In the first part  of this ambitious (and inevitably, insufficient) essay I sought to write down and briefly defend a number of fundamental positions that characterize my “philosophy,” i.e., my take on important questions concerning philosophy, science and the nature of reality. I have covered the nature of philosophy itself (as distinct, to a point, from science), metaphysics, epistemology, logic, math and the very nature of the universe. Time now to come a bit closer to home and talk about ethics, free will, the nature of the self, and consciousness. That ought to provide readers with a few more tidbits to chew on, and myself with a record of what I’m thinking at this moment in my life, for future reference, you know.
Ethics, meta- and standard
I have written extensively on ethics, perhaps the most comprehensive example being a seven part series that can be found at the Rationally Speaking blog . Although in the past I have considered myself a realist, my position is probably better described as quasi-realism, or perhaps as a kind of bounded instrumentalism. Indeed, it is not very different — in spirit, not the details — from the way I think of math or logic (see part I).
So, first off, I distinguish three types of questions one can meaningfully ask about ethics or morality (I am using the two terms interchangeably here, even though some authors make a distinction between the two): where does it come from, how does it work, and how it should work.
The first question is the province of evolutionary biology and anthropology: those are the disciplines that can tell us how a sense of right and wrong has evolved in our particular species of social, large-brained primates, and how it further diversified via cultural evolution. The second question is a matter of social and cognitive science: we want to know what sort of brain circuitry allows us to think about morality and make moral decisions, and we want to know how that circuitry is shaped not just by our biology, but also by our cultural milieu.
It is the third question, of course, that is more crucially philosophical in nature. Still, one can distinguish at the least two levels of philosophical discourse on ethics: how should we think of morality in general (the so-called “meta-ethical” question), and which system(s) of moral reasoning are best suited for our purposes as social beings.
It is in terms of meta-ethics  that I am a quasi-realist (or a bounded instrumentalist). I don’t think that moral truths exist “out there,” independently of the human mind, which would be yet another example of Platonism (akin to the mathematical / ontic ones we encountered last time). But I also don’t accept the moral relativist position that there is no principled way in which I can say, for instance, that imposing genital mutilation on young girls is wrong — in a sense of wrong that is stronger than simply “I happen not to like it,” or “I have a strong emotional revulsion to it.”
Rather, I think of moral philosophy as a method of reasoning about human ethical dilemmas, beginning with certain assumptions (more or less analogous to axioms in mathematics, or postulates in logic), plus empirical input (from commonsense and/or science) about pertinent facts (e.g., what causes pain and how much, what policies seem to produce the highest amount of certain desiderata, like the ability to flourish, individual freedom, just distribution of resources, etc.), plus of course the basic moral instincts we have inherited from our primate ancestors (on this I’m with Hume: if we don’t care about X there is no reasoning that, by itself, could make us care about X).
This sounds a bit complicated and perhaps esoteric, but it’s really simple: if you want to see what I mean, just read one of Michael Sandel’s books on moral reasoning . They are aimed at the general public, they deal with very practical questions, and yet they show exactly how the moral philosopher thinks (and, incidentally, why science informs but simply cannot determine, our ethical priorities).
I haven’t forgotten about the second level of philosophical discourse concerning ethics: which ethical framework can best serve our aims as individuals within a broader society? Here the classical choices include deontology (Kant-style, not the Ten Commandments stuff) , utilitarianism-consequentialism , and virtue ethics , though there are others (ethics of care, communitarianism, and egalitarianism, for instance).
Although I have strong sympathies for much of what John Rawls  has written (from an egalitarian perspective) on justice, I decidedly embrace a neo-Aristotelian conception of virtue ethics. Actually, I maintain that the two can be brought together in “reflective equilibrium” (as Rawls would say) once we realize that virtue ethics addresses a different moral question from all the other approaches: for Aristotle and his contemporaries ethics was concerned not simply with what is the right thing to do, but with what is the right life to live, i.e. with the pursuit of eudaimonia (literally, having a good demon; more broadly, flourishing). So I think that I can say under penalty of little contradiction that when I ask myself what sort of life I want to live, my response is along virtue ethical lines; but when I ask the very different question of what sort of society I want to live in, then a Rawls-type quasi-egalitarianism comes to mind as the strongest candidate (to be practical, it is the sort of society you find in a number of northern European countries).
Free will is one of the oldest chestnuts in philosophy, and it has come back into fashion with a vengeance, lately , especially because of a new dialogue between philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists — a dialogue that at times is very enlightening, at others just as equally frustrating.
If you consult the Merriam-Webster, its two definitions of the concept are illustrative of why the debate is so acrimonious, and often goes nowhere:
1. voluntary choice or decision
2. freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention
Before we go any further, I believe in (1) and I think that (2) is incoherent.
