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You ask: "Are our actions 'reasons responsive'?" and "Are our brains governed by physical laws?"

You then claim that *these* are the questions that matter.

But, why doesn't everything you've just said about 'free will' apply equally well to the concepts--the terms, I guess--'reasons responsive' and 'governed'? Isn't it equally indeterminate what *these* terms pick out?

I actually don't agree with (much of) anything you've said, here, but I thought that, if you're right, then what you say has got to apply equally well to these other terms. No?

Here's another question. You don't believe that the term 'free will' picks out any actual thing. But, is there any actual thing that we're *trying* to pick out with that word? So: do you think there is such a thing as whatever it is that philosophers are trying to pick out when they talk about 'free will'?

Marcus Arvan

Roger: thanks for your comment. Of course I agree with you. I am happy to apply the same standards to those concepts. Almost all of our concepts are vague/indeterminate. Philosophy goes wrong when and to the extent that philosophers aim to impose *artificial* clarity and determinacy on concepts. "Free will" can refer to many things. So can proper names. Instead of insisting on one answer -- on what free will or the meaning of names *is* -- we should investigate all of the phenomena (reasons responsiveness, etc.) and leave it at that. In other words, to use a popular turn of phrase, philosophy should aim to make things as clear as possible, but no clearer. Philosophers mire themselves in pointless debates by trying to clarify concepts *beyond* any sensible limit dictated by language and concept use.


William James had a similar insight: "Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find everyone 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? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Everyone had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared, therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, 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" (William James, Pragmatism: Lecture II).


Well, I guess what i meant to ask was this: given that such terms as 'reasons responsive' and 'governed' have indeterminate meanings--they don't mean any objective thing--how can it be that the questions you mention at the end (and that I quoted in my first comment) are the questions that matter? Aren't they just as pointless (or whatever) as asking questions like "do we have free will?"

Marcus Arvan

Hi Roger: Indeterminacy comes in degrees. For instance, there are balding people and non-balding people. None of this is to say that we cannot investigate what makes people go bald! It is, however, a mistake to try to define *precisely* who is balding and who is not (there is no precise number of N hairs that make person balding/not). The same is true in all areas of inquiry. There is working *within* conceptual indeterminacy -- which is legitimate and necessary to have inquiry at all -- and then there is trying to artificially resolve indeterminacy, which gets us nowhere.

To return to the Pluto analogy, the concept of a "planet" is indeterminate. What is *not* so indeterminate is whether, whatever Pluto is, it is partially made of electrons. *That* is a determinate enough question. But, even here, clarity can be taken too far, leading us into hopeless obsurity (viz. "What are Pluto's boundaries? How many electrons does Pluto contain *exactly*?"). There is no determinate number of electrons that constitute Pluto, any more than there are determinate edges to clouds.

In short: no matter what matter we are investigating in philosophy or science, (1) there are *determinate-enough* questions to guide inquiry, and (2) questions that wade into irreducible areas of indeterminacy. The trick is to focus on the former without falling into the latter. Physicists and chemists do this well. Philosophers not so well.

Marcus Arvan

Sebastian: great comment. James was right on. :)

Marcus Arvan

Roger: to follow up (and potentially anticipate a worry you might have about my last comment), Wittgenstein wrote in the Tractatus that whatever can be said can be said clearly, and everything else should be passed over in silence.

I don't think this is right. I think human beings are capable of hardly saying or conceptualizing *anything* clearly -- even the very point at which a concept/inquiry wades into indeterminacy. (This is known in the vagueness literature as "higher-order vagueness").

Because I think higher-order vagueness exists -- there is not only indeterminacy, but it is *indeterminate* where a given concept becomes indeterminate -- what we need to do, in philosophy and science, is to simply be on the lookout for TELLTALE SIGNS of falling into hopeless indeterminacy.

And, what are those signs? Very roughly, the ones Sebastian (and James) reckon. Inquiry falls into hopeless levels of indeterminacy whenever those engaging in inquiry -- philosophers or scientists -- are incapable of coming to any stable agreement on whether a given concept applies. Examples include:

(1) Compatibilism vs. incompatibilism
(2) Trying to define knowledge
(3) Internalism vs. externalism on moral motivation (i.e. do moral concepts necessarily involve motivation).

