Phil 101: Fourth Writing Exercise

This exercise will build on the previous one. Below we reproduce the same statements of views/arguments that were in the last prompt. (These are the text As.) Each is paired with one or two objections, based on some of your submissions for the third exercise. (These are the text Bs.) They are offered as reasonable but not knock-down, irresistable challenges to the passages they’re responding to. (Few philosophical criticisms ever are!)

Your task for this week is to choose one of those objections, and present a response to it on behalf of the passage it’s objecting to. You could aim to argue that the objection in the text B you chose doesn’t succeed, that is, explain why the view/argument offered in the corresponding text A isn’t undermined by B’s objection. (This doesn’t mean you need to agree with your A; even if A is wrong it’s interesting to figure out whether the objection given in B should be our reasons for thinking so.) Alternatively, you might agree that the objection in your B raises some problems, but think that your A can be extended or modified in natural ways to deal with those problems. Thus you’d be proposing a new version of the basic idea of your A, improved in light of B’s objection.

It’s up to you which pair of texts A and B to choose; your A text doesn’t need to be summarizing the same passage as you did in exercise 2, and your B text doesn’t need to be objecting to the same passage you objected to in exercise 3.

We have loose expectations about the length of these, but 100 words might be too short for the task, and 600 words is getting to be longer than we were looking for. Somewhere in the middle is reasonable to aim for.

These exercises, like the previous three, 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 Feb 8.

Text A1 (Passage 1 from Exercise 3)

Determinism is the belief that the laws of nature permit things to continue in exactly one way. If all our choices are predetermined in that way, this seems to imply that free will does not exist, and only the one choice is really “open” to anyone. But compatibilists argue that determinism and free will can exist together, and multiple choices can still be “open” to us.

What is meant by a choice being open to us, even though we don’t take it? For example, at any point I could throw my computer on the ground and walk away from this assignment. Though I obviously will not be doing so, we think that the option is entirely available to me. If determinism exists, it is guaranteed that this event will not occur; however the compatibilist says the option is still open to me.

Other options are not open to me. I can’t do just anything. What does the compatibilist think makes the difference?

The compatibilist believes it is important to guide behavior with positive or negative reinforcement, depending on the behavior itself. Some may argue from a deterministic perspective that their behavior should not be punished since their choices were not made freely. But the compatibilist replies that in some cases, punishment would not be less effective in changing their behavior. For example, if a child gives their parent the “silent treatment.” If the child was mute, they would have no choice but to remain silent; and in that case there would be no reason to punish them, or benefit from doing so. On the other hand, if the child was not mute and had other choices open to them, then punishing them could be effective in guiding their behavior in the future. Our division of choices into those that are open and those that aren’t is tied to this project of guiding behavior, the compatibilist says.

Text B1 (Objection to A1)

From the approach of determinism, there is only one outcome that will occur due to the laws of nature. People may think other outcomes are “open” to them, but if determinism is true, there will only be one choice or decision made. And this was already fixed in advance. So there is no reason to try to guide them with punishment or praise. Punishment would not be able to affect their future behavior, as that is already determined by the laws of nature.

Text A2 (Passage 2 from Exercise 3)

We think that some people have abilities and others don’t, for example the ability to drive a car. Even if determinism were true, we’d still want to divide people into these different groups.

The way we ordinarily understand abilities, they’re not all the time rapidly coming and going. And you can have abilities that you’re not using right now. The ability doesn’t go away the first instant you’re not using it. Nobody thinks we stop being able to drive a car when we’re not right then behind the wheel.

All that determinism shows is that you sometimes aren’t going to be using an ability. But that doesn’t mean the ability has gone away. You can still be able to drive a car, even at times when it’s determined that you won’t drive it. Even if determinism is true, you might still be able to do other things than you actually do right then.

