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The Buck Stops Where?
September 3, 2006 4:15 PM   Subscribe

Living Without Ultimate Moral Responsibility. Is it desirable to live without the idea of free will as we normally understand it? Is it even possible? This interview with Galen Strawson explores these questions. Those who like something meatier may enjoy Derk Pereboom on the same subject (from the previously linked Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website). Also of note: Susan Blackmore on living without free will.
posted by teleskiving (99 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I cannot help but thank you for this interesting post.
posted by Falconetti at 4:40 PM on September 3, 2006


What difference does it make? Whether free will exists or not, the result is the same: what we see around us every day. Why waste time asking questions that can't be answered, or for which the answer imparts no useful knowledge.
posted by delmoi at 4:48 PM on September 3, 2006


Imagine for a moment that instead of Timothy McVeigh destroying the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, it had been a mouse. Suppose this mouse got into the wiring of the electrical system, tangled the circuits, and caused a big fire killing all those inside. Now think of the victims’ families. There would of course still be tremendous grief and suffering, but there would be one significant difference. There would no extra bit of resentment, no consuming anger, no hatred, no need to see the perpetrator punished (even if the mouse somehow got out of the building) in order to experience “closure.”

This is total BS. There would be at least enormous resentment at architects and engineers for desiging a building that could become a deathtrap because of the action of a single mouse. Investigations, heads rolling...
posted by bluefrog at 4:50 PM on September 3, 2006


The first link is interesting, but suffers from Wittgenstein syndrome: full of tantalizing and ambitious ideas, Mr. Strawson is quick to dismiss all of philosophy. Unfortunately, he doesn't know his philosophy well enough. To wit: philosophers have always considered the possibility that the 'will' isn't 'free.' If you ask me, as important a line as Aristotle- AlFarabi judged that the only completely 'free' part of the soul was the intellect. Aristotle claimed this, I think, because you can't really say that knowledge is possible without a free intellect. Again, this Strawson guy lax on his rigor; he says at one point that he can prove that the will isn't free, yet neglects to consider that proof cannot occur without some freedom.

What's more, it's obvious why this hasn't been a subject widely broadcast by philosophers: because it would be political suicide. (Modern philosophers tend to sneer at more ancient philosophy because the moderns don't know a damned thing about political philosophy, and don't understand why the elder philosophers held themselves back.) Society has always needed moral responsibility; if nothing else, in the form of laws that keep people from hurting each other. Those laws may still have meaning in a world without moral responsibility, but try explaining that to every single person in society-- it'd be impossible! You would create a situation in which the percieved lack of moral responsibility would simply help people rationalize whatever they wished to do, no matter how self-destructive.

In addition, while simple, basic 'moral responsibility' might be relatively easy to do away with, I suspect that both Strawson and Pereboom still retