Category: metaphysics

Plato and Nietzsche – The End is Written In The Beginning

I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ ~Isaiah 46:10

In The Republic, Socrates repeatedly insists that truth will be the highest value of his utopian society. To accomplish this, he argues that the myths of Homer and Hesiod should be hewn down to only those stories that are in accordance with what we know to be true, by proper philosophic study and dialectic argumentation. He further describes how the golden souls — those destined to be the philosopher king rulers of this utopia — having been weened and nurtured on these stories of truth, and having eventually come to know the truth for themselves in adulthood, will happily choose to submit themselves to the proper order of a truly just society.

And yet, he goes on to deny these “guardians” their own property, wives, or children, on the grounds that they will be overcome by their natural impulse to self-interest and find themselves in conflict with the good of the society as a whole. To mitigate the contradiction, in other words, Plato decides to institute a form of primitive communism. In order to institute the communization of guardian life, Plato has Socrates declare the necessity for the founders of this society to instill a falsehood in the first generation of guardians. This is to be a new myth, in which their childhoods were but a mere dream implanted in their memories by their ‘true’ mother, the soil of Hellas which birthed them whole, and to which they now owe their undying allegiance.

Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, expresses an explicitly self-conscious pang of guilt to Glaucon at the utterance of this “noble lie”, as well he should. This is because this step in Socrates’ argument (if it is Socrates’ argument) is the complete undoing of his entire utopian vision. To put the point bluntly, one cannot base an entire society on the absolute value of truth (and beauty) as ultimate ends, while simultaneously infecting it with an obvious and egregious lie at its core — even if that lie is encapsulated in a rapturous myth. Eventually, the love of truth will expose the myth for the lie that it is, and the entire civilization will dissolve into nihilism and hedonism.

This should be ringing some bells for wary modern ears. Another great philosopher once identified exactly the same flaw in our own society. If you’ve ever read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, or Thus Spake Zarathustra, you know what I’m alluding to. In these works, Nietzsche describes a western society that is dedicated to truth as an ultimate value, but simultaneously committed to a mythology that elevates self-sacrifice as a means of redemption from sin against the creator god himself. Because this mythology has an ultimate value in competition with truth — namely, self-justification through redemption versus self-justification through the pursuit of truth – and because truth is a natural acid to mythology, the mythology is ultimately doomed to fail, and the value hierarchy along with it. In other words, the death of God will spell the death of our civilization. Nietzsche thought this was because truth alone could not stand as sufficiently meaningful to stave off the onset of nihilism, but I think the dissolution of this myth has rendered us incapable of imbibing truth through myth anymore; and even more deadly, has left us certain that redemption is no longer necessary, let alone possible.

In any case, Nietzsche tried in vain to rescue us from our fate, but his work on the revaluation of all values is as horrifying as it is tragic. In it, you can hear the strong echoes of voices like Callicles from the Gorgias, whispers of Protagoras, and of course, whole refrains of Thrasymachus from The Republic. Socrates does a masterful job of dispatching Callicles and Protagoras, but there are niggling missteps in the argument of The Republic around the problem of self-interest and the common good that he is never quite able to put to bed. That should give one pause, and I do find these realizations immensely disturbing. It means that recent critics of the Enlightenment are very likely on to something, even if they may be wrong in the particulars. It means that, after all these centuries, not only have we not solved the problem of value, we still don’t have a clear answer to the much more primitive problem of the relationship of the individual to his society. This last realization came itself on the heels of another recent realization: Plato’s model of moral psychology is far more sophisticated than our own, and men like Hume and Mill have done an enormous amount of damage to the study of the nature of the human soul (as Plato would have put it), by trying to reduce it to mere sensual satisfactions (i.e., pleasure-seeking). In the process, they’ve made it more difficult than ever before, to solve the two problems I’ve enumerated here.

Modern-day acolytes of Hume (see my review of Jonathan Haidt’s book), recognizing the primitive nature of Hume’s work, have attempted to layer on modern explanations for his rudimentary theories of moral psychology, but this is doomed to failure, because it reflexively dismisses Plato as archaic, merely because he came before Hume (Haidt even tragically references The Republic in his unfortunate book). This is a mistake I’ll have much more to say about in future, but for now, suffice to say that we are living in dangerously perilous times. A world which both Plato and Aristotle would have found horrifying. A world in which we are being encouraged from birth to indulge our appetitive nature, and to believe there is no such thing as a spirited conscience, or a free will with which to act upon it. In spite of the shiny appearance of “progress” our science and technology has glossed the world in, it seems to me that this modern evacuation of such concepts as conscience and will can only lead to disaster. In our zest for truth, we’ve abandoned the false myths of religion, but have tossed out the true myths of moral psychology along with it, and now we can’t seem to find our way back.

The Fatal Platonism of the Categorical Imperative

Moral maxims are rules governing actions, or commands to act in certain ways considered morally correct. Some of the most well known maxims are those that come to us by way of religious tradition. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” are paradigm examples. Kant insists that his Categorical Imperative is the best means by which to test the maxims, for whether they correctly guide us to right action and away from wrong action. In this essay, I will argue that while the Categorical Imperative might seem plausible as a test of moral maxims because of it’s rigid logical form, it actually fails the plausibility test for one of the same reasons Parmenides rejected Socrates’ conception of the Forms.

In brief, the Categorical Imperative test is a thought experiment in which one attempts to universalize the maxim in question in order to discover a logical impossibility, or at least, an absurdity embedded in the consequences. Here’s how he states it:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

But there is a second, very closely related formulation, that looks like this:

“Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”

The difference between these two might seem insignificant on the surface, but they represent a fundamental Platonic tension in Kant’s metaphysics of morals, which I’ll explain more fully, after outlining the distinction between these two a bit better. In the first conception, Kant is describing a feature of his moral law. In the second, he is making explicit reference to the natural law, in the Newtonian sense. He wants to link them because of their fundamental universality, but this linkage is only an analogy; the two universalities are fundamentally different in kind. In the case of natural law, scientists subsequent to Newton were attempting to infer the presence of a structure of rational intelligibility from the regularities and consistencies they observed, and in some cases could predict, in the behavior of objects in the mechanical universe given to us by Newton.

