotle identifies teleology as a cause, so even it were possible for a thing to possess only a final (teleological) cause (which Aristotle would dispute) such a thing would still possess a cause.

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Mike Young February 23, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Bill, you claim:
Of course, the issue then turns on the fact that agents are contingent entities and themselves caused.

Something being caused to exist does not entail that they are determined. Atoms are determined bacuase their causal nexus constists of causes and effects that are governed in a law like way by laws of physics. Thus state one determines state two because of the law like relations between states. This is not the case with agents. Agental reasoning does not follow these same law like relations. While the reasoning is not random, it is goverened by the agent himself. Which is why, as Kant said, That mind follows laws which it stipulates for itself. Or, we might say that the agent has a will which is the faculty which moves the agent to action (hence the term will power) and this will is not governed by laws.

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