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Evolit: Week 7--Individual and Cultural Evolution: Getting Beyond History?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Anne and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. It's a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you thought about this week. But if you need something to get you started, how do you feel about trying to move beyond Dennett?  Is everything  determined by biological and cultural history, or is there something more: a human brain functioning as a skyhook?  instead of a piano key?


ccrichar's picture

Skyhooks and my beliefs

I do not believe in skyhooks but I do believe in cranes because they are concrete. Skyhooks are out-there in the galaxy's that I cannot grab onto. I need to know what is going on in order to believe something for the most part. However religion plays a significant role in skyhooks and that is where I run into problems. I would like to believe that skyhooks are alive and well just like religion but cannot. I don't think they are in the same category. Skyhooks in my view serve no purpose. It's a made-up theory that does not work.
lewilliams's picture

The question of whether or

The question of whether or not the human brain could be considered a skyhook  or if it is merely a result of evolution is one that plagues me. Most of the time, I like to believe that it can be both simultaniously. We could easily have developed our unique conscious brain through some fluke of evolution and it still be the miracle that many of us consider it to be. I feel that we musthave evolved the minds we have now,though. An interesting subject I found relationg to this while writing my paper is that of the the  Pirahã,a Brazillian tribe that has a decidedly limited language. Because they do not have words for greater numbers than two (other than "many"), they do not appear to be able to count or truly understand greater numbers. This seems to point out that language has a large impact on human congnition or understanding and I feel that it must have had a large influence in the development of the brain.

Student Blogger's picture

Moving beyond Biological Evolution

During our small discussion groups on Thursday, we focused on free will and Jillian brought up a question -- What percentage of free will does an individual have?  Throughout our discussion, one view was that only infants have free will because they have not experienced any influences of others and have not had their own personal experiences that define and characaterize their furute choices.  However, as the child grown older, their choices become patterend and are a refelction of their past experiences and previous choices.  The alternative view that was proposed was that just because people choose the same pattern of decisions, does not mean that they have less free will than someone who chooses different choices each time.  The conclusion that I believe we reached was that there are constraints and limitations on the options of choices that we have to make, but the fact that we have the ability to make those choices gives us an amount of free will.


I somewhat agree with this idea, that our choices are influenced by some part by our past experiences however I also believe that we have the option to make our own choices regardless of our past.  This reminds me of the converstaion with Professor Grobstein a few weeks ago, where we talked about what we as humans are now is a result of our ancestry.  I had some confusion understanding this concept then, but when paralleling it with the concept of free will I seem to be understanding it more.  With our ancestry, we inherit genes and biological tendencies from our parents.  These genes contain traits and inherent qualities that define an individual and ultimately influence the person that they develop into.  Therefore, we can call ancestry a sort of past experience that influences the way that people make desicions and how they act upon their free will and make choices.


Another topic that we touched upon in our small groups was that of morality.  We decided that morality was a trait that was selected for during natural selection so as to help people to get along in a society.  In my cultural anthropology class, we are also discussing morality and reciprocity and if an individual can be completely altruistic when helping out someone in need.  I feel as though, the romantic view of altruism is that an individual can be completely selfless and give another something they need without feeling any need for anything in return.  I do not feel as though this is the case in society today.  Even if the individual has the best intentions in mind, there is almost always a good and satisfying feeling that is associated with doing something good for someone else.  This good feeling is in fact a sentiment that the altruistic individual strives to feel.  Just a idea to think about...


Also, when I was writing my paper (On the Evolution of Ballet), I came across this website which was pretty interesting.  The Paris Opera Ballet  performed a ballet Genus which was influenced by Darwin's Origin of Species. The article describes how the dancers movements are a result of the choreographer's view and understanding of the story.


unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

An overview of Dennett

Overall, Dennett's book has some undeniably positive qualities: he writes well and passionately, and he is capable of reaching a much wider audience than most philosophers. I think he is saying something that he thinks needs to be said bluntly, without "beating around the bush:" that despite all our efforts to preserve culture, the world is changing, and rapidly, and we must adjust to those changes and better ourselves in the process. Dennett wants to destroy skyhooks because he believes that they cause more harm than good.

My response is that I think Dennett's skyhook and crane are perhaps only divisions in human thinking. Maybe all humans think in terms of skyhooks and cranes; we may have our linear algebra, but we also have our Lord of the Rings. In Dennett's conclusion, where he rants extensively about the evils of religion, he misses what I see as the truth: religion, or "skyhooks" if you will, does not cause Earth's problems. People do.

