Monthly Archives: July 2020

The Batman who Laughs, Freedom and Moral Responsibility

“I take Orwell’s claim that there is no such thing as inner freedom, no such thing as an “autonomous individual,”… That is there is nothing deep inside each of us, no common human nature, no built-in human solidarity, to use as a moral reference point…To be a person is to speak a particular language, one which enables us to discuss particular beliefs and desires with particular sorts of people. It is a historical contingency whether we are socialized by Neanderthals, ancient Chinese, Eton, Summerhill, or the Ministry of Truth.” ( ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’ p. 177)

Batman (along with Superman), is considered one of the most iconic heroes in our modern fictional world. To some Batman is the ultimate hero, as unlike other comic book heroes, he has no superpowers, he just relies on his own intelligence and training to save people in distress. While his persona is more dark and shadowy than the likes of Superman or Captain America, he is typically portrayed as the hero the world needs. But one wonders if the concept of a hero is one applicable to a creature whose actions are the result of a series of contingent accidents. Batman’s traditional biography has it that he was born as a hero when as a child he witnessed his parents being killed in a mugging. This accident of history gave Batman his sense of justice, and propelled him into developing his skills as a superhero. Another accident of history gave him the capacity to become who he was; he was born into one of the richest families on the planet. This gave him obvious advantages over his fellow man as he developed into the hero he later became. He didn’t have to worry about feeding himself or surviving so he could dedicate himself full time to becoming who he wanted to be. 

Each different accident of history could have resulted in an entirely different human being (including things that happened to his parents that may have altered his genetic make up being altered). Given that the type of person we become is contingent on a series of accidents; one wonders the degree to which a person can be held responsible for behavioural traits of which they have no say over. When thinking about what we could have become if things were different; it is helpful to use the tools of possible worlds: world’s which are like the actual world but differ because of a few contingent changes. 

The story ‘The Batman who Laughs’, is a story about a Batman who exists in a different world from the Batman we know (For a detailed synopsis of The Batman Who Laughs story see: . In this world Batman fights and kills the Joker. Unknownst to Batman the Joker has laced himself with a neurotoxin and upon his death it is released and Batman inhales it. Slowly the neurotoxin modifies Batman’s personality until he eventually transforms into a sadistic monster akin to the Joker. This Batman develops a sick sense of humour who enjoys torturing his friends and family. This Batman who Laughs is a terrifying monster, but one with a tragic element. We know the type of person who he was prior to being exposed to the neurotoxin. We know he had little choice in the monster he became and this adds a tragic element to his story. 

From a moral point of view it could be argued that the Batman who laughs made a crucial choice that the Batman we know never made. He chose to kill the Joker; while our Batman always managed to deal with the Joker without resorting to murder. However, while it is possible to judge this choice and place it as a key causal factor in how Batman became the Batman who Laughs, this “choice” has to be placed within a context. Batman was driven to murder the Joker because of savage torture he recieved at the hands of the Joker. This torture may have played a role in his lack of control when he murdered the Joker. More importantly it was the neurotoxin which turned him into the Batman who Laughs and this neurotoxin could have been administered without the Joker being murdered. So it is fair to say that Batman had little choice in becoming the monster he became. 

To this extent it is also sometimes argued that while The Batman who Laughs is a tragic figure The Joker is evil because he consciously embraces the chaos and chooses to be who he is. However, this way of parsing the issue is implausible. Unlike Batman there is no cannon origin story of The Joker. His character has undergone various iterations and reimaginings. But the ambiguity of his origins aside; there are (or would be if he actually existed) some causal antecedents which lead to him becoming who he became. Some genetic markers which made him more likely to become a psychopath. He presumably had a life history where his genetic predispositions were molded by the environment he was shaped in. Despite the apparent glee the Joker takes in his diabolical acts there is little doubt that his personality would have been shaped by causal antecedents that are beyond his control. 

Despite our intuitions to the contrary, it would appear that the Joker, the Batman, and The Batman who Laughs had little say in who they became and so it would appear that we have little cause to morally judge any of them either as either good or evil. 

There is however another way to look at this issue. This issue relies on focusing on levels of explanation. Some scientists argue that colour doesn’t exist in the objective world. In the world as revealed by physics there is no colour. Colour is a feature of our neuropsychology that results from our brains interpreting light waves that reflect off objects, hit our retina and are interpreted by the occipital lobe in our brains. On this level some scientists argue that colour is a secondary quality one that exists only to perceivers with our kinds of brain, but colours have no mind- independent existence and don’t make up the ultimate furniture of the universe. 

Philosopher Daniel Dennett notes that despite the fact that physicists have no use for the concept of colour in their basic science there is little call to purge the concept of colour from our daily activities. Our rules of the road tell us that we must stop at a red light and we can drive slowly in an orange light, and are free to drive if the light is green. If a person drives through a red light and causes a car crash resulting in a death the person will be legally culpable. A physicist who argued that “because colours don’t exist at the level of basic physics, a person who drove through a red light and killed someone would not be morally culpable”; would be laughed out of court. But in a sense my above argument about the Joker and Batman is using a similar move. I am arguing that at one level of explanation people’s behaviour can be explained in terms of causal antecedents beyond the person’s control; therefore we cannot hold the person responsible for their actions.