Basically, whenever philosophers reach conceptual/argumentative stalemates -- which happens all the time in analytic philosophy -- we should say to ourselves, "We are now trying to clarify the concept *beyond* its own level of clarity." I say, it is precisely there -- when many philosophers want to press on to *settle* the issue of what a concept ("free will", etc.) "really is" -- that we should do exactly the *opposite*: realize that we have lapsed into indeterminate obscurity, and then retreat to firmer ground (i.e. areas that are clearer).


OK, I thought that might be the point at which you and I will disagree most fundamentally. I think vagueness is an epistemological matter, and not an ontological one. So, on my view, there *is* some number n of hairs that makes one person bald and another not. Now, will we ever know what that number is? I have no idea, and I doubt it. But, if you think figuring out the answer to that question is important, then I don't think such an endeavor is even in principle fruitless.

And so I don't think endeavors like trying to figure out whether or not we have FW, e.g., is even in principle fruitless.

Marcus Arvan

Roger: Right. You and I disagree over the nature of language and concepts. But I think cognitive linguistics is *plainly* on my side here. Allow me to explain.

A while back I came up with a theory of vagueness almost identical to Diana Raffman's from "Unruly Words: A Study of Vague Language." I think logic and cogntive neurolinguistics both overwhelmingly support this view.

What's the view? Vagueness is *both* an epistemic and metaphysical issue. Classical 2-valued logic is true. Our brains encode a vast array of slightly different concepts, or what Millikan calls 'unicepts' (i.e. bald1, bald2, bald3, etc.) Each unicept has sharp borders -- but we can never know which unicept we are using, and we often use slightly different ones. So, for instance, consider "free will." I have many unicepts for what "count" as free will. No single unicept is authoritative -- which is just to say that my brain does not encode one single *concept* of free will, but rather many. Each of those concepts is determinate in a way (it is there, encoded in the brain), but as a whole, my conceptual apparatus is *indeterminate* (again, many unicepts, none authoritative, and we don't know which particular unicept we are using at any given time).

Again, I think this account is very well-supported by an array of data: (1) human behavior, (2) shifting neural-network codings, (3) *massive* network redundancy (each network in the cerebral cortex has 1000s of redundant networks which process almost *exactly* the same thing), etc.

So, yes, we disagree about the nature of language -- but I don't think our disagreement here should be a matter of your intuitions versus mine. For this is a *clear* scientific issue. It is up to science to tell us how concepts operate and are encoded, and so this is -- I say -- one of those areas where philosophers should defer to our best science.


How does any of that show that vagueness is an ontological notion?

From what I can tell, if science shows us anything, it's that our brains encode an array of concepts. But, what our brains encode has nothing to do with ontology. At most, it has something to do with epistemology.

What I'm suggesting is that there *is* something out there--some real thing--to which we're trying to appeal when we say 'free will' (or whatever). If it's true that our language is necessarily such that we can't get to whatever it is that we're trying to get to when we say 'free will' (or whatever), then I have to think this problem will apply to any area of inquire at all. This includes science. Anyway, I'm trying to figure out how your pessimism about the abilities of our language doesn't just bottom out in out-and-out skepticism.

Marcus Arvan

Roger: I didn't say it is an ontological notion. I said it has metaphysical *and* epistemological features. The metaphysical features are well-supported by cognitive neuroscience (we *do* have multiple concepts, in massively nested networks, which are continually being updated, etc.), and so are the epistemic features (we are not capable of telling through introspection or behavioral observation *which* unicept(s) informs any particular action.

I am an epistemicist of sorts. I think each unicept has perfectly sharp boundaries. I just think your Williamson-style epistemicism is completely inconsistent with cognitive neuroscience.

Anyway, my position doesn't entail skepticism for obvious reasons. I do not endorse nihilism about vagueness. Our conceptual apparatus is not incoherent. Rather, it very, very complex. Groups of unicepts form "vague concepts" which simultaneously have (1) stable areas of determinacy, but also (2) deep levels of indeterminacy. Sensible inquiry is possible within the former but not the latter. Philosophers often try to "clarify concepts" in the latter...and the result is predictable: interminable debates where no stable agreement can be reached.

