Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Newcomb's Paradox

Newcomb's Paradox is a well-known problem, and I won't try to go through all the angles, interpretations and arguments.  The basic problem is this (taken from Wolfram):

Given two boxes, B1 which contains $1000 and B2 which contains either nothing or a million dollars, you may pick either B2 or both. However, at some time before the choice is made, an omniscient Being has predicted what your decision will be and filled B2 with a million dollars if he expects you to take it, or with nothing if he expects you to take both.

It's common to suppose that the Predictor is not necessarily omniscient.  It can just be an extremely reliable supercomputer, say.  Grey's Labyrinth gives a nice introduction to the problem and a very clever go at a solution, too.  The claim is that it is most rational to choose just one box.  I agree.  Here's why.

First off, I don't think the paradox should be taken as an argument against free will, or against the compatibility of free will and determinism.  It might force us to think about free will and determinism in unusual ways, but that is all.

People who claim you should take both boxes emphasize that, no matter what the Predictor predicts, the money will already be in place, so there would be no reason not to choose both boxes.  The money's already there!  So they choose both boxes . . . and end up with $1,000.  Because, obviously, the Predictor will have known that they were going to think that way.

But what's the alternative?  You'd have to be stupid to just choose one box, right?

Not if you take the Predictor seriously.

What I suspect is that people who believe you should take both boxes don't take the Predictor seriously enough.  They believe that the Predictor can't really know how they will act:  Either their action is in some ways independent of its causal history or the Predictor can't take enough variables into consideration to do what it is stipulated to do.

Our actions can be extremely sensitive to external conditions, so that it seems practically impossible for the Predictor to accurately predict what people will do ahead of time.  We cannot imagine the level of knowledge the Predictor must have to accurately predict our behavior, and this is perhaps why most people just don't take the Predictor seriously enough--and that's why the option of taking both boxes is perhaps most attractive.  It's hard to take the Predictor seriously, not because we intuitively believe we have contra-causal free will, but because our actions are so utterly unpredictable.

People who take the Predictor seriously will accept that the Predictor knows (or comes close enough to knowing) what they are going to do.  So you should try your hardest to just take that one box.

It might be too hard.  You might think, "But the money's already there!!"  And that's true, and so you can take both boxes . . . and end up with $1,000.  Because to take both boxes and end up with $1,001,000 is, if not impossible, as close to impossible as you can get.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Brief Reflection On Sam Harris

I ended my last post by saying that I hope Dennett declines Sam Harris' invitation to publicly discuss free will with him.  That might not seem very fair or friendly.  Why shouldn't I want to see Dennett and Harris discuss free will publicly?

The reason is this:  Harris has not shown that he can treat well-tread philosophical subject matter fairly and authoritatively.  He has only begun a career in neuroscience, and has yet to distinguish himself as anything other than a popular writer and speaker on matters related to atheism.  His abilities to write and speak are certainly praiseworthy, but they do not earn him the stature of a great intellect.  Furthermore, his reasoning on philosophical topics is highly suspect, often problematic, occasionally incoherent, and overtly Buddhist (in an irrational and self-contradictory way, which is perhaps the norm for Buddhism in general, but shouldn't make Harris very comfortable).  Harris is not an authority on whatever topic he happens to have an opinion on, and it is a cult of personality which gives the impression otherwise.  To put Harris on stage with Dennett in a discussion of free will would only feed that cult of personality and quite possibly harm the discourse on free will in the process.

If Harris made his essay on free will freely available, I'd be happy to read it, or try to, at least, but I'm not interested in paying for it.  His own freely available thoughts on the topic are not impressive, and the reviews of the book I've found do nothing to change my mind.  Here are a couple reviews I found most interesting:  one by Chris Hallquist (with an interesting comment by Daniel Engblom) and another by Juno Walker.  And here's a relevant and rather incisive piece by Eddy Nahmias.  (Note:  While I think the Walker review is interesting, that's not because I find all of it persuasive.  I am mostly interested in how Walker exposes Harris' inconsistency, especially with respect to his treatment of compatibilism.)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Harris on Dennett on Free Will

I want to quickly point out some major problems I have with Sam Harris' recent comment on his disagreement with Dennett on the issue of free will.

