September 14, 2007


The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope has been a series of musings on the ideas of determinism and its opposite, which is usually called free will. I prefer indeterminsm.

If this is your first visit, you are fated by eternal laws of causality to click on the earlier posts. Or maybe not.

One characteristic of philosophical debates about issues like this is that it kind of depends on how you look at it.

The late great American philosopher William James recounted the story of one such debate in his Pragmatism:

SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel - a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree's opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel?

James was asked to settle the dispute, which he did as follows:

“Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”

There was method to his madness:

I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? – fated or free? – material or spiritual? – here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.

According to James, pragmatically speaking, accepting the idea of free will means "novelties in the world, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past." It means that improvements are at least possible. In James' words, it is a "theory of promise."

The other option is in effect to reduce humans to the status of objects that bounce off the walls of the universe with the predictability of billiard balls. I'm not convinced people are that kind of objects.

Come to think of it, I'm not even sure objects are that kind of objects...

THE LATEST ON THE MEGAN WILLIAMS CASE. Here are three items from the Gazette. At a meeting in Logan last night convened by AFSC attended by around 35 people, participants pledged to hold local law enforcement and prosecutors accountable, express support for the victim and her family, and work to bring the community together to respond in a positive way.

THE TRUTH ABOUT CHIP. President Bush is currently waging a preemptive war on the Children's Health Insurance Program. Here's a critique of his claims that the program undermines private health coverage.

NEW FIG TREE NOTES. Here's the latest edition of Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree.


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