Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 70

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Is consciousness an illusion? I always thought that’s a very bizarre idea, and there is no good reason to believe it.

Why we believe obvious untruths (and we can hardly do much about it).

Turns out, there is more than one way to destroy democracy. Hitler tried two, and it worked the second time.

How to find meaning in the face of death: community, having goals, coherent self narrative.

If you want to read just one essay on the perils of “political correctness,” this ought to be the one.

Why the free will problem isn’t one.

Making (ancient) Athens great again — the parallels with modern America.

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210 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 70

  1. That is not what others say and something which many-worlds enthusiasts sometimes fail to make plain

    What worlds exist (overall) is deterministic in many worls. What world you find yourself in is random. There are other ‘you’s in many of the other worlds, but in many you maybe dead and in many you will never have existed. None of the options — determinism, many worlds or Bohr/Heisenberg/Born intrinsic randomness help a bit with ‘free will’ or it’s connection to responsibility.

    Whatever we are makes decisions. We call that ‘will’. Those of us who or not psychopaths feel responsibility for those decisions. Others blame us for our decesions and punish us for them. Whether we are likely to blamed effects what decisions we make.

    What beyond decision making is meant by ‘free will’ is something I have no idea about.

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  2. Robin, totally agreed. In fact, this might be akin to some of the Libet-class experiments. (Again, anti-Libet folks, he’s not the only person to have done such.) In some cases, to the degree there’s one primary consciousness (but not “unified,” Brodix), sometimes, the “censor” doesn’t kick in, in time. (That said, while Freud may have been partially nosing about in somewhat the right area, I’m not thinking of anything like his tripartate division within a single, putatively unitary, self, either.)

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  3. Also Robin, and directly contra Dennett, sometimes, “folk philosophy” does point in fruitful directions for thought. That does not mean it’s right, let alone that, to the degree it points in the right direction for the right reasons, so, no, Dan, I’m not inviting anybody to say anything. Cousin Arthur kind of hints at that above.

    (He might benefit from reading Kaufmann’s book, as far as seeing how he addresses that idea of “guilt.”)

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  4. Also per Robin, we don’t know what Paul wanted to stop doing and Paul-2 couldn’t stop, and whether this was related to his thorn in the flesh or not. We do know what Augustine’s problem was. He loved his common-law wife (not “mistress”; let’s get away from religious guilt right there), but mother Monica wanted him to marry into his own class. So he broke up with her. He then thought that to be a good priest he had to be celibate. That’s even though Paul’s call for celibacy had been because he thought the eschaton was just around the corner and was 300 years out of date by the time of Augustine, and, it’s not clear that the church required celibacy at the priestly level at this time. (Catholicism wide,demanded clerical celibacy didn’t begin to be enforced until after 1000 CE, and for two other reasons — to separate priests from the rest of society and to keep priests from having legal heirs who could receive an inheritance that might have been aided by remittances to the parish.) This, in turn, gets to my idea of “psychological constraints.” Augustine had strongly internalized his mother’s voice and that of the church for the two most important decisions of his adult life.

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  5. Hi synred,

    As I say, Carroll, Deutsch and others say that Many worlds is deterministic. It may be ‘random’ in the sense that the output of a pseudo random number generator is random, but in terms of “exactly one next state” it is deterministic.

    None of the options — determinism, many worlds or Bohr/Heisenberg/Born intrinsic randomness help a bit with ‘free will’ or it’s connection to responsibility.

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘help’ here.

    Most people, considering future decisions, think that there is more than one option open to them. When considering making a cup of tea or coffee most people don’t think “One of these actions is already impossible for me”, they think that – if the tea and coffee making implements are there before them and there is tea and also coffee then either would be possible.

    When having a finger hovering over “OK” and “Cancel” most people think that it would be possible for them to put their finger on either “OK” or “Cancel”, after all they are almost the same movement. Most people do not consider that one of these actions is already impossible as they consider the options.

    It may be different for you, but I think that describes most people.

    So if determinism was true then this intuition would be false.

    Whatever we are makes decisions. We call that ‘will’. Those of us who or not psychopaths feel responsibility for those decisions.

