Sunday, October 26, 2014

“All things have their season” (2)

Once I decided to grow apples. So I read about how to cultivate them, about what is important when choosing apple varieties and a few things more. When I knew everything about growing apples and had chosen the varieties I wanted to have, I went to a fruit tree nursery and bought three young trees and planted them in my garden. It was a feast for the eye to see them growing and I liked it very much to look after them and to prune them. Since my garden is small, I trained the trees as espaliers. So I was very happy that after a few years I could eat fruit from my own garden. I had chosen the varieties with care so I didn’t get all apples at the same time in autumn, but I could harvest one variety after another. Some had to be eaten within a few weeks, others could be kept for months. However, since my trees were little, I got not enough apples for the whole year round, even though for such little trees the harvest was very good. For sharing my pleasure of apple growing with others, I gave also many apples away. Therefore, despite growing my own, I still had to buy apples during a large part of the year. Nevertheless, it was very nice that during some months I could now eat my own fruit. Moreover, I had learned a lot about apple growing, which I find very interesting. I had learned also something else. Although actually I knew it already but I had forgotten it.

Already as a child I loved to eat apples every day, the whole year round. My mother bought them in a supermarket or in a greengrocer’s shop and often she brought different varieties at home. This happened especially in autumn when one variety after another was sold in the shops although each during only several weeks. Fresh apples right from the tree. However, in winter the choice was limited and then I had to ate the same variety for several months. No problem, for also these apples were tasty but at the end of the summer I begun looking forward to autumn with its succession of apple varieties. For I, this little boy of ten years old, had discovered something very intriguing: There is a rhythm in apple varieties that follows the seasons. Discovery, Alkmene, Benoni and so on, one after another, till the long season of Elstar apples begun. One year later the cycle started anew. So I discovered as a young starting philosopher what the Montaigne had written already many centuries ago: All things have their seasons.

After a few years I learned also a second lesson: Times change. For it happened that the apple producing industry discovered that this rhythm of the seasons was not good for us, the buyers of apples. Or rather maybe it was good for us but not for them from a commercial point of view. So gradually apples that were not good enough – or so they thought – disappeared from the shops and were replaced by modern varieties, often imported from countries far away like New Zealand or Argentina and not from Europe and not from my own Netherlands. Only here and there some old varieties were still for sale in the right season in specialized shops although not in the supermarkets. Of course, there was an advantage for the apple consumers as well: They could always buy their preferred taste the whole year round. But the seasonal rhythm had gone and I forgot my first lesson, namely that all things have their seasons, for there were no seasons any longer, at least not for apples.

However, times changed again and so it happened that I started to grow my own apple trees and soon I remembered the old lesson again that time has a rhythm or rather that there are seasons for everything. And I am glad to know it again.
Is it important? Well, some will say “no”, others will say “yes”. Anyway, I think that this apple story is symptomatic for much of what is happening around us in the world. In the modern world man becomes less and less dependent on the whims of nature and life. Things can be better foreseen and planned. It makes life for us safer and less risky and much misery of the past has disappeared. This is done by equalizing the ups and downs that made life and all what belongs to it often unreliable in the past. It is good in many ways and I think that this equalizing has made life often more pleasant, but like many positive changes it has its price, too. When you now ask children, and many adults as well, “Where do apples come from?”, probably they’ll say: “From the supermarket” and not “From the tree”, let alone that they know that apples have their seasons. What becomes lost by this modernization is the idea that there is a cyclical rhythm of time, anyway for apples, but also in general: That things come and go, and maybe come again and go again, and so on. For despite all new developments, life is still not completely leveled. There are still ups and downs, there are still seasons (youth, adulthood, old age; the periods of education, work and retirement, to mention a few) and life still has a beginning and an end. But people tend to forget it because everything goes often so smooth and if something unpleasant happens there is always a solution. Or so it seems. For when real calamities occur, do we know then what to do? Of course, there are many people and regulations that help you to cope with the physical damage but mentally? Less and less we lack the preparation for that. And with the disappearance of the seasonal succession of apple varieties in the shops a little mental preparation for this, integrated in the practice of daily life, has gone. Because despite all change it’s still a truth: Transience in life still exists, so all things have their seasons.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Joint commitment