One last thing--I think we failed to address in my section is the difference between "Jurassic Park skyhooks" and religious "skyhooks." Our discussions of fantasy, and how we felt like Dennett was stomping on things that didn't need to be stomped on, ultimately only referred to Santa Claus and TV medical dramas. I guess what I'm trying to say is, no self-respecting religious person is going to tell you, "Look, I know God isn't REALLY real, I just didn't want you to point it out." I'd be interested in having my mother read Dennett and see how she responds to him.

skhemka's picture

Where's the free will?

Free will is something that doesn't exist. It is an outdated term and the only reason it continues to exist in our vocabulary is because we cannot seem to part with it. We are clinging on to it as our last shred of hope to give us control over our lives. The only place where the idea of free will exists is in the present. No matter how much we think we could have done differently we cannot change the past or the future and this makes man feel very claustrophobic. Not having the options of changing our actions we go into a state of denial and call it free will where we assume that all that we have done or not done has been due to our own free will. We are to an extent delusional about free will and its role in our lives.

Free will is said to be about choice-making, that we as humans have the choice to do something or not do something. But sometimes we ignore the fact that maybe we couldn't have done otherwise. Maybe we did not have any option to begin with, that we were going to make that choice no  matter what and even if we had had previous knowledge of it being a bad choice we would not have been able to change it even we had the chance to do it all over again.

fquadri's picture

Free Will or God?

Today I started to wonder what is more valuable to people: God/religion or free will?

God/religion helps one find a place in this world and makes one believe that they are here for a reason and that their life has a purpose. It can provide a sense of security but at the same time, religion can have lots and lots of rules that restrict complete free will.

Free will is great to have, and we're proud to express freedom of speech, expression, etc. Ater all who would want to feel constrained and controlled and told what to do? However, with so many followers of religion, it seems that some people are ok with sacrificing some free will in order to obtain a sense of security that there is a god that can help us out here on earth and maybe even in the afterlife.

However according to a recent CNN article, there has been a drop in the number of Christians in America. This means that more people are turning away from organized Christianity and looking towards individualism. In the article, the president of the Catholic League, William Donahue, said that a lot of the shift had to do with people who didn't like to be told what and what not to do... So maybe it seems like more people are turning away from organized religion in order to obtain more free will? 


Marina's picture

what the free will

On Thursday Prof Dalke brought up the notion that "we are more than our histories" this made sense to me because in many cases people are not defined by their ancestry. For example, I come from a strict catholic family, but I myself do not practice the catholic religion. I cannot be defined simply by my ancestry because my ancestry does not define me as how I am now. Another point that was brought to light was the notion that we are more than our histories because we have the capacity to imagine worlds that we haven't experience. I thought this was an interesting point because that is such an important component of humanity in terms of creativity and the experience of life.

Free will was another topic we covered. The concept of free will was discussed with regard to compatibilism and non-compatibilism. Compatibilism defines the world as governed by scientific laws but we still have free will in the absence of external constraints to respond to our desires. In regards to incompatibilism libertarians argue that the world is not deterministic in any way while the hard determinists argue that there is no such thing as free will. Personally, I find myself more at ease with the compatibilists as I believe that certain things in the world are determined by the natural laws but humans, if physically able, can act on their desires and harness the concept of free will. If nothing is stopping us why wouldn't we be able to do something we desired? Given that the person in question has no handicaps or inability to do the thing they want to partake in, it seems that free will would be possible.

I disagree with the idea of piano keys. Yes, we are piano keys to an extent but I don't believe human life is fully pre-determined with no chance at free will. I think that we have free will given we have the pre-requisites. For example, if someone wanted to go running- fine you have the free will to do this BUT first do you meet all the pre-requisites of running? are you in good shape? do you have any health problems? etc... so I believe we have free will so long as we meet the requirements of what we wish to pursue.

amoskowi's picture

Sorrows of an American

Having written my paper and reading the novel, I've moved on mentally from Dennett (who I keep accidently calling Denton by the way, I had to go through and "replace" it in my paper after I realized I'd been doing it) to how Hustvedt's book relates to the perspectives of evolution and science in general that we'd been exploring in class. The first parallel that struck me was the start of the references to the father's memoirs, and the quotation where he writes "If you are not interested in pocket gophers or how to catch them, move on to the next paragraph." (8). It reminded me humorously of Paul's question about who skipped over Darwin's lengthy description of pidgeons, only here we have a reference to it in the memior itself, in contrast to Darwin who seemingly felt no need to trim down details if they were part of his relevent experiences or thought processes. 

