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Archives: May 2005

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Laying It On Thick

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

The Molinari Society will be hosting its second symposium in conjunction with the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in New York City, December 27-30, 2005. The topic is the relation between “thin” libertarianism (i.e., libertarianism understood as a narrowly political doctrine) and “thick” libertarianism (i.e., libertarianism understood as essentially integrated into some broader set of social or cultural values). We were gratified at the high number of excellent proposals generated by our call for abstracts (now closed). Current session information is listed below; precise days and times will be announced once they are finalised.

Molinari Society symposium: “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin”

Session 1:
chair: Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)
speaker: Jan Narveson (University of Waterloo)
title: “Libertarianism: The Thick and the Thin”
commentator: Charles W. Johnson (Molinari Institute)

Session 2:
chair: Jennifer McKitrick (University of Nebraska - Lincoln)
speaker: Jack Ross (National Labor College)
title: “Labor and Liberty: A Lost Ideal and an Unlikely New Alliance”
commentator: Charles W. Johnson (Molinari Institute)

Posted May 21st, 2005



Postlibertarianism: Still Wrong

Yet another blast from the past: I recently posted a 1992 piece of mine critiquing Jeffrey Friedman’s “postlibertarianism.” Consume it here.

Posted May 18th, 2005



Brown Is the Colour of My True Love’s Coat

Whenever I start geeking about Babylon 5 or the new Galactica, someone always tells me I should see Firefly. So I finally bought the DVD.

Like a lot of people, I never heard of Firefly when it was actually on the air; Fox seems to have done a lousy job of publicising the show. But after the series was cancelled (tragically, halfway through its first season), its popularity grew through word of mouth and now the 14-episode series is a big hit on DVD.

Now I am the latest convert.

What’s it about? Well, its main “gimmick” is that it’s a Western set in space, but that doesn’t tell you much. Imagine the Star Wars universe but grittier, with lower tech, better dialogue, and no aliens, plus the Rebellion is over and it failed. A more embittered Han Solo is still flying his second-hand spaceship around the Outer Rim, taking ethically questionable assignments, dodging bullets, and trying to avoid imperial entanglements. Oh yeah, and cursing in Chinese. Plus Princess Leia is a psychotic teenager who can kill you with her brain.

Where Firefly shines is precisely where Star Wars doesn’t – in character and dialogue. The show also has a strong, albeit implicit, libertarian edge to it. (Switching analogies, the creepy bureaucratic Central Alliance is what the Federation in Star Trek would really be like.)

In short, the cancellation of this show was a great evil. Happily, a feature film is on the way. (Unhappily, they’re titling it Serenity rather than Firefly so that fans of the show won’t even know it’s related – just as TNT did with Crusade.)

Anyway, here’s hoping that DVD sales plus the new movie build enough interest in Firefly to warrant more Firefly-related projects, whether on the big or small screen.

Posted May 18th, 2005



Born on the Bayou?

In honour of the upcoming release of Star Wars Episode III, I’ve just posted a fanfic I wrote a few years back, trying to sort out some of the puzzles raised by Episode I. I have reason to suspect that revelations in Episode III will bring my speculations to nought, but here’s the tale nonetheless.

Posted May 17th, 2005



Mindgames and Brainstorms, Episode III: Revenge of the Hylomorph

The Saga Thus Far
Roderick T. Long: Mindgames and Brainstorms
Kevin Vallier: Out of Form, Out of Mind?
Roderick T. Long: Mindgames and Brainstorms, Episode II
Kevin Vallier: Out of Form, Out of Mind – Part II

Kevin wants to know whether, on my hylomorphic view, the presence of mental states is necessitated by the totality of their underlying brain states. His worry seems to be that if I say yes, hylomorphism collapses into materialism, and if I say no, hylomorphism collapses into dualism. In response I claim that the question is incoherent, because there simply is no such thing as the totality of underlying brain states identifiable in non-mental terms (and of course if we identify them in mental terms then the presence of mental states follows trivially). Here is Kevin’s counter-response:

Imagine I have a recording device that can record all of the atomic facts about neurons, and lay out in a spatial grid all of their locations, and record their biochemical interactions over time. A computer records all of this data and I write a program to spit it out in propositional form. Now, it sure seems to me that I’ve just specified all the facts about my brain without making reference to mental processes.
And so Kevin wonders whether all these facts do or do not entail the presence of mental states. (Kevin also asks: “And regarding your plant example, why can’t I give a completely reductive account of a plant?” But he doesn’t say what his objection is to the Thompson-style reply that I already gave to that question in my previous post; so I’ll leave plants aside and stick to brains for the moment.)

