Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What is that "we" incompatibilists are talking about?

Before I continue with writing about species, I would like to address very concisely something that pops up every few weeks or so in a part of the blogosphere that I read: the controversy over determinism and free will. The occasion is a recent post by Jerry Coyne, who linked to a study showing that certain decisions are made unconsciously several seconds before we become conscious of them to argue that, and the following word is where the crux lies, "we" do not really make any decisions at all:
The implications of this research are obvious: by the time we’re conscious of having made a “choice”, that choice has already been made for us—by our genes and our environments—and the consciousness is merely reporting something determined beforehand in the brain.
To summarize the determinism vs free will issue, there are three main positions. The first is held by many religious believers, Cartesian dualists, people with an esoteric bend etc. They believe that in addition to the material world following its physical rules there are souls or spirits or whatever immaterial components to our mind (for the sake of simplicity I will subsequently simply speak of souls), and that those souls are somehow transcending the cause-and-effect of the material world.

This idea could be called dualist free will, and it is an important facet of many religious worldviews because our having free will is supposed to be a solution for the problem of evil or, as I would prefer to put it, the problem of unnecessary suffering, i.e. the observation that events like genocide and other cruelty happening in this world are incompatible with the belief that the universe is run by an all-powerful deity caring about the welfare of humans. (Of course it does not solve the problem of unnecessary suffering at all because it would, even under the most charitable interpretation, only absolve that deity from crimes and neglect committed by humans and not from allowing earthquakes to happen or from making small children die horribly of cancer, but really the problem of unnecessary suffering itself is not the point here.)

Note also that by far not all religious people believe in dualist free will; many are quite happy to focus on the omnipotence and omniscience of their putative deity at the expense of its omnibenevolence, concluding that of course that deity will then have planned everything that happens in advance, and we thus cannot really change anything but only humbly accept the fate it has provided for us in its supposed wisdom. Conversely, there are decidedly non-religious people who also need to believe in a form of free will that transcends mechanistic chains of cause and effect for their ideologies to make sense. In particular, many people who promote very unequal distribution of wealth and the dismantling of social security systems base their belief in the justice of widespread poverty on the idea that everybody has the same chance to make it to the top of the income distribution, and that living in poverty is your own fault as opposed to the result of your parents' lack of resources - you should simply have tried harder.

Anyway, I always find it helpful to visualize things, and dualist free will looks something like this:

The physical world, consisting of your body with its genes and the entire universe as an environment around you, is drawn in black. Your magical immaterial soul is drawn in red. The blue box indicates what part of this system the dualist, and of course especially the religious believer, considers to be the true self: the soul is really "us", the body is just a vehicle inhabited by the soul until it has to be discarded at death. While the material world is busy following a blind and mechanistic cause-and-effect, our magical souls can freely influence that world.

Of course this is all nonsense. I don't want to go into the details of why demonstrable fact is utterly at odds with the idea that our mind has any non-material component and will let this fabulous and well-referenced essay do the heavy lifting for me, adding only that the enlightenment philosopher David Hume already quite nicely demonstrated that nobody actually, if we get right down to it, really believes in that kind of free will anyway. He pointed out that we all continually assume that people's minds are shaped by their character and experiences, severely constricting the choices available to them.

Or in other words, if you truly believed that there is this magic soul thingie that can at any moment do whatever it wants regardless of the character and experiences of the person, then you would have no way of anticipating the likely behavior of the people around you. You could not, for example, tell whether your best friend will at any moment unprovokedly bash your head in or not. Because you generally can predict the likely behavior of other people with good confidence, it follows that you do believe behavior to be constrained by their character and experiences. In other words, nobody really believes in dualist free will as a matter of actual practice. It is merely the case that some people claim to do so for the benefit of intellectual posturing, for example when engaging in religious apologetics or when justifying their disinterest to alleviate poverty.

That brings us to the second and third position in the controversy. First what they have in common, which is nearly everything: the conviction that there is no magical soul thingie, that the mind is merely an emergent property of the body ("the mind is what the brain does"), that our minds are part of the purely material world and thus part of the chains of physical cause and effect.

From a practical perspective, the only open question would be how much of what happens is determined and how much is random. Pure determinism is the belief that one could, given a sufficiently good knowledge of physical laws and the position of every particle in the universe, have predicted ten billion years ago that I would exist today and type these words. Modern physics appears to show that there are actually uncaused and random events, but it is not clear to me to what degree the randomness of quantum processes actually bubbles up to the chemical and then the macroscopic scale. But it does not really make a difference for present purposes because neither deterministic physical processes nor random physical processes are dualist free will.

