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Whirlwind Tour of Justificationism

From an email thread about free will:

Once upon a time (624 BC) Thales was born. Thus began philosophy.

Thales invented criticism. Instead of telling his followers what to believe, he made suggestions, and asked that they think for themselves and form their own ideas.

A little later, Xenophanes invented fallibility and the idea of seeking the truth to improve our knowledge without finding the final truth. He also identified and criticized parochialism.

In the tradition of Thales and Xenophanes came Socrates, the man who was wise for admitting his vast ignorance (among other things).

But only two generations after Socrates, philosophy was changed dramatically by Aristotle. Aristotle invented justificationism which has been the dominant school of philosophy since, and which opposes the critical, fallibilist philosophies which preceded him (and which were revived by Popper and Deutsch).

Aristotle's way of thinking had some major strands such as:

1) he wanted episteme -- objectively true knowledge.
2) he wanted to guarantee that he really had episteme -- he wanted justified, true knowledge. he rejected doxa (conjecture).
3) he thought he had episteme -- he was "the man who knows"
4) he thought he had justification
5) in relation to this, he invented induction as a method of justifying knowledge

Thus Aristotle rejected the fallibilist, uncertain ethos of striving to improve that preceded him, and replaced it with an authoritarian approach seeking guarantees and to establish existing knowledge against doubt.

Induction, as well as all other attempts, were unable to justify knowledge. Nothing can guarantee that some idea is episteme, so all attempts to do it failed.

Much later, Bacon attached induction to science and empiricism. And some people like Hume noticed it didn't work. But they didn't know what to do without it because they were still focussed on the same problem situation Aristotle had laid out: that we should justify our knowledge and find guarantees. So without induction they still had to figure out how to do that, and salvaging induction seemed easier than starting over. Hence the persistent interest in reviving induction.

What Popper did is go back to the old pre-Aristotle philosophical tradition which favors criticism and fallibilism, and which has no need for justification. Popper accepted that doxa (conjectures) have value, as Xenophanes had, and he explained how we can improve our knowledge without justification. He also refuted a bunch of justificationist ideas.

Then David Deutsch wrote "A Conversation About Justification" in _The Fabric of Reality_.

So how does that relate to free will? The basic argument against free will goes like this, "There is no way to justify free will, or guarantee it exists, therefore it's nonsense." The primary argument against free will is nothing but a demand for justification in the Aristotelian style.

As an example, one might say free will is nothing but a conjecture without an empirical evidence. To translate, that means free will is merely doxa, and hasn't got any empirical justification. This is essentially true, but not actually a problem.

Arguments against free will take many guises, but justificationist thinking is the basic theme giving them appeal.

Elliot Temple on May 5, 2010

Comments (12)

Free Will

I've never encountered that argument against free will; rather, people view the whole matter as a paradox because the justification for free will seems so obvious; self-inspection.

The two arguments against Free Will are the (poorly named) argument from determinism and the argument from responsibility.




The argument from determinism.

1) If determinism is true, everything that happens is necessitated by the prior state of the universe and physical laws.

2) Determinism is true.

3)If something is necessary, it could not have been otherwise.

4) If we can not have do otherwise, we are not free.

5) Hence we are not free.



The Argument from Responsibility.

1) If A caused B, one cannot be responsible for B without also being responsible for A.

2) Assume we are responsible for our actions.

3) Our actions are caused by our mental states.

4) Hence, we are responsible for our mental states.

5) Our mental states are caused by external stimuli and prior mental states.

6) Going back far enough (e.g. birth, conception), our mental states are solely caused by external events.

7) Reductio: Hence we are responsible for the external events that caused us to come in being.

8) Hence the assumption is false, and we are not free.

Larks at 1:50 AM on June 7, 2010 | #2044
> I've never encountered that argument against free will; rather, people view the whole matter as a paradox because the justification for free will seems so obvious; self-inspection.

How do you know whether you've encountered it? To notice it, one has to be sensitive to justificationism. But in the same sentence you make a comment about justification being obvious, which demonstrates lack of sensitivity to the Popperian perspective. If you don't look at things from a Popperian perspective, you'd never notice it even if you did encounter it.