So, do I think a record of all the atomic, biochemical, and spatial facts about the neurons in my brain would entail the necessity of mentality? No, I don’t; I don’t think it would entail anything much of interest at all. But this is no triumph for dualism, because no sensible materialist thinks mental states supervene on brain states. The days when central-state identity theory was the reigning form of materialism are long past. Sensible materialists nowadays are generally functionalists about the mind and externalists about meaning; a brain makes no contribution to mentality except in the context of a working body, and brain and body together make no contribution to mentality except in the context of various sorts of interactions with the environment. Thus sensible materialists themselves insist that a list of facts about neurons, in the absence of bodily and environmental facts, radically underdetermines what mental facts hold, or indeed whether any hold.

And surely the sensible materialists are right about this. I take Putnam and Kripke to have shown that what we mean by our words, if anything, depends on causal and historical facts external to us. Likewise, I take Wittgenstein to have shown that “meaning is use,” i.e., that having mental states is in part a matter of the patterns of bodily activity and transactions with the physical and social environment in which we engage. As Wittgenstein points out in Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology:

I cannot know what he’s planning in his heart. But suppose he always wrote out his plans; of what importance would they be? If, for example, he never acted on them. … Perhaps someone will say: Well, then they really aren’t plans. But then neither would they be plans if they were inside him, and looking into him would do us no good.
Thus a brain in a vat wouldn’t count as thinking anything (unless we hooked it up to the right sort of input-output mechanism to enable it to perceive and act, in which case we would thereby have given it a body and an environment). Neither a disembodied brain nor a disembodied soul would have any mental states whatever.

Where I part company with the sensible materialists is that they believe the relevant inputs and outputs can be specified in non-mental terms, and I do not. (The outputs, for example, are going to be actions, not mere physical movements.)

Now Kevin might reply: “Okay, but what about the sum total of the brain facts, the bodily facts, and the environmental-transaction facts? Call this the Big Fact Set. If that Big Fact Set can be specified in non-mental terms, then my question is whether the Big Fact Set necessitates the presence of mental states. Or if, as you say, the Big Fact Set can’t be specified in non-mental terms, then my question is about the sum total of purely physical facts underlying the Big Fact Set – e.g., facts about the spatiotemporal distribution of atoms. Call this the Other Big Fact Set, in which case the question is whether the Other Big Fact Set necessitates the Big Fact Set.”

But to this my answer would have to be: what Other Big Fact Set? The question I’ve put in Kevin’s mouth presupposes that there is such a thing as the relevant set of spatiotemporal facts about atoms; but without relying on the mental facts they underlie, how is the relevant set to be identified? I’m not just asking the epistemic question of how we can know which is the relevant set; I’m asking what could even make a set count as the relevant set.

It seems to me that Kevin’s whole approach grants too much to the materialist. He agrees with the materialist in imagining that we can start with some list of material facts and try to work our way from them up to mentality; it’s just that for the materialist the attempt succeeds and for Kevin it fails. But we don’t start with physical facts (or with disembodied mental facts); we start with integrated and embodied persons, active in and receptive to the world around us; both our physical characteristics and our mental characteristics are mere aspects of or abstractions from our unified personhood, not independent realities in their own right.

