24
Aug
09

Is/isn’t/does/doesn’t

The use of dichotomies for argument is something which has bothered me for nearly a decade. These are just the correct dichotomies:

“the Earth is/isn’t a large sphere” or “the Sun is/isn’t 150 million km away” or “hair is/is not composed of keratin”

Forgive me while I focus on these dichotomies for a moment and explain why dichotomies are both useful and easily misleading. While the Earth is very close to a sphere, it is, in fact, an oblate spheroid. The Sun isn’t exactly 150 million km away, it varies from ~147 to 152 million km. Hair is primarily composed of keratin, but it is also composed of many other molecules.

Here is where it gets even more complex:

“Free will is/is not real”

Well, we must define both “free” and “will” as these are both very confusing terms in and of themselves and “free will” is even more confusing.

If we are saying that someone may choose to behave a certain way out of his or her own “free will,” this can mean he or she has not been coerced by force to behave in a certain way. It can also imply that this individual had other options. Instead, “free will” can be considered a lack of obligation or moral imperative to act in this fashion. Indeed, the whole idea of “free will” as is normally described seems to revolve around the idea of a “contra-causal agent.” An ability to examine and choose between options independent of culture, physiology, or education. Indeed, if we are able to choose in a contra-causal manner, one would expect humans to be far more difficult to predict than is the case. As Dan Ariely states, we are “predictably irrational.” All of the factors which make us behave as we do interact in complex ways which, to the common observer, appear to be contra-causal. We also have the problem of humans being, themselves, causal elements of their behavior.

In short, just because the Sun isn’t 150 million miles doesn’t mean it is in orbit around the Earth. Just because we don’t have contra-causal free will doesn’t mean we don’t have freedom from coercion. Just because the Earth isn’t a sphere doesn’t mean it’s flat.

“Free will,” as frequently considered, does not exist, but this doesn’t mean we don’t make decisions, but these decisions are caused.

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3 Responses to “Is/isn’t/does/doesn’t”


  1. August 24, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    I have often said, “Any philosophy worth holding will not fit on a bumper sticker.” Other than being somewhat self-contradictory (which I find amusing) it recognizes the dilema you are pointing out. Simplifying concepts for the purpose of education (bumper stickers) risks the assumption that the bumper sticker is the whole of the concept.

    A friend presented me with a custom t-shirt that says, “No good philosophy will fit on a t-shirt.” Apparently someone listened to me, which is surprising and a bit scary.

    Analogies, simplifications and generalizations are necessary for communication, teaching and learning. However, the symbol must not be confused with the concept it represents, and the learner must always recognize that knowledge is necessarily fragmentary and incomplete.

    Mike

  2. 2 Colloquy
    August 25, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    “Be excellent to each other!” would fit on a bumper sticker!! 😉

    Pboy would love this post – here’s hoping he stops by.

  3. August 26, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Thank you for this. I hate dichotomies when they are presented because they often seem to almost intentionally ignore the possibility of the question being a matter of degree rather than an “either/or”. As for the discussion of free will, I feel it gets very confusing because it is rarely ever clear what the “free will” up for debate actually is.


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