Thursday, 29 July 2010

More On Free Will

To many determinism prohibits free will because the inescapable fact that all actions are an expression of the laws of physics. Take Anthony Cashmore's[1] definition of free will:
I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.
While I'm sure most people would agree that free will defined that way cannot exist, all one has to do is define free will as being something else and the definition fails. Imagine the same example but for the concept of life:
I believe that life is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological organisms that is something more than the interacting non-living matter of the organism.
In other words, how do you get life from non-living matter? Many ask this as if there's a great distinction between the living and non-living. Those who believe in distinguishing life from non-life aren't advocating a vitalist difference, so to define life as believing in some form of vitalism doesn't actually explain anything useful, and is misleading by trying to explain away something of great value.

A parallel is moral relativism. If I advocate fox hunting and you think it abhorrent, what sense is it useful to say that it's true for me that fox hunting is good and for you it is bad? It doesn't address the issues of concern[2] which still remain at the heart of the disagreement. Trying to explain free will in terms of a definition that everyone would agree couldn't be true doesn't address the issues surrounding what it means to be free.

Stopping A Thrown Ball
Imagine two children throwing a ball to each other in the front yard of the house. One of the throws is too hard and off-target and is heading straight for a window. You are standing nearby and are within reach that would prevent the ball from hitting and therefore breaking the window.

You can probably make an educated guess as to the "decision making" process of the brain. The desire to stick one's hand up comes from the laws of physics in the most trivial sense, but really it's the patterns of brain cognition that are able to map objects, movements and consequences. To highlight this, consider the same scenario only instead of the ball flying into a window think of it falling harmlessly on the ground. The consequence of it moving into the glass matters in the cognition of whether to stop the ball or not.

The same laws of physics are applied in each situation, the same agent - the only difference was an "awareness" of the consequences. Same goes for the situation where in the focus on the throwing the lack of awareness of their being a window in the path. In this situation, the agent doesn't realise there would be consequences for letting the ball go.

Cartesian Theatre[3]
Take the Cartesian form of cognition, that there is an immaterial source that drives the material vessel. We can think of examples analogous to this idea: a woman driving a car works fine in illustrating this mind-body problem as it is classically thought. Think of the original Terminator movie where the view from inside the terminator was one much like our own but except with a few visible calculations. Which is to say this does nothing to tell us how the Terminator artificial intelligence works.

People make a homunculus argument[4], a non-explanation masquerading as something explanatory. So when faced with a regress boiling down to a physical brain interacting, it's easy to interject "that cannot be free will!" as if the only possible experience is of will as a single indivisible entity.

Yet how would such an entity calculate how to express that will? We can just chalk it off to something immaterial and not think about it. The idea of an immaterial will is equivalent to magic. It's not about how it happens but that it can in ways we can't fathom.

Apply such an entity to the situation with the ball. So instead of having a brain that calculates the consequences and acts accordingly there's a will that does the same, only through some supernatural means. As agents now we can act to influence outcomes as much as an immaterial will can, only difference is that we can dissect how a material mind can work and find ourselves as victims of circumstances.

It wasn't me, it was my neurons!
I think the contention lies that the indivisible element is not the element which we experience. But that really shouldn't be a problem, if you think otherwise stick a knife through your hand and see whether the pain is any less illusory. That pain can ultimately be reduced down to brain activity acting on impulses doesn't make it go away. This is the difference between reductionism and greedy reductionism.

That consciousness is a composed entity shouldn't pose a problem. After all, how does a desire created by the firing of synapses differ from one that is immaterial? Being able to blame the agent for their actions apparently. If the will is the ultimate source then it has an ultimate responsibility. But as finite beings we can't have that to begin with, decisions are finite and contingent.

Take the example again of the ball throwing, what could an immaterial will do that is different to what a material will could? If one desired not to have their window broken, then it wouldn't matter whether the desire was immaterial or material. The same capacities, the same abilities to produce a different potential outcome (either the window gets smashed or it doesn't) and the same fact that there is only one outcome.

The problem is that the will reduces down to the laws of physics, so while this kind of will that desires an outcome is indistinguishable in action from an indivisible will, with the divisible will one can always point to the decision being out of their control. So while the subject can experience a sense of self and all the pleasure and pain that comes with it, when it comes to responsibility we treat that will as an illusion. This is Cartesian thinking taped over materialism, no wonder it comes out as absurd!

Our sense of will is us as much as anything else, material or immaterial it doesn't change that ultimately we are saying "this is the self". We have decision-making processes which can work already in the sense we want them to. To want otherwise is essentially to want the capacity for randomness in decision-making.

An argument from knowledge
I think we already know that we are decision-making machines. At the age of 5 I was put in school where they tried to teach me ways of thinking and behaving; to read and calculate, to consider and take lessons. So much is invested in education because education is about giving mind tools, to mould someone's actions and understanding.

We aren't free from the laws of physics but we are free in the way that matters - to be able to evaluate the world and make judgements that matter. Back to the ball scenario. If someone didn't understand what a window was then why would they feel the need to stop the ball from crashing into the window? After all, the decision is made by someone for the purpose of preventing a possible future in which the window shatters. Knowing what the outcome is changes the abilities of an agent.

To put this into much higher stakes, imagine someone being put in a room that had a button which would launch an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Without knowing what the button does, how can the person be held responsible for pressing it? But if they did know what the button would do and what the consequences of that would be, then they are responsible because they affected a potential outcome.

It's the assurance of MAD[5] that prevents nuclear war, the knowledge of what nuclear warfare would do ensures that no-one wants to be the one who starts it. Each brain doing its own calculations still in the bounds of the laws of physics yet despite the hair-trigger nature of nuclear payloads there hasn't been any nuclear weapons used in warfare since WW2. That should say something about the nature of free will.

As Dan Dennett puts it, we shouldn't be looking to physics for free will but to biology[6]. It's natural selection that creates agents of evitability, our capacity of abstract thinking and accumulated knowledge that gives us the capacity to be morally-accountable agents. In that sense we are much more free than a bowl of sugar or a bacterium or a dog, because we can and do act on what we know. That is a free will that should be as desirable as any versions of free will on offer.

[1] - 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.
[2] - Philosophy Bites: Simon Blackburn on Relativism
[3] - Daniel C Dennett. (1991), Consciousness Explained
[4] -
[5] - Mutually Assured Destruction
[6] - Video lecture: here.

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