Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Free Will

Rather than await full fruition, I have put up a stub of a post, on the key subject of Free Will. 
This subject is key, in the first instance, (psycho)logically.
A denial of the existence of God is something like a denial of the validity of induction, or of deduction.  You feel that something’s not right, but you cannot roundly refute the assertion.
With Free Will, however, the plain man knows where he stands.  The neuro-Darwinian blunderbuss that takes potshots at the Deity, typically wings Free Will in the process.  And now we know that something doesn’t add up.

It is central, in the second instance, theologically/morally.
Beginning with that apple in the Garden -- nay, before that, when Satan sinned by Pride -- the freedom of our Will has been central in our Judeo-Christian understanding of the Deity.   Hope, responsibility, even sanity, depend from this entirely.
 ~     ~     ~

The most that the believer in free will can ever do  will be to show that the deterministic arguments  are not coercive.
-- Wm James

We beg to dissent.
The existence of Free Will is not, after all, some abstruse hypothesis:  it is the rock-bed experience of each one of us. -- Suppose that scientists rose up in a body to deny the existence of the planet Earth.  Remarkably, all the other planets turn out to exist, just not Earth.  As proof, they hand you a thousand pages of equations, and another thousand of computer calculations, the whole tersely commented here and there in Chinese.  In a moment of doubt, you might, like Doctor Johnson, experimentally kick a stone;  but then you would go serenely on your way, more inclined to doubt the existence of this cloud of scientists (something you ate?)  than the planet you have always lived on.

~     ~     ~

The hidden preparation of mental activity gives the illusion of free will.  Free will [is] a side product of illusion
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998), p .119

What the illustrious entomologist is referring to is the apparent neuroscientific fact (we would not dream of disputing it) that any undoubtedly free-will action, such as my hurling this pie into the face of the nearest neuroscientist, is both preceded and followed by various electrochemical blurps and blips  of the sort that make no especial sense, but which form the meat and drink of their sad science.
In the matter of ants, I would not dream of challenging that eminent authority on any point whatsoever.   Quite possibly the individual ant in the colony does lack free will;   I do not know -- indeed, have no way of knowing, since, unlike my esteemed colleague Doctor Dolittle, I have not mastered the ant-language.  (Whether the colony as a whole has some sort of glimmer of free will, is less clear.)  Evidently the celebrated professor has mastered the ant-language, despite its many difficulties (rumor has it that every single verb in the ant language is irregular), and concluded that they are naught but ... myrmidons (to coin a word);  I salute him for it.  But when it comes to that species unto whom the gift of reason was granted, and the volitional capacity to apply it for good or ill -- well, perhaps our professor has been studying ants too long.

An omniscient mind with total commitment to pure reason and fixed goals  would lack free will.
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998)

Before I say anything -- Does anybody spot the red herring here?   ‘Pure reason’  is neither here nor there:  Similarly committed, you might freely decide to devote the remainder of yours days to the solution of the Riemann Hypothesis, or the Goldbach Conjecture.  Its evocation here functions mainly as a distractor, so that you are less likely to focus on the petitio principii of smuggling in “fixed goals”.   The logical structure of Wilson’s argument here is:  If a trolly must run on a fixed track, than it cannot wander abroad.  (And yet such nonsense makes it past the copy-editor.)
Wilson then indulges in the Laplacian fantasy (by now exploded even for billiard-balls) that knowing the state of every neuron at t = 0 would in principle allow us to predict its state at t = 1.   What prevents our carrying out this program  is no freedom within the man-machine, quotha, but “… mathematical chaos… noisy legions of cells … discordant patterns … the cells are bombarded every instant by outside stimuli …”

Rembrandt -- storm on Sea of Galilee

Our free will is like a ship sailing straight and true  across the sea.  The neuroscientists who wish to reduce this to physics, are as whoso should calculate the trajectories of all the water molecules impinging on the ship from below, and all the air molecules buffeting it from above.  Yet for all the chaos to which it is exposed, the ship sails calmly on:  and every so often, ever so gently, responds to a touch of the tiller.

