Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Interesting Online Reading

* George Lakoff is evidently setting up a blog. Currently there's nothing much going on, but the blog is part of a larger website that includes links to articles, interviews, and the like. As you know, I strongly disagree with a number of Lakoff's views, to the point of thinking that progressives will ruin themselves if they follow them, but if he develops a significant blog presence, it will make for interesting reading, I'm sure.

* The excellent John DePoe of Fides Quarens Intellectum has a paper responding to Lynne Rudder Baker's recent article in Faith and Philosophy on why Christians should not be libertarians. It's a good paperIt also brings up a number of issues that will be raised here and there in my Free Will series. It touches on, in a more developed way, several issues that I thought when I first read Baker's article. That was before I was blogging, so here are my notes on it. Like all notes (and like many blog posts here at Siris) they're rough and first-impressiony (sorry about that neologism!), and need not necessarily be taken as developed or serious in all aspects. I've done some minor editing to clarify.

I've just recently come to think that the difficulty with this debate might be simply the difficulty of figuring out what any given person might mean by 'libertarian'. I use the term 'libertarian' just to indicate that I'm talking about a view of free choice that sees it as nondeterministic (i.e., not necessitated by its causes). Here, however, is the definition Baker gives in her article:

Quote: Let us say that an account of free will is libertarian if and only if it entails that a condition of a person S's having free will with respect to an action (or choice) A is that A is not ultimately caused by factors outside of S's control. Let us say that an account of free will is compatibilist if an only if it entails that a person S's having free will with respect to an action (or choice) A is compatible with the A's being caused ultimately by factors outside of S's control.

The problem I have with this, is that it seems to be bringing in a great many assumptions about what it is to cause something. Normally compatibilism is regarded as the position that it is somehow possible to have both determinism and free will in a way that counts (as far as the reasons for being determinist or an advocate of free will are concerned). But this can only fit with the above definitions if we assume that all causation is deterministic. A good case in point is Thomas Aquinas. Baker reads Aquinas, as her definitions would require her to do, as a compatibilist; but Aquinas can't be regarded as a determinist about free choice by any stretching of the texts. Since my own views of free choice are of the same general kind as Aquinas's, I would be considered a compatibilist by Baker; but I oppose determinism of every kind with regard to free choice, which by most accounts would make me a libertarian. Nor is this, I think, a simple confusion on Baker's part; for one thing, she's not generally liable to such confusions, and for another, it seems to be common. (Baker does note that the issue of causation is a tricky one, but she doesn't consider the above points.) There is confusion in the air as to what's really going on in the debate.

There are libertarians who arguably fit Baker's profile above. Robert Kane and Roderick Chisholm, for instance (neither of them write as Christian philosophers). But it's not a common position among those who oppose determinism, or, if it is, has only become so fairly recently.

And in another note:

We have to be very careful about carrying over anything Augustine says in his later anti-Pelagian works into the question of determinism vs. free will. This is precisely because Augustine is opposing the heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagianism, however, is a heresy of merit, not of free choice. Free choice does enter into the question obliquely, because the crude summary of Pelagianism would be that it's the position that divine mercy can be merited by our own free will. Pelagianism was condemned not because it talked about free will but because it talked about salvation as if it could be deserved, whereas the official position was that mercy, properly speaking, is not deserved; it is properly speaking a gift, not a reward. The fact that Pelagianism was about merit explains why so much of the discussion was about original sin: Pelagians had to deny that original sin had a significant effect on us, while Augustine argued that original sin damaged our nature--which made it impossible for free choice to do the sort of meriting the Pelagians demanded: we can't live the perfect lives Pelagianism would require, and so we actually need purely gratuitous help.

Given this, Baker is exactly right when she sums up the orthodox position by saying, "No finite will, on either a compatibilist or a libertarian conception, has a causal role in bringing about salvation" (p. 466). Where I disagree with her is when she goes on to say, "But the will cannot come to faith without God's causal action on it. Since God causes faith, the will involved in faith is only a compatibilist will. Therefore, on Augustine's mature view, free will as libertarians contstrue it is entirely irrelevant to salvation" (p. 466)

The trickier issue is whether this is really true about Augustine's mature view, when we factor in the points noted above. I'll have to leave this to those who are more closely acquainted with Augustine's views on this subject than I am. The easier point to make is that the argument given only goes through if we assume that God's causation is necessitating, i.e., only if it is deterministic, in this case. Seen in that light, it is clear the real issue is whether grace is irresistible: that is, the argument is not that Christians should be compatibilists, but that they should be Calvinists. (That this is really so is further suggested by various comments made by Baker throughout the article.) Given that, the article's point would have been better served by directly supporting and strengthening Calvinist arguments on the subject, such as those of Jonathan Edwards.

Baker several times recommends Derk Pereboom's Living Without Free Will, which she says ably makes the case against libertarian free will. Pereboom also argues against compatibilism, but she's unconvinced by those arguments and is preparing a paper to argue that case. I'll have to get around to reading it but I suspect I'll be as little impressed by its arguments against libertarian free will as Baker is by its arguments against compatibilism (especially if by 'libertarian' Pereboom means anything like what Baker means).

* Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, has been posting almost solid gold yesterday and today. I find the remarks on academic philosophy interesting, particularly this quotation which is sad but true:

Philosophy is a magnificent thing and my reason for living. Unfortunately, many if not most philosophy professors don’t see it that way: they are time-servers who went into the teaching business because of the long summers, a relaxed schedule, and the lack of heavy lifting. It’s a job to them, and as one erstwhile colleague remarked, "It beats working for a living." Some of them play the game quite well; the bottom line, however, is that they live from philosophy, not for it, and if they became unable to live from it they would drop it like a hot potato and go into real estate or something.

There seem to be a lot of sophists in academic philosophy, in something like the old sense of the term. Sophists can produce good, stimulating work, but they are doing precisely what Vallicella notes here: they live from philosophy, not for it. I also found the comments in a later post on teaching to be interesting; from my perspective, teaching is the greatest attraction of academic life. I loved even the survey course I co-taught this summer, which was the hardest of the three courses I've taught (condensed summer courses, with 3-hour lectures, split down the middle with one instructor teaching the first term and another teaching the second term, each naturally bringing different teaching styles and interests despite attempts to give some unity to the course, will inevitably make students cranky), despite the fact that I would avoid teaching another course with similar constraints at almost any cost. I hope to settle in at a smaller teaching-oriented institution, probably religious, like the one in which I did my undergraduate work. Then again, we'll see if I find it so interesting after several years of a heavier teaching load.

Besides the posts on academia and independent scholarship, there are several posts worth reading - Reppert's response to Carrier, the review of Vallicella's book on existence (which I keep trying to get my hands on, but which is checked out at the libraries that have it here in Toronto), and especially the post on the image of God.

* (UPDATE added later) I forgot that I also intended to link to this essay at Another Think:

All creatures great and small...

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