Been There/ Done That

Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Metaphysics, Free Will and Folk Concepts

Thinking about philosophy is the new hobby for philosophers: what is philosophy about; how should it be done; is there a fact of the matter; can any progress be made; has any progress ever been made; etc?

Chalmers himself has an interesting view on some of these questions. He gave a talk at the Milan conference I attended recently, about what is a terminological dispute and how can we know whether a given philosophical dispute is terminological or not, and why it matters. It was fascinating!

I was thinking a bit about this yesterday at the Graduate Seminar. Jules gave a very interesting talk about Feminist Perspectives on Free Will. Her main aim was to suggest that feminist concerns intersect with the discussion on the metaphysics on free will. She was arguing (if I remember correctly) that some feminists put forward accounts of free agency that are incompatible with the libertarian notion of free will. Jules suggested then that this might motivate an argument against libertarianism.

There was some discussion about whether there were different notions of free agency involved in that argument or not, and about the connection between the "folk" notion of free will and the "metaphysical" notion of free will. I was thinking that if we accept a view of metaphysics such as the one advocated by Frank Jackson in 'From Metaphysics to Ethics' (and elsewhere), then we can maybe answer some of those questions.
Let me explain this a little bit. According to Jackson (and many more, I believe), conceptual analysis is very relevant for metaphysics. In particular, if you want to investigate the metaphysics of X, you have to do two things: (i) you have to offer a conceptual analysis of the concept of X, in terms of, say, the role that X plays (R). Then, you have to (ii) find out what facts about the world, if any, satisfy description R. Then, we can answer questions such as 'are there any Xs in the world?' or 'is entity Y a case of X?'. For instance, if you are a physicalist, and you want to find out whether there is free will, then you have to offer an analysis of 'free will' in terms of D, and find out whether D is satisfied by any physical facts. If you want to find out whether a particular action is free or not, you have to find out whether it satisfies D or not.

Simple enough. So, what is the bearing of this on yesterday's discussion? Well, I think that we can see the metaphysical problem of free will in that way. There are two central questions, then: (I) what is the correct analysis of FREE WILL, and (II), for a given analysis, is it realized in the physical, deterministic world? (if we endorse physicalism and determinism, as we should!) ;-)

So I think it is clear that, if we understand the issue in this guise, Jules was right in that feminists concerns are relevant here. If they are offering a new analysis of the notion of free will, then they are participating in the debate about (I). For instance, Jules said that it follows from some feminist analyses that free agency is not an all or nothing matter, but it comes in degrees. If this is true, then the libertarian analysis of free agency (according to which a free agent is an uncaused cause) has to be wrong, because if it was true, free agency would not come in degrees.

One possibility, though, is that there is nothing such as THE concept of free will. Maybe the term is just used in different, incompatible ways by different users or in different situations. But in any case, it seems that the methodology suggested in (I) and (II) is still going to be very useful here, for each of those different notions.

This is where I thought of Chalmers' proposal. He said that when we do not know whether a dispute about X is terminological or not, maybe we should forget about X for a while, and discuss instead about the other concepts on the vicinity (applying (i) and (ii) to them). If everyone agrees on these other questions, then the former dispute was terminological indeed. However, I think that it is unlikely that such an agreement is forthcoming is this area! Which is good, after all. So, good news for feminists: they have lots of things to say about free will!!


Blogger Dan López de Sa said...

I think I fully agree with your general point: "if you want to investigate the metaphysics of X, you have to do two things: (i) you have to offer a conceptual analysis of the concept of X, in terms of, say, the role that X plays (R). Then, you have to (ii) find out what facts about the world, if any, satisfy description R." For instance, in order to investigate the metaphysics of consciousness, you should offer a conceptual analysis of being in a conscious state and then find what if anything in the physical world satisfies the defining condition. (You’ll find something if, but only if, physicalism is true.) Why would consciousness be exceptional? Maybe CCC will tell... ;-).

