Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens me with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty of Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa. Continue reading

Performing Mathematical Operations on Nonsense

Let us define the number i as equal to the square root of -1.  So i cannot be positive or negative, but all real numbers are positive or negative—so i is imaginary.  I am pretty much the farthest thing from a mathematician, but i strikes me as being something that we think we have some understanding of, but we really don’t, similar to saying “There is either a red square-circle or there is not a red square-circle.”

But the funny thing is, we can perform operations with i:

(2i)(4i) = (2 · 4)(ii), which equals (8)( i2), which equals (8)(-1), which equals -8.

So from something that doesn’t really make sense, namely “i = the square root of -1,” we get something that makes perfect sense.  How much of philosophy is like this?

Possibility and Nonsense

Before talking about the nature of arguments in my Intro to Logic class, I start off talking about inferential relationships between statements more generally.  So I ask them to consider what else must be true , e.g., if “Todd is dead” is true and if “Bob loves Jill” is true.

Two of the claims that people said followed from “Todd is dead” were:

1) There is at least one dead person.

2) There is a reason for Todd’s death.

I used this opportunity to talk about the difference between logical and causal possibility.  I take it that 1) is logically necessary in relation to “Todd is dead” and that 2) is causally necessary.  We can imagine a world in which people die for no reason, or something like that.

This led to the students’ asking about whether claims following from “Bob loves Jill” were causally or logically implied.  Someone asked whether it could be possible for someone not  to be able to love someone else and if so whether it would be causal or logical.  I said we could imagine a person having some kind of chemical imbalance or the like such that it would be causally impossible for him to love anyone.  But this led me to ask the class whether my water bottle’s not being able to love anyone is a causal or logical impossibility.  It is not so clear, is it?

This reminds me of an interesting but difficult passage in “Part II” of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, where he writes:

“A new-born child has no teeth.”—”A goose has no teeth.”—”A rose has no teeth.”—This last at any rate—one would like to say—is obviously true!  It is even surer than that a goose has none.—And yet it is none so clear. For where should a rose’s teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth.—Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose. ((Connexion with ‘pain in someone else’s body’.))

So, we might say that it is obviously true that my water bottle cannot love anyone, but is that not more than just odd sounding?  Is it a causal impossibility that makes us say this?  We might imagine the water bottle imbued with a spirit by a magician or god mightn’t we?

What about these three statements:

A) Either it is raining or it is not raining.
B) Either there is a black unicorn or there is not a black unicorn.
C) Either there is a red square-circle or there is not a red square-circle.

In the context of asking about immediate inferences, we might say that you can’t infer anything about the world, so to speak, by the truth of A) and B).  But should we say the same about C)?  If the idea of a square-circle is incoherent, then what could C) possibly mean?  Is C) true?  If it is false, is it necessarily false?  Is it nonsense?

A Problem for Libertarian Free Will

In this post I will argue that libertarianism cannot actually explain or make rational why an agent chooses one course of action over another.  I will do this by arguing that though libertarianism seems to be able to explain why an agent acts the way she does at some given moment in time, even though the action is not causally determined, libertarianism cannot explain why the agent does that action instead of some other action.  I find this troubling, since I believe humans have free will and I believe that compatibilism is not a tenable position on free will because it collapses into hard determinism.

The main issue in the free will debate is whether or not and in what sense humans have free will.  That is, are human choices or actions free, and if so, in what sense are they free?  Both the hard and soft determinists endorse determinism, which is the view that all events (including human choices) are causally determined (necessitated) by antecedent conditions.  Humans do what they do, make the choices they do, according to both these views because of factors outside of the agent’s control, e.g., upbringing, physiology, and interactions with others.  On both views, if time were rolled back any amount and allowed to play forward again, the exact same events would occur.  The hard determinist takes this to imply that there is no free no; the soft determinist says that free will is compatible with determinism.  The libertarian position, on the other hand, denies that determinism applies to the realm of human agency.  A person’s will is causally undetermined.  According to libertarianism, if the clock were rolled back, then radically different things could happen than what happened the first time.  This is because humans could choose differently the next time around even though all antecedent conditions including beliefs and desires remained the same.

One objection that libertarianism faces is that if our wills are causally undetermined, then how can we make sense of the choices that a person makes?  The hard and soft determinists both make sense of human choice in relation to the desires and beliefs of an agent.  Bob desires to read a book and he believes there are books on the bookshelf; so he goes over to the bookshelf.  On both determinist views Bob’s desires and beliefs cause him to go to the bookshelf; the same goes for all of his other choices.  But the libertarian denies that Bob’s will is causally determined by anything; so how do we explain why Bob chose to go the bookshelf?  For we want to maintain that Bob’s choices and actions are rational—they don’t occur for no reason or randomly or arbitrarily.

The libertarian response is to say that Bob’s actions are explicable in terms of his reasons.  Here the libertarian makes a distinction between reasons as causes and reasons as goal directed intentions.  We can ask for the reason the rock fell off the cliff and we expect a causal explanation.  But we can also speak of a person’s reasons for acting in terms of her goals.  Bob goes to the book shelf in order to fulfill the purpose or goal of getting a book to read.  Nevertheless, Bob could have also chosen to ignore the goal of getting a book to read.

However, the above response does not really save libertarianism.  Imagine two parallel worlds: W1 and W2.  At time T1 both worlds are exactly the same in all respects, e.g., same histories, same people, objects, etc.  Bob exists in both worlds; so we have Bob1 and Bob2.  Assume libertarianism is true.  At time T2 Bob1 goes to the bookshelf and gets a book.  We explain that choice by saying that Bob1 had the goal of reading a book and believed books were on the bookshelf.  At time T2, Bob2 goes to the kitchen and gets a glass of water.  We explain that choice by saying that Bob2 had the goal of quenching his thirst and believed water was available in the kitchen.  So Bob1’s and Bob2’s actions are seemingly explainable under libertarianism, despite the fact that they aren’t causally explainable, since the actions were not causally determined.

Despite the above appearance of libertarianism being able to adequately explain a person’s actions, there is the following problem for libertarianism.  We cannot make sense of why Bob1 went to the bookshelf at time T2 and not the kitchen, and Bob2 went to the kitchen at time T2 and not the bookshelf.  At time T1 both Bobs have the same exact set of beliefs, desires, emotions, etc.  Now we can appeal to Bob1’s goal of reading a book to explain why he went to the bookshelf and Bob2’s goal of quenching his thirst to explain why he went to the kitchen.  However, given the details of the example, Bob1 must also have the goal to quench his thirst at time T1 and Bob2 must also have the goal to read a book at time T1.  According to libertarianism, each Bob is free to choose which goal to try to achieve.  However, since Bob1 and Bob2 have all of the same goals, beliefs, etc., there is nothing different between them to which we can appeal to explain why Bob1 chose to go the bookshelf at time T2 and Bob2 chose to go the kitchen at time T2.  Their individual actions are explainable, but libertarianism cannot explain why one choice is made instead of another.

The libertarian might say that Bob2 decided that quenching his thirst was more important than reading a book, and vice versa for Bob1.  But in virtue of what did Bob2 make that decision?  And the same question applies to Bob1?  Their beliefs, goals, desires, etc., are all the same.  So, neither Bob can appeal to beliefs, desires, etc., that the other does not have in order to explain the different weight given to the goals chosen, goals which are meant to explain their actions.  So under libertarianism, the decision to do one action over the other ends up being arbitrary after all.  Thus, libertarianism cannot actually explain or make rational why an agent chooses one course of action over another.