Bryan Caplan  

What I'm "Dogmatic" About

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Tyler recently wrote:
If you're very dogmatic in one area, you may be less dogmatic in others.  I've also met people -- I won't name names -- who are extremely dogmatic on ethical issues but quite open-minded on empirics.  The ethical dogmatism frees them up to follow the evidence on the empirics, as they don't feel their overall beliefs are threatened by the empirical results.
While Tyler's not naming names - even privately - I have strong reason to believe that my name is near the top of his private list.  If so, I protest that the shoe doesn't fit.  I admit that there are some specific claims that I'm "dogmatic" about in the sense that I can't imagine any evidence or argument that would cause me to drastically revise my probabilities.*  My top picks:

1. The physical world exists.
2. One mental entity exists, namely myself.
3. This mental entity exists over time and has free will.
4. Other living human beings also usually have mental states, exist over time, and have free will.
5. Moral facts exist - some things are objectively good, bad, right, wrong, etc.

But notice that no normative ethical claims make the list; #5 is about meta-ethics.  The ethical principles I'm most tempted to add are, in my view, merely prima facie true:

6. It is good to be alive and happy.
7. It is wrong to murder, steal, or lie.

Utilitarians, Kantians, and wealth-maximizers are often bullet-bitingly dogmatic about their ethical positions.  But I'm not.

* If by "dogmatic" you mean excessively certain, then I naturally dispute the charge.  But that's trivial.


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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Tyler Cowen writes:

Shadow boxing!

BZ writes:
1. The physical world exists.

I have seen no evidence of this. It must be false.

Robert Wiblin writes:

"5. Moral facts exist - some things are objectively good, bad, right, wrong, etc."

The link you provide gives no actual rebuttal of "4.1. Value judgements as universally false" apart from 'this is absurd'. Nor does it provide a positive case for the existence of moral facts, it just attempts to rule out a non-exhaustive list of other options. I would be much less confident of #5 if I were you.

Tracy W writes:

So by this, you mean things that you've decided to treat as true, even though absolute proof can never be shown?
By this definition, my own list is pretty similar.

BZ - was your reply serious or tongue-in-check?

Snorri Godhi writes:

6. It is good to be alive and happy.

I take that as the definition of "the good", and therefore I have no need for claims such as:

5. Moral facts exist

A bit off-topic: I am not sure what you mean by "free will". Does that mean that we are value-oriented [obviously true] or that we can choose our values [which leads to an infinite regress]?

Sulla writes:

7. It is wrong to murder, steal, or lie.

How is this prima facie true ?

Richard writes:

7. It is wrong to muder, steal, or lie.

"Murder" means kill wrongfully. "Steal" means take wrongfully. This statement is not "prima facie" true. It's a tautology.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

A person I remember years ago this especially seemed true for: Pat Robertson. No need to elaborate!

Matt C writes:

Happy 4th of July Bryan!     ;)

I'd like to hear more sometime about your insistence on free will. Your essay at http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/freewill doesn't address the empirical evidence that choices are controlled by mechanical processes of the brain. If changing the brain's structure (say, by getting drunk or suffering a stroke) *causes* a change in the kind of choices a person will make, doesn't that suggest that choices are *caused* by brain activity rather than some non-physical process?

I suppose you could argue that choices are *partly* caused by physical activity in the brain and *partly* (uncaused by?) something else, but that sounds shaky to me and I bet to you also.

Would love for you to be right--just can't convince myself of it.

Tracy W writes:

Matt C - but are our choices controlled by mechanical processes of the brain?

I assume that when we say "choice" here we are talking about those behaviours that feel like they are under our conscious will, as opposed to those behaviours like digestion of food, which everyone agrees we can't consciously control.

I agree with you that changes to the physical structure of the brain can cause a change in the kind of choices a person will make, but "cause" is not the same as "control", in the sense of leaving no space for any other causes. I had a summer job at uni working with people with brain injuries, and a few years later one of my brothers had a serious brain injury, and I know that brain injuries have serious effects, but when I see people with brain injuries I see people still trying to react and make sense of the world around them, like other people. There may be some things that are permanently lost (eg some people after brain injuries only see the left-hand side of the world), but overall brain-injured people's behaviour strikes me as similar to that of people without brain injuries.