Interestingly, the next paragraph (of the novel, not the father's memior) expanded on my percieved parallel, discussing what makes it or doesn't make it into an autobiography. The notion of the contents being affected by "perspective, self-knowledge" etc. reminded me of the beggining of this class, when covering the crack and how that affects what is written in scientific text. This passage, though, also highlighted for me the differences between the subjectivity that affects scientific vs. non-scientific writing, namely the notion that leaving out information, or allowing your reader to skip a paragraph, is acceptable or even good in a way that it would not be in an account like Darwin's. The narrator says "there are stories that can't be told without pain to others or to oneself," indicating that keeping silent about these matters can be a positive thing, whereas in science hidding information, while it may be safer if the writer fears society's views, is never seen as a positive thing. It ties back to, ultimately, the feeling I have that while subjective inclusion and conclusion may be an inevitable and sometimes an enriching asset in science, it is always in pursuit of an answer independent of the subjectivity that brought it into existance. Other pieces, even an ideally nonfiction piece like a memior, does not aspire to that level of objective accuracy.  

Hilary McGowan's picture


I've noticed that many of the terms that we have been discussing our Thursday section in the room below often don't come with the same definition. If it's any consolation to others who may have been confused by this, I am as well. The deeper we seem to delve into each new phrase or interesting metaphor that describes our current topic, the farther we get away from the original meaning posed by the initial word. Are our words evolving in this hour-and-a-half class? At least in my mind they are. New traits and descriptions, and the blurs between verbs and adjectives break off and flutter away. I appreciate being confused, but I do wish that our confusion was a bit more mutually spoken in class. Let's feel more free to discuss our confusion, because certainty rises from that question. I think. 

kbrandall's picture

terms ARE evolving

That's what I wrote my paper about! I was interested in the evolution of the meanings of words, which Dennett doesn't really go into in his chapter on the evolution of meaning. I used "skyhook" as an example of a term that we kept coming back to in our discussions and that changed from Dennett's definition

This I didn't write about, but I think the confusion comes in when we split off into two groups and our terms begin to evolve separately (into two varieties or species?) and then we come back together. Students from the different groups have a different context for their ideas, and even a different set of meanings in mind for the same words.  I don't know what to do about it, except to try and give some context on Tuesday if you talk about ideas from the discussion the Thursday before.

mfradera's picture

Best bang for your buck.

In regards to free will, what is ever free? There’s always a hidden fee. For now the air we breathe is free, but this isn’t true on an air plane, where complex pumps and filtration devices work to recycle the same air. The price of your plane ticket pays for that air.

Switching gears to the issues of interpretation brought up by Sontag, I couldn’t help wishing I’d read her essay before writing my second paper. She argues that we need to “recover our senses” so that criticism can function “to show how it [art] is what it is… rather than to show what it means.” Keeping with the position I hold in my paper, I must say I think this is completely impossible. She states that interpretation is part of a “post-mythic consciousness” but, in my opinion, this is also wholly untrue. As humans we are meaning makers; it’s literally our M.O... We cannot turn it off any more that we can stop breathing without causing some serious physical and psychological damage. Its how we’ve been able to survive as a species.

As I read her essay, I couldn’t help remembering a visit I made to the Tate Modern Museum of Art in London last year while I was studying abroad. For a friend’s birthday, I and some other folks went to see an exhibit on Dadaists. Most exhibits in the museum are free, with the exception of visiting exhibits like the one we were going to see. Once inside the exhibit, we all split up, eventually meeting at the exit. To my surprise, two of the people we were with had finished circulating through the exhibit after half an hour. I’m not sure of the exact time, but I think I spend upwards of two hours exploring the whole space. The reason behind this is twofold. 1) I am a spoiled New Yorker who never pays to go to the museum. I wasn’t going to squander my 6 pounds on a brief stroll through this joint. 2) I get extremely invested in the observation of pieces of art. Especially with modern art, where it’s a lot easier for me to look at an object as a piece of art rather than an artifact, (as opposed to classical and ancient non-Western art to which I apply an anthropologist’s eye). This exhibit was my first real exposure to Dadaism and I wanted to be sure I got as much out of it as I could.