David Killoren

Nice post, Marcus. Here's a quick thought:

Suppose I have a sister named Susan, and I care about her so I want to be able to recognize her when I see her. But, oddly, there are many cases in which I have difficulty identifying her.

In *some* cases--call them "paradigm cases"--I am able to identify Susan easily and automatically. I just look at someone and, without needing to think about it at all, I can say "That's Susan" (or "That's not Susan") and I know I'm right in those cases.

But in certain other cases, I am really not so sure. In those cases--call them "controversial cases"--I'm looking at someone and I feel that the person might be Susan, but then again, I also feel she might not be.

There's any number of ways I might go about trying to solve the problem presented by the controversial cases, but here's one possibility: I could look very carefully at what's going on (in my head and in the world) in the paradigm cases, and I could try to use my observations and reflections about those cases to produce a general "Principle of Susan Identification" that I could then apply in the controversial cases.

I think that when an activity in the neighborhood of the activity known as conceptual analysis is worth doing, it's often because it concerns some bit of language that functions like "Susan" in the preceding example.

Marcus, I'd be curious whether you believe that (a) the words and phrases that are typically subjected to analysis aren't Susan-like in the relevant respects, or (b) analysis isn't worth doing even when it is aimed at words or phrases that are Susan-like in the relevant respects, or (c) the process of working toward a "Principle of Susan Identification" in the above example isn't analogous with analysis as it is practiced or understood in analytic philosophy.



You picked 'free will' as your example. Which contemporary anglophone philosophers are doing conceptual analysis on that issue of the sort you describe? Who, that is, is trying to figure out what free will is? Not many people, I think. Consider van Inwagen's work on that subject. He tells us at the very beginning of "An Essay on Free Will" what (he thinks) free will is. On his view, roughly, free will is the ability to do otherwise. He then attempts to address various metaphysical questions about that ability. Do we have it? What are the implications if we don't? Is it compatible with 'determinism.' Similar things can be said for many other people working on the topic of free will. Work on the topic of free will thus hardly seems "dominated by" conceptual analysis of the sort you describe.

Shane J Ralston

Funny. I came to similar conclusions years ago (1999), after I had spend a term at Oxford and wrote a paper (published at about the same time in Minerva) on the Sorites paradox. I took Balaguer's Metaphysics course at Cal State LA not long after and tried to convince him of the same. He wrote on my final paper that I had no promise as a philosopher. I'm glad to read that he's come around. At the time I worked in the analytic tradition; no more, now I'm a pragmatist.

Marcus Arvan

Justin: Thanks for your comment. However, I have to confess that I'm confused by it. You suggest that van Inwagen isn't doing conceptual analysis...but you then say that he assumes at the beginning that free will is the ability to do otherwise. *That* is conceptual analysis! It is a *conceptualization* of what free will is. And the free will literature is full of alternative conceptualizations: e.g. (1) free will=actual sequence of actions, (2) free will= reasons responsiveness, (3) free will=actions generated by the "deep self", I could go on and on. *All* of this is conceptual analysis. It is analyzing what the term "free will" means/picks out. (Note: it is not metaphysics. Metaphysics concerns what there is in the world...and whatever there is in the world, there are actual sequences, reasons-responsive actions, "deep-selves", etc.).

So yes, the literature *is* dominated by conceptual analysis. Of course, its practitioners sometimes (oftentimes) think they are engaged in something else -- e.g. metaphysics -- but this is wrong. They are not engaging in metaphysics any more than people trying to define "planet" are engaged in astronomy. Again, the metaphysical issues are relatively clear: there are actual sequences, reasons, etc. It's the *semantics* that are unclear, and it is what people in the literature are often haggling over. And it is exactly what I am arguing is (1) mistaken, and (2) irrelevant.


Very interesting article. I agree with it very much and looks like something I've been claiming for a long time. I have one question, though. In this view of yours, what is the job of the philosophers then? Since they're not dealing with concepts and not "doing astronomy" (or science, generally). In the last paragraph you said that "only thing that matters is the phenomena". I'm asking in what way should philosophers deal with the phenomena (that is not conceptual analysis, that is). I hope my question is clear enough.

