Today’s New APPS interview is with Neil Levy, Deputy Director (Research) of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, and Head of Neuroethics at the Florey Neuroscience Institutes, University of Melbourne. His most recent book is Hard Luck: How Luck Undermines Free Will and Moral Responsibility (Oxford, 2011).
Thank you for doing today’s interview with us, Neil. Can you tell us a little about your research areas?
I work in two main areas: free and moral responsibility and neuroethics. Neuroethics is itself a broad field, ranging from applied ethics to philosophy of mind and experimental work. These different fields involve different work practices. In Australia, I work at a neuroscience institute. My colleagues are scientists, mostly with little interest or patience for philosophy.
Yeah, it seems to be a point of pride with many of them – though not all.
Unfortunately, they associate philosophy with ‘ethics’ and ‘ethics’ with form-filling for ethics committees (as we calls IRBs). Since I’m in Australia most of the time, when I’m doing philosophy – especially free will, which is such an American debate - my colleagues are people I meet very occasionally. I keep up with them through their writing and through a blog, Flickers of Freedom. This means I am in some ways at a disadvantage: I don’t tend to hear their papers at conferences in colloquia. But the internet enables me to keep up in a way that once would have been impossible for an Australian.
There’s no more Antipodes!
There’s a well-known book about Australian history called The Tyranny of Distance. The internet has helped to overthrow that tyrant. But nothing makes up for a loss of face-to-face contact. When I do neuroethics, my colleagues at the Florey Neuroscience Institutes are obviously more relevant. They are involved in the empirical work I do.
Yes, I spend three or so months a year in Oxford, and there I have colleagues who are philosophers of mind and of neuroscience, and applied ethicists. But no one who does free will. So for me neuroethics is far more collaborative enterprise than is philosophy of free will. That said, I tend to work alone most of the time. I am privileged to have a research position at the Florey Institutes, courtesy of the Australian government. I spend an hour or so every morning dealing with correspondence and tasks involved with editing the journal Neuroethics. Then I write, or try to.
No. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.
Well it seems quite trying some days!
How did you come to study philosophy?
I was born in South Africa and moved to Australia when I was ten. My parents were liberals who were opposed to Apartheid. A big part of their motivation for leaving was that they did not want my brother and I serving in the South African army, because we would have been given a tough time. I completed my schooling in Australia and went to university to study English literature, but I heard the siren call of French philosophy. I gradually moved over to what we called Critical theory – Continental philosophy, with an emphasis on the French.
I’ve heard of some of that stuff …
I wrote a dissertation in the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University, supervised first by Liz Grosz, and then by Marie Maclean after Liz left. The topic was whether post-structuralism, as represented by Foucault, really represented a radical break with the existentialism that preceded it (represented by Sartre). I argued that it didn’t: Sartre and Foucault were engaged in a similar project, of finding room for human freedom.
That’s certainly a defensible position, though of course Foucault would never attempt a grounding of freedom. Still, “finding room” is a good formula for him I think.
That’s where my interest in free will was first born. In Sartre and Foucault the threat to freedom was never from causal determinism but from the social and linguistic categories that structure thought and behavior.
And the practices that identify and normalize individuals whose behavior deviates from such categories.
I suppose I have remained more interested in this question, rather than the compatibility question, than is respectable (in my recent book Hard Luck, I argued that we don’t have free will, but that causal determinism does not threaten free will).
Tell us a little more here about your book, please.
Quick version: there is a traditional luck argument against libertarian accounts of free will: roughly, an undetermined decision would be a lucky decision, and luck undermines freedom. This argument usually works with an intuitive notion of luck. I use a fully developed account of luck to assess it. I argue that it has bite, but that libertarianism can see it off if it is suitably modified. However, I also argue that modified libertarianism is luck proof only if compatibilism is luck proof. No one has ever previously considered a luck argument against compatibilism, but I argue that compatibilism is just as vulnerable as libertarianism. This is clearest on historical accounts of compatibilism, which try to show that we can overcome what Thomas Nagel called constitutive luck. I argue it can’t be done (there is empirical evidence that it isn’t done, by the way – initial lucky or unlucky breaks lead to divergent paths. I think my career is a good illustration!).
Thanks. How about your career path. How did you get from Foucault to neuroethics?
A series of small steps. After finishing my dissertation, I was unemployed for several years. I tried to publish and to find part-time work that would allow me to keep working on philosophy. But my CV was weak and most Australian universities do not usually want to hire continental philosophers at all.
What did you do then?
I then returned to study, again at Monash University but this time in the philosophy department, which was strongly analytic. My thought was that by learning some analytic philosophy, I would make myself more attractive all round. I started to write a second PhD, on communitarianism. I also began to work as a tutor – what you would call a TA. This was my first formal contact with philosophy instruction - I never studied philosophy as an undergraduate.
You mean you started out in front of the classroom, rather than in the seats?
Yes, exactly. After a couple of years of this, I got my first job, an adjunct position at Macquarie University teaching first continental philosophy then political philosophy.
Hmm. I wonder what a formal study would show about non-tenure teaching of CP at analytic departments.
Macquarie, to its credit, has always had strong programs in both analytic and continental philosophy. Shortly after my work there finished, I got my big break (some luck!): a contact teaching position at Charles Sturt University in Melbourne. This was a big break because CSU was involved in setting up an applied ethics centre, the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE). I had research time to work in CAPPE, and was soon working full-time for them, in my hometown of Melbourne. That lasted 8 years, in which I turned myself into a specialist in applied ethics and in free will (I eventually submitted a second dissertation at Monash, on free will).
Wow. That’s a lot of hard work.
Lot’s of people would kill for so many years of full-time research! During this period, I was offered a part time job at Oxford, in applied ethics and then in the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. I had the luxury of time to pursue things that interested me. The trade off was that I had no job security: the longest contract I had was three years, and by the end I was going from one one-year contract to the next.
I can testify that such precarious labor is very emotionally draining.
Well, you discover things about yourself. I discovered that I was less risk-averse than I thought: I didn’t apply for a more secure position because I valued the time to do research so much. But as CAPPE’s financial situation got worse, my employment situation and prospects got worse too. Fortunately, the Florey Neuroscience Institutes liked the look of me and hired me – again on contract. I then applied for and won a four-year Future Fellowship from the Australian government. Four years guaranteed employment is the most security I have ever had.
I hope you can turn the corner soon and find a permanent post! You seem to have found an intellectual home in your current work, though.
The model I’m adopting is not an uncommon one in science: the idea that you have to fund your own position is quite familiar to scientists. As long as the funding holds up, I’m happy to live with the uncertainty! So I journeyed from Foucault to neuroscience, free will and controlled experiments. This involved abandoning continental philosophy. I think temperamentally I am better suited to the tightly constrained debates I find in analytic philosophy; there is more agreement on fundamentals and how to proceed. I know how to do analytic philosophy; I don’t know how to do continental philosophy except as an interpretative project (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I don’t know how to use it to address the things I care about.
I’ve been trying to do some case studies as an alternate philosophical methodology, that lets me use a basic Deleuzean-Foucaultian approach bringing philosophy, science, and real-world politics together.
I do find in too much of contemporary applied ethics in the analytic tradition a neglect of the social forces that play a crucial role in real-world politics and ethics. In fact, I think the moral responsibility literature suffers from the same flaw. I think that continental thought is a very useful corrective to this kind of thinking. But I don’t try to keep up. I am a slow reader, and I don’t want to make the investment required to find out whether, say, Badiou, is worth reading. Even if it is, I doubt that it will speak to my concerns.
There are only so many hours in the day.
I am a believer in the virtues of specialization, so I don’t see the very fact that there is a continental/analytic divide as itself a problem (it is just one divide of many: there is a naturalist/anti-naturalist divide; a French/German divide, and so on). There is no need, and no possibility (finitude, and all) for each of us to do everything. We would just do it badly. What we do need is people who are specialists in one area, and therefore respected in that area, who also engage seriously in other areas: they can play the cross-fertilization role that’s needed.
Yes, the problem is to find the institutional support for that kind of work. It can only come post-tenure I think.
I suspect that Continental and analytic philosophy have most to gain from one another on political and ethical questions.
I don’t know. I think there’s a post-divide metaphysics that can be worked out. Deleuze always said he thought of himself as a metaphysician.
It’s possible that my view is a function of only knowing a limited range of Continental thinkers. In any case, I work on political and ethical issues less and less, partly because the world is too depressing. What is the point of trying to get a correct account of justice when basic norms of decency can be overlooked at people’s convenience?
Not to be too picky, and I’m sure you’ll agree, but I don’t know about “people’s convenience” here. There’s a lot that would need to be said about institutions: it wasn’t Bush and Cheney (and Blair …) as people that mattered in constructing Guantanamo.
I don’t disagree, but the institutions are not in great shape either. The fact that global warming is so widely denied – and the institution of the media is central to that - seems to me a sufficient reason to think that engaging in public debate on questions of importance is being on a hiding to nothing (both because of what it says about our future and as an indicator of prevailing epistemic standards). I respect those who maintain Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will in the face of this, but I find it hard to motivate myself to do political philosophy or burning ethical questions in the face of this reality.
Well, I wouldn’t discount the practical side of neuroethics, but there’s a mediation there that also has to be factored in. Anyway, many thanks for doing this interview with us today!