Monday, March 26, 2012

On Having a Face to Save

[Update: March 27, 2012.  By happy coincidence, Andrew Brown has a new piece up today at The Guardian titled "Iris Murdoch Against the Robots," discussing her excellent 1970 book of philosophical essays The Sovereignty of Good, and making some points very consonant with my own about purportedly "scientific" myth-making that leads us to imagine that human agency is illusory.]

Sometimes people have arguments they don't want to have in order to shore up some principle they wish they didn't have to defend. Actually, most debate can probably be characterized this way, though it doesn't always nestle up against outright absurdity the way that the argument I will speak of here is so prone to do, namely the argument that something called "Determinism" means that something else called "Free Will" cannot exist.

This is a rather hot debate right now, largely because advocates of the "incompatibilist"  or "hard determinist" view I have just described believe they smell blood in the water and have moved in for the kill. Sam Harris, the smartest man who was ever wrong about everything, has a recent book out on the topic ("Free Will,") and Jerry Coyne, the smartest horse ever to be led to water while steadfastly refusing to drink, has made this topic a regular staple on his blog.

The conversation has lately found its way into the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which recently featured five essays on the debate by Coyne and some of the top names in neuroscience and philosophy of mind.

The philosopher Russell Blackford has, in response, started blogging about these essays at The Philosophers' Magazine. I think Russell is essentially on the right track, but his argument is strangely timid, given the grave and gross contradiction in the incompatibilist view, that I'm obliged to pick up where he leaves off.

Russell asks us to imagine that it is in our power to save a child who is drowning in a nearby pond. We, for some reason, do not attempt to save the child, who dies of drowning. In such a case, is there any value in relating to the grieving parents the incompatibilist view, that we could not have acted other than we did, because all of the causal factors that preceding this moment were not changeable by us? It is an absurdity. The only answer that any interested party wants to hear from us in such a circumstance is what our reasons were for not saving the child. This is an inescapable aspect of the human condition; in fact we would not recognize as "human" any member of any species with the power of rational reflection who did not offer a reason for its actions. By "reason," here, I don't mean an objective, external description of the physical conditions that led to the present moment, such as we might observe in an MRI, but the internal moral reasoning which which our behavior is consistent.

Russell concludes that, having been given the incompatibilist story that Determinism precludes our having acted other than we did, "the parents are likely to reply that it’s not that I couldn’t have chosen to act otherwise, but that I merely didn’t want to act otherwise."

This is an inarguable conclusion. There may be outliers, for whom we might allow that no other action was conceivable: young children who haven't learned empathy or impulse control, people with unprocessed trauma, people with lesions or tumors that impair rational reflection--but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. They are notable as deviations from the norm, where the presumption of moral reasoning ability does not apply. In normative cases we are all accountable to each other for our actions, which is to say we are expected to give an account of our behavior, and be subject to the judgment of others for it. To refer to the alleged inevitability of our behavior is an irrational category error, failing to address the question that has been asked of us, which is social, not physical. It is as though someone has asked of us if we will drive them to the hospital tomorrow, and we responded with the probability of supervening physical forces. Perhaps there will be an ice storm. Perhaps the hospital will be destroyed by invaders from Mars. But these are not relevant to the question, which is a social and moral one.

Now, here the incompatibilist may double down, seeing a crucial weakness in our argument. What we are trying to establish, insists the incompatibilist, is the scientific truth or falsity of free will, not the social truth of moral accountability. Our thesis is that our choice-making faculty is a mere appearance, a self-flattering illusion, perhaps a spandrel, perhaps an important adaption, but nonetheless a figment with no actual empirical or ontological foundation.

The correct response, which I would have preferred to see Russell issue, is this: If that's the intellectual barricade you want to die on, Incompatibilists, that can be arranged. Just be warned that what you stand to lose is far greater than archaisms like "the soul" or the Ghost in the Machine. What also must perish, when choice and volition are cleansed away, is reason itself, and all the flows from it, including the "scientific" method, "free" thinking, and philosophical naturalism generally.