My own theory for free will, I don't know what Bryan might think, is that as humans evolved the social world we live in got too complex for deterministic logic, so evolution came up with an emergent property of a being that could judge the future, perhaps very poorly, and make choices, rather than just follow rules (I say humans, but obviously free will could have emerged long before anything human-looking came along, I am inclined to believe that dogs, birds and cats have some ability to make choices, while being aware that I could be wrong about that.) An injury to the wrong area of the brain harms this emergent property, but doesn't always eliminate it.

Of course, if the determinists are right, then this theory of mine is entirely caused by things outside my control.

BZ writes:

Tracy: I was trying to be VERY tongue-in-cheek. After all, "evidence", by its empirical nature, would beg the question.

Being a reductionist, especially in epistimology and ethics, I always love an opportunity to score some points for that perspective.

John Baskette writes:

Greetings Mr. Caplan:

Ironically, your attempt to refute Mr. Cowen proves his point as he notes in his comment to you. Specifically:

If you're very dogmatic in one area, you may be less dogmatic in others.

You are dogmatic in epistemological areas but not in metaphysical ones (and economical ones).

Further, your own argument refutes itself. You say

5. Moral facts exist

and then say that statement is meta-ethical and not normative (establishing a standard), which is clearly false.

Clearly you are dogmatic if by that it is meant you state things:

1. Of or like dogma (a doctrine, tenent or belief) 2. asserted a priori without proof 3. state opinion in a positive or arrogant way.

It does not seem to me like number 3. applies to you, but 1. "like dogma" and 2. apply with 1. >> 2. since you almost always supply proofs for your statements.

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

Keep up the good work.

Tracy W writes:

Actually what I picked up on was that absence of evidence is not, per se, evidence of absence. So just because you haven't see any evidence that the physical world exists doesn't mean that you can conclude that the idea is definitely false.

endorendil writes:

I think you make a clear mistake with dogma 3. A lot of evidence shows that our thought processes are not continuous, or even all that coherent. The mere idea that anyone could believe in free will after all the research that has shown how easily our minds are changed by seemingly irrelevant things is mind-boggling. I propose you rewrite dogma 3 as:

This mental entity believes it is coherent, persistent and in control, and because it believes that, it thinks it has free will.

Either that, or you have to find a way to ignore an awefull lot of research.

Tracy W writes:

endorendil - but if our minds are easily changed by seemingly irrelevant things, how do you know that your impression of the state of psychology research is reliable? Is it not possible that your mind was changed by seemingly irrelevant things? And how do we know that the people who did the psychological research did it right and observed and reported it right?

And, while we are at it, if you are right, and our minds are easily changed by irrelevant things, then how come you are making a logical argument here in response to Bryan, rather than saying something like "We don't have free will, Look! An eagle!" (I suppose your answer is that you don't have free-will, so you are obliged to go around pursuing ineffectual means of attempting to persuade others to be determinist.)

Tracy W writes:

A question for the determinists, is there any empirical evidence that could disprove determinism?

Pandaemoni writes:

Another question for the determinists, how can one believe in free will and determinism at the same time? Everything is determined entirely by its preceding causes, except for the choices you make?

I do not understand why people cling to determinism anyway, since quantum mechanics has strongly suggested that (unless modern science is wrong) the reality we experience has a stochastic (non-deterministic) underpinning. Even the quasi-"deterministic" interpretations of quantum mechanics, like the Bohm interpretation, rely on tricks to make sure that the world must always remain probabilistic, because certain quantities are unknowable, even in theory.

The problem with QM apart from its rejection of determinism, is I am not sure it jives with the physical world truly being "real" in the sense Bryan means. It's notion of reality is counterintuitive in many respects. Schrödinger's cat in the box is not really in a superposition of states that leaves it both alive and dead at the same time, but only because quantum decoherence leaks that superpositional element into the environment, leaving the observer also caught up in the superposition, and creating only the appearance, but not the actuality, of a collapse of the relevant wave function.