Kant rightly recognized the lack of ultimate necessity in these laws, and goes on about it at length in the Groundwork. He does this, because he needs his moral law to be something that is ultimately good, and that could not have been otherwise. In order to arrive at this, Kant has to borrow the notion of a telos for man from Aristotle. As with Aristotle, Kant chooses reason as the basis for that telos. But unlike Aristotle, Kant insists that the reason he has in mind is not the reason Aristotle wants us to accept. Aristotle’s reason would have us pursuing material ends that satisfy the conditions of living. For Kant, this is unacceptable. He makes a distinction between the rational mind of contingency, and the faculty of pure reason capable of discerning the absolutes of moral law, in the same way that Socrates would have us contemplating the Forms, in Republic or Phaedrus. The former is the basis for what Kant regards as “hypothetical imperatives”. These sorts of imperatives, he argues, can be of only relative or instrumental value, because they arise out of the contingency of circumstances and the temporal calculations of cost and benefit. For Kant, such imperatives could not constitute moral imperatives because they lack the constancy and objectivity of a mathematical equation or a geometric expression; in other words, the kind of truth that is true everywhere, at all times, and applicable to all rational beings – a_universal_ truth, of the kind envisioned in Plato’s description of the Form of The Good.

Intuitively, the ascendence into Platonic idealism may seem like a good idea. After all, why would we call a rule that only applied circumstantially a “moral rule”? Wouldn’t that simply be a convention, or a preference? Indeed, for Kant, the universal law of the Categorical Imperative is not derived from natural law, in the way that Newton’s laws of thermodynamics, for instance, are derived by inferring them from the behavior of matter. Rather, the Categorical Imperative is derived from the moral law which is accessible only by means of the faculty of “pure reason”, as an entirely contemplative exercise. Kant goes so far with this concept as to suggest that there may be no acceptable method for justifying the Categorical Imperative itself by any exemplary application of the self-same principle:

“…how could laws of the determination of the will be regarded as laws of the determination of the will of rational beings generally… if they were merely empirical and did not take their origin wholly a priori from pure but practical reason? Nor could anything be more fatal to morality than that we should wish to derive it from examples. For every example of it that is set before me must be first itself tested by principles of morality, whether it is worthy to serve as an original example… but by no means can it authoritatively furnish the conception of morality… imitation finds no place at all in morality, and examples serve only for encouragement… they can never authorize us to set aside the true original which lies only in reason…”

Kant is invoking the ghost of Socrates here by complaining that examples are not enough, and that what he seeks is a universal definition for right action that can be contemplated in the realm of the intelligible, like the Form of the Good or the Form of Beauty. But Kant is also invoking the ghost of Parmenides here, by reminding us that the ideal good will, and the actual good will, do not seem to have any relation or connection to each other. As put by G. M. A. Grube:

If the [Forms] are not of our world, they are totally separate and there can be no connexion between the two. The [Forms] cannot then be objects of knowledge… If anyone has knowledge of them, a god has, but this knowledge of the Forms is beyond us human beings. We cannot know the god and the god cannot know us.

Kant even attempts to remedy this in his own metaphysics by positing a nearly identical Nuemenal Realm for his moral law as Socrates posits for Parmenides for his Forms (from Parmenides):

Could not, Parmenides, each of these Forms be a noema which cannot properly exist elsewhere than in souls? For then each of them would be one and what you said just now would not apply to it…

This could be the reason why Kant gives us these two different formulations of the Categorical Imperative — a difference that should appear much more stark now than at the beginning of this essay. Kant is trying to provide towers on either side of the chasm he’s attempting to bridge, with his “good will”. What’s more, Plato’s Forms are attempting to conceptualize an ideal for static objects of subjective experience, such as beauty or justice, or the shape of a triangle. But Kant is demanding the same standard of perfection for human action, as it manifests itself in the material world. There can be no perfect form of right action, because all of human action is bounded by contingency in the facts of reality. The Categorical Imperative is, therefore, a profoundly confused misapplication of Platonic Idealism.

It is telling, then, that Kant struggles so mightily in attempting to demonstrate the utility of the Categorical Imperative in the various examples he offers (and that earlier he complained could provide no true representation of it, much like Socrates would have complained of the Form of man). The case of the false promise, for example, does not expose a logical contradiction any more than Hume’s teapot refusing to boil does. Instead, all Kant is able to show, is how a world of nothing but false promises would seem a whimsically ridiculous place to us. The recognition of the absurdity in consequence is not the same thing as contemplating the injustice of the violation of a universal moral law. Even worse, the recognition of that absurdity exposes the fact that we’re implicitly dealing with a hypothetical imperative here: If you want to be able to rely on promises, then you need to honor them and expect others will do the same. Imagining this as some species of a Categorical Imperative residing in an intelligible realm of moral law renders you no less vulnerable to the unscrupulous man. But, more to the point, it leaves you with no clear reason to condemn him as having acted immorally. At best, you could complain about the inconvenience or the harm, at which point, you’d be applying a consequentialist standard, and our unscrupulous man could simply retort that its up to you to indemnify yourself against such a contingency in the real world.

