Why Phi Needs XPhi

exhibition-posterby Mark O’Brien

Humans are alone in the natural world (as far as we know) in the richness of our dealings with other members of our own species and in the fact that we have a complex language with which to negotiate these interactions. We have evolved a sophisticated suite of concepts and intuitions, and a correspondingly complex brain to help us succeed in this challenging social environment.

But as the products of evolution (whether biological or cultural), notions such as morality, justice, love, beauty, knowledge, truth, duty, loyalty and so on are only required to be useful heuristics. They are usually not, in their “native” states at least, the result of a robust foundation in rational analysis. These concepts are instead understood and recognized on a basis best described by Justice Potter Stewart with the famous words “I know it when I see it” (regarding obscenity). [1]

Unfortunately, this is hardly a satisfactory situation for either law enforcement or eroticists. If obscenity is to be censored, then it would be helpful to have a more precise account of what is obscene. Presumably Justice Stewart will not always be available for consultation, not least because he is deceased. In this particular case, it may be sufficient to legislate specifically for certain kinds of depictions, but even so one runs into occasional legal nonsense, as with the decision in Australia that drawings of the Simpsons having sex could be considered illegal child pornography. [2]

Ideally, this is where philosophy comes in.

In my view, one of the major tasks of philosophy, not only in the interpretation of law but in the resolution of all kinds of conundrums, is to put our intuitions on a firmer footing, and so a substantial body of philosophical work is devoted to debating how we ought to define and delineate these concepts. For an example, we need look no further than our own Massimo Pigliucci’s latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry), Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering The Demarcation Problem, which seeks to pin down the demarcation between science and pseudoscience and in so doing proposes a robust account of each. [3]

Some of our natural concepts have been contentious for millennia. For instance, ever since Socrates [4], and perhaps before, the foundations of morality have been a topic for philosophical debate, and very little has been settled. Attempts to define what is moral have fallen into four major camps: those who define morality in terms of virtue, those who talk in terms of maximizing well-being or utility, those who believe that morality consists of following commandments, and those who deny that moral questions are meaningful at all.

Other concepts seem at first to be easier to define. Plato’s take on knowledge as “justified true belief” stood for over two thousand years. Even so, some issues with this were brought to light by Edmund Gettier as recently as 1963, in a paper which illustrated with examples that this definition fails in certain unusual scenarios. [5] One way for a definition to fail might be its incoherence, but this is not what Gettier showed. Instead, he demonstrated that there are cases of justified true belief which we would nevertheless intuitively hesitate to call “knowledge.”

And so, in general, it seems that the definitions proposed by philosophers for natural human intuitions can fail if they do not accurately reflect those intuitions.

For Gettier and perhaps for most philosophers, introspection is considered a sufficient means of assessing human intuition. It was after all Gettier’s own intuitions regarding knowledge that he found to disagree with Plato’s definition, while the intuitions of his colleagues were consulted during peer review. However, philosophers do not have a monopoly on human intuition, and I see no reason to privilege the intuitions of philosophers. To provide a solid foundation for the philosophy of natural human concepts, we should have a more robust way to discover and document human intuitions across and within different cultural milieus.

And this is where experimental philosophy comes in.

Experimental Philosophy [6] (sometimes abbreviated as XPhi) is an emerging discipline which seeks to study human intuitions by collecting empirical data by conducting surveys or psychological experiments. It might, without too much distortion, be characterized as introspection with a sample size greater than one. It can therefore provide a relatively objective, empirical and quantifiable basis for the premises and assumptions philosophical arguments are built on, at least as compared to the traditional alternative which consists of assertions derived from the introspections of individual philosophers. This article will not delve too deeply into what XPhi is or how it works. All that we need to know is that one of its major areas of concern is what laypeople believe regarding the intuitions which philosophers analyze, and that some philosophers regard these beliefs as irrelevant to their work.

Last year, Massimo Pigliucci revealed himself to be such a philosopher. [7] In his critique of Experimental Philosophy, he noted that while XPhi might tell us what laypeople think about “knowledge,” what philosophers should really be interested in is what other philosophers believe and argue. In the viewpoint exemplified by Pigliucci, the intuitions of laypeople are simply irrelevant to working philosophers, just as mathematicians do not care what laypeople think of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Philosophy is seen as a technical field like mathematics, studying topics about which ordinary people are not expected to have any special insight.

However, in my view this misses the point that, unlike mathematicians, what philosophers are analyzing are those same lay intuitions. There is no syllogistic argument to justify Plato’s definition of knowledge, nor can there be for definitions in general. Definitions are simply declared by fiat, and if a coherent definition is rejected it can only be because it contradicts our intuitive understanding of the defined term. Gettier rejected “justified true belief” because he found that it didn’t match his intuitive concept of knowledge, an intuition he came by not through his philosophical training, but simply by virtue of his membership of the human race (and more specifically of his culture). If Gettier had relied not only on introspection but also conducted a survey and found that few other people (whether philosophically trained or not) viewed the Gettier cases as problematic, he would have had no grounds to find fault with Plato. The fact that his paper has gained traction is only because his own intuitions happen to have coincided with those of most people.

There is certainly a place for technical definitions of technical concepts, but these should be given appropriate technical names and not confused with the natural human intuitions they seek to model. To do otherwise leads to confusion, grandiose claims and failure to communicate effectively. For example, Sam Harris is often criticized for claiming that science can determine human values, but had he instead made the more modest claim that science can guide consequentialist morality (as he actually argues in his book), I suspect the philosophical community would have met his thesis not with derision but with bemused indifference.

Richard Carrier’s account of objective morality [8] is less well known but is an even clearer example of the problem. Carrier seems to believe he has found the definitive answer to the question of objective morality by essentially taking morality to mean rational self-interest. Carrier’s argument, in condensed form, is that morality is what one ought to do, and what any rational agent ought to do is to maximize its own satisfaction. He suggests that the best way to maximize satisfaction is to be kind, generous, considerate, charitable etc, and that when people behave otherwise they are simply mistaken about which choices will bring them happiness.

Perhaps Carrier has a point on this, but it could be that he is wrong in his assumptions. It is plausible that, at least for some people, satisfaction might best be achieved by behaving in ways which are widely regarded as immoral. Carrier is quite doubtful of this possibility, but untroubled even should it prove to be true. In Carrier’s view, which choices maximize satisfaction is simply an empirical question, and if lying, cheating and stealing is the way to go about it, then that is what is moral for that person. If laypeople disagree, they are simply wrong.

In his own words: “Maybe we shouldn’t always be concerned about the welfare of others. If that’s the fact, then you have to live with it. But whether it’s a fact has to be determined. Empirically.” [9]

What he is saying is that, in the unlikely event that we find that selfishness leads to happiness, then morality dictates that we ought to be selfish. To me, this is clearly nonsense, and yet it is interesting because I think it arises from much the same kind of thinking as seen in the rejections of Experimental Philosophy from those such as Pigliucci: that philosophy is the study of technical concepts with technical definitions and that lay intuitions have nothing to do with it.

Carrier’s mistake is to overlook the simple fact that morality is a human intuition, so any definition of morality which does not agree with that intuition cannot be accepted. The best we can say is that Carrier has defined something, but to call it “morality” is an error. If no coherent universally-accepted definition of morality is possible, then that is the fact we have to live with. We need to accept it and move on.

In my view, the opinions of lay people are not only relevant but at the heart of some debates, not least that surrounding free will. In the recent back and forth between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, the two agree on all the facts of the matter, but disagree on whether the term “free will” is appropriate for the physically-determined actions of biological robots. Harris says it is not, because true “free will” is the libertarian kind which is incompatible with naturalism [10]. Dennett says it is, because the “free will” worth wanting is the one that actually exists and that can be used to justify moral responsibility on consequentialist grounds [11].

It seems to me that the two are really arguing about terminology. On this particular debate, I side with Harris, but only because, by introspection, I find that the concept evoked in my mind by the term “free will” is not compatible with naturalism. Both men make claims about what the wider public understands by the term, and so it seems to me that the debate ought to be settled with a little experimental philosophy. If Dennett is right that his account of free will matches the intuitions of the public, then he is right to call it so. If he is wrong, then he should call it something else.

Before we finish, let us return to the demarcation problem for a moment. Suppose, hypothetically, that the definition of “science” proposed by Pigliucci and Boudry were not accepted by the majority of scientists. It seems to me that they could respond in at least two ways. One tactic might be to dismiss the scientists as non-philosophers, to maintain that the proposed definition of “science” is technical and not to be confused with the term as used outside of technical philosophy. This would achieve little but to consign their book to irrelevancy. I submit that a better approach would be to survey the scientists and to probe the ways in which the proposed definition failed in the hopes that a better definition could be formulated. This is experimental philosophy in action.

