This is what gives philosophers a bad name! In just one day people have
sent the following philosophical gems to the list, enough hot air to
signifacantly contribute to global warming,
* I also do not “KNOW” whether or not I really do have “free will”. But if
I do [blah blah]
* How do you explain the experience of “free will” then?
* The experience of free will is not a snap shot, instead it [blah blah]
* If free will exists (and also of course that we have it) then [blah blah]
* If instead free will does not in fact exist, then [blah blah]
* consciousness necessarily must exist in the first place in order for free
will to exist.
* Are you maintain that the experience of free will does not itself exist?
* Can you conceive of “free will” without introducing a subject in which it
arises and is experienced?
And so it goes, on and on arguing about if free will exists or not, but
never once does anybody stop to ask what the hell "free will" means before
giving their opinion about it's existence. People argue passionately but
they don't know what they're talking about, by that I don't mean that what
they are saying is wrong, I mean that they quite literally DON'T KNOW WHAT
THEY'RE TALKING ABOUT.
When he was a student at Princeton Richard Feynman had an encounter with
philosophers, years later this is what he had to say about it and why he
developed a contempt not for philosophy but for philosophers. I gave this
quotation before but apparently it needs repeating:
"In the Graduate College dining room at Princeton everybody used to sit
with his own group. I sat with the physicists, but after a bit I thought:
It would be nice to see what the rest of the world is doing, so I'll sit
for a week or two in each of the other groups.
When I sat with the philosophers I listened to them discuss very seriously
a book called Process and Reality by Whitehead. They were using words in a
funny way, and I couldn't quite understand what they were saying. Now I
didn't want to interrupt them in their own conversation and keep asking
them to explain something, and on the few occasions that I did, they'd try
to explain it to me, but I still didn't get it. Finally they invited me to
come to their seminar.
They had a seminar that was like, a class. It had been meeting once a week
to discuss a new chapter out of Process and Reality - some guy would give a
report on it and then there would be a discussion. I went to this seminar
promising myself to keep my mouth shut, reminding myself that I didn't know
anything about the subject, and I was going there just to watch.
What happened there was typical - so typical that it was unbelievable, but
true. First of all, I sat there without saying anything, which is almost
unbelievable, but also true. A student gave a report on the chapter to be
studied that week. In it Whitehead kept using the words "essential object"
in a particular technical way that presumably he had defined, but that I
After some discussion as to what "essential object" meant, the professor
leading the seminar said something meant to clarify things and drew
something that looked like lightning bolts on the blackboard. "Mr.
Feynman," he said, "would you say an electron is an 'essential object'?"
Well, now I was in trouble. I admitted that I hadn't read the book, so I
had no idea of what Whitehead meant by the phrase; I had only come to
watch. "But," I said, "I'll try to answer the professor's question if you
will first answer a question from me, so I can have a better idea of what
'essential object' means.
What I had intended to do was to find out whether they thought theoretical
constructs were essential objects. The electron is a theory that we use; it
is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call
it real. I wanted to make the idea of a theory clear by analogy. In the
case of the brick, my next question was going to be, "What about the inside
of the brick?" - and I would then point out that no one has ever seen the
inside of a brick. Every time you break the brick, you only see the
surface. That the brick has an inside is a simple theory which helps us
understand things better. The theory of electrons is analogous. So I began
by asking, "Is a brick an essential object?"
Then the answers came out. One man stood up and said, "A brick as an
individual, specific brick. That is what Whitehead means by an essential
Another man said, "No, it isn't the individual brick that is an essential
object; it's the general character that all bricks have in common - their
'brickiness' - that is the essential object."
Another guy got up and said, "No, it's not in the bricks themselves.
'Essential object' means the idea in the mind that you get when you think
Another guy got up, and another, and I tell you I have never heard such
ingenious different ways of looking at a brick before. And, just like it
should in all stories about philosophers, it ended up in complete chaos. In
all their previous discussions they hadn't even asked themselves whether
such a simple object as a brick, much less an electron, is an "essential
John K Clark
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