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Dr. Torley’s Beautiful Stuff

Dr. Torley sometimes buries some beautiful stuff in the comment threads of his posts. I am determined to dig them out to display to a wider audience. Here’s one. In response to a comment on his free will post he writes:

Thank you for a thought-provoking response. I have to say that despite the impressive level of argumentation, I was not persuaded that a determinist gains anything by taking responsibility for past mistakes.
You offer the example of the two women, one of whom takes responsibility for her past while the other one does not. You appeal to a complicated metaphysic of alternative universes to justify your point that by taking responsibility for your past, you can change your future. I would reply that you can change your future without taking responsibility for your past. Consider the following example.
Tess is a young athlete. She’s very good at running 100-meter sprints. She has a rival, named Sandra. One day, at an athletics carnival, they race. Sandra wins by 0.2 seconds. Tess feels disappointed. But she’s an incompatibilist determinist, so she does not feel guilty for not having trained harder.
After the race, her coach walks up to her with a video in his hand. He’s an incompatibilist determinist, too, so he doesn’t raise his voice or get angry at her. He sits down with her and they watch the video together. “Now I want you to look at this,” he says, showing her a clip of the beginning of the race. “Do you see how your feet were positioned at the start? Now have a look at Sandra’s starting position. Her feet are perfectly positioned. That gave her a 0.3-second advantage. But Sandra only won today’s race by 0.2 seconds, so I’d say she’s 0.1 second slower than you are. Why don’t you try Sandra’s crouch position next time? Our next practice session is tomorrow.”
Tess agrees and the next day, she practices starting a race in Sandra’s crouch position. Her coach is right. It shaves about 0.3 seconds off her time for the 100 meters. At the next athletics carnival, Tess beats Sandra by 0.1 second, just as her coach had predicted.
See what I mean? No counterfactuals, no alternative universes, no Godel paradoxes. Just give it a go, based on an appeal to deterministic considerations: the mechanics of running. Change the inputs to get different outputs. In my story, Tess manages to turn her running career around: she gets to be the State champion. But she remains an incompatibilist determinist. She isn’t a “prisoner of her past”; she simply doesn’t believe in dwelling on the past. “There’s no use crying over spilt milk”, as she puts it.
End of story? No, not quite. Just before the National Championships, Tess is feeling rather nervous, because she knows that ten runners from other states are better than her. Her coach (who has no scruples about doing whatever it takes to win) offers her a drug that will speed up her reaction times, and that will leave no traces in her system after two hours. She agrees to take the drug, because she has heard that athletes are seldom tested right after the race. Unfortunately, the coach of one of her rivals has videotaped the event, and notices on the replay that Tess was out of the blocks very early. He calls for a drug test immediately after the race. Tess is found to have taken a performance-enhancing drug. She is banned from competition for two years, and is sent home in disgrace.
On the bus ride home, Tess gazes out the window, and has a good, hard think. All her life she has been focused on one thing: getting good results. Do whatever works best. That has been her motto. Now she sees that living in acordance with that motto has landed her in disgrace. She realizes too that all her life, she has been manipulating her circumstances to help her get the best results, in a very calculating, deterministic fashion. That includes people too. She has been treating other people merely as means to help her realize her personal goals, instead of as agents like herself. That has been her mistake. She remembers the look of utter contempt that the other State runners gave her when her result came back positive. “I’ve been training for this day for three years”, one of them said to her. “Why did you have to spoil it for me?” Tess realizes that she has neglected to think about how other people feel. But then a little demon of doubt enters her mind. “We’re all determined”, it says. “That’s science. You know that. Change your attitude if you like, but don’t pretend it’s any different from improving your running techniques. You’re just changing your behavior to fit your new goal: social acceptance by your peers, so you can come back and race again in two years’ time. I suppose you’ll be appearing on TV soon in a commercial, telling kids not to do drugs? Nice. Will that be that part of your rehabilitation? Whatever. You’re still the same old you. You haven’t changed a bit, deep down. And you never will.”