But our intentional explanations in terms of beliefs and desires are a key tool we use in coordinating our behaviour in relation to each other. Our entire legal system, and moral system is meshed up in explaining our behaviour in light of beliefs and desires. We assume that people act on reasons and these reasons can be good or bad; all the while acknowledging that at the level of basic physics, beliefs do not exist. 

At the level of free choice there is little evidence to support suggestions it exists, if our universe is deterministic and causally closed there is no room for free choice, an indeterministic universe would leave no room free choice either. So from a scientific perspective, like colour, we are justified in arguing that freewill doesn’t exist. But from a pragmatic perspective of coordinating behaviour, like colour; freewill is a useful tool, whether it exists in the fundamental furniture of the universe or not.  

Dennett cites a paper by Vols and Schooler ‘On the Value of Believing in Freewill: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating’, which showed experimentally that subjects who read a text which encouraged a disbelief in freewill were more likely to cheat on a task than controls who didn’t read these texts. Vol’s and Schooler’s study is a single study and it hasn’t been replicated thus far, so we shouldn’t take its results as sacrosanct. But it does indicate that disbelief in freewill may lead to behaviours that are problematic. 

We know from behavioural science that by changing the consequences of certain behaviours we can increase or decrease the likelihood of the behaviours occurring. If Vols and Schooler’s study is replicated we will have good reason to think that a belief in freewill and moral responsibility will make the likelihood of moral behaviours we approve of increase. But it is early days and it would be too soon to say for sure; much more experimental data is needed. 

So where does this leave us with the Batman who Laughs and the Joker. In both cases we have good reason to judge them as criminally insane. Both while highly intelligent do not have the emotional wherewithal to curb their criminal behaviour. Therefore while they should be locked away forever they are not morally culpable.In the case of the Batman, pre his transformation, who killed The Joker: things appear to be a bit different. Here despite his torture we have a man who we know may have the cognitive control to desist from committing the murder. Though there were extenuating circumstances in leading him to committing the murder, we do have some reasons to judge him culpable. We are judging him culpable for pragmatic reasons, (consequences for society), not for metaphysical reasons. We do have reason to think he should have done otherwise.  In a society where such acts are viewed as simply deterministic acts with no moral connotations; this may lead  to a society which will increase the likelihood of amoral behaviour; just like in Vol’s and Schooler’s experiment. 

Every Thing Must Go and Institutional Power

“We demarcate good science-around lines which are inevitably fuzzy near the boundary-by reference to institutional factors, not directly epistemological ones.” (Every Thing Must Go p. 33)

‘Every Thing Must Go’ relies heavily on the notion of scientific institutions. Their justification for this reliance is pragmatic; i.e. these institutions have been highly successful in the past so we should trust them. They have a pragmatic view of science and argue that attempts of philosophers to explicate necessary and sufficient conditions of something being science will inevitably be inferior as the practices that have been honed through practicing scientists working in the field will yield more reliable results. 

“To reiterate; we assume that the institutions of modern science are more reliable epistemic filters than are any criteria that could be identified by philosophical analysis and written down.” (ibid p. 37)

Ladyman et al’s primary target is analytic metaphysics which they argue constitutes a crude caricature of scientific modelling. They applaud the clear and rigorous style of argumentation used by analytic metaphysicians, however they argue that despite the argumentative style such metaphysicians are engaging in crude pseudo-scientific reasoning.The majority of analytic metaphysicians would describe themselves as naturalists and would consider themselves to be theorising about the world in a way consistent with contemporary science; though using different techniques. 

Despite describing themselves as naturalists such metaphysicians rely on toy models of reality that are wildly at odds with contemporary discoveries in physics. Using examples from contemporary metaphysical papers, Ladyman et al demonstrate that analytic metaphysicians regularly rely on assumptions about the physical world that are not only pre-Quantum Physics, or pre-Relativity Theory but are pre-Newtonian. Self described physcialists gleefully speak of reality of at base being composed of atoms banging against each other. The ontology they presuppose is closer to Cartesian Physics than it is to anything discovered by contemporary physics. Furthermore aside from the crude ontology that is uncritically assumed, a key methodological assumption of analytic metaphysics is that a plus point for a theory is if it chimes with our intuitions. Ladyman et al, note that this methodological assumption is wildly at odds with the assumptions in our best science which assumes that our brains which were designed by evolution to mediate our interaction with middle sized objects are terrible at intuiting the nature of reality. 

Ladyman et al aren’t arguing a la the logical positivists that metaphysics per se is a meaningless discipline. Rather they are working within the tradition of people like Chomsky and Quine who argue that metaphysics is a perfectly sensible discipline; but that our best way to draw a metaphysical picture of reality is through understanding the world as our best science describes it. They offer two heuristic constraints on metaphysicians (1) The Principle of Naturalistic Closure: A new metaphysical claim is justified if and only if it involves the conjunction of two or more sciences (one of which is fundamental physics) jointly explain more than was explained by the two hypotheses taken separately (2) The Primacy of Physics Constraint: any theory we can construct must be consistent with our best contemporary physics. 