Text B2 (One Objection to A2 — only choose one of B2, B4)

I agree that just because you have not done something in a long time does not mean you forgot it entirely. Your muscles may “remember” how to do things you’ve often performed, even if it’s been a while. But what happens when someone becomes injured in a way that completely inhibits the physical motions needed for the task? For example, Dr Strange is a surgeon but is injured in a car crash in a way that means he can’t use his hands anymore to perform surgery.

What about abilities that are mostly cognitive? Can we lose those too? Of course. As you get older, you can forget how to do things you learned earlier in life. The child asks their parent for help with their elementary school math homework. But the parent struggles with the problem too. Not because they are dumb; they just forgot how to do that kind of math problem. It wasn’t a skill important to their later life, or one they kept practicing. So they forgot how to do it; they lost the ability.

It may be that determinism can entail you won’t use some ability, without also entailing you’ve lost the ability to perform it. Time and overall mental/physical health may also matter for whether you’ve lost an ability. But if determinism is true, then your overall mental/physical health was predetermined, and not something you had control over. So this position wouldn’t show that determinism is compatible with us still being in control over what happens.

Text B4 (A Different Objection to A2 — only choose one of B2, B4)

The argument is based on our keeping our abilities to do things even when we aren’t doing them. But how do we know that we do this? If we see someone drive a car, then we know they are using an ability to drive at that moment. If they aren’t right now driving a car, there is no way to know they still have the ability to do so. We can predict that they’ll be able to drive a car again in the future, but we can’t be 100% certain they will. Perhaps abilities do come and go, and if determinism is true, perhaps we only possess our abilities when it is determined that we’ll perform the action in question.

Text A3 (Passage 3 from Exercise 3)

Two characters are discussing the debate about free will and determinism, and whether the fact that we deliberate is enough to show that free will exists. One view says that when we deliberate, we analyze situations and weigh options until we settle upon a choice, which we then follow through on. The fact that we weigh multiple options and choose one implies that there are multiple possible outcomes when deliberating, contradicting determinism’s assertion that there is only one possible outcome.

The passage presents a challenge to that view. What if a scientist provided electrical signals to the brain that caused the brain to analyze, weigh options in a way that the scientist specifies, and then choose the choice that the scientist intended all along. In that scenario, the act of deliberation would still have taken place with a determined outcome, showing that deliberation can not disprove determinism.

The free will defender rejects this example, saying that true deliberation doesn’t take place there, since there was no real possibility of different outcomes. But the challenger continues that whether or not we say that “true deliberation” takes place, the brain receiving the signals would experience deliberation. This makes a distinction between deliberation as a human experience versus deliberation as a point in time where one of several possible outcomes is chosen. This distinction is critical to the challenge. If deliberation of the second sort really existed, that would disprove determinism, which doesn’t allow for multple possible outcomes. But we cannot prove that deliberation truly allows us multiple possibilities, as we cannot move backwards in time to test if a different outcome could have occurred if a different decision were made. On the other hand, if we consider the human experience of deliberation, we can be more sure that this exists. But that would also be present in the example with the scientist, where the outcome was predetermined. So deliberation in that sense, which is all we know we have, doesn’t disprove determinism.

Text B3 (Objection to A3)

The author understands deliberation as being either a subjective experience of weighing, or as a point in time where one of several possible outcomes is chosen. It’s best to understand deliberation as combining both of these. Then in the scientist case, although the person had the participant’s perspective of deliberating, it wouldn’t count as really deliberating since it wasn’t possible for them to choose from different outcomes. What about ordinary cases, though? Not being able to move backwards in time to test if other outcomes are possible doesn’t mean that other outcomes are always impossible. If I chose X rather than Y, as long as X is what I chose and wanted to do, and nothing prevented me from doing Y, we can say that I chose X freely. For example, I have two identical pairs of socks and have to decide which to wear. After briefly thinking it over, I choose the pair on the left. One would never wonder whether the other option — wearing the pair on the right — is a possible outcome. It’s obvious nothing prevented me from wearing the other pair of socks. Therefore I was choosing from two possible outcomes when I was deliberating.