I'm downloading Balaguer's and Baz's articles. Thank you for pointing them out.



Hi Marcus,

Very interesting. I'm generally sympathetic, and thought I'd point you to a couple of relevant papers (you may already have seen these, although they are both quite recent).

Regarding the second one - we're making the case there that clarity beyond what we find with normal usage of a term is often a useful thing (would you disagree?). But we try to set out a framework for finding such clarity that perhaps you would be happy with.

Josh May, 'On the very concept of free will' http://philpapers.org/rec/MAYOTV

and a paper of mine, co-authored with James Justus, 'X-phi and Carnapian explication'

Cheers- Josh



Van Inwagen is most certainly not offering an analysis of 'free will'. He is, rather, offering a definition of how he is using those words, just as, in later pages, he provides a definition of how he will use the word 'determinism'. In doing so, he is clarifying certain terms in certain theses the truth and implications of which he wants to investigate.

Here's another example. John Fischer believes that guidance control is "the freedom required for moral responsibility." Fischer claims that this sort of freedom is compatible with determinism even if the freedom to do otherwise is not. But he doesn't say that guidance control provides the unique analysis of what free will is.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Justin: If offering a definition of a concept is not conceptual analysis, I don't know what is. Consider the following example:

Philosopher 1: "I think bachelors are unmarried males, and I am going to explore what it is to be a bachelor on that definition."

Philosopher 2: "I do not think bachelors are merely unmarried males. They are unmarried males that behave a certain way, like Leonardo DiCaprio. And I'm going to give an argument why Philosopher 1 is wrong."

These people are engaging in conceptual analysis, pure and simple. But now here is how arguments in the free will literature go:

Philosopher 1: "I think free will is the ability to do otherwise, and I am going to show you why we don't have free will in a deterministic world."

Philosopher 2: "I don't think free will requires the ability to do otherwise, and I am going to show that Philosopher 1 is wrong."

These people are doing precisely what the bachelor debaters are doing.

Now, look, PvI, Fischer and others are doing stuff *beyond* conceptual analysis as well. They are trying to tease out what is required for moral responsibility and such. Good! Now we are talking substance! But now in order to avoid silly conceptual squabbles, the debate should go like this:

Philosopher 1: "Free will is an essentially contestable concept. So, let us set aside that term. What I want to know is whether we have the ability to do otherwise, and whether this ability is necessary for free will and moral responsibility."

Philosopher 2: "I agree with Philosopher 1. Free will is an unhelpful, essentially contestable concept. Just like Philosopher 1, I want to know what moral responsibility requires -- and I will argue that it does not require the ability to do otherwise."

*This* is a well-formed debate, and does not mire itself in problematic forms of conceptual analysis. So, I am not saying that everything people do in the free will debate is wrong -- what I am saying is that haggling over "what free will" is wrong, and this *is* what people have spent a lot of time doing.


Marcus: the substantive debate you described at the end of your 9:27 post is just the debate PvI and Fischer have been having. So, at least in that case, with respect to that debate, those two philosophers haven't been engage in conceptual analysis of the sort you pillory.

BTW: When PvI gave his definition of free will, he wasn't trying to analyze the concept of free will; he was simply letting readers know how *he* was using those words. He was defining words, not analyzing concepts. For him, there could be no sense to debating the question of whether free will requires the ability to do otherwise, since, as he was using the words "free will" in his book, it is true by definition that free will requires the ability to do otherwise.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Alex: Thanks for your comment and question. There are several ways I think philosophers should proceed.

First, as my replies above indicate, I think philosophers should set aside debates about essentially contestable concepts -- "What is free will?" (which is too indeterminate) -- and instead get down to business on more determinate questions: viz. "Are our actions reason-responsive?", "Do they emerge from a deep self?", and "Do these things matter for moral responsibility?" Many of these questions, however, are largely empirical questions. It is largely an empirical matter whether our actions are reason-responsive, emerge from a deep self -- though philosophers might be able to clarify what reasons are, what selves are, etc.

