Phil 101: Second Writing Exercise

Choose one of the following passages, and write a brief exposition of the philosophical argument it’s presenting. Aim for 200–400 words (a bit shorter or a bit longer can be ok).

All of these passages are taken from texts you’ve been assigned to read for class, but we’re not interested in you identifying the author or which text it came from.

Instead, you should try to explain the argument in the passage to someone who hasn’t read these passages (or the texts they’re excerpted from). You should say enough that they could understand and discuss the argument, based just on your summary of it. Don’t provide more detail than is needed to do that. For example, if you choose Passage 3, you shouldn’t need to say who Daniel and Frederick are, and who said what. If you choose Passage 2, you shouldn’t have to talk about Keith and James and what they did.

Also don’t try to list or give a sentence-by-sentence copy of the author’s text, with some words and phrases switched around. Instead, reconstruct the argument in your passage, in your own words and in a way that makes its organization clear. You may want to say things in different order than the original does.

We don’t want you to criticize or defend the arguments you summarize. That will come later. For now, just explain the arguments, as carefully as you can, and in your own words. Learning how to do this well is an extremely important philosophical skill, and it’s harder than you might expect.

These exercises, like the others due in the first weeks of class, will be graded only: High quality/Satisfactory/Low quality. We will grade your more substantial papers anonymously, and so you’ll have to prepare your papers for us to do that, but don’t worry about that for these exercises. For now, make sure your name is on your submission.

Unless/until you hear otherwise from your TAs, submit your exercises to them as PDFs using the course Sakai system by the end of the day (11:59 pm) on Tuesday Jan 25. If you’re officially enrolled in one section but have asked to switch over to a different one, interpret “your TA” for these purposes to mean the TA for the section you’ve asked to switch into.

Passage 1

Two philosophical problems face the defenders of compatibilism. The easier is to provide a clear statement of which futures that do not have a physically possible connection with the present are “open” to us. The more difficult is to make it seem at least plausible that futures that are in this sense open to an agent really deserve to be so described.

An example of a solution to these problems may make the nature of the problems clearer…

According to this solution, a future is open to an agent if, given that the agent chose that future, chose that path leading away from (what seemed to be) a fork in the road of time, it would come to pass. Thus it is open to me to stop writing this book and do a little dance because, if I so chose, that’s what I’d do. But if Alice is locked in a prison cell, it is not open to her to leave: if she chose to leave, her choice would be ineffective because she would come up against a locked prison door. Now consider the future I said was open to me—to stop writing and do a little dance—and suppose determinism is true. Although a choice on my part to behave in that remarkable fashion would (no doubt) be effective if it occurred, it is as a matter of fact not going to occur, and therefore, given determinism, it is determined by the present state of things and the laws of nature that such a choice is not going to occur… And yet as we have seen, many of these futures are “open” to me in the sense of “open” the compatibilist has proposed.

Is this a reasonable sense to give to this word? (We now take up the second problem confronting the compatibilist.) This is a very large question. The core of the compatibilist’s answer is an attempt to show that the reason we are interested in open or accessible futures is that we are interested in modifying the way people behave. One important way in which we modify behavior is by rewarding behavior we like and punishing behavior we dislike. We tell people that we will put them in jail if they steal, and that they will get a tax break if they invest their money in ways we deem socially useful. But there is no point in trying to get people to act in a certain way if that way is not in some sense open to them. There is no point in telling Alfred that he will go to jail if he steals unless it is somehow open to him not to steal.

And what is the relevant sense of “open”? Just the one I have proposed, says the compatibilist. One modifies behavior by modifying the choices people make. That procedure is effective just insofar as choices are effective in producing behavior. If Alfred chooses not to steal (and remains constant in that choice), then he won’t steal. But if Alfred chooses not to be subject to the force of gravity, he will nevertheless be subject to the force of gravity. Although it would no doubt be socially useful if there were some people who were not subject to the force of gravity, there is no point in threatening people with grave consequences if they do not break the bonds of gravity, for even if you managed to induce some people to choose not to be subject to the force of gravity, their choice would not be effective. Therefore (the compatibilist concludes), it is entirely appropriate to speak of a future as “open” if it is a future that would be brought about by a choice—even if it were a choice that was determined not to occur. And if Alfred protests when you punish him for not choosing a future that was in this sense open to him, on the ground that it was determined by events that occurred before his birth that he not make the choice that would have inaugurated that future—if he protests that only a miracle could have inaugurated such a future—you can tell him his punishment will not be less effective in modifying his behavior (and the behavior of those who witness his punishment) on that account.

Passage 2

…Here are some abilities I have: the ability to play the violin, the ability to make lasagne, the ability to write philosophy papers. Many people are able to verify that I am able to do these things because they’ve heard me play the violin, eaten one of my delicious lasagnes, or read one of my philosophy papers. Similarly, we may suppose, both Keith and James are perfectly capable of resisting temptation. They have managed to resist temptation on many occasions in the past… The fact that people have abilities like these is in no way undermined by determinism. If determinism is true, that doesn’t at all undermine the claim that I am able to play the violin or make a lasagne. (Imagine that someone proves conclusively that determinism is true. We’d still perfectly well be able to divide people up into those who are able to play the violin and those who aren’t.)

