. . . Uschanov

. . .

The Indefinite Conversation, cont.

Lawrence L. White kindly points us to T. P. Uschanov's Icy Frigid Aire:

There's so much to like here. At the risk of revealing myself as an exoticist, I confess I find the very idea of Finland intriguing -- European culture on the tundra -- as well as his ethnic background, and his use of the old English academic schtick of initials instead of names. Nice theatrical touch. Who wouldn't like a grad student who calls himself a "philosopher"? They're not that many professors with such moxy. He is also a non-tedious example of how to use the web to express intellectual interests. It's as if he invited us into his apartment, showed us the views outside the window, what's on the bookshelf, the record player, his desk. (Showing instead of telling us what he likes & doesn't like.) Google searches for Mr. Uschanov's name come up w/even more. For a while, at least, he seems to have been everywhere talking about everything. There aren't many entries for 2001. Pages on the site have been updated recently, so I don't think he's burned out. Perhaps he has had to buckle down at school.

Although there is not much of his writing on the page, it's good stuff. I think his two Wittgenstein essays are first rate, & the music writing snippet is interesting, especially for not going on too long.

Uschanov is indeed a online treat. On Usenet alone, he quotes Shangri-Las interviews, runs a Golden Oldies Lyrics Quiz, and supplies helpful reminders:

But philosophy isn't love of truth. In Greek,
    "agape" = 'love, affection'
    "philia" = 'friendship, comity'
Which means a world of difference.
A guide to personal misuse of Uschanov's longer essays:

. . .

God told me to

"All these arguments might look as if I wanted to argue for the freedom of the will or against it. But I don't want to." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein

I wouldn't describe the syllogism

  1. All changes in the universe's state are fully and unalterably determined by already existing conditions of the universe.
  2. Civil courts should not punish lawbreakers who did not exercise free choice in their lawbreaking.
  3. Therefore crimes cannot be punished.
as flawed, exactly -- logically speaking, it seems more like the explosively hemorrhaging corpses at the end of Re-Animator. Even if we try to accept the first two unwieldy propositions, it's clearly a special case of the frequently (if silently) relied upon fallacy
  1. Humanity is deluded.
  2. I am speaking to you.
  3. Therefore I and you are not deluded.
in which the judge and the syllogist have been singled out as the ones in the know.

Much tidier then is T. P. Uschanov's:

  1. All human action is determined.
  2. Punishing criminals is a human action.
  3. Therefore civil courts are determined to punish criminals.
Still not all that engaging, though. It's not his solution's problem so much as a problem with the problem itself.

In everyday life, the will exerts a level of influence that even the willer often finds embarrassingly feeble. (E.g., "I will now sit down and write that novel.") Sure, if you asked me why I took a computer programming job, I'd say "Because I decided that I wanted money more than I wanted to starve." But if you asked me why I walked into a lamp post, I could only answer, "Because I wasn't paying attention." If you went on to ask, "Why weren't you?" I might go on to answer "Because I was trying to remember all the verses to 'Duke of Earl'," but if you continued your interrogation, I'd quickly have to rest with "Hey! Lay off! I didn't do it on purpose!" The matter might then be dropped, but note that if I had been driving a car when I struck the lamp post, the justice system would hold me responsible despite my free will's lack of exercise.

On the deterministic side, if I lent a fiscally irresponsible friend $50 and he spent it all on a bottle of armagnac which he then dropped and shattered on the way home from the liquor store, I might tell myself, "Well, that was predictable." But that would just be an attempt to redirect some of my exasperation from my friend to myself; despite my claim to prescience I would not, in fact, declare any more surprise on hearing that he had instead left the money behind in his pants after impulsively joining a parade of nudists at the Folsom Street Fair.

I can't remember early polytheists or skeptics showing much interest in free will or determinism or their influence on the justice system. If a Greek god punished you by prodding you into a lousy decision, that wouldn't spring you from the local human courts: the mortal legal system's reaction counts as part of the punishment. And when loosely deist types like Unitarians or Stoics say "You can't fight city hall," they seem to mean more "You'd be a fool to try" than "City hall controls all your thoughts and actions."