For anyone who already prizes the beauty or the utility of the universal applicability of mathematics, or who is already wedded to the universal divinity of the human soul, Kant’s Categorical imperative is going to be powerfully seductive, as a moral system. If we all lived in a rational paradise in fact, then maybe we’d all be like that and Kant would just be another in a long pantheon of Philosopher Kings, ruling us rationally from the pulpit of the Form of Right Action, or the Form of The Good. For the rest of us in the real world, however, where life is lived in pursuit of contingent and temporal goals, the Categorical Imperative is at best a useful heuristic, and at worst, an oppressive ideal that renders us all moral failures at the outset.

Book Review: 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” is an admixture of continental philosophy, eastern mysticism, Jungian psychology, Christian theology, clinical psychotherapy insights, personal biography, and folk wisdom. At 368 pages, it’s just large enough to keep a thoughtful layman engaged without the more intimidating academic burden of his first book, “Maps of Meaning”. Dr. Peterson is obviously well read and quite thoughtful. In addition to some of his own occasional profundities, the book is absolutely littered with references to Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and many others. If you’re a curious reader, following these up will take you weeks.

A Jungian at heart, Peterson loves to cast his arguments into metaphorical and mytho-poetic form, which can be remarkably frustrating for a more hard-nosed analytical thinker like myself (he does this much less so, in Maps of Meaning). But Peterson is still very careful to cite modern sources for most of his empirical assertions throughout the book (with one significant exception, which I’ll get to later).

It took reading nearly the entire book to figure out how each of the 12 rules were related to each other as a whole, and the effort was well worth it. Chapters 6 (“Set your house in perfect order…”), 7 (“Pursue what is meaningful…”), and 8 (“Tell the truth…”), constitute the heart of the book in my view, with chapters 10 (“Be precise in your speech…”), and 11 (“Do not bother skateboarders…”) serving to really drive home the overall message of the book. What is that message? First, that contra Descartes, the fundamental unshakeable truth of human existence is the experience of suffering – a pre-rational essential phenomena that is, as Descartes might have put it, the primary “clear and distinct” knowledge we have of ourselves and of our “Being” (Peterson’s term. It seems to mean something like the state of existing and experiencing existence). Moreover, that suffering is a result of our having awakened to the fact of our own Being, that this was in some sense a choice, and most importantly, that now leaves us facing the perpetual choice of either accepting or rejecting the burden of this knowledge. The implication of all this, for Peterson, is that this is the fundamental moral choice. Our burden of this conscious choice – and the selection itself – is the acting out of our fundamental value. The ultimate consequence is the wholehearted embrace or rejection of the whole of creation. Not simply, as Nietzsche or Camus might say, the choice of suicide, but the choice of becoming judge, jury, and executioner of all Being including your own. The moral man, then, chooses life, and makes that his ultimate value in the process.

These chapters are, by far, the most philosophical of the book. They are essentially Peterson’s response to Nietzsche’s famous critique of value found in Zarathustra and the Genealogy of Morals. His formulation and answer to this problem is clearly influenced by Kirkegaard (whom he quotes twice), but the far stronger influence it seems to me is the Judeo-Christian Bible. Peterson casts the opening books of the bible into Jungian archetypes, and uses them to make his case. The Priestly Genesis is the origin of all Being: The Word is self-conscious Truth spoken as a means of deriving order from the chaos of the deep. Eve chooses to invite chaos into the walled garden of Eden and Adam follows her lead. In their offspring – Cain and Abel – we are confronted with the choice of life stated above, only in archetypal form: Cain condemns the world, its creator, and himself, out of resentment for the suffering he encounters; and not just for the suffering, but for the apparently unequal distribution of that suffering between himself and his brother Abel. Abel, on the other hand, chooses to properly honor himself and his creator with honest sacrifice. Peterson draws upon this metaphor again later, in a masterful parallel between this and the parable of Christ’s temptation in the desert.

So, for those who do their philosophy metaphorically, this book is a feast. It is an homage to hope, and a powerful argument against the nihilistic despair that seems to permeate our present modern culture. Still, I think this book is only likely to find fertile ground with seekers still open to the intuitive and allegorical approach to philosophical investigation. More to the point, those jaundiced by academic cynicism or jaded by ideological or intellectual biases, will generally find nothing more than a twenty-first century Joseph Campbell.

To be sure, there are some problems with the book. Rule 5, for example, lacks much of the intellectual rigor and careful citations of the rest of the book. Peterson makes numerous appeals to the work of B. F. Skinner in this chapter, which is only obliquely relevant anymore, since decades of work has been done on the developmental psychology of children since then (none of which he notes). Worse, he also makes appeal to several trite and easily refutable arguments in support of his position (for example, what I like to call the “hot stove defense”), and fails to acknowledge that much of what he put in this chapter is very often used as post hoc justification by many very poor parents. I think Peterson could have left this chapter out, and it would have been a better book.

Also, it is possible to charitably dispute Peterson’s allegorical approach to the question of meaning. The Joseph Campbell complaint, while somewhat of a straw man, is not entirely without merit. Sam Harris makes an excellent illustration of this, in his book “The End of Faith”, in which he satirically describes the spiritual significance of a Hawaiian snapper recipe. Though it is hyperbole, it does raise the question of how one would anchor the claims drawn from allegory in something more empirical, in order to make them properly defeasible. Peterson has yet to address this objection fully, as far as I know.

Despite these problems, I think the book is still well worth the effort to read, for any lay-philosopher looking for an interesting angle of approach to the problem of value and meaning, and its application in a very real-world way. The parallel psychoanalytic threads running through this book, also make it an excellent tool for meditation and self-reflection. It might be tempting to think that the work is mere “self-help”, because of this and because of the title. Don’t be fooled. Peterson explicitly rejects “giving advice”, in the book. What’s more, he’s secretly not even giving you “rules” to follow. What he’s offering, through the mnemonic device of easy-to-remember “rules”, is a glimpse into a unique psycho-philosophical framework for making sense of our phenomenal experience of the world. Or, to put it as Peterson might, a means of forging some order out of the chaos of your own suffering existence. The principles that make up the framework will sound surprisingly familiar to anyone who’s read any Greek philosophy:

  • It is better to choose life, than death
  • Aim for the ideal of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, but work on earth with what you have
  • The responsibility for these choices is yours, and yours alone.

In a nutshell, he implores us all to be philosophical before (but not to the exclusion of) theological, and he thinks that if we would be, we would make the world better, even if only a little. Who can argue with that?

Kant vs Aristotle: Virtue and the Moral Law

Kant’s critique of Aristotle is fascinating to me. He uses Aristotle’s own standard against him: to say that virtue consists in achieving excellence in the unique purpose of a human life, and that this unique purpose can be identified by isolating the unique features of the organism as opposed to other organisms, you then have the problem of explaining how it is that the unique feature of reason could be better suited to helping humans achieve excellence at attaining ‘material ends’ (aka ‘happiness’), than the much more efficient and much less costly instinct, which all other animals have as well.

This is enough for Kant to argue that reason must then have some other purpose — which for him, is accessing ‘universal absolutes’ and functioning as the standard of ‘value’ he ascribes to the “good” will. But in making this move, Kant is also implicitly conceding Aristotle’s notion of a teleological end for which man has been “formed”. He’s simply arguing that Aristotle was muddled about the particulars, and that he has managed to sort it all out for us.

But, in order to make his criticism of Aristotle, Kant needs to reduce the greek notion of eudaemonia to (apparently) nothing more than the continuous satisfaction of contingent desires. Since these desires are ‘merely subjective’, dependent on circumstance, and are governed exclusively by the ‘laws of nature’, the satisfaction of them can have no ‘moral worth’ because moral worth consists in the ‘good will’ acting on the recognition of necessary duties found in the ‘moral law’ by way of pure reason, which is independent of contingent circumstances. Thus, hypothetical imperatives cannot “be moral”.

What’s ironic about all of this, is that Kant seems to be arguing with Aristotle, from the point of view of Plato. Kant wants there to be an absolute truth about moral rules, in a mathematical sense (he even makes an analogy to geometry at one point). He is frequently making reference to the difference between the sensible and the intelligible world and with it he makes a distinction between absolute value and relative value. All of these notions are constantly present in Plato’s dialogues. Even the distinction between ‘material’ ends, and ‘ultimate’ ends is something of a dispute between Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) and Plato (The Timeaus, The Republic).

It seems to me, that the debate around free will and morality seems to always resolve itself to the same dichotomies: objective-subjective, ‘intelligible’-‘sensible’, necessary-contingent, absolute-relative, and of course descriptive-normative. Has Kant added anything new to this dispute beyond Plato and Aristotle? I’m not so sure about that. The appeal to absolutes is a seductive one. Intuitively, it seems like a moral ‘rule’ could not be valid, if it were not absolute. Because, anything less than “true for everyone, everywhere, at all times”, is simply a preference by definition. However, Kant’s hypothetical examples of the Categorical Imperative in the Groundwork are notoriously confused and in at least one case (false promises), seem to argue against the categorical itself. If Kant himself could not imagine at least one unequivocal practical example of his imperative, it’s hardly fair to expect anyone else to be able to. Kant, I suppose, would have argued that in spite of the fact that ‘normal’ folk aren’t philosophers, they still “get it, deep down”. Maybe that’s what I was doing when I mentioned the intuitive appeal of absolutes. Still, it seems a bit like “cheating”, for Kant to make appeals to common-sense, when all throughout this book, he’s arguing that a properly philosophical understanding of morality must be grounded in rigorous logical universals. I’ll have more to say about this, later…

Reason Versus the Passions – Initial thoughts on Hume’s Treatise

…When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the designed end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter. A trivial good may, from certain circumstances, produce a desire superior to what arises from the greatest and most valuable enjoyment; nor is there any thing more extraordinary in this, than in mechanics to see one pound weight raise up a hundred by the advantage of its situation.In short, a passion must be accompanyed with some false judgment in order to its being unreasonable; and even then it is not the passion, properly speaking, which is unreasonable, but the judgment.

The consequences are evident. Since a passion can never, in any sense, be called unreasonable, [except] when founded on a false supposition or when it chuses means insufficient for the designed end, it is impossible, that reason and passion can ever oppose each other, or dispute for the government of the will and actions. The moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means our passions yield to our reason without any opposition. I may desire any fruit as of an excellent relish; but whenever you convince me of my mistake, my longing ceases. I may will the performance of certain actions as means of obtaining any desired good; but as my willing of these actions is only secondary, and founded on the supposition, that they are causes of the proposed effect; as soon as I discover the falsehood of that supposition, they must become indifferent to me…. [Book II, Part ii, Section iii]

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature: Bestsellers and famous Books (pp. 388-389). anboco. Kindle Edition.

According to Hume, reason is but a slave to the passions. We are moved to act by a process of primary impressions (e.g., pleasure and pain, or grief and joy, or attraction and aversion), giving rise to relations of ideas (memories and reflections), which then give rise to secondary impressions (pride and shame, or love and hate, etc).

Hume was probably hyperbolizing for the sake of highlighting the point (later on in life Hume apparently lamented stating it so forcefully). But the point was not simply that passions are neither ‘reasonable’ nor ‘unreasonable’, it was primarily that reason is inert; That no calculation of circumstances or train of logic is capable of moving a man, all on its own. He reasoned that there must be some process by which ‘relations of impressions and ideas’ are converted into passions (the things that actually provide us with the impulse to act). Hume often depicts reason as lying somewhere between initial impressions, and final passions, acting merely as a conduit or proximal cause (though I suppose he would have balked at the word ’cause’ here).

His explication of that process and how it works is woefully naive and speculative (in addition to being incorrect in most respects). However, I think he was on the right track, and simply lacked a sophisticated enough science of human biology and psychology to render his theory into something that made better sense to a modern mind. For the most part, in the 18th century, the only tool available to him was introspection and a smattering of knowledge of human and animal anatomy. So, frankly, not only should he be excused, he ought to be lauded as a genius for (nearly) single-handedly inventing the science of psychology and the philosophical notion of moral psychology.

Still, I find myself disagreeing with Hume for the following reasons:

First, “reason” and “passion” are not separate ‘faculties’ of the mind, placed into a hierarchy with each other. Even Hume seemed to understand this (at least in part). They are functional capacities that express themselves in varying degrees in concert, under various circumstances. Reason is no more the slave of the passions, than the strings and woodwinds are the ‘slaves’ of the french horns and trumpets in an orchestra.

Second, Later on in the Treatise, he’ll introduce yet a third relation: that of moral judgment. At which point, all he’s really doing is describing Plato’s tripartite soul, in a much more complex way (Plato, of course, placed reason in the charioteer’s seat). Why philosophers traditionally have insisted on conceptions of consciousness as simple hierarchies is something I don’t quite understand, but in truth, the mind is more like an evolving ecosystem, not a top-down political structure.

Third, Hume reifies the phenomena in his model. He says that passions are derived from relations of impressions and ideas. He also says that the “self” is itself nothing more than an idea that arises from a relation of other impressions and ideas. But, he then says that pride and shame are passions, and that pride and shame have as “their object”, the self. And, for this to happen, there must be a “we” (i.e. the “self”) that receives an impression of something beautiful that “we” own. But this is to assign intentionality to mere phenomena. Hume never explains how this is possible. You can’t on the one hand, say that all the phenomena of the brain are merely the effects of causal inter-relations between impressions and ideas, and then on the other, somehow make the impressions and ideas capable of choosing objects at which to direct themselves.

The consequence of this, is that the most Hume could have reasonably said, was that he didn’t really know whether passions ‘ruled’ or reason ‘ruled’. At most, our cognitive and emotional capacities are cohabitants, and if you look at the modern scientific literature (admittedly, I am but a layman), there is little in the brain itself to distinguish them apart. Some would say the difference between the limbic system and the frontal lobes is enough to show this, but despite being separate physical structures, the actual neural activity isn’t so distinct. The limbic system, for example, in addition to being responsible for most of our emotions, is also responsible for several functions related to memory(something Hume would have counted as part of his ‘relations of ideas’ rather than as a sensation). The point is, rather than being master and slave to each other, they’re more like ‘dance partners’.

In fact, it seems to me, the core question here is exactly what role do each of the cognitive and emotive capacities of the brain play, in decision-making? Unfortunately, I’m no psychologist, and only have a layman’s familiarity with a smattering of the scientific literature on the question (which might help answer the question). But, I suppose one criticism you could levy at Hume, is that his overall theory (as its proposed here) is unfalsifiable: no matter what you decide, it’s always evidence of the passions at work. But then, it’s not like Hume had access to a rigorous methodology.

Plato, Freud, Orwell, And the Danger of the Modern Mind

The genius of Plato was both in recognizing the reality of these competing features of the human psyche, and in realizing that ultimately it is the rational portion that must stand apart from the horses and act as the ‘guardian’ of the entire self, rather than the hopelessly inadequate servant to the fractious elements, competing for its efforts. The genius of Orwell, whether he quite knew it or not, was in recognizing that modern man had surrendered responsibility for the charioteer by embracing men like Skinner and Freud, and that nothing good would ever come of it.

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Essay: Can The Will Ever Be Regarded As Free?

The following essay is one outcome from my previous "research notebook" post. It is the second of four complete drafts. The fourth was the "official" work, sent off into the academic ether. This draft, however, is one I'm posting to my blog, because it offers a lot of food for thought, and isn't meant to be a completely polished argument. I want it to serve as a mile-marker, offering an opportunity for discussion and debate, and signifying my thinking thus far, on the topic. I hope you get some use out of it.

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Research Notebook: Can The Will Ever Be Regarded As Free?

I am working on crafting a meaningful answer to the question posed in this heading. But I have decided that the question can’t be answered until two subordinate questions can be answered. The first is “What is The Will”? and the second, “What is Freedom”? I am holding off on the latter question, for now. The following, is a compilation of my collected notes and remarks on the will itself. Hopefully, you’ll find it useful, too.

What Is The Will?

The short answer is I don’t know. It is entirely unclear to me what, exactly, the “will” is. According to Schopenhauer1, it is a black box int which you pump motives and out of which you receive intentions to act that are utterly compelling. According to Peter Ulric Tse2, the will is:

Whatever it is that triggers actions in the domains of voluntary or endogenous motors or internal actions…

But this just sounds to me like a modern reiteration of Schopenhauer’s “volition… directed toward an object…”. Dennett3 urges us to “trade in mystery for mechanisms”, but as far as I can tell, we’ve just traded one mystery for another in the idea of a “will” as a real thing. I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about it as a verb, either. In most of the modern scientific literature, authors speak in terms of consciousness, or parts of consciousness as biological processes or interrelated systems or networks of systems. The will, it seems, has been dissolved by the acid of modern neuroscience.

Can we even answer this question, then? If there is no “will”, in the sense that Schopenhauer, Kant, or Hume might have thought of it, then it would seem there could be no answer. But would it still work to think of the term as a generalizing metaphor (as Tse has done) to capture all the various processes into one convenient basket of thought? The danger here, it seems to me, is in the fact that metaphors encourage ignorance and frequently propagate destructive misconceptions. I would rather try to work with the bits I do understand, as incomplete as that might be, than to fool myself into thinking I’m with something that doesn’t exist.

But what do I understand? What bits am I working with? Since this is fundamentally a question that extends far beyond the scope of my own understanding (and indeed, still somewhat beyond the scope of the modern science of the mind) the best I’m going to be able to do is craft a tentative answer, cobbled together from a synthesis of scientific and philosophical sources. Let’s see what they have to say.

Robert Kane4 provides us with a nice encapsulation of the classical understanding of “will”, as a rational faculty of ‘practical reasoning’:

… practical reasoning can issue in two kinds of judgment – practical (normative) judgments, on the one hand, about what ought to be done… and choices or decisions, on the other hand, which announce that the agent ‘will’ do such-and-such… Thus ‘the will’ (as ‘rational will’, in the sense we are considering) is a set of conceptually interrelated powers or capacities, including the powers to deliberate, or to reason practically, to choose or decide, to make practical judgments, to form intentions or purposes, or to critically evaluate reasons for actions…

This is a definition of the will from the outside, so to speak. A description of the experience, or the observation of, conscious decision-making and the actions consequent to that decision-making. It is not quite the same thing as what Schopenhauer short-handed as “I can do as I will”. This view of practical reasoning might be better thought of, in Schopenhauer’s terms, as “I can will as I will”.

The notion in the passage from Kane seems to be echoed as well, by Mark Balaguer5, who says this:

…We want free will in connection with a certain subset of our conscious decisions. In particular, we want it in connection with what we can call ‘torn’ decisions. Torn decisions can be defined as… a conscious decision in which you have multiple options and you’re torn as to which is best; more precisely, you have multiple options that seem to you to be more or less tied for best, so that you feel completely unsure… and you decide while you feel torn…

This implicitly invokes the sense of practical reasoning and judgment outlined by Kane, in its description of the kinds of situations faced when such a faculty is necessary. However, it’s still not quite clear where this capacity resides, or how we would identify it.

Anyway, for all it’s apparent precision, Kane’s explanation is admittedly ‘conceptual’, and these interrelated ‘powers’ and ‘capacities’ just seem to be metaphors, rather than theories of mental functions. At least Tse’s basic sketch (more on that later) is referring to specific structures of the brain ‘triggered’ by ‘whatever’. Though, at the moment, this is still only slightly more specific than Schopenhauer’s ‘flint and steel’.

The Schopenhauer Problem

On the question of free will, Schopenhauer set up a dichotomy in his famous essay. Either you think you’re free because you are ‘free to do as you will’, or you think you’re determined because you’re not ‘free to will what you will’. Reading through the Oxford Readings in Philosophy text on free will6, every author in this book seems to accept this dichotomy explicitly, in the way they frame the problem.

The first essay in the book is by Chisolm7. This essay has apparently been ‘discredited’, according to a number of other authors in the book, but it still offers a number of thoughtful passages on the idea of the will itself, and the Schopenhauer dichotomy:

…even if there is such a faculty as ‘the will’, which somehow sets our acts a-going, the question of freedom, as John Locke said, is not the question ‘whether the will be free’; it is the question ‘whether a man be free’. For if there is a ‘will’, as a moving faculty, the question is whether the man is free to will to do the things that he does will to do – and whether he is free not to will any of those things that he does will to do, and again, whether he is free to will any of those things that he does not will to do…

Chisolm goes on to say this:

…the metaphysical problem of freedom does not concern actus imperatus; it does not concern the question whether we are free to accomplish whatever it is that we will or set out to do; it concerns the actus elicitus, the question whether we are free to will or set out to do those things that we will or set out to do…

It’s a slightly more readable version of the first passage, but it doesn’t include all of the combinations set out in the first. Eliminating them obscures the problem slightly. Probably a much more succinct way to put it, would be to say, ‘could I have willed otherwise’, in any situation of either action or inaction on my part. But this is slightly off topic.

Frankfurt’s Will

Harry Frankfurt8 seems to reduce will to a collection of primitive desires, that necessarily compel action:

…the desire (or desires) by which [an agent] is motivated in some action he performs, or… the desire (or desires) by which he will or would be motivated when or if he acts. An agent’s will, then, is identical with one or more of his first-order desires…

He further tries to clarifies this, to be sure we understand that they are a specific set of desires:

…the notion of the will, as I am employing it, is not coextensive with the notion of first-order desires. It is not the notion of something that merely inclines an agent in some degree… Rather it is the notion of effective desire – one that moves (or would move) a person all the way to action…

The distinction between “inclinational” and “effective” desire is not entirely helpful. In fact, because this definition seems to work backward from apparent phenomena to explanatory theories, it seems circular to me. If I say that my will to act is ‘coextensive’ with whatever desire caused my action, I am saying that the will is only identifiable in observable acts, because observable acts come from the will. In other words: my will are my acts, because my acts are my will.

Frankfurt’s account gets even more paradoxical from here. He says this, for example:

… now consider… statements in which the term ‘to X’ refers to a desire of the first-order. There are also two kinds of situation in which it may be true that A wants to want X. In the first place, it might be true of A that he wants to have a desire to X despite the fact that he has a univocal desire, altogether free of conflict and ambivalence, to refrain from X. Someone might want to have a certain desire in other words, but univocally want that desire to be unsatisfied.

Why would anyone yearn for a desire that he could actively deny for the sake of the denial itself, unless he was some sort of fringe case of sadomasochistic schizophrenia? Frankfurt tries to answer this question with a hypothetical thought-experiment:

Suppose… that a [psychotherapist working] with narcotics addicts believes that his ability to help his patients would be enhanced if he understood better what it is like for them to desire the drug to which they are addicted. Suppose that he is led in this way to want to have a desire for the drug. If it is a genuine desire that he wants, then what he wants is not merely to feel the sensations that addicts characteristically feel when they are gripped by their desire for the drug. What the physician wants, in so far as he wants to have a desire, is to be inclined or moved to some extent to take the drug… he does not want this desire to be effective. He may not want it to move him all the way to action.

This example fails on three grounds, it seems to me. First, Frankfurt seems to be reducing the complex subtlety of emotional considerations in any given situation down to a binary of effective and ineffective desire. It essentially reduces the human capacity for empathy and understanding down to a kind of me-tooism. Why would a therapist think that the only way he could help his nation is to become the patient himself (at least, in some sense? Surely psychological training has tools for dealing with these sorts of issues that don’t require these kinds of bizarre and frankly dangerous measures. More to the point, there’s no reason to think that a therapist’s curiosity, or concern, or frustration, or wonder, can be equated directly with something like “ineffective” or “effective” desire. Lastly, in the form this example takes, you can see what he was avoiding in silhouette: namely, that the patient already must have a desire not to want what he already wants, and sometimes that desire wins. After all, this is why the patient is in treatment, presumably. The point here is that it’s not clear what the will really is. If we’re simply going to say, “yesterday, the patient’s will was not to take drugs, because he didn’t take drugs; today, the patient’s will is to take drugs because he took them”, we’re reducing the idea of the will to a triviality.

The rest of Frankfurt’s paper goes on to describe the interrelation of first-order and second-order desires. I am primarily interested in his conception of first-order desires, since this is where his notion of a genuine will resides. But these interactions are important, because they characterize the effective will. As he puts it, in relation to the therapist:

…a desire to have a certain desire that [one] does not have may not be a desire that [one’s] will should be at all different than it is…

In other words, one may not desire to act out a desire. Or, more simply, to will (make a desire effective). So again, we are left with a definition of the will that identifies it directly with the observable fact of action. Whatever those second-order desires are, they’re not part of the will. Frankfurt makes this relationship even more muddy, in section three of his essay:

…It is only because a person has volitions of the second-order that he is capable both of enjoying and of lacking freedom of the will. The concept of a person is not only, then, the concept of a type of entity that has both first-order desires and volitions of the second-order. It can also be construed as the concept of a type of entity for whom the freedom of its will may be a problem…

So, on Frankfurt’s view, the “will”, which is made up of only the first-order desires is determined, at least in the psychological sense, and requires second-order desires to condition it, or “free” it from its determination. But this suggests that the second-order is where the real “will” resides, since it seems to be capable of somehow overriding the first-order desires. Still, even if we take this at face value, we’re still only talking about psychological determination. In no sense is Frankfurt addressing the underlying physical question (i.e. causal necessity), as highlighted by Schopenhauer and Chisolm.

In short, the question comes down to one Frankfurt himself posed rhetorically to Chisolm: “Why, in any case, should anyone care whether he can interrupt the natural order of cause…?” Why, indeed. Frankfurt provides no account for this, himself, as far as I can tell. In fact, Frankfurt goes on to admit that all three of his hypothetical drug addicts have wills that are not really free, despite their willing being free. He says:

…It seems conceivable that it should be causally determined that a person is free to want what he wants to want. If this is conceivable, then it might be casually determined that a person enjoys a free will…

This seems to me, obtuse and contradictory. He’s attempting to claim that freedom is determined. I find this sort of speculation to be on the order of a “one hand clapping” kind of deepity (as Dennett use the term).

Wallace Grounds Frankfurt

R. Jay Wallace’s “Addiction as a defect of the will”9 tried to provide some model for the will through the lens of medicine. Taking Frankfurt’s hypothetical as serious inspiration, Wallace walks us through a more naturalistic theory, and criticizes Frankfurt in the process. To start with, Wallace picked up on the same problem I did:

…to say that we always do what we must want, where “want” can be interpreted in the sense of intention in action, is thus to say nothing more interesting than that human action is an intentional goal-directed phenomenon…

In other words, “my will are my actions, because my actions are my will”. He further describes Frankfurt’s view of the will as the “Hydraulic Conception” of desire, and criticizes it heavily:

…desires are conceptually and empirically distinct from our intentions in action, in the sense that one can want to do something without necessarily intending or choosing to do it. They are given to us, states we find ourselves in rather than themselves being primitive examples of agency [volition], things that we ourselves do or determine. The hydraulic conception maintains furthermore, that desires that are given in this way have a substantive explanatory role play in the etiology intentional action… This kind of psychological determinism is in my view the underlying philosophical commitment of the hydraulic model; but it is also its undoing. The problem, in broad terms, is that the model leaves no room for genuine deliberative agency. Action is traced back to the operation of forces within us, with respect to which we as agents are ultimately passive, and in a picture of this kind, real agency seems to drop out of view. Reasoned action requires the capacity to determine what one shall do in ways independent from the desires that one merely finds oneself with, and an explanatory framework that fails to leave room for this kind of self-determination cannot be adequate to the phenomenon it is meant to explain…

But for all his emphasis on explanation, Wallace himself goes on to argue for a conception of “self-control” as will that is fundamentally unfalsifiable:

…compelled agents retain a capacity to initiate a regime of self-control that cannot itself plausibly be reconstructed in terms of responses under various contrary-to-fact conditions. We think of such agents as possessing the power to struggle against their wayward impulses, not merely in counterfactual circumstances, in which the desires and beliefs to which they happen to be subject are different, but in the psychological circumstances in which they actually find themselves…

How is this belief to be shown as a matter of fact? How would one demonstrate that the will to “overcome” is a signal of freedom, or simply the product itself of deeper forces at work within the brain? How could we even tell the difference? In the end, Wallace argues for a volitional notion of the will that is vaguely similar to Kane’s classical depiction of the rational will of practical reason, in an attempt to escape the psychological determinism of what he called the “hydraulic” conception of the will:

We need, in my view… a third moment irreducible to either deliberative judgment or merely given desire. This is the moment I shall call ‘volition’. By ‘volition’ here, I mean a kind of motivating state that by contrast with the given desires that figure in the hydraulic conception, are directly under the control of the agent. Familiar examples of volitional states in this sense are intentions, choices, and decisions… Primitive examples of the phenomenon of agency itself…

Wallace gets significantly more specific a bit further down:

…[it is] the kind of agency distinctive of those creatures capable of practical reason. From the first-personal standpoint of practical deliberation take it that we are both subject to and capable of complying with rational requirements, and the volitionist approach enables us to make sense of this deliberative self-image…

He doesn’t actually explicitly mention why he uses the term “practical reason”, but I have to take this to mean what it meant traditionally (in Aristotle’s Ethics and Kant’s Groundwork): namely, the faculty for moral decision-making. So, Wallace is adding another layer to the cake of will: first, the physical; next, the psychological; and now, the moral. In short, “I can do as I will, and I can will as I reason from practical principles”. This may help Wallace escape the problem of psychological determinism, but it only pushes the metaphysical question (causal necessity) back by one degree. In other words, am I free to reason from practical principles? Schopenhauer thought not. The character of the will was baked-in from birth, according to him. So we can’t even desire what we desire. Kant, however, thought we could do this. That reasoning from practical principles was, indeed, a duty because we were rational beings, that the ultimate duty could be (indeed, must be) reasoned a priori, and that once we had done that, we were duty bound to act on it.

But all of this is starting to distract from the central question of this exploration. Namely, what in the world is the will? So far, the theories have been restricted to extensional descriptions of subjective experiences of judgment or choice, or working backward from physical phenomena like actions, but we don’t yet have a theory for the faculty itself. For that, I’m really going to have to return to Peter Tse, and Michael Gazzaniga.


  1. A. Schopenhauer, Prize Essay On The Freedom Of The Will, New York, Dover Publications, 2005 
  2. P. E. Tse, The Neural Basis of Free Will, Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, 2013 
  3. D. Dennett, Freedom Evolves, Londone, Penguine Books, 2003 
  4. R. Kane, The Significance of Free Will, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998 
  5. M. Balaguer, Free Will, Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, 2014 
  6. G. Watson (ed), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013 
  7. Chisolm, R. M., ‘Human Freedom and the Self’, in G. Watson, (ed.), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 26-36 
  8. Frankfurt, H., ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’, in G. Watson, (ed.), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 322-336 
  9. Wallace, R. J., ‘Addiction as Defect of the Will: Some Philosophical Reflections, in G. Watson, (ed.), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 424-452 

The Sorites Paradox – Maybe It’s Not What We Think It is.

It has been asked how, if at all, one might resolve the Sorites paradox. I am not convinced a solution is possible, and in this paper I will explain the responses I have become aware of, and why they fail. In the end, I will conclude that there is no solution to the paradox, but I will offer a few suggestions for a way forward.

The first response might simply be to reject the first premise of the argument. In other words, simply deny that a man with 10 hairs is in fact bald, or that 100 grains of sand is in fact a heap. In essence, this would render vague predicates useless at best, meaningless at worst, since no predicate that allows for a vague border case would be permitted to apply to anything. There is one way in which we might stretch this into plausibility, but I will address the other responses first, before returning to this in the conclusion.

The second response is to set some arbitrary boundary. This means selecting one one among the indefinite number of secondary premises beyond which all others will be false. For example, we might say that thirty-thousand and one grains of sand is the boundary below which we no longer regard a collection of grains to be a heap. At first glance, this approach might seem plausible. After all, we do this frequently in practice: setting the legal drinking age, or the number of credit-hours required to count as a ‘full-time’ student, for example. However, there are two core problems with this. First, from the context of the formal argument, there is no good reason to reject any of the subsequent conditional statements, and there appears to be no means by which we could discover a reason. The implicit modus ponens of the conditional compels us to accept them all. Second, as Wright (Vagueness, 1997) pointed out, vague predicates are inherently coarse by virtue of their intended use. So attempts to impose some sort of specificity would destroy their meaning.

The next approach would be to attempt to define a knowledge gap within some middle range of propositions between the edge false and edge true statements. On one interpretation of the idea, we could use a three-value logic, in evaluating the propositions. At some point, starting with grain one, the proposition ‘this is a heap’ would cease being false, and would instead be valued ‘unknown’ or ‘undefined’. Later, the unknown state would transition to true, once we’ve reached the next threshold. This would make it possible to judge the argument invalid, since any number of its premises were neither true nor false. However, this seems to be attempting to win on a technicality, and it suffers from the same problem as the arbitrary boundary solution, in that we have no real way of determining when the states should change.

The next response might be some form of Edgington’s “degrees” of truth (Vagueness, 1997). But this suffers from it’s own serious flaws. For example, consider the statement ‘it is raining’. That has a ‘degree’ of truth of .5. It’s negation, ‘it is not raining’ will have a degree of truth of .5. The consequence of this, is that the following propositions have exactly the same truth value: ’It is raining, and it is raining’, ’It is raining, and it is not raining’. The same problem exists with our heap of sand. So, again, we’re left with no clear way to determine the truth of the conditionals in the Sorites case.

In the end, there does not seem to be any clear resolution to this paradox. However, I would offer one suggestion. vague predicates, in addition to being inherently coarse, also seem to be describing inherently subjective experiences or judgements. While Sorites arguments seem to want to talk about objective properties of objects. Perhaps there is no solution to the paradox, precisely because “tall” or “heap” or “red” or “bald” is not in fact a property of the object being considered, but a property of the experience the subject has of that object. The paradox is perhaps trying to square subjective interpretation with objective matters of fact. And that’s why it cannot be resolved.