~     ~     ~

The “problem” of free will  is largely the problem of defending it against far-fetched philosophical or eliminative-materialist attack.  We know perfectly well that we have it – we know this with far more certainty than we know of the existence of this coffee cup:  For the existence of my will  survives intact  the disaster of the unknowability of noumena (the coffee cup itself, poor fellow, survives this in, as it, were, a sort of crestfallen and spectral state), and even survives the hypothetical disaster of the brain-in-a-vat:  for in my vat, sloshing around as happily as a fat man in a bath,  I still will  to bring this (as it turns out, virtual) coffee-cup to my lips;  I still will-to-sip the revivifying French Roast therein (virtual, to be sure, but freshly ground), I still smack my (virtual) lips in satisfaction; and should the gnome at the controls someday (curse him) so tweak the meters that, when I will that cup to rise, it sinks or dematerializes; or switches the taste-sensation to that of some wretched instant de-caf, I shall, though deprived of any non-imaginary members wherewith to express it, be pissed as hell.
            The problem resides, then, not in any doubt of our own, but in the curious importunacy of proctological philosophers, moonlighting scientists, and the odd asylum escapee, claiming that, according to their own recondite theories, or their precise calculations, or oracular revelations, or something some guy said in a bar, our free will is but an illusion.  It is rather as though some tractate-mongers kept showing up at the kitchen door, or popping up from behind the hedge, informing us  with no little severity  that, say, cats do not exist.  For a moment we are startled – could this possibly be true? – then hark to the meow, and feed Fluffy.  Still, the nay-sayers are persistent, and from time to time we are irked by doubts – didn’t Putnam say something along these lines (and he’s a sensible man)?  Yes, something about – certainly, cats might just come from Mars; nay, they might (though with less probability than the usual asylum-story) just be automata:  but in any event  these hypotheses stand in the line-up besides other hypotheses, such as: That cats are not really mammals, but actually therapsids, who have convergently evolved a fur-like pelt (I have heard something of the sort maintained as fact, as regards platypuses); or, that cats have such hypnotic powers (just look at those eyes…) that they have convinced us that we are priviliged to have them as pets, whereas in fact they are exploiting us (the jury will consider the case of Arbuckle v. Garfield;  massive evidence for this view may be found documented at;  or that they, like dogs and rabbits and woodchucks, are pretty much   as they seem.  The hypothesis of the hedge-hoppers does not enjoy some special privilege that excuses it from lining up with the others, merely because it is radically skeptical;  and in that line-up, it does not fare well, its probability score languishing dismally below that of the therapsid hypothesis.  Still the cat-deniers continue to importune:  our Infelinity Theory (they say) is absolutely and provably incapable of demonstrating the existence of cats!  Well then, we are tempted to reply, so much the worse for Infelinity Theory; and fondly pass Fluffy another morsel. 
[Update] For a rather intricate and original take on all this -- difficult to summarize -- cf. the thread that begins here:  You Choose.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *

Steven Pinker,  The Blank Slate (2002), p. 74, re the surprising results of the Human Genome Project:
Some editorialists  concluded  that the smaller [-than-anticipated] gene count  refuted any claims about innate talents or tendencies, because the slate is too small to contain much writing.  Some even saw it as vindicating the concept of free will:  the smaller the machine, the more room for a ghost.

Such tomfoolery he dismisses, as do I;  such allies, indeed, we do not need.  Our experience of Free Will  is like our experience of love or sunlight, in that it is immediate (and indeed, epistemologically better-founded, even than these);  we do not breathlessly await the latest decimal-point from Craig Venter’s lab, to see whether we are rational beings or rather robots.

