The pastor and the steam engine

In many of my recent posts, I could have referred to a story in an old philosophical article. I’ll quote it here, along with some other parts from the article.

From R. E. Hobart: “Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without It”:

We have been accustomed to think of a thing or a person as a whole, not as a combination of parts. We have been accustomed to think of its activities as the way in which, as a whole, it naturally and obviously behaves. It is a new, an unfamiliar and an awkward act on the mind’s part to consider it, not as one thing acting in its natural manner, but as a system of parts that work together in a complicated process. Analysis often seems at first to have taken away the individuality of the thing, its unity, the impression of the familiar identity.

For a simple mind this is strikingly true of the analysis of a complicated machine. The reader may recall Paulsen’s ever significant story about the introduction of the railway into Germany. [I have not found the original story.] When it reached the village of a certain enlightened pastor, he took his people to where a locomotive engine was standing, and in the clearest words explained of what parts it consisted and how it worked. He was much pleased by their eager nods of intelligence as he proceeded. But on his finishing they said : “Yes. yes, Herr Pastor, but there’s a horse inside, isn’t there?” They could not realise the analysis. They were wanting in the analytical imagination. Why not? They had never been trained to it. It is in the first instance a great effort to think of all the parts working together to produce the simple result that the engine glides down the track. It is easy to think of a horse inside doing all the work. A horse is a familiar totality that does familiar things. They could no better have grasped the physiological analysis of a horse’s movements had it been set forth to them.

Hobart’s point here relates to free will, of course. This is the point I made in “Can you be the ultimate origin of your own choices?” Hobart makes an explicit comparison later:

After all, it is plain what the indeterminists have done. It has not occurred to them that our free will may be resolved into its component elements. (Thus far a portion only of this resolution has been considered.) When it is thus resolved they do not recognise it. The analytical imagination is considerably taxed to perceive the identity of the free power that we feel with the component parts that analysis shows us. We are gratified by their nods of intelligence and their bright, eager faces as the analysis proceeds, but at the close are a little disheartened to find them falling back on the innocent supposition of a horse inside that does all the essential work. They forget that they may be called upon to analyse the horse. They solve the problem by forgetting analysis. The solution they offer is merely: “There is a self inside which does the deciding”.

This also describes what I called anti-explanations.

I can also recommend reading the whole article for a good exposition of a view of free will that I can get behind. I’ve never spelled out my view and arguments fully on this weblog, but Hobart does most of that here for me. There’s something more I want to say — and I have said some of it — but Hobart’s argument should already prove quite clearly how free will is nothing like contradicted by determinism.


Unicorn realism

Twilight Sparkle

My intuition tells me they look like this. You might disagree, but then your theory is highly counterintuitive. Ergo, they look like this.

I’m going to show that unicorns might exist. Very probably exist, actually. It’s practically certain, but I need to be humble, so I’m sort of willing to consider I might be wrong, although not really.

The thing is, there’s this great philosophical mystery. We can talk about unicorns, we have a word for them and everything, and yet there are no unicorns in this world. How can this possibly be?

Oh, you might think there could be words that just refer to imaginary things and that’s it, but then you’re obviously not a philosopher, because you’re not immediately asking what the ontological status of these imaginary things is. Continue reading

“The Machine” and the big problem with the continuity of consciousness

Existential Comics is a webcomic about philosophy — mostly about parodying philosophers and philosophical ideas for inside joke laughs, sometimes making profound observations. Perhaps the most profound comic is the first one, “The Machine”. I recommend that you take a few minutes to read it right now. Either way, I’m going to use it to illustrate an important question that it brings up.

The comic begins with the invention of teleporters that can be used to flawlessly teleport even people. However, some people think being teleported means death, and not without reason.

Existential Comics The Machine 3-4

If the teleporter takes you from one place to another instantly, without your passing in between, then what it really does is in at least some sense to destroy the original you and create a new one in the next place. If you don’t think so, what do you say to the two examples of thought experiments at the end of the panel above? But then, doesn’t this mean that when you teleport, you die and a clone is created in your place, one that thinks it’s you but isn’t because you’re forever dead? Continue reading

Review: Mr. Holmes

Mr HolmesI remember reading years ago that of all fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes had had about the most movie adaptations. In the past several years, this is still easy to believe. Even “different” portrayals of the character now seem commonplace. Nor is it a new idea to make it different. As far back as 1988, the comedy Without a Clue turned the whole concept around by making Dr. Watson the real detective who’s stuck in the shadow of his own literary creation and the actor he hired to play him. And of course there’s the “rodent Sherlock Holmes” Basil of Baker Street made widely known in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, two years earlier. So now, while I enjoyed Sherlock and to a lesser extent the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film and its sequel A Game of Shadows (and just didn’t see the other recent versions), I’m getting a saturated feeling again. Do we really need more of this? Is there room for yet another adaptation, no matter how different?

It turns out that yes, if it’s different enough, there was room for one more.

Mr. Holmes, an adaptation of the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, stars Sir Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in his nineties — and fighting against a seriously deteriorated memory. Continue reading

Can you be the ultimate origin of your own choices?

It is common to think that determinism contradicts free will. One way to put this is that if everything that will happen has been determined by past events, then you cannot change what happens. Another way it could be put is that if past events are the causes of your actions, then you cannot be the author of them.

When I discuss free will and determinism with people, I constantly run into the problem that some people cannot really think about what they mean by it. As I argued last week, every event is either deterministically caused or not, and there’s no third option. Yet people will insist, by either explicitly saying it or unknowingly assuming it, that something can be neither determined nor random (undetermined) but instead be a free choice. From this, we can get the idea of ultimate self-determination: that a choice is not random because it is under the person’s control, but is also not determined because the person could have chosen otherwise and prior events in the universe do not determine what they choose.

This is already proven impossible by the fact that any action is either deterministic or not and indeterminism can only mean (some degree of) randomness. But let’s look at it from a different point of view: what would it mean for a choice to be grounded only in the person themselves and not, even at a greater distance in time, in any prior events? Continue reading