So under this philosophical materialist paradigm, the diagram would look like this:

Obviously, there is no red magic going on, only physical, material processes. However, for the moment there is also no blue box in the diagram - what is the true self, what is "me"? Thus we finally arrive at the real topic of this post.

Within the rationalist/materialist camp, there are still two possible positions towards determinism and free will. They can be called compatibilist and incompatibilist. Compatibilists argue that it still makes sense to use the term "free will" even under determinism, and incompatibilists argue that it doesn't. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, whose recent post I mentioned at the beginning of this as my present motivation to write about the topic, is an incompatibilist, as is neuroscientist Sam Harris for example. Their position is that determinism is true and that this makes it impossible to speak of free will and of humans making decisions because everything is predetermined and "we" do not have any influence on what happens.

As implied earlier, I do not disagree with the determinism part of it, but I am a compatibilist. I think that it makes sense to talk of free will, perhaps partly because the word freiwillig from my native language means nothing more than voluntary: if Germans want to say that they are doing something voluntarily, i.e. without being forced or blackmailed into doing it, they have a hard time expressing that fact in natural-sounding language without using the same terms that also, as a noun and in other context, are German for "free will" (Freier Wille). Most importantly, the word freiwillig clearly does not carry the implication of that voluntary act happening independently from material causes and effects.

So that is one context in which it appears useful to me to talk of "free" and "decision", when we are doing something free from coercion. Another example would be the comparison between a kleptomaniac and a completely sane person - the very definition of the former condition is that the person suffering from it has a reduced free will when faced with the question of whether to steal something or not, compared with non-kleptomaniacs and compared with other decisions that they could be presented with. And clearly we have to take that into account when considering whether and how to punish theft - clearly there is a significant difference between somebody who stole because they suffer from compulsive behavior, somebody who stole because they were blackmailed into doing so, somebody who stole because they were unable to pay and would otherwise have starved, somebody who stole because they were merely unwilling to pay, and somebody who stole for the giggles.

But well, agree to disagree and all that. The really odd thing about these discussions is the language used by the incompatibilists to justify their conclusions. The general theme is that we do not have freedom, we do not make decisions but our subconscious makes them for us, we are puppets of our genes and our physical environment, and so on. But what is so odd about this should become obvious when you consider what "we" or "my true self" is supposed to be. What is the mental model of a person and their mind relative to the universe that must underlie such a line of argumentation?

This diagram reflects the model of "us" or "me" vis a vis the rest of the universe as it appears from the writings of incompatibilists: The physical universe and our body and genes are part of a blind and mechanistic system of cause-and-effect, and they "decide for us" or "we are their puppets". Sentences like that only make sense if "me" is visualized as separate from the physical world, and in particular as separate from my body. The diagram thus looks surprisingly similar to the first one above that shows the model a dualist has of their relationship with the rest of the universe. The only difference is that the dualist assumes the immaterial soul-me residing inside the body to have a magical influence on the world (red arrows from right to left) while the incompatibilist visualizes the soul-me to be a bound and gagged captive inside the body who has to watch helplessly as the body and the world do mechanistic physical things around them (black arrows from left to right).

In reality, of course, the "me" is not some immaterial thingie watching helplessly while my body shambles around. "Me" is my body, so if I am trapped in it then I am trapped in myself. "Me" is my genes, so if I am their puppet then I am my own puppet. "Me" is the sum of what my body learned, experienced, had happen to it over the course of its life, so if my decisions are made by the influences from my environment then they are made by me. "Me" is the product of billions of years of evolution as much as of several years of education. This is how the diagram should really look like:

And this is why it does not make sense to me to say that our genes and our environment make decisions for us, or that our subconscious makes decisions for us. The subconscious is also me. Nor does it make sense to me to claim that I do not have more free will than a rock or a worm because there are deterministic material processes happening in my brain. Of course they are, but that brain is me. And good thing that there are mechanistic processes working in my brain or otherwise it could not make any informed and carefully weighted decisions - the only alternative to those mechanistic processes would be randomness.

Claiming that I have no freedom of decision between, let us say, chocolate and marzipan because my brain must follow the laws of physics is just like claiming that I am not digesting the marzipan because it is my stomach that digests it, that a book does not tell a story because it is the arrangement of pigment particles on the paper that tells it, that an electric torch does not give off light because the light bulb inside it gives off the light, and so on.

And yes, this is still concise. To do the topic justice one would have to write a very long book.

No comments:

Post a Comment