Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Confusing Philosophy of Free-will

Over at Jerry Coyne’s place Brad asked for some links to the topic. Physicalist commenter offered some that included a link to this page at Stanford.

Unfortuneately the ‘incompatibilst’ term there is not the same use of the term on the JC post comments.

And so welcome to the wonderful mixed up world of philosophy.

I’ll make some general points but also try to focus on this issue of incompatibilism. It’s worth asking ‘incompatible with what?’ and then note the following points.

1) The incompatibilists (I’ll get to incompatibilist later) commenting on the JC post are determinists who claim that free-will is incompatible with determinism, and that we live in a deterministic universe, and so there is no free-will. But this particular free-will that is rejected is that of dualism – the notion of the mind being something separate from the body, that for religious believers has some existence of its own that might live on after death of the body, such as the soul. We incompatibilists determinists think there’s no evidence for such a mind, and that everything is physical, and so the brain is a physical system and that free-will is merely the human feeling that we do have such a mind. This is why we think free-will is an illusion – that is the dualist free-will is an illusion.

2) Compatibilists also think everything is physical. They don’t think there is a separate mind, or a soul. They are not dualists in this respect. But, they think that what happens in a human brain is so complex and so self-contained that it does make sense to think of it as free-will.

One part of the dispute is about whether, for low level philosophical and scientific purposes, we should abandon the use of the term ‘free-will’ to describe what both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on. There are other issues, such as that about the attribution of responsibility, that seem to cloud the dibate, but the core issue is whether we should use the term free-will for what both sides really do agree on, that is what is happening in a brain, particular when some behaviours are framed as (a) ‘it makes decisions’ (compatibilist) or (b) ‘is caused to produce an outcome that we commonly call a decision’ (incompatibilist)

3) The term ‘determinist’ sometimes causes confusion because we all accept that quantum physics introduces indeterminism into our understanding of the universe. There are several sub-issues here. Even a fully deterministic universe would still be indeterminate to humans because it is too complex to determine all the detailed outcomes. And quantum events, once they occur, have deterministic effects. And quantum effects are not sufficient to give back the dualist the free-will they are looking for. All this has to be accounted for when interpreting how incompatibilists determinists use the term determinism. Many, possibly most, compatibilists will also agree with these points, so determinism isn’t specifically a problem of contention. Except that a few compatibilists do wonder if quantum effects play a part in what they perceive to be free-will. Having said that, non-compatibilists would probably agree that quantum effects can have a moment-by-moment effect that makes the universe and any brain process (e.g. a decision) indeterminate, but would still not call this free-will. So, even give or take some variation in the strictness of the use of the term ‘determinism’ many compatibilists and incompatibilists still agree on the physical basis of brain function and still dispute the use of the term ‘free-will’.

4) Now for the Stanford ‘Incompatibilism’. The title and the introduction to that article use the term to describe what is essentially a dualist free-will account. It is portraying incompatibilists as those people who think that there is a free-will that is incompatible with determinism. Meanwhile in our discussion here some of us have picked up on the use of ‘incompatibilists’ as being the determinists that think free-will is incompatible with determinism.

From the Stanford article: “According to McCann (1998: 163-64), when one makes a decision, intrinsic to the decision is one’s intending to make that very decision.”

When compatibilists make such statements the determinists see this as a dualist statement – but in this instance it is a dualist statement. The qestion is, what caused the ‘intending’? Answer: physical activity in the brain. What caused ‘that’ physical activity? Answer: more physical activity. The problem for determinists is that when compatibilists make such statements we know they don’t really mean dualist free-will decision, but the compatibilists object when we say this is not free-will because it is still a determined outcome.

More from Stanford: “Kane holds that a free decision or other free action is one for which the agent is “ultimately responsible” (1996b: 35). Ultimate responsibility for an action requires either that the action not be causally determined or, if the action is causally determined, that any determining cause of it either be or result (at least in part) from some action by that agent that was not causally determined (and for which the agent was ultimately responsible).” [my emphasis]

This is pure dualism. This is not the determinism that we incompatibilists or determinists here are suggesting is the case. This is not the free-will of compatibilists.

