Delight Springs

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Aristotle, peripatetics, "free won't"

They dialed up the heat at last night's Nevada debate, but didn't cast a lot more light. I have to agree with the baseball philosopher Bill (not William) James, a show of angry mutual incivility is really not constructive at this stage. Save it for Drumpf. But the good news is that last night should have punctured Bloomberg's trial balloon, particularly due to all those NDAs. This being America, though, where $$ talks loudest, it probably didn't.

In CoPhi today we're talking Aristotle and the Peripatetics (both those student-scholars who literally followed him around his Lyceum campus, and those who followed in his spirit historically to create the  tradition of philosophy in motion. (See Rebecca Solnit's peripatetic chapter in Wanderlust, and recall "Gymnasiums of the Mind".)

Aristotle was much concerned with the causes of motion, from the Prime Mover on. Here's an interesting poll stale-mate: what if you were omniscient, omnipotent etc., but were not the originating source of motion in the universe? What would that make you?

If you said "One swallow doesn't make a summer" and were the philosopher known as The Philosopher, that would make you uncharacteristically poetic. We don't know if an easy eloquence came to the Stagirite, since most of what's come down to us from him is in the form of lecture notes and not polished prose. But he meant we shouldn't judge of the success or flourishing of our lives ("happiness" is not the best translation of eudaimonia, but it's the most common) on the basis of too small a slice of time and experience, or in strictly self-referential terms. Raphael's School of Athens, rightly depicts him reaching for the natural world, in contrast to his teacher's ostentatious upward ostension.  He'd have been appalled to learn that subsequent generations ossified his legacy by treating him as the conversation-stopping final authority, The Philosopher. Not his fault, but it's an ironic illustration of what he meant when he said our total eudaimonia depends on factors beyond our control and even beyond our lifespans.

In Fantasyland today we consider the American pastoral ideal, the transparent eyeball of Concord, the fake discovery of lunar life long ago, the carnival-barking all-American huckster Barnum, and Chicago's shiny faux-fest event that still symbolizes much that is phony in our public life.

In A&P today, more on free will, determinism, neuroscience , responsibility etc. Daniel Dennett's free will determinism and Michael Gazzaniga's storytelling separation of free will from responsibility come under the spotlight. Despite their differences I think they agree: we experience our freedom, when we do, as a narration in progress and not a closed book.  

Some of my questions: if you think free will skepticism does not threaten your prospects of finding meaning in life, but have constructed your life on the premise that without free will we're just automata, aren't you going to have a difficult story to tell? Can you stage a meaningful 2d act, after being persuaded to accept fws? Wouldn't you have to experience the decision to do so as a free choice?
Does the question "Why did you decide to do that?" not beg the question, for the fw skeptic?

"Dennett, drawing on evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics and philosophy, demonstrates that free will exists in a deterministic world for humans only, and that this gives us morality, meaning, and moral culpability. Weaving a richly detailed narrative..."

So, as we were saying in class last time, we are "special"-and it's not arrogant to say so, it's just naturally human.

In his first Gifford Lecture, Gazzaniga says to understand anything from a biologic perspective requires an evolutionary context to make sense of emergent complexity and cultural expectations like volitional self-control. Again, in Dennett's phrase, freedom evolves. So, free will? Maybe the internalization of civility and a socially-sanctioned willingness to apply the brakes to otherwise-determined behaviors, which we might better call free won't, is freedom enough for us. We're free at least, apparently, to tell that story.

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