Now, very briefly, there are basically four positions on free will: hard determinism, metaphysical libertarianism, hard incompatibilism, and compatibilism.
Hard determinism is the idea that physical determinism (the notion that the laws of physics and the universe’s initial conditions have fixed every event in the cosmos since the Big Bang) is true and therefore free will is impossible; metaphysical libertarianism (not to be confused with the political position!) says physical determinism is false and free will is possible; hard incompatibilism says that free will is impossible regardless of whether physical determinism is true or false; and compatibilism accepts the idea of physical determinism but claims that free will (of a kind) is nonetheless possible.
First off, notice that the four positions actually imply different conceptions of free will. For a compatibilist, for instance, free will of type (2) above is nonsense, while that is precisely what the metaphysical libertarian accepts.
Second, given the choices above, I count myself as a compatibilist, more or less along the lines explained at length by Daniel Dennett (see  and references therein), but with a fairly large caveat.
I am a compatibilist (as opposed to both a hard determinist and a hard incompatibilist) because it seems to me self-evident that we make choices or take decisions, and that we do that in a different way from that of a (currently existing) computer, or a plant (with animals things become increasingly fuzzy the more complicated their nervous system). I have definitely chosen to write this essay, in a much richer sense of “chosen” than my computer is “choosing” to produce certain patterns of pixels on my screen as a result of other patterns of keyboard hits that I created with my fingers. You may deny that, but that would leave you with a large number of interesting biological and psychological phenomena that go pretty much unexplained, unaccounted for, or otherwise swept under the (epistemic) carpet.
I am also a compatibilist (as opposed to a metaphysical libertarian) because I think that causality plays a crucial and unavoidable role in our scientific explanations of pretty much everything that happens in the universe above the level of sub-atomic physics (more on this in a second). You simply can’t do any “special” science (i.e., any science other than fundamental physics) without invoking the concept of causation. Since the scientific study of free will (I prefer the more neutral, and far less theologically loaded, “volition”) is the province of neuroscience, psychology and sociology — all of which certainly depend on deploying the idea of causality in their explanations — to talk of a-causal or contra-causal free will is nonsense (on stilts).
So, my (and Dennett’s) compatibilism simply means that human beings are sophisticated biological organisms (I reserve the word “machine” for human-made artifacts, as I have a problem with the deployment of machine-like metaphors in biology ) capable of processing environmental stimuli (including language) in highly complex, non-linear fashion, and to arrive at decisions on actions to take. The fact that, if exposed to the same exact stimuli we would unfailingly come out with the same exact decisions does not make us a puppet or marionette, those decisions are still “ours” in an important sense — which of course implies that we do deserve (moral) blame or praise for them .
What about the caveat to which I hinted above? Well, it’s actually three caveats: i) We still lack a good philosophical account (let alone a scientific theory, whatever that would look like) of causality itself . That ought to make everyone in the free will debate at least a bit queasy. ii) Causality plays little or no explanatory role precisely where the determinist should expect it to be playing a major one: in fundamental physics. Again, someone should think carefully about this one. iii) Hard determinism is, let us not forget it, a philosophical (indeed, metaphysical!) position, not a scientific theory. It is often invoked as a corollary of the so-called principle of the causal completeness of physics . But “causal completeness” simply means that the laws of physics (in general, not just the currently accepted set) exhaust our description of the universe. The notion is definitely not logically incompatible with different, not necessarily reductionist, ways of understanding said laws; nor does it rule out even instances of strong emergence  (i.e., the possibility that new laws come into being when certain conditions are attained, usually in terms of system complexity). I am not saying that determinism is false, or that strong emergence occurs. I am saying that the data from the sciences — at the moment, at least — strongly underdetermine these metaphysical possibilities, so that hard determinists should tread a little more lightly than they typically do.
Self and consciousness
And we finally come to perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of humans (although likely present to a degree in a number of other sentient species): (self)-consciousness.
Again, let’s start simple, with the Merriam-Webster: their first definition of consciousness is “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself”; they also go for “the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought.”
When I talk about (self)-consciousness I mean something very close to the first definition. It is a qualitative state of experience, and it refers not just to one’s awareness of one’s surroundings and simple emotions (like being in pain) — which presumably we share with a lot of other animal species — but more specifically the awareness of one’s thoughts (which may be, but likely is not, unique to human beings).
The first thing I’m going to say about my philosophy of self & consciousness is that I don’t go for the currently popular idea that they are an illusion, an epiphenomenon, or simply the originators of confabulations about decisions already made at the subconscious level. That sort of approach finds home in, for instance, Buddhist philosophy, and in the West goes back at the least to David Hume.
The most trivial observation to make about eliminativism concerning the self & consciousness is that if they are an illusion who, exactly, is experiencing such illusion? This is a more incisive point, I think, than is often given credit.