In conclusion, philosophers should feel free to use whatever technical terms and definitions they find useful, but if they ever attempt to define terms which are in general use, and especially if they make use of such definitions in the public space, then they need to know that their definitions match the public understanding of these concepts, or if they do not, they need at least to know that they do not.

And for that, they need experimental philosophy.

_____

Mark O’Brien is a software developer and amateur philosopher who despite never having achieved anything in the field has an unjustified confidence in his own opinions and sees it as his sacred duty to share them with the world. The world has yet to notice. You might very well think that his pseudonymous alter ego is a regular on Scientia Salon, but he couldn’t possibly comment. He is Irish and lives in Aberdeen, Scotland.

[1] Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

[2] Judge rules characters in Simpsons-style sex cartoon are child pornography.

[3] Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering The Demarcation Problem, by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, Chicago Press.

[4] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Socrates’ Euthyphro Dilemma.

[5] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Knowledge.

[6] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Experimental Philosophy.

[7] Rationally Speaking: Philosophy is not an Elephant, by Massimo Pigliucci.

[8] What exactly is objective moral truth?, by Richard Carrier.

[9] A comment from Richard Carrier in the discussion of [8].

[10] Free Will and “Free Will,” by Sam Harris.

[11] Reflections on FREE WILL, by Daniel C. Dennett.



Categories: Philosophy, Science

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172 replies

  1. DM,
    OK, so when two fundamentalist Muslim scholars, well versed in (fundamentalist Muslim) virtue ethics come to a different conclusion by appealing to different established literature in the field, on what basis do we decide which of us is right?

    We can’t eliminate differences in the academic world. They will always exist. Academia, slowly over a long period of time, converges towards increasing consensus. You consider yourself a consequentialist and yet that field contains several strands of thought. Which is the right one? How will we know? Do you have sound reasons for believing consequentialism is the right moral framework? Massimo would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. These theoretical differences are likely to remain with us for a long time to come.

  2. Carrier is perhaps the best example of my argument of a philosopher who needs an XPhi reality check. You refuse to consider this example so you don’t understand my argument, preferring instead to explain how XPhi can or cannot answer questions I was not originally discussing.

    You will not understand me until you engage with an example where I claim that XPhi is relevant. Peter, you’re a good guy, and I respect you, but it’s getting to the point where I think we need to drop it because you don’t seem to me to be addressing the core points of my argument at all.

    I nowhere suggested that and for you to drag in that term is disingenuous.

    It’s very uncharitable of you to accuse me of disingenuity.

    Your explanation of how we know what the virtues are was simply to point that there is broad agreement. By referring to the majority, my point is that broad agreement is not enough. I want to know what this consensus is founded on.

  3. You consider yourself a consequentialist and yet that field contains several strands of thought. Which is the right one? How will we know? Do you have sound reasons for believing consequentialism is the right moral framework?

    I’m not a moral realist. I don’t think there is a right answer to these questions. I am a consequentialist because that is the system that appeals to me. It’s an aesthetic preference. I like conseqentialism because it appeals to my most fundamental intuitions regarding morality, that we should try to promote well being and limit suffering. I also like it because it is relatively simple. It is less arbitrary to adopt this one principle than a grocery list of sundry virtues with no underlying basis for preferring some proposed virtues to others.

    Yet I may be a virtue ethicist in practice. I choose and justify my virtues on consequentialist grounds.

    Massimo would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. These theoretical differences are likely to remain with us for a long time to come.

    Peter Singer would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. Appealing to authority gets us nowhere.

  4. DM,
    Our discernment must be grounded in something else. For me, it is consequentialism. What is it for you?
    Virtue ethics.

    Consequentialism vs virtue ethics is a whole new discussion. Massimo has already written about that on Rationally Speaking and I refer you back to his series on the subject.

    I consider consequentialism to be fatally flawed but there is no need to go into that right now. In this post I am arguing for virtue ethics on the grounds of purely practical considerations, independent of theoretical matters. My argument is that society is deeply split between competing moral views based on deontology and consequentialism. The religious world is not going to accept consequentialism and the secular world is not going to accept theistic deontology. Virtue ethics is agnostic about belief systems and is therefore attractive to both sides of the religion secular divide. It also transcends culture, making it appealing to Western as well as Buddhist and Confucian schools of thought, though the terminology they use can appear very disparate.

