Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sartre the Womanizer (I): Habit, Character, and Self-Deception

I hope in an upcoming post to throw out some thoughts about the relation between a philosopher’s life and thought, and in what ways we might reasonably connect the two. For now, I want to take Sartre as a test case. Recently, I watched a BBC documentary about him. These documentaries have, by their popular nature, a tendency to reduce thought to a mere response to particular life circumstances. In Sartre’s case, however, something interesting happened: the documentary stressed transcendence. Thus, while attributing Sartre’s rather extreme views on human relationships to his experience of being ugly, the documentary also emphasized his freedom in his attempt to work out a coherent political project through both his interest in Marxism and his later repudiation of it. But it was the brief discussion of Sartre’s tendency to sleep around that struck me. Olivier Todd recounted the following story (which, apparently, he has recounted quite frequently, both in conversation and in writing):

I remember asking Sartre, “how do you manage with all these women in your life?” And he would say, “well, I lie to them,” with this gesture of his arm. And I then said, “To all of them?” “Yes, to all of them.” “Even to Beaver?” “Especially to Beaver!”

This is interesting for any number of reasons; in the present context, because it does not strike me as a particularly strange thing for Sartre to say given his views of freedom. Unlike some features of a thinker’s biography, which may indeed be largely irrelevant to philosophy, this one seems to me to be a great example of the Sartrean notion of freedom in practice. Taking it as a sort of philosophical experiment, we can find here a kind of reductio of absolute freedom. Let’s work out a line in the form of an imaginary continuation of the dialogue:

T: How can you justify lying to all of them?
S: I can lie or not lie. What matters is that I choose to lie or not to lie, and that I make that choice in full awareness of the dreadful burden of my freedom.
Given the various positions laid out in “The Flies” (Orestes’ justification for murdering his mother and the king), Being and Nothingness, and “Existentialism is a Humanism” (especially the discussion of Flaubert), I think this is rather close to what Sartre would say. I am guessing, really, that this was how he rationalized his womanizing to himself. But there are two obvious difficulties here. The first has to do with the character of the liar and the problem of habit. The second (which will be the topic of my next post) having to do with the freedom of others.

A tradition stretching from Aristotle to van Inwagen is rather firm on the way habituation works: by choosing to lie, I take upon myself not only the responsibility for this choice, but also for the future consequences it has on my character, which every vicious choice corrupts. Sartre might have little patience for such views, since it is always possible for us to transcend the corruptions of our character. To think that my choices shape my character in ways that determine my future choices is to fall into bad faith, to take myself as facticity rather than transcendence. But this is a typical flaw in Sartre: the stark contrast between facticity and transcendence tends to miss the grey area between the voluntary and the involuntary (a flaw emphasized by Merleau-Ponty and Ricoeur). In his obsession with our ability to transcend our facticity, Sartre misses the phenomenological features of character such as temptation, rationalization, and, in general, everything that falls under the Kantian rubric of radical evil: having a capacity to be free is no guarantee that we will fully exercise that freedom. Our choices shape who we are and, because (as Sartre admits) self-deception is inevitable, our choices can strengthen that self-deception and undermine our exercise of freedom. It is precisely for this reason, one might say, that an ethic based on freedom must pay careful attention to that which—with or without our consent—undermines that freedom.

That we are free—in the Sartrean sense—does not, in other words, mean that all ethical determinations are ones we freely choose. We can see why by looking at two points. (1) First, Sartre does think that our radical freedom implies that we have a certain kind of obligation toward fostering that freedom—that is, there is an imperative to make decisions in the recognition of our freedom. (2) Sartre would reject the claim that lying is essentially a vicious act—if I freely choose to lie and freely commit myself to this choice, I affirm it as an ethical act. The problem, as I have tried to point out, is that contra (2), lying (despite being warranted in some circumstances) is vicious in its essence precisely because it undermines our ability to act in the full recognition of our freedom (1). Because we are beings capable of self-deception, and so beings that do not always act in full recognition of our freedom, we have an obligation—insofar as recognition of freedom is demanded of us—to avoid freely choosing whatever undermines this recognition. If the exercise of our freedom in full awareness is a value demanded of us by our freedom, then other hierarchies of value necessarily spring from it. Freely choosing lying is an unethical act precisely because—even if chosen in the recognition of our freedom and with the proper assumption of responsibility—it is an act that undermines our freedom.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

