About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

So long, and thanks for all the fish

by Massimo Pigliucci

Or, as the title of the last Star Trek: The Next Generation episode wistfully announced: “All good things…

This is the last Rationally Speaking post, folks! It has been a long and fascinating ride. It began back in 2000, before blogs were a thing, with what at the time I called a (syndicated) internet column, and which became a blog in August 2005.

Since then, I published or edited a total of 1208 posts (this is #1209!), which have been commented upon 35,651 times and have been seen 3,880,694 times (not counting the one you are reading now, to be precise). Not bad for a one-man, one-editor (Phil Pollack), and a small number of collaborators (currently including Leonard Finkelman, Steve Neumann, and Ian Pollock) enterprise.

As you know, there has been plenty of controversy on these virtual pages, at at times it has been harsh. But there have been also many many incredibly thoughtful conversations, from which I’ve learned a lot, seriously. A number of readers of RS love to engage in dialogue with me, and I sincerely thank them for their patience and contributions.

However, I feel like I need a new project or two to re-energize my batteries, now that I have just celebrated half a century on this planet! Hence my decision to close Rationally Speaking (though the archives will remain available as long as Blogspot will host them) and open Scientia Salon (which you can, of course, follow on Twitter, Facebook or Google+).

Scientia” is the Latin word for knowledge, broadly construed – i.e., in an ampler fashion than that implied by the English term science. Scientia includes the natural sciences, the social sciences, philosophy, logic and mathematics. And Salons, of course, were the social engine of the Age of Reason in France and throughout much of Europe.

The idea of Scientia Salon is to provide a forum for in-depth discussions on themes of general interest drawing from philosophy and the sciences. Contributors will be academics and non academics who don’t shy away from the label of “public intellectual,” and who feel that engaging in public discourse is vital to what they do and to society at large.

The initial concept was inspired in me years ago by Noam Chomsky’s famous contention that “Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy” (in his Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies). But more recently what spurred me into action was an article by City University of New York’s Corey Robin, on “The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals” (published in Al Jazeera America). It’s a must read, and it’s most definitely not just aimed at academic adjuncts.

The new outlet will inherit much from Rationally Speaking, especially initially. I will be the author of most of the first essays, though several colleagues and friends have already signaled their willingness to help out. It will be possible to submit essays for publication (2-3000 words, up to 5000), which will be edited and — if necessary — peer reviewed. (Interested? Here are the guidelines.)

Scientia Salon will also inherit some of the themes of Rationally Speaking, but there will be less emphasis on traditional skepticism and atheism, and more on philosophy, social science and natural science (with a bit of math and logic sprinkled throughout).

The tone, hopefully, will be civil, thoughtful, as jargon-free as possible, and occasionally gently ironic (as opposed to overly sarcastic, something I must admit of which RS was occasionally  guilty).

The site will welcome comments, but there too, there will be a push to increase open and constructive dialogue and curb name calling and trolling. Consequently, while access to the site for reading will be open to all, in order to post comments it will be necessary to register with name and email address. Not much of a burden in these days of NSA surveillance, and — I hope — well worth the trouble.

So, expect the first essay at Scientia Salon within the next few days. In the meantime, so long, and thanks for all the fish!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

David Silverman and the scope of atheism — Postscript

by Massimo Pigliucci

Predictably, my recent post on some remarks made by American Atheists President David Silverman has generated a firestorm on blogs and twitter, even though I thought the opinions expressed therein are actually quite mild. But such is the nature of debates in the age of social networking. There are several interesting points that have emerged from the thoughtful discussion that has taken place on this blog, for which I thank my readers. (No, I never check discussion threads on other blogs. Sorry, not enough time and energy!)

Some of these points have also been taken up by two of the most critical commentaries, one by PZ Myers and the other one by (future Rationally Speaking podcast guest) Greta Christina. I will analyze these as representative of the discussion, and as an occasion to further clarify my own views.

Predictably, neither piece takes a kind view of my essay, nor, frankly, did the authors try to give it a charitable reading that may lead to fruitful discussions rather than name calling. But in the case of PZ’s sarcastic remarks, I richly deserved it. His entire (short) post takes me up for writing (in the original version of my essay) that “abortion should always be a very difficult and emotional step.” I did not mean that literally, as should have been clear from the context and the examples given. But it was certainly an instance of sloppy writing on my part. After some of my readers pointed it out, I revised the entry to read: “certain types of abortion (say, last trimester)” should always be a very difficult and emotional step,” and later added a footnote to call readers’ attention to it.

This ought to take care of most of PZ’s remarks, though I’d like to hear from him directly. I say most because PZ (and surely Greta, as well as several of my readers) still objects to the “presumption” that someone might dare tell another human being how s/he ought to feel in certain morally salient cases.

I don’t get it. We do this all the time, and it is a cornerstone of our moral education — in true virtue ethical-Aristotelian fashion, I might add. We begin with young children, trying to both explain to them the reasons why certain things (e.g., stealing) are wrong and how they should properly feel about those actions (shame, guilt). We do it to adults too, of course. We criticize the greed (emotion!) of big bankers, we call on our politicians to feel sorry (emotion!) about their misdeeds, and we are horrified by the lack of emotional response on the part of sociopaths when they show no regret (emotion!) at whatever crime they may have committed. And this goes for positive emotions as well, of course: we say that people should feel pride for this, happy about that, and so on. So, what exactly, is the problem with someone arguing that another person should (morally) feel troubled by a certain (ethically salient) decision?