John Pieret has been making this point consistently over the last few years at his blog Thoughts In a Haystack, though to my knowledge he has never spelled out the critique in full. If he did, it would go something like this. If we grant that determinism applies to mental processes like thought and reflection--that these, like all events, are the effects of prior causes--and that "hard determinism" precludes any mechanism whereby we might influence the causal chain that gives rise to our thoughts, then thinking is not something we do but something that happens to us. We can witness our thought processes in the theater of our minds, but cannot actively participate in them. In Coyne's own words: "To assert that we can freely choose among alternatives is to claim, then, that we can somehow step outside the physical structure of our brain and change its workings. That is impossible."

Thought, then, is an epiphenomenon, a kind of apparition that exists without any influence on the physical world. It is something that happens, as an after effect of prior causes, but not something we can actively "do," since this would imply a violation of laws of causation. The clear implication of this, of course, is that reason, reflection, evaluation and judgment are likewise things that happen without our ability to influence them. "Automatons" (Coyne's word) cannot, on their own, "apply" logic to any given proposition, lacking the ability to choose among competing assertions. This has rather terrible connotations for our ability to do philosophy (with epistemology being a particular problem) or science. It is difficult to see how any conclusions we might call "scientific" or "rational" could be given any higher status than those we might call superstitious or fallacious, since in no case do we have any power to evaluate them as good, bad, sound, preposterous, or even as green ideas sleeping furiously. To do so would require an ability to "choose among alternatives," which Coyne has already declared "impossible."

This of course makes "hard determinism" self-refuting, since it is derived by means of faculties (empiricism, rationality) it later declares to be physical impossibilities. Like most doctrines preceded by the word "hard," we can now dispense with it as misguidedly over-simplistic. What, then, is the way out of the forest? There are still, after all, serious questions to asked about "free will." Just how "free" is it? What is the source of this freedom? I think a couple of short answers must suffice as a sort of bookmark. The first is that trying to make human agency "compatible" with determinist physics is an over-zealous impulse toward reductionism. Each level of description has its place, and needs its own language to be properly understood. We don't need to call natural selection an illusion because it is not couched in the language of Newtonian physics. In the case of human agency, the price of trying to describe all of reality under the determinist rubric is, as I've shown above, far too high; we are asked to give up our humanity in the process.

The second bookmark comes from Iris Murdoch (one of the 20th century's most under-rated philosophers, IMO.) She rightly asked where the myth of "free will" comes from, and theorized it as a narcissistic and infantile desire, promoted most strongly by Existentialism, to exercise what Sartre called "total freedom." It is a myth that needs revision, not by turning the dial all the way in the other direction, such that humans are akin to thermostats, but by contrasting the existential focus on action and decision with the important role of observation, reflection and evaluation, without which action tends toward empty posturing. This outlook may even help explicate some of the puzzling aspects of neuroscience that fuel arguments like Harris' and Coyne, like the now famous Libet studies that suggest some of our decisions are already made before we are aware of having made them. Here's Murdoch, two decades before Libet's famous consciousness studies, and two years before Deecke and Kornhuber's studies on "readiness potential:"
If we ignore the prior work of attention and notice only the emptiness of the moment of choice we are likely to identify with the outward movement since there is nothing else to identify it with. But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and is not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the moral choices. What happens in between such choices is indeed what is crucial. (my emphasis)
This outlook seems to me to do double duty, not only helping us understand the nature of will, volition, or agency, but also how we can go about continuing to enhance it, as we have on the long journey from pre-verbal primates to the present day. Which is to say that the topic of agency is synonymous with the topic of humanism, of humanity itself, and needs just as vigorous a defense.


John Pieret said...

John Pieret has been making this point consistently over the last few years at his blog <span>Thoughts In a Haystack</span>, though to my knowledge he has never spelled out the critique in full. If he did, it would go something like this . ...

Okay, I'll accept that as a good summary. I'd only add that the usual taunt to the "compatibilists" is "you have the burden of explaining what free will is." But if the "incompatibilists" are right, how could they tell if we had met the burden? At every step of their "argument" they deny their own ability to sustain it.