There is a distinction that isn’t made clear. Determinist incompatibilists are those (including me) that infer from all available evidence that the universe is deterministic (broadly) and that non-material minds do not exist, and therefore free-will is an illusion. Dualist incompatibilists are those dualists (proponents of a non-material mind, or a soul) that infer from their conviction to dualism that determinism cannot be a full description of the universe. Quite often we find philosophers not being clear on this distinction, declaring incompatibilism an unsustainable position because they are only thinking about the dualist incompatibilists. Dan Dennett seems muddle on this point – at least as he writes in his derision of incompatibilism.

5) What’s been happening in the particular JC post is that we’ve adapted the language to use the terms compatibilist and incompatibilists (using the latter as opposed to determinist).

Now it may well be that we non-professional-philosophers do misuse philosophical terms sometimes, but we’re in good (bad) company, since many professional philosphers seem to change the meaning of words at the behest of their own free-will (ahem, which they don’t have, of course).

This is also why this ground is covered so often in so many ways, why points are made and re-made in different terms. It’s all part of the process of trying to understand what the hell is going on in the context of incomplete science, and a mad history of philosophy that’s all over the place.

Some people deride this process (Oh no! Jerry Coyne is banging on about free-will again! Enough already!). Well, maybe they can only take so much. But for the rest of us these are interesting points, with interesting outcomes (how we view responsibility) that depend on how we view human behaviour, and even how we frame it (free-will as an illusion or a reality).

So, I’m afraid you’ll have to wade through a lot of crap from all sides. At least you can narrow it down to what is basically a love-fest threesome: dualist (actual separate free-will), compatibilist (an emergent free-will worth having), incompatibilists (free-will is an illusion). They are the three main categories, with lots of overlap.

My Problems With Compatibilist Free-Will

While trying to get to grips with compatibilit free-will I’ve been looking at stuff from Dan Dennette and David Chalmers. Then along comes this post from Jerry Coyne. Trying to clarify my appreciation of the compatibilist case I asked specific questions of ‘Another Matt’, and had the response I was sort of hoping for (i.e. it confirmed what I thought was the physicalist case from compatibilists) from ‘coelsblog’

So, at least in the causal chain I think compatibilists and incompatibilists are on the same planet. But several points of contention remain, as I see it, as an incompatibilist. Not all compatibilists need hold all these points of view, but that some do, and that these points are raised frequently, causes misunderstanding for an incompatibilist such as myself. This is why I think many incompatibilists see compatibilists being closer to dualism than the underlying physicalism that many compatibilists really hold to.

1) Language and Level

A great deal of the disagreement does seem to revolve around the use of language and, for want of a better word, the ‘level’ at which autonomy is considered. From my response to Another Matt at Comment 7, and coelsblog’s response to me, that at least this incompatibilist agrees with all the underlying physics of that compatibilist, and that the main disagreement is what we are prepared to call free-will.

It seems that the compatibilist, while arguing about the appearance of human behaviour from what we all agree ‘appears’ to be the free-will perspective, is prepared to label that level of autonomy as free-will, while the incompatibilist is focused on stressing the reliance of this higher level autonomy on the physical foundation from which it emerges. The incompatibilist claim that free-will is an illusion is both explicitly denying dualist free-will, a view that the compatibilist agrees with, but also stresses that it’s the dualist free-will that is the illusion, and as such does not like to name the higher level autonomy as free-will bcause that causes confusion elsewhere.

2) Property Dualism (PD)

This page seems to contain a concise statement of property dualism:

“Like materialism, it holds that there is only one type of substance: physical. Property dualism denies the existence of immaterial minds that somehow interact with the physical world, animating unconscious bodies.

Where property dualism parts with materialism is that it does not attempt to reduce mental states to physical states. Mental states, according to the property dualist, are irreducible; there is no purely physical analysis of mind.”

This sounds like the incoherrent guff of irreducible complexity from ID proponents. Everything we know of is reducible to physical laws, except the mind? As much as dualism is denined in one breath it seems to be re-introduced in its negative guise of something not being reducible to physical explanation. In this sense it also sounds very much like sophisticated theology: of course there is no actual ontological God entity, but still, God is within us, we are God, God is the mystery of the univerese, blah, blah, blah.