Not the QM will be the final word on the scientific understanding of reality, but it is the nest we have and it is remarkably successful. It's hard to imagine a truly deterministic version ever being correct, since the stochastic elements are so vital to what gives the theory its predictive value.

Matt C writes:

Tracy W--you said:

I agree with you that changes to the physical structure of the brain can cause a change in the kind of choices a person will make, but "cause" is not the same as "control", in the sense of leaving no space for any other causes.

To have a physical event cause a change in the kind of choices a person makes may not be important to you, but I think it is to Bryan. In his essay, he says:

the kind of freedom that I am talking about . . . is the freedom of the mind from causal determination . . .

For Bryan, choices are *not* subject to causality. I'm guessing he believes a human choice (as opposed to the results of that choice) is not a biochemical process at all.

I think for Bryan, any evidence that choices are in fact controlled (even partly controlled) by brain chemistry and/or structure is problematic. So I picked some examples he probably has experience with.

Troy Camplin writes:

The action of the brain gives rise, in a bottom-up fashion, to the mind which, in turn, affects the action of the brain. It is in this dual feedback that free will comes about.

One can compare this to the relationship between biochemical systems and the cell. The cell has emergen properties not predictable from an understanding of chemistry, yet nonetheless exist. Relative to chemistry, cells have "free will." Relative to the brain, the mind has free will.

Tracy W writes:

Matt C - Bryan earlier on in that essay said:

A being has free will if given all other causal factors in the universe (genetic and environmental, physical and chemical are two popular current pairings) it nevertheless possesses the ability to choose more than one thing.

So like me, Bryan accounts for other causal factors as explicitly possiblities of what could change the brain.

My problem with the determinist approach is, well, how does it work? We live in a complex environment we have not evolved for - with things like motorcars and mobile phones, and windsurfers, and we often face new situations. Let's take one time, I was out windsurfing in a lagoon with very murky water when I managed to knock myself off my windsurfer in such a way that I plummeted to the bottom of the lagoon with all the air knocked out of my lungs. I kicked off the bottom to get back to the surface, but when I reached the top my head bumped against the sail of the windsurfer, preventing me from getting to oxygen. So I duck-dived and swam well under water several metres until I was confident that I was out from under the sail, and then surfaced, to get that useful oxygen. Now, if the determinists are right, I didn't have a choice about that. So how do they think I managed to hit on an effective way of being able to breathe again? I have been swimming for most of my life, but I don't recall ever having lessons in what to do if you came up under a windsurfing sail and it's not something I worked out by trial and error. It also seems unlikely that I would have evolved a set of instructions for what to do if a sail gets between you and oxygen - most people can't swim if they're not taught, and swimming itself seems like a more generally useful survival skill than getting away from windsurfer sails. Or alternatively, determinists, by massive coincidence, think that my neurons in my brain just happened to mesh together in a way that happened to save my life? There are plenty of cases where people get killed in similar situations, so perhaps this is possible, but then there are plenty of cases of people surviving life-threatening situations as a result of them taking particular actions (eg the guy who cut his arm off, the mountaineer in Touching the Void, to pick some more dramatic and famous examples, and plenty of members of the hiking groups I belong to have stories similar to mine), I find it implausible that survival of a life-threatening situation is entirely a matter of chance, nothing to do with the mind's analysis of the situation and making choices about how to cope with it.

Endorendil wrote:

The mere idea that anyone could believe in free will after all the research that has shown how easily our minds are changed by seemingly irrelevant things is mind-boggling.

Whatever happened to earlier instances of research that appeared to show the absence of free will? What happened to brainwashing? What happened to brain probes? What happened to subliminal advertising? What happened to the psychological techniques that would supposedly enable totalitarian governments to compel voluntary obedience?

It looks like the phenomena that supposedly showed yesterday's social scientists that free will does not exist vanished with little trace. Why should we take similar stuff today seriously?

Maybe the the commonest type of "predictable irrationality" is the belief among some social scientists (or, to be more exact, journalists covering psychological research) that they know better than the rest of us.

endorendil writes:

Tracy
"endorendil - but if our minds are easily changed by seemingly irrelevant things, how do you know that your impression of the state of psychology research is reliable? Is it not possible that your mind was changed by seemingly irrelevant things? And how do we know that the people who did the psychological research did it right and observed and reported it right?"