But perhaps the idea is that I, as a man, should not dare tell a woman how to feel or think about something I couldn’t possibly have experienced myself. But that is also highly problematic. As one of my readers pointed out, we do this too all the time. We don’t think that only people who have relatives on death row have a right to express opinions about the emotions and ethical reasoning of people who do. And the same holds for pretty much any other ethical discussion: being a first-person participant is neither a requirement to engage in it, nor necessarily an unquestionable positive (the reason we don’t let families of victims of crimes render verdicts and hand out punishments is that they are too emotionally close to the events themselves).

Moreover, as it happens, I have actually been very close to a painful decision about abortion, so I do have a very good (second hand, since obviously I wasn’t the pregnant one) sense of how complex and wrenching that decision was. It happened many years ago, and I have no intention of going into the personal details of it, but both people involved were definitely secular and were definitely weighing the issue from a non-religious perspective. That didn’t make it a slam dunk.

Now let me turn to Christina’s, longer, much less charitable than even PZ’s, response. I am a bit at a loss to see how a fellow traveler in atheism, skepticism and critical thinking could so grossly misread what I wrote. Below are a few bits from Christina’s post, with my commentary.

> Thank you so much for dismissing the issue of the basic right to bodily autonomy of half the human race as a “tempest in a teapot.” <

I didn’t. That phrase referred to generic diatribes among atheists, not to the basic right to bodily autonomy of half the human race. This should have been clear both from the context and from much of what I’ve written about the New Atheism over the years.

> What a great way to make women in the atheist movement, and women who are considering joining the atheist movement, think that our issues are taken seriously by the movement’s leaders. <

Except, again, that that sentence had nothing to do with any of that (and I’m no leader of any movement — more on this below). Christina might have missed that the post was about a very specific claim, that there are no reasonable secular arguments against abortion — it wasn’t a call to shut down abortion clinics around the country. My strong pro choice position ought to be clear, and I take women's issues very seriously. But you’d hardly know the difference if you just read her post.

> By all means, let’s treat the right to abortion as a philosophical exercise in which both sides should be thoughtfully considered and given intellectual validity <

Ah yes, the by now mandatory dig at philosophy as a useless intellectual exercise indulged in by mostly white (mostly dead) men. Except of course that we get much of our non-religious ethical discourse precisely from philosophy, and that to reject the need for rational discourse on ethics is a bizarre position to take for someone who is interested in reason and critical thinking. (And I would add that to refuse to grant intellectual validity to thoughtful opponents is precisely the tactic of the Religious Right, not to be imitated.) 

Moreover, and importantly, Christina confuses a discussion about the ethical issues raised by abortion with support for curbing women’s access to the procedure. While the first is obviously relevant to the second, one can very consistently maintain that there is something to be debated about the ethics of abortion while at the same time staunchly defending a woman's right to have one.

> Stephanie Zvan has already masterfully taken apart your whole thing about how abortion should always be a very difficult and emotional step. <

I’m sure she has (I haven’t read the piece, see note above about limited time and energy). But Christina already knew of my correction to the above statement (she acknowledges it at the end of her post), which should have set things straight. Why didn’t it? Why did Christina go on with her diatribe even though I had already corrected my post and explained what I actually meant? No interest in being charitable, apparently, nor in actually engaging in a discussion. It’s all about rallying the Forces of Change against the Old Guard.

> Do you seriously think abortion has nothing to do with atheism? Are you aware that the fight against abortion rights has been waged, almost entirely, by the Religious Right? Are you aware that the case against abortion rights is almost entirely centered in religion? <

I do seriously think about what I write, I’m not a comedian, I’m a philosopher. Being an atheist carries no logical (broadly construed, see below) connection whatsoever to a lot of political positions about social issues. And yes, I do read newspapers and I am aware of where the opposition to abortion (mostly) comes from. But, as usual, things are more complicated than that simple narrative. To begin with, there are plenty of religious people who are pro-choice. There are also plenty of prochoice people who would not have an abortion themselves. Second, my original post was much more narrowly focused: I was disputing the ill informed statement by Sarah Moglia that there are no secular arguments against (certain types of) abortion (not abortion rights). Of course there are. And even though I don’t find them convincing (as I said in my original post), they are neither irrational nor informed by bad science, as Moglia stated. We (the pro-choice camp) are right, rationally, morally and scientifically. But there is no reason to pretend that the other side is made up entirely of religious nuts and ignorant country bumpkins.

> What atheism has to say about abortion is, “There are no gods. You have no evidence that your god exists — and you certainly have no evidence that your god shares your political opinions.” <

But the discussion I started had nothing at all to do with religiously motivated objections to abortion. It concerned the (alleged) lack of secular reasons against it.