No, determinism doesn't become a pressing issue until you get to a single omnipotent omniscient 100%-morally-good creator who nevertheless judges and punishes its own creations. (I guess it's true that Edgar Bergen disciplined Charlie McCarthy once in a while, but still....)

And then it continues pressing in a slightly more rumpled way with Newtonian mechanics and its catchy "give me a snapshot and I will predict the world" approach. Since science relies on reproducible results, it naturally tends to talk about what's predictable. And who doesn't want to sound scientific?

Which has led to some odd passes in the humanities, particularly in their popularized forms.

Luckily, behaviorism is out of fashion and Newtonian mechanics is not the only role model around.

In a rare fit of sophistry, Uschanov challenged a non-determinist to show one action that happened without any cause. Although "causality" has its own problems, causality is not the issue here, a conscious decision being as valid (if not as common) a "cause" as gravity is. What's at stake in determinism is predictability. And it's not hard to find unpredictability and causality coexisting peaceably in twentieth-century physics as well as in ordinary language use.

That doesn't mean that "the soul is to be found in quantum undecidability" or any such nonsense. No, the individual actions of an individual human (or canine or feline) mind are indeterminate less because of anything one could call free will -- which usually plays a negligible role -- than because of all the other crap flying around the infinitely intermingled systems of biochemistry, anatomy, self-organizing neural nets, interdependent modular processes, human society, lamp post construction, and so on. If someone converts to Scientology, and we find that on the day of his conversion he suffered a mild stroke, we might say that the stroke caused the conversion. But even if we were told the exact location of the stroke beforehand, would we have been able to predict that conversion? Although Scientologists are undoubtedly working on the problem, I'd still say no.

Decision-making consciousness is much more a fuzzy outline of convenience than a coherent all-powerful unit, but it would be silly to deny its existence on that basis: regardless of implementation details, the bundle of events found within those shifting boundaries do take place, after all, and if a court wants to pay special attention to those events (not all courts do), it can go right ahead. (I might also note that the possibility of rational decision-making is not a particularly comforting thought unless we're all rationally free-willing from a homogeneously shared set of rules and goals. Right here on the web, for example, you can find people rationally free-willing from pretty scary premises.)

Doctrinal free will seems hubristic when not trivial, but strict determinism is about as rigorous as saying that "love draws all objects together": a truly radical skeptic wouldn't affirm something which can neither be refuted nor confirmed by evidence. As a scientific hypothesis, determinism is meaningless, being unverifiable. As an ethical aid, it's meaningless by definition. That doesn't leave anyplace from which it can derive meaning -- except maybe the rosy glow of unwarranted presumption:

"... simply because I happen to enjoy knowing things most people don't know." -- conclusion of "The Standard Misinterpretation of Determinism"

. . .


Regarding our imaginary adventure, Aaron Mandel worries us:

I think the implication of the "A in B" title scheme is not just that everything turns out okay, but that A, the sympathetic star of some extended series of episodes, comes out of B essentially unchanged. At least, that's why I found CNN's slogan unnerving: it's reversed.

And, less whimsically, it implies gently that the anthrax came from outside America, while I'm starting to hear serious mumbles to the effect that the perpetrators may have been domestic terrorists.

While, regarding our Worst Episode Ever, Lawrence L. White reassures us:

Locating predictability as the turning point is, dare I say it, Wittgenstein-like: if you can't move the rock, find a different spot for the lever. One consideration: note that the legal problem is only interested in things after the fact. Examples from law seem tainted with a particular pathology, akin to the pathology of taxation-phobic voters preferring to spend more on punishing folks than on the less expensive & more effective (crime-prevention wise) technique of educating them.

I liked the entry because I have what Wittgenstein characterized as the philosophical illness. & I felt bad to think I might have infected you. I am, in part from the Wittgenstein treatment, mostly free of such vexations. Meaning I wouldn't think to try to think about those things again. Which is another reason I find Uschanov fascinating. In his case the medicine stokes the disease.

Yes, muddling legal responsiblity with determinism seems unnecessary (except, as I indicated, in the case of an omniscent omnipotent judge). Already the central ethical problem of punitive justice is that past events can't be undone. Why make matters even more difficult for our dear caretakers by asking whether future events can be?