This experience came to mind because it deals directly with the issues of the point of interpretation that Sontag brings up. I get the feeling that Sontag believe that interpretation, as it stand, is somewhat selfish and altruistic. I can see why she thinks this, but like I said earlier, I’m not sure it can be helped. I guess at the Tate Modern, in more than one sense, I was trying to get the best bang for my buck.

dshanin's picture

Surplus...not skyhooks?

Frequently in class, Dennett’s analyses of evolution have been expanded to include human societal constructs such as history and culture. While some are valid comparisons I worry that we have lost sight of the basis of evolution. To return to our favorite cranes vs. skyhooks metaphor the crane of evolution is built stepwise upon algorithmic randomness. Society however is not built upon randomness but rather ambition. Until the advent of human society no organism had sought to achieve or possess more than was required to ensure its successful reproduction. Human society however is based on the idea of a surplus, an accumulation of possessions in excess of what could possibly be used for personal consumption. This initially happened during the agrarian revolution when human farmers were able to cultivate their land to a level of productivity that allowed for permanent settlement and gave the most successful farmers more food than they could possibly use. Were society to follow evolution’s model these overly successful farmers would possess no advantage over those who simply met the needs of their family but this was clearly not the case. Instead the super-successful farmers were able to step away from their daily toils in the field. Producing more food than needed for basic survival allowed for the creation of a second class of people who had responsibly other than food production. This early class of teachers, healers and rulers gave rise to society as we know it.

aybala50's picture


While writing my paper, I got to thinking about why many people are so afraid of the possibility of not having a special place on this planet. So what if we are all not created with a purpose? Is this a bad thing? I think it just gives us a broader variety of things to pursue in life. If anything would it increase free-will?
rmehta's picture

I've been thinking about

I've been thinking about this question for our last two group discussions as well.  As I wrote in my paper, free-will offers people a sense of independent control on their futures.  A preconceived notion almost reduces this amount of control that free-will offers us because it doesn't allow for a changeable future. I get that pupose gives people a sense of reason and placement, but free-will lends us the ability to choose any future placement.  Free-will offers us choice, control and the ability to change. It really does allow us to evolve as human beings.
kgould's picture

I've wondered the same

I've wondered the same thing in class several times now. For me, I find it far more remarkable that we are the product of random processes. That none of this way planned, but that it happened regardless. The chance of life evolving, or occuring the way it has on Earth, is unbelievably small. The fact that the universe is so big, and continuing to grow, and that there is far more space than matter in it... that is absolutely remarkable. I can't answer your question, why people would be afraid of not having a special place on this planet.

I, too, feel like the idea that we were not designed gives us a lot more freedom and space to explore our lives and the world we live in. There would only be free will, right? And... free will is good, right?

eolecki's picture

Week 7


As we discussed Dennett in class I found myself very drawn to his idea of everything being determined by biology and culture.  It makes a lot of sense.  If we trust so strongly in the idea of evolution then we are just like everything else, evolved from a common ancestor.  It is just vain of us to think we are so special.  However, even though this explanation is so logical, there is just something inside me that says it can’t be right.  I am typically one to trust in science and logic over imagination and creativity, but there is just something that is hard to explain that seems to make humans more than just predictable animals.  Humans create great works of art, compose symphonies, and so many other extraordinary things that I don’t believe can really be explained by genes or cultural history.  Even though it makes sense for humans to be predetermined by genes and culture, it just don’t feel right.  I believe there is some aspect of human nature that is so special that hasn’t yet been, or might never be fully explained.   

Lisa B.'s picture

Week 7

Does free will exist? One of the first philosophers and theologians that wrote about free will was St. Augustine (254-430).  Augustine wrote that "all can be saved if they wish," where God gave man the power of saving themselves and the power of damning themselves. However, Augustine's teaching seems inconsistent with free will. If God foreshadows who will be saved and who will not, then why does the Roman Catholic Church acknowledge the existence of free will? A research physiologist, Benjamin Libet (1916-2007), had one of the strongest arguments against free will. His procedure showed that the brain initiated any action before we were conscious of the act. While Libet's data violates the concept of free will, the debate within philosophy and theology is far from over. Before I researched Augustine and Libet for this blog I wanted to believe in free will, but Libet's data was persuasive and I am now comfortable thinking about life without free will. 
enewbern's picture

Cultural Evolution

I think that in actuallity that the evolution of culture is neither a piano key nor a sky hook but something in between the two. There are certain aspects that are probably results of something formulaic and set, but there is also a great deal of culture that seems to be random and not fixated to any particular idea or plan. There are so many different types of culture all around the world that it is hard to believe that any one set of things would have been used in the same amounts to create them. It is a sort of difficult idea to define completely though because I think that is difficult to say what exactly goes into the creation and evolution of any one culture. They seem to be a singular explanation that fits all of them. But I have not studied culture in any kind of extensive way so I guess it would be hard to use my opinions as any sort of fact.