Note that, as we ordinarily talk about abilities—that is, given what we mean when we say that someone is or is not able to do something— abilities generally don’t come and go from one time to another, or at least not unless some radical change happens in the person we’re talking about. Here’s a task for you. What abilities do you currently have? Check the ones that apply: play the violin, make a lasagne, drive a car, fly a plane, speak Urdu. That was easy, right? (Well, you might conceivably be unsure. Maybe you had violin lessons for a short while when you were a kid, but that was ages ago and you’re really not sure whether you can still do it. But in most cases, it was easy.) And—unless anything has changed, like you’ve been taking driving lessons recently—you would have ticked off the same items ten minutes ago, or last week, or a year ago. Right now, I am able to play the violin. I’ve been able to play it since I was a kid. Trust me.

So it looks as though the truth of determinism makes no difference to whether or not someone has a given ability at a given time. Remember the ability list. You filled that in really easily, right? Did it occur to you, even for a moment, to think: “hang on, maybe I’m not able, right now, to play the violin or drive a car or make a lasagne, because if determinism is true, then I was determined not to do any of those things”? I’m guessing not. And rightly so: nobody thinks we’re only able to drive a car when we are actually driving one. That’s just not what we mean when we say that someone is able to drive a car. (I don’t even own a car, but I am still very confident that, right now, I have the ability to drive. After all, I drove one a few weeks ago, and I know from experience that I don’t lose the ability to drive over a period of a few weeks.) Similarly, then, the fact that Keith did not resist temptation on this particular occasion does not at all undermine the claim that he had the ability to do so. He did have that ability, just as I, right now, am able to play the violin and drive a car (though not at the same time). So: even if determinism is true, Keith was able to do otherwise. He was able to resist temptation and refrain from adding the chili.

Passage 3

FREDERICK: …Suppose I am deliberating about whether or not to go to a concert. I have two alternatives. Either I can go to the concert or I can do something else, such as staying home and reading a book. That means I have a choice, because there is more than one thing I can do. If there were only one thing I could do, I would have no choice and I could not deliberate about what to do. But since I do deliberate about what to do, I have a choice, and, therefore, have free will.

DANIEL: Why can’t our deliberations be caused by happenings over which we have no control?

FREDERICK: We can’t deliberate about what we are going to do unless we can choose differently from the way we actually choose. And that means we can’t deliberate about what we are going to do unless our deliberations are not caused by happenings over which we have no control.

DANIEL: I’m not convinced that that’s so. Here’s a case that shows we can deliberate about what we are going to do even though our deliberations are caused by happenings over which we have no control. Physiologists and neurosurgeons know enough about our brains and central nervous systems to be able to cause us to move parts of our bodies and have certain images and thoughts. They do these things by touching an electrically charged electrode to certain parts of the brain. Of course, they can’t cause us to do everything, but a number of experiments have been done, and scientists are learning which parts of the brain control which activities. As of now, they don’t know how to cause us to think and deliberate and choose, but it is possible that they will know how to do this at some time in the future. Suppose that time comes, and a physiologist touches an electrode to just the right part of my brain so as to cause me to deliberate about doing something. He then causes me to choose one of the alternatives that he has caused me to think about, and lastly, he touches the part of my brain that causes me to do what I have chosen to do. If these things were to happen, I would be deliberating and choosing among alternatives, even though my deliberations and choice were caused by happenings over which I have no control. That shows that it is possible for our deliberations to be caused by happenings over which we have no control. And that means you can’t use the fact of deliberation to prove that we have free will.

FREDERICK: I don’t think your case refutes my argument, because it is not a case in which you are really deliberating about what you are going to do. The physiologist would be manipulating what you think, choose and do, so you wouldn’t be free. You would be just like a puppet, except that the strings attached to you would be electrically charged electrodes.

DANIEL: But the physiologist was causing me to do exactly what I do in daily life when I deliberate. How can you say that I was not deliberating?

FREDERICK: You weren’t deliberating when the physiologist was touching electrodes to your brain because you weren’t able to choose differently from the way you actually chose — there was only one thing you could choose, namely, the thing the physiologist caused you to choose.

DANIEL: When we deliberate in daily life, we weigh alternatives, think about consequences, evaluate reasons for doing things and make decisions. These are the very things I was doing when the physiologist was touching electrodes to my brain.

FREDERICK: You are right in saying that we weigh alternatives, think about consequences, evaluate reasons and make decisions when we deliberate. But that’s not all that deliberation involves. It also involves the ability to choose differently from the way we actually choose. For instance, I could have chosen to stay home and read a book last night instead of going to a concert. Or I could have chosen to have an orange for breakfast instead of apple juice.

DANIEL: It is certainly true that when we deliberate in daily life we think we can choose differently from the way we actually choose. Otherwise, we wouldn’t deliberate. But thinking we can choose differently doesn’t show that we can actually choose differently. What makes you think it is the latter and not just the former that deliberation involves?

FREDERICK: A physiologist could cause us to think that we can choose differently. But if he did so, we wouldn’t be deliberating. So deliberation must involve more than just thinking we can choose differently—we have to be able actually to choose differently.

DANIEL: If you are going to say that we can’t deliberate unless we are actually able to choose differently, then it is far from obvious, at least to me, that we actually do deliberate… [I]t seems to me you’re cheating, because every time I give you a case in which someone is deliberating but isn’t free, you say he isn’t really deliberating. I think that shows you are in a dilemma. If you admit that we are deliberating in the…cases I have described, then you also have to admit that deliberation does not disprove determinism. But if you say that we are not deliberating in those cases, then one wonders how you could show that we ever deliberate. What we think about in those cases is exactly what we think about in every other case in which anyone would say we deliberate. So either way, you can’t prove that determinism is false.