Category Archives: Philosophy


Over the last few days I’ve been commenting on the TPM site rather than here. One long-running thread of comments to a guest blog by Andy Walsh is here, and an essay by Russell Blackford here. Both about Dawkins and the so-called New Atheism. All good fun.

Yes, I know that I ought to be writing that third short story. I know, I know, I know …

Oh yeh, Happy New Year 🙂

Retired, bemused

At the end of June the SKUA project finished and so, too, did the only contribution to my position at Leicester: I was receiving 0.3FTE towards my salary. After June, nothing. There had been several irons in the fire (and a lot of time spent organising and writing proposals) but all came to naught and, around the end of September, the university served notice of redundancy. October was spent negotiating this and the upshot was that I took early retirement.

And it is truly weird. We had already booked a couple of weeks up in the Scottish Highlands at the end of October, so the last two weeks of my employment were spent on holiday and so the date of retirement passed largely unnoticed. I still, two weeks later, feel as if I am on holiday. I guess I am at that … until I drop dead that is.

No idea what I will do in retirement (even typing that is surreal: I am too immature to be retired!). Idea of a PhD in Philosophy disappeared when I discovered that I would have to fund it myself: my meagre pension would not cover that. The current plan is to write and I’m working on, initially, some science fiction stories. It is well known that no-one gets published straight off so what I will do when I receive nowt but rejection letters, I do not know. I do not take rejection well.

I bought a DSLR at last (Nikon D90) with some of the redundancy payout and have also ordered a new computer with the idea to use it to work up some of my photographs for display. That at least is something I can do solely for my own pleasure (whereas writing has to be published IMO).

And, there is always art: I like drawing and would like to learn how to paint but I am not sure I am ready yet to join all the real OAPs at the village hall for watercolours.

First thing to do is to get off my butt and finish at least one story. More on that later…

Back to the drawing board

Ever since I completed the MA in Philosophy at the Open University, I’ve thought about doing a PhD. One of the subjects I’d had in mind recently was free will and determinism: the thesis being, as I’ve laid out here, that they are not only compatible but essentially interdependent. I’ve been thinking about this subject and making notes for a few months. I then came across an article on Philosophy Compass, Recent Work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility. This pointed me to the book by Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. There I discovered, not only that my great and original thinking had been done before, but that this had been said as long ago as Hume and Mill and as recently as Dennett.

This, of course, points up the problem of doing an MA without the preceding undergraduate work. I shall finish the book before attempting to think of any further problems in free will that I might attempt!

And, I still have the idea of what might a robot mind look like: I’m almost afraid of looking into that subject now :).

Free will 2: the left armpit of ‘me’

Oh, look, another question of free will (here at Neuroskeptic). Let’s see if I can say the same thing as in the previous post a different way.

Accept that we have free will. It is managed by the ‘free will module’ and, for the sake of getting it away from the brain, let’s imagine that the site for free will is the left armpit. My ‘self’ is located in this module and this is where ‘I’ make my choices. We’ll accept that we receive sensory impulses into the brain where they go through various bits of processing but when the time comes for a decision to be made, all the relevant bits of information are shipped off to the left armpit where the self makes its decision. This decision is then shipped back to the brain so that the relevant nerves can be activated and the decision made concrete.

Also accept that this module is wholly our own. It must, I suppose, grow up with us. Our decision aged two to eat that slug in the garden was perhaps not the best decision but our self did not have the information required to realize so. And at the age of four, we might be making better decisions about what to put in our mouths but the decsion to see how far that plastic dinosaur would fit up our nostril was also perhaps somewhat ill-informed. Our self must learn how to make decisions; it must grow as our physical bodies do. It is undoubtedly influenced by what happens to us: that is how it learns. If we are ill treated, perhaps our self grows to make rather selfish and nasty decisions. If we are loved and nurtured, perhaps it learns to be selfless and caring of others in its decision making. But, as we know, quite the reverse can happen as well. Our natures and our decisions are our own and so it must be if we are to have free will.

Now let us return to our person, call him John, facing choices A, B & C (see below). All the relevant information is shipped off to John’s left armpit where the decision is made (say, C) by John’s self and the action shipped back to the brain to be implemented.

But there is an observer who looks at all this and says, “That is exactly what I would have predicted John to do. Knowing what John is like, how he was brought up, all the past influences on his life, it is obvious that John’s actions were determined. John has no free will.” Is this observer wrong? If so, how do we show this? What else could there possibly be, apart from John’s being and his life, that could have made the decision? The only options other than John himself are something outside of John or random events. If thre former and some outside action forced John to choose C then we certainly would not call that free will. And if the latter, and John’s self had decided to flip a coin to make his choice then the observer could equally say, “Well, I knew that John was the sort of person who could not make that choice and would therefore flip a coin.” Where is hte free will.

At the end of the day, if a person makes an unforced choice, it can only have been made based on everything that goes to make up that person and so must be said to be determined by that person. I’m not saying it was predictable, quite the opposite, but it was determined. Free will mandates determinism (and we may as well stick the module, if such there be, back in the brain and leave the left armpit to its own devices).

Turing test ponderings

Andy has a post about the Turing test: how to determine between a software program and a human based on the answers it provides to questions you ask. Why would we want a machine to emulate a human being though? Yeah right, just what we need, a machine that can be prejudiced and irrational, that can give false answers to honestly posed questions, that can believe in the most patently ridiculous things, that can sulk and decide not to give any answers or that can look at the universe and its place in it and decide to fuse all its circuits. Hell, we can produce that sort of machine at the drop of a pair of knickers.