Of course Kevin could decide to cast his net far and wide, and to say the set he’s talking about is the set of all the physical facts everywhere – in which case his question will be whether a Laplacean list of the locations and trajectories of all the particles in the universe would necessitate the presence of mental states. To such a question I’m inclined to say that I have no idea; it’s like being asked, “here’s an imaginary text which I’ve posited but which nobody is actually in a position to peruse; does this text imply that anybody has mental states?” How can I know whether such a text is possible or what it would imply if I can’t read it? But in any case the question seems less important to me than it does to Kevin; I don’t see that a “yes” answer would imply materialism, and I don’t see that a “no” answer would imply dualism.

In response to my invocation of Geach’s article “What Do We Think With?,” which purports to explain how an Aristotelean soul could be the subject of an immaterial activity, Kevin asks:

[I]f the soul is not subsistent, and is merely the form of the brain, then how is it even coherent to say that the form has an activity which has no organ? It’s the form of the body, and yet it has an activity that is apart from the body. … Geach thinks that the immaterial activity is literally timeless. If that’s true, then I think you can’t be right that the soul is just the form of the body, because the soul will be capable of a timeless activity whereas the body is essentially embedded in time.
Kevin here turns the moral of Geach’s paper upside down; Geach’s purpose was to argue both against materialism, the view that “each of us thinks with a material part of himself; specifically, with some tract of the brain,” and against immaterialism, the view that “each of us thinks with an immaterial part of him, his mind or soul.” Geach’s conclusion was that thinking is not done with any organ, material or immaterial. Kevin instead tries to turn Geach’s article into a brief for immaterialism, on the grounds that an enmattered form cannot have an immaterial activity, and that a temporally embedded entity cannot have a timeless activity. But I don’t see why either of these claims follows. Going back to our trusty cube: the cube is a material object embedded in time, but it has logical and geometrical properties which are both immaterial and timeless. If it’s not a problem for the cube, why should it be a problem for the soul?

As for Kevin’s question about the presence or absence of “an entailment relationship between the properly specified physical facts and the immaterial activity,” once again I challenge his right to the phrase “properly specified physical facts.” Which facts, specified how?

Finally, Kevin asks whether I think immaterial mental activities “link up” with “discrete physical states.” (I’m not sure what he means by “link up with”; he seems to have in mind some relation weaker than supervenience, but I don’t know what it is.) If I say no, then he says I’ve given up hylomorphism, since “mental activities are no longer formal vis-à-vis the brain.” If I say yes, then he thinks I’m committed either to a “dual-aspect view of reason and cause explanations,” which “rules out libertarian free will because you cannot be free to do otherwise than you did if reasoning is merely the formal aspect of physically determined processes,” or else to the view that “the physical provides mere enabling conditions for immaterial activities [that] are not fully captured by the formal aspects of brain states,” in which case “some other fact is required to fix whether a given physical state will be involved in a reasoning activity” and so dualism prevails.

But I deny all these inferences. Of course I deny that any well-defined set of physical states underlying mentality is even available here; but even granting one for the sake of argument I don’t feel the force of Kevin’s trilemma. If it turned out that there is no one-to-one correspondence between specific mental states and specific physical states, I don’t see that this would negate hylomorphism, because hylomorphism was never a thesis about one-to-one correspondence anyway. If it turned out that mental states are the reason side of a dual-aspect view of reason and cause, I don’t see that this would cause a problem for free will, because causation needn’t be deterministic. And if it turned out that mental states correspond to specific physical states but do not supervene on them, I don’t see that this would require the existence of some extra factor to determine the mental state; why wouldn’t the mental state be enough by itself? Again, Kevin seems to be conceding too much to a materialist view of the world into which mentality is a puzzling interloper; it seems he can’t quite believe in the existence of persons unless – to borrow an image from Rand – he can ground personhood in some transaction between a corpse and a ghost.

Posted May 14th, 2005



Sign of the Times

What does the libertarian movement desperately need?

A new symbol, of course!

So I generously offer this one.

Okay, I admit it’s a little busy. But it conveniently combines the peace sign, the anarchy sign, and the libersign – and creating one requires only five passes with your spraycan (which is just one more than for any of the constituent signs taken individually).

Why the sea-green colour? Because historically sea-green was the colour of radical liberalism.

Why the black background? Well, duh.

Posted May 10th, 2005



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