I love reading books on philosophy and pop culture. So when not one but two books entitled Inception and Philosophy came out within a week of each other, I had to get them both.
As with most of the books in the “popular culture and philosophy series,” they both have some really good articles, and some pretty lousy ones too. I even get a charge out of the lousy ones sometimes. It’s always good to know what other people think, and as well as how they think — or fail to think.
There was one article that caught my fancy where the lines between science and science fiction were clearly blurred.
To tell the truth, the article had more to do with her theory than with the movie Inception, but I got something out of it. The author, Jane Testerman, a physics professor at the Gulf University of Science in Kuwait, brought out the logician in me when she contradicted herself within the space of two paragraphs.
I’ll use this quote from her article to explain:
[T]he experience of consciously willing an action and a person’s conscious mind causing the action are two different things. Conscious will is a feeling not a cause. According to Hume, causality isn’t a property inhering in objects, but is something we infer.
A few things to comment on here before I deliver the biltrix.
To begin with, her statement, “conscious will is a feeling not a cause,” is an unfounded dogmatic statement. She never gives premises to demonstrate why conscious will is a feeling. She just says it. Then, for the rest of the article she goes on to explain that neuroscience can now determine the exact cause of our “apparently” freely willed actions, after having just undercut her ability to do that. She never should have brought Hume into the discussion in the first place.
By appealing to Hume, Testerman argues from authority — the weakest form of argument in philosophy. However, we can still take the premise she adopts from Hume and develop it into a counterargument. (Thanks for supplying the ammo).
Hume argues that causes are relations of ideas, not matters of fact. The notion of causality is based on associations of events that we customarily perceive as occurring in succession. Based on that association, we form the belief that there are causal relations among things in reality, yet, according to Hume, we never actually perceive the cause itself in reality.
Therefore, we should not suppose that our free will is the cause of our actions, just because we perceive the former as preceding the latter.
I don’t intend to adress Hume’s argument here. As long as Testerman accepts Hume’s line of reasoning without questioning it, I can use it too.
As I mentioned, for the rest of the article she refers to experiments in neuroscience, like the one in the video we posted on Thursday, in order to suggest that our consciously willed actions are not caused by our consciously willing them, but rather by involuntary neuronal processes in the brain.
According to Testerman, these experiments show that neuronal activity causes us to take a predetermined course of action seconds before we actually experience ourselves consciously willing to act in any given way.
Here’s the biltrix: Testerman began her explanation by appealing to Hume, who says that we cannot infer a cause in reality based on a perceived succession of events. Following Hume strictly, the neuroscientist would be committing the post hoc, ergo proper hoc fallacy if she were to conclude that the specific neuronal processes are the actual cause of an apparently free willed decision.
In other words, Testerman’s Humean premise is a double-edged sword that she uses to undercut her own position (well, she’s a physicist, not a philosopher).
In sum, if you argue that one can only assume a cause, but one can never determine an actual cause in reality, you cannot then go on to argue in favor of scientific causes. Hume’s philosophy makes science impossible. So which do you prefer, bad science or no science? Or how about good science for a change?
The clear signs of fuzzy science are unwarranted philosophical claims where they don’t belong, following from baaaaaad logic.
I left an important unsettled issue here that I hope to settle tomorrow, if God gives me life and health: What’s really going on in our heads when we exercise our free will?
I’ll tell you tomorrow. Thanks for biltirixing with us today!