As for the arguments about free will, neither bothers to clearly specify what it thinks the "free will" it's refuting actually is. As far as I can tell, they both think it's a theory of physics, and that's why their replies focus on physics type issues. But they are mistaken. Free will is a moral theory, and they are trying to refute it without any moral analysis. So they miss the point.

Elliot at 10:47 AM on June 7, 2010 | #2047
Presumably I would know if I encountered a 'lack-of-justification' argument against FW because someone would have said 'We don't have a proper justification for free well', or words to that effect. But I've never come across this, in all the literature.

For example, neither Watson (2002), nor the REP, nor the SEP, nor Kant (IIRC), nor Catchpole, nor Frankfurt, nor Ayer (IIRC), nor Hume consider the lack of a justification for free will to be important.

I said that people consider the justification obvious. My opinions on CR here are irrelevant: we're discussing the opinions of other philosophers, who generally aren't concerned about a lack of justification for FW: rather, they are concerned about a glut of justifications, for determinism, FW and incompatablism.

You're right, neither defines FW. What exactly free will is is the major divide between the libertarians & hard determinism on one side, and the conpatabilists n the other. However, most philosophers don't consider it to be a primarily moral issue: if you do, then you're discussing a different problem.

Larks at 8:33 AM on June 10, 2010 | #2048
> Presumably I would know if I encountered a 'lack-of-justification' argument against FW because someone would have said 'We don't have a proper justification for free well', or words to that effect. But I've never come across this, in all the literature.

No, it's rarely phrased that way. (As you yourself noticed.)

Your knowledge about CR is relevant because only people who understand CR can accurately tell the difference between justificationist and non-justification arguments, and you claimed to be able to tell the difference. (BTW this includes people making anti-FW arguments -- people who don't understand justificationism can't judge whether their own args are justificationist. So they often couldn't accurately say it explicitly for you, even if they wanted to.)

As for morality, morality is about how to make choices/decisions. And free will is the theory that choices exist, is it not? If so, that makes them closely related.

Elliot at 9:11 AM on June 10, 2010 | #2049
Larks:

Justificationism is a subtle thing that gets into everything, and is often hard to spot (especially when one isn't familiar with the idea). It's often not done in those explicit words, and usually people don't know they're using justificationism in their argument.

Even Popper wasn't always totally clear about justificationism, and used the word 'justification' sometimes to just mean 'have reason for' in the Popperian 'the other theories have been refuted' way. The fact that you don't need to justify any theories, or belief in theories, ever, is counter-intuitive.

Most of the philosophers you listed either came after Popper, or don't understand Popper. Specifically, they don't know what justificationism is and so wouldn't notice if they used it. That is to say, they might be using it and not notice (and if you're unfamiliar with justificationism, you might not notice either). I don't know the arguments so I can't say whether this is true, just that it's possible.

--

Reconciling free will with determinism, I wrote this in a FB thread somewhere:

Free will is the common-sense idea that we make decisions, can affect the future, and the future is open.

Basically, I don't think determinism covers the stuff free will is talking about. They're about different things. Determinism is about predicting one state of atoms from another. Free will is about explaining why collections of atoms do things.

Saying 'a photon on my desk got there because it interacted with other particles in a certain way' doesn't actually explain why it got there. The relevant explanation would be something like 'it was getting dark so I turned my desk lamp on to read more comfortably'. Determinism still applies, but it's answering a different question.

Lulie at 9:16 AM on June 10, 2010 | #2050
Well, the two arguments I gave are the most common, by far. Can you point out how they make the mistake of demanding justification for FW? Both seem to straightforward reductios or modus ponens.

Well, on some but not all interpretation. (Not Frankfurt's account of primary and secondary desires, for example). But while FW might be a precondition for morality, it isn't the same as morality, no more than epistemology is morality.


PS: if you ever reformat the site, you might want to include some feature to notify people of when you reply.

Larks at 9:19 AM on June 10, 2010 | #2051
Lulie: the standard two arguments are the ones I gave in the first comment.

Larks at 9:21 AM on June 10, 2010 | #2052
> Well, the two arguments I gave are the most common, by far. Can you point out how they make the mistake of demanding justification for FW?

They are incomplete. They don't have much of anything in them. When fleshed out (e.g. with statements about what free will is, and how they are relevant), then they might have it.

> But while FW might be a precondition for morality, it isn't the same as morality, no more than epistemology is morality.