I think that evolution as a general idea can't really be defined as just a biological concept or just a historical one. I think that is both mixed into together. I think that the history of evolution effects how the biological processes have grown and changed  and vice versa. They are intertwined together and help each other to create the best in nature. But honestly I think that most things are connected together in some way, whether it being natural processes or different subjects. Everything just exsists on an expanding web of knowledge that forms new bonds to each other all the time.

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Freedom Evolves

For my paper, I found a review of another of Dennett's books, Freedom Evolves.

In this book, he apparently expands upon his ideas of free will that began to take shape in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Dennett is out to prove that free will is a product of evolution, both biological and cultural. He talks about how humans evolved to have empathy, weigh decisions, etc. because it was beneficial to the continuation of our species. These traits resulted in brains capable of believing in (and wanting, according to Dennett) free will. Culturally, self agency and responsibility has come to be a basis of our societies through punishment, etc.

The ideas presented in this article helped me broaded my ideas on free will, but I agree with the reviewer that I'm not completely satisfied, despite Dennett's efforts.

eawhite's picture

Free Will, Piano Keys and Dennett

I’m sorry I missed the discussion last Thursday. After reading the posts, it must have been quite lively. I’d like to comment on free-will versus being a piano key. Free will isn’t without a cost factor whether financially or emotionally driven. Take for example, the average person’s economic condition. If one wants a 50 inch plasma TV and store X has it on sale for a good price – in addition, they are offering you 0% interest and an instant loan to pay for the TV. This offer sounds like a good thing, especially if it’s just before the Super Bowl or World Series. If you can’t afford the TV by paying cash outright for it and buy it anyway, on their terms, you are being played like a piano key. However, to exercise “free will” you would have to say no and save for the TV. Free will to me means that I have an understanding of what my limits are based on the subject at hand. I then have a responsibility to no one but myself to either be played or to use common sense. I suppose what I’m saying is that common sense and free will, in my mind, go hand and hand.


An additional comment on Dennett – I really did not care for his use of metaphors or some of the drastically long passages. I thought in some ways he bordered on arrogant. However, in putting the next paper together, I have found myself thanking Dennett for opening my mind and teaching me to look for evolution in all things. It’s a wonderful thing to think about.

Sophiaolender's picture

Free will

After talking about free will last week in class, I started thinking a lot about the idea and whether or not it exists. People can argue that all of our decisions are based on our pasts, and so while we trick ourselves into thinking we are acting off of our free will, we are in fact just doing the things that your history and our personalities would tell us to. This then led me to thinking about our lives as predetermined - maybe all of our actions interwoven become the blanket of the future. Then I recognized an idea that might interrupt this predetermination -- the example I related was college acceptances and rejections. There is no way for anyone to know whether or not they will get into a certain college, and sometimes our free will is interrupted because of colleges that you just are not accepted to. So, in more general terms, free will gets interrupted by outside forces that are uncontrollable. Is there a way to control the college process? I don't know but I don't think there is any specific resume that will get you an automatic acceptance at every single college. Maybe free will is only practiced through the actions of others. Perhaps we can only affect the free will of others, and never ourselves.
jrlewis's picture

free will and/or happiness?

Our conversation on Thursday touched on the connection between choice and happiness.  It strongly reminded me of the ending to “When Nietzsche Wept,” a novel by Irvin Yalom.  The protagonist is a depressed physician with a failing marriage.  In an attempt to explore alternatives to his current life, he asks a friend to hypnotize him.  While hypnotized he experiences leaving his wife and family, looking for love, home, and employment.  After investigating other potential lifestyles, the man chose his wife, family, and profession.  The fact that he perceived this decision as an act of free will opposed to a forced move made all the difference to him.  He was happy.  Is this true of the rest of us?  Is it the act of choice or the illusion of choice that brings us happiness?  Is it possible to tell the difference between the two?

How do I feel about moving beyond Dennet?  He tried to tell us a story about the meaning of life.  I’m not sure what there is beyond that… However, I would be willing to listen to a different story about the meaning of life.  

aseidman's picture

Happiness and Free Will?