[Update]  Venter himself, though, has come out on the side of the angels.  (This is good to hear;  he has always been one of my very favorite capitalists.) :

Even if there was an increased genetic tendency for something like that, that leaves out the notion that there’s free will.  I think what a lot of people are looking for in society  is to have genetics absolve them from individual responsibility.  I can’t help it, I’m obese.  My genes made me that way. … I can’t help it, I’m a pedophile.  I was born that way
-- quoted in Haynes Johnson, The Best of Times (2001), p. 103

~     ~     ~

Miscellaneous quotes and epigrams:
What I think I mean by free will:  It is the ability for a conscious entity to do something irrational.
-- Russell Standish, Theory of Nothing (2006; 2nd edn. 2011)
At first blush, this is rebarbative;  but on second thought, I believe I know what he’s getting at.  For, though a definition of free will in general is beyond me, I might venture this:  the proof of the pudding of free will  is our ability to do something contrary to the will of God.  (These two ideas may well converge upon the same thing.)

Acting as though one did not have free will, corrupts the soul.
Thus Kingsley Amis, in his novel The Folks that Live on the Hill (1990), p. 53, depicts a young man attempting to wring some money from a relative via emotional blackmail:
“I’m afraid I’m getting a wee bit desperate.  I’m afraid I may find myself doing something very ill-advised and rather outré.  And rather awful.”
Clare could think of nothing she would have hated half as much as hearing even a hint of the very ill-advised, rather outré and rather awful thing Piers was afraid he might find himself doing.  She shied away from identifying to herself the area where it, the thing, might have lain, but it must be somehow connected with the secretiveness of his life  and the apparent absence from it of ...

(Mais vous devinez  déjà:  c’est un inverti.)

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *

Given the popular misconception of Christian theology as desiring men to be the slaves of God (cf. also all those Muslim names in `Abd- ...), or as blindly following the ministrations of their priests or pastors,  it is remarkable how much emphasis the wise essayists of the Historical Church  place on freedom of the will.  God is not looking for obedient robots -- He could have had such, ten for a penny, if desired.  What He wants is something  far more precious:  Us; gifted by Him  with a will that is truly free -- free even to defy Him.
Thus, take this typical passage, from a Jesuit writer:
We do not understand free human acts … unless we understand them as freely aligning themselves  for or against the norm of what is good order.  This is why all human actions are worthy of praise or blame, because of the content freely put into them by the human decision…
-- James Schall, S.J., The Order of Things (2007), p. 90

Truly, this is a religion for grown-ups.
(Compare as well the comment by our spiritual advisor, Dr. Massey, at the end of this post:

 [update 3 III 12] "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." Thus, like Odysseus, who bade his sailors tie him to the mast, we must at times outwit  our own will-weakness: Meta-freewill in action.
~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(Je suis René Descartes, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

On occasion we have broken a lance with those who -- in philosophical autointoxication or bad faith -- maintain that we have no Free Will, and that Science shows so.   But no more are we partial to those who say, Yeh, sure, free will, for sure, it follows from Quantum Mechanics (somehow).   Fortunately a swipe at the latter has been ably delivered by the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, sparing me the need to reply, so that I may instead go off and feed the ducks.
An excerpt follows:

Antoine Suarez and Peter Adams (eds.), Is Science Compatible with Free Will?: Exploring Free Will and Consciousness in the Light of Quantum Physics and Neuroscience, Springer, 2013, 326pp., $129.00 (hbk), ISBN 9781461452119.
Reviewed by Neil Levy, University of Oxford
Philosophers who work on free will are frequently irritated by articles by scientists, usually neuroscientists, proclaiming the death of free will. Sometimes these articles report good science, but the arguments against free will constructed on the basis of the results reported are question-begging, when not simply irrelevant. The majority of the chapters in this book exploring the relation between science and free will present us with a mirror-image of this kind of work. They aim to vindicate free will, not to kill it. As in the case of the debunkers, excellent science is deployed, by people closely engaged in it. But the results are every bit as frustrating, because the arguments for the existence and nature of free will are at their very best question-begging and inadequate.
This book brings together a number of papers presented at a workshop in Barcelona in 2010; the majority of the presenters are European and most are scientists. The original workshop was organized by Antoine Suarez, who is a member of the Center for Quantum Philosophy. In his preface to the book, Suarez tells us that the original workshop was designed to discuss the idea that science is compatible "with phenomena governed by nonmaterial principles, like, for instance, free will and consciousness". This preface, with its artless claims about the nature of consciousness and free will, and its frank aspiration to show that human beings are partially "spiritual" beings, is representative of much of the book, which combines scientific sophistication (or rather, sophistication within the scientific domain that the contributor knows well) with philosophical naivety.
The book is divided into three parts, on quantum physics, neuroscience and the reconciliation of free will and science respectively. The first section, on quantum mechanics, is the one most characterized by philosophical naivety. The five chapters that make up this section present the reader with (relatively) accessible discussions of major topics in quantum mechanics, such as entanglement, nonlocality, Bell inequalities and the free will theorem, with most of the chapters written by scientists closely involved in ongoing work to test the predictions of quantum mechanics. These chapters will be useful to philosophers, especially insofar as they present a strong case for a nondeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics (One chapter, by Gilles Brassard and Paul Raymond-Robichaud presents a dissenting, deterministic, view; the view is somewhat similar to the many-worlds interpretation, but rather than having each collapse of the wave function constitute a branching point of different worlds, they postulate the continued existence, within a single universe, of the superposition of both possible states. Due to our cognitive limitations, they suggest, we experience only one state of the superposition).
Since I am in no position to adjudicate the debates between the rival positions sketched, I will limit my comments to the claims made about free will and its compatibility, or lack thereof, with the science. It is here that sophistication gives way to naivety, not to mention sometimes bizarre speculation. In every contribution, 'free will' is understood to require indeterminism; acknowledgement that compatibilism even exists is limited to a single footnote. Much worse, 'free will' is for the most part implicitly identified with indeterminism, and quantum indeterminism at that.
Suarez acknowledges that some people have seen a threat to free will in indeterminism, and promises to show us that quantum events can be controlled by free will. But the proof seems to consist in the statement that it is compatible with physics that a mind outside space-time could influence such events; no hint of a mechanism is provided and no suggestion as to how this influence might constitute control. Since he maintains that the kind of control that such a mind can exercise is identical to the kind of control elementary particles themselves exercise, it is plain that this kind of control won't solve the kinds of problems indeterminism is often said to present for an account of free will. Indeed, contributors have free recourse to their naïve intuitions about free will in their physical theorizing. Gisin, for instance, in his excellent discussion of nonlocality, rejects the many-worlds interpretation partly on the basis of the claim that were it true, we would lack free will. It is only in Merali's contribution that anything approaching a genuine argument for the incompatibility of free will and determinism is presented, with Merali claiming that Conway and Kochen's free will theorem entails that unless the experimenter's choices are undetermined, she must somehow be constrained in what measurements she can make of a particle's spin.
The papers in this section are valuable and even exciting. For both newcomers to these issues and for those with some degree of prior knowledge, they provide an excellent view of some difficult issues in contemporary physics. Moreover, creative philosophers may well find the ideas expressed here relevant for their theorizing about free will. But the philosophical speculations that accompany the science illustrate only the dangers of straying outside one's area of expertise.