> First, and very importantly: Abortion access is a church-state separation issue. <

Psychologically, maybe, in the sense that most opponents are indeed religiously motivated. But not rationally, or even legally. No law aimed at restricting access to abortion procedures is couched in religious terms. Our opponents are doing precisely what John Rawls said people should do in a pluralistic society: they are translating their concerns into secular language, making this a secular debate. The terms of that debate are partly philosophical (ethics is a branch of philosophy after all), partly legal, and partly scientific (when does life begin? When do fetuses start to feel pain?). Just because someone has ultimately religious motives to take up a given position, that doesn’t make the debate itself an issue of church-state separation.

> Second: You’re arguing that organized atheism should only work on issues that logically and directly descend from atheism itself. … There are literally no issues that logically ought to unite every atheist. <

Here Christina is playing the card of taking my writing so literally (again, lack of charitable interpretation) to make it sound absurd. Yes, of course if we are talking about formal logical entailment (are we using Aristotelian logic or something else?) then atheism implies absolutely nothing other than a commitment to a negative epistemic or metaphysical claim, depending on how one interprets the meaning of the a-word.

But what I meant was that there is much more room for disagreement among atheists (and secularists more broadly) about all sorts of socio-political issues, and for substantial secular reasons. Which is why we have other types of secular movements (humanists, ethical culturists) who have articulated a specific, progressive, political agenda, which is coupled with their atheism.

Christina uses a reductio ad absurdum argument against me, saying that — on strict logical grounds — there is no connection between atheism and church-state separation or the rights of unbelievers either. And she is right, if one adopts formal logical entailment as a criterion. But I didn’t. It seems to me that it is much easier to rally atheists to fight those fights than to embrace pretty much any other political cause, and for good reasons. Remember that this is in the context of David Silverman daring to go to a conservative political convention to make the argument that atheism isn’t necessarily a liberal issue. And it isn’t, and Dave was right in making the move. Humanism, however, is a liberal movement, and I would feel pretty uncomfortable if Debbie Allen, the President of the AHA were to make the same move.

Look at it from the point of view of a parallel between atheism and gay rights. The gay rights movement has rightly focused on the issues that are closest and most specific to it: the legal rights of gay people. It’s likely that a majority of gays also endorses other political positions (mostly liberal?), but since there are progressive gays and conservative gays and libertarian gays, it was wise to stick to the basics. And it worked, beautifully (though clearly the fight is not over yet). Moreover, the leaders of the gay movement also could have made Christina’s case for their issues being ones of separation of church and state, since most of the opposition to gay marriage, for instance, is religiously motivated. But they didn’t. On the contrary, they sought allegiances with progressive religious institutions, just like other minorities had done before them. And again, in my opinion this was the wise and effective thing to do.

We finally get to what really seems to be bothering Christina:

> What you’re saying is that the people who have traditionally been running organized atheism, the people who have been setting the agenda of organized atheism for decades, are the people who should continue to set the agenda. What you’re saying is that the old guard should get to keep running the show. <

And I assume she thinks I’m one of those people who have been “running the show.” She hasn’t done her homework. I’m not a formal member of any atheist organization (I do have a life membership with AA, but it was given to me as an honorary title, I didn’t join), nor have I ever served on the board of any atheist organization (except, briefly, NYC Atheists, and look how that ended!).

> You don’t get to help decide what we work on. … And you don’t get to set the agenda for all of us. <

And where, exactly, did I ever say that I “get to decide”? I have no power, and if I did I would simply nudge the agenda in my preferred direction (based on my disputable but nonetheless articulated reasons), just like anyone else (including Christina herself) does.

> At best, at the most charitable interpretation of your words, you’re making the argument from tradition — one of the worst, least rational arguments around. At an only slightly less charitable interpretation, you’re making the argument from privilege. You’re making the argument that the people currently running things should continue to run things. In fact, the argument from tradition is an argument from privilege. <

Tradition? Privilege? I don’t recall making any argument at all that was based on something along the lines of “this is what atheists have done in the past, therefore…” And what privilege, exactly? As I said above, I have no position of power within the movement, and I’ve always refused to be involved in political disputes internal to any atheist organization.

But does that mean that I, as a somewhat rational human being who has been thinking and writing about atheism, secularism and related issues, get no say (“you don’t get to help”) in what I think is the best way for atheists to engage in the public square? Why? Is it because I’m old? White? Male? A university professor? A fan of AS Roma soccer club?

And isn’t Christina forgetting that American Atheists itself was founded by a woman? And was run for 13 years by another woman? Were they, too, the Old Guard who isn’t entitled to help in the debate?

I have a pretty established record of critically engaging both the New Atheists and American Atheists, including David Silverman himself. And of course I’ve had bones to pick with Greta Christina too (after which I invited her to promote her new book on my podcast with Julia Galef). That’s what constructive debate within a movement looks like. We are supposed to engage each other, not to shut the opponent down by accusing him of wanting to keep his alleged and factually entirely non-existent privilege. Christina wants to steer atheism toward new directions? More power to her. But I do have a right to point out that in my opinion she is largely reinventing the wheel of secular humanism. We can have a lively discussion (as we did on the RS podcast) and then we can go have a beer together for some more back and forth. The ability to enter into vigorous yet thoughtful debate (and to drink beer) is what truly separates us from the religious fundamentalists. Let’s try to keep it that way.