Recently I saw a production at Swarthmore College by the Johannes Weiland dance troupe. It was called "NewYou", and although there were numberous other notable elements to it, the one that applies best to this class is the particular way in which the performers chose to break the fourth wall.

At the beginning of the production, one of the performers stepped forward and asked the audience the following question:

"Are you you happy, and if so, how did you make yourself happy, and if so, why?"

Typically, no one stepped up to answer the question, and all preferred to leave it rhetorical. Is it, in essence, a rhetorical question? How can we make ourselves happy? I suppose my question is similar to jrlewis's question, just above mine. Is happiness a question of free will?

The reason the question was left rhetorical is that not only is the answer to the question a difficult one to find, but people are often not sure if they really want to know the answer. It's a catch 22 of a problem. If happiness is a question of free will, if we choose to do things that will fulfill us and make us happy, why are we unhappy? Are we, individually and personally,  making poor choices? Is it definitively our fault that we are unhappy?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if we feel that happiness is not a choice of free will, why not throw up our hands in defeat, since there's nothing we can individually and personally do to create that happiness?


Tough questions arise when you start to try to talk about free will. Try a couple of your own. For example, "are you successful, if so, how did you get there, and if so, why?" Harder to answer than you might think.

amirbey's picture

Free will...

I really enjoyed our last class discussion.  We asked ourselves if we really had free will in our everyday life.  Do we make choices because we have no other choice or because we decide we want to make this choice?  Maybe we have free will at our birth because this is when we can still have a choice to make our first move, but then, what about the rest of our life?  Are all of our choices based on our past actions?  Are we piano keys with someone or something pushing us to do something and to make a certain choice?  Before this class I felt like I had free will but after hearing different arguments, I realized that maybe I am making the decision to go to college because my parents want me to, because it will be better for my future life, so technically, because I feel obliged to go and not because I chose to go there of my own free will!  This is very confusing to me because I still have the impression that it was my decision to go to college, but it is true that my parents might have been a bit behind me, pushing me as if I was a piano key.  Oh I don’t know!  What do you think?  Do we have free will?

mcurrie's picture


On our discussion of Thursday we cleared up what foundationalism means. We decided that a foundational view believes in two worlds with one of the worlds determining or being the explanation for what happens in the other world. For example, heaven (God) determining what happens on earth.  Foundationalists also believe in having a plan or intention.  After clearing up foundationalism we were able to get more into depth of skyhook vs. crane. It seems Dennett is wrong on the account of of taking away skyhooks. They seem to be important in people's beliefs.  I feel that skyhooks are our dreams what we want to reach for. If Dennett keeps stomping those dreams then what is there to reach for? What is there to change? Because with each dream being achieved then a new one can form and be pursued. It can be kind of boring if you just stick with one belief, never changing, never learning.  With these beliefs a person can be a skyhook non-foundationalist. You just have to be able to question your beliefs because they are able to change with their exploration.  Yay to skyhooks, keep them close, cause you never know when they can become reality.
eglaser's picture

Erin the piano key

You know, I never really thought about what it meant to be "a piano key" (as it was phrased in class) the idea that we are nothing but products of our genes and memes has simply never crossed my mind before. However, now that it has I find that I don't have as much issue with it as I thought I would. I guess it just doesn't hold the same weight for me as it does for Professor Grobstein. I absolutely think that we are a product of our genetics and culture I have seen too much evidence of this in my life. How many times have you done something, worn something or said something that you find, to your horror, is identical to something your parents have done when they were young? How many times have you realized your habits and way of thinking mimic the culture you were born into? I know I see that in myself everyday. I do see myself as a piano key, constantly being played upon by forces outside my control. The question is, if we still get to enjoy the wonder of this world, if we are still capable of creating beautiful things, does it matter?

A person will always be unique no matter what cultural or genetic forces are actingupon them, if only because the organization of each persons brain (in all of human history) is and probably always will be unique. Even identical twins who are raised in the same environment can be completely opposite. Thus we arestill capable of creating truly unique works that no one else could ever recreate. Plenty of men were around in Elizabethian England with the ability and the desire to write but only Shakespeare could ever write Hamlet. Maybe, if William had been born a few centuries later his plays would have been very different as a result of his culture but they would stilll be timeless works of art. Being a piano key is not shameful and it is not as limiting as it seems.