His main idea is that, while he and Dennett agree on everything about how people actually function, and while they agree on what sorts of free will are worth having, they disagree on what ordinary people mean by the phrase "free will."  He thinks Dennett is just redefining the term and thus changing the subject, rather than engaging with how people actually think about free will.  He suggests this strategy is dangerous, because people are living under an illusion which needs to be dispelled.

Maybe he makes a stronger case for this in his book, but in the post there's a severe lack of support for this claim.  Dennett's arguments seem very well in tune with how people talk about free will, and Dennett seems more eager than most to identify how cognitive illusions influence our understanding of consciousness and related topics.  So I'm not convinced that Dennett makes the sort of mistake Harris is talking about.  I'd like to see where he tries to support this accusation with argument and evidence.

Another problem here is that Harris has said nothing specific about how he thinks people usually think of free will, or what the illusion is that he finds so threatening.  What he does say, in fact, is very confusing.

He says that ordinary people confusedly rely on "a view of human agency that is both conceptually incoherent and empirically false."  That's right, it is both incoherent and empirically false.  How exactly are we supposed to empirically test an incoherent hypothesis?  Unfortunately, Harris does not explain this.  I can't help but think he might be more confused than those he is criticizing for their confusion.

He also writes: "We can acknowledge the difference between voluntary and involuntary action . . . without indulging the illusion of free will."  I wonder what  conception of "voluntary" Harris has in mind here, since the common one seems to be just the sort of thing people talk about when they say they have free will.  If Harris wants to claim that our ordinary understanding of freedom of will is an illusion, but that our concept of voluntarily acting in accordance with our will is not an illusion, then I think he's having too much fun with words.

One more point I'll note:  He says it would be irrational to hate somebody for their actions, since nobody is ultimately responsible for what they do (despite the fact that they may have acted voluntarily, apparently).  Yet it would be rational to feel compassion for them.  This reeks of buddhism, Harris' religion of choice.

Why is it irrational to hate somebody who does things you hate?  Why does it matter if they are ultimately responsible for the way they are?  Would Harris suppose it is more rational to love a mass-murderer?  Since when are emotional reactions either rational or irrational?

I'm once again very unimpressed by Harris' forays into philosophy, and I find it quite arrogant that he claims this essay presents his "final thoughts" on the topic.  His repeated desire to speak publicly with Dennett about free will is even more arrogant.  I hope Dennett does not accept the invitation.  I rather think Dennett capable of a public discussion on free will with people who have already established themselves as authorities on the topic.  Though I might like to see how Dennett responds to Harris' musings on free will, perhaps in a book review. [Update:  On second thought, maybe just silence from Dennett would be best.]

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Another book on Knowing How

In addition to Jason Stanley's Know How, there's another, even more recent book on the same topic:  Knowing How: Essays on Knowledge, Mind and Action. It's a collection of 15 new papers presumably commissioned by the editors of the volume, which are John Bengson and Marc A. Moffett.

I've only just begun to peruse the bits that are available online.  I don't expect to get to the whole book any time soon.  But it looks like at least some of the contributors are defending Ryle, and in ways not unlike my own.  Still, there are some confused interpretations of Ryle, as well.

For example, on page 65, Paul Snowdon admits, in his criticism of Ryle's "Knowing How and Knowing That" (1946), that Ryle "is very hard to follow."  Snowdon claims that the confusion is Ryle's, and not his own.  He thinks Ryle is confused in his presentation of knowing-that, as if Ryle conflated the state or condition of knowing-that with the act or process of contemplation.  Ryle did no such thing.  Coincidentally, I addressed the passage from Ryle that Snowdon is questioning in my last post.  My analysis shows why Snowdon's view is precisely the wrong interpretation of the passage in question.

I found other curious and questionable assertions coming from Snowdon, but I'll have to consider whether or not it would be worth going through them point by point.  I'll have to read more of the book and then decide which, if any, parts of it I want to critique.  But, as I said, it also looks like there's at least some material here to embrace.  For example, though I only read a few pages of Jennifer Hornsby's essay, and even though I found a few points in it to question, I suspect I agree with a lot of what she has to say.

Alas, I don't have as much time to engage with the literature as I'd like.  Not nearly.  But I'm working on that.