Bernard Williams Philosophy Anti-Philosophy

Bernard Williams 2: Self-hood, Cogito, Freedom of the Will

Self-hood or Personal Identity.

(What I have written here is the same as in my post on Identity, here.; and represents my understanding of BW from here.)   

BW  logicked his way through the question of whether Self-hood or Personal Identity belongs to one’s body or one’s mind.  It seems he was speculating on what ordinary people’s intuitions on this matter are, rather than offering a theory of his own. 

BW created ‘thought experiments’ — which were just fictional situations of his own creation to illustrate the matter.  In the first situation, two persons were told that their minds would be swapped between their bodies, and also asked to choose whether reward or punishment for what they had done before the swap should be given to their minds or to their bodies after the swap. (Have you got that?)  BW’s intuition is that they would choose their minds to receive the sentence, which means that the ordinary person regards his mind as constituting the self. Something like that!  In the second situation, a person was told he will have his mind erased and then be tortured.  The question is: Does he need to be afraid of being tortured?  BW’s intuition is that people will be afraid of being tortured, since it is the body that is one’s self despite not having the same mind.

So these two fictional imaginings are supposed to show what people’s intuitions generally are on whether body or mind constitutes their selves.  BW’s own intuition was that the intuition for the body being ourselves was the stronger in humanity. 

(My mind laboured in disbelief at how a philosopher’s mind worked in doing this, so I may have got these thought experiments and their meanings wrong.)

Another philosopher thought up a situation where X’s brain is transplanted into Y’s body.  Then X’s body and Y’s brain are destroyed, and the remaining person is Z.  My mind failed me here too.  A comment by someone else was that X and Y didn’t in fact swap bodies, but that Y falsely believed himself to be X, and therefore that Z was identical with Y.  My mind gave up here too at trying to follow this permutation of situations and at the schoolboy mentality that thought it up. 


BW on Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum

Several thinkers since Descartes have been worried that although thinking may be going on, one can’t therefore conclude (as Descartes did) that there must be an ‘I’  doing the thinking! or even that anything else is!  My mind boggles at what philosophers feel it necessary to do their logicking on!

Here below is BW ‘s view on the matter.  I have felt incapable of paraphrasing its amazing content into a shorter form , so here are two paragraphs verbatim from here.

‘A very convincing argument has been made by Bernard Williams, in his exposition of why both Lichtenberg and Descartes were mistaken. He claims that what we are dealing with when we talk of ‘thought’ or when we say ‘I think’ is something conceivable from a third-person perspective; namely objective “thought-events” in the former case, and an objective ‘thinker’ in the latter. The obvious problem is that from introspection, or our experience of consciousness, we have no way of moving to conclude the existence of any ‘third-personal’ fact, verification of which would require a thought necessarily impossible being, as Descartes is, bound to the evidence of his own consciousness alone. In his proposition of the epistemological ‘Applicability Condition’, Zacharyas Boufoy-Bastick has shown Descartes’ argument to be tautological. He argues that Descartes statement is based upon the assumption of “an association between the self and the thinking which occurs” and yet ignores the concept that “thought need not be a product of an existent entity” and, further, that Descartes can only acknowledge the existence of ‘thinking’, and that such an acknowledgment does not alone justify the existence of a container of thought.

‘This appears to leave the slightly uncomfortable—possibly even amusing—position of introspective verification of existence, but without the possibility (on conceptual grounds) of objective knowledge of the self. There remains a strong temptation to extend Zacharyas Boufoy-Bastick’s remark “thinking allows for the existence of thinking” to “I think, therefore I think”; or to the slightly more ominous tone of Franz Xaver von Baader “I think therefore I am thought”. Nevertheless, cogito, ergo sum, like the latter two phrases just noted, remains an example of the old-fashioned logical fallacy now called arguing in a circle. On this view, why call it a “philosophical statement”?’

(I have always felt that Descartes’ Cogito reached the apogee of philosopher’s logickating silliness, but these people, including BW, have gone even further in this direccton.)


BW on Freedom of the Human Will (from here).

BW was concerned with the old question of whether man’s actions, and even thoughts, are determined by prior causes as are things and events in the natural world, or are activated by his freedom of will as if he were a supernatural creature. 

A stage in this issue was Descartes’ division of the universe into things of matter and things of spirit such as minds and God. This isn’t problematic to me, but apparently has been to philosophers ever since, including BW. 

At about Descartes’ time, philosophers were impressed by the coming of the scientifically explained world of cause and effect, of Newton and others.  So they worried whether cause and effect could also be an an explanation of man’s actions and of what went on in his mind.  I presume this was because they didn’t easily accept that man’s mind was in the world of Spirit, not of matter. 

BW’s particular views, here, on this issue of determinism versus freedom of the will in what man does or thinks, completely beggared my mind and I couldn’t take them in.  This was because I couldn’t take seriously that this whole issue, consisting of  logical conundrums of words, could ever be taken seriously as a real thing, could ever be thought solvable by words or by anything else.  I have tried to find a representative extract but have failed

Did BW think there was freedom of the human will or that it was determined by prior causes, and to what extent?  It is a typical philosopher’s question.  I must confess I can’t now remember.  This is a pretty big gap in my understanding of what BW thought on the matter but I just gave up

BW on the Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Mechanics and Freedom of the Will (also from here).

What also amazed me was a recently added element to this question of  Freedom of the Will.  This was The Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Mechanics, which BW (like other philosophers) took seriously as being relevant to it.

This Uncertainty Principle refers to the shocking experience of Planck in 1900 and of Heisenberg in 1927 that some sub-atomic particles have a habit of acting randomly without being predetermined by anything.  It was enough to undermine philosophers taking seriously the idea of determinism in all things, including in what man did or thought. 

What amazes me is that they could think that the movements of sub-atomic particles could have any relevance to human life.  What a simple-minded idea of human life!  They draw huge, far-apart conclusions and connections on the basis of inadequate knowledge of what happens between these two realms, just on the basis of logicking.  It is an example of the unsophisticated and simplistic attitude to human life, the lack of human sensibility to human life, the gullibility and simple-minded faith of philosophers that there is a connection between particles and Man. 

Until Quantum Mechanics came along, it seems that most philosophers had believed in the Humean Compatibilism of David Hume of 1739 — that human beings are free in doing what they wish to do when not constrained or coerced; yet at the same time they are determined in what they wish to do by prior influences on themselves. 

The Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Mechanics now undermined the deterministic half of this Compatibilism; and BW took it seriously too!

The post that I read on this matter, here, leads us further into the consequences of Quantum Uncertainty on Determinism and Compatibilism.  It takes us into realms of Cosmology where philosophers’ minds can enter but mine gives up.  Mine is stuck in the sensory concreteness  of human life. 

 BW also recounts how the rise of the scientific universe of cause and effect undermined the old legal idea that people were entirely responsible for what they did. 



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