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February 18, 2012 / compassioninpolitics

Criticism of Manuel Vargas’s Revisionism

1. Indict of pure libertarian frameworks of responsibility. Essentially Vargas represents the middle ground in some respects.

2. Vargas’ “best” argument is limited to the criminal justice system–or at least thats where the burdens of proof are best framed. But to the contrary, it seems silly to make causal arguments that someone was 10% or 30% or 50% responsible for their actions–and therefore aren’t due punishment (or for instance you would punish a rich person more than a poor person based on statistical data). We do live in cultures–but our behaviors have an outward effect on those people too.

3. There is a certain vagueness about his argument–what it means for the criminal justice system. If anything–he opens a pandoras box of questions (and perhaps even policy changes)–which suggests a burden of proof which he doesn’t seem to meet. And he doesn’t articulate what those policy changed might be. If anything, it seems that our acceptance of retribution and rehabilitation is already an implicit acceptance of Vargas’ notion that conditioning does effect individuals (to what extent is largely unanswered by Vargas, philosophy, science, or neuroscience. Thats seems like a nice intellectual cul-de-sac to me.

4. This is essentially a straw person if the idea of agency doesn’t require quantum phenomena to have a role. Neuroscience isn’t in a position to decide if there is agency, only in a position to deny agency. So Vargas’ arguments here and here are largely irrelevant:

Henrick Walter “to date there is no solid empirical evidence that local quantum phenomena play a role in neurons, and that there are good arguments to the contrary.” (Walter, 2001, p. 162).
Manuel Vargas, “I am less sanguine about the prospects for philosophy overturning brain science. It requires considerable optimism to think that armchair philosophy will be equal to or better than empirical brain science when it comes to revealing the structure of the brain.”

Manuel goes on to admit “Nevertheless, I agree that much of contemporary brain science operates with a sometimes startling picture of human agency. And I agree that brain science could use increased sophistication about philosophical categories and distinctions concerning human agency.” This is a massive understatement–it wouldn’t know it if it saw it. Its like asking someone who is colorblind to evaluate paintings that they can’t functionally see–methodologically. It seems odd that we would physical models to what is a metaphysical question. If anything, this is an abdication of duty on the part of philosophers. Seeing synapses take place doesn’t say anything about the choice or the agency involved. After all, those neuroscientists can’t really tell us much about the content of those synapses (except that infered from the brain region). Neuroscientists can’t even capture an idea–one of the fundamental concepts one would expect before surrendering our self-conceptions about our internal life. Later, Vargas admits, “Whatever else they do, our concept of free will and moral responsibility are important to helping us organize, track, and justify different ways to treating each other.”

5. His using folk experimental philosophy to prove his case is dubious–because he doesn’t delineate what the second set of experiments did. The reader is in no position to evaluate their value, methodology, or conclusions.

6. Not to mention his multiple rejections of libertarian on principles which he never fully articulates. His dismissal is essentially out of hand and without warrant.

7. Vargas plays fast and loose with what constitutes a new version of freewill. At some points he suggests this just slightly changes our views–at others he suggest its something much more.

8. Its really unclear why Vargas makes his argument partially through the realm of neuroscience, when it seems periferal to some of his claims.

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