Archive | April 18, 2008

Good Science, Bad Philosophy

According to a much bally-hooed study, “Certain patterns of brain activity predict people’s decisions up to 10 seconds before the people are aware of them, according to new research that casts fresh doubt on whether we have free will.”

confused anti-free-will argument

This seems to me an extraordinarily bad argument, a case of ignoratio elenchi (the fallacy of attempting to refute a position without first ascertaining what the position to be refuted actually says).

First, the study assumes without argument that the correct theory of free will is incompatibilism rather than compatibilism. Obviously if compatibilism is correct then the existence of causally sufficient conditions antecedent to one’s choices is no obstacle to those choices’ being free. (And most philosophers will agree that if we turned out not to have incompatibilist free will, then incompatibilism rather than free will would be the thing to reject.)

Second, even if (as I think) the correct theory of free will is incompatibilist, I can’t see that this study poses any obstacle even to incompatibilist free will. For it seems to assume two dubious things.

First, it assumes that if the preparatory brain activity precedes consciousness of the choice, then the preparatory brain activity must therefore also precede the choice itself. I can’t see what warrants that assumption. Choices aren’t instantaneous, they’re processes that take time; and awareness of the choice seems likely to come later rather than earlier in the process.

Second, even if we assume (unwarrantedly) that the preparatory activity does precede the choice itself, that still doesn’t show that the choice is causally determined by antecedent circumstances. All that it shows is that the choice is made extremely probable by antecedent circumstances; and the incompatibilist libertarian need have no objection to that. After all, given quantum physics, and given that we’re made of matter that’s governed by quantum physics, we already know that nobody’s choices are causally determined by antecedent circumstances (unless this study is claiming to have falsified quantum physics, which would be a wee bit ambitious).

This study illustrates the perils of scientists trying to draw conclusions about a philosophical topic without knowing very much philosophy ….

Nock on Radicalism

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Check out a great Albert Jay Nock piece from 1920, resurrected today on the Mises site. Here’s an excerpt:

The liberal believes that the State is essentially social and is all for improving it by political methods …. Hence, he is interested in politics, takes them seriously, goes at them hopefully, and believes in them as an instrument of social welfare and progress. He is politically minded, with an incurable interest in reform, putting good men in office, independent Albert Jay Nockadministrations, and quite frequently in third-party movements. … The radical, on the other hand, believes that the State is fundamentally antisocial and is all for improving it off the face of the earth; not by blowing up officeholders … but by the historical process of strengthening, consolidating and enlightening economic organization. The radical has no substantial interest in politics, and regards all projects of political reform as visionary. He sees, or thinks he sees, quite clearly that the routine of partisan politics is only a more or less elaborate and expensive byplay indulged in for the sake of diverting notice from the primary object of all politics and political government, namely, the economic exploitation of one class by another; and hence all candidates look about alike to him …. The liberal looks with increasing favor upon the socialization of industry …. The radical keeps pointing out that while this is all very well in its way, monopoly values will as inevitably devour socialized industry as they now devour what the liberals call capitalistic industry.

(Note: I don’t necessarily endorse Nock’s particular terminology. If we think about what the central principles of (classical) liberalism originally were, then a radical, in Nock’s sense, is just a consistent liberal. Herbert Spencer and Gustave de Molinari, for example, were surely both liberals and radicals; and the individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker described himself as an “unterrified Jeffersonian democrat” and a “consistent Manchester-man.”)

It Is A Sin To Write This

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Okay, I’m going to give myself a demerit every time I post about Mary Ruwart’s candidacy (starting now – my previous posts don’t count), as an (admittedly feeble) check against the tendency of electoral politics to infect my blogging’s mostly-anti-electoral perspective. But this post is also about me, so I don’t feel too guilty about this one.

Last week I grumped about the omission of Ruwart from Ken Rudin’s story about the LP presidential race. I also dropped a note to Rudin himself – who quotes from my note in his latest piece. So, see, this post was about me, like I said.

Agorist Demerit Count: 1

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