December 27, 2013

Mu to free will vs determinism, part 2

I've had a bit of running discussion with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci about this issue for some time, with much of my original thoughts on this issue to be found in this blog post. He asked me to give it my best shot, as to why I reject free will in the sense of being associated with a unitary self, and also why I say mu to the whole dualistic issue of free will versus determinism, going beyond my original thoughts, with which he indicates he has some degree of sympathy.

What follows is what I said on a recent post at his excellent blog, Rationally Speaking, and further developed and edited. 

My best shot? Probably nowhere near perfect, but...

First, I'm a country newspaper editor, Jim, not a professional philosopher! (Cue old Star Trek music.)

OK, that said, let's build on the thoughts in that original piece and go from there.

A couple of baseline notes, first.

1. Traditional free will does have metaphysical overtones, so I reject it in part on those grounds.
2. Ditto for determinism. (Stoicism's Logos is just as metaphysical as John Calvin's double-predestinarian God.)

I am also a non-dualist in general. That's true not just about dualism of ontological categories, like body-soul dualism. Using dualism more generally, as a term for polarities, I generally reject them, too. I am not a big black-and-white person. In philosophy, this is especially true. I look for nuance. I question theories and ideas that seem to lack it, and more.

That, in turn, relates to my "mu."

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it comes from Zen Buddhism. There's no precise translation in English, but a good, direct one is that using the word "unasks" a question or idea stated immediately in front of it. In other words, saying "mu" to "free will vs. determinism" rejects the dualism, that these are the only two ways of looking at decision-making in human consciousness. Related to that, to the degree that these are ever useful terms, it rejects the polarity behind them, that is the idea that a particular action is either 100 percent determined or 100 percent of free will.

And, since Zen is pretty non-dualistic, I use the particular word "mu" to deliberately underscore that I'm rejecting a way of thinking as much, if not more, than traditional uses of two concepts.

The reason I say "mu" gets back to the ideas of subselves, multiple drafts of consciousness, and even Hume's "fleeting impressions." In short, I take Dennett one step further, in the same direction Daniel Wegner does. (And I'm sure you're familiar with his writings on free will.)

In other words, to use Dennett's language, if there is no "Cartesian meaner" in a "Cartesian theater," there's no "Cartesian free willer" there either. There's no unitary conscious self with a free will at the center of the controls.

Now, might our subselves, or whatever of the "multiple drafts" is in the driver's seat at any particular moment, be engaged in something that might be called quasi-free will, is another question. I think something like that does happen. But, it's as ephemeral as that particular subself, "draft," or whatever, is in the driver's seat.

So, in that sense, I'm not totally against all of the ideas that are lumped under the rubric "free will."

Reason No. 2 that I oppose the idea of "free will" linked to a single unitary conscious self is somewhat related. I do believe there's a fair amount of value to the Libet experiments and related, even if sometimes, some people have overstated them.

Here, I disagree with John Horgan, who in a new Scientific American column about free will and New Year's resolutions, says:
Libet’s clock experiment is a poor probe of free will, because the subject has made the decision in advance to push the button; he merely chooses when to push. I would be surprised if the EEG sensors or implanted electrodes did not find neural anticipation of that choice.
See, I don't understand Libet that way. I've always understood it, and his work to separate subjective feelings of, and belief in, personal volution, from a (theoretically) objective idea of something called "free will," as refuting the existence of any such objective idea.

And, per a reader, this take on Benjamin Libet's famous experiments is in general line with what I'm saying.

And hence, with Pigliucci, when he uses volition, I get the feeling that it is for something still akin to traditional versions of free will, and something he believes actually exists, not Libet's idea of a subjective belief.

That said, that veto power?

We may still have a "veto" over such actions, but even then, that veto may vary from subself to subself as to what a particular subself would veto or not, degree of veto power it has, etc. Beyond that, that veto itself may be at such a deep layer we wouldn't associate it with a quasi-formed subself, let alone a fully formed self. In short, Libet has some good ideas, but they need further developing.

In short, so far, part of what I am saying is that what's actually happening in the human mind is far too complex to reduce to "free will," too. It's another instance where the human brain's predilection for facile labeling of things draws us astray.

I think Libet's discussion of antedating and backdating, subconsciously, our understanding of temporal order of events, relates to that. His ideas here are certainly compatible with Dennett's multiple drafts theory of consciousness, for example, but Dennett chooses not to go down that direction, just as he chose not to go down Wegner's direction in rejecting a Cartesian free willer.

In short, ideas of consciousness in general, and volition in particular are far too complex, and our understanding today far too limited, to cram into a particular philosophical system.

(Sidebar: This is why I also talked about neo-Humean ethics. I'm in general an anti-system builder, and a neo-Humean ethics would be a variation on situational ethics based in some way on studying how different particular subselves constructed primarily for different predominant social relations, such as work life, family life, life with friends, etc., have different ethical values, and how said different ethical values are constructed.)

3. Without saying this is part of my answer for how the subselves that produce the appearance of a self act, there's also the question of how all this evolved. Is what appears to be free will an adaptation, or is it, shades of Dennett vs. Gould ... a spandrel? Or, at least, is our belief that we have a unitary self, with unitary free will, a spandrel? I side somewhat with Gould on this issue of spandrels in general, as it has some ties with issues of ev psych, and over-the-top claims in ev psych, etc.


Here's the biggie, now. I say "Mu" to the dualism that's part and parcel of the "free will VERSUS (emphasis needed) determinism" issue. Just because conscious, unitary-self free will doesn't exist, there's no need to believe any sort of determinism, whether Coyne's physical determinism, or somebody else's psychological determinism, exists.

A good way to further explicate this is per the post you just put up about the year in books, and namely, Susan Blackmore's new book. I'm sure that, were she to write in detail on this issue, she would have at least a few broadly similar ideas, above all, rejecting the whole **dualism/duality** present in traditional framing of this as a "free will vs. determinism" issue.

I feel the same. That's at the core of my "mu," and per Hofstadter first tipping me off on the word years ago, why I deliberately use that word in this situation. With your word "volition," or whatever, I think we have to see this whole issue of apparent intentionality in human actions in a non-dualistic way.

That said, per all of the above, I do see some degree of psychological determinism, on an action-by-action basis, somewhat related to more crude statements of this issue, based on MRIs, in legal defense in certain criminal cases.

That is, can something like, say, childhood sexual or physical abuse psychologically determine some of our actions?

I'd say yes, **to a degree.** Here, I'm rejecting not dualism, narrowly speaking, but something analogous, polarities.

In other words, Action X may be 23 percent psychologically determined and 77 percent volitional, or whatever word you prefer. Action B may be 42 percent psychologically determined and 58 percent volitional. Action C may be 8 percent psychologically determined, and 92 percent volitional.

If you don't like the word "determined," let's borrow a word from genetics and developmental psychology, and talk about "tendencies." That way, it sounds less like a classical version of psychological determinism. Just like we have a 90 degree heritable tendency to be tall, a 50 percent one to intelligence, etc., but this still has an element of environmental expression related to it, ditto on having Z degree of psychological tendency in Action X.

As for physical determinism, of the type that drives Coyne? It's not worth even bothering with. Among other things, how anybody in the modern quantum world can believe in a classical version of physical determinism is beyond me. (That said, I don't even come close to accepting Penrose's idea of consciousness arising through quantum effects in the brain!)


There's one more major reason I say "mu" to the whole issue.

Cognitive science, neuroscience, etc., are perhaps in the Early Bronze Age. Maybe the Neolithic. But, our knowledge curve here, if even from a low base, hints at exponential growth.

Within a decade or two, we will realize how little we have known about the mind, and to the degree that we have gained new knowledge, we will realize how anachronistic "free will" is, as well as seeing even more that "determinism" is not just anachronistic, it's out of the picture. 

I mean, ever since Hume's famous quote from "A Treatise on Human Nature," quoted above in the poster quote: 
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic'd reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu'd, which he calls himself; tho' I am certain there is no such principle in me.
The two ideas have been at least somewhat anachronous philosophically, long before Dan Dennett dressed up ideas originally from Gilbert Ryle (who, in turn, ultimately traced back to Hume).

