Empiricism part 2, or: Philosophy as infrastructure design

So far, all the philosophical posts in this blog have had the same goal: to counteract philosophical ideas that are already in circulation. For example, the post on compatibilism was a counter to incompatibilists like Sam Harris:

You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.

Harris is a neuroscientist, so I trust what he says about the human brain; but when he tells us what “cannot be reconciled” with what, then he is doing philosophy, just as much as we compatibilists are doing philosophy when we say the opposite.

Some people say they don’t want to get involved in philosophy, but it is surprisingly hard to avoid. You can stay away from the card-carrying philosophers, but then you might bump into Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov:

‘But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?’

or the movie The Matrix:

You know, I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, do you know what I’ve realized? Ignorance is bliss.

or the physicist Lee Smolin:

… the Anthropic Principle (AP) cannot yield any falsifiable predictions, and therefore cannot be a part of science.

We’ve seen (here, here and here respectively) how philosophers have found fault with the opinions in bold type, and offered other (and I would say better) opinions in their place. We could describe that as remedial philosophy: philosophy as therapy. But is that all there is to the subject: correcting other people’s philosophical errors?

In this post I want to see whether philosophy can take the lead, on topics where we previously had no opinion. Continue reading

Hypocrisy in general, utilitarianism in particular

Somewhere a moralist is preaching: “It is wrong to buy brand XYZ running shoes, because they are made in sweatshops where the conditions are so appalling …”, and at this precise moment a receipt falls out of his pocket: proof of his purchase this morning of a pair of XYZ running shoes. It is plain for all to see.

What will happen next depends on the venue. Continue reading

Learn to stop worrying and love determinism

DILBERT © 1992 Scott Adams. Used By permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

DILBERT © 1992 Scott Adams. Used By permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

Do you suffer from Dogbert’s anxiety? Do you feel that, if all your actions are shown to be the predictable outcomes of brain chemistry, then you’ll be missing something deeply important?

I don’t, and that’s because I’m a compatibilist. Compatibilism is a school of thought that runs from Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century (and some would say even Aristotle) to Daniel Dennett in our own time. We compatibilists have a robust concept of free will, which is not threatened by biology, or chemistry, or physics, no matter how Dilbertishly deterministic any of them turn out to be. Our philosophy is science-friendly and free-will-friendly at the same time.

In this post I’ll show you how to be a compatibilist Continue reading

Morality without smoke

When I went to Catholic school, we got our morals from the Ten Commandments. Apparently they were good and right because no less a figure than God had etched them in stone, somewhere above Mount Sinai, some time long ago. Christianity is one of a handful of the world’s religions that believe this happened; other religions and atheists do not. But isn’t it a question of historical fact; the sort of thing that impartial historians could settle by their usual professional methods? Alas no. It turns out that the tablets were broken later in the story, and the etching event was hidden from witnesses by a considerable amount of smoke: Continue reading