Thursday, February 10, 2005

New books from Labyrinth!

Oh boy, I just got a shipment from Labyrinth Books (sale annex). Check these out!

Andrew Brook & Don Ross - Daniel Dennett

This is in Cambridge's "Contemporary Philosophy in Focus" series – basically Cambridge Companions, only to recent figures (I almost wrote "still-living", but I see that's not true for all of them). I'm not sure which of these are out yet, but the list includes Cavell, Davidson, Dworkin, Fodor, Kuhn, MacIntyre, Putnam, Rorty, Searle, Taylor, and B. Williams – a righteous list, for the most part (oh, be nice!). I've got the Cavell, Rorty, and Taylor ones and they're all excellent. I'll definitely get the Davidson one too. This one looks pretty good – articles by Andy Clark and Paul Churchland, plus one by Ross on the Darwin Wars (with Gould, that is) – but if DD is already old news for you, the editors have an MIT volume called DD's Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment (nice title).

Related to this we have:

Daniel M. Wegner – The Illusion of Conscious Will (MIT 2002)

Dennett talks about this book in Freedom Evolves. Apparently studies show (as the saying goes) that subjects reliably misidentify the moment at which they perform a "conscious" action. That is, we can track the cause of an action back to its origin in the motor cortex and note the exact time of the neural event. Now I tend to be very suspicious of that sort of proto-reductive talk, but so far it seems okay – physical movements have physical causes (at least), and if brain science can track them back to particular neural events, fine. The point here was that when subjects report the moment at which they consciously decided to perform the action (taking into account the time it takes to report), the motor cortex had already done its thing. Weird, huh? Not sure what this is supposed to show exactly, but it's interesting. The book has a lot of other stuff, about what happens in the brain during episodes of dowsing and hypnosis and trance channeling, so it's not just "look, science has solved the free will problem."

It better not be, cause I hate that. Science isn't going to "solve" any philosophical problems by itself, especially not this one. Maybe that's why the title refers to "conscious" rather than "free" will. In FE, Dennett frets a bit about Wegner's use of the term "illusion," which makes it look as if we're heading for a hard determinist or eliminativist position, a position often attributed to Dennett and which he rejects – fairly straightforwardly, I would have thought, but he gets attacked for this all the time. Incidentally, the Brook and Ross volume could use an essay on DD's take on the problem – I guess the main reason it doesn't is that FE hadn't come out yet. Oh, and I hear Dennett's next book will be about theism and atheism (remember, he's a "Bright") – that ought to be interesting.

Anyway, as I was saying, all science can ever tell us about this is stuff like "on such-and-such a conception of free will, it looks like we don't have any" or "here's how the brain does what it does, and if that involves what philosophers call free will, then that's how it happens." The philosophical problem won't be solved until we agree on what conception of free will does everything we want it to do and whether we have any of that, and if we don't, what it is we do have which accounts for action. Naturally, the last part depends on the first part – and it's the first part that people are so confused about (maybe because they want to jump ahead to the last part). We're never going to get anywhere if some people use the term to refer to "the thing Cartesians think we have but we don't" while others use it to refer to "the thing we definitely have that eliminativists think we don't" and still others mean "whatever it is that by affirming or denying which we can understand the related ideas of agency, rationality, responsibility, causation, etc." – and of course there are others still. Simply dividing positions into "compatibilism" and "incompatibilism" is not enough until we are clear, which we are not, on just what is being asserted to be compatible or incompatible with what. There's a blog about free will, but for those of us who are tired of endless technical wrestling at the (dialectical) microlevel when we can't even agree what we're talking about, that stuff just looks pointless. Start over, fellas! On the other hand, at least they don't think science will solve the problem for us. And of course since I don't read that stuff I don't really know - maybe something helpful is indeed bubbling up from what looks to us outsiders like a morass.

Okay, that's enough for now. I'll talk about the other eight books later.

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