Friday, August 3, 2007

A Brilliant Scientist and an Evil Demon Walk into a Reason

While working on my next post, I had the following completely vacuous realization (I’ve decided for the moment that I’d be better off blogging it than throwing it into my dissertation as a footnote, though I think my advisor would love it): in constructing thought experiments, contemporary philosophers tend to use “brilliant scientist” in the same way that Descartes once used “evil demon.” Now I admit that, sometimes, the two are a bit hard to distinguish, but simple confusion is probably not the reason behind this change of thought-villain. I have a feeling that something a bit more insidious might be.

1. The context in which I encounter the “brilliant scientist” most frequently is in various thought experiments related to free will and determinism, or action theory and practical deliberation. If the discussion is really about determinism, then the scientist example makes sense: it makes us conjure up an image of a scientist poking at our neurons with electrodes, thus controlling our deliberations from the (physical) ground up. The scientist in these thought experiments stands in for the laws of nature, moving us from state of affairs A to state of affairs B without our having any choice in the matter. So maybe the brilliant scientist example really belongs in an essential way to what these thought experiments are trying to do.

Maybe, but not likely. Just throwing a brilliant scientist into the mix doesn’t really create a thought experiment, or at least not one clear enough to yield any intuitions. The scientist’s role needs to be explained more clearly. But once it is, the sort of thought experiment in question can tend to fall apart. If the scientist really is supposed to be a determinism replacement, and to show that determinism would strip me of my deliberative freedom (or, conversely, to show that my ability to deliberate proves that I am free), then this doesn’t quite seem to work. Either the brilliant scientist is manipulating my thought processes in a rational manner or not. If yes, then some sort of (at least scientifically) undetermined practical deliberation really is going on, just not on my part—since the scientist must, then, be deliberating. If not, then my neurons are doing something that is a bit harder to call deliberation at all, so once again there is no determined deliberation going on. (1) That is, the brilliant scientist may work better than the evil demon for pumping our intuitions, but often does this precisely by obscuring the very point our intuitions are supposed to be about in the thought experiment at hand.

2. Is it, then, just that we don’t believe in the existence of evil demons, whereas we do believe in the existence of brilliant scientists? That isn’t quite it, since I’m pretty sure Des Cartes no more believed in the existence of evil demons than do most contemporary philosophers (no doubt an evil demon was deceiving him into not believing in the existence of evil demons). And yet, the “brilliant scientist” somehow seems to make the thought experiment more believable, somehow easier to swallow, for a contemporary audience. Personally, I find it significantly easier to believe that an evil demon makes me get a McDonald’s cheeseburger after some drunken dancing than that a scientist is responsible. In fact, I even know the demon’s name (Jack) and hometown (Tennessee), although I doubt he’s particularly evil: he helps me with all sorts of small tasks like dancing and smiling, and makes a great foreign-language coach to boot.

Maybe what’s going on is actually quite simple: we don’t believe in demons. Thought experiments with demons look silly. We also don’t believe that scientists are controlling our thoughts, but we do believe that someday they will be able to. What is concealed in the thought experiment, then, is the contemporary philosopher’s (really, our society’s) typical, almost endless faith in science. Yes, a scientist, particularly a brilliant scientist, can do anything! But does this faith in science really need to come out in our thought experiments? And, more importantly, does that faith in science itself manipulate the intuitions that the thought experiment is designed to yield? If so, then we might be better off going back to the evil demon: he’s far more philosophically neutral and, besides, he’s got that southern drawl.

(1) This point is suspiciously identical to Daniel Guevara’s criticism of Korsgaard in Kant’s Theory of Moral Motivation.

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