Introduction to Philosophy
You will be looking, most of you, new to philosophy, for me to explain at the beginning what philosophy is.
I should like to oblige, and will try to do so in a way, but there is a problem. Asking what philosophy is itself to raise a philosophical problem, so I can't explain what it is as a preliminary : I have to start philosophizing if I am to have a go at saying what philosophy is.
That would be OK, except for one formidable feature of philosophical thought: it is very difficult to stop.
I could spend the whole hour, or the whole term , or all year, trying to say what philosophy is - putting forward a claim and defending it against objections.
What I shall do instead of any of these things is to give you just one idea about what it is, and then get on with what we are set to think about, which I may bowdlerize as: whether we might be robots and whether that would matter.
Philosophy is simply the collection of all those problems we seem to be able to raise, but for which there is no agreed procedure for solving, or approaching.
So if I ask:
Might time go backwards? or
Might the earth be conscious? or
Is there a God? or
What is the basis for right and wrong? or
Why does a mirror reverse right and left but not up and down?
it is not at all clear how to go about answering,
whereas if I ask
What is 2.6 to the power 14?
everybody knows how to find the answer, and so they do for
Where is Athens? or
How does photosynthesis work?
That is the mixed bag conception: philosophy is all the really difficult questions, the ones where there is not only no agreement on the answers but, much worse, no agreement either on how you are to go about getting an answer.
The San Andreas fault, pic courtesy USGS, who also provide an introduction to tectonic plates.
That is a bit flat. It gets to be more interesting perhaps when you ask why it should be that some questions are imponderable in this worrying way. Why should some problems be straightforwardly addressable and some not?
One possibility I should like to be true is that at least some imponderable questions arise when systems of ideas clash and grind together. Philosophical debates are then the volcanoes and geysers and earthquakes that mark the great fault lines in our thinking.
(The greatest fault-line in Western thought lies between the medieval world and the world of modern science, the world we now inhabit. Medieval people as they looked about them asked what a thing meant. We ask what caused it. That is a fault line, between seeing the universe as a novel, and seeing it as machinery. )
You won't be able to avoid thinking about what philosophy is as you engage with it over the coming weeks, but it is not our topic now, and I need to leave it at that for the time being. As I ask you to address the problems of our topic - Determinism, free-will and causality - I shall be asking you just to think, I suppose - just to listen or read with minute attention to detail and not to let anything go by. This is the first step in your progress towards philosophical virtuosity.
It may also be your last!
That is, after a year of it, you may decide to concentrate on other things.
"... Personally, although I have always taken pleasure in meditations of my own, I have always found it difficult to read books which cannot be understood without much thought; for in following one's own meditations one follows a certain natural bent, and gains profit and pleasure at the same time, whereas one is terribly put out at having to follow the meditations of another. I always liked books which, while containing some fine thoughts, could be read straight through without stopping, for they gave rise in me to ideas which I follow at fancy, and pursued as the spirit moved me ... I have learnt from experience that this method is in general a good one, but I have also learnt that none the less that an exception must be made in the case of some authors, such as Plato and Aristotle among the ancient philosophers, and Galileo and M. Descartes among those of our own day."
But if it is your last, you will have something really useful. This forensic skill, skill in dissection of an argument, could easily take you all year, I guess. But beyond that there are the skills of developing your own arguments and of marshalling arguments and other considerations from a variety of sources into a comprehensive statement. You may well make progress with those.
What I want to do now is to launch directly into our first topic. We can return to more introductory remarks, advice on how to study etc. etc. - which I am very keen to dish out. But it will be good now to start and get into a philosophical discussion.
I'll just say this about note-taking: try and then I'll help. I will distribute a handout noting the main points I am making tomorrow, and anyway I've put web versions of my lectures on the module website. Outline notes are also available there.
The idea we are to look at is that the scientific way of thinking of the world is incompatible with some of the beliefs we have traditionally entertained about ourselves as human beings.
The traditional idea about ourselves that I'm talking about is that we are at least some of the time free agents.
I say 'traditional' without being very sure what I mean. I'm not sure how far back this belief goes.
But I hope it is one that you recognize. It is the belief that as human beings most of us at any rate are free to think out, at least some of the time, what we want to do, and then free, some of the time at least, to do it.
It is not a belief we put into words very often - I think because we don't need to. But it is one that seems to be implied in many of the things we say, many of the attitudes we take, many of the things that we do.
For example, we are forever holding people responsible for what they do. How could we think of doing this unless we think that they had in some sense a free choice when they went in for the action we are blaming them for?
We also, less commonly, praise people for what they do. How could we do that unless we thought they were responsible for it?
|Ours is a science-based culture even though only some of us wear white coats.|
So that's the first point. We believe we have free will. But, next, this belief is under threat from science. I don't mean by science people in white coats who work in laboratories. I mean the science that is in all of us. It started this science in the thinking and practice of a few people in the 17th Century. Or at least, that was when modern science took shape as a fundamentally influential system of thought. But since then this system of thought has been so influential we are all scientists now. We all look at the universe not as a story or a picture but as some kind of mechanism.
When something within our physical surroundings happens, we focus as a matter of spontaneous response on what brought it about.
If Los Angeles is rocked by an earthquake, those giving us the news place it against the background of the San Andreas fault line and the movement of the earth's cooling crust.
If there is some kind of epidemic, an outbreak of e. coli for example, we hear, and expect to hear, and are satisfied by hearing about, bacteria or viruses and how they spread, how human vulnerability varies to them, how measures to destroy them are uncertain.
And so on.
|Science is to me not a mass of disconnected information, but the certainty that there is no change in the universe, no motion of an atom, and no sensation of a consciousness which does not come and go absolutely in accordance with natural laws; the certainty that nothing can exist outside the gigantic mechanism of causes and effects; necessity moves the emotions in my mind.7|
Munsterberg, quoted by Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, p.459.
We do not, except at the fringes, and except through the stirrings of a long buried sensibility, ask what message God is conveying to us through the earthquake, or what punishment is being imposed through the plague.
We are all scientists in the sense that we expect whatever happens to be have been brought about by causes, and we are all scientists in the sense that our focus of interest is on causation when we show interest in the physical world we think of ourselves as inhabiting.
In other words, at the forefront of our thinking today is the nostrum that 'every event has a cause ' this nostrum, and the agenda set by it.
It is this nostrum that is rather grandly called the principle of causality.
"Everything remains in the state in which it is if there is nothing to change it..."
If we are allowed to put the commitment of modern science to causality in this stark form the conflict between science and our belief in human autonomy is pretty clear.
All the things that human beings do are among the things that happen. They are events, occurrences in the physical world which as human beings they belong to.
So that if the principle of causality is correct, if it is true that nothing happens without a cause, all the things that human beings do must be caused, must have causes.
A. Every event has a cause
B. Every human action is an event
C. Therefore: Every human action is caused
D. Any event that is caused could not have happened otherwise than it did
E. Therefore: No human action could have happened otherwise than it did
|From D.J. O'Connor Free Will New York, 1971, Anchor Books, p. 12.|
But all those causes are events as well. If the principle of causality is correct, they too in their turn must have been caused, must have had causes.
And so on.
What we have hanging down from everything that we do therefore is a chain of causes dropping down into the indefinite, infinite, past.
The topmost links of these chains may be within the human being: they are the things the human being does. But inevitably, since they are indefinitely, infinitely extended, they pass downwards out of the human being on their way into the infinite past.
You have the conclusion then that everything human beings do is fixed.
Fixed long before they born, fixed at the beginning of time if you wish to be dramatic.
Here is an 18th Century figure being dramatic about this picture of the universe:
|Laplace, courtesy Pearsoned, who also provide an introduction.|
"An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis: to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes."
Mathematician and theoretical astronomer, Laplace has been called the 'Newton' of France. The quotation is borrowed from Nagel: The Structure of Science, p.281, footnote.
Full reference, though not the translation: Pierre Laplace, Analytic Theory of Probability, Paris, 1820. (Citation in D.J. O'Connor, Free Will, New York, 1971.
'In the case of everything that exists, there are antecedent conditions, known or unknown, given which that thing could not be other than it is.'
|Taylor, Metaphysics, Englewood Cliffs, 1963, Prentice-Hall, p.34|
That is a picture of the universe which is implied by the principle of causality.
The upshot is:
The human being him or her self has no control over what they do.
