Thursday, September 13, 2012

The top of the hill

The highest point of the Netherlands

There is a saying that runs “When you are on the top of the hill, you can only go down.” It sounds quite obvious. It’s true, you can go to live on the top and then the reverse seems to apply better to you: “When you are in the valley, you can only go up.” But for most people, the saying is plausible. Nevertheless I had my doubts, so I wanted to investigate the truth of it. As my dear readers will know, for me riding on my race bike and philosophizing often go together and sometimes they are two sides of the same coin. So in order to find out how much worth there is in this saying, I took my car, threw my race bike in it, put my wife on the seat next to me in order to have some pleasant company during the trip, and there I went to the southeast of the Netherlands where you find the highest hills of this country. With some effort (for it appeared to be one of the best weekends of this summer), I found a hotel and after some rest and some eating, I got on my bike.
The highest point of the Netherlands was only ten kilometres from my hotel, but I thought that it was better not to take the quickest road to the top. Since most things in life go better after some preparation, I decided to take a roundabout route. It would give me a thorough warming-up and so I could get a bit accustomed to cycling on the hills, for the molehills near my town are hardly worth the name of hill, not to speak of “mountain” as we call them there. However, I had profited by riding on these molehills and actually, and I went up and down without excessive effort. It showed that I was in good shape, for also for pro cyclist the region has some fame; not because the hills are so high, but because you find there hardly one flat centimetre, which makes cycling there very strenuous in the end.
So when I reached the climb I had came for, I had got already some feeling for the right gears and the right tempo, albeit that I was still a beginner. Nevertheless I was quite nervous. But it was without reason for the road to the top of the Netherlands appeared to take me somewhat less effort than the last long and sometimes steep slope I had past, so when I was there I was very self-satisfied. However, I was not the only philosopher on the top. Anyway, there were lots of other cyclists and it seemed that an organised bike tour was going on with this hill as its summit. There were many old cyclists, too, but when you looked well, you could see that most had bikes with electric drive, so in my view they were not of the right philosophical type. Moreover, there were several cafes, a watchtower and a maze. It was almost as an amusement park. But I didn´t was there for amusing myself. So I rode around the monument indicating the top of the Netherlands and also around the flags that indicated the place where this country, Belgium and Germany meet, which was some 50 metres from there, so that I had been in three countries. Next I went downhill and back to my hotel.
Until now I hadn’t got any philosophical feeling, and I was a bit disappointed. Most what looked like it was that I had thought of Petrarch climbing the Mont Ventoux. But there had already been many Petrarchs before me on this hill. Then, I got the idea that I had to do it again, like Sisyphus, although the main difference between Sisyphus and me was that he would never reach the top, and I could go there as often as I liked. Happily my wife and I had booked the hotel for two nights, and since the next day I was not too tired from the effort the day before I got on my race bike again, and since I needed again a warming-up and some more experience, I did the same route as the day before. It was a good idea, for although I didn’t ride really better, I was more relaxed, better changed gears and felt more at ease. And I knew the route already a little bit. So after an hour I was again at the top of the Netherlands, and now I smiled, for now, a brain wave told me: not yesterday’s ride but today’s ride taught me a lot of philosophy. It is true, when you are on the top of a hill, you can only go down. But here the story doesn’t end, for after you have gone down, you can go up again. And again. And again. And each time you’ll be better and enjoy it more and you’ll learn from it. “When you’re on the top of the hill, you can only go down” is not true. Even more, when you are on the top of the hill, you must go down, and up and down, and up and down… And so you become prepared for higher hills and for real mountains. And now I am prepared for it, too.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Free will and responsibility