Jackie Marano's picture

Piano Keys are Key

    As someone who has played the piano for a very long time and who has a profound respect for the beauty, complexity, and magnificence of the instrument, I would say that being a piano key, in the figurative sense, is not that great of an insult. I think that this is a really interesting way to look at the meaning of life and free will through this analogy.

      There are 88 keys on the piano, each of them, when played, will generate its own note at a given frequency. He/She who plays a song on the piano recognizes that the sound and the pitch of each note is critical to each chord (combined sound), and to getting through the whole song. Some notes need to be played multiple times, some notes are played alone, some notes must be played with other notes to generate the desired chord.

So if we were to think of ourselves as piano keys, we would each have a role in participating with other keys on the piano and for representing that one note that is supposed to sound when we are played. And now we have a sense of meaning and responsibility, to ourselves, to the other piano keys, and to whoever is playing us (Natural selection? Some higher 'minded' power?).

     And what about free will? I think we can choose which key we wanted to be, and that we can become another key when we feel like it. The entity that plays us will play us when the song says so, and certain notes will be played loudly or softly, short or long, often or rarely, alone or together...and where we fit in and how we are 'played' depends totally on which key we choose to represent at any given point in the song.

    The way that we are played may not be as passive or negative as we think. No matter what key we choose to be, or how loud/soft, short/long, or often we are played, we all have a purpose and a responsibility in life. And some keys need to be played twice in a song...perhaps our parents or grandparents have been this 'key,' maybe our children will become this 'key' for a while, maybe we will ourselves re-become this key. We will inevitably be played as the song calls for the given note, but our free will lets us change which note we want to be whenever we want, so we do have some control over how we are played. This makes life exciting and unpredictable from the persepective of us, the keys. And perhaps some of us have no problem being a piano key because representing a note, being part of an unpredictable process, and having some responsibility to ourselves and to others keeps us motivated to produce that note when we are needed.

      Perhaps getting to know the 'song' we all play is impossible, and maybe it isn't important to us keys. Maybe only He/She/It who plays the song needs to know, but that doesn't make each of us keys unimportant.   

epeck01's picture

I agree...

I agree with Erin.  I simply do not see what is so terrible about being a "piano key."  In biology, psychology, and other sciences we are taught (although perhaps we are not questioning it enough) that so many aspects of our lives are controlled.  Although this may be a simplified view - the world is controlled by biology, chemistry and physics.  Our own bodies exist within this world and are just as controlled.  The only variable that could lead us to believe in free will is our thought.  However, the more that I learn about the biological role in thought and action, the more I find myself accepting my existance as a "piano key."  I also agree with the idea that was brought up in my small group about the feeling of free will.  Most people in most situations feel as if they have a choice - they have the sensation of free will.  So, although I am leaning towards being a "piano key," I also feel my own free will and cannot truly apply the "piano key" theory to everyday life.  If there is no free will, the logical next step is how/if people can be held accountable for anything.  My shaky answer for this is that of course people must be held accountable.  This is an extension of our lack of free will - we are somehow programmed (whether biologically, socially, or by some other means) to judge our own thoughts and actions and those of other people as well.  Our minds are locked in the moral state that helps our species and populations survive.  Simply having "morals" and holding people accountable in no way denies the possibility of being a "piano key."
kcofrinsha's picture

On being a piano key

I had a plan to write my thoughts about being a piano key when I discovered that Erin has already written a post very similar to the one I planned to write. I have many questions raised both by our discussions in class and the previous posts. Does free will exist? Can people be held accountable for their actions if free will doesn't exist? Does being a piano key just mean that one is affected by outside influences or that one has no choice about the direction of their life? I have thoughts on these issues, but my opinions are not fully formed.

The answers to these questions don't affect my perception of the worth of my life. Even if my eperiences, personality, luck, family, ect. push my life in a certain direction, I don't believe that will prevent me from accomplishing my goals in life. In fact, these forces are very much a part of my identity. It seems to me that a large part of the forces pusing the piano key are parts of myself. This is why I feel that the piano key/free will issue doesn't affect accountability.  Many crimes (although many crimes don't fit this description) are commited "by accident" or on an impulse. These may not have been completely under the control of the criminal, however, they are (and should be) still held accountable for their actions.

