Determinist Existentialism

Modern day Sisyphus
“Good thing I have existentialism to help me out with this.”

Compatibilism vs. incompatibilism

If existentialism means anything, it means believing in freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre, probably the most well-known existentialist, argued that, in all situations, we are free to choose between options. In fact, though existentialism is a diverse and complex school of thought, it boils down to the following two claims:

  • Radical freedom: we are always free to choose how to act.
  • Radical responsibility: we are personally responsible for our entire experience of life.

This should sound utterly incompatible with determinism: the view that causality is an exclusively physical phenomenon. If all causality reduces to the interactions of physical matter and forces, what room is left for personal choice? This isn’t even a question about whether physical states of affairs fully determine how everything will turn out (“hard determinism”). Even if some level of probability or even randomness enters the picture, so long as it all happens in the realm of the physical, then, whichever way it happens to work, it’s still not up to us.

Or, to put it more precisely: even though some of it is up to us, how we choose to influence what is up to us is not up to us. We obviously do choose. But how we choose is only the manifestation of physical causation doing its thing. As Schopenhauer put it: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”

Most philosophers are “compatibilists”: they think we can square “metaphysical libertarianism” (the view that metaphysical free will exists) with determinism.…

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Vagueness: The Sorites Paradox

Imagine we have 0 grains of sand. Do we have a heap of sand? Of course not! Well, what if we add one grain? We obviously still do not have a heap. Okay, what if we add one more? One more after that?

No matter how many grains of sand we have, adding just one more will never turn a non-heap into a heap. This is called the “tolerance principle,” and it is the defining feature of vague properties. It says that a small enough change can never alter the applicability of a vague property.

Say you have a red shirt. Change the frequency by an imperceptible amount. Obviously, the shirt is still red. Take someone who is sober. One ml of beer will not make that person drunk.

A problem appears when we compound these small increments. Here’s a version of the argument:

1) 0 grains of sand is not a heap (premise)

2) 1 grain of sand is not a heap (by #1 & tolerance principle)

3) 2 grains of sand is not a heap (by #2 & tolerance principle)

10001) 10000 grains of sand is not a heap (by #10000 & tolerance principle)

Welcome to the sorites paradox (“sorites” = “heap” in Greek), the argument that allows us to prove that a 90-year-old woman is a child, a blade of grass is red, and Danny DeVito is tall. It was invented by Eubilides sometime in the 4th century BCE, when he also invented the Liar and a few other paradoxes.…

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Twin Earth, Part 2: The Practice of Naming

Yesterday I explained how Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment suggests that meaning cannot be only in the mind. I now propose an objection.

Imagine that an interdimensional alien transports water from Earth to Twin Earth, and leaves some at Agatha’s doorstep. Agatha at first calls it “water” and doesn’t have any idea that it’s anything different from the water she’s used to. However, since her body is composed largely of XYZ, not H2O, she feels sick as soon as she drinks some. She concludes this must be some different kind of water. She brings it to the community, who come up with a name for this mysteriously different water. They call it “fool’s water.”

Notice that there was only an impetus to change the name after something different was discovered about the water. Let’s change the scenario and say that H2O reacts to the Twin Earth body in the same way that XYZ does. In this case, Twin Earth doesn’t discover “fool’s water” until after certain advancements in chemistry.

The point is that Twin Earth only finds a reason to distinguish between water and Twin Earth water when they discover something that alerts them to their being two kinds.

This can always happen. For any kind of thing, we can always discover something about it that compels us to split it off into more than one type. We do that splitting by renaming.

Putnam’s error, therefore, is assuming that what the referent of a name really is is its current scientific description.…

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