To retreat to ordinary English usage: Could an individual change something that's already happened? No, that doesn't seem meaningful. Could she change something that hasn't happened yet? Certainly not -- if it doesn't exist, it can't be changed. Can she be part of something happening? Certainly she can, and the only way around that is to radically redefine what "she" refers to. That's where "free will" comes in, but (unlike schools) courts can have nothing to say about the present tense (except "I object!" or such like)....

As for personal regret, the "philosophical illness" holds even less terror than anthrax. No, what really bothered me about my post was first, that it seemed misshapen as argumentative prose, and second, more damningly, that it seemed redundant: that I'd added nothing to what was already available, even if we restrict ourselves to the Web.

Referring to the Bill of Artifactual Values kept in my wallet at all times:

  1. Best is to make potentially inaccessible work accessible: to publish & to lend. (Thus the obsession with the DMCA and so forth.)

  2. Next best is to publicize relatively unknown work & ideas or actually produce (heavens!) new work & ideas.

  3. Next best after that is to show new aspects of relatively available work & ideas -- to add to their audience or to their interest or at least to what might be considered their "understanding."

  4. But utterly indefensible -- vacuous in itself and friend to future vacuity -- is to throw more of the same thing into a pool of existing same thing. Art is perfectly justifiable in the age of mechanical reproduction; cover bands less so. (Therefrom springs my antagonism towards group products ranging from "academic canons" and "postmodernism" and "doctoral programs" to "news media" and "pundits" and "awards shows.")
It's a strictly additive morality based on a loosely Kantian metaphysics: anti-consensus, aestheticizing, disputatious (albeit and alongsides welcoming correction and contradiction), potentially anti-groove, perhaps dangerously-near-solipsist. But mine own. And by its light I sinned where neither Lawrence L. White, T. P. Uschanov, nor Ludwig Wittgenstein had.

. . .


David Auerbach writes (or rather wrote, eleven days ago -- I gotta improve my turnaround time!)

Your treatment of free will as being subordinate to the predictability issue is justified (there are articles out there maintaining that chaos theory proves the existence of free will), but I think there's some cultural significance to the free will issue that you've overlooked. Free will is mostly used in ethical and political contexts. You say that regardless of your free choice, you'll be held responsible for hitting the lamppost, but I think that's only 2/3 true. Given the 3 canonical reasons for the sentence awaiting you:

  1. Let's use him as an example so people stop hitting lampposts as much.
  2. Let's make sure he never hits lampposts again.
  3. Let's give him what he deserves for hitting that lamppost.
--the first is almost never used as justification except in cases of capital punishment, where it's generally acknowledged as fallacious anyway, the second is more common for petty crime than real crime, leaving the third as the dominant rationale in the justice system today. Which would be fine, except that desert really does rely on some notion of autonomous action, separable from environmental factors, in order not to fall apart. (There's a lot of hand-wringing that can go on here over deserts being assigned within/without a being, but it's all bean-counting.) Agency survives determinism, since it was you what hit the lamppost, but a sentence that doesn't fall into the category of determent doesn't.

(I know I'm taking a Sartre-like position that inconsistency is the worst of all possible sins, but hey, that was always true in the rarefied world of philosophy.)

So, if you follow determinism, people can be assigned responsibility for actions without having any moral desert for what follows from them, and I've never seen a convincing argument linking the two. But introduce free will and the world is suddenly a much fairer place. And it's not just coincidence that

(t1) Paul Allen deserves to have 50 billion dollars.
sounds a lot better than
(t2) Paul Allen should have 50 billion dollars.
People like Robert Nozick have always been careful to couch their moral pronouncements in the first form rather than the second, and with good reason. But it's only with the presumption of some sort of free will that the statements have any meaningful difference.

It's been a few years, but I recall that Rawls uses the same desert principles to defend his social justice system, and I've never understood why, because he doesn't seem to need them. ("The poor deserve to have a decent standard of living" vs. "The poor should have a decent standard of living.", e.g.) Maybe it makes his arguments more palatable to Confucianists.

So my main point of departure from you is that I think there is a very definite use for the concept of free will beyond religion, unfortunately. The best that can be said is that free will is a far more established concept for neocons to pin their hopes on than, say, substantive due process or strict constructionism. You're probably right on the irrelevancy of the concept in classical civilizations, but that's a question for Alasdair MacIntyre to answer.