As to the more particular point, one might perhaps wonder what it would be like for something to be a feminist analysis of something—say, of free will. I have my own, sort of deflationary, approach to this: analysis which, as a matter of fact, are offered by feminist people. (As to what would the latter be, how about anti-sexist people—people against sex-based discrimination?)

(Of course, this is deflationary only assuming that there would be no essential connection between the normative claims one holds and which turns out to be the appropriate conceptual analysis of a given pre-existing concept. Would Jules or you dispute this?)

The upshot would then be, to put it provocatively, that the good news are more universal: not only feminists but also women, children, and blond people are free to keep discussing about free will ;-)!

6:31 PM  
Blogger jules said...

I'm really interested in the comments about Jackson on conceptual analysis here. One might worry about the possibility of achieving i), though - some have questioned whether we have questioned whether we in fact have coherent intuitions about free will. If our concept is incoherent, where does that leave this methodology?

With regards the point about a *feminist* analysis: I was quite clear in the talk that I did not intend to be picking out any narrow set of contributions, or require that the theorist hold certain theses.
I characterised feminist contributions in terms of those that are motivated by the aim of achieving gender equality; or that draw on women's experiences for insights; or that specifically aim to address gender bias in prior theorising, for example...
So yes, as long as women, children, blonde people, whoever, care about gender equality, they can happily make feminist contributions to the free will debate.
I'm not sure why the term 'anti-sexist' is preferable though. What's wrong with 'feminist'?

10:05 AM  
Blogger Dan López de Sa said...


I wasn’t in your paper, sorry. Looks to have been interesting!

I meant my point to be general, though. Nothing wrong with ‘feminist’ as opposed to ‘anti-sexist’—if by the former one intends the latter ;-). But I understood that it is not always clear what people mean by ‘feminist’—or indeed that different people might mean different things in different occasions. I might be easily wrong here, of course: not an expert on the issue at all!

As to the main issue, I was taking for granted (knowing that it is controversial), that there won’t be essential connections between the normative claims one holds and which turns out to be the appropriate conceptual analysis of a given pre-existing concept: hence the parody with “blond” analyses of something. I don’t know whether your point about contributions motivated by the aim of achieving gender equality might indeed contradict my assumption. It will depend, I guess, on whether ‘motivation’ is read here as a psychological/sociological relation, or rather something more “constitutive” is in place. What do you think?

3:37 PM  
Blogger Esa said...

Dan, Jules, thanks a lot for your comments. I'm glad to see some discussion going on here.
Dan, I'd like to say something about your claim that "there won’t be essential connections between the normative claims one holds and which turns out to be the appropriate conceptual analysis of a given pre-existing concept". I understand why you are sceptic of such essential connections: it seems that conceptual analysis seeks to discover certain descriptive facts about our linguistic practices, and it's not clear that normative claims against sex discrimination have anything to do with this.
Still, if it was the case that conceptual analysts were subject to sexist bias, it could be the feminist's job to discover such a bias and to correct it. We could call this 'feminist analysis'. I think this is an example where normative claims affect descriptive analyses.
Another, more controversial example has to do whith Jules' point about our intuitions providing incoherent analyses of a concept. As jackson himself recognises, in this case pragmatic reasons could tell us what to do. If so, I don't see why normative reasons could not be relevant too.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Dan López de Sa said...

Thanks for responding! Well, it was not that much a claim of mine but rather an assumption, which I anticipated to be probably controversial, to say the least ;-).

I am not sure about getting you straight, though. As to the first point, I take you to signal that some candidate analyses might turn out not to be the appropriate analyses of a give concept due to bias (sexist, or otherwise). In effect. But I think that in such cases discovering and correcting this is as much an obligation for feminists as for blond people interested in the subject. To dramatize: even a serious sexist would have interest in providing appropriate, unbiased analyses, no? Otherwise you would expect feminists not to care about possible anti-sexist bias! So I fail to see how this would illustrate an alleged essential connection between a normative claim one holds and which turn out to be the appropriate analysis of something.

As to the second point, I am afraid that was too concise for me to follow, sorry! Could you please elaborate on it?

12:59 PM  

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