SocraticGadfly: Mu to free will

October 23, 2013

Mu to free will

And to determinism, too.

For those of you not familiar with this word “mu,” I’m not being a cow with a French accent. Rather, I’m “unasking a question,” so to speak. The word comes from Zen Buddhism.

If you’re read the magisterial “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter, of course, you ARE familiar with the word.

Anyway, by “unasking the question,” the word says that the premises upon which a question is based are false.

And, in the case of free will VERSUS determinism, I believe that is very, very true.

First, per Dan Dennett, and many other students of Gilbert Ryle and others, there is no such thing as a little “Cartesian demon” in the middle of our brains, choosing what thoughts in our minds rise to the level of consciousness. Rather, although Dennett at least, here as elsewhere, overextends Darwinian parallels, different subselves are competing, if you will, for which one of them rises to the top. Arguably, more fragmentary sub-subselves are a level lower, but I’m not going to do a Hofstadter-type eternal expansion! Of course, dissociative identity disorder is a case of extreme lack of connection between these subselves.

In short, there’s no “Cartesian meaner” running the projector of a movie theater.

However, Dennett doesn’t go to the logical next step, even though I know he full well knows it IS the logical next step.

If there is no Cartesian meaner generating consciousness, then there’s no Cartesian free willer generating consciousness-level free will. (Or, pace Massimo Pigliucci, no "Cartesian volitioner.")

Now, per David Hume living comfortably every day despite his inability to “grasp” a “self,” we, too act “as if” we have conscious free will. But, that doesn’t mean we actually do, contra the Massimo Piglicccis of the world.

But, just because we don’t have conscious free will, even of a fairly weak sort of compatibilism, doesn’t mean that it’s all determinism, contra the Jerry Coynes of the world. Certainly not in his neo-atomistic physicalist, "hard" determinism.

Nor, pace Massimo, do we have to go down the route of dualism if we reject conscious volitionism. That's especially true if:
A. We see something like free will as developing as an emergent property;
B. We reject "hard" physicalist determinism, too;
C. We see whatever this "quasi-free will" is, and a "softer" psychological determinism as being two endpoints on a continuum, and not two poles of a polarity.
As for what this means?

How “free” or how “determined” our actions are is a case-by-case basis issue, and it depends on which subself seems to be in the saddle at the moment, and how determined or not a particular aspect of that subself is.

I wish we, both amateurs and professionals of the philosophical world alike, could move beyond the “free will VERSUS determinism” issue. It has religious-type moral baggage, at least to a degree, on the free will side, on issues of guilt and responsibility. More and more, it has scientism baggage on the determinism side. Beyond, Jerry Coyne's a good enough scientist, or he should be, that he should know that quantum theory, if nothing else, undercuts the stance of people like him. It’s so unproductive. But, I’m not holding my breath.

On the free will side, in comments within his latest post on the matter, Massimo admits the issue of guilt and responsibility is why he continues to defend free will VERSUS determinism (or other attacks, or "attacks").
(A)ny talk of free will and consciousness being illusions is a threat to humanism, since among humanist's cardinal principles are that we are responsible for our actions and that we can use reason as a guide to life.
Well, then, per the ways in which I've previously chastised Joseph Hoffmann, humanism, whether explicitly secular or not, without embracing scientism, needs to embrace scientific advances.

Massimo also, which I hadn't noticed until this late-2013 update, mischaracterizes my postion on free will:
Several readers of course brought up dualism, even accusing me of being a crypto-dualist. Here is Gadfly:
"If there's no Cartesian meaner, there's no Cartesian free willer."
True enough, but this assumes that the only way to meaningfully talk about volition (again, my and others’ preferred term instead of the metaphysically loaded “free will”) is in dualistic terms, a position that has been rejected pretty much by all compatibilist philosophers, from Dennett down.
Actually, no, it doesn't assume that.

Per my whole line of reasoning, it assumes that, as currently expressed, this is an outdated issue. Rather, speaking of Dennett, I mean just what Massimo quoted me as saying. If something akin to Dennett's multiple drafts theory of consciousness is true, then we simply can't talk of a unitary volitional self. Per the detailed outline I list above, it assumes that the degree of volition involved with a certain action must be determined, as best we can, on an action by action basis.

There's nothing dualistic about that, whether in the broad idea of substance dualism or the narrower idea of property dualism, on my part, nor do I assume Massimo entertains such ideas on his part. The only idea I entertain about Massimo is that, in fair part because he doesn't buy into multiple drafts or subselves ideas, he's wedded to traditional ideas about volition for the wrong reasons.

That said, he does admirably refute, again, the nonsense that Jerry Coyne spouts in support of dualism. And he's right that science currently has little to say on this issue. And, per the likes of him, John Horgan, myself and many others, likely will have little to say about this issue for decades if not longer. My thoughts, Dennett's, and others, on the nature of consciousness, are psycho-philosophical theories untestable now or any time soon.

And I'm sorry that, for whatever reasons, Massimo inferred I thought he was a crypto-dualist. My stance on a multiple drafts and multiple subselves view of consciousness is entirely compatible with the non-dualistic emergentism that's central to Massimo's views on human consciousness. We just arrive at different finish lines.

That said, a regular, tendentious commenter on his blog has inferred, from the post above that Massimo is a full-blown dualist, and thinks that emergentism pretty much necessitates dualism. That's a far bigger error that Massimo's incorrect inference.

