Elbow Room

Okay, so I’ve wanted to read a book on compatibilism (the belief that “free will” and a deterministic universe are compatible). This seems crazy to me, and I trust the reasons are obvious.

So, I read this book, and my honest initial reaction was disappointment. A lot of the book is spent talking about computer, biology, evolution, and so forth, which to me seems like a sort of sideshow. If so, it’s an especially egregious sideshow, since Dennett frequently complains of perilously misleading elements stuck into philosophical theories.

That said, as I thought it over and discussed it more with people, I got the basic idea, which (to simplify drastically) isn’t so much that you can have free will in a deterministic universe, but that your idea of what free will means is probably wrong. I don’t want to go too in depth in this review, but as a way to think about it, try to consider what the basic physical rules would be for a universe that permitted your intuitive notion of free will. It’s hard to think of anything that doesn’t posit some cheat that just asserts that you do.

In short, I didn’t get the hit of wild enlightenment I was hoping for. Unusually for me, I learned something, yet left disappointed. I will illustrate by the use of what I’ll call Two Dialogues Concerning Free Will.

Dialogue 1:

Mom: Hey, you wanna see a DINOSAUR?!

Kid: but isn’t that impossible?!

Mom: come with me!

[Cut to: Park]
Mom: Meet the pigeon! You know, according to science, birds are living dinosaurs!

Kid: But I wanted a T. Rex!

Mom: Jesus, kid. Obviously that was never gonna happen.

Dialogue 2:

Compatibilist: Hey, you wanna see me combine free will and determinism?!

Zach: Sure thing! But how?

Compatibilist: I’ll show you!

[Cut to: Zach reading book]

Zach: So determinism is still true, but individuals appear to have choices, and we can call that free will if we like?

Compatibilist: Yeah. What? Did you think I was going to claim an individual human could defy causality itself?

Zach: I thought maybe-

Compatibilist: By Descartes’ beard, you’re dumb!

–End of Scene–

So, that’s where I am now on this. Like the kid at the park, I’m not disagreeing with the idea that my initial notion of the subject matter was flawed. I’m just annoyed at the way the exciting revelation was presented.

Elbow Room (Dennett)

Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter

This is a collection of short essays by the great utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer. I found it enjoyable and stimulating, but I find I am just not prepared to get onboard this form of hardcore utilitarianism, which says “Action X would increases total human happiness. Thus, not doing it is unethical.” Partially, this is because this sort of statement at least seems non-obvious to me. But, more importantly, I think it’s often hard to know the consequences of actions, especially in the longterm. I’m willing to buy the idea that a dollar I spend on cake would bring more pleasure if given to a starving poor person overseas. But, it’s not clear to me that this sort of thing is true in the big picture. For instance, if it’s true that buying Chinese consumer electronics will ultimately raise the Chinese living standard, is it unethical for me not to buy them? Another for instance – is it obvious that $50,000 buying meals for poor people overseas is more ethical (in a consequentialist sense) than spending that money on a scholarship for someone who will improve renewable energy.

Now, in fairness, these are short essays meant for public consumption. Singer can’t address every possible objection, and for all I know he handles these sorts of complaints elsewhere. On the whole, a worthy read.

Ethics in the Real World (Singer)