At times, to be honest, I become a bit frustrated with professional philosophers who are forgetting that ideas related to "subselves," "multiple drafts," or similar, are more than 250 years old. The fact that free will, determinism, and the paired polarity of insisting that the guiding of human actions is one or the other is shown to be anachronistic in the history of Western philosophy by the man who was, arguably, the world's first professional psychologist. 

And, per searching my own blog, there's another, similar reason to the above. In fact, here, I analogized between current postulations of free will and the old "god of the gaps" idea.


Massimo, and others, hope this provides food for further thought.

Again, I want to stress once again that the "mu" is about rejecting the duality of free will vs. determinism, and that, rejecting ideas of free will associated with a unitary conscious self doesn't mean that determinism is therefore the only answer left to choose.


Meanwhile, as of early 2015, it's become time for a third installment on this issue.


Disagreeable Me said...

Hi Gadfly,

Like you, I would tend to be suspicious of absolute categories. In most cases, categories represent regions on a spectrum as opposed to fundamentally disjoint sets.

However, I don't think this works for free will/volition versus determinism.

The problem is that the concept of free will or volition is entirely incoherent to me. In fact, the position that there is a combination of some sort going on is pretty much the position of the free-will advocates, because nobody would deny that there is a certain predictability to human behaviour.

I don't think anybody really believes all decisions are made entirely freely, with no external or internal influences whatsoever. In fact, in experiments it has been shown that humans are simply incapable of even such simple tasks as choosing numbers at random. We are always more predictable than a random process.

So, say you're right and a certain decision was subject to 30% volition and 70% determinism. How would that work? In particular, how does the 30% volition come into it? If you are talking only about randomness, then I don't think that's really free will, because you have no control over which way the die rolls. You can no more be held morally responsible for actions prompted by a quantum fluctuation than you can for those caused by a more predictable mechanical process.

Gadfly said...

No, I'm not talking about randomness. I'm talking about an act that's 30 percent stemming from a volitional choice (whether of a unitary self or not) and 70 percent "constrained," to use another word besides "determined," by psychological tendencies from past life history.

It's no different than a 30 percent grayscale. It's 30 percent black, but also 70 percent white.

Disagreeable Me said...

OK, great, so if it's not simply quantum randomness, then how does the volitional part work? How is the decision made?

It might be useful if you assumed for the sake of argument that there is a decision that is 100% volitional. What is the process by which that decision is made? What reason do you have to suppose that there is any decision which is influenced by something other than determinism or randomness? I assume you're not postulating something supernatural, for instance?

Gadfly said...

Ahh, there's a big difference between HOW and the simple THAT.

I don't claim to know the HOW, and, with any degree of detail or precision, I don't think professional neuroscientists or cognitive scientists do, either.

I think this area of scientific endeavor, as far as being able to answer "how" questions, is at best in the Early Bronze Age, and perhaps in the Neolithic.

That's no "knock" against the field, just an acceptance of the reality that this is much more complex than once posited.

Hopefully more professionals in the field accept that, too.


Per your main question, I can't "prove" that there's volition happening. That said, you can't prove classical determinism happening, either. Or quantum randomness.

That's why I like my non-dualistic approach. In addition to other benefits, it seems more provisional in its approach to all this.

To the degree I do believe in a volitional part of this, that's where Dennett's multiple drafts, Hume's fleeting impressions, or others' subselves come into play. Whatever the degree or percentage of volition involved, it's below the level of a unitary conscious self.

That's why I don't totally write off the Libet findings, but I don't find them supporting traditional versions of determinism, either. Instead, I find them another argument for rejecting the traditional "framing" of this issue.

Disagreeable Me said...

Sure, there could be something beyond determinism and randomness, but I for one have no idea what that could possibly be.

Of course this could be due to my own lack of imagination, but without evidence and without even the hint of a notion about how it could work or fit in with the laws of physics, I see no reason to believe in it.

I think the laws of physics here are key. Physical laws are mathematical in nature. Mathematics are either deterministic or probabalistic (random). As far as I know, there is no third option. The idea that there could be something else seems to me to be indistinguishable to an appeal to the supernatural.

Given the lack of evidence for any supporting physical mechanism, lacking any model of how it could work, and lacking any evidence to show that free will/volition actually does exist, why do you suspect it does?

Gadfly said...

Oh, I'm not *sure* free will or something similar exists at all. Hence my comment that, per the old Dennett-vs-Gould arguments, that the idea of free will may be an evolutionary "spandrel."

In short, maybe it's akin to the larger issue of humans being "agent-detectors." Not only do we "see" a lion behind the rustling of the savanna grasses, we see an "I" inside our craniums.


Related — this is an area where I've critiqued Massimo (and others with similar points of view). A sociological desire to look for the existence of free will in order to hold people "accountable," whether on religious or non-religious grounds, doesn't wash with me.


That said, your comment about "laws of physics are key," etc.? Veers close to the "scientism" that Massimo, and I, and others, decry. At the least, it's a "hard" reductionism that I also decry. Not all of biology directly reduces to physics.

Disagreeable Me said...

I know you're not sure there's free will. My question is why you even suspect there might be such a thing. I see no evidence, and furthermore the concept seems incoherent.

I don't think I'm being scientistic. Scientism, as I understand it, is the impulse to think science can answer questions outside empirical matters of fact, e.g. to ethics, literary criticism, music composition, etc.

Whether there is libertarian free will is an empirical question. It's simply not possible given the laws of physics as currently understood. The only kind of free will which is compatible with physics as currently understood is compatibilist free will.

Now, whether we ought to call that free will or not is certainly not a scientific question. But since this is not opposed to determinism, I take it this is not what you mean by volition/free will.

Gadfly said...

If the appearance of free will, and related attributes, is attributable to evolutionary biology, and is a spandrel of sorts, it parallels how evolutionary biology produces a natural tendency toward religious belief.

So, I think a belief in free will is natural to the human condition, whether any version of it exists or not.

And, no, I don't call compatibilism free will. That said, **something like** compatibilism is what I am getting at when I talk about the sliding scale of percentages between how much an action is freely chosen versus how much is psychologically constrained.

I say "something like" because compatibilism is based on free will being compatible with some version of determinism that makes no allowance for subselves, and which doesn't view individual actions on a case-by-case sliding scale basis, like I do.

And, even if your reasons for determinism aren't fully scientistic (and I said they were in that direction, not fully there), it's still too reductionistic.

And, we'll probably just agree to disagree, or just disagree, on that.

Gadfly said...

Compatibilism also seems to put determinism in the driver's seat, though compatibilists will deny this, by saying that only a variety of free will that is compatible with determinism is up for discussion.

It's never phrased the other way around, that a variety of determinism compatible with free will, volition, or whatever, is the only variety of determinism up for discussion.

And, if you call my "psychological tendencies" idea some form of quasi-determinism, then you could, by a stretch, call me some sort of compatabilist.

But, since the term's not used that way, I'd not be comfortable being called that. And contra some articles, I wouldn't call someone like Hume a compatibilist for similar reasons.

Disagreeable Me said...

I agree that belief in free will is natural to the human condition, whether it actually exists or not.

Is that your answer to the question of why you suspect it does exist? If so, are you admitting that your reasons for this suspicion are not well-grounded?

I'm OK to agree to disagree on whether I'm too reductionist. You're not the first person to accuse me of that!

Gadfly said...

Well, that's my starting point. But, per the body of the post, while I believe the Libet experiments are showing us something that is real, and that has philosophical meaning, I don't believe they're showing us full-on determinism. They could just be showing us a quasi-volition at a state of mentality that far below consciousness.

Otherwise, even if neuroscience is in the Early Bronze Age, I believe it is, elsewhere, correlating brain activity with volitional choice.

So, I believe there is scientific evidence to support something that is in the ballpark of free will or volition, even if the activity is not fully conscious, or not "unitary," or not either one.

Disagreeable Me said...

I would agree that Libet's experiments are far from conclusive. My objections to free will do not arise from experiment, it's more of an a priori observation that it's not really defined what it is and there is not even a hint of how it could possibly exist in a naturalistic framework.

What kind of neurological evidence are you reading about (or could even imagine reading) that you see as supporting volitional choice?

Gadfly said...

No one particular experiment, but the sum total of legitimate findings from various fMRI and other brain scans of recent years.


I agree that free will is somewhat ill-defined. However, we can narrow and tighten our definitions with better understanding, without making an early decision to reject the general outlines of the concept.

And, as part of that, I see no such problem with some such concept existing in a naturalistic framework.

Surely related to the difference in takes on reductionism.

Disagreeable Me said...

If you could imagine an ideal experiment which could demonstrate volition, what would it look like? Feel free to indulge in wild speculation. Personally, I can't even begin to imagine such an experiment, so I'm lost on how the sum total of fMRI findings could support it.

My inability to understand how free will is compatible with naturalism is probably indeed related to our differences on reductionism.

So do you think that there are physical events which take place that are not in principle explicable at some level in terms of physical laws?

Gadfly said...

I'll probably take a while on the thought experiment.


On MRIs and other brain scans, we're probably starting from different ground points for interpretation, so, I might not be able to "convince"you on that.


On physical laws, no, not at all.

Many things, though, are **currently** inexplicable. Don't forget that 110 years ago, astronomers still believed in an "ether" that had all sorts of strange properties. It was the best they could do.

And, perhaps that's a good analogy here.

Whether we call it free will or something else, some version of human consciousness that doesn't have a determinism-first stance could certainly arise with better explanatory power.


Otherwise, on the "physical events," as someone who sees things like "state changes" as analogous to emergent properties, one at times has to be using the right physical science for explication. I'd never use physics to explain the modern theory of evolution, for example. Nor would I try "reducing" neo-Darwinism to a physics point of view.

Gadfly said...

Anyway, it's time for me to go back to reading a WWI book and other things.

Disagreeable Me said...

Sure, lots of things are currently inexplicable. I'm only asserting that those explanations exist in principle. I would take naturalism to be the position that whatever physically happens is explicable in principle by appeal only to physical laws of nature which are expressed mathematically.

I am not for one moment suggesting that it is useful to attempt to do so in practice.

For example, in biology, we may notice apparent violations of physics. It was once famously "proven" that a bumblebee cannot possibly fly.

Since physics is contradicted, we need a resolution. We don't get to simply say "This is biology, not physics" and leave it at that.

Physics cannot be contradicted. If (for example) the second law of thermodynamics appears to be violated, then either physics needs to be revised or the system we're observing is not as closed as we thought.

So, since there is no allowance for anything other than determinism or randomness from the laws of physics (and indeed any conceivable mathematically expressed laws of physics at all), libertarian free will as generally conceived must be impossible.

Emergent free will, which ultimately reduces to deterministic or random physical processes, is still possible, but this is indistinguishable from compatibilism in my view.

Enjoy your book. Look forward to picking up the discussion at a later date.

Gadfly said...

Two quick final for now thoughts.

1. I don't consider random processes to be either volitional-related or deterministic-related. They're simple random, stoichastic events.

2. On the reducibility, per emergent properties, sometimes one **loses explanatory power** if one reduces too far.

Thomas Jones said...

Hi, Gadfly. Enjoyed your post and the exchanges between you and DM. My introduction to "Mu" was in Pirsig's use of it in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

My appreciation of Zen is its contention that conceptual thought is inherently dualistic and must be abandonded if one is to realize "enlightenment." John Blofeld explains that "The single aim of the true Zen follower is so to train his mind that all thought-processes based on the dualism inseparable from 'ordinary' life are transcended . . . ."

Re Libet, you might find Bill Skaggs's post interesting:

Gadfly said...

Thomas, thanks. Ill take a look at the link.

On the discussion thread, I've incorporated some ideas from it into a Part 3, where I specificially tackle compatibilism and related issues.