Re: On making an ontological commitment
- Dear Een,
Thank you for your latest posting, which, as always, gives me plenty to think about. However, I have to disagree with you about ontological commitments.
You write (I'm assuming in the quote here that you are expressing your own view):
"It is simply a question of ontological commitments. If there are atoms, there are no ethical subjects. If there are ethical subjects, there are no atoms.
A world-view that can contain atoms cannot contain an ethics, and vice versa. Either, or..."
I myself don't see it as either atoms or ethical subjects, but not both. I think a full world view can have both atoms and ethical subjects. Let me try to justify this.
First of all Quine. Yes Quine did not accept ethical subjects as part of his ontology, but he was an extreme empiricist who only allowed the objects of science into his ontology. Less extreme empiricists (e.g. Donald Davidson, John McDowell, Thomas Nagel) allow that objects and properties not strictly reducible to basic physics can be part of the world, provided that such objects and properties are not inconsistent with the laws of physics. I don't see any obvious reason why the world cannot contain ethical subjects, and also be subject to the laws of physics. There doesn't seem any inconsistency in a world of stable natural laws where individual human beings act from good and bad motives and do both good and bad things. In fact without stable natural laws, I think we wouldn't be able to act ethically at all, as we would have no idea what the consequences of our actions would be.
Secondly, I don't suppose you want to deny the existence of ordinary medium-sized physical objects like tables and chairs, trees and plants, cats and dogs. Isn't the existence of tables and chairs, etc. consistent with the existence of ethical subjects? If tables and chairs can be a part of your ontology, at what level of smallness do objects become unacceptable for you? Are the existence of cells (which, I believe, are viewable with powerful microscopes) consistent with the existence of ethical subjects? If cells are okay, what about molecules? Where is your cut-off point?
Overall, I think that the challenge to us as philosophers (and as individuals) is to make sense of a world which is made up of molecules and atoms at the basic physical level, and in which we human beings are ethical subjects, capable of making decisions and carrying out actions for which we are morally responsible. To deny the existence of ethical subjects (as Quine does) or to deny the existence of atoms (as you appear to do) is to exhibit a blind spot to a clearly evident aspect of reality, in my opinion.
A modest materialism can say that each human being can be described at the physical level as 'a bio-chemical compound with neural activity', but human beings are not just bio-chemical compounds with neural activity, we are also (when described psychologically or spiritually) conscious and self-conscious individuals who think and feel and who, to a large extent, determine the course of our own lives through our ethical choices for good or ill.
I think that different levels of descriptions (localised conceptual schemes, if you will) can make up one coherent and global world view, as long as the levels of description are not inconsistent with each other. We can describe the world at large, and ourselves in particular, in many different ways, further each of these ways may incorporate truth.
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- Dear Een,
Thank you for your considered response to my rather over-combative previous posting. You present a very strong case for your view, and I find myself put back on the defensive.
You make valid points in all your three preambles, and I agree with everything you say. Similarly the first paragraph of your response proper is an accurate summary of the difference between Quine and Davidson. Just one small point: When I think of atoms and molecules I think of my chemistry lessons in school and in particular I think of the Periodic Table. I can't remember when the Periodic Table was first 'discovered', but as far as I know this is a piece of scientific theory and scientific ontology which has not been disputed for over one hundred years.
Let me now focus on the first sentence of your second paragraph. You write:
"If a thinker claims that the world is subject to natural laws, I immediately want to ask him if he considers himself to be a part of the world."
Let me reply, as I am indeed a thinker who claims that the world is subject to natural laws.
I do consider myself to be part of the natural world, and I think that the physical, chemical and biological events which take place inside my body obey the same natural laws as those events outside my body. In particular, I think that my brain obeys these laws. This is important as the libertarian (the person who both believes in free will and denies determinism) seems to be committed to the view that our brains do not obey natural laws. Note if such a view were true, neurosurgery would be a very hazardous enterprise.
Given my answer to your second paragraph question, I cannot avoid facing up to your three subsequent direct questions:
1 - If the world is subject to natural laws, and you are part of that world; how do you give an account of ethics in the absence of freedom of will?
2 - If the world is subject to natural laws, and yet you assert a free will; how do you reconcile your transcendentalism with your naturalism?
3 - If via a mediation through an abstraction (eg Kant) you reconcile these two; how do you understand ethics without concretion?
Before answering these questions, let me introduce some preambles of my own.
One of my guiding thoughts is Socrates dictum that 'one must follow the argument wherever it leads'. I feel that in order to retain my integrity I must be prepared to follow the balance of evidence and the dictates of reason, even if the end result is unpleasant and demoralising. (Note Nietzsche would disagree with me here.)
Although you haven't said so directly, I think you hold to the view that we can truthfully describe ourselves in an objective way or we can truthfully describe ourselves in a subjective way but not both. By contrast, I think we can both truthfully describe ourselves objectively 'from the outside' as one natural organism amongst many, interacting with our natural environment, and truthfully describe ourselves 'from the inside' as a conscious and self-conscious ethical subject who is the author of his own existence. Thomas Nagel spends a whole book attempting to do just this. I cannot recommend his book 'The View From Nowhere' highly enough.
I had a suspicion that you would raise the issue of free will in your response to my last posting. I regard the problem of free will as one of the most difficult problems of philosophy (and of existence), and I have not come across any philosopher who has given a satisfactory (to me) answer to the free will problem. Not Descartes, not Hume, not Kant, not Wittgenstein, not Sartre, not Davidson, not Dennett. I agree it is particularly difficult for the naturalist to justify the claim that we have free will. But the only alternative to naturalism is supernaturalism, and supernaturalism is just believing in fairy tales.
Now to your three questions:
1 - Your question presupposes that 'if the world is subject to natural laws, then there is no free will'. I don't think this presupposition is indubitable. Is this claim something you are 'unable/unwilling to doubt'? I agree that if there is no free will, it is difficult to give an account of ethics. Is it impossible? Again, I don't think that it is indubitable that 'If there is no free will, then no account of ethics is possible'. Is this another of your certainties? So I struggle to give an account of ethics which is consistent with the presupposition that the world (including my body) is subject to natural laws.
2 - I'm not sure what you mean by 'transcendental' in this question. I don't really have an answer to this question, as I don't really have a solution to the problem of free will. I feel in my bones that my body is subject to the same natural laws as the rest of the universe, and I also feel in my bones that I have free will. I also feel the requirement to achieve consistency of thought, and for this reason I'm not happy with much of what I have written in this posting.
3 - I agree that 'science is not capable of concretion [and] ethics requires concretion'. However I'm not convinced that you cannot have concretion within the natural world. From the subjective point of view you and I are concrete individuals. As I have said before, I don't see any problem with having subjective individuals within a natural world.
Let me conclude by throwing two questions back at you:
1 - Do you agree with my claim that either naturalism is true or supernaturalism is true?
2 - If your answer to question one is 'yes', which of these alternative do you think is true?
Again an over-long posting - I don't manage your combination of clarity with conciseness of expression. Also I am aware that my last two postings and your last posting have not mentioned Kierkegaard once.
Perhaps some Kierkegaardians will be tired of our discussion, and impatient to get back to more directly Kierkegaardian themes. However I have only gone on at length because I do think that the question of free will and naturalism is one of the most significant and profound issues that an individual can wrestle with. Further, what an individual thinks about this issue is pivotal to his whole approach to existence. Given this, I would be especially interested to hear what other Kierkegaardians think about the issues raised in our discussion of free will and naturalism and its relation to Kierkegaard's work.
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