Ideas of Owen Flanagan, by Theme

[American, fl. 1992, Professor at Duke University.]

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1. Philosophy / A. Wisdom / 1. Nature of Wisdom
Philosophy needs wisdom about who we are, as well as how we ought to be
     Full Idea: Any good philosophy will need to offer wisdom about who we are as well as about how we ought to be.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p. 14)
     A reaction: This sop should be accepted gratefully by fans of bioethics, who seem inclined to think that describing 'how we are' is all that needs to be said. Maybe the key wisdom lies in the relationship between the 'is' and the 'ought' of human nature.
1. Philosophy / G. Scientific Philosophy / 1. Aims of Science
We resist science partly because it can't provide ethical wisdom
     Full Idea: The inability of science to provide ethical wisdom is partly responsible for our resistance to the scientific image.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p. 14)
     A reaction: This seems right. A.J. Ayer, for example, declared "I believe in science", and his account of ethics was vacuously nihilistic. A description of the mechanisms of moral life is not the same as ethical wisdom.
14. Science / A. Basis of Science / 4. Prediction
Explanation does not entail prediction
     Full Idea: Explanation does not entail prediction.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p. 73n)
     A reaction: Presumably the inverse of this is also true, as we might be able to predict through pure induction, without knowing why something happened. We predict that smoking is likely to cause cancer. Complex things might be explicable but unpredictable.
15. Nature of Minds / A. Nature of Mind / 3. Mental Causation
In the 17th century a collisionlike view of causation made mental causation implausible
     Full Idea: In the seventeenth century the dominant idea that causation is collisionlike made mental causation almost impossible to envision.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.136)
     A reaction: Interesting. This makes Descartes' interaction theory look rather bold, and Leibniz's and Malebranche's rejection of it understandable. Personally I still think of causation as collisionlike, except that the collisions are of very very tiny objects.
15. Nature of Minds / B. Features of Minds / 2. Unconscious Mind
Research suggest that we overrate conscious experience
     Full Idea: The emerging consensus is that we probably overrate the power of conscious experience in our lives. Freud, of course, said the same thing for different reasons.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Really Hard Problem [2007], 3 'Ontology')
     A reaction: [He cites Pockett, Banks and Gallagher 2006]. Freud was concerned with big deep secrets, but the modern view concerns ordinary decisions and perceptions. An important idea, which should incline us all to become Nietzscheans.
15. Nature of Minds / B. Features of Minds / 3. Privacy
Only you can have your subjective experiences because only you are hooked up to your nervous system
     Full Idea: It is easy to explain why certain brain events are uniquely experienced by you subjectively: only you are properly hooked up to your own nervous system to have your own experiences.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p. 87)
     A reaction: This is in reply to Nagel's oft quoted claim that mind can only be understood as "what it is like to be" that mind. I agree with Flanagan, and it is nice illustration of how philosophers can confuse themselves with high-sounding questions.
16. Persons / D. Continuity of the Self / 2. Mental Continuity / b. Self as mental continuity
We only have a sense of our self as continuous, not as exactly the same
     Full Idea: We only have a sense of our self as continuous, but not as exactly the same.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.178)
     A reaction: Russell said this too, and it seems to me to be right. Personal identity is far too imprecise for me to assert that I remember my ten-year-old self as being identical to me now. Only physical objects like teddy bears can pass that test.
16. Persons / E. Rejecting the Self / 3. Narrative Self
The self is an abstraction which magnifies important aspects of autobiography
     Full Idea: The self is an abstraction from the story of a person's life that isolates and magnifies the experiences, traits and aspirations that are assigned importance.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.240)
     A reaction: Personally I am inclined to see personal identity as the central controller of brain activity, the aspect of the biological machine which keeps all the mental events focused on what matters, which is health, safety and happiness.
We are not born with a self; we develop a self through living
     Full Idea: It is a bad mistake to think we are born with a self; the self develops, and acquiring it requires living in the world.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.260)
     A reaction: I think this is wrong. He is mistaking a complex cultural concept of the self as the subject for autobiography etc. for the basic biological self which even small animals must have if their brains are to serve any useful purpose in their lives.
16. Persons / E. Rejecting the Self / 4. Denial of the Self
For Buddhists a fixed self is a morally dangerous illusion
     Full Idea: According to Buddhism, the idea of a permanent, constant self is an illusion, and a morally dangerous one.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.161)
     A reaction: We are familiar with the idea that it might be an illusion, but I am unconvinced by 'morally dangerous'. If you drop both free will and personal identity, I can't see any sort of focus for moral life left, but I am willing to be convinced.