    Virtue ethics therefore offers us the best prospect of reaching a realistic moral consensus.

  5. DM,
    I’m saying that the survey itself does not help us to discern.
    Well then, let me give you an example of where it would.

    I have already referenced a relevant article, Reclaiming Virtue Ethics for Economics by two economists, Bruni and Sugden (http://bit.ly/1fXNjAX).

    They say:
    we use the methods of virtue ethics to develop a conception of market virtue that is consistent with many classical and neo-classical economists’ accounts of how markets work and of what purposes they serve. Our central idea is that the public benefits of markets should be understood as the aggregate of the mutual benefits gained by individuals as parties to voluntary transactions, and that the market virtues are dispositions that are directed at this kind of mutual benefit. For a virtuous market participant, mutual benefit is not just a fortunate by-product of the individual pursuit of self-interest: he or she intends that transactions with others are mutually beneficial.
    Using this idea, we identify some specific character traits that have the status of virtues within the domain of the market. Our list of market virtues (which we do not claim is complete) includes universality, enterprise and alertness, respect for the tastes of one’s trading partners, trust and trustworthiness, acceptance of competition, self-help, non-rivalry, and stoicism about reward. We will argue that these market virtues, grounded on ideas of reciprocity and mutual benefit, are closely associated with virtues of civil society more generally.

    This is a good example of how discerning virtues in a market environment is best ascertained by talking to the players in that environment. The article is well worth reading carefully. I am sure that others will disagree on the list of virtues for market activity. This illustrates the need for research in this area.

  6. DM,
    “Peter Singer would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. Appealing to authority gets us nowhere.”
    This is a perfect example of how you misrepresent my comments. I was not appealing to authority to settle a difference of opinion. I was making the point that there are profound academic differences which are unlikely to be resolved.

    I made my intent crystal clear with my opening sentences:
    We can’t eliminate differences in the academic world. They will always exist.
    You ignored that statement and then you left off the following statement when you quoted me, which further clarified my intent:
    These theoretical differences are likely to remain with us for a long time to come

    The whole thrust of that paragraph, quoted in full below, was that important and persistent differences exist in academic thought. To accuse me of appealing to authority is to misrepresent me. You are selectively reading my paragraph and using the selective reading to level an unfair accusation at me. That is not in the spirit of fair debate. Read the paragraph again, below:

    We can’t eliminate differences in the academic world. They will always exist. Academia, slowly over a long period of time, converges towards increasing consensus. You consider yourself a consequentialist and yet that field contains several strands of thought. Which is the right one? How will we know? Do you have sound reasons for believing consequentialism is the right moral framework? Massimo would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. These theoretical differences are likely to remain with us for a long time to come.

  7. Hi labnut,

    Unfortunately I cannot accept virtue ethics as a basis because it is too ad hoc, with different people preferring different virtues. I asked you how you dicern vice from virtue in order to implement your virtue ethics, and your answer, “virtue ethics” does not answer this question in my view as to do so would be circular. It seems to me that what you are saying is tantamount to admitting that your virtues are handed down from a tradition of previous virtue ethicists without very much in the way of justification. I apologise in advance if I have mischaracterised you, but that is how your viewpoint is coming across to me through the imperfect medium of asynchronous internet blog comments.

    The paper on the market value of virtues seems to me to be grounding the virtues in consequentialism of a kind when it talks about the benefit of the different virtues. Perhaps you didn’t understand me when I said I claimed to ground my virtues in consequentialism. This is the kind of thing I was advocating. Developing the habit of pursuing certain qualities or attitudes will have the consequence of greater overall benefit, and this is the basis on which I distinguish virtue from vice.

    I accept that you were not appealing to authority to settle a difference of opinion. In that case you should have left Massimo’s qualifications out of it. In fact you needn’t have brought Massimo into it at all but used yourself as an example of someone who disagreed with me.

    In any case, my goal is not to eliminate academic disagreement. Such a goal is impossible. I would never be able to convince Carrier he is wrong, for a start. But though there is academic disagreement, that doesn’t mean that we don’t each attempt to evaluate the different viewpoints. What I do in this post is to illustrate one strategy for doing so. My claim is that Carrier’s viewpoint ought to be denied, and the basis on which it ought to be denied rests on the incompatibility of his views with what ‘morality’ means to everybody else (i.e. lay people and philosophers alike).