Property dualism of mind seems no more coherent than property dualism of biology, or chemistry. It comes across to me as two hidden assumptions:

(i) I (the property dualist) want there to be free-will, for some reason. This might be because I fear the consequences for social order (see point 3), or because I fear the implied fatalism.

(ii) I am using the argument from incredulity, because I really can’t see how my conscious subjective experience can be explained.

Not very convincing positions to hold. PD seems to be an invented philosophical notion the sole purpose of which is to uphold a position one is already committed to. Big fail.

3) Fear of Consequences

Dan Dennett in this conversation makes this point very clearly.

“Free-will worth wanting … responsibility … all compatible with science … if only that’s what scientists were telling us … but scientists have been on a rampage writing ill-considered public announcements about free-will which … in some case verge on social irresponsibility … The recent flood of books by neuroscientists has very little worthwhile stuff and a lot that’s seriously confused; and now, as we’re actually beginning to get some scientific confirmation, it makes a difference … because … some research shows that if you present people with the claim that science has shown that we don’t really have free-will … they will actually behave less morally; they will be more apt to cheat.”

Yeah, OK, let’s pretend guns don’t exist, because if we say they do they might be used to kill people. I find it astonishing that a philosopher would use an argument from social concern to attack an argument from evidence – evidence that he actually agrees with: that there is no contra-causal free-will. Dennett wants to insist on using the label associated with dualism, because that might persuade people to be good; or, that to remove that label and emphasise the reality of physicalism might lead them to be bad? This doesn’t fit with Dennett’s arguments against religion, where he acknowledges that religion might persuade some people to be good, but that’s not a good enough reason to claim religious beliefs as truths.

Now Dennett may well be a comptibilist from point (1); but then he should stick to arguing that point instead of using the ‘fear of consequences’ argument that is also used by the religious .

Of course the fears are unfounded. There is no escape from responsibility in incompatibilism. Deterministically caused autonomy results in a focul point of action and responsibility: the human being. Avoiding the notion of free-will that is clouded by religious notions, such as the notion of evil, allows us to weigh the attribution responsibility more rationally and less emotively.

4) Qualia

Qualia appears to be a made-up concept used to give a name to internal brain states, as observed by the brain, to give impetus to the notion that these brain states, these qualia, are inexplicable, irreducble, in terms of physical brain states.

This is associated with point (2), but it’s also associated specifically with questions like “What does it feel like to be a bat?”

The idea that this cannot be answered, the incredulity gap again, is what proponents of qualia are relying on.

My view is that qualia, like any other metaphor or model, might have its uses, but it does not pose a problem to the physicalist explanation of subjective experience. The way I look at subjective experience, which of course is a subjective view, is as follows.

Any animal brain senses its environment, and also senses its own body and acts as a control system that allows the animal to survive in its environment. Part of that process is prediction – the automatic prediction of the path a prey animal is taking as it is pursued, for example. This involves feedback systems that continuously monitor and react to the environment, and the animal’s own body.

From there a ‘more advanced’ brain can also start to include itself as part of the environment – it can monitor its own processes, to a limited extent. This is rudimentary self-awareness. It aids survival because it allows the animal to not only improve its basic motor responses to the environment but also helps it to improve its own ‘mental’ processing of those responses: adaptive programming.

Below this conscious level there is still subjective experience of the brain body system doing its basic stuff – still a subjective perspective, but not conscious, or not self-aware, not the ‘higher level’ conscious subjective experience that this post addresses. The autonomic nervous system, or any non-biological feedback system, could be said to have this low level subjective experience by virtue of the feedback mechanisms it employs – the sensing of one’s own state.

When an animal acquires a conscious self-aware subjective experience, in addition to the non-aware non-conscious subjective experience, then ‘this’ is what it feels like (i.e. how we feel about our subjective experience).