They may appear to think, to deliberate, to weigh the odds and decide this and that, act as they see fit: but if the principle of causality is right, if everything that happens is caused, these appearances of freedom, of autonomy, are illusory. Human beings may be a set of events which cause other events, but if so the set of events which they are in turn caused by other events. Human beings on the scientific assumption, may be nodes in the causal nexus, but they can be the originators of nothing.
I'm sketching very broadly here, and perhaps you will feel I am glossing over things, lumping things together, sliding over gaps of logic. In fact, I positively hope you will feel this, because this will be the beginning of philosophising on this topic.
BUZZ : Can you think of any exceptions to the principle of causality? Can you think of examples of events which don't have causes?
This and the next 3 presentations of the module will be devoted to working out whether there is a conflict between our outlook upon the universe and our belief in free-will - between the principle of causality and human autonomy.
Is it important, this apparent conflict? Some of the problems philosophers pursue only seem intellectually important, important only to those who attach importance to such things. Like perhaps whether the whole of experience is a dream, or Like how many angels can dance on the end of a pin ... But you can never tell. One of the most esoteric topics until around 1940, one the topics most at home in the ivory tower, was the question of whether there was for all propositions in the predicate calculus a definite procedure for telling whether it was valid. But overnight, with the maturation of computers, this became one of the most interesting practical questions: whether computers could be got to reason.
There have certainly been intellectual agonies over the prospect of determinism being right.
Might determinists treat people like trainable dogs? Pic courtesy Dog Training Tips.com
(The Enlightenment figure d'Holbach, coming to terms with the fundamental Enlightenment project of extending the application of science across the whole of knowledge; and later Dostoyevski and James ('were nagged by determinism' - Nielsen, in White, p.141.).)
The agonizing has not been merely intellectual either. There would appear to be a very practical dimension to the question of whether the future is fixed. You may have heard of the psychologist B.F.Skinner, one of the founders of 'behaviourism', and he is one influential figure who argued that if you believe human behaviour is determined you will organize social affairs differently. You will have a different approach to education, crime-prevention, punishment and so on. "A scientific conception of human behaviour dictates one practice, a philosophy of personal freedom another..." And he goes so far as to say that 'the present unhappy condition of the world' may be traced 'in large measure' to our inability to make up our minds on this issue. We vacillate between policies based on personal freedom and policies based on science. So according to one writer at least, the issue of freewill versus determinism is significant, important in the most straightforward way. It is no intellectual plaything, no stainless steel conundrum for the busy brain.
Ah. you pedants. hangmen. turnkeys. lawmakers, you shavepate rabble, what will you do when we have arrived. ..[at know- ledge of the human constitution]? What is to become of your laws, your ethics, your religion, your gallows, your Gods and your Heaven and your Hell when it shall be proven that such a flow of liquids, this variety of fibers, that degree of pungency in the blood or in the animal spirits are sufficient to make a man the object of your givings and your takings away?
The Marquis de Sade quoted by Roger Smith in Human Sciences, Fontana, London, 1997, p.232.
There is a personal angle on this matter of its practical importance too. I'm tempted to say that if we believed everything was fixed we would not try as hard. Could I put it this way?
|Pic courtesy BBC|
Who finds it difficult to get up early in the morning?
Well, I suppose it depends a bit on whether you had a spot of spontaneous human combustion the night before. Still, a lot of us do, sometimes at any rate.
Suppose you were told and believed that there was something in your drink the night before which would determine what hour you got up. Would this make you feel different about getting up? Would it make any difference to the time you got up?
Suppose you are agonizing about whether to close down a relationship. If it were already fixed what you would do, would you agonize any more? Would you just relax and let things take their course?
But of course, if everything were fixed, your feeling agonized or not feeling agonized would be one of the things that was fixed .
If things are fixed you will do what you will do, you will think what you will think, you will feel what you will feel, you will come to believe what you will come to believe.
|Pic courtesy IMDb, who give details.|
We have been talking about the possibility of the future being fixed. Now the question I promised: Is the past fixed? Or can we perhaps alter it?
This question catches the public imagination. Remember Back to the Future and Arny's Terminator films. Gilliam's 12 Monkeys is more recent. All toy with the idea of going back in time and altering what happened there. What I propose to do is to remind you of one of these as a stimulus for some discussion.
This gives us a concrete example of a story which attempts to be about time travel, suggesting that you might travel back in time and tinker, so that a better future eventuates.
It will give you a clear example to base the tutorial discussion on.