The Philosophical Conservatism of Post-Modernism (Cont'd)

If, like us, you're interested and have nothing better to do, Roman and I continue on the theme of conservatism and post-modernism along with our friends at Now-Times. You can check out the blathering here.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sartre and Ayn Rand Would Have Had Some Weird Children

I am planning a slightly more involved post on Sartre for tomorrow, but I wanted to preface it with a question that has plagued me for some time. Are Sartre and Ayn Rand just cultural variations on a theme?

As a disclaimer, let me point out that I think Sartre’s nifty. Also, reading Sartre was one of the factors that pushed me from being interested in philosophy to wanting to study it professionally (I know I shouldn’t admit things like this publicly, but in my defense: I was 16 at the time). And I still think that, in many ways, Being and Nothingness is a genuinely great work of philosophy: it was one of the very few major works that aimed not just at resolving abstract metaphysical problems, but very sharply followed that ancient dictum of philosophy: Know Thyself. Sartre’s account of self-deception and the numerous permutations of it worked out throughout the book serve me well to this day in analyzing both myself and other people.

My feelings for Ayn Rand are a bit less warm. I read The Fountainhead when I was 17 (in order to enter the essay contest) and tried to follow up by reading some of her theoretical work; fortunately, I’d already read enough real philosophy by then to find her pretty laughable. I still think The Fountainhead is, overall, a good novel despite being seriously undermined by the attempts to get a “message” across (though Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith is a more realistic and overall superior attempt at something similar: for one thing, it’s peopled by real characters rather than thinly disguised social virtues and vices). But really, I pretty much think Rand is a joke. Sartre, on the other hand, isn’t. And his tireless political commitment, though occasionally misguided, is impressive. So, what’s the connection?

What they share, really, is a similar delusion, or perhaps a similar lie: that they are conveying an uncomfortable truth when, in fact, they are telling the people exactly what the people want to hear. Let’s look at Rand’s case. The harsh truths she tells her American audience go something like this: Capitalism is wonderful. The world is objectively real. The highest value is individuality. Individuality consists of never collaborating with others, as that would water down the uniqueness of this individuality. And, naturally, morality requires that we care only about our own happiness and self-interest. Yup, integrity means looking out for number one. Obviously this is earth-shattering stuff.

Sartre is a better writer (though he also has a tendency to undermine the plausibility and readability of his fiction by overly un-subtle philosophical messages), and a much better philosopher, but this is to be expected: the French public is simply more demanding of its intellectuals. But what seems a bit disingenuous are his remarks about the “dreadful burden” of our freedom. He is telling a public that has just emerged from an occupation (in which many were complicit), a public that no longer trusts the old values, that, hey, it’s ok: the old values are only right if you choose them. And you’ve got the power to break free. All you have to do is recognize it! Sure, Sartre was accused of corrupting the youth and preaching despair, and I suppose his philosophy would’ve been more troubling if he were not preaching to the choir. But in that case, he wouldn’t have become the wildly popular figure that he was, and nobody would’ve cared what he was preaching. And yes, as I will discuss in my next post, there really is a troubling, dreadful element in Sartre’s view of freedom; whether he saw what it was, however, is questionable.

Lastly, both made the argument that one particular value (the individual’s life for Rand, freedom for Sartre) was the highest of values, since without it no other values are possible. Unless I’m missing something, both arguments commit the same fallacy of thinking that a necessary condition for the existence of values both (1) necessarily has value in itself, and (2) is of more fundamental value than any of the values that follow from it. (And yes, all of this is just a teeny bit caricatured. This isn't one of my serious posts. You probably guessed that from the title.)