More generally, though -- and I've written about this before -- I think philosophy needs to get away from a priori, armchair theorizing, and engage with the sciences. This is, I think, a big point in Peter Unger's forthcoming book -- that armchair reasoning is "empty" -- and it was a point that Wittgenstein made in the Tractatus too. Wittgenstein held that anything that can be said at all can be said clearly, and anything that can be said clearly can be said in the language of science, not philosophy.

I don't think Wittgenstein was quite right about this. There are aspects our world -- phenomenal consciousness, time's passage, etc. -- which cannot be expressed in the language of science. The aim of philosophy (of metaphysics, ethics, etc.) should be to move beyond conceptual debates and instead look at the phenomena -- consciousness, time, etc. -- and aim to provide models of these things (and other things in the world), in ways informed by our best science. This is, for instance, what I have tried to do in "A New Theory of Free Will" (http://philpapers.org/rec/ARVANT-2 ). There, I do not mire myself in conceptual debates. Instead, I argue that (1) there are problems with existing interpretations of quantum mechanics, (2) there are problems fitting consciousness and time's passage into physical science, (3) when we put together a bunch of hypotheses from quantum physics and philosophy, we get a new model of reality that explains and resolves these problems and many more. My model may be right, it may be wrong -- but it is engaging directly with the phenomena, in a philosophical manner informed by empirical science. This is the kind of thing I think philosophers should be doing.



Your response to Justin is perplexing. How is your final debate between Philosopher 1 and Philosopher 2 any more 'well formed' than the initial debate having to do with free will?

On your view of things, isn't 'moral responsibility' just as contestable a term as free will? Heck, even some folks who disagree with your view about the inadequacy of language will think that the term 'moral responsibility' is contestable, and requires conceptual analysis in a way similar to the conceptual analysis going on with respect to FW.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Justin: That may be the substantive debate that those two are having -- but my point is that the literature has been full of the former types of debates I give in the comment. And I do not see how this can be reasonably questioned. The literature is *full* of people debating "what free will is." Also, I think there is something a bit infelicitous about saying that van Inwagen was merely offering *his* definition of "free will." He was offering it as a definition, presumably, because he thinks it is the *right* way to understand the term. Also, if he doesn't think there *is* a right way to understand the term, then he shouldn't use it at all -- any more than scientists should use terms of art like "phlogiston" (by which Scientist 1 says, "All I mean is fire!"). Philosophers should not operate with idiosyncratic definitions of contentious terms. This merely obscures matters of substance (and indeed, has done precisely this in the free will literature). We should work with terms that have a determinate meaning, just as scientists do (i.e. electrons ARE such-and-such).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Josh: Thanks for chiming in, and for the links to your papers. In fact, I've read them! There are elements of your and Justus' proposal that I very much like, and which I have suggested before on this blog (viz. empirical/X-phi examination of linguistic behavior reveals concept pluralism, which philosophy should then take seriously, etc.). I very much like this approach. Philosophers should stop arguing about what "X" means from the armchair, and let empirical science *tell* us what it means (how brains process "X", how people use "X", etc.). In this respect, I am all on board.

What I am more on the fence about is whether many terms *can* be explicated in the manner you suggest. "Free will", for example, I am very dubious about. I think it is no more useful of a concept than "phlogiston", and that all the science in the world will tell us this -- for it is, in my view, an *essentially* contestable concept (it doesn't even have a clear central domain of application). In other words, I think a proper explication/understanding of many philosophical terms should lead us to eliminate them from discourse in favor of terms that have determinate application. Maybe you and Justus are sympathetic with this -- and if so, then I am 100% on board! :)

Marcus Arvan

Hi Roger: Thanks for your comment. Yes, but I alluded to that fact in my comment! This is the reason why I think philosophy needs to get out of the armchair altogether and engage with empirical science. *It*, by and large, is what gives conceptual terminology determinate, non-empty application. Our debates about reasons, etc., should be informed by science, not done from the armchair -- for when it is done from the armchair, it results in just the perplexing state you mention!

Marcus Arvan

Everyone: Here's a simple way to construe my overall perspective.