"Murder is a bad choice" is a moral theory. "People make choices" is also a moral theory. Neither is (the whole of) morality itself, but they are both part of moral philosophy. And both are statements aiming to solve moral (not physical) problems. They should be judged by

A) whether they solve the moral problem they purport to (and whether it's a real problem, etc). physics is irrelevant here.

B) whether they themselves have/cause problems (including causing interdisciplinary problems -- now physics if relevant if they contradict it by accident)

Anyone who treats free will as a theory of physics not morality is simply using identical/misleading words to talk about something else, which isn't the common sense moral theory, and isn't saying anything relevant. (And what happens when they do that, in broad strokes, is that they find free will does not offer the solution to any physics problem, so then they don't see the point of it, and reject it.)

Elliot at 4:16 PM on June 11, 2010 | #2055
The arguments don't need fleshing out. They're already valid (or with only trivial deviations from validity). Furthermore, both have only one premise to do with free will,

1)'If A caused B, one cannot be responsible for B without also being responsible for A.'

and

2) 'If we can not do otherwise, we are not free.'

It doesn't matter that it's not established exactly what free will is (again, this is a major area of dispute): free will having either of those properties is sufficient. And neither makes any mention of a lack of justification for free will.

But even beyond that, suppose you were right, and these arguments did need, despite appearances, some reference to the lack of a justification for free will. Even then, that's not something that Hume or Kant or Frankfurt or Watson noted; that was not their reason for (possibly) rejecting free will. They considered the arguments as I have written them, not as you think they ought to be to make them more valid, and they thought these, non-justification-referring, arguments, were a problem.

Moral theories make normative statements; 'people make choices' is a positive one. It doesn't say whether or not this is a good or bad thing.

Well, they're not talking about the moral theory, because they view them as separate.

Well, no; most philosophers nowadays are compatabilists, and many of the remainder are Libertarians. Hard Determinism isn't all that common.

But in general, they can't be talking about the wrong thing: you are talking about what they are talking about. Your subject matter is the dependant variable here. If they aren't discussing the kind of free will you're concerned with, then you're still wrong to mention it in the article; you should instead say, 'and academic philosophers are not interested in this conception of free will'.

Larks at 10:37 AM on June 12, 2010 | #2056
> The arguments don't need fleshing out.

They need fleshing out to say how they are relevant.

You claim they have premises about free will, but you list things that don't even have the words "free will" in them. There may be some argument that connects them to free will, but that argument isn't included in the originals, hence they do need fleshing out. Perhaps you consider it obvious?

Supposedly-obvious implicit things *are* areas that need fleshing out to make a rigorous/complete argument.

> They considered the arguments as I have written them

I think the ideas actually in their minds were a lot more complicated and detailed than a few bullet points.

> But in general, they can't be talking about the wrong thing: you are talking about what they are talking about.

I wrote a blog post about, among other things, free-will-the-moral-theory (and common sense theory).

You then commented claiming some philosophers were relevant. In particular, they argued against free will without justificationism, you said.

You asserted them to be counter examples. If they were actually talking about something else, then they are not counter examples.

Elliot at 11:29 AM on June 12, 2010 | #2057
Substitute, 'have free will' for 'are not free'.


You wrote a blog post about the history of philosophy, covering many different philosophers. In every other situation, in books, online or face-to-face, people understand 'the problem of free will' as referring to a metaphysical question, not a moral one. As such, it's reasonable to infer, when you referred to free will, you meant the same concept that other philosophers discuss.

If you want to discuss some other concept, you ought to go for a different name, and cite who exactly argues about it. Otherwise you're just going to confuse people.

Larks at 12:26 PM on June 13, 2010 | #2058
When you assert about how people understand free will, that is an assertion, not an argument. Given it's one of the these we disagree about, baldly asserting it is pointless. You think your understand is the mainstream one, and I think mine is, and you don't seem to want to admit that my view on the matter even exists.

As to substituting, you can't just take arguments that mean one thing, put in a totally different meaning, and pretend they remain coherent. Look at the responsibility one. The conclusion should be something about what we cause. It was already a huge stretch to put the word free there at all. Now you want to say it has something to do with free will, but it just doesn't.

Elliot at 12:44 PM on June 13, 2010 | #2059

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)