“NO!” Tess screams aloud, startling herself and the other passengers on the bus. Something has changed inside her. She felt a surge of empathy with the other State runners, this afternoon: she felt their pain and disappointment. She recognizes that she has stopped thinking of herself and other people as objects – very complex objects, to be sure, but still objects – bascially, glorified machines. That, she realizes, has been the root of her problem. For if people really are like that, then what’s wrong with manipulating them? The key to freeing herself from the machine metaphor, she realizes, is to stop thinking like a machine. No more “What are my goals and what’s the best way to achive them?” Forget about goals,and focus on agents. “Who is in my world, what are my relationships to them, and what obligations do I have towards them?” That is the primary question. Once she has adopted this moral perspective, Tess notices that she is no longer goal-focused. She has become more people-focused. She has stopped living her life as if the arrow of time were moving inexorably towards the big D. Her new moral perspective is now a timeless one. She, like the other moral agents she has started noticing around her, is no longer concerned with future goals as such. For the goals that befit a human being are not future goals, but ones that transcend time. She decides to go back into athletics, not as a runner but as a coach. She decides not to train champions, but to help kids of varying backgrounds and levels of ability experience the pure, wholehearted joy of participating in a physical activity while doing their personal best. Looking back, she can see that it was that feeling of joy that got her into running in the first place.
In Tess’s new life, determinism doesn’t get a toe-hold. She still believes that procedures work, and that they can be made to work better by manipulating the circumstances. That’s a perfectly legitimate way of thinkig about objects. But she no longer counts people as objects. Insofar as they are capable of moral agency, they transcend the physical universe. She thinks of herself as transcending this cosmos, too. Laws constrain her – she can’t run 100 meters in 2 seconds – but they do not define her. Neither do circumstances. The moral universe in which she operates is no longer one of past, present and future alone, and she no longer fancies that her thoughts are the product of her brain chemistry. Her thoughts are what they are, and she doesn’t try to put them in a box. She realizes that her thoughts and attitudes are, to a large degree, something which she can freely choose. She no longer tries to predict other people’s behavior, in order to manipulate it better; instead, she tries to understand it. She is always aware, however, that to understand is not the same as to excuse. She can understand her past moral mistakes, but she makes no attempt to excuse them. She simply wants to live a good life in her chosen field: athletics.
Elizabeth, I know that you strongly believe in agency. But it is profoundly self-limiting to accept the notion that your noblest thoughts, words and deeds arise out of your body and brain chemistry – even if they are not reducible to it. For by accepting this notion of supervenience, you have allowed yourself to believe that the domain of the moral can be explained in terms of a domain whose workings are entirely non-moral (physics and chemistry). That is a notion that stunts people from achieving their full potential. And there’s not a smidgin of scientific evidence for it. I would urge you to liberate yourself from the confines of the material cosmos. For it does not contain you; part of you will always lie outside it, no matter how you draw it.
I know you like Godel, so here are a few quotes from him, taken from A Logical Journey: From Gödel to Philosophy by Hao Wang (MIT Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0262231893). “Consciousness is connected with one unity. A machine is composed of parts.” “The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit.” “Materialism is false.” “Our total reality and total existence are beautiful and meaningful . . . . We should judge reality by the little which we truly know of it. Since that part which conceptually we know fully turns out to be so beautiful, the real world of which we know so little should also be beautiful. Life may be miserable for seventy years and happy for a million years: the short period of misery may even be necessary for the whole.” And I suppose you’re aware that Godel originated an interesting little proof for the existence of God, right?