I just don't feel threatened by the idea that I might not have free will or that I am a "piano key" and I'm trying to figure out why. I think it is at least partly that I am confident that not only my conscious mind, but also my personality and experiences will work together to get me where I want to go. Maybe I have too much faith, and I don't mean to say that I don't think bad things will happen to me. I'm just not convinced that the forces pushing the piano key and the piano key itself are as separate as they might seem at first. In some ways I think that rather than being pushed, the nature of the piano key is being changed and therefore greatly affected. Does that make any sense? I'm not sure if I am making any sense, this all seems very clear in my thoughts, but I'm not sure what others will make of it or if I am expressing myself clearly. The more I write the more complex the issues seem to become. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Piano keys and beyond

"I do see myself as ... constantly being played upon by forces outside my control."

Yep, me too.

"Being a piano key is not ... as limiting as it seems."

Yep, that's Dennett's position (and that of contemporary "compatibilist" philosophers in general). See also Dennett's Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Having and Freedom Evolves.

But maybe there's more than just "forces outside my control"? Or at least could be if we "encourage people to, as William James put it, "believe in free will" so as to make it a greater part of all of our lives" (see The Brain as a Learner/Inquirer/Creator).
sustainablephilosopher's picture

Call me a foundationalist, but...

During discussion on Thursday, someone brought up the idea that everyone is a foundationalist when scratched hard enough. This provoked a discussion of what exactly we mean by foundationalism, which Anne's discussion section apparently finds so problematic. I think we were able to unpack/ uncover more of what Paul meant/ what we all understood by the term. For Paul, the term has three aspects: a foundationalist is someone who 1) accounts for things as they are now in terms of an intention/plan (i.e. "the word" at the beginning), 2) this intention plan is located somewhere else, outside of this world (i.e. heaven), and 3) things are moving toward an ideal future (i.e. utopia). A foundationalist makes sense of change in terms of fixedness, supernatural perfection, and an eventual goal towards which change is leading. Paul differentiated between his idea of the word and Kate's and my own understanding of it, which had more to do with core beliefs that serve as a basis for all of one's action and thought. For Paul, non-foundationalists make sense of things on their own terms - they have explanations for the world that involve things in the world, not outside of it. They question everything, from their own core beliefs to 'reality;' they may have core beliefs, but these are open to question and challenge. In some ways, non-foundationalists are the quintessential free-thinkers, while foundationalists are dogmatists. I thought that perhaps the relationship between inflexibility in belief and foundationalism is directly proportional.

But still the question remained whether everyone is a foundationalist at the core, in the sense of holding core beliefs that inform one's worldview and behavior. We found that in this sense, perhaps everyone is necessarily foundationalist. For instance, we all hold the belief that language represents something about ourselves internally or the world externally - each time we speak, we seek to communicate something about one of these realms and expect others to find what we say to be intelligible. If we didn't fundamentally affirm our belief in language as a communication device, we wouldn't be able to use it as rampantly as we do. Acting at all in the world requires certain fundamental assumptions - each time we set foot on a train, or step into a car or on board an airplane, we are affirming our beliefs in classical Newtonian mechanics and modern physics, because we trust that our machines are able to manipulate physical laws and matter in our favor, for travel. The list goes on, but it becomes clear that every person has some operational assumptions about the nature of themselves or the world that undergird all action and thought. The challenge is recognizing the various sets of assumptions and beliefs that determine our action and thought, and questioning the appropriate aspects at the appropriate times. As we said in discussion, no one can question everything about themselves and the world all the time - it is too draining (and believe me, I have tried). Call me a foundationalist, but in this sense I don't think the word can serve as a pejorative. F-word no longer?
Paul Grobstein's picture

Being a (non-)foundationalist or (and) not

Thanks for helping sort this out. Yes, of course, "every person has some operational assumptions about the nature of themselves or the world that undergird all action and thought." And "no one can question everything about themselves and the world all the time."

The issue here (for me at least) is not whether one has/uses "operational assumptions" but rather what assumptions one has about those or any other operational assumptions. A foundationalist (according to Grobstein) assumes that some set of operational assumptions, either the ones currently being used or ones that one aspires to find, have the status of fixed, eternal "Truth." A non-foundationalist (according to Grobstein, Rorty, and others) assumes that all assumptions, existing as well as yet to be conceived, are rooted in human experiences to date ("explanations for things in the world ... involve things in the world, not outside of it") and so are, in principle, subject to future revision.

Does it matter, whether one is a foundationalist or a non-foundationalist in these terms? Does it affect how one does science? reads literature? interacts with other people? I think it does, but we'll see ...