    There are some people who feel responsibility for someone’s death that was caused by a disease because they did not pray to God for their recovery. Quite a lot of people feel that. But when they realise that there is no one to pray to then they dismiss those feelings of responsibliity.

    If we were to find out that everything we do was already inevitable before we were born then the idea that we were responsible for them becomes silly.

    Again, will you say explicitly that you think that it may be sensible to feel responsible for things that you could not possibly have prevented?

    What beyond decision making is meant by ‘free will’ is something I have no idea about.

    As I say, it includes the idea that there is more than one thing we can do in the future.

    Most people, if you asked them as they have their finger poised over “OK” and “Cancel”, “Do you think that it might be already impossible for you to click ‘OK’ or already impossible for you to click ‘Cancel’?” then most people would say “No”, because there is no obvious reason why either of these similar actions would be impossible.

    It may be different for you, I will take your word for that, but not for most people.

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  6. If anything I do was not inevitable before I was born then determinism is not the case. If I will ever do anything that I could have prevented from happening then determinism is not the case.

    If a random QM event makes you either do or not do something, the fact that your action is not determined is irrelevant. Randomness is not a crack where you can slip in ‘free will’ though when QM was discovered lots of folks tried.

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  7. Another thing is that the problem of determinism has nothing to do with the worry that the physical constituents of our brains are determining our actions. It would still be a problem if it was a God or a supreme magic pony that was determining our action

    Yep! I’ve never seen how the supernatural help with ‘free will’ or ‘consciousness’. If we discovered ‘supernatural’ phenomena, they would presumably also be subject to rules/laws and the issues would be the same and we’d drop the ‘super’ prefix.

    There is also the time is an illusion crowd. Seems like just word games to me even if time as we know it is the product of some lower level of physics it still is.

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  8. Hi Cousin,

    Even today Rome allows Anglican priest who convert to keep their wives. After all divorce is a sin too and with better biblical justification.

    On the pre-python ‘That was the week that was” John Cleese does a wonderful sketch — a Consumer’s Guide to relgion. I couldn’t find in on YouTub. I had an autotape of it once I think from WFMT’s Midnight Special, but I have no idea where it is.

    Church of England is top rated because of it’s low cost and that you can have whatever you want — if you wnat transubstantiation you can have it, if you don’t that’s available too!

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  9. Yep! I’ve never seen how the supernatural help with ‘free will’ or ‘consciousness’.

    On the other hand the “We don’t have free will because we can’t break the laws of physics” are equally citing an irrelevance.

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  10. I can’t say whether we have ‘free will’ or not as I don’t even know what people mean by it. I looked into getting the Kaufman book, but it’s expensive on Kindle and I need an electronic version to read it until I get my cataracts fixed.

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  11. Well a many worlds system being global deterministic doesn’t help with ‘free will’ and neither does one with random events. So it matters not whether we agree or disagree whether we call the individual worlds among many as random[a] or not neither random or non-random worlds help with the ‘free will’ problem.

    It depends on the perspective you take. Globally ‘you’ making a given choice is bound to occur in some worlds, but from you perspective it is random. It;s not ‘free’ in either case.

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  12. No decisions depend upon single random quantum events, as far as I know.

    Well I don’t think anybody said they did, nor does it matter if, as certainly the case, there are more. One is sufficient to make the decision random, more random contributions, do not provide any more room for ‘free will.’.

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  13. Quantum randomness is irrelevant to brain processes. No neurobiologist takes these ideas seriously. That is why we are for all practical purposes, deterministic classical physics based biological machines.

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  14. “free will”? “determinism”? who cares?

    You’re gong to make decisions, no matter what your metaphysical beliefs, on the bases of quite mundane issues.

    The metaphysics (and the ‘scientific/physics’ explanation of behavior is just another empty metaphysics) may make you feel better, but it’s not going to change your decision in anyway.

    I don’t go to work for scientific/physical/metaphysical reasons or evolutionary/neurological impulses. If I don’t go to work, I don’t get paid, I don’t eat.

    At some point the discussion enters the realm of abstraction akin to fantasy.

    Hey. what about that Harry Potter guy? Some wizard, eh?

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  15. Again, it is your claim that a process that contains any randomness then the process itself would be random.

    As you know I have many times provided the reasons why I don’t think that a process that contains randomness is necessarily itself random. They seem pretty good reasons to me but there is no point in going over them again.

    But think of the concept of ‘random’ that you are using.

    It means that all complex life on this planet came about through a random process. Stars formed through a random process.

    People design aircraft and get space craft to the Moon and beyond by a random process (assuming the universe is has any randomness at all)

    This is an account of a randomness that allows for a good deal of structure and even creativity.

    So what is the inconsistency between randomness thus defined and free will?

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  16. Hi Daniel,

    You are wrong about what has motivated the debate in philosophy. That you don’t find that line or argument for determinism plausible is your prerogative, but that doesn’t change the fact about one of the major motivations for determinism in the literature, which is not being conducted by people on “main street.”

    I don’t know what this refers to, what line or argument or which definition of ‘determinism’ is being used when you say this. Which part of what I said are you referring to?

    If philosophers say they don’t have ‘free will’ in some sense unrelated to the way most of us use it on main street then obviously then I can’t comment and it obviously can have no possible interest or relevance to main street. Why bother then to mention it to anyone but another philosopher?

    And if philosophers have no interest in the subject of free will as most of us understand the term then I guess we will have to work it out for ourselves.

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  17. Hi synred and Robin,

    The way to understand “free will” is to realise that the term is not about physics, it’s about human interactions.

    I’m not sure what ‘free will’ can mean.

    “Did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced?” That question is not asking you “did you break the laws of physics in signing the contract?”, it is asking you about social pressures upon you and your “freedom” to act without social pressure.

    Similarly “free speech”, “free press”, “freed from slavery”, “free market”, et cetera, are not about whether the laws of physics are in operation (they are), and they are not about quantum determinacy vs indeterminacy, they are about coercion and control by other humans.

    When having a finger hovering over “OK” and “Cancel” most people think that it would be possible for them to put their finger on either “OK” or “Cancel”, …

    So what do we mean by “possible”? The common-use concept of what is “possible” asks what are the possibilities given what you know about the world, which is very incomplete information. Thus, saying that it might rain next week is saying that it is within the range of possibilities encompassed by what you know about the world that it might rain.

    Now, if determinism holds fully (let’s assume for the sake of argument that it does) then there may be only future state, and thus whether it rains or not would be already fixed. That’s irrelevant to the person asking the question, who would not know that answer or be able to compute it. That person can only proceed on the basis of their knowledge, which allows for either outcome.

    Let’s suppose an expert is commenting on a chess game between two grand masters (or two deterministic chess-playing computers). The commenter discusses the “possible” moves. What does he mean? Well he could merely mean the moves that are allowed by the laws of the game, but he wouldn’t really mean that since most of those moves would not be played by any expert chess player.

    Thus, he considered the “possibilities” to be the range of moves that strong chess players might make in that situation given his imperfect knowledge of the actors.

    Now, you might say that if he had total knowledge of the chess-playing programs (or of the grandmasters’ brains) then he could always predict the exact move that would be made. But he doesn’t have that information and can’t make that computation. So he talks about the “possibilities” that are in line with his good-but-limited knowledge of the world.

    The above is the compatibilist account, and it reconciles the accounts of human agency and will and freedom and choice and possibilities, et cetera, with the account that we humans are also physical machines following deterministic rules. Both perspectives are fully true.

    [By the way, I don’t think that QM is fully deterministic, but I also think that is irrelevant to the above.]

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  18. Socratic,

    “Or yourself when you have a “where did THAT thought come from” idea? I have times where I think only a thin veneer separates me from some Tourette’s-type ejaculatory outburst.”

    “In some cases, to the degree there’s one primary consciousness (but not “unified,” Brodix), sometimes, the “censor” doesn’t kick in, in time.”

    What’s that “thin veneer/censor,” other than the need not to appear schizophrenic?

    While we are all quite opinionated, witness this debate, we are far more attuned to the relatively stable voices in our own minds, than the rough seas of outside opinion. Obviously I’m not referring to unified as isolated, but emergent. Consider a cake consists of multiple ingredients and will be cut into multiple slices, but for the moment it is a cake, it is a unit. Hey, I’m the one arguing for pantheism over monotheism, as a more effective analogy of reality!

    As for this debate, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Decisions have consequences. They do determine. The determinists are just more focused on the abstractions, than the reality. Yes, 1+1 always equals 2, but only if you complete the equation. The effect does not pre-empt the cause. Determination is effect, not cause.

    My point about time doesn’t seem to get through to the voices in others heads.

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  19. Coel,

    “also physical machines following deterministic rules. Both perspectives are fully true.”

    Even if the rules are deterministic(otherwise they would be suggestions), there also has to be complete knowledge of all the input into that equation. No algebra. Yet lots of input is traveling at the speed of light, from multiple directions and it is only at the point it interacts that the rules are applied. So one has to assume a God’s eye point of view to know the input, before the outcome occurs.

    Our consciousness only exists in this present state, where the computation is actually occurring and it is a factor. So the future, i.e. computations which have not yet run, may not even run, remains ontologically indeterminate, not just epistemically unknown.

    Events have to occur, in order to be determined.

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  20. Hi Coel

    Yes, sometimes when people say ‘possible’ they mean epistemically possible

    But what a person means by ‘possible’ in different situations is not relevant. The question is, what does a person mean when they say that it is currently possible for the to press OK and possible for them to press Cancel. I can’t speak for everybody but I think if you asked if one of these actions was already literally impossible then I think they would say “no”.

    In fact I recall a remark of yours concerning a thought experiment about a deterministic situation in which you seemed to think that deterministic ‘choice’ was no choice at all. I can find it for you if you don’t recall.

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  21. Hi Robin,

    I can’t speak for everybody but I think if you asked if one of these actions was already literally impossible then I think they would say “no”.

    Again, let’s distinguish two meanings of “possible”. The reason that “possibility” is a useful concept in everyday life, and the reason that we think in such ways, is — as in my previous comment — all about the range of possible outcomes given our imperfect knowledge of the world. We think about that range of “possible” outcomes since that’s the best we can do.

    In that sense — according to what your consciousness knows — either outcome is “possible”.

    From there, people make a metaphysical interpretation and suppose that determinism does not apply and that there is some “will” that can operate independently of physical causation and lead — in an absolute sense — to either outcome.

    In that metaphysical interpretation they are wrong. But, being wrong in that does not prevent the above meaning of “possible” being a necessary and useful and correct way of thinking about humans.

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  22. Coel,

    Again, let’s distinguish two meanings of “possible”. The reason that “possibility” is a useful concept in everyday life, and the reason that we think in such ways, is — as in my previous comment — all about the range of possible outcomes given our imperfect knowledge of the world. We think about that range of “possible” outcomes since that’s the best we can do.

    In that metaphysical interpretation they are wrong. But, being wrong in that does not prevent the above meaning of “possible” being a necessary and useful and correct way of thinking about humans.

    Possibilty has nothing to do with our knowledge of a situation, imperfect or otherwise. If I believed it was possible to fly to the moon by flapping my arms you would rightly regard me as deluded. You would not for a moment regard it as a possibility simply because I believed it out of my imperfect knowledge of physics. And if I continued to believe it after you had pointed out the physical impossibility of it, I would be persevering in my delusion, not exercising some folksy meaning of ‘possible’.

    According to the oed ‘possible’ means ‘Able to be or become; potential.‘ In this sense, if hard determinism is true, Robin’s feeling that he can choose to hit Ok or Cancel is delusional and redefining ‘possible’ to paper over the delusion is an exercise in Humpty Dumptyism or Newspeak.

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  23. Hi Sherlock,

    Possibilty has nothing to do with our knowledge of a situation, imperfect or otherwise.

    I’m sticking to my claim that it does.

    If I believed it was possible to fly to the moon by flapping my arms you would rightly regard me as deluded.

    I talked about knowledge not belief. I didn’t say that something is possible because you believe it is possible, I talked about what is possible: “given what you know about the world, …”.

    According to the oed ‘possible’ means ‘Able to be or become; potential.‘

    Yes, but you then have to interpret what “Able to be” and “potential” mean.

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