16. Persons / F. Free Will / 1. Nature of Free Will
Normal free will claims control of what I do, but a stronger view claims control of thought and feeling
     Full Idea: The standard view of free will is that I have something like complete control over what I do. A stronger view (not widely held) is that I also have complete control over what I think and what I feel.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p. 60n)
     A reaction: To claim free control of feelings looks optimistic, but it does look as if we can decide to think about something, such as a philosophical problem. Deciding what to say comes somewhere between thought and action.
Free will is held to give us a whole list of desirable capacities for living
     Full Idea: Free will is said to give us self-control, self-expression, individuality, reasons-sensitivity, rational deliberation, rational accountability, moral accountability, the capacity to do otherwise, unpredictability, and political freedom.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.104)
     A reaction: Nice list. His obvious challenge is to either say we can live happily without some of these things, or else show how we can have them without 'free will'. Personally I agree with Flanagan that we meet the challenge.
16. Persons / F. Free Will / 5. Against Free Will
People believe they have free will that circumvents natural law, but only an incorporeal mind could do this
     Full Idea: Most people believe we have free will, and that this consists in the ability to circumvent natural law. The trouble is that the only device ever philosophically invented that can do this sort of job is an incorporeal soul or mind.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], Pref)
     A reaction: I think this is exactly right. We currently have a western world full of people who have rejected dualism, but still cling on to free will, because they think morality depends on it. I think morality depends on personal identity, but not on free will.
We only think of ourselves as having free will because we first thought of God that way
     Full Idea: It is unimaginable to me that, despite the feeling that we control what we do, such a strong conception of ourselves as unmoved movers would have been added to our self-image unless we had first conceived of God along these lines.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.107)
     A reaction: I think this is right, though there are signs in fifth century Greece of contradictory evidence. The 'unmoved mover' seems unformulated before Plato's 'Laws' (idea 1423), but there is an implied belief in free will a hundred years earlier.
17. Mind and Body / A. Mind-Body Dualism / 8. Dualism of Mind Critique
People largely came to believe in dualism because it made human agents free
     Full Idea: I would say that that my consciousness doesn't seem either physical or non-physical, ..but the belief that the mind is non-physical partly took hold because that fits well with thinking of human agents as free.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.102)
     A reaction: I think this is right. I personally think there is no such thing as free will, and that belief in it has been the single greatest delusion amongst philosophers (and others) for the last two thousand years. Dualism has now gone, and free will is next.
17. Mind and Body / B. Behaviourism / 4. Behaviourism Critique
Behaviourism notoriously has nothing to say about mental causation
     Full Idea: Behaviourism was notorious in its heyday for having nothing to say about mental causation.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.141)
     A reaction: This is a bit unfair, as Ryle (idea 2622, following Spinoza, 4862) was one of the first to point out the paradox of 'double causation'. You have to be a mentalist to worry about mental causation, and eliminativists aren't bothered.
17. Mind and Body / D. Property Dualism / 2. Anomalous Monism
Cars and bodies obey principles of causation, without us knowing any 'strict laws' about them
     Full Idea: Although everyone thinks cars and bodies obey the principles of causation, no one thinks it a deficiency that we don't know strict laws of automechanics or anatomy.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p. 65)
     A reaction: This attacks Davidson's claim that there are no strict psycho-physical laws, and I agree with Flanagan. Huge dreams of free will and human dignity are being pinned on the flimsy point that we have no strict laws here. But brains are very complicated.
17. Mind and Body / E. Mind as Physical / 2. Reduction of Mind
Sensations may be identical to brain events, but complex mental events don't seem to be
     Full Idea: There is still some hope for something like identity theory for sensations. But almost no one believes that strict identity theory will work for more complex mental states. Strict identity is stronger than type neurophysicalism.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Really Hard Problem [2007], 3 'Ontology')
     A reaction: It is so hard to express the problem. What needs to be explained? How can one bunch of neurons represent many different things? It's not like computing. That just transfers the data to brains, where the puzzling stuff happens.
17. Mind and Body / E. Mind as Physical / 3. Eliminativism
Physicalism doesn't deny that the essence of an experience is more than its neural realiser
     Full Idea: One may be committed to the truth of physicalism without being committed to the claim that the essence of an experience is captured fully by a description of its neural realiser.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p. 90)
     A reaction: This is a reply to the Leibniz Mill question (idea 2109) about what is missing from a materialist view. Flanagan's point is that just as the essence of a panorama is the view from the hill, so the essence of consciousness requires you to be that brain.
18. Thought / A. Modes of Thought / 3. Emotions
Emotions are usually very apt, rather than being non-rational and fickle
     Full Idea: One can question the idea that emotions are non-rational, fickle and flighty; on the contrary, emotions normally seem to be very apt.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p. 16)
     A reaction: This is the modern view of emotion which is emerging from neuroscience, which is greatly superior to traditional views, apart from Aristotle, who felt that wisdom and virtue arose precisely when emotions were apt for the situation.