So while I will go on reading Sartre, slipping him occasionally into papers, and having late-night debates about him over beer, while ignoring Rand and making fun of her followers, I just can’t help wondering if they were cast from a similar mold. All this, of course, pertains not so much to similarities in their philosophies, but similarities in what made them famous. But we can be a little more serious tomorrow...

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ends of Thought – Live in Europe!

The many regular readers of this blog who desperately need an excuse to go somewhere beautiful and close to the beach on September 7-9 can now rejoice: both of us will be presenting papers at SEFA 5, the Fifth Conference of the Spanish Society for Analytic Philosophy, in Barcelona (the conference is actually huge, so it features something exciting for almost everyone). In case just the thought of seeing how pretty and brilliant we are in person isn’t enough motivation to impulsively buy a ticket, I thought I’d shamelessly drop our abstracts for added appeal:

Michael Sigrist:

Does Empiricism Require Experience?
I critique the attempt, primarily in the work of Quine and Sellars, to establish an empiricism that dispenses with any necessary reference to experience. I define ‘experience’ as mental episodes (sensations, perceptions and cognitions) characterized essentially by a first-person, subjective point of view. I will refer to this understanding of experience as ‘phenomenological.’ Quine’s use of ‘stimulus meanings’ and Sellars’ psychological nominalism—to take just two examples—are precisely formulated to bypass any notion of ‘experience’ as just defined. I argue that such attempts are both falsely construed and falsely motivated. They are misconstrued in that the phenomenology of experience, though often underplayed, in fact performs an indispensable function both in Quine’s method of radical translation and in Sellars’ myth of Jones. They are falsely motivated in that allowing a phenomenological notion of experience back into their methods is not nearly so troubling for their respective empiricisms as Quine and Sellars seemed to fear. The result is a broadly Quinean or Sellarsian empiricism that nonetheless is able to accommodate the phenomenology of experience.

Roman Altshuler:

Freedom in the Ontology of Agency: A Reformulation and Defense of Korsgaard’s Argument

Christine Korsgaard has argued that in order to act for a reason, we must act on general self-chosen principles and, further, that acting on such principles and essentially creating our selves by identifying with them is a necessary condition for our being able to see ourselves as selves or agents. This view has struck many as unconvincing, and the standard libertarian objections are helpfully summarized by John Searle. He insists that Korsgaard conflates epistemic and ontological conditions of selfhood, that her argument makes it impossible to account for our ability to freely act capriciously, and finally that we cannot create our selves by identifying with general principles because a self is already presupposed in the adoption of those principles. I argue that we can best reconstruct Korsgaard’s account by accepting the first objection and focusing on the ontology of agency along Kantian lines while dropping the epistemological aspect. On this account an agent is defined not as someone necessarily committed to acting on principle, but as a being that is capable of acting on principles, since the ability to identify with at least some ends is clearly a necessary condition for being an agent. This modified account can address the problems of capricious action and the self presupposed in agency better than the libertarian view. Furthermore, by bringing freedom directly into the ontology of self-constitution rather than attaching it to agents as a property, this account combines the strengths of both libertarian and compatibilist approaches without their typical weaknesses.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Philosophical Conservatism of Post-Modernism

I may be wrong, but I sense that philosophical post-modernism--the sort of philosophy that twenty years ago, perhaps, seemed like it might have rooted itself as a viable, vibrant alternative to the Anglo-Austrian engine (and that certainly had ambitions to do so)—is dead. As someone who likes and appreciates this tradition, and who feels even that it has been unfairly demeaned, I am upset at this. But it is hard, for instance, not to notice that there is no one right now working who can credibly be said to have picked up the baton left after the death of the generation of Derrida, Foucault, Levinas and Deleuze. I struggle to name a single work produced in the last decade that matches these thinkers at their best, and come up with none. The movement, so far as I can tell, is spent.

