Influenced by the discoveries of cognitive science, many of us will now accept that much of our mental life is unconscious. There are subliminal perceptions, implicit attitudes and beliefs, inferences that take place tacitly outside of our awareness, and much more.
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From left to right: Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’m doing something totally different today. This afternoon I had a conversation with a fellow writer and poet. We often have philosophical discussions, and this was no exception. I’d like to recreate a small portion of our talk.
Friend: In my little “boxed” way of thinking:
1. Photographers are seekers, first and foremost
2. Graphic artists are messengers
3. Composers are messengers
4. Singers are channels
5. Actors are mirrors
Me: Yep, I agree about actors. Are writers the interpreters?
Friend: 6. Writers, in my mind, are all of the above
7. Philosophers are interpreters
Me: Ah, okay, I can go along with philosophers. So, let me spell this out differently–
Writers are the philosophers who seek, through pictures, to channel messages and hold up mirrors to their readers, so that interpretations of reality can be seen and appreciated, and a future can be built upon that foundation.
Poetry is the perfect medium in its own way. It’s short, lyrical in form and presents a message, philosophical in method and presentation, and gives the reader an entire picture, however short. And there is music in the cadence and rhythm of the lines that bring home the message.
Friend: I like it. That should be your blog post. I think of ghost writers, for example…
Me: I think on some level it is true. Even the most out-there writers, like early King or Koontz, write about people’s fears and what they’re based on. They give an opportunity to imagine the lengths to which those fears can go. I think ghost writers are even truer for the example. They channel so much of their client, the messages they gained while working with that individual, and so on. They may be only reflecting the philosophy of the client, but the wording, phraseology is their own, which makes or breaks the philosophy.
Friend: I suppose as writers we go “I have something to say”… that something is definitely inspired somehow. Poetry is the most compact package as far as writing goes. It also asks a lot of the readers.
Me: Which is what all messages do.
Friend: I mean… it is a push off a cliff compared to the steady rise of a roller coaster before it crashes down. Longer writing is more like the amusemen
By Joshua Knobe
Imagine that tomorrow’s newspaper comes with a surprising headline: ‘Scientists Discover that Human Behavior is Entirely Determined.’ Reading through the article, you learn more about precisely what this determinism entails. It turns out that everything you do – every behavior, thought and decision – is completely caused by prior events, which are in turn caused by earlier events… and so forth, stretching back in a long chain all the way to the beginning of the universe.
A discovery like this one would naturally bring up a difficult philosophical question. If your actions are completely determined, can you ever be morally responsible for anything you do? This question has been a perennial source of debate in philosophy, with some philosophers saying yes, others saying no, and millennia of discussion that leave us no closer to a resolution.
As a recent New York Times article explains, experimental philosophers have been seeking to locate the source of this conundrum in the nature of the human mind. The key suggestion is that the sense of puzzlement we feel in response to this issue arises from a conflict between two different psychological processes. Our capacity for abstract, theoretical reasoning tells us: ‘Well, if you think about it rationally, no one can be responsible for an act that is completely determined.’ But our capacity for immediate emotional responses gives us just the opposite answer: ‘Wait! No matter how determined people might be, they just have to be responsible for the terrible things they do…’
To put this hypothesis to the test, the philosopher Shaun Nichols and I conducted a simple experiment. All participants were asked to imagine a completely deterministic universe (‘Universe A’). Then different participants were given different questions that encouraged different modes of thought. Some were given a question that encouraged more abstract theoretical reasoning:
In Universe A, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions?
Meanwhile, other participants were given a question that encouraged a more emotional response:
In Universe A, a man named Bill has become attracted to his secretary, and he decides that the only way to be with her is to kill his wife and three children. He knows that it is impossible to escape from his house in the event of a fire. Before he leaves on a business trip, he sets up a device in his basement that burns down the house and kills his family.
Is Bill fully morally responsible for killing his wife and children?
The results showed a striking difference between the two conditions. Participants in the abstract reasoning condition overwhelmingly answered that no one could ever be morally responsible for anything in Universe A. But participants in the more emotional condition had a very different reaction. Even though Bill was described as living in Universe A, they said that he was fully morally responsible for what he had done. (Clearly, this involves a kind of contradiction: it can’t be that no one in Universe A is morally responsible for anything but, at the same time, this one man in Universe A actually is morally responsible for killing his family.)
Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that experiments like this one can somehow solve the problem of free will all by themselves. Still, it does appear that a close look at the empirical data can afford us a certain kind of insight. The results help us to get at the roots of our sense that there is a puzzle here and, thereby, to open up new avenues of inquiry that might not otherwise have been possible.
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