So, when wondering what it feels like to be a bat we can only guess that a bat might or might not have sufficient capability to actually be aware of what it feels like to be a bat

What we can say is that our high level subjective experience is what it feels like to have higher level subjective experiences. Neither us or bats can say what it feels like to have lower level subjective experiences because there is no mechanism available to report those experiences to the self, to the higher level, in our case, and possibly no self to which such experiences could be reported if there were such a mechanism for a bat. Some lower level subjective experiences become higer level subjective experiences by simply delivering messages into the parts of the brain that are aware – e.g. for pain.

I realise I’m taking a liberty with the use of ‘subjective experience’, but I’m extending it into the unconscious with some justification I think. These lower level experiences are certainly subjective in the sense that they belong to, are experienced by, only those parts of the system that experience them. And I think this move has greater justification than inventing a qualia of the gaps.

5) ‘I’

Who is this ‘I’ or ‘Me’?

Many compatibilist statements that resemble this one, “Do humans choose their actions freely”, can be normalised to the first person I/me: “Do I choose my actions freely”

Some similar examples, taken from Jerry Coyne’s post:

  • “exercising their own power of will” -> “exercising my own power of will”
  • “who selects one of these options and enacts it” -> “I select one of these options and enact it”
  • “because I choose to when I might have other thoughts” – Normalised.
  • “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” – Normalised.

This one attributed to Dennett here:

  • “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit themselves and their own purpose” – “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit me and my own purpose”

My question to compatibilists is, what is this ‘I’ if it is not the physical brain-body system? Many, if not all, compatiblists seem to resort to this ‘I’ without explaining what it is, what mechanism is used, what process, what entity it is. Could some compatibilist explain what this ‘I’ is.

To me, a determinist, the ‘I’ seems like a label for the as yet poorly understood complex events that go on in a brain and result in that brain ‘making a decision’. It’s the ‘self’ that experiences self when a michine can examine its own examining processes, when a computer program can monitor its own programming. This process will be determined by all the past history of the development and learning of that brain, and the current inputs that cause the brain to think a decision is necessary. The process will appear as one that has a most recent causal focal point in that brain – that brain has had data wizzing about according to how brains work, and has eventually come up with an output, a decision. Because the brain isn’t fully aware of all this processing now, and the detailed history of development and learning that brought it to this point is not evidence that the brain just ‘made up its own mind’ in any sense that is similar to what a dualist mind would supposedly do. This is the problem with compatibilism for me, this ‘I’ that goes so unexplained that it sounds like a free uncaused mind.

This is how I see it: we are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. When “I” say “my brain” is doing it, that’s my brain talking about itself in the first and third person, as the first person possessive of the second. I am me, the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”. We don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. There is no other credible possibility on the table.

It sounds like the compatibilist is saying that, yes, it’s all physical, but that it transforms into something that is not physical and yet isn’t dualism. There seems to be a mysterious gap that compatibilists argue for, while we incompatibilists insist that no matter how complicated it gets there is no room for anything other than causal determinism. Either that or the compatibilists simply can’t get their own brains around their own understanding of free will.

Summary

Though I can see where compatibilists and incompatibilists agree, within elements of point (1), on the physical basis for consciousness and free-will, I also see the labelling of free-will, property dualism, and fear of consequences, qualia, ‘I’, all as positions held by dualists, including the religious, and that’s why I see the compatibilist case not being distinct enough, such that it does lead incompatibilists to see compatibilists being closer to dualists in many respects.

Compatibilists sometimes wonder why incompatibilists make them out to be dualists. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it might not actually be a duck, but it’s easy to make the mistake. Point (1) I can agree on to a great extent – that’s where the common ground lies.

It’s still fine for incompatibilists to use terms normally associated with free-will when appropriate – e.g. in every day language. I don’t have a problem using the ‘free-will’ metaphor, any more than using other metaphors. I might say, “I’m flying!”, meaning that whatever I’m doing I’m doing at higher than normal rate; but if I thought I was literally flying it would be an illusion (or a delusion, according to how I felt I was literally flying). I’m happy to use metaphorical language of free-will, knowing it’s metaphorical, while even at the same time realising that to some extent my brain still feels the illusion to be true.