Postscript to the postscript: apparently, "friendly atheist" Hemant Mehta is also in trouble now, according to a statement released by Secular Woman. It is interesting that the statement makes the same confusion that Christina incurred in, mixing up the idea that there are secular arguments showing that some abortions are morally problematic with the idea that women's rights to control their bodies should be curbed. Once more: they are not the same thing!

According to SW: "Entertaining anti-choice arguments delegitimizes women’s humanity and bodily autonomy," which essentially amounts to an exceedingly anti-freethought stand, seems to me. And here is more hyperbolic rhetoric from SW: "What seems to be lost on Silverman, Mehta and others is that debating women’s humanity is not an academic exercise." Debating women's humanity? Seriously? I'm appalled.

Friday, March 14, 2014

David Silverman and the scope of atheism

by Massimo Pigliucci

You may have heard of the latest tempest in a teapot to hit the often tumultuous waters of modern atheism, this one surrounding American Atheists’ President David Silverman.

Before getting to the meat of the matter — such as it is — let me give you the capsule commentary: i) No, Dave did not (contra Steve Ahlquist) “offer [a] compromise on women’s rights” to appease participants to the Conservative Political Action Conference [CPAC]; ii) the idea that there are secular arguments against abortions has not been “debunked” by Skepchick Sarah Moglia.

Let’s start with Ahlquist. He was very upset that Silverman went to CPAC to begin with, apparently under the misguided understanding that atheism is a special province of political progressivism (it isn’t). In particular, Ahlquist really didn’t like the following sound bite from the AA President: “I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

I find precisely nothing to object to in that statement, which seems to me obviously true. Not so, says Sarah Moglia over at Skepchicks: “If by ‘secular argument,’ you mean ‘a belief based on personal feelings,’ then, sure, there’s a secular argument against abortion. There could be a ‘secular’ argument against puppies, in that case. If you’re using ‘secular’ to mean ‘a logical, science-based, or rational’ belief, then no, there is no ‘secular argument’ against abortion. The supposed ‘secular arguments’ against abortion are rooted in misogyny, a lack of understanding of science, and religious overtones.”

Sarah, not everything you (or I, for that matter) dislike or disagree with is based in misogyny, stupidity, or religious fundamentalism, and it’s high time people stop using the m-word as the ultimate trump card to which one cannot possibly dare to reply.

Of course there are logical, science-based, and rational arguments against abortion. They may turn out to be ultimately unconvincing, or countered by better arguments — as I believe they are — but they certainly exist. To start with, you may want to spend some time perusing a few entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (like this one, or this one, or this one), for instance (don’t forget to check the relevant references too).

Are these arguments sufficient to justify forceful state interventions on women’s bodily integrity, under any circumstances? Very likely not. But plenty of countries (including the US) do already regulate, for instance, late term abortion, noting the ethical complexity of the issue and of course making room for a number of special circumstances, usually having to do with the health of the mother. Morally, should the decision to abort not be the subject of serious consideration, at the least on the part of the mother? After all, Dave didn’t say anything about legislation, he simply stated that the case of abortion is ethically more complicated than that of minority rights or Church-State separation. Seems to me that this is a no brainer: since abortion involves more than one life, and there is a marked difference in the consequences of a given decision for the two parties, the issue is thornier than others, and it ought to be so for secularists also. To decide to get certain types of abortion* (say, last trimester) is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step, precisely because it has significant ethical consequences. There is no equivalent to that in, say, deciding whether to allow gay couples to marry or not, as a moment’s reflection should make clear.

Now, does that mean that we should therefore advocate a restriction of women’s rights as they are currently defined in the US? Of course not, nor do I see any evidence that that’s what Dave meant to suggest. But to dismiss the complexity of the issue by suggesting that only irrational, science-illiterate country bumpkins could possibly think that there is reason for pause is either intellectually naive or dishonest.

Now back to Ahlquist. He also doesn’t like a number of other positions Silverman took at CPAC. Apparently, Dave is “fiscally conservative,” “owns several guns,” is “a strong supporter of the military” and has “serious suspicions about Obama. [stating that] I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…”

Well, to be fiscally conservative isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it depends on what one means by that. I, for instance, would rather save on a lot of the corporate welfare funds that the US Government has been handing out to big corporations and banks for decades now. I think that makes me fiscally conservative, in a sense. And I don’t like Obama that much either, in part for the same reasons that Dave listed. However, I do profoundly dislike guns and people who like them, and I am most definitely not a strong supporter of the military.

Silverman is quoted as saying that “the Democrats are too liberal for me.” You can quote me as saying that the Democrats are far too conservative for me.

The point is: so what? What does any of the above, including abortion, fiscal conservativeness (or not), support for the military (or not), owning guns (or not), and liking or disliking Obama have to do with atheism? Nothing, absolutely nothing.

If there is a reason to criticize David Silverman, it is because he made the same mistake that a lot of progressive atheists make these days: thinking that atheism is somehow logically connected to one political position or another. It isn’t, and it can’t be, and it’s time to stop pretending it is.

You like progressive politics and are not religious? Great, join the American Humanist Association, or the local chapter of the Ethical Union (though they, bizarrely, do call themselves a secular religion — an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one). But, do recognize that there are libertarian atheists, and conservative atheists, and atheists who don’t give a damn about gun control, or women’s rights, or whatever it is you think should be at the top of the agenda of the “movement.”

