Fermi Society of Philosophy

Discussion Minutes for Is My Will Essentially Free?

by Lev Burov

Having listened to Alexey’s recap of his talk on freedom and the active mind, our small society has engaged into an unusually productive discussion. Thus, the organizers thought that taking some “minutes” would be a tremendous idea.

The first question went to Matt, who expressed the dissatisfaction with an apparent arbitrariness of the idea of free will. Even quantum indeterminacy obeys laws of probability, how can there be something that follows no rules at all? Alexey’s response was to point out that the implication of the existence of freedom is its irreducibility. He also stressed that QM does nothing but remove the old contradiction between the free will and determinism of physics. When the future is not fully determined, a window for the free will opens.

To intensify the problem, though, Lev stated that quantum indeterminacy is already difficult to accept because indeterminacy implies a certain independence from the logical structure of the universe, which in turn implies a postulation of a different substance altogether, something like chaos. Irreducible liberty, however, adds another level of difficulty: if it exists, then not only it is an independent substance but it is capable of producing fundamentally new entities. It is fundamentally creative.

In this new light, Swapan suggested to consider the old question of whether mathematics is discovered or invented. Since we’re already allowing creativity through the visitation of the powerful Active Mind, would it not have the power to create mathematics upon visiting a mathematician?

Alexey reminded of his talk from last year, Mathematical Platonism as a Necessity of Reason. He suggested to account for the opinion of those people that have been most familiar with the world of mathematics. In the vast majority of cases, mathematicians insist on discovery, Alexey remarked, citing Andrew Wiles. He also pointed out the cultural universality of mathematical theories: Euclid’s theorems are as convincing today as they were everywhere during the 24 centuries since their discovery.

If that is unacceptable, asked Lev, then what new things can there be that cannot be described by mathematical forms? Music was considered as consisting of more than just its written representation.

The next question proved to be quite difficult, and its discussion took up the rest of the hour. Someone asked whether by the Active Mind we mean God or a state of mind?

Swapan explored the idea that the active mind could exist at all places at once, thereby being both. He, then, added the question of why would a perfect being create imperfect wills. As one possible answer, he told of a perfect being, complete in itself, to whom a doubt occurred, whether it truly is perfect. As this doubt grew, the completeness fractured more and more, until it eroded into pure disorder. As an alternative, he brought up the idea of play, that the perfect being felt lonely and incomplete without others, so he had to create others to enjoy the world with. Alexey met the idea with enthusiasm, and added that these new creatures couldn’t be boring, and therefore too predictable, otherwise this perfect being would just “close shop” for the lack of interest. Perhaps creative people save the world, pondered Alexey.

Swapan talked of sitarists who claim that they do not make up their music but take it from somewhere. Is it really us that are creative, or is it this playful divinity? He stated an inclination to believe that “freedom happens but I don’t have it.”

Lev reframed that statement. If the Active Mind is indeed a perfect and divine being, then perhaps on its own it has not freedom either. There is no time needed to contemplate a thought to perfection, nor to realize it. All that a perfect being could create on its own is instantly real. Therefore freedom “happens” when the passive mind is visited by the active one.

Already on the way home, Lev thought of the old theological distinction between absolute liberty and true freedom, in this regard. It occurred to him, that the former can be termed irreducibility of will, while the latter its creative realization. He also thought of an ontological difference between beings like reason and beings like life, but the meeting was long over, and so these ideas had to be saved for another time.



Meeting November 10

by alexeyburov

Dear all, our next meeting is Friday, November 10, 12:00, Req Room (WH4NW). We’ll discuss a talk on the free will problem I gave a month ago. Everybody is welcome. Feel free to come with your lunch.

Is my will essentially free?

by alexeyburov

Dear colleagues, the video and slides are publicly available now.

Slides are here.

Our meetings will take place in the same room (Req Room, WH4NW), same time 12:00 — 13:00, every other Friday (not Thursday, as before). The next one is scheduled on Oct 27 and will be devoted to a discussion of this talk.

Slides for Moira and Eileithyia Presentation

by Lev Burov

Thanks everyone for coming to hear my talk. Here you can download the presentation slides. The next meeting we’ll have, the one tomorrow, will be an open discussion on the topic.

You can read the paper associated with the talk at this address fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/2797.

Mind & Cosmos, one more book review

by alexeyburov

My favorite citations from the book with some comments I suggested today are here.

Book Review of Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by T. Nagel, Oxford Press, 201

by abrunstingcomcastnet


A failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues a philosopher T. Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. The book was highly praised by J.Holt, L.Wieseltier, and E.L.Doctorow


What’s in an accent?

by pronskikh

In this talk, which is essentially a brief review of literature on the topic, I have discussed the controversy between, on the one hand, claims that everyone has an accent and intelligible accents are tolerable and, on the other, that certain foreign accents are perceived in a prejudiced way. I have discussed a known classification of “good” and “bad” accents and its possible explanation, perception of accents in schools, public media, professions. I have mentioned also few known from literature case studies that shed light on accents’ probable influence on career prospects. Finally, I have argued (and that is my original argument and probably a topic of future research) that due to the presence of “boundary objects” and an assembly-line type organization of big science the possible negative impact of foreign accents on scientific work and communication in STEM is substantially alleviated for many roles scientists play.


Next Meetings

by alexeyburov

Dear colleagues, here is the new poster. Feel free to print and hang it wherever you like.


T. Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, 2012

by alexeyburov

Dear colleagues, I think this is an indispensable book for any serious approach to the main metaphysical questions. Its author, Thomas Nagel, is one of the most interesting contemporary philosophers. Calling himself an atheist, he suggests a deep and well–articulated criticism of the materialistic reductionism, showing “why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false”. Explaining why theism is not acceptable to him either, he tries to glimpse a third way to understand mind and cosmos. It seems a good idea to discuss this book at one of our meetings. A review of this book by Alvin Plantinga is also very interesting. The last couple of pages of the “Mind and Cosmos” I bring to your attention below.

In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion, I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives. Above all, I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world. It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps— to adapt one of its own pejorative tags. I have tried to show that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe. However, I am certain that my own attempt to explore alternatives is far too unimaginative. An understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive. Specifically, in attempting to understand consciousness as a biological phenomenon, it is too easy to forget how radical is the difference between the subjective and the objective, and to fall into the error of thinking about the mental in terms taken from our ideas of physical events and processes. Wittgenstein was sensitive to this error, though his way of avoiding it through an exploration of the grammar of mental language seems to me plainly insufficient. It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations, and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development. But I believe that we cannot know this, and that it makes sense to go on seeking a systematic understanding of how we and other living things fit into the world. In this process, the ability to generate and reject false hypotheses plays an essential role. I have argued patiently against the prevailing form of naturalism, a reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its neo-Darwinian extension. But to go back to my introductory remarks, I find this view antecedently unbelievable— a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but in this case the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two— though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible.

Nagel, Thomas. “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”, Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition (2012).


Reason and Mystery, discussion

by alexeyburov

Many thanks for all participants of yesterday’s discussion on Giorgio’s talk “Reason open to Mystery” (the talk itself can be found as Giorgio’s post of Nov 11).

My small presentation with a suggested definition of mystery, as well as its pros and contras is here. Questions and comments are encouraged as always.