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29 Responses to Dr. Torley’s Beautiful Stuff

  1. 1

    Yes, Barry. Agreed – Beautiful!

  2. This has so much application to a particular family member of mine. Also to me. I won’t go into detail, but it’s significant. Thanks for posting it here. I might have missed it.

  3. Yeah, I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading an argument which is polished to a high gloss with Politically (and Academically) Correct “gender inclusive language”.

  4. I’ve often wondered at the determinist perspective that “you can’t change the past” and that we are an inexorable product of the past .. how would they know? They only imagine as “memory” whatever physics commands them to imagine as memory; as far as they know, it’s all a faux, projected continuity and the past is constantly changing. For all they know, they are a disembodied brain imagining everything. The Lathe of Heaven, anyone?

    - William. J. Murray

  5. 5

    Ilion, you are walking on thin ice.

  6. So, the rabid Darwinists are right about UD?

  7. One can be grating and informative all at once.
    If the rabid Darwinists claim you’re way too heavy on the former to the detriment of the latter then, yes; they’ve got it right.

  8. I guess you’re not up to speed.

    Mr Arrington is pissed at me (for pointing out the fallacious nature of his pseudo-apology to a cartain DarwinDefender); his comment about the thin ice is a not-too-veiled threat (*) in retaliation to ban me from UD.

    (*) Attempted threats are only threatening to those who fear the threatened consequence. As I don’t, it isn’t.

  9. I think you’re missing the point.

    The tone of your original post (“I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading…) comes across as rather disrespectful towards Dr. Torley as does your note to Barry on his “pseudo-apology”.

    Demonstrate the behavior you call for in others and I’m sure no one will threats of any kind.

  10. I think you’re missing the point.

    Why would you imagine such a thing?

    The tone of your original post (“I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading…) comes across as rather disrespectful towards Dr. Torley …

    Mr Torley intentionally deploys the dishonest and politicized language which was invented by leftists so as to sow resentment between the sexes. While Mr Torley is not a leftist, and holds himself opposed to leftism, in this regard, he plays willingly plays the part of a “useful idiot”.

    Why would you imagine he is owed respect in this regard, when he intentionally uses that mode of speaking?

    “Gender inclusive language” has three uses:
    1) by leftists, to attempt to sow societal disrespect toward men and mutual resentment between men and women;
    2) by leftists, to signal to other leftists that one is a leftist;
    2) by non-leftists, it is used by academics and other feminized men to signal to the leftist gate-keepers that the user is “cool”.

    Why would you imagine that I am so foolish as to desire to be “cool” with someone who wants to be “cool” with the leftists? Leftists are the enemies of mankind; anyone who knowingly goes out of his way to be “cool” with them might as well be one.

    … as does your note to Barry on his “pseudo-apology”.

    Is it my place to coddle Mr Arrington’s tender ego? Or, is it my place to speak the truth, even if it’s a truth he dosn’t want to hear?

    And, the truth here is that Mr Arrington has engaged in the very same behavior of which he is indignant when DarwinDefenders do it.

    Demonstrate the behavior you call for in others and I’m sure no one will threats of any kind.

    What an amusing thing to insinuate; when have I *ever* not?

    What I expect of others — no matter which “side” they are on — is a commitment to truth and reason at all times. I’m not going to give Mr Torley or Mr Arrington a pass on this, just because they are among “the good guys”; it would be intellectually dishonest of me to hold them (or myself) to a lesser standard than I do “the bad guys”.

  11. Torley…leftists..useful idiots…feminized men…Arrington…it’s all to much for my fragile psyche.

    My brain feels like a canned ham stuffed into a coffee mug.
    The words “diminishing returns” just flashed in my mind’s eye.

  12. I quite understand “diminishing returns” … which is why I almost never justify myself to anyone about anything; because the people who demand it almost never are paying attention if they get it.

  13. … and, it’s too bad about your brain. How is your mind dealing with all this?

  14. I suppose the point is that a gentle word and a little kindness are often more effective means to an end than harping on peripherals.

    Take Barry and Dr. Liddle. In his apology he mentioned how he really did appreciate Dr. Liddle (I happen to appreciate both of them!).
    Dr. Liddle accepted the apology and will likely continue posting here thereby elevating the quality of discourse at Uncommondescent.

    Now, it’s understood you don’t think much of Barry’s apology but that’s of no matter. Barry says he’s sincere and Dr. Liddle believes him.

    The day goes on, trains keep rolling, the sun will in all likelihood rise again tomorrow in the way it has since time immemorial but now there’s a significant difference: Barry has made a friend (or something like it) of Dr. Liddle simply by being kind.
    Will they agree anytime soon? Not likely.
    Are they more likely to be patient when considering each other’s position? I’d say…yes.

    Even if Barry doesn’t give you the boot you run the high risk of being irrelevant. No one will read what you post because it’ll just be more of the same.

    I find that sad because I’m pretty sure you have much to contribute here; certainly more than me. I know next to nothing except that my local sports team will meet with certain doom this season. Again.

  15. There’s a fourth reason for using gender-inclusive language: to acknowledge that the audience isn’t entirely male. I’m not going to contort every sentence to include both sexes, but I try to put myself in the shoes of female readers, some of whom might not care, but some of whom might feel marginalized.

    I have female friend who is a mailman. But now we call her a personperson.