A central concept in the philosophy of Margaret Gilbert is “joint commitment”. It refers to the obligations people have towards others when they agree to do something together. Then each is bound to do what s/he said to do, unless the other or others relieve this person of the obligations agreed on. Gilbert uses the concept of joint commitment for understanding group action. Studying group action is about what small groups do and about what the individual members of small groups do as group members. Group action has to be distinguished from the behaviour (or actions, if you like) of organisations and within organisations and from individual action as such. It presupposes that such a thing as acting in the capacity of group member exists and that groups act because the members of a group have obliged themselves to do certain things together. An example often used by Gilbert is an agreement made by two persons to go for a walk together, for instance to a nearby park. Much can be said about the usefulness of the idea of joint commitment as a central concept for the analysis of groups, but that it helps us explaining significant aspects of what we do in groups is clear, as this quote from Gilberts book Living Together illustrates:
“Insofar as a personal decision locks you into a course of action, you yourself have the sole key needed to turn the lock. In order to unlock yourself all you need to do is to change your mind: to rescind your decision. In contrast, insofar as a joint commitment locks you into a course of action, at least two keys are required to turn the lock. You have only one of these keys. Each of the other parties has another. Changing your own mind is not enough; all must concur.” (p.295).
Man is a social being. Man cannot live on her or his own but needs other persons in order to survive or simply to do things; things that need to be done or things that are a pleasure to be done. Therefore man has to enter into agreements with others, which creates obligations. Since this is the same for all other persons, everybody is tied to others by joint commitments. Just these joint commitments and the necessity to make and to meet them makes life often so complicated, but it makes it also interesting.
Source, Margaret Gilbert, “Agreements, Coercion and Obligation”, in: Living Together. Lanham, etc.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996; pp. 281-311.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Free will and the two levels of reality

In my last blog I showed that Prinz distinguishes two levels of representing reality. The direct representation of the world is done on a non-conscious level and the indirect representation or the perceiving of the direct representation is done on a conscious level. Prinz uses this “dual representation model” for explaining what free will is. However, for making this clear, I prefer not to follow Prinz, but to turn to the view of Shaun Gallagher. Both views are basically the same, albeit not in detail.
Gallagher distinguishes also two levels, but he doesn’t talk of levels of representation but of subpersonal motor processes on the one hand and intentional action on the other. Now it is so that in the present discussion on free will an argument against its existence is that our bodily processes go as they go. The whole chain of our movements develops automatically and if there is something that can be seen as an expression of a free will or decision taking, it appears only after the chain has started and it can be seen only as an epiphenomenon that gives us the feeling that we act freely without this being actually the case. Gallagher doesn’t want to deny that such a mechanic process really takes place and that it happens and maybe often happens that we just do something and that our thinking about what we did comes later, but, so Gallagher, that’s not what free will is about. Free will is not about what we do here and now, but it is a longer-term phenomenon. So if I see a snake and jump away, it looks as if this jumping away is simply a mechanical reaction. But then we forget that it is not only a consequence of me now seeing a snake but also of my past experiences with snakes and of what I heard about them and that it is this that made me decide to flee rather than to catch the animal for my terrarium.
So, free will is not about bodily movements but about intentional action. Hadn’t I jumped away but caught the snake with my hand, I shouldn’t have thought about how to move my muscles and fire my neurons in order to get the animal and to avoid that it would bite me. No, I should have thought how well it would fit in my collection and this catching would have been nothing else but an adding to it done by me. In other words, the choice to catch the snake is embedded or situated in a particular context, which is in this case that I am a reptile collector. Only in this context we say that I am free to choose what to do, namely to jump away because I had already a snake like this one in my terrarium or to grasp it. But even when I grasp it consciously the mechanical process in my body does take place and my neurons do fire and I cannot influence how they fire (and without a doubt – for those who know the details of Libet’s research on taking decisions – I’ll develop a wanting only after the beginning of a readiness potential). Nevertheless, my grasping will be incomprehensible without the contextual embedding and the choices I have (and I am still free not to catch the snake, even in case it is not yet in my collection).
All this does not make that the free will is disembodied in a Cartesian sense. What our automatic bodily movements are is often determined by our free will (maybe already long ago), and that’s for instance the essence of what sportsmen do when they train (especially in sports that require many technical skills): consciously producing future automatic reactions. In this way, the embodied mechanisms are expressions of the free will. Moreover we are only free to do what is possible within the limitations of the body and what the body enables us to do.
I sit in a train and I cannot change its direction. The train determines where I ago and how long it lasts when I am there. But it was up to me to get in it or not and I can leave the train at every station where it stops. And that’s what free will is about.
Source: Shaun Gallagher, “Where’s the action? Epiphenomalism and the problem of the free will”, in Susan Pockett et al. Does consciousness cause behavior?, MIT Press, 2006; pp. 109-124 (esp. pp. 117-121).