We want a machine that is more intelligent than us, completely rational, has access to all the world’s information but is still under our control. Would such a machine ever sound human? I doubt it and do not think we would care if it did. But we would not want to have to pre-code every part of this machine so it would have to be able to learn. Would such a machine be intelligent? or conscoius? Possibly the former, probably not the latter.

I guess it would be intelligent if it was able to pose new problems and seek out the answers to those problems based on methodologies it had come up with. This would be a truly useful machine. It would have to be able to learn about new fields, absorb the knowledge we already have, question us about our assumptions and, as I just said, pose new questions and seek their answers. Would it have to understand natural language? I don’t think so. Imagine an alien coming down to Earth, with whom we could only converse in some structured way: we would still consider the alien to be intelligent even if it ignored any questions we posed about its self.

What about a conscious machine? It would, I guess, need to be able to reflect upon itself, and its own thought processes. Maybe not conscious in the human sense though. We are only slightly conscious: we are unaware of the vast majority of the workings of our brains and bodies and only even aware of our own thoughts after those thoughts have already happened. A conscious machine, on the other hand, might be fully self-aware, able to reflect upon every aspect of its own internal workings. We would have to consider such an entity far more conscious than ourselves.

Does a conscious machine need emotions? It would probably need at least some drivers: to acquire more knowledge, say. This desire would be an emotion. Could it have positive emotions without negative ones? Could its emotions be separated from its physical parts and processes? Lots of interesting stuff here: how would we construct a robot mind?

Determinsim 3: Free will?

Determinism cannot be right, ‘they’ say, else there would be no free will. Ok, so what is free will? Let’s go back to our person facing choices A, B and C. And now assume he has free will. So, he makes a choice – say, C – for which we offer due praise and compliment him on his choice, made of his own free will. But let us, ask why did he make that choice? Because he is a good person. And, why is he a good person? Because his parents raised him well, he was not exposed to contrary behaviour etc etc. So, what are we saying here? His choice was determined by his fundamental nature which was determined by his prior experiences. His choice was determined. No, they claim, it was not determined, it was made under free will.

But what is this free will? I know it sounds as if I am trying to ‘fit’ free will up with a deterministic nature but, really, where does it come from? If it does not come from the person’s experiences and nature then where does it come from? If it is not formed by experience, is it external to the person and, if so, what is it? If we exclude the nonsensical ‘soul’ and exclude dualism then the free will must be wholly part of the person and so, must be formed by that person’s nature and experiences, just as every other part of the person is so formed. So, whatever free will is, it must be determined.

Or, let’s say there is a little choice module in the brain, to which choics are referred. But, again, the bases for that module’s making choices must be the person’s nature and experiences: what else is there to influence the development of that module? Even if that module has some sort of dice throwing mechanism for the really tight choices, the choice is still wholly determined because no dice throwing is wholly random.

Basically, if we exclude the supernatural, there is no place for free will.


This is a topic I’ve tried to understand for some time: probably, along with other philosophy of mind topics, the source of my interest in Philosophy. There is nothing in the universe but the substance of the universe and the laws that control that substance: ie, no supernatural entities or forces or whatever.

This means that the universe is determined. Whatever happens is caused by what is in the universe: the current state of the universe was caused by the previous state or the universe and the nature of the laws that govern the universe. So, does that mean that there is no choice in what we do: all our actions are caused by what has gone before and, so, predetermined. I would have to say, yes. I certainly don’t agree with those who try to force choice into the gaps in our knowledge of quantum physics, or to avoid determinism in that way. It may well be that determinism has some inbuilt randomness at the subatomic level but it is not going to affect the issue of choice.

My previous thoughts have tended towards the difference between determined and determinable. Yes, the future is determined but, no, the future is not determinable. We cannot predict the future because it would be impossible to take into account the state of every particle in the universe and the laws governing each in the time between now and the future state we are trying to predict. I cannot prove it but I suspect this is mathematically provable. Even if we were to take a single person facing a choice he has to make in the next five seconds, I suspect it is mathematically and physically impossible to compute the movement of every particle and energy packet in the universe within five light seconds of that person within those five seconds. Ie, the future is not and never can be predictable. A person’s actions might be determined but never determinable.

Let us say that a person is in a situation and facing a choice of three actions. Action A is one which will bring him some benefit but is illegal and, within the prevailing marality, immoral. Action B will bring no benefits and, while not morally reprehensible, would not be considered a morally good choice. Action C will cost the person something but is morally the ‘right’ choice to make. Now we are at some future time and the person has been committed to trial for committing Action A: his defence is that his actions were determined and so he is not responsible for them. I wouold contend that this is not a valid defence. At the time, he could not know what action was determined since, as I’ve asserted above, no action is determinable. Since he could not know, at that time, which action was predetermined and he knew that all three actions were open to him, then we have to say that he chose Action A: there is no other way to put the case. And since he made that choice then he is responsible for the choice. We define responsibility in that way: if a person knows they have a choice open to them, knows the choices and their consequences, then they are responsible for the choice they make.

So it might be said that it was predetermined that he would make the choice of A. That is true. The universe is determined so the choice he made was determined. But we can only say this after the event: the choice was not determinable. We would say the same if he chose B or C as his action: that they were determined. So, the choice of action may be determined, but it was determined by his choosing that action.

But we might look back on his choice of A and calculate all the particles and energies that led up to his action and determine that he could not have chosen anything but A. That too is true: that is what determinism means. So, he might claim that it was as if he were hypnotised. He went into the situation, recognised the choices open to him, believed that he could make a choice, but, in fact, he could not have chosen anything but Action A. In that case, he cannot be held responsible.

Hmm – have to think more about this aspect…