In all the "alternate" cases you propose, the assertion remains correct: we're not in control of our minds and we don't even realize when we're being deceived into thinking it. If you're trying to make my point, thanks.

"And, while we are at it, if you are right, and our minds are easily changed by irrelevant things, then how come you are making a logical argument here in response to Bryan, rather than saying something like "We don't have free will, Look! An eagle!" (I suppose your answer is that you don't have free-will, so you are obliged to go around pursuing ineffectual means of attempting to persuade others to be determinist.)""

Logical arguments appeal to a small part of the brain. As a scientist, it's the part of the brain I cultivate most. As a thoughtful human, I have no illusions about its importance, though.

endorendil writes:

Joseph,

Just because some experiments didn't work out hardly proves that the others are wrong. Our feeble-mindedness is constantly used by companies, politicians and preachers. There's no denying how weakly we are in control of our minds.

Snorri Godhi writes:

endorendil:
Our feeble-mindedness is constantly used by companies, politicians and preachers.

Please speak for yourself!

eccdogg writes:

I am with Tracy, I don't see how a determinist could ever have confidence in any of thier conclusions even determinism since they would be pre determinined to believe whatever they believe.

Consequently thier conclusions have no information content.

eccdogg writes:

I posted this on Tyler's thread.

There are concepts that are outside the field of reason and empiricism in that reason and empiricism can neither prove nor disprove them.

So the conversation typically goes.

Me "I believe X"

You "There is no evidece for X"

Me "But there is no evidence for not X either"

You "So you should suspend judgement on X"

Me "But my intuition tells me that X is true, I don't ask you to believe X if your intuition tells you something different, but don't tell me I should not believe X when there is no evidence of not X"

Me "Furthermore I wil take actions as if X is true, I may be wrong, but in the absence of any evidence one way or the other I am going to follow my intuition"

I think of it this way.

Two men are walking together blindfolded.

One man says to the other. "I think we are coming up to a cliff".

The other says "I think you are wrong".

The first guy says "Well I may be, but I am stopping here anyway"

The second guy say "Come on there is no evidence that we are coming too a cliff. I don't know why you will not keep walking. Why are you being so dogmatic?"

Snorri Godhi writes:

eccdogg:
I am with Tracy, I don't see how a determinist could ever have confidence in any of thier conclusions even determinism since they would be pre determinined to believe whatever they believe.

I have heard this reasoning before, but I am not convinced. By the same token, I should not trust the temperature reading on a thermometer, because the thermometer is pre-determined to give that temperature reading (under the current environmental conditions).

eccdogg writes:

I think the difference is YOU and external observer (with free will in my view) makes the determination whether to trust the thermometer or not.

The thermometer makes no determination on whether to trust itself.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Eccdog:
yes, I decide whether I can trust the thermometer; but a determinist would claim that this decision is mechanical: I can conceive of a thermostat with a microchip and an AI feature that decides whether to trust the thermometer or not; but the decision is deterministic.

I should add that such a thermostat would indeed have what I would call a primitive form of free will.

Also, this talk of determinism is a bit of a red herring, because adding randomness to the thermostat's decision does not increase whatever "free will" it might have; just as flipping a coin before taking a decision does not increase our free will.

Noah Yetter writes:
3. This mental entity exists over time and has free will.
So, you don't believe in physics?

I'm just being snarky but seriously, causality rules out free will.

Troy Camplin writes:

No, causality does not rule out free will. As I said above, the action of the brain gives rise, in a bottom-up fashion, to the mind which, in turn, affects the action of the brain. It is in this dual feedback that free will comes about.

One can compare this to the relationship between biochemical systems and the cell. The cell has emergen properties not predictable from an understanding of chemistry, yet nonetheless exist. Relative to chemistry, cells have "free will." Relative to the brain, the mind has free will.

In other words, the actions of the neurons cause the mind, which in turn cause the actions of the neurons. We have two levels of causality. Free will occurs in the top-down causality -- in the mind acting on the brain.

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