Work calls, but free will is a nice distraction from matters of importance. (I note the triumphalist tone in that piece clashing nicely with utter despondency in the privacy entry.)

I actually don't hear much about the world being a fair place, so I'll skip that debate.

Only in special circumstances (which I'll get to in a bit) does the notion of "desert" rely on the assumption of free will in the deserver. Instead, "desert" relies on the existence (tacit or explicit) of some disher of deserts, and moreover assumes that the disher has free will. It's meaningless to discuss "what reward or punishment is deserved" if there's no possibility of a rewarder or punisher. Without such an agency, all we have is "what is" or (if you're feeling ambitious) "what is caused."

It's easy for me to say that "Carol Emshwiller's books deserve front page coverage by the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Review of Books" not because I assume that Emshwiller's books have free will, but because it's easy for me to picture the fat-cat top-hatted stogie-chomping editors of those organs free-wilfully derelicting their duties, the cads.

On the other hand, I'm more likely to say that "I wish M. John Harrison's books were bestsellers" or "People should really be doing more to make M. John Harrison's books bestsellers" than to say that "M. John Harrison's books deserve to be bestsellers" (and even less that "M. John Harrison deserves to write bestsellers"), because the birth of a bestseller is far too confusing a process for my pretty little blond head to handle.

And what ho! here's monotheism again! A more general notion of desert (or, as the professors call it, justice) assumes (again, often tacitly) a more general notion of judge: a universal, omniscient, omnipotent, fair, righteous, and free agency. When we say, "I deserve to be happy," that's who we're appealing to; when we say "Those 6000 people didn't deserve to die" (or, conversely, "Those 6000 people deserved to die") that's who we're implicitly arguing with (or explicitly agreeing with). Similarly, when we (or more likely they) say that "Paul Allen deserves fifty billion dollars," they're imaginatively placing themselves in the role of that wise and benevolent deity called the Free (ha ha ha ha!) Market.

Consider instead the human agents of the employee benefits organization CIGNA who decided that Wilson H. Taylor deserved a $1,200,000 salary and a $3,500,000 bonus. It's hard to believe that they cared about Taylor's freedom of will any more than Microsoft cares about its programmers' freedom of will. On the contrary, I imagine that any business would prefer that its employees be as deterministic as possible. What they instead assume is their own right to hand such a large sum of money over to an individual -- and, particularly, to an individual who so resembles themselves.

The apparent justice of such judgments depends on a shared context; that is, ideally on a jury of one's peers (as opposed to a jury of the peerage -- e.g., Bush before the Republican Supreme Court as opposed to you-or-me before the Republican Supreme Court, or Steve Ballmer in front of Microsoft's board as opposed to you-or-me in front of Microsoft's board). When I bomb a building, whether I'm punished or praised depends on what context I share with judge and jury; when I do my job, whether I'm given a million-dollar bonus or laid off depends on the same.

Which finally brings us to the barely visible sliver of human existence in which the notion of "justice" and the notion of "free will" overlap. "Free will" (or "determinism") is experienced more often in introspective recollection than in action -- "It's my own fault" or "I didn't really have a choice" -- and punitive judgment is, very slightly and only after the more essential matter of deciding whether a law has been broken or a party has been injured, a matter of applying that introspective experience to someone else's past conduct. On a jury or on the bench, we assume both an unusual freedom and an unusual weightiness in our decision making, and the closer the miscreant came to our own (extremely rare) state of knowledge and power, the more culpable we consider them. *

Therein inheres the wit of T. P. Uschanov's swinging the deterministic spotlight onto the hidden-but-necessary P.O.V. courtroom characters of judge and jury.

*       Which is putting it awfully idealistically, of course: many judges and juries couldn't care less about that aspect of "justice," and those who could find it much easier to apply these strict standards externally than internally: that is, we blandly assume that the (extremely rare) mindset that we're in at the moment is the same as held in whatever external situation we're considering, and then blandly forget that mindset while going about our quotidian affairs. Thus the honestly self-righteous indignation displayed by those in power when they're declared miscreants, or by daytime talk show audience members who find themselves treated roughly on the talk show stage.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.