Actually the Frankfurt cases are already rather old. Not as old as Plato’s philosophy, of course, but Harry Frankfurt presented them in 1969. It was his contribution to the discussion on determinism and moral responsibility. So the debate lasts already more than 40 years. What’s new now is that the discussion on determinism has changed because of recent developments in brain research. If our hormones make do what we do, as some brain researchers say, or if our behaviour and actions are nothing but programmed reactions of our neural networks to the inputs from the world around us (what we see, what we hear and so on), what does remain then from the idea of free will and, in line with it, the idea that we are morally responsible for what we do? In view of this, the Frankfurt cases illustrate, under a certain interpretation, that determinism and freedom can go together. Right now, I don’t have the idea that I can give a substantial contribution to the debate, but nevertheless let me brainstorm a bit about it.
Basically it is so – and I think that nobody will deny it – that a person is morally responsible for what she does by her own free will. But say that I am riding uphill with a friend in the case in my last blog. First we decided to go straight on, but then I changed my mind, as I explained, and I decided to go to the left where the road splits, so that I am sure that I’ll be home before dark. My friend doesn’t care, for he has light on his bike, which I haven’t. So he says: “I’ll go straight on and tell you later how the road is like.” But because the road straight on was blocked, my friend had to turn to the left, too. What’s the difference between my turning to the left and my friend’s turning to the left? Can it happen that in a non-trivial case I will be held responsible for my action (and with right) and my friend will not, even though we did the same action at the same place under the same circumstances, but only for the reason that we had different intentions for our actions at the moment we couldn’t yet foresee the consequences of the alternative decisions?
Secondly, does our moral responsibility for an action depend on the moment we have taken the decision to act in a certain way? Or are there, for instance, levels of responsibility depending on the moment the decision has been taken? In the trivial case of me riding uphill and downhill: Is my responsibility for turning left before I could see that the road straight on had been blocked different from my responsibility for turning left at the moment I could see the blockade, although I had the intention to turn left anyway?
To end this quite abstract blog (which is a bit unusually for me, I think, but the readers may protest) I give an example, adapted from the philosophical literature. There are better cases, but presently I cannot find them: A locomotive is running downhill. I don’t know what went wrong but what I do know is that there is no engine driver in it. There is a man on the track who doesn’t see the loco coming. I cannot stop it but I can shift a switch and lead the loco to another track and the man will be saved. As for the responsibility question it’s a simple case, you’ll think. But there are many variations possible. For instance, there is a man on the other track, but you cannot see him from your point of view. Or you can see him, but one of the persons is your son. Or you see the second man at the last moment. Or your daughter is on one track, and on the other track there are 2, 3, 4 … persons. With some creativity you’ll be able to think up a lot of cases, but are you able to solve the responsibility problem? I wonder who can.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Commonsense and the concept of philosophy

When Giere asserted that human science should not stray too far from ordinary ways of speaking he was referring to the difference between the idea of memory in the debate on extended cognition and the commonsense idea. But how about free will, a concept that has been discussed regularly in these blogs?
When we would ask an average person to circumscribe “free will”, I think s/he would give a simple version of Dick Swaab’s definition in his Wij zijn ons brein (We are our brain), which he borrowed from the American researcher Joseph Price: “Free will [is] … the possibility to decide to do or not to do something without internal or external limits that determine this choice” (p. 379). I think that hardly any philosopher will endorse it, for how naïve it is. Why? The fox got the cheese from the raven by a trick. Although the fox is smarter than the raven, he isn’t free, for he cannot fly and take the cheese by force. Who would accept this reasoning? Freedom is only possible within limits that determine the choice. I wonder whether my average person realizes it. And if s/he would realize it, what would s/he think then of this:
One of my favourite routes when making a bike ride goes somewhere uphill and then halfway downhill I take the asphalt bike path to the left, for according to my map the road straight on changes into a sandy path after a kilometre or so. But does it really do? I never checked it, although I have planned to do it sooner or later. So once riding uphill, I thought “Let me check it now”, but then a few minutes later: “Let me do it another time, for if the road is really sandy after a kilometre, I have to go back and it is already nearly dark”. However, at the point where I had to turn into the bike path, I saw that the road straight on had been blocked for a reason I didn’t know. So I had to turn into the bike path anyway. But no problem, I had already decided to do that.
Cases of this type have been discussed first by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Therefore they are often called “Frankfurt cases”. In the instance just described I hadn’t the feeling that my options were limited, since I had skipped the plan to go straight on. Does it mean that my choice to turn left into the bike path was my free will? For before I knew that the road straight on had been blocked, I had taken already the decision to choose for the alternative: to take the bike path to the left. I guess that my average person would judge that I wasn’t free, for in the end I had no choice. However, most philosophers think otherwise: Before I had reached the top of the hill I had two possibilities to choose from, and before I could know that one wasn’t real, I had already chosen the road that hadn’t been blocked. In philosophical terms: I could choose from alternatives and I had control of my decision (at the moment of my decision), and it was this that made that I was free to choose. But in my instance, the idea that I was free is quite counterintuitive, and I doubt whether it is in keeping with commonsense. But if it isn’t, does it mean that we have to dispense with this philosophical idea of free will? Maybe in this case, but if it would imply that we have to drop philosophical ideas in general, in case they don’t agree with commonsense, the concept of philosophy as such would be at stake.