But, mostly, I simply think that denying — as opposed to explaining — self & consciousness is a bad and ultimately unsatisfactory move. And based on what, precisely? Hume famously said that whenever he “looked” into his own mind he found nothing but individual sensations, so he concluded that the mind itself is a loosely connected bundle of them. Ironically, current research in cognitive science clearly shows that we are often mistaken about our introspection, which ought to go a long way toward undermining Hume’s argument. Besides, I never understood what, exactly, he was expecting to find. And, again, who was doing the probing and finding said bundles, anyway?
Some eliminativists point to deep meditation (or prayer, or what happens in sensory deprivation tanks), which results in the sensation that the boundary between the self and the rest of the world becomes fluid and less precise. Yes, but neurobiology tells us exactly what’s going on there: the areas of the brain in charge of proprioception  become much less active, because of the relative sensorial deprivation the subject experiences. As such, we have the illusion (that one really is an illusion!) that our body is expanding and that its boundaries with the rest of the world are no longer sharp.
Other self & consciousness deniers refer to classic experiments with split-brain patients , where individuals with a severed corpus callosum behave as if they housed two distinct centers of consciousness, some times dramatically at odds with each other. Well, yes, but notice that we are now looking at a severely malfunctioning brain, and that moreover this sort of split personality arises only under very specific circumstances: cut the brain in any other way and you get one dead guy (or gal), not multiple personalities.
To me all of the above, plus whatever else we know about neurobiology, plus the too often discounted commonsense experience of ourselves, simply tell me that there is a conscious self, and that it is an important component of what it means to be human. I think of consciousness and the self as emergent properties (in the weak sense, I’m not making any strong metaphysical statements here) of mind-numbingly complex neuronal systems, in a fashion similar to which, say, “wetness” is an emergent property of large numbers of molecules of water, and is nowhere to be found in any single molecule taken in isolation .
Now, that conclusion does most certainly not imply the rejection of empirical findings showing that much of our thinking happens below the surface, so to speak, i.e. outside of the direct control of consciousness. Here Kahneman’s now famous “two-speed” model of thinking  comes handy, and has the advantage of being backed by plenty of evidence. Nor am I suggesting that we don’t confabulate, engage in all sorts of cognitively biased reasoning, and so forth. But I am getting increasingly annoyed at what I perceive as the latest fashion of denying or grossly discounting that we truly are, at best, the rational animal, as Aristotle said. Indeed, just to amuse myself I picture all these people who deny rationality and consciousness as irrational zombies whose arguments obviously cannot be taken seriously — because they haven’t really thought about it, and at any rate are just rationalizing…
The second thing I’m going to reiterate (since I’ve said it plenty of times before) concerns consciousness in particular. As many of my readers likely know, the currently popular account of the phenomenon is the so-called computational one, which draws a direct (although increasingly more qualified as time goes by) analogy between minds and (digital, originally) computers . For a variety of reasons that I’ve explained elsewhere , I do think there are some computational aspects to minding (I prefer to refer to it as an activity, rather than a thing), but I also think that computationalists just don’t take biology seriously enough. On this, therefore, I’m with John Searle (and that’s quite irrespective of his famous Chinese room thought experiment ) when he labels himself a biological naturalist about consciousness. The basic idea is that — as far as we know — consciousness is a biological process, not unlike, say, photosynthesis. Which means that it may be bounded not only to certain functional arrangements, but also to specific physicochemical materials. These materials don’t have to be the ones that happen to characterize earth-bound life, but it is plausible that they just can’t be anything at all.
I think the most convincing analogy here is with life itself. We can’t possibly know what radically different forms of life may be out there, but if life is characterized by complex metabolism, information carrying, reproduction, homeostasis, the ability to evolve, etc. then it seems like it better be based on carbon or something that has similar chemical flexibility. Hard to imagine, for instance, helium-based life forms, given that helium is a “noble” gas with very limited chemical potentialities.
Similarly, I think, with consciousness: the qualitative ability of feeling what it is like to experience something may require complex chemistry, not just complex functional arrangements of arbitrary materials, which is why I doubt we will be able to create conscious computers (which, incidentally, is very different from creating intelligent computers), and why I think any talk of “uploading” one’s consciousness is sheer nonsense . Of course, this is ultimately an empirical matter, and we shall see about it. I am simply a bit dismayed (particularly as a biologist) at how the computational route — despite having actually yielded comparatively little (see the abysmal failure of the once much trumpeted strong AI program) — keeps dominating the discourse by presenting itself as the only game in town (reminds me of string theory in physics, but that’s a whole other story for another time…).
