Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Immanuel Kant "Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals"

If you have yet to breathe the crisp, chilly, unforgivably Nordic air of Kantian philosophy, this would be the place to begin; it will prepare you for the lung-searing experience of the Critique of Practical Reason, although not for the subzero temperatures of the Critique of Pure Reason. To mix my silly metaphors even further, think of the Critique of Pure Reason as Mt. Everest; it's the most difficult and rewarding of Kant's works, at least, in my opinion. But, you have to work up to it. Okay, let's just shoot the metaphors in the head, so to speak.

Here we have Kant's preliminary ideas that would eventually lead up to the Critique of Practical Reason. Here he first puts forth the Categorical Imperative, which seeks to give a reasonable and coherent standard for ethics. According to Kant, there are three sorts of philosophy: Logic deals with the purely subjective a priori workings of the mind, while Ethics and Physics deal with both the subjective and the empirical worlds, the physical and mental realms together.

This brings Kant to what we can call the Big Problem. The Big Problem beguiles philosophers from Descartes until today, and is often called "the problem of free will". Essentially, the problem is that everything in the physical world acts in ways that are determined by the laws of nature, except us. We're part of the physical world, and yet, we believe that we have free will, and actually, if we don't have free will, all standards of ethics are meaningless. The problem, in Kant's words is that, "the freedom attributed to the will seems incompatible with the necessity of nature." The Big Problem has become even more difficult the more we understand neural physiology, because the explanation of what should constitute free will becomes even more mechanistic and in line with natural laws. We still can't quantify free will.

For Christians, this isn't a problem- free will is the imperative of the non-physical soul. For Descartes, there seemed to be a problem mostly in how mind and body work together, but he assumed there was a soul. Actually, Kant does too, but he wants to give a reasonable standard of ethics that doesn't have to explain itself by reference to God. Also, I believe that he wants to explain why Christian ethics are completely rational to the atheists in the audience.

Does he succeed? Well, according to Arthur Schopenhauer, "Aw, hell no!"* Kant switches the terms around and gives us another unverifiable explanation for ethics. The Categorical Imperative is: "I ought never to act except in such a way that my maxims could become the basis for universal law." Or, in other words, I should do unto others as I would want people to universally do unto each other. Schopenhauer's response was actually something more like "Oh? And why exactly ought I do this?"

I'm not sure that Kant ever solves the Big Problem either, although he suggests Aesthetics as the realm in which body and mind interact in the larger Critique, which I think is an interesting answer to the Cartesian problem. As one of the atheists in the audience, I don't actually think he solved the ethical problem either, although I do think he has an interesting way of justifying ethical behavior. (It should be obvious why I got so annoyed with that tool who was talking about 'Kantian nihilism'.)

As for the Big Problem (which I've probably not summed up very well), could the solution be to extend randomness to natural law? Physics during Kant's era tended to see the universe as completely deterministic- basically a big clock. Isn't that a mistake too?

*Not an exact quote from Schopenhauer.


gregvw said...

Supposing that humans have free will, that humans are fundamentally organic machines, and that there exist life forms which are too simplistic to have a free will, what is the minimum amount of complexity of the living mechanism necessary to support free will? Is there a discrete cutoff where one molecule is the difference between a sentient being and a automaton? Or, is there a veritable continuum between the two where increasing complexity supports increasing freeness of will. If so, what is partial free will? Or is it only the depth of the illusion of free will which varies with biocomplexity?Or, is free will built into the level of proteins and we are simply incapable of observing it? This seems pretty far fetched.

Maybe free will is just how we perceive the law of averages. The superposition of many random or individually unresolvable phenomena, when taken together, appears as a distinct entity. Simple organisms may not have a sufficient number of processes to form a cleanly observable image of sentience. What if the ghost in the machine is ultimately statistical?

Well, that's enough babble from me.

Rufus said...

"What if the ghost in the machine is ultimately statistical?"

I think that's where a lot of thought on the subject is going. The real argument for free will is that it seems to coincide with our experiences. But, unfortunately, that's still a pretty thin reed to hang your hat on.

gregvw said...

It makes "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" seem less extraordinary.

Rufus said...

I guess you'd be the one to ask this though: Is the clockwork model of the universe accurate? Wasn't the point of the 20th century Weirdo Physics (my term) that the physical laws are more like guidelines? Or is that wrong too?

gregvw said...

Bonus points for a PotC reference. I am not sure if the answer to your question about whether the universe fundamentally behaves according to deterministic laws is known. It is this sort of head-scratcher that made me go into mathematics instead of physics.

You have reminded me though, that I discovered an interesting result just recently. As I may have mentioned, I am working on developing optimal control methods for quantum mechanical problems. In particular, the current problem involves separating a single blob of Bose-Einstein Condensate into two distinct blobs with a time-varying magnetic field as the control mechanism. To do this we set the initial and target (final) probability distributions for the particles and then solve for the time evolution of the system with various functions modulating the magnetic field to find the function which best gives the desired "two lump" behavior at the end of the control interval. I discovered that when you decided that the global phase of the condensate is irrelevant, that there are a plethora of suitable control functions which bring the initial state to the desired, final, state. (Plot)

What is especially interesting to me about this is that to reach the target state, there is a much wider range of acceptable solution curves near the beginning of the simulation (the curve must start at 0 and end at 1) whereas the distribution of curves is much narrower at the end time. Translation: The present is more particularly dependent on the recent past than it is on the distant past. Of course, we can observe this phenomenon in everyday life, but I know of no specific quantum level theory which says that it should be the case.

gregvw said...

That link did not quite work, it should finish with


Rufus said...

I once sat down and charted out all of the decisions I had made during the day that had led me to the present moment. Basically, I drew out all of the other possible choices as points and lines. Anyway, what I ended up with was a single present point at the end of a branching root-like structure that became very wide and diverse as you moved back in time. So it definitely is observable in everyday life.

gregvw said...

Sure, so what the hell does that mean that it occurs on the level of particles? There is something hidden in the Schrödinger equation that produces this behavior.

Rufus said...

It's a tough one, isn't it? Any hypothesis that I could come up with would sound completely bat shit.