20. Action / C. Motives for Action / 3. Acting on Reason / b. Intellectualism
Intellectualism admires the 'principled actor', non-intellectualism admires the 'good character'
     Full Idea: There are two main pictures of the good person: there is the 'good character', and there is the 'principled actor'. ..The first picture is non-intellectualist, and the second is intellectualist.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.145)
     A reaction: The second ideal elevates the principle itself above the actor who carries it out. Presumably consistency is a virtue, so a good character will at least pay some attention to principles. A good magistrate comes out the same in both views.
22. Metaethics / A. Value / 1. Nature of Value / b. Fact and value
Morality is normative because it identifies best practices among the normal practices
     Full Idea: Morality is 'normative' in the sense that it consists of the extraction of ''good' or 'excellent' practices from common practices.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Really Hard Problem [2007], 4 'Naturalism')
22. Metaethics / A. Value / 2. Values / a. Normativity
Ethics is the science of the conditions that lead to human flourishing
     Full Idea: Ethics is the normative science that studies the objective conditions that lead to flourishing of persons.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p. 17)
     A reaction: This is a nice slogan for the virtue theory account of the nature of ethics. I think it is the view with which I agree. I am intrigued that he has smuggled the word 'science' in, which is a nice challenge to conventional views of science.
22. Metaethics / A. Value / 2. Values / d. Altruism
For Darwinians, altruism is either contracts or genetics
     Full Idea: Two explanations came forward in the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Altruism is either 1) person-based reciprocal altruism, or 2) gene-based kin altruism.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Really Hard Problem [2007], 2 'Darwin')
     A reaction: Flanagan obviously thinks there is also 'genuine psychological atruism'. Presumably we don't explain mathematics or music or the desire to travel as either contracts or genetics, so we have other explanations available.
22. Metaethics / B. The Good / 2. Happiness / b. Eudaimonia
We need Eudaimonics - the empirical study of how we should flourish
     Full Idea: It would be nice if I could advance the case for Eudaimonics - empirical enquiry into the nature, causes, and constituents of flourishing, …and the case for some ways of living and being as better than others.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Really Hard Problem [2007], 4 'Normative')
     A reaction: Things seem to be moving in that direction. Lots of statistics about happiness have been appearing.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 1. Nature of Ethics / e. Ethical cognitivism
Cognitivists think morals are discovered by reason
     Full Idea: Cognitivists think morals are discovered by reason.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.301n)
     A reaction: I take cognitivism to be (strictly) the view that morals are knowable in principle. Our intellects might not be up to the task (and so we might have to ask the gods what is right). There is also the possibility that morals might be known by intuition.
25. Society / D. Political Doctrines / 9. Communism
Alienation is not finding what one wants, or being unable to achieve it
     Full Idea: What Marx called 'alienation' is the widespread condition of not being able to discover what one wants, or not being remotely positioned to achieve.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Really Hard Problem [2007], 2 'Expanding')
     A reaction: I took alienation to concern people's relationship to the means of production in their trade. On Flanagan's definition I would expect almost everyone aged under 20 to count as alienated.
29. Religion / A. Polytheistic Religion / 3. Hinduism
The Hindu doctrine of reincarnation only appeared in the eighth century CE
     Full Idea: The doctrine of a cycle of rebirths and reincarnations that are normally required before one achieve nirvana was only proposed in the eighth century CE, and then spread like wildfire among Hindus and, to a lesser extent, among Buddhists.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.166n)
     A reaction: Intriguing. Plato had proposed it in the fourth century BCE. Presumably Hindus had always been dualists, and then suddenly saw and exciting possibility that followed from it. The doctrine strikes me as (to put it mildly) implausible.
29. Religion / C. Spiritual Disciplines / 3. Buddhism
Buddhists reject God and the self, and accept suffering as key, and liberation through wisdom
     Full Idea: Buddhism rejected the idea of a creator God, and the unchanging self [atman]. They accept the appearance-reality distinction, reward for virtue [karma], suffering defining our predicament, and that liberation [nirvana] is possible through wisdom.
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Really Hard Problem [2007], 3 'Buddhism')
     A reaction: [Compressed] Flanagan is an analytic philosopher and a practising Buddhist. Looking at a happiness map today which shows Europeans largely happy, and Africans largely miserable, I can see why they thought suffering was basic.
29. Religion / D. Religious Issues / 2. Immortality / b. Soul
The idea of the soul gets some support from the scientific belief in essential 'natural kinds'
     Full Idea: The idea of the soul could be easily trashed if science does not countenance essences, but science does countenance essences in the form of what are known as 'natural kinds' (such as water, salt and gold).
     From: Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul [2002], p.181)
     A reaction: The existence of any essences at all does indeed make the existence of a soul naturally possible, but scientific natural kinds are usually postulated on a basis of chemical stability. Animals, for example, are no longer usually classified that way.