Anyway, speaking of Massimo's take on Coyne? Ian Pollack, writing a guest post at Massimo's blog, appears to move a step in this direction, with an analytic philosophy type approach that includes saying Coyne is ... insufficiently reductionistic, of all things, in his use of language.

Here's the core of his thoughts:
So how would I tackle the issue of free will/volition?

Suppose I am driving along an undivided highway when the stray thought
comes into my head that I could steer into the opposing lane, resulting
in a horrible, deadly accident.

Of course, I don’t do so, because... well, I like living and I don’t
much want to kill others, either. And I just washed my car. But I could
have done it.

...Wait, was I right to say that I could have done it?

Yes and no. As we have seen, the pivotal word in that sentence is
“could,” and “could” has at least two meanings that are relevant to the
question of free will.

Meaning #1 maps physical possibility, and in this case returns the clear
answer “No, the physical state of the universe was such that you could
not have steered into oncoming traffic, as evidenced by the fact that
you did not, in fact, do so. QED.” Jerry sees this clearly, and I have
absolutely no argument with him.

Meaning #2 of “could” maps counterfactual statements. To say that you
“could” have done something in this sense is (roughly) to say that IF
circumstances had been otherwise, a different outcome would have
resulted. Meaning #2 returns the answer “Yes, you could have steered
into oncoming traffic, if you had wanted to.”

Meaning #2 is what people actually mean by “could,” most of the time.

If you’ve been sleeping through this post, pay attention now, because
the entire click of compatibilism lies in this realization.

Proposition #1: “No, the state of the universe was such that it was physically impossible for you to have steered into oncoming traffic.”

Proposition #2: “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic (if you had wanted to).”

However, to my mind, he still fails. He addresses only the Coyne-type physicalist determinism, not "softer" versions, first. Second, he's committed to the "versus" stance, continuing to defend a compatibilist version of free will versus determinism.

For more excellent thoughts in this general vein, I strongly suggest Walter Kaufmann's book "Beyond Guilt and Responsibility."

And, for broader background, here's a bit of information on where we are at on studying consciousness issues in general.

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


Disagreeable Me said...

Hi Gadfly,

Some interesting thoughts but I would take issue with a few points.

I don't think the analogy of a Cartesian Free Willer is fair to Dennett. When talking about a Cartesian Meaner, Dennett is saying we don't get to explain consciousness by bringing in some magic single entity that does the trick. Instead, consciousness arises out of the brain as a whole.

But debates about free will are different. When discussing consciousness, the question is how does it work. When discussing free will, the question is whether it exists.

As an explanation for how free will might work, Dennett would surely agree with you that there is no Cartesian Free Willer. But that doesn't mean that there is no such thing as free will. Dennett would argue that, like consciousness, (compatibilist) free will emerges from the brain as a whole.

I also think you are being unfair to Jerry Coyne by appealing to quantum mechanics. Coyne is certainly aware that the universe might be fundamentally indeterministic. I think I'm correct in surmising that when he says deterministic, he means it only as a shorthand for the traditional anti-free will position.

He would, I believe, be willing to entertain the idea that people may behave slightly differently because of quantum fluctuations in their brains, while rejecting that this randomness constitutes free will.

(It may be that he thinks that these fluctuations would be too minor to have a macroscopic effect. Personally, I think chaos theory indicates that they might indeed have significant macroscopic effects.)

Gadfly said...

Per discussions on Massimo's blog, IO don't know for sure that QM influences Coyne, true. That said, per a recent comment there, I don't accept your idea that the Many Worlds interpretation makes for a QM "compatibalist" version of determinism.

I also reject most interpretations of QM that come close to Many Worlds, starting with rejecting Schrödinger's mysticism behind his own cat thought experiments. I wrote a blog post just about that, posted at Massimo's recent free will blog post.

On Dennett, I don't think I'm being totally unfair to him, at a minimum. (I also find him somewhat overrated.)

My thoughts on this issue are also influenced by Daniel Wegner. There's some nuanced differences between his understanding of some issues and mine, but I think we're in the same ballpark.

Dennett's "single entity" on no Cartesian Meaner arguably applies to a single unitary consciousness, and not just dualistic ideas of a Cartesian meaner.

Per another comment over at Massimo's, and a second blog post of mine on this, we can go all the way back to Hume and his "fleeting perceptions" in rejecting both a Cartesian meaner and a Cartesian free willer.

Also, Dennett wasn't the first modern philosopher to state an idea like his, as philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin noted during his interview time with the Dutch filmmaker who produced "A Glorious Accident."

Disagreeable Me said...

Hi Gadfly,

I've answered your points about Many Worlds back on Rationally Speaking.

I'd like to mention that there are other deterministic interpretations, but even so that's beside the point.

I really think that determinism has two meanings. In discussions about quantum mechanics, it means whether the universe has multiple truly possible futures. In free will, it means whether we make decisions by a mechanical process or whether there is something else going on. I think it might be better to use some other term, but determinism has a long history dating back to when science seemed to think that physics was deterministic. Admittedly, it doesn't help that people such as Penrose suspect that QM may have a mysterious role to play in free will. For him, the two meanings are probably the same.

Anyway, I would imagine Coyne is open to quantum indeterminism while being a free will determinist. If I'm wrong about this, then I would agree with you that his position would seem to be untenable.