The middle section of the book, on neuroscience, exhibits far less naivety than the first, because most of the authors have the good sense to remain within their areas of expertise and not to speculate on free will. There is excellent and philosophically relevant material here -- particularly Fogassi and Rizzolatti's overview of some recent work on mirror neurons and the attribution of intentions -- but its relevance to free will is, at best, indirect and goes undiscussed by the authors. The main exception is Tononi's speculations concerning the implications of his important work on consciousness for free will, which are suggestive but underdeveloped. Tononi claims that an action is free if it is caused by maximally integrated information, and that entails that free actions are caused by conscious states. Though the entailment is argued for, only a few sketchy remarks support the main claim. Tononi appeals to the intuition that conscious agents are paradigms of freedom, and -- more persuasively, I think -- claims that the extent to which an action is caused by a conscious (and therefore informationally integrated) state is the extent to which it is sensitive to a broad range of factors. That would seem to entail, in turn, that an action caused by a conscious state issues from a mechanism that is sensitive to a broader range of reasons then one caused by a nonconscious state. But it would take further work to show that nonconscious states do not cause sufficiently reasons-responsive states: indeed, it is very likely that under some conditions they do.
Three papers, one in the section on neuroscience and two in the final section on the reconciliation of free will and science, are by people with a deep knowledge of the free will debate; obviously, they are not subject to the criticisms mentioned above. Robert Doyle presents the latest variant of his two-stage account of free will, which is closely akin to views sketched (though not endorsed) by Daniel Dennett and Alfred Mele. At the first stage, the alternatives between which we deliberate are indeterministically generated; at the second stage, we choose deterministically between them. This account succeeds in avoiding what Doyle calls predeterminism: its being the case that our actions are necessitated by facts (and laws) that date back prior to our existence. It does less well at satisfying the demand for alternative possibilities: on this account it is false that agents deliberate between metaphysically open alternatives. More importantly, I doubt that the account succeeds in avoiding the luck objection any better than rival event-causal libertarianisms. On this account, an agent who performs an act with a negative moral valence might have avoided performing an act with that valence only if an appropriate alternative (one without a negative valence and one with features sufficient deterministically to cause her to choose it) had featured among the alternatives generated by indeterministic processes. It will therefore be luck that explains the fact that she performed an act with that valence rather than one with a different valence. Elsewhere, I have claimed that defeating the luck objection requires showing that this contrastive fact is not due to luck. The other two papers by philosophers, Mele's critical discussion of Libet's experiments and Kane's overview of his influential event-causal libertarian view, achieve their aims admirably, though those acquainted with the work of these two important contributors to the free will debate will find little new in them.
Insofar as this book aims to show that free will is compatible with quantum physics -- this is a central claim of ten of the chapters of the book, and features heavily in both its introduction and the concluding overview -- it cannot be declared anything but a failure. The novel arguments are bad or nonexistent, best represented by Saurez's claim in the final overview chapter that quantum randomness just is "a particular case of free will". The papers that deeply engage with quantum physics do not demonstrate that quantum randomness is compatible with free will; they either assert their compatibility or simply identify the two. The much more careful chapters by philosophers are, of course, far better argued, but specialists will find little in them that they won't already be familiar with.
The book is most valuable for its overview of quantum physics, which is relatively clear and relatively accessible, and for its papers by people in the life sciences giving overviews of cutting edge work in their disciplines. The papers on quantum physics provide a glimpse into science which might help to constitute a genuine revolution in our understanding of the nature of reality. They also clearly illustrate the risks of building worldviews on the foundations of quantum physics. We may really need to countenance the possibility that our intuitions with regard to the nature of reality are systematically off base, but that does not license the speculation that consciousness is best explained by supposing that the mind is a receiver which picks up broadcasts from outside space-time (Staune), or Suarez's contention that free will and consciousness are either properties of elementary particles, or elementary particles are guided by a divine agency, either God or angels.
The editors of the book stress the importance of interdisciplinary work for progress on central problems in philosophy like the nature of consciousness and the existence of free will. I applaud the sentiment, but in many ways the book stands as an object lesson in the pitfalls of interdisciplinary work. Brilliance in one field does not guarantee, or even (on the evidence presented here) make it likely that someone's speculations outside the area of their expertise will be worth taking seriously. Good interdisciplinary work requires deep engagement with the fields into which one ventures, as well as the epistemic humility to recognize that one needs to learn from specialists in that field. Mele's discussion of Libet, the result of many years of reflection on the relevant science as well as very extensive reading in it and discussions with those who engage in it, is exemplary of such good interdisciplinary work. Too much of the rest of this volume illustrates the dangers of a failure to engage, with the requisite humility, with the areas into which one blunders.


1 comment: