Monday, October 26, 2015

Philosophical puzzles


Philosophical puzzles, like the “Ship of Theseus” (see last blog), are much used in analytical philosophy and especially in the philosophy of action. Then I don’t mean logical puzzles or puzzles merely done for fun or for training your brain and, but puzzles with an ethical or practical aspect, so like Theseus’ Ship, which plays an important part in discussions on identity, or the trolley problem, which I used in my blog dated Feb. 18, 2013. They are good instruments for thinking through complicated issues. However, the reasonings involved rely on philosophical intuitions, and is it really true that such intuitions are the same for everybody, even if philosophically schooled? It’s doubtful. Therefore a new branch of philosophy has come into being, experimental philosophy, which investigates philosophical problems by presenting them to different groups of laymen, while using an experimental format (for instance using test groups with different cultural backgrounds).
Since my specialty is the philosophy of action, I am especially interested in puzzle cases in that field. Some are about what an action is, what intentionality is, and the like. Other ones try to distinguish actions “as such” and its side effects. Again other puzzle cases focus on the relation between action and causality. And maybe there are other categories as well. Donald Davidson, who left his mark on the development of modern action theory, uses several puzzle cases for examining the question if and under which conditions there is a causal relation between an agent’s beliefs and the result of an action by him or her. Such cases are of the type that someone wants to perform an action with an important consequence and the idea of doing so makes the agent so nervous that he loses the control of his body and just this makes that he does what he intended to do but not in the way or at the moment he wanted to do it. Here is an example by Davidson: “A climber might want to rid himself of the weight and danger of holding another man on a rope, and he might know that by loosening his hold on the rope he could rid himself of the weight and danger. This belief and want might so unnerve him as to cause him to loosen his hold, and yet it might be the case that he never chose to loosen his hold, nor did he do it intentionally.” (Davidson, 1980: 79). According to Davidson we can say only that the climber caused the fall of the co-climber if what the climber believed and wanted to do on the one hand and the fall of the co-climber on the other hand were causally related “in the right way”, and that is apparently not the case in this instance. Is he right? For one can also say that one needs to keep his nerves under control in such a situation, anyhow, since being unnerved can make that a climber loses control of what he does and he has to know that, and wrong beliefs can make a climber nervous. Maybe one must say that just because the climber’s belief and want were related in the wrong way to the fall of the co-climber they caused it. Isn’t it so that we are often held responsible for what we do, not as side effects but just as the thing we do, because what we intended to do is related in the wrong way to the consequences? Just this “being related in the wrong way” makes that we are often held responsible for what we didn’t believe and wanted to do and nevertheless actually did (in causing a traffic accident, for example).
These are only a few initial remarks about Davidson’s puzzle case. Much more space is necessary to flesh it out, and maybe finally I would draw another conclusion, if I did. But what all this shows is that a good puzzle case doesn’t only make you think (using your brain) but also gives you a lot to think about.

Reference: Donald Davidson¸ Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

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