As I reflect on how or why this has occurred, I am struck by the suspicion that, despite its pretensions, philosophical post-modernism remained in a very fundamental and profound way conservative. This is not a novel thesis. It has been suggested already by Habermas. But Habermas had in mind a quasi- if not overtly political conservatism. I am referring instead to a philosophical conservatism.

This is evident in two ways. The first, a fixation on the subject, and the second, a mis-understanding about what was truly radical in the linguistic turn.

Despite it’s being displaced and de-centered, despite renouncing its sovereignty, and despite its subordination to the body and to affect, the subject never truly ceased being the focus of post-modern philosophical attention—or even obsession. Like the suppressed primal fantasy, the subject always returns.

By taking the subject seriously, the Heideggerian critique of presence seemed to have something intensely important, and epochal, to say. Similarly, the Derridean prognosis of the always already impossible achievement of this critique seemed equally profound and disturbing. This leant definition, and momentousness, to the ‘overcoming of metaphysics.’ But ignore the subject, and suddenly these projects seem pointless, if not silly.

And ignoring the subject is precisely what their counterparts across the Atlantic were doing. In this respect, Quine is far more radical than any of his continental peers. For Quine, rather than undermine, critique or work-through the subject, just breezily passed it by.

Secondly, post-modern philosophy simply misunderstood the linguistic turn by failing to notice that the important emphasis was on speech-acts, rather than symbols per se. Thus, in Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and their followers, we have what is, in effect, simply an updated Humeanism that takes symbols or the ‘text,’, rather than impressions, as the origin of the world, the mind and the self. Vastly over-estimating the importance of Saussure, while ignoring Austin, Wittgenstein, Quine and others, it seemed as if structuralism fronted a formidable thesis, and that the critique of structuralism was an essential endeavor. And this allowed it to seem plausible that the aforesaid ‘world,’ ‘mind’ and ‘self’ ( or subject, ego, author, etc.) were just a play of symbols and signifiers, much like for Hume they were just a play of impressions.

But again, for their trans-Atlantic peers, emphasizing the speech act placed the sentence, or statement, at the foundation of meaning. This move allowed the Anglophone philosophers to bypass what had been a major troubling theme throughout all of post-Kantian and post-modern philosophy, viz., how to make sense of a transcendental, world-constituting ego that at the same time is a part of that same world. Derrida thought it was crucial to point out that, in light of this problem, the possibility of pure presence was undermined by its own conditions of possibility. Deleuze and Foucault made similar points. But by turning to speech-acts, to pragmatics and so on, the importance of presence as relevant to truth, knowledge or being loses its sense. Thus Quine can say, without much trouble or contradiction, that a certain indeterminacy is endemic to all world-referring semantic items, and while interesting and important, this is hardly in some deep, metaphysical or epochal sense profound. In other words, the critique of presence can only appear to be an important project if, conservatively, you take Cartesian certainty as still somehow philosophically relevant. The move to speech-acts simply doesn’t.

In both of these respects, post-modern philosophy is still working within the modern tradition of Descartes and Hume in a way that simply does not apply to the major figures and trends of the Anglophone world.

A final note: while the movement is dead, I do not think that this means that the parts are dead. Like all great works, they are monadic. Heidegger, Foucault, even Deleuze, may all individually re-emerg in new contexts with new life. But the movement connecting these, so I surmise, is spent. The history of philosophy is full of such resurrections. Descartes, Spinoza, Plato, Kant, Hegel, Marx, are in constant cycles of reincarnation, and I see no reason why the same fate might not follow Heidegger, Foucault and company.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Deliberation, Alternatives, and Thought Experiments

Since I've been reading some free-will stuff for a while now, the prevalence of thought experiments there has been bugging me. Here I want to take on one such experiment. Frankfurt examples have received a great deal of attention in philosophy of action in the continuing controversy over the question of whether moral responsibility requires having alternative possibilities. Dana Nelkin modifies these examples in order to make a different, though related, point: that in order to deliberate about a course of action, we need not believe that we are capable of doing otherwise. The example she sets up is as follows:

Imagine that you know that a brilliant scientist has the ability to fiddle with your brain in a way that causes you to act as she wishes you to. You know that she wants you to vote for Gore over Bush in the upcoming presidential race, and that if you do not decide to vote as she wishes, she will cause you to vote that way. So, for instance, you know that if you were to prepare to vote for Bush or otherwise fail to decide to vote for Gore, the brilliant scientist would cause you to vote for Gore. It seems to me that you could still evaluate the reasons for voting for each candidate and decide to vote for Gore on the basis of those reasons. (1)

This seems reasonable: even if I believe that I do not have a choice, ultimately, about which way I will end up voting, I can still make a responsible decision to take the only path open to me. So what, if not a belief that alternatives are genuinely open for me, is needed for deliberation? To approach this question, Nelkin constructs another thought experiment: it is virtually identical to the first one, except that now I believe that the brilliant scientist will force me to vote for Gore regardless of what I decide to do: even if I were to choose to vote for Gore, she would ensure that I do so by fiddling with my brain anyway. In this revised case, Nelkin admits, perhaps no real deliberation is possible at all. But if deliberation is possible in the original case but not in the revised case, the difference cannot be one of whether or not I believe there to be alternatives to my action, since I lack alternatives in both situations. Rather, the belief we need to have in order to deliberate is the belief that the deliberation can be causally efficacious. In the first case, then, deliberation makes sense because my decision to vote for Gore can cause me to do so, whereas in the second case it cannot.

But, despite an immediate intuitive appeal, do we need to accept the conclusions drawn from the first voting case, or does the thought experiment manipulate us into assenting to the conclusion? Let’s construct another case:
I need to go meet my friend, but my legs are tired from dancing all night. Walking sounds very unappealing. On the other hand, my arms feel just fine, and so I consider flying to meet my friend instead of walking. After some thought, I decide to walk after all (perhaps because flying takes up too much energy, and I cannot afford the amount of food I would need to replenish it; also, I fear the ecological consequences of spreading my deodorant throughout the lower atmosphere).
It seems to me highly implausible that anything like deliberation can take place here. Someone who genuinely deliberates about whether to walk or fly across town has to be a nut. What, however, distinguishes this flying case from the original voting case? In both situations I believe that there is only one thing I can do, but I am still able to decide to do it based on deliberation. It is only that, for some reason, in the flying case it does not seem like I can genuinely deliberate, whereas in the voting case it does. I think the difference lies precisely in our ability, while considering the thought experiment, to place ourselves in the position of the agent involved. I can easily imagine myself in the flying example and immediately see that deliberation in this situation would make no sense, since I already believe that I cannot fly. But to put myself into the voting example, I need to somehow fully convince myself that, really, a scientist can fiddle with my brain and force me to vote a certain way and that this really will happen. The problem for Nelkin’s argument, I think, is this: if I were to fully convince myself of that, then the intuition that deliberation is possible in this case would vanish. Her reading of this thought experiment seems to remain plausible largely because it is notoriously difficult to genuinely convince oneself of a counterfactual.

Nelkin addresses the possible objection to her view which claims that individuals who undertake deliberation while believing that they do not have alternative possibilities are really manifesting contradictory beliefs. She insists that the burden of proof must then fall not on her, but on the critic who wants to assign contradictory beliefs to otherwise rational agents. But I believe that the burden of proof still rests on her to show that genuine deliberation is possible without a belief in alternative possibilities. The plausibility of her intuition that one can deliberate within the voting case, it seems to me, rests precisely on our attempt to take up contradictory beliefs: both the belief that evil scientists do not manipulate our brains, and the counterfactual belief that in this one case they might. Since we—standing outside the actual voting case but only attempting to project ourselves into it—cannot make ourselves take up these contradictory beliefs, the possibility of deliberation within the thought experiment seems possible to us only because we have failed—without noticing—to accept the setup of the experiment.

(1) Dana K. Nelkin, “The Sense of Freedom” in Campbell, O’Rourke, Shier, eds., Freedom and Determinism (MIT: 2004)

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Monday, August 6, 2007

Why Did the Consequence Argument Have Consequences?

There is an issue that has confused me for some time, ever since I first encountered, on The Garden of Forking Paths blog, the claim that the Consequence Argument (CA), as formulated by Peter van Inwagen, changed the landscape of the free will debate. I have since seen this claim repeated in print in several places, and the basic take seems to be this: before the CA was well known, most philosophers were compatibilists about free will. The CA, by formally showing the difficulties present in compatibilism, led to the resurgence of incompatibilist attempts to work out the free will problem. Since I first saw this claim, however, I have yet to figure out how, exactly, the CA argument could have been such a watershed in the free will debate. I do not mean here to criticize van Inwagen, but only to express my puzzlement. The puzzlement, essentially, comes down to this: what is it about the CA that could change the mind of anyone at all who already had a view on the free will problem?

I will not present the entire formalized version of the CA (nor will I try to outline all three versions of it), but here is, in simplified (though I hope not false) form, one version:

Def: P0 is a proposition that defines the complete physical state of the universe before the existence of any human beings, and P1 defines the complete physical state of the universe at any point after P0.

Def: Determinism is the thesis that P0, together with the laws of nature, necessarily entails P1. (That is, every physical state of the universe follows necessarily from any prior state, according to the laws of nature.)
No one has or ever had any choice about P0 or about the laws of nature.
Therefore, no one has or ever had any choice about any physical state of the universe, P1, whatsoever.
It follows that we cannot have any choice about our actions (which are physical events), since these all follow strictly from a prior state of the universe according to the laws of nature.
There are some problematic premises in the argument (and almost all of them have been questioned by someone or other), but essentially it seems to me to simply express, in one formalized version, the problem of free will and determinism. But since both compatibilism and incompatibilism are responses to that problem, I can’t see how someone could have been a compatibilist or an incompatibilist before learning of CA. That is, the argument seems to me to simply formalize just the issue that the very problem is about; anyone who has a take on the issue must, then, already have some sense of what the issue is. But then, why would a formalized version of the problem change someone’s mind?

Furthermore, I don’t see why this argument could have presented any real problems for classical compatibilist arguments; or, at least, I can’t see how it could have presented any problems that classical compatibilists were not already aware of and had not already tried to deal with. Here are at least two fairly obvious resources for dealing with it:

(1) It may well be true that nobody has any choice about past events and yet has a choice about their own actions, even if determinism is true. The past of P0 happened without the involvement of any agents. The actions of agents, on the other hand, have choices as constitutive features of those actions. The occurrence of an action in some propositions P1 then depends on the occurrence of a choice in a way that nothing in P0 does.

(2) Actions are events of a particular type. Following Davidson, we could say that actions are events that admit of a description under which they are intentional. An action, then, is an event that, on some description, has a particular kind of cause: a reason. But one can hold that reasons are not reducible to physical events. Thus, any action that occurs (will occur/has occurred) may be “inevitable” given P0 and the laws of nature. But the action is still up to the agent, since otherwise it would not be an action at all. That is, if an event is describable as following necessarily from P0 and the laws of nature, but it is not describable as following from a reason, then it is not an action. But no theory of free will that I am aware of insists that we must have a choice about events that are not actions.

Now both of these arguments may well have fatal flaws. What I don’t see, however, is how CA exacerbates those flaws, since the arguments, which predate van Inwagen’s formulation of CA, are already responses to the very problem CA formalizes. So what I cannot see is why someone who thought compatibilism was a good idea before they were aware of CA might think it was a bad idea after becoming aware of CA.

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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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