The clip relates to a sub-plot really.
Marthy, the hero, travels backwards in time, but just before he goes he witnesses the shooting by terrorists of Doc, the genius professor.
When he is in the past, he meets up with the time -travelling Doc and tries to warn him about this. He tries to leave a letter, warning the Doc that when the time comes for him to join Marthy in the present, he is destined to be shot.
I.e., that at a certain point in the future he will be shot, so should be careful ... But the Doc appears to condemn the idea. His avowed principle is, You should only time-travel if you are prepared not to interfere.
The clip shows the Doc engineering Marthy's return to the present. This requires connecting the time travelling car to a flash of lightening, via a long cable, with which the Doc struggles, at length.
We see Marthy planning to arrange to get back a little bit ahead of time so that he could warn the Doc directly. But he doesn't get it quit right and returns to 'the present' only to be forced to witness the arrival of the terrorists (I apologize for the racial stereotyping that is all too apparent, well before 9/11 of course) and the shooting of said whacky prof. But all turns out OK, because the prof has taken notice of Marthy's warning and taken precautions. The past has been successfully adjusted.
Can we rule out now the possibility of time travel ever taking place?
Can we tell, just by thinking about something, whether it is possible or impossible?
I think the situation is that though we feel there is something really impossible-seeming about time-travel, it is quite difficult to say what it is.
With some of the things we think are quite impossible, we can imagine how they could have been different. It is impossible for a human being to lift an elephant, unaided: but we can imagine human beings much bigger and stronger who would be able to do this. It is impossible for water to flow uphill: but we can imagine it doing this - weird, but not impossible. - and you can see images of it doing so if you run films backwards. But when we say it is impossible for us to go back in time, it is difficult to imagine how this could ever be.
It seems impossible even to imagine how time travel might be possible.
You can begin.
You build this kind of Super de Loran and you sit in it and when you press a button and get out you find yourself in a 1950's type setting.
But as you carry on trying to imagine what it would be like, you run into incoherence, don't you?
One of the people in this 1950s setting looks like you looked at that time, and is living with the family you were living with at that time, and is doing all the things to the last detail that you did at that time: except that he meets you. So he can't really be you, can he?
If you are around looking at him he can't be you ...
Or any rate, the mind begins to boggle away at this point.
This is what I mean by saying it seems difficult to develop a coherent account of what time-travel would be like.
What is it about time that makes even imagining it being different so problematic?
Perhaps if you were never part of the world you are time-travelling to, some of the incoherence eases. Maybe it is possible to think of God outside time, able to look down as it were at the whole Universe in time and see what is happening in 4000 BC 'at the same time' as what is happening in 1994.
|Blake's The Ancient of Days, courtesy Mike Harden's Gallery|
At Augustine thought so at any rate.
Actually this is not so unthinkable.
Take something we perceive as instantaneous - as they say. A plate hits the concrete floor and shatters.
Time lapse photography shows lots of different things happening one after the other. There is a sequence here which we perceive as a single instantaneous event.
Let me leave you with just one theory.
It is because, this theory says, time is not there at all!
If it were out there, like elephants and atoms and waterfalls we could imagine it being different.
But it isn't out there.
It is inside us, something we project onto the world, something we impose on all our thinking, on all our experience.
Some people have said: time is a dimension. There are 3 dimensions of space, and one of time.
In An Experiment with Time John Dunne (not the poet) tries to persuade us that there is more than one dimension of time: and that our dreams take us along some of these.
We are not locked into one time sequence, but that there are other time-dimensions. He thinks we travel in some of these other dimensions when we are asleep. Dreams are our experiences when we move along these other dimensions.
The unreality of time has been argued for by eg the early twentieth century philosopher John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (1866 -1925)
Last time I said something systematic.
This time we have been shooting about all over the place. I have mainly been trying to suggest some avenues that would might find enticing. But here are the points I have tried to get across:
1. The free-will question seems to be of practical importance. But if there weren't such a thing as free will perhaps it couldn't have - ?
2. The clip from Back to the Future
(a) If you can't give a 'coherent' account of time travel, does that mean it's impossible?
(b) If you can get any knowledge - eg that time travel is impossible - just by shutting your eyes and thinking - the name for such knowledge is a priori.
In the next presentation we will look at some examples of how the scientific focus on causes has been applied to human beings.
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