  8. I really need to butt in here. It is a common misconception that virtue ethics is “too vague.” That’s because people think that ethics has to do with what is right or wrong. But for a virtue ethics that’s not the crucial question. The crucial question is what sort of life one ought to live. And the answer offered by virtue ethics is: one that develops and nurture good character traits, of which Aristotle (and later on other virtue ethicists) even give a specific list. Hardly vague at all.

  9. Where did I say it was vague? I said it was ad hoc. There’s a difference. You can have as many specific virtues as you like, but until you justify why these qualities and not others it seems arbitrary to me.

    I likely agree with you on most of this in practice, but I think consequentialism is what determines which qualities are virtuous and which are not.

  10. You ought to know better than that my friend. Consequentialism also is “ad hoc,” in the sense that there is no way to ground that particular framework above others.

  11. Hi Massimo,

    You ought to know better than that my friend. Consequentialism also is “ad hoc,” in the sense that there is no way to ground that particular framework above others.

    I agree, but I think it is nevertheless less arbitrary. I explained my attitude about this to labnut in a slightly earlier comment.

    Here it is again:

    I’m not a moral realist. I don’t think there is a right answer to these questions. I am a consequentialist because that is the system that appeals to me. It’s an aesthetic preference. I like conseqentialism because it appeals to my most fundamental intuitions regarding morality, that we should try to promote well being and limit suffering. I also like it because it is relatively simple. It is less arbitrary to adopt this one principle than a grocery list of sundry virtues with no underlying basis for preferring some proposed virtues to others.

  12. DM, I didn’t intend to start a debate on the merits of virtue ethics vs consequentialism. I only wanted to point out its great appeal as a place where different belief systems can meet and find consensus. This is something that consequentialism cannot provide(you may disagree?). We could go further in the discussion but we will quickly get into deep waters. This is going way off track where X-Phi is concerned. I raised the issue in the X-Phi context because I thought this was one place where empirical investigation of prevailing virtues in a given context would be useful. To my surprise you disagreed when I thought we had found a point of agreement.

    The major point of difference between you and I is that I think empirical investigation is all good and well but that it should be carried out by the domain experts where each domain plays to its strengths. To use my military metaphor, philosophers are the advance scouts in the shadowy border land between the empirical world and the conceptual world. They help to define interesting areas for investigation and the psychologists/sociologists come after to do the research. A major problem in ethical behaviour is motivating people to behave in a moral way. You can think of religion as ritual form of behaviour intended to inculcate moral traits. In the absence of religion how is this to be done? This is the intersection between moral philosophy, psychology and sociology where philosophy defines the problem and psychology/sociology research the solutions.

  13. DM, we have debated the nitty-gritty to death. I think it is worthwhile to step back from the fray and ask whether we are talking about the right things. It seems to me that the real difference between you and I is that we bring different metaphysical prejudices to the table. Specifically, I believe in the reality of free will and you do not. Now I am not inviting yet another endless debate, this time about whether free will really exists or is an illusion. My reply would simply be that the matter is unproven so let’s wait for the researchers to do their job. By the way, this is another excellent example of where philosophy has scouted the terrain in advance of the empirical sciences.

    I think it is more important to understand the consequences of our metaphysical prejudices.
    Since you do not believe in free will you cannot believe that the individual is innately responsible for his behaviour. And yet he must be held responsible as an exemplar to others so that they are warned (the Chinese proverb, killing the chicken to frighten the wolf). This commits you to a belief in consequentialism. If he is not innately responsible for his behaviour virtue ethics cannot make any sense.

    If free will does not exist then we are essentially rather advanced biological robots, ruled by strict causal determinism. In this case all our thoughts are ultimately traceable to biological causes. If that is true all philosophical thoughts can ultimately, one day, be explained at the biological level. In the presence of that kind of belief X-Phi makes perfect sense.

    Since I believe in free will I believe in a higher level of innate responsibility that is best described by virtue ethics. One holds a robot responsible for consequences while one holds a free willing person responsible for the way s/he thinks. A further consequence of my belief in free will is that I believe we have constructed a conceptual world that transcends the physical and so cannot be described by the physical. New emergent properties of cognitive, free willing thought have their roots in the biological world but cannot be explained in biological terms. In that case X-Phi, as described by you, makes no sense. It must be investigated on its own terms and not in the terms of the lower layers.

    So you and I both have metaphysical prejudices about free will that have far reaching consequences for how we interpret other, resulting matters.

    Then you and I have still deeper metaphysical prejudices that determine our belief in free will. You believe in a strictly material world of causal determinism therefore free will is not possible. I believe in the existence of God who has gifted us with free will. This is a gap between you and I that we will not bridge. Others take an intermediate position of naturalism and compatibilism.

    It is useless fighting about who is right or wrong since we both have unprovable premisses. But it is very useful to explore the differences so that we understand them and especially so that we understand our hidden assumptions.

  14. Well said. You’re right on pretty much all of that.

    So you think XPhi is bogus because you really think there is a pure thing out there which is real morality or real free will, and this is not determined by poll. That makes sense and I see where you’re coming from.

    But there are other more obviously more human constructions for which XPhi might be useful. What we mean by “naturalism”, for instance. I don’t think you would argue that there is a true, “somewhere out there” interpretation of this term, so we could reasonably assess proposed definitions of “naturalism” according to how well they capture the essence of the human intuition at the base of the natural/supernatural divide.

    Please, don’t tell me again that there is an established body of literature out there on this question. This literature has dozens of different interpretations of the term. The point of XPhi would be to assess how useful these different interpretations are at capturing the intuition so that we might choose a preferred one for the purposes of unambiguous communication.

  15. DM,
    So you think XPhi is bogus
    Not so much bogus as misdirected. I think of X-Phi as determining avenues for research (by the domain experts) that can illuminate philosophical problems in the shadowy border lands I mention so often, while the philosopher remains comfortably ensconced in his armchair, doing what he does best. This is just my personal interpretation and so far as I know, I am in a minority of one, a comfortable place that I cherish.

    I think I understand what you say about definitions. My counter argument is that definitions are labels we attach to categories of things. We naturally construct categories as the modelling process whereby we construct internal representational models of the world. This is a very fundamental, innate thing that has been happening since the dawn of language. Language allowed us to construct the internal categories and importantly, allowed us to share them. Sharing categories allowed us to refine them and develop a shared understanding of the categories. Writing enormously extended this process and every time we read something we are automatically acquiring and adjusting our categories. We are terribly good at doing this, which is something that needs explaining. We seem to be far better at doing this than the needs of the hunter/gather would suggest.

    To our categories we apply relationships and we apply values. This completes our internal representational model.

    Because we are capable of reflection we can examine our internal models and build on them, constructing more categories, relationships and values that are no longer physical, but are abstract or purely conceptual. And now our modelling is liberated from the physical world. We construct a vast new conceptual model that is unlimited in scope. Our model is still, at its very foundations, tied to the physical world (this category of food is tasty and nutritious) but there is a vast edifice that soars above these physical foundations. I liken it to a multi-storey office block. It is tied to the ground in the basement(the physical world). The basement contains the services (water, electricity, communications, etc) which are distributed to all the floors. The upper floors (the conceptual edifice) are the management suite that directs the entire operation. You cannot explain the operation of the upper floors by examining the basement. You can only do this by examining the upper floors themselves. This fact lies at the heart of my thinking.

    So far this might even sound plausible to you so it is time to play the game of ‘spot the hidden assumption’. The hidden assumption is that we can freely construct categories, relationships and values at a higher level than the purely physical. This is the assumption that we possess real free will. You reject this assumption so you cannot subscribe to the model of the multi-storey building I have just described.

    In fact I think you are forced to choose an entirely different kind of model. I am inspired by the big ficus tree I look at in my front garden while I type this. From the roots, up through the trunk, out through the branches and into the leaves it is really one continuous thing, manifesting itself in different ways in response to the environment at the different levels. In a world without free will that ficus tree is the best model for your beliefs. In your case, examining the starting point at the roots and adding some knowledge about the environment at the upper levels perfectly explains the rest of the tree.

    Given your assumptions and this kind of model(the ficus tree), X-Phi is valid. Given my assumptions and my multi-storey model, X-Phi is only valid in the basement, which represents the empirical world.

    With that, I am going to leave the basement, climb the stairs and return to the penthouse suite. You will wave to me from the upper branches of the ficus tree! At least it will look like a wave as I spot the movement of the leaves and branches in the wind. That is the problem with possessing free will, one assigns agency to things that do not possess agency. It is a design flaw in our conceptual apparatus (or maybe it was an intentional feature?).

  16. DM,
    What we mean by “naturalism”, for instance. I don’t think you would argue that there is a true, “somewhere out there” interpretation of this term, so we could reasonably assess proposed definitions of “naturalism” according to how well they capture the essence of the human intuition at the base of the natural/supernatural divide.

    I think you are asking the wrong question. Our natural, default tendency is to assign agency to the world. I am always reminded of this when I talk to our domestic worker, a rich source of knowledge about Xhosa beliefs, where the tikoloshe(http://bit.ly/1lDQkYw) is an ever present threat. I have before recommended Ben Okri’s(http://bit.ly/1gRW4NC) book, The Famished Road. It perfectly captures the way rural African people naturally see agency in the world around them.

    So rather than researching perceptions of naturalism, it is, I suggest, more useful to research the reasons for the nearly universal tendency to assign agency to what look like natural phenomena. But this is not a matter of exploring definitions, it is a matter of exploring a strong tendency. Why do we possess this tendency? What role does it play? What forms does it take? What are the consequences? This is the job of psychologists and sociologists. Philosophers define the problem because it has a strong bearing on the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of naturalism, which illustrates once more my solo understanding of X-Phi.

    You will notice I have just mentioned a whole new field, the philosophy of naturalism. I appoint you, DM, as the lead philosopher in this exciting new emerging field of study. Since you lack free will you are the perfect appointee :) May this young sapling grow into a sturdy ficus tree. The roots of your ficus tree will(hopefully?) undermine the foundations of my multi-storey office building.

  17. DM,
    This reminds me of a recent, late night visit I made to the emergency room of our local private hospital (our public hospitals are an unmitigated disgrace). A young black woman was seated next to me. Her little three year old son whiled away the time by repeatedly approaching the automatic doors, making them operate and enjoying the hissing sound. I looked at him, thinking about the meaning of what he was doing(waiting room philosophy). The young black woman mistook my glance and profusely apologized for his behaviour. No need I said, you should celebrate what he is doing. Why, she asked, puzzled? So I explained my thinking. I said that he was learning about the law of cause and effect, that every effect had a cause. He was learning that the world operated in predictable ways. He was learning how to conduct controlled experiments, he was learning how to make careful observations and he was learning how to draw conclusions. I said that these lessons would fundamentally shape his thinking for the remainder of his life and that we should enjoy watching this learning process.

    She sat back with a smile of pride at her clever son. I sat back with the realization that a new generation of local people were growing up with a shared understanding of our world that no longer automatically assigns agency to the inexplicable around us. You might call it automatic door philosophy. It is a sub-field of the broader field of philosophy known as waiting room philosophy. Waiting room philosophy embraces wider existential concerns such as the meaning of life, of suffering and ultimate purpose, so automatic door philosophy is a pleasant distraction from these more serious concerns.

  18. The hidden assumption is that we can freely construct categories, relationships and values at a higher level than the purely physical. This is the assumption that we possess real free will.

    I do not think these are the same assumption. I do not interpret “free” and “free will” to mean the same thing. “Free will” specifically means libertarianism to me, so I deny it. “Freedom” has all kinds of meanings which I do accept, such as political liberty or the absence of external constraints. While I think all of our thought is physically determined, that does not mean that we are constrained to think only about physical things.

  19. That’s simply a different set of questions. We can ask your questions and my questions both. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

  20. How do you know he wasn’t ascribing agency to the door? ;)

  21. DM,
    How do you know he wasn’t ascribing agency to the door?
    He was learning from experience that his actions produced a predictable effect. He walks at the door, it opens. He walks back from the door, it closes. Aha, he says, I can control the door. Let me try to do it again. He does and he gets the same result. He repeats it again and again in surprise at his powers. I should have mentioned that he also learned the importance of confirmation or replication. By replication he confirms the impression that he is the agent and therefore stops assigning agency to the door.

    Isolated rural peoples do not live in an environment that permit such simple and unambiguous ways of learning that the world is operated by reproducible cause and effect. And therein lies the problem. This learning must take place in early childhood while the brain is still plastic. Later learning during teens and adulthood cannot override early, powerfully imprinted intuitions and so my domestic worker still believes in tikoloshes and the power of sangomas. It is the occasion for some(gentle) teasing in my household.

  22. Yes, but the questions I propose are real and pressing in their import.

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