In fact, pretty much the only social issues that ought to unite every atheist are the separation of Church and State and the rights of unbelievers. Not even a defense of science and critical thinking are really “atheist” causes, since there is a good number of atheists who buy into all sorts of woo (just not the particular woo featuring a white bearded male who sits high in the sky and spends a lot of time watching people’s sexual habits) — trust me, I know a number of them.

And please do not dare comment on this post and characterize me as conservative, misogynistic, anti-feminist, and so forth. I’ve written enough about all the above mentioned issues that it ought to be crystal clear that I’m to the left of Jon Stewart when it comes to all of them. Thank you.


* The original wording here said "to decide to get abortions," which was meant to be understood in the context of the specifics I was giving. However, that was sloppy writing on my part. Clearly, plenty of abortions do not carry any moral problems at all (e.g., fertilized zygote, recently implanted embryo, and so on until a fuzzy line where the fetus is complex, responds to stimuli and most importantly feels pain). The current wording reflects my intended meaning.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

This Isn’t the Free Will You’re Looking For

by Steve Neumann

In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are traveling into the most “wretched hive of scum and villainy” that is the city of Mos Eisley in order to find a smuggler who can hide them, R2-D2, and C-3PO from the Empire. At one point, they are stopped at a checkpoint by Imperial Stormtroopers who are looking to recover the stolen technical plans of the Death Star that R2-D2 is carrying. Obi-Wan uses a Jedi mind trick to divert their attention, telling them “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” 

In a paper entitled “Freedom and Control,” philosophers Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum [1] have attempted to capture free will for those who are libertarian about it — those who hold that, since humans do have free will, determinism must be false. But what they end up doing, in my view, is arguing for a new species of compatibilism; except in this case, free will is compatible with causation (properly understood) and not determinism. And to paraphrase old Ben Kenobi, I don’t think this is the free will libertarians are looking for.

Mumford and Anjum argue that the libertarian can have free will “without requiring that agents step outside of the causal laws.” If libertarians could achieve this, it’d be the Holy Grail of metaphysics. But I think the authors implicitly recognize that such a goal might not be possible when they write that they can “supply a variety of libertarianism worth having,” echoing Daniel Dennett. [Italics mine.]

Mumford and Anjum claim to have secured both freedom and control — or what are called Alternate Possibilities (the ability to have done otherwise) and Ultimate Authorship (one is the ultimate author of one’s own decisions that lead to actions, or “causal responsibility”), respectively — by arguing for a view of causation that is somewhere between “necessity and pure possibility,” where possibility can be understood as akin to randomness [2]. They maintain that a strict dichotomy between necessity and randomness is a false one, and they note that there is a third possibility that goes by the  name of “causal dispositionalism.” In other words, they deny both causal determinism and causal necessitation. [3]

Here’s a very simplistic diagram of the basic background to the problem:

Fixed Past => Present Possibilities/Choices => Future

Now, surely most of us can agree that the past is fixed — we can’t change it; what happened, happened. And, all of us experience the fact that, at any given moment, we seem to have a near limitless number of possibilities available to us when making a decision. The problem, however, comes in when we try and figure out what to make of the future — is it fixed, or is it open? Do past events completely cause or determine our choices in the present, even though we may feel like we have many possibilities available to us?

Mumford and Anjum argue, echoing Aristotle, that “a cause can be thought of as something that tends towards an effect of a certain kind,” that it is disposed toward a certain effect — hence the name. With this definition, they further claim that we can separate the ideas of causal production and causal necessitation by “drawing attention to the possibility of a particular variety of interference that applies to all natural causal processes.” In other words, causes don’t necessarily produce their signature effects. This idea of “interference” is where they hope to help the libertarian locate free will by showing that alternate possibilities really exist. 

For purposes of my critique, I’ll use one of the examples Mumford and Anjum cite: philosopher J.L. Austin’s famous thought experiment of a golfer sinking a putt. They note that “the ball would not have sunk had a gust of wind come along just as it neared the hole, or a squirrel might have jumped on the ball, or a twig might have deflected it. These alternate possibilities are all real.” The wind, the squirrel, and the twig are all examples of the interference they refer to in the context of causal dispositionalism. 

In the case of Austin’s golfer, it’s easy to see how alternate possibilities could be secured: it’s true that before he attempts the putt it seems as though there are many possible outcomes: a sudden gust of wind could come along just as the ball nears the hole; a squirrel could run across the green, knocking the ball off its trajectory; or the golfer himself could have a heart attack just as he swings his club. These are all very real possibilities — interferers, in Mumford and Anjum’s lexicon. Additionally, the golfer is employing his best causal powers in his attempt to sink the putt, and these powers are disposed toward the outcome of the golf ball falling into the hole; so they also conclude that the golfer is the ultimate author of his actions. They summarize their position by saying that “in exercising our causal powers, we exercise our free agency.”

But this doesn’t seem quite right. I’m ready to agree that we exercise our agency by exercising our causal powers — where agency means the ability to voluntarily act upon our own reasons and motives — but to me that still doesn’t mean we have free agency, at least not in the libertarian sense.