  16. It all goes back to what one values most, doesn’t it?

    I value truth and rational thinking, and clear expression. Once a person makes it clear to me that he will say just anything, I tend to lose interest his thoughts, for they are worthless.

    What you are saying, which exactly isn’t news to me, is that some persons (it’s actually most) value other things more highly, such as having their ears tickled, or partisanship, or “civility” (by which I mean some of the forms of civility, without the substance). And, you are warning me that such persons will tend to lose interesting in thinking about I may write. Horrors!

    But, have you considered that that is fine with me? If I don’t tickle others’ ears, perhaps it’s a deliberate choice on my part.

  17. There’s a fourth reason for using gender-inclusive language: to acknowledge that the audience isn’t entirely male.

    Dude! That’s just a variation of 1).

    I’m not going to contort every sentence to include both sexes, but I try to put myself in the shoes of female readers, some of whom might not care, but some of whom might feel marginalized.

    See? You even echo the leftist clap-trap.

  18. Barry has made a friend (or something like it) of Dr. Liddle simply by being kind.

    Is a friendship that requires a foundation of dishonesty really a friendship? How is it kind, or honest, to say, “I apologize IF …”?

    An apology, a real one, goes like this: “I apologize THAT …”.

    The “I apologize IF …” pseudo-apology format is an insult, it is a way to cast the blame for what one pretends to apologize about back onto the person to whom one pretends to apologize.

  19. 19

    Ilion,

    Now I’m confused. What language in the above post is “Politically (and Academically) Correct?” I read it a while back, and skimmed it once more and I have to say I’m at a loss.

  20. Good grief! I don’t beat my wife and her name is on the house. Is that leftist too? I thought politics had to do with ideologies and policies, not just being polite. (BTW, I have no political affiliation.)

    I know we all have our pet peeves – I wish the ice cream truck would burst into flames, leaving just enough time for the driver to escape – but this seems like scraping the bottom of the barrel for something to get ticked about.

  21. “Gender inclusive language” has three uses:
    1) by leftists, to attempt to sow societal disrespect toward men and mutual resentment between men and women;

    BTW, I am a man. Why would I sow disrespect toward myself? And how does an optional expression of politeness indicate resentment?

    That being said, we all have weird things that set us off. To each her or his own. :)

  22. Good grief! I don’t beat my wife and her name is on the house. Is that leftist too?

    Ptsh … I will certainly try to remember that you have little worthwhile to say. Please forgive me in advance should I forget that you are the moral equivalent of the person who asks, “So, have you stopped beating your wife yet?”

  23. Dr. Liddle accepted the apology and will likely continue posting here thereby elevating the quality of discourse at Uncommondescent.

    Barry’s own exchanges with Elizabeth have denied there is any “quality of discourse” there worth having.

    How does it help the quality of discourse here at UD when she asserts that Hitler espoused Christianity and that the actual events in the Gospels are contradictory?

    And how do her repeated intentional misrepresentations of Dembski help matters?

    I could go on and on.

  24. 24

    Ilion @ 3.eleventyone

    (*) Attempted threats are only threatening to those who fear the threatened consequence. As I don’t, it isn’t.

    Absolutely. We all know that it’s only the Darwinists that get banned here.

  25. 25

    Sadly (because he often had a lot of intelligent things to say) Ilion is no longer with us.

  26. Mung,

    My take on Dr. Liddle:

    1. We don’t know who’s reading their exchange. Who knows who will profit from a rebuttal to her take on Hitler, the Gospels, and Dembski?

    2. Her dialogue with Dr. Torley was excellent IMHO. She represented her view intelligently and politely. It prompted an equally intelligent and polite reply from Dr. Torley. I certainly learned from it.

    3. Is she disengenuous? She says she’s not; I’ll take her at her word. She’s taken the time to post here; that’s no small thing. If Dr. Torley has bothered to reply at length I figure she’s said something important and of quality.

    4. As far as I know she’s not been rude or gotten personal with anyone. That’s a rarity in this debate. She’s also been a heck of a lot more pleasant to read than the late Ilion.

    Just my two cents.

  27. 27

    I stand corrected.

  28. vjtorley: Apologies for the delayed response to your post with your lovely story. I’m responding here as Barry has reposted it as an OP.

