November 26, 2011

Free will - a "god of the gaps" parallel?

Is "free will," at least as "compatibilists" generally strive to define (and save) it, a philosophical equivalent of "a god of the gaps"? I say the answer is an arguable yes. (Updated at bottom.)

Philosophy professor Eddy Nahmias is the latest to try to defend some neo-traditionalist, if you will, version of free will.

Of course, when you start with a straw man howler like this, it's easy for you to get called "a free willer of the gaps":
When (neuroscientist Patrick) Haggard concludes that we do not have free will “in the sense we think,” he reveals how this conclusion depends on a particular definition of free will.  Scientists’ arguments that free will is an illusion typically begin by assuming that free will, by definition, requires an immaterial soul or non-physical mind, and they take neuroscience to provide evidence that our minds are physical. 
First, not all neuroscientists make that assumption. And, philosophers like the Daniel Wegner whom you linked at the start of the column definitely don't link free will, or its absence, to dualism, or its lack.

Then, there's this:
Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires.  We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure.  We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities.
Well, if you're not going to wrestle with what consciousness is, let alone what standing free will at the level of consciousness has in the absence of a Cartesian theater, you may have a problem. Nahmias does eventually get around to tacking Benjamin Libet and the famous 200-millisecond gap, but only to wave it away:
First of all, it does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it.  It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions.  If we assume that conscious decisions have neural correlates, then we should expect to find early signs of those correlates “ramping up” to the moment of consciousness. 
Ahh, this is a petard hoister. It's all in how you define "decisions" as well as "free will," isn't it? Under the Dan Dennett multiple drafts model, this is rather the subconscious impulse that "wins out" to the level of consciousness.

Finally, to riff on Samuel Johnson, Nahmias enters into the last refuge of a free-will philosophy scoundrel: He makes the "fatal" is-ought error.
We need conscious deliberation to make a difference when it matters — when we have important decisions and plans to make.
Need? As in "ought to have"? Ooops.

Some other thoughts from Wikipedia on free will, including reference to Haggard, here. Yet other thoughts and speculations, generally good, from philosopher/neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, riffing on Robert Sapolsky, here.

That said, I think it IS possible to talk about free will in some way, but only in a way that includes subselves and subconscious processes. More on this below the fold.

Massimo Pigliucci actually defends Nahmias, claiming he "provides a nuanced and intelligent brief discussion of the topic." Massimo is often thought-provoking and never dumb, but he's just off base on this one. (In the same post, he says that way too much is read into Libet. I'll split the difference and say that somewhat too much may be read into him, and that what Libet's experiments study are somewhat imprecise. But, to claim he's pretty much irrelevant to discussions of free will is a stretch, at the least.)

Add this excellent essay to your reading. From a neuroscience perspective, it argues that brain systems that evolved to detect actual (or apparent) "intentionality" are a focal point for the rise of an illusion of "self." And, here's the journal essay that influenced that blog essay.

This ties in with Dan Dennett's "heterophenomenology." We assume "selves" in others because of this 'intentionality set" that appears to be built into our brains. But, Dennett doesn't quite note this is a two-way street. Per modern social psychologists, the "self," or what we call a "self" for ourselves, is in part a construct based on our interaction with others. That includes them seeing, and noting, seeming "intentionality" in ourselves.

So, even if there isn't a unitary self, not only do we act "as if" there is, we find it hard not to do so because of this outside conditioning as well as our own brain's mindset.

Now, a Buddhist meditation adept, or a devotee of deep self-hypnosis, might be able to transcend that to some degree. But (and this is why I only half-jokingly say "the only good Buddhist is a dead Buddhist") the person who recognizes, and more than just intellectually understands, that "self" is to some degree an illusion is generally unable to hold on to that idea. The Zen monk rejoins the rest of the monastery; the hypnosis adept walks out the door and into the larger world. And "conventional" ideas of self get reinforced again.

And, speaking of Zen, as I noted on a comment to Massimo's blog post, here's another way of expressing what I'm getting at.

Per Doug Hofstadter's Goedel, Escher, Bach, perhaps we need the Zen word "mu," to unask the questions of free will vs. non-free will (NOT "determinism"). We may need to say "mu" to a largely tired, sterile debate in which people on both sides of the issue are framing the issue wrong, looking at it the wrong way, asking the wrong questions, and in one sense, making a mountain out of a molehill by making a non-issue into an issue, due to the wrong framing.

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