It should go without saying, but I’m going to spell it out anyway, just in case: none of the above should give any comfort to dualists, supernaturalists and assorted mysticists. I do think consciousness is a biophysical phenomenon, which we have at the least the potential ability of explaining, and perhaps even of duplicating artificially — just not, I am betting, in the way that so many seem to think is about to yield success any minute now.
The whole shebang
Do the positions summarized above and in part I of this essay form a coherent philosophical view of things? I think so, even though they are certainly not airtight, and they may be open to revision or even wholesale rejection, in some cases.
The whole jigsaw puzzle can be thought of as one particular type of naturalist take, of course, and I’m sure that comes as no surprise given my long standing rejection of supernaturalism. More specifically, my ontology is relatively sparse, though perhaps not quite as “desert like” as W.V.O. Quine’s. I recognize pretty much only physical entities as ontologically “thick,” so to speak, though I am willing to say that concepts, mathematical objects being a subset of them, also “exist” in a weaker sense of the term existence (but definitely not a mind-independent one).
My take could also be characterized as Humean in spirit, despite my rejection of specific Humean notions, such as the illusory status of the self. Hume thought that philosophy better take on board the natural sciences and get as far away as possible from Scholastic-type disputes. He also thought that whatever philosophical views we arrive at have to square with commonsense, not in the strict sense of confirming it, but at the very least always keeping in mind that one pays a high price every time one arrives at notions that are completely at odds with it. In some instances, this is unavoidable (e.g., the strange world of quantum mechanics), but in others can and if so should be avoided (e.g., the idea that the fundamental ontological nature of the universe is math).
Outside of Hume, some of my other philosophical inspirations should be clear. Aristotle, for one, at least when it comes to ethics and the general question of what kind of life one ought to live. Bertrand Russell is another, though it may have been less clear from what I’ve written here. Russell, like Hume, was very sympathetic to the idea of “scientific” philosophy, although his work in mathematics and logic clearly shows that he never seriously thought of reducing — Quine-style — philosophy to science. But Russell has been influential on me for two other reasons, which he shares with Aristotle and Hume: he is eminently quotable (and who doesn’t love a well placed quote!), and he embodied the spirit of open inquiry and reasonable skepticism to which I still aspire every day, regardless of my obvious recurring failures.
Let me therefore leave you with three of my favorite quotes from these greats of philosophy:
Aristotle: Any one can get angry — that is easy … but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109.a27)
Hume: In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 10 : Of Miracles Pt. 1)
Russell: Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. (Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel, pp. 178-179)
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 My philosophy, so far — Part I, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 19 May 2014.
 Here is the last entry, you can work your way back from there.
 Metaethics entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 Deontological ethics, SEP.
 Consequentialism, SEP.
 Virtue ethics, SEP.
 John Rawls, SEP.
 See my paper with Maarten Boudry, Why Machine-Information Metaphors are Bad for Science and Science Education, Science and Education 20 (453):471, 2011.
 I was recently having an enlightening discussion about this with my friend Maarten Boudry, and we came up with another way to conceptualize in what sense, say, I could have hit a penalty kick that I actually missed (soccer, you know), whereas I couldn’t have written Hamlet. The idea is to deploy the logical concept of possible worlds (see the pertinent SEP entry). It should be obvious that — given exactly identical circumstances — I would have kicked the penalty in exactly the same way. But there is (in the logical sense of “is”) a nearby possible world in which the circumstances are different, say because I focused more on the task at hand, and I do hit the ball correctly, thereby scoring a goal. However, the possible world in which I write Hamlet is so distant from the actual world that there is no sense for me to say that I could have written Hamlet. If you find value in logical counterfactuals, this way of thinking about free will is very helpful. If not, I’ll try something else some other time.
 See Causal determinism, SEP.
 On the causal completeness of physics, by M. Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 27 February 2013.
 On emergence, see a series of four essays I wrote for the Rationally Speaking blog.
 For the basics on proprioception, see the Wiki entry.
 See The split brain: A tale of two halves, by David Wolman, Nature 14 March 2012.
 Which is why, incidentally, I think Dennett’s famous model of consciousness as made possible by stupider and stupider robots all the way down to individual neurons is too simplistic. In the case of wetness, there is a level of complexity below which the property simply does not apply, and I think the same can be said for consciousness.
 Thinking, Fast and Slow, by D. Kahneman, Turtleback, 2013.
 The computational theory of mind, SEP.
 See the following essays from the Rationally Speaking blog: Philosophy not in the business of producing theories: the case of the computational “theory” of mind (29 July 2013); Computation, Church-Turing, and all that jazz (5 August 2013); Three and a half thought experiments in philosophy of mind (6 September 2013).
 The Chinese room argument, SEP.
 See David Chalmers and the Singularity that will probably not come, Rationally Speaking, 5 October 2009; and Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity: visionary genius or pseudoscientific crank?, Rationally Speaking, 11 April 2011.