Chris said...

Good to see you posting!

I wonder what the obsession with conscious will is. It seems to me that problems like the "Libet" studies go away, if not entirely, then for the most part, if we just recognize that our "conscious selves," whatever those may be, are not the entirety of what and who we are. Our minds are doing all sorts of things below the level of our conscious awareness, in fact, they're doing the vast majority of the work down there, and while we have a tendency, because of a bias towards consciousness, to see those things as "automatic," there's no a priori reason to suggest that they are any less me, and therefore that they are any less potentially free.

underverse said...

True. Although I think it's an important question, and we shouldn't shy from trying to articulate whatever it is that makes volition possible. I'm not sure I could provide a philosophically consistent answer. I suspect that difficulty is what motivates the incompatibliists to deny free will outright, in the same way naturalists have done for god. The essential difference being that in the case of free will we very much have "a need for that hypothesis."

underverse said...

I agree completely. This is why I brought up Murdoch's take at the end of the post, since she explicitly addresses this bias toward the rational conscious self as "the whole self." She goes so far to suggest a way that even unconscious decisions are at least partially "free" owing to our perceptiveness over the course of our lives generally. That is to say that making decisions is a complex business, much of which happens in the unglamorous study of the world around us long before any decisions present themselves to be made.

jeff said...

Just be warned that what you stand to lose is far greater than archaisms like "the soul" or the Ghost in the Machine. What also must perish, when choice and volition are cleansed away, is reason itself.

A good point within its context, but to those who entertain the possibility of a ghost in the machine (or perhaps a machine in the ghost), the soul is far more important and fundamental than reason. Their perception of reality is vastly different from that of the intellectual, reductionist or not. Can you judge them? They have chosen the tree of life over the tree of knowledge, so to speak.

E said...


2nd on the good to see you posting again...

This kind of thing has always been one of the things chasing me off of a strict materialistic view of the world - the problems seemed huge to me and difficult to stomach.

If someone actually believed free will was an illusion, if you follow that trail at all seriously, it seems to me that you have a recipe for moral anarchy, moral apathy or at least an extreme existential tolerance and acceptance of any point of view whatsoever.

Why would you mock religious people?  They can't help the way they think or behave any more than they could turn themselves into a pumpkin.  Why would you be smug about your own opinion?  If determined, you (if you has any meaning beyond the illusory) literally didn't have anything to do with it.

Why would you blog about that?  Why debate it? 

That seems so wrong, and so obviously wrong, that I have trouble understanding why they take the line at all.  I'm glad you and John write the way you do, I feel a little less crazy because you guys are out there too.

underverse said...

I think the truth is that people who espouse hard determinism don't really mean it. It's a nearly indefensible proposition for the reason you mention: it obliterates the foundation for moral reasoning that underpins almost all meaningful human activity. I think they take the line because they feel they must, it's the next manly frontier in standing up to "woo." But of course if you go around saying, as Coyne has, that people aren't morally responsible for their behavior, it's bound to get taken seriously by those already on the precipice of giving up trying to account for themselves. Which is to say that hard determinism is wrong in the sense that its false, and wrong in the sense that it's evil. Lose-lose.

E said...


I actually started to write something similar... in terms of, do you think this is just a rhetorical device?

The implication of that is disturbing, but I'm not sure you're wrong. 

It would mean that folks have looked at the problem hard enough to see it and chosen a line that supports the agenda and undermines folks they disagree with, leaving the honest pursuit of truth behind.

If they are smart enough to know better (and how could they not be), it becomes a very different conversation, doesn't it?  It's no longer a matter of letting reason have it's day, it's party line... and that matters more than a more honest pursuit of the truth.

I hope that's not the case, but it does make more sense than the alternatives I can think of.

Namit said...

This is brilliant, Chris. Thanks for writing it. 

Usha said...

This is an excellent piece, illuminating and delightful. Thank you.

Usha said...

This is an excellent piece, illuminating and delightful. Thank you.

Usha said...

This is an excellent piece, illuminating and delightful. Thank you.