Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Hard Problem Of Free Will

The death of mind-body dualism should be the death of free will, no matter what we do we can't escape that we are composed of physical objects all of which act according to physical laws. Thus any decision we appear to make is merely the summation of physical properties and contingency. We don't have the power to change the future despite how real our decision-making process feels. Contra-causal free will is dead.

Many grudgingly acknowledge this, just as there is the acknowledgement that quantum uncertainty can't help with the problem of free will. Random or contingent, both don't help with the fact that our decisions are still the product sum of forces below the conscious level.

Yet the debate continues about whether we have free will, compatibilism[1] is the philosophical position that despite determinism there is such thing as free will. Yet as much as compatibilism is desirable, it does feel like someone is trying to put lipstick on a pig. Because no matter what the musings it is seemingly impossible to answer the hard problem of causation, because someone couldn't have done otherwise that what they did, because that would be breaking the summation of the processes that led to it.

A recent paper published in the PNAS[2] compared the belief in free will to vitalism:
It is the author’s contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism—something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago.
And that because the laws of physics are uniform, we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar! The paper is well worth a read because it does give the scientific case as to what one could possibly mean by agency having responsibility. Can we as agents be responsible for our actions? Anthony Cashmore argues that any sense of responsibility is an illusion and thus no we can't be accountable.

Buridan's ass[3]
Imagine going to a restaurant you have never been to and seeing multiple things on the menu that sound equally appetising and cost the same amount. Unable to choose which meal is best, you get up and leave with an embarrassed look on your face. That's happened to you, right? I'm guessing not.

So lets say you choose one of the dishes and enjoy the meal, but afterwards you wonder if you made the right choice. The chicken was a little overcooked after all and the person at the next table who had the beef did nothing but compliment it. If only you had chosen differently, after all it was your choice...

...well no. It was the sum total of the laws of physics acting out from the big bang until the very second when you proclaimed to the waiter that you had the chicken. It felt like you were making a choice but if we rewound the universe to that moment again you would have had the same outcome of getting the chicken which was slightly overcooked and you'd be sitting around later pondering why you didn't take the beef. The best you can hope for is to learn for next time.

The selfish altruist
A parallel: Think of the notion of altruism. There are two classic notions of altruism, psychological and biological. We can see acts of altruism all through nature and even in ourselves, yet underneath this apparent costly action lies self-serving motivations. It is to be altruistic because of advantages it can bring[4].

One can take this underlying biological selfishness to dismiss the psychological phenomena, even going so far as to ask "how can one be altruistic when the underlying motivations are selfish?" Of course to call the biological process selfish is somewhat misleading as the biological process has the appearance of behaving selfishly but of course has no mind.

In that sense, it's not pertinent to talk about altruistic or selfish acts. What motivations are there? There can be none at all because matter has no mind, it just does. Daniel Dennett calls this kind of thinking greedy reductionism[5], like trying to explain a website to someone by talking about electrical fluctuations through semi-conducting arranged metal. Yes, ultimately a website can be reduced to such an explanation, but it's useless to explain it in that sense. Moreover it can be downright misleading to conclude that websites are merely an illusion!

Laplace's Demon[6]
From our individual point of view we are not able to see all the physical interactions that make someone do something. Even if we could successfully map a brain, the sheer number of calculations make it computationally impossible to derive that mental compulsion.

So we can imagine a God's eye view of what it would look like to something that determine what's going to happen next. If there were such an entity that knew any given state of a universe and how all interactions would interact, it would be able to work out what would happen next. From that we can gather that any action taken on the volition of an agent is really the sum total of all that came before it. We have to be causally determined, just as what comes next is determined.

Laplace's demon has been exorcised away by quantum mechanics, making the system we live in indeterminate. But still the causal problem remains for free will. Randomness or causality are inevitably at the heart of what it means to be a monist[7], free will as a contra-causal phenomenon is incoherent unless our will itself is contra-causal. Quantum indeterminacy does not give wiggle-room for the free will on offer.

So it goes.
It must be concluded that free will in the contra-causal sense must be false. We can't do otherwise than what can be done, our thoughts and actions are part of the causal process. The compatibilist and the incompatibilist both agree on this. So why the distinction?

It matters because we are decision-making agents. From our point of view, our actions can change outcomes. Think of the trolley problem[8], we have the power to pull the switch and thus change the outcome. The trolley can't do that, a chopped-off hand can't do that but we as individuals can. This requires no breaking of causality, whether the switch gets pulled is determined by the underlying brain chemistry but the outcome was not inevitable.

In the view offered by Cashmore[2], there is no distinction between a thrown brick and a brick thrower. Both are victims of circumstance and it is no more to blame someone from throwing a brick that smashes a window than blaming the brick itself. The mental state of the thrower is determined wholly by everything that came before.

Tackling The Hard Problem
The hard problem of free will is seemingly impossible to argue with, I can't deny the argument though I will say it's an unhelpful view to the point of being useless. The question sounds like "how can we have intelligence if all the parts are unintelligent?" While one could argue that intelligence doesn't exist because at the core matter cannot think, surely people would object that a dam is different to a beaver dam even if both are merely matter rearranging matter. The beaver has a programmed behaviour[9], human dams are the product of thinking.

Evolution can produce adaptations that exist for the same reason as a human mind would design[10], an example would be sonar which evolved naturally in bats and dolphins but was also designed by intelligent people and for the same purpose in each. Only in dolphins and bats the reasons for sonar aren't representative of the process.

Going back to that restaurant, I can't help but think that I was more than an observer in the process. The observer feels like Cartesian-like, that consciousness is not part of the decision-making process but merely an effect. I can't see why something like that would be useful in an evolutionary sense; not even to give the illusion of moral responsibility[2]. How is that not me making the decision, after all I'm the one who has the experience!

And therein lies my problem with the hard problem of free will. We as individuals have the capacity to think through causation and outcomes, yet this is treated no different than a brick flying through the air. Yet we are decision-making agents, we just can't help being that way. If we can think through consequences, then motivations become important. If a person intended to harm others and did so, this is motivationally different to someone who caused harm completely unintended. Cashmore's paper says there is no real difference between the two because either way they are all just the laws of physics playing out. One can be no more responsible for their moral actions than they can their design actions, a great painting merely the rearrangement of matter at the behest of other matter.

If we can be free in any sense, it's between the ability to pursue our desires and when those desires are stifled by the actions of others. There's a difference between signing a confession with and without coercion, likewise making a decision when calm and stressed. But that's just matter changing matter, that's all it is...

[1] - http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/
[2] - Cashmore, A. R. 2010. The Luretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107:4499-4504.
[3] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buridan's_ass
[4] - For an explanation of this, read Richard Dawkins' book: The Selfish Gene.
[5] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greedy_reductionism
[6] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laplace's_demon
[7] - There is a good discussion of this in Bruce Hood's book: Supersense
[8] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem
[9] - Read "The Beaver's Tale" in Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale
[10] - Dennett D(2009) Darwin's “strange inversion of reasoning.”. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106(Suppl):10061–10065.


Richard T said...

Does it really matter ultimately whether we have free will? I would think that subjectively we do have free will and that is what matters. If we don't subjectively or objectively have free will then there would seem to be no point in punishing anything.

If there is no free will I wonder whether matter has an overriding purpose or whether it just is.

Kel said...

I'd agree with you on that. Subjectively we do have free will in the same way that we subjectively experience pain or pleasure. If you explain away free will on account of the component nature of nature, then you lose any form of subjective experience. Science should explain... not explain away.

Though I would argue that our capacity to be free agents is limited, which is one reason I'm personally against the death penalty.