Ultimately the metaphysical picture they offer in place of analytic metaphysics is a form of structural realism. They argue for this picture based on two famous philosophy of science arguments. (1) The Pessimistic Meta Induction: Scientific Theories in the past with great predictive and explanatory success referred to entities we know today do not exist; e.g. Caloric and Phlogiston.  Therefore it is likely that our current scientific theories refer to entities that do not exist. Hence we shouldn’t be realists about the entities presupposed in scientific theories. (2) The No Miracles Argument: Given the pragmatic and predictive success of our best scientific theories; if they don’t pick out real things in the world their success is a miracle. If germ theory isn’t picking out real things e.g. germs then its success is inexplicable. The no miracles argument and the pessimistic meta induction are in tension with each other. Ladyman et al try to resolve this tension by arguing that we can have our cake and eat it. We can be realists about our scientific theories and account for theory change by arguing that what is preserved across scientific theories is not things but structure. 

The metaphysical theory they argue for is compelling and is a parsimonious way of thinking about the history of science. Furthermore their criticisms of analytic metaphysics for its reliance on intuitions and pre Newtonian models of physics are to the point. While I share their respect for science and their naturalism I am unsure of what to make of their claims about the institutions of science. Science is clearly our most successful way of interpreting reality and it gives us a level of prediction and control that is far superior to any other academic discipline. Nonetheless scientific institutions aren’t always the best metric as to what counts as a reasonable question to ask. 

Ladyman et al suggest that asking what hypothesis’ would be accepted for a grant proposal is a reliable determiner of the validity of the hypothesis:

“Here, then, is such a norm. Almost all successful participants in ‘bona fide institutional science’- on which we will say more below-learn in graduate school,  or soon after, which sorts of hypotheses one cannot propose as the targets of investigation in a grant proposal to a ‘serious’ foundation or funding agency with non-zero prospects of success.”  (ibid p. 33)

They even jokingly ask us to imagine the prospects for an analytic metaphysician seeking funding in a particle physics department. The prospect of a metaphysician appealing for funding in a physics department is hilarious; one could imagine them being laughed out of the room. But one wonders whether this would be a reliable metric?

In the Harvard psychology department  in the late forties if you were to seek funding for studying the neural correlates of consciousness you would have been laughed out of the room. With B.F. Skinner’s brand of behaviourism being the dominant strand of psychology in America of the time, studies of subjects such as consciousness were deemed to be beyond the pale in terms of science. Pre Skinner behaviourists would have rejected studying consciousness on methodological grounds. They would have argued consciousness existed but couldn’t be studied scientifically because of its subjective nature. So early behaviourists would leave it to philosophers to speculate over the nature of consciousness. Skinner’s radical behaviourism held the position that consciousness was real but was best understood interms of behaviour. He would have argued that to study consciousness the best approach would be to study how the contingencies of reinforcement were arranged to help us develop tools to speak about our private experiences. The key point is that during the heyday of behaviourism certain questions about the nature of consciousness would have been deemed silly and would have been laughed out of court by the dominant scientific institutes of the time. 

Even after the rise of cognitive science in the 50s most psychologists or neuroscientists would have been afraid to seek funding for a study on consciousness. It was only in 1990 when people world famous scientists such as Francis Crick started studying consciousness that the taboo was broken. When Ladyman et al make the following claim:

“We seek a principle, referenced to the institutional factors that make science  epistemically superior, for distinguishing well-motivated from ill-motivated metaphysical proposals; we do not seek a principle for distinguishing sense from nonsense. (ibid p. 34)

One wonders whether they would argue that the institutional factors that kept consciousness a taboo subject matter in science for over fifty years were justified?

And it’s not just in psychology that institutionally sanctioned taboos are enforced. In his book ‘What is Real? Adam Becker tells the story of how physicists who wanted to interpret Quantum Mechanics were actively ran out of the field. The dominant mantra in Physics was ‘shut up and calculate’, physicists who questioned this approach and offered an interpretation to explain the experimental results in Quantum Mechanics risked serious harm to their career prospects. So here again one wonders whether Ladyman et al think that the institutional factors in physics that were used to weed thinkers like Tim Maudlin, and David Albert out of the physics department and into the philosophy department were justified?

While I admire Ladyman et al focus on scientific practice and criticisms of philosophy that is wildly at odds with what we know about the world through experimentation. I think their views of institutional science are too rationalistic. Thomas Kuhn’s historical approach to understanding scientific revolutions reveals scientific institutes as a much more human and fallible and tribal scene than the objective picture presented by Ladyman et al. And as we have seen with our brief discussion of behaviourism and quantum mechanics sometimes dominant scientific institutes can stand in the way of understanding not enhance it.