Archive for November, 2012

Meeting 6.6: Ethics and Choice

The assigned reading for this session was a chapter from Dignity: Its history and meaning by Michael Rosen (2012, p. 19-31).  The reading discussed Kant’s connection between agency and dignity. However, we did not rely heavily on the reading and instead our discussion focused on agency and where, if anywhere, it exists.
We began with a broad, roundtable discussion about agency. We questioned why agency is important and what implications the idea of agency has. What is at stake when thinking about agency?
It became apparent that there was variation in how agency was being defined. If agency is defined as intent, then agency has to be related to relationships. This is because intention implies a relationship with another entity, though not necessarily a living one. These relationships can go down to the atomic level, however, we discussed that atoms may not have agency because they are following a set of rules. This led, briefly, to the idea that our ability to make rules defines our own agency.
The self-defining of rules also allows agency to be tied to morality.  Some felt a conviction that there are choices and some are better than others. We think that we would prefer some consequences over others so we want to participate in bringing those ends around. Value and reason should be involved in whatever actions you choose. Losing the concept of agency makes people lose the ability to make rational choices. Given this, we function as though there is agency even if we do not entirely understand where that agency comes from, or what things may affect our ability to have agency. The idea gives us accountability and responsibility and thus greatly impacts our behavior and our society.
However, there was distinct second opinion on the topic. Some of the group felt that there is no such thing as agency and that it does not matter, so nothing is at stake except perhaps “the truth”. Agency is perhaps the result of not wanting cognitive dissonance. We feel as though we have choices, so it is hard to believe that we do not.  However, with scientific advances, this cognitive dissonance may be disappearing. Agency does not also have any implications for morality or the justice system, we can punish people regardless of if we believe in agency and losing the idea of agency does not threaten culpability.  People of this opinion thought that the discussion of agency was purely academic and had no real meaning in society.
These dichotomous opinions then required a discussion of the shape of the ‘universe’; either bifurcating or determinist.  A bifurcating universe requires that the universe can go one way or another but regardless of what direction it goes, there was an alternative (Figure 1, a). For agency to exist, there must be a bifurcating universe, because if agency requires the ability to have done otherwise (meaning, the universe can go one of two different ways).   A deterministic universe requires a universe that can only go one direction.  However, other possibilities can be imagined giving the appearance of a bifurcating universe. Those who thought agency was not important felt that this was the more realistic universe. The idea of agency is this imagined split in the universe which does not actually exist (Figure 1, b).

Figure 1: a) A bifurcating universe where the universe can go one of multiple ways, and b) a deterministic universe where only one way, the solid black line, is possible but other options can be imagined, the hash marked line.

The primary disagreement appeared to be based on physical stochasticity. Those who felt the universe was (philosophically) deterministic were mostly concerned with sub-atomic (physical) stochasticity being the only force that could alter the course of the universe. Given this, the universe might branch as a result of contingent events, but never branch by intention. Distinguishing between those two became an abstract philosophy of physics question, with no practical import.  Everything was still driven sub-atomically.  The atoms show physical stochasticity, which is not the same age agency; agency then must not exist.
There was some talk about the levels of agency existing as:

  1. Forecasting: The ability to see that there may be choices in the future (before the choice happens).   This can happen in a determined universe, but these choices are just imagined).
  2. Steering, which may include making choices and taking action.
  3. Directing consequences, which are the implications of the steering (generally by using forecasting and steering).

However, this discussion was not completed because there was not a consensus on the bifurcating universe idea. The main problem is that we cannot tell if forecasting is looking at real or imagined choices.
The session ended before we were able to come to an agreement with which to proceed forward with. The idea of a bifurcating universe appears to make sense on a human level, however if we include the entire universe it is not as clear.
–    Sarah B

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This week’s guest speaker was Andrew Norton from the Classics department.

Andrew opened with a pre-Socratic fragment from Pindar’s Threnedes,written at the end of the 6th century/beginning of the 5th century:


“When the body (σομα/soma) yields to all-powerful death

The soul (eidolon/ειδολον) of the (τοι) life’s time/lifetime (aion/αιων) is the only thing that remains.”


The eidolon is like a soul — other synonyms are “shade” (skia), “shadow”, “ghost”, or the “image” of a person. Because the eidolon was given to us by the gods, it is both prescient and immortal. It is located within, and associated with the breath. The eidolon is different than the psyche but associated with it: The psyche is the life-force of a person, and it leaves the body upon death. When the psyche travels to its resting place in the underworld, it becomes the non-conscious eidolon. While we are alive, the psyche is what animates us, and when it is inactive, the eidolon is what is left. So, when the eidolon is asleep, the limbs of a person are said to be awake or animate. When the eidolon is awake, the limbs are asleep, and it is at this time that the eidolon can communicate with the body in the form of dreams. This communication is usually about future decisions (krisis), pleasures, or challenges.


The Greeks associated various parts of the body with functions of the mind or spiritual functions with two major camps, divided over whether choice and essence were to be found in the head or the heart.


For Plato, the logos or intellect was in the head; the thymos (virtue/masculinity/energy) was in the chest; and the epithymeticon, seat of irascibility and appetite was in the stomach.  The neck and diaphragm were considered important dividing lines.


This differs from Aristotle, who also had three aspects of the soul: the Rational, the Motive (animal or sentient*), and the Nutritive (vegetable).  He placed all three in the heart, considering the brain primarily a cooling device for the blood.


[*We use Aristotle’s sentience: “the ability to feel” rather than “ability to perceive self” here.]


Thomas Aquinas believed the life-force was located throughout the body. He subscribed to a Platonic distinction between the imperfect world perceived by the senses and processed in the common sense (part of the physical creation) and the perfect realm of ideas perceived through the intellect (part of the spiritual creation).  With Aristotle, he would have said that both required a soul, but the former was present in all animals, while the latter, related to will, conscience, and immortality, was unique to humans, being in the “image and likeness of God.”


Descartes combined common sense, intellect, and will into one concept: “mind”, located totally outside the physical realm in a separate, mental reality.


Neuroscientists have suggested that there is no one seat of consciousness, will, or identity.  This concept offends against the Cartesian (and arguably Kantian and Thomist) notions that there is one seat of the self.  It may not be inconsistent, however, with older models of humanity like Plato’s, that separate out our different impulses and see them as possibly competing as we make choices.


We spent the remainder of the session talking about how these concepts lined up with our ideas about intelligence, consciousness, and will presented two semesters ago (see meetings 4.1 and 4.8).


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