At the moment of an action, there may indeed be several possibilities available to an agent; however, these possibilities aren’t freely chosen in the sense the libertarian wants: for instance, each of these possibilities is itself subject to its own causal chain which no agent can step outside of — causal powers are still comprised of causes, deterministic or not. And if the interferers that contribute to these alternate possibilities originate outside the agent (a malicious squirrel), thwarting the agent’s expressed desire (of sinking a putt), then the agent has no ultimate control. And even if the interferers arise within the agent’s own mind, either as a counter-desire to his initial one, or as an external influence that works in his mind to alter the initial desire, then where is the freedom in that? The case of the external interferers doesn’t seem to pose much of a problem — I think most people can accept that a sudden gust of wind altering the trajectory of the golfer’s putt is something that is completely out of his control (and this is one of Mumford and Anjum’s arguments against causal necessitarianism). So let’s focus on the internal interferers. 

Let’s say Austin’s golfer decides to position his thumb a certain way on his club just as he’s about to make his putt. However, right before he swings the club, he has the thought to move his thumb into a different position; but what is the cause of that thought? The thought to change his thumb position simply occurred to him. Where is the freedom in that? The libertarian assertion that, even though our golfer can’t control the thoughts that come into his mind, he still has control of his actions once the thoughts occur, doesn’t seem to cut it — the golfer’s decision to change his thumb position still wasn’t freely chosen in the sense libertarians want. He may have had a subsequent thought that approved of the thought to change his thumb position, but then one can ask where that thought came from, and so on ad infinitum

I think the line of reasoning that Mumford and Anjum pursue ultimately fails to secure the kind of freedom libertarians believe is possible — and which they really want. I think that to say there is “ample space for causation to occupy between necessity and pure contingency” makes sense, and it shows that an agent has alternative possibilities in the face of a decision. And the argument that one is the author of one’s own actions because one is the causal producer of the effects one desires is an accurate and workable conception of agency. But one cannot be the ultimate author of one’s actions, even if causal necessity is false, because the alternatives — dispositionalism and pure contingency — permit one to be only the proximate author of one’s actions. Compatibilists about free will are okay with this, but not the libertarians.

Pure contingency (randomness), I think everyone agrees, doesn’t allow one to be the author of one’s actions, so let’s return to the issue of causal dispositionalism. Here, even if one is acting according to one’s own singular character, to one’s own developed reasons and motives — those things that dispose the agent toward certain effects — that character, and those reasons and motives, still have their own causal history outside of which no agent can step. The reasons and motives that make up the agent’s character didn’t pull themselves up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness, to paraphrase Nietzsche’s take on an agent being causa sui. The agent hasn’t freely chosen those reasons and motives, even if she has come to approve of them and take “ownership” of them.

For a libertarian to feel that she has free will, she needs to feel that she has real alternate possibilities available to her when making decisions, and that she is the author or originator of her actions in a meaningful way. But the biggest obstacle to this has always been the perceived failure of libertarian models of agency to explain how an agent could have done otherwise in exactly the same conditions. Some have argued that the original set of circumstances will always obtain, every time you “roll back the film” of the action in question. Others have argued that, due to the inherent unpredictability of the universe, the original set of circumstances may not always obtain for the action in question. But even in the latter case, even if quantum indeterminacy obtains every time we roll back the film, ensuring a slightly different result, the agent can’t claim to have “freedom” then either: an agent can’t be the author or originator of a completely random event, at least not in the sense of having willed it.

In the concluding section of their paper, Mumford and Anjum write that the principle of Alternate Possibilities was “threatened by a world of necessity,” and that the principle of Ultimate Authorship was “threatened by a world of pure contingency,” and that the causal dispositionalist framework they use in their argument “provides a metaphysical basis highly conducive to the libertarian’s needs: one in which the agent has both freedom and control.” But unfortunately I have to resort to a Clintonesque parsing of the word “freedom” and say that what they have actually secured is a compatibilist’s freedom, not a libertarian’s. They correctly note that the “more empowered an agent is, the more freedom they gain,” but this is the kind of freedom that is conducive to the personal project of identifying, developing, and expanding one’s causal powers so that one can attain greater degrees of freedom in the sense of achieving real possibilities of life. It’s a valuable freedom, no doubt, and in reality the only one we have — and, in light of that, the only one worth having. 


[1] I’ve invited Mumford and Anjum to comment on this post, if they have the time. Hopefully they can set me straight if I’ve misread their paper!

[2] The actual formula used by the authors for the principle of Alternate Possibilities is stated as “for any free agent x, and action A performed by x in circumstances C at time t, then there was another action A’, where A does not equal A’, such that x could have performed A’ at t and not A.” Though they leave out “circumstances C” in the second clause, I’m assuming it is included for purposes of my analysis.

[3] I haven’t read their book on causal dispositionalism, so I’m basing my critique on their summarized exposition of it in this current paper.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Rationally Speaking podcast: Neil deGrasse Tyson on Why He Doesn't Call Himself an Atheist

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson returns for this episode of Rationally Speaking, with a particular question to discuss: Should he call himself an atheist?