    We do seem to be at cross-purposes,though, because your Tess is (or starts off as) an “incompatibilist determinist” and I am a “compatibilist materialist” (I don’t think it makes any difference to the free will question whether the universe is determinist or not, and right now, the evidence seems to suggest it isn’t).

    In fact I’d go further, and say that compatibilist materialism provides the only account of free will – at least of moral responsibility – that is actually coherent :)

    As I tried to explain in my response to Meleager/William J Murray here, it seems to me that if “free” simply means “unbound by constraints” then all we have at the heart of that freedom is a loose cannon, not a morally responsible agent. Sure, our decisions may turn on a uncaused coin-flip, but what is morally responsible about that? A morally responsible decision is one that considers many alternative courses of action, and chooses the one that is most likely to bring about a desired goal. And that goal itself, will be one that is developed through consideration of the widest implications of alternate goals. So, you could argue that to be morally responsible is to tightly constrain your decisions, rather than to let them go “free”. And that is exactly what Tess does in the end – by accepting moral responsibility for her actions, as she should, she is now bound to consider far more factors when deciding on any given course. She is no longer “free” to do what happens to suit her at the time.

    Both scenarios are entirely compatible with a materialist model of Tess’s mind, whether determinist or indeterminist, because a compatibilist model of “freedom” , if “freedom” means the freedom to do what is right, rather than what is proximally convenient, is perfectly explicable in material terms. And if it doesn’t mean that – then my question has to be: what does it mean?

    You wrote:

    Elizabeth, I know that you strongly believe in agency. But it is profoundly self-limiting to accept the notion that your noblest thoughts, words and deeds arise out of your body and brain chemistry – even if they are not reducible to it. For by accepting this notion of supervenience, you have allowed yourself to believe that the domain of the moral can be explained in terms of a domain whose workings are entirely non-moral (physics and chemistry).

    Sure. But that doesn’t deny the existence of morality. Things have properties that their “workings” don’t have, and moral decision-making, I would argue, is one of them.

    That is a notion that stunts people from achieving their full potential.

    Incompatibilism certainly does. Compatibilism doesn’t, and has the added virtue of making sense.

    And there’s not a smidgin of scientific evidence for it. I would urge you to liberate yourself from the confines of the material cosmos. For it does not contain you; part of you will always lie outside it, no matter how you draw it.

    What do you mean by “not a smidgin of scientific evidence for it”? There is a huge scientific literature on moral decision-making, including, somewhat disturbingly, its determinants. But perhaps I am misunderstanding the antecedent of your “it” – could you clarify? Because it seems there are two distinct issues here: one is the neuroscientific evidence for the tight coupling between mind and brain; the other is the issue as to what we mean by “freedom”. My position is that “freedom”, in a moral sense, means freedom to do what is right, instead of being bound by what is proximally self-beneficial. That requires not freedom from causality but rather the capacity to have ones actions “caused”, or at least strongly influenced by, distal and non-self-interested factors, not merely proximal self-beneficial factors. An “uncaused” decision would, surely, mean a decision that was affected by no factors within the world at all – and how could such be a moral decision?

    I know you like Godel, so here are a few quotes from him, taken from A Logical Journey: From Gödel to Philosophy by Hao Wang (MIT Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0262231893). “Consciousness is connected with one unity. A machine is composed of parts.” “The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit.” “Materialism is false.” “Our total reality and total existence are beautiful and meaningful . . . . We should judge reality by the little which we truly know of it. Since that part which conceptually we know fully turns out to be so beautiful, the real world of which we know so little should also be beautiful. Life may be miserable for seventy years and happy for a million years: the short period of misery may even be necessary for the whole.” And I suppose you’re aware that Godel originated an interesting little proof for the existence of God, right?

    Yes, but that doesn’t mean that I think that Gödel was right in any of the above :)

    I don’t think he was.

  29. Who knows who will profit from a rebuttal to her take on Hitler, the Gospels, and Dembski?

    Hitler: I made it perfectly clear what I meant by “espoused Christianity”; moreover, it seems undeniable to me that Hitler, at least early on in his career, identified publically as a Christian, and, indeed, identified himself with Christ, scourging the “vipers and adders” from the temple.

    The Gospels: Any parallel reading of the passion stories reveals inconsistencies, IMO. That never struck me as surprising, even in the days when I was more convinced than I am now that the writers were reporting an actual event.

    Dembski: I did not misrepresent him, as I made clear in several posts.

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