Analytic philosophy has operated largely on a "discontinuous with science" model. Scientists are over here, dealing with empirical questions -- we philosophers are over here, dealing with conceptual, metaphysical, etc., questions.

I think this model is a mistake. I fall into the "philosophy as handmaiden to science, and science as handmaiden to philosophy" model. Productive, as opposed to empty, philosophy works with what science gives us -- and philosophy should in turn inform science. If the two work hand-in-hand, all is well. If the two come apart -- as they have -- then the result tends to be unproductive debates over fundamentally indeterminate concepts.


Hi Marcus: Thanks for your several replies. FWIW, I think PvI was just using the term 'free will' the way it had been used at that point by many of his interlocutors. In any event, all--literally all--of his substantive views on free will and moral responsibility can be rephrased without using the words 'free will'. The same is true of Fischer's work and of the work of many people working on that topic. They aren't trying to figure out what 'free will' means or is. Is anyone else? Perhaps, but I'd like to see more evidence of your claim that the literature is full of people trying to answer those sorts of questions.

I do agree with your last post that philosophers need to pay attention to science. That seems to me uncontroversial. However, I can't see that science has much bearing on, say, the substantive debate between PvI and Fischer on whether moral responsibility requires the ability to do otherwise. If that debate ever gets settled, I can't see that science will have a big role to play. The action, on issues like that at least, is in the armchair. The same could be said for many other questions addressed in the action theory literature. Wouldn't you agree?


Very interesting post and discussion. I have a basic (possibly dumb) question for Marcus:

If you think that there are "natural" limits on the degree to which a concept can be clarified or rigorously defined or analyzed, what do you think explains the fact that philosophers do apparently continue to argue about conceptual content past those limits?

I find that fact puzzling on your view. Suppose that two philosophers disagree about the concept of free will. Surely each realizes that the concept as ordinarily used or understood doesn't match up perfectly with his preferred analysis. Surely each realizes that the other guy's analysis has something going for it -- that it captures *some* notion or some aspect of some notion associated somehow with our use of words like "free", etc. If you're right, both of the disputants are arguing about something that just isn't there; each thinks that, over and above the vagaries of ordinary usage or thinking, there is some specific conceptual content to be gotten right. Do you think that they simply fail to realize that their own (ordinary) concept lacks any such content?

And one more question:

In ordinary life we often clarify concepts a little bit beyond the bounds of ordinary talking and thinking. (It seems like the Pope isn't a bachelor. Why not, exactly?) What would you say to philosophers who claim that their "conceptual analysis" is exactly the same kind of thing that we ordinarily do in clarifying concepts (outside philosophy) but simply pursued a bit further? That is, what if they claim that no principled distinction can be drawn between the acceptable/ordinary kind of clarification and the kind that you think has no point?

Marcus Arvan

Justin and Ambrose: Sorry for taking so long to reply. I got hung up on other things yesterday.

Justin: I don't think it's good for a theorist to use a term a certain way just because their interlocutors have. Suppose Philosopher used 'phlogiston' the way her interlocutors had. Does that let Philosopher off the hook? No! 'Phlogiston' doesn't refer to anything. So too, I say, 'free will' doesn't determinately refer to anything.

Anyway, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on what the literature is like. I see book after book, article after article, debating whether we have "free will", and defending different accounts thereof: FW as actual sequences, FW as reasons-responsiveness, FW as actions emerging from the deep self, etc. As a general matter, I think these accounts founder on the problem I laid out in the OP. Either they engage in problematic forms of conceptual analysis, or they just refer to *empirical* phenomena (there are actual sequences of brain phenomena, neuroscience will tell us if our actions are reason-responsive, etc.).

Finally, I do think empirical science has a *big* role to play in the debate over moral responsibility. Empirical science tells us how the brain works and -- if someone like me is right -- how libertarian free will plays a fundamental role in quantum mechanics. These are the questions we need to answer to know what moral responsibility is, and whether we have it.

Ambrose: Thanks for your comment and questions--they're not dumb at all! What do I think explains what philosophers do? Curiousity. "Curiosity", as they say, "killed the cat." We want to settle questions that cannot be settled. Take William James' example: people sitting in a park debating whether a squirrel goes round a person, or the person round a squirrel. What leads to such madness? Simple curiousity taken too far, applied without restraint to questions with no determinate answer.

I think the common claim that conceptual analysis in philosophy is "just like" what we do in ordinary life is one of the worst canards there is. For, first, we recognize in ordinary life that there are things that can be clarified and things that cannot. We can clarify, for instance, what "life" is by looking at different sorts of clearly living organisms, and find -- roughly -- what they have in common. But there are limits! And the limits stem from vagueness. No amount of clarification can settle whether a person with N or N+1 hairs is balding or not because *that* is not a determinate question given our vague concept of "bald." Anyone who tried to clarify the concept *that* far -- i.e. the philosopher -- has violated the limits of natural language.

Anyway, that is the principled distinction: language is vague, and its vagueness entails (vague!) limits on the extent to which conceptual analysis can be legitimate and fruitful.


Marcus: I agree that we'll have to disagree about whether the free will literature is dominated by conceptual analysis of the sort you describe. I simply don't see it, and I know that literature very well. I do want to be clear on something though. I said science doesn't have a big role to play on questions like whether moral responsibility requires the ability to do otherwise, and I stick by that. I don't deny, though, that there are other important philosophical questions in the neighborhood that science might play a significant role in helping us answer, e.g., like whether libertarianism is true. Thanks for the post and the discussion.


I wonder about the example of the concept of life. It seems to me that there is very definitely some real phenomenon here that our concept (roughly) attaches to. And we don't understand that phenomenon. (It's not simply about replication or genes, for example.) Are you saying that intuition or common sense can determine for us when some concept is being (purportedly) analyzed beyond the limits of intelligibility?

Also, how can we know whether the problem is vagueness (as I grant it is in the baldness case) as opposed to profound mystery (as I think it is in the life case)?


I could careless about who's whose handmaiden, who is carrying the tray of biscuits and tea and who gets to sit back and eat and drink.

The problem I have with contemporary philosophy of the analytical sort, and modern forms of scientifically reductive naturalism, is that neither group ever stops to reflect on what has made it so that either has become a dominant mode of intellectual inquiry. What social & historical conditions have made it so that the analysis of concepts has become the primary mode of doing philosophy in America and Britain? What "nature" *is*, or what "free will" *is*, is inextricably tied to the "nature" and the "free" beings that conduct the investigations. "Free will" may refer to brain firings in the U.S., but it certainly is not afforded such a referent in places where the "thing," freedom, is never experienced.

Lots of conceptual analysis fails to refer to the contents of concrete experience. That is a problem.

Marcus Arvan

S: ...and that is why I went into moral and political philosophy, and try to do it in a concrete way that does justice to concrete, lived experience. ;)

Marcus Arvan

Ambrose: Of course concepts like "life" latch onto real phenomena. So do concepts like "electrons." My point is that we should not aim for artificial levels of clarity that attempt to penetrate beyond the intrinsic vagueness of our concepts--and although "life" latches onto the world, it is vague. Viruses reproduce. Are they "alive"? On some construals yes, on others no. There is, I say, no determinate answer. Any precisification of "life" one way or the other is simply a semantic *choice*, not a fact of the matter in the world. (That viruses *reproduce* is a fact of the matter--and, I say, we should focus, as scientists do, on phenomena like this).


Hi Marcus,
I didn't mean to assert the uncontroversial claim that the concept of life refers to something. (Maybe my language was too vague:)) I mean that, in my opinion, this fundamentally _mysterious_ concept refers to a determinate but very mysterious thing. And not to a vaguely or indeterminately specified collection of things that we are free to precisify in seventeen different equally correct ways depending on our purposes.

Life seems to me to be a fundamental feature of reality that we would be able to characterize adequately if we knew a lot about reality -- more than we know now. For example, you say (or suggest) that on some interpretations of "life" things reproduction or replication is a sufficient condition for being alive. That seems very dubious to me -- I would challenge the idea that this is a _correct_ interpretation of _that_ concept. It just obviously incorrect to me, like (for example) crude verificationist theories of truth or behaviourist theories of meaning. (Surely you don't think that it's a matter of semantic choice whether empirical verifiability is a necessary condition for truth?)

So far I've only asserted some intuitions contrary to yours. But you are the one putting forward a very strong thesis. Is there a _reason_ for saying that in such cases (as opposed to the case of "bald", perhaps) the source of our confusion is indeterminacy rather than deep mystery? You might be right, but the thesis is far from obvious and given that some philosophers have my intuitions rather than yours some argument is needed.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Ambrose: Thanks for your reply.

You write: I mean that, in my opinion, this fundamentally _mysterious_ concept refers to a determinate but very mysterious thing."

I reply: Such a thing--LIFE--would exist if, and only if, there were some special "life force" (elan vital) that pervades all and only "living things." But we have no reason to believe there is any such force...and beyond that, our concept of "life" is quite indeterminate. There is no fact of the matter--given our concept of "life"--whether viruses are determinately alive or not. "Life" is a vague concept, just like "bald."

(Note: I know it seems dubious to YOU that anything that reproduces is alive--but you are missing the point. This is to commit the very error that I am accusing analytic philosophers of making; namely, that there *is* some fact of the matter of whether your intuitions or mine--your concept or mine--is objectively right. This, I say, is the silly rabbit-hole that kills philosophy. There *is* no single concept of "life". There are countless, and--provided there is no elan vital (and surely there isn't!)--there is no fact of the matter which concept is right. Reality does not have "those joints." Rather, *we* cut up the world in a myriad of closely related ways (via numerous systems of classification, some of which classify viruses as "alive", some of which don't, etc.)

Anyway, you ask: is there a reason for saying that in such cases, the source of our confusion is indeterminacy rather than deep mystery?

I reply: yes, there is a reason. Look first at our brains--at how they conceptualize the world (with vast arrays of nearly identical, but slightly different, massively redundant conceptualizations). Then look at the world. The *phenomena* are these: viruses reproduce, so do ants, tigers, and bears (oh my!). The phenomena are clear. What is *not* clear (or determinate) are our brains' ways of classifying things...and there is *nothing* in the phenomena themselves to indicate that one system of classification is "more right" (in penumbral cases) than another.


I think I simply don't understand your position. I have a few disparate comments:

i. You say that there could be such a thing as life (in my sense) iff there were some elan vital, or whatever. Well, I agree that there is such a thing iff there is _some_ kind of fundamental and mysterious thing (roughly individuated by our life-concept). And this mysterious thing, if such there be, can't be just replication or whatever -- it can't be properly conceptualized under the operative definitions often found in current biology (or scientistic philosophy). But why do you say there is no reason to believe in such a thing? Is it because, at present, it's not part of our scientific conception? If so, I don't see why that's decisive. (Since of course many real things aren't part of that conception.)

To me it seems quite reasonable to believe that there is such a thing as Life (capital 'L') though I admit I don't have a rigorous or scientific argument. It seems reasonable in the same way that it's reasonable for me to believe that consciousness or subjective experience exists. (Also things not part of our scientific conception.)

ii. When I look at "the world" or "the phenomena" I don't find that there are just things like viruses and ants and reproduction (or brains). I find (or seem to find) lives, persons with minds, meaning, value, justice, truth, etc. So if you're suggesting that it's "clear" that there are material things or things known by science and not "clear" that there is life or mind or whatever, I wonder why you believe that.

iii. I don't think we actually know anything much about how brains _conceptualize_ things. There is a vast gulf of course between our neurophysiological picture of people and the rational/personal/ethical picture. (How does a _brain_ produce a _concept_ or belief or mood? At present, science tells us nothing about this -- though of course it tells us some things about what appear to be neural correlates of these things.)

iv. If you're skeptical of the brain's capacity to carve nature at the joints when it comes to things like life, why be credulous with respect to the brain's capacity to conceptualize the other stuff -- viruses, reproduction, etc? Why not suppose that the concept of "reproduction" is also just a parochial human-centric construct that fails to carve nature at the joints? If the answer is that, unlike the concepts of life or consciousness or persons, concepts like "reproduction" or "virus" are important in scientific explanation, I wonder again why that kind of explanation or understanding is supposed to take priority over others.

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