The impetus is a recent dust-up over Neil's appearance on Big Think, in which he explained that he avoids the label "atheist" because it causes people to make all sorts of unflattering (and often untrue) assumptions.

Julia and Massimo reply with some counterarguments, and along the way delve into the philosophy of language.

Neil's picks: The movie "Gravity," "IFLS," and the TV Shows "The Big Bang Theory," "CSI" and"NCIS."

Friday, March 07, 2014

Massimo's weekend picks!

* The difference between academic freedom and academic justice. (Hint: the former is far preferable...)

* The philosophy of "Her" (the movie).

* The mindfulness racket.

* Louise Anthony talks to Gary Gutting about the non-existence of god.

* The Two Cultures, then and now.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

What does it mean for something to be metaphysically necessary?

by Massimo Pigliucci

As I mentioned before, this semester I’m teaching a graduate level seminar on David Hume, and having lots of fun with it. During a recent discussion of sections 4 and 5 of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (“Sceptical doubts concerning the operations of the understanding” and “Sceptic al solutions of these doubts”) the concept of metaphysical necessity came up.

As is well known, Hume wasn’t very keen on metaphysics in general. One of the most famous quotes by him (in section 12 of the very same Enquiry) says: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Ouch.

Anyway, back to metaphysical necessity. What might it mean for something to be metaphysically necessary, or — conversely — metaphysically impossible? Not surprisingly, there is a fairly large literature about this. The (far from comprehensive, but heavy on recent entries) section on metaphysical necessity of the PhilPapers archive lists 74 papers, with some of the most recent entries having titles like “Hume’s Dictum and Natural Modality: Counterfactuals”; “Radical Non-Dispositionalism and the Permutation Problem”; “Soames’s Deflationism About Modality”; and so forth.

But we’ll proceed here by looking briefly at the basics. First of all, metaphysical necessity/impossibility as opposed to what other kinds of necessity/impossibility? Two immediately come to mind: logical and physical. It is logically necessary that I either am me or am not-me, for instance [1]; it is also logically necessary, though for different reasons, that there is no such thing as a married bachelor. It is physically necessary that objects with mass attract each other; it is also physically impossible for me to both be here in New York and simultaneously in Rome [2]. And so forth.

Let’s see what we can glean from the above examples: in both instances concerning physical possibilities, and in one instance concerning logical possibility, the idea seems to be that there are certain “laws” that govern logic or physics, and that these laws are inviolable. Now, one could be skeptical about the a priori validity of the laws of logic (like W.V.O. Quine was), and one can even think of the laws of physics as simply empirical generalizations that could, in fact, admit of exceptions or have a limited domain of application (like, for instance, Nancy Cartwright does), but I won’t go there. As far as we are concerned, both logic and physics are solid enough, so to speak, to allow us to talk about things that are either possible or impossible given the respective sets of laws.

The remaining case (the impossibility of a married bachelor), of course, hinges on issues of definitions: since a bachelor is defined as an unmarried man, there simply cannot be any such thing as a married one, on penalty of (logical-semantic) contradiction. Definitions, of course, are tautological, and tautologies are often regarded with little interest in such discussions. But this is a mistake: think about the fact that mathematics (and much of logic itself) consists precisely in the working out of the tautological implications of certain axioms or premises.

So, where were we? Well, the discussion so far hints at one promising way to look for metaphysical necessity: search for laws of metaphysics. Unfortunately, that’s not at all a straightforward quest, because it is not clear what counts as a metaphysical law, as distinct from either a physical law or a law of logic — which of course doesn’t help our predicament at all.

Perhaps we should do what I’ve done above in the cases of logic and physics: look for examples first, then see what we can learn from them.

If you follow that route, one of the most commonly advanced examples of metaphysical necessity is… the existence of God! Since that is prima facie (I love it when I get to write that!) ludicrous — or it should be at the dawn of the 21st century — we will ignore it and proceed otherwise.

What else can be done? Well, there are some more intriguing examples of alleged metaphysical necessity, for instance “whatever is water is H2O” and “whatever is elemental gold has atomic number 79.”

Let’s look more closely: these are not examples of definitional necessity, like the bachelor. True, once we discovered that the molecular structure of water is H2O we could simply define water as that substance that has that chemical structure and be done with it. But this required an empirical discovery, it wasn’t true a priori from the get go, as is the fact that there cannot be a married bachelor. The reasoning is the same for gold being the element with atomic number 79.

Could it be that these two examples can be interpreted as instantiations of the laws of logic? Hard to see how. There is nothing logically contradictory in imagining a substance with the characteristics of water that is not made of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. But wouldn’t that contradict the laws of physics, at least? Ah, here things become tricky. Surely water behaves the way it is in our universe because the laws of physics are such that if a molecule has that structure then it will behave in that way. But it is hard to say which specific law of physics would be violated if something made of H2O actually behaved differently (say, it had a different freezing point at standard pressure).

Another way to think about this is to say that we can imagine a universe where the physics is (slightly) different and where, as a consequence, H2O doesn’t behave as our H2O. Of course, if that were the case, the H2O = water equation would not be a metaphysical necessity after all, but only a physical one. That’s because metaphysicians these days seem to make sense of the notion of metaphysical necessity by saying that something is metaphysically necessary if it is true in all possible worlds.

Talk of possible worlds is tightly connected with modal logic which, not surprisingly, is a set of logics that deal with expressions such as “necessarily,” “possibly,” etc. — which philosophers call modalities. There are a bunch of modal logics, including deontic (dealing with what is morally necessary or permissible), temporal, conditional and so forth. These have given origin to what is known as possible worlds semantics, the study of logical languages that make it possible for logicians to determine whether a given modal expression is inferentially valid or not (which, after all, is the whole point of any logic).

To return to our example: is it physically or metaphysically necessary that H2O = water? For this to be an example of metaphysical necessity, the equation would have to be valid in all possible worlds. But what makes a world possible to begin with? We could, again be talking about either logical or physical possibility (the former, should be clear, being much ampler than the latter). Let’s say we are talking about physical possibility: possible worlds are those worlds that could exist while instantiating a coherent set of physical laws.

Our world, obviously, realizes one of these possibilities. Worlds that, say, were different from ours only with respect to the gravitational constant would be our possible-neighbors, the closer to us as a function of how similar their gravitational constant is to ours.

One can easily extend this concept to a multidimensional landscape of fundamental physical constants, each varying within whatever range is physically possible for them to vary (e.g., although logically the gravitational constant could take any of an infinite number of values, it is perfectly possible that only a small subset of these values would yield a physically realizable universe).

If you smelled “multiverse” you are close. Despite some people’s reservations about the scientific status of the multiverse theory (reservations with which I sympathize), it does seem to make philosophical sense to deploy it within the context of this discussion. But if you don’t like that particular take, then think of possible worlds as the set of worlds that are mathematically realizable instead. While neither of these senses is the one normally used by philosophers who are interested in possible worlds semantics, I think they do help to get an intuitive grasp on the whole idea of “possible worlds,” because they give a fairly precise answer to the obvious question: possible in what sense?

So, again, water = H2O would be a metaphysical necessity just in case it had to be true in all possible worlds, say in the entire multiverse. My hunch is that this isn’t the case. It seems that some change in one physical constant or another would yield a pocket universe (within the multiverse) where a substance had the molecular structure H2O and yet had different physical characteristics from our water.

Still, there may be things that are metaphysically necessary in all possible instantiations of the multiverse. Perhaps the inter-conversion between matter and energy? Or the existence of fields from which matter emerges (like the Higgs)?

I am going to bet that most metaphysicians won’t like my analysis of metaphysical necessity as presented above, though. True, I have arrived at the conclusion that there can be such a thing as metaphysical necessity as smaller than logical necessity but ampler than physical necessity, thus legitimizing the concept. But I have also linked said concept operationally to either the multiverse as conceived by modern physics or its mathematical equivalent. If so, then discovering metaphysical necessities becomes either a matter for physics (because it is an empirical question) or for logicians-mathematicians (because it is a logical-mathematical thing). Which means that even our newfound way of thinking about metaphysical necessity either expands into logical necessity or collapses into physical necessity.

At the least, that’s the way I see it this week. Anyone out there have examples of metaphysical necessity that would rescue the concept from the Scylla or logic and the Charybdis of physics?

Postscript on the role of metaphysics

Interesting discussion so far. I wanted to add a few notes to further refine my thoughts about this issue. To begin with, I am leaning toward the conclusion that there is no such thing as metaphysical necessity. That’s in part because one cannot find metaphysical laws, and in part because I doubt there is such a thing as necessity, period. Nothing is physically or logically necessary - only possible or impossible.

True, once we establish certain constraints - for instance the laws of physics in our universe - then certain things necessarily happen. (Indeed, if you are a determinist, everything necessarily happens.) But there doesn’t seem to be a reason to think that the laws of physics themselves are necessary (multiverse and all that), so…

The same goes with logical necessity: once we pick certain axioms or premises, a number of things necessarily follow. But we could have picked different axioms or premises, so that those very same things wouldn’t follow at all.

Where, then, does that leave metaphysics? I still think it has a role to play, in the same sense that philosophy in general has a role to play. I have come to see philosophy as a type of critical inquiry that bridges logic (broadly construed) and science (and other sources of empirical knowledge), in the sense that it applies rigorous reasoning to whatever the issue at hand may be (e.g., ethics) while taking into account empirical input. This is nothing new: it is a restatement of Kan’t compromise between rationalism (the idea that one can derive a priori truths about the world) and empiricism (the idea that all truths derive from sense experience).

Similarly for metaphysics: I see it as a bridge between the Scylla of logic and the Charybdis of physics: the role of metaphysics is to make reasoned sense of what the natural sciences tell us about the world (in this I’m with people like Ladyman and Ross), as well as to elucidate how that knowledge fits with our understanding of abstract objects, such as mathematical and logical relations. But there are no laws of metaphysics, just like there are no laws of philosophy, so this endeavor is one of critically making sense of things, not of discovering or dictating how things are.

At least (again), this is what I think this week...


[1] For the purposes of this discussion I will assume standard classical logic. The details would be different, but the general arguments the same, if we were using other kinds of logics.

[2] Non-locality does not apply to macroscopic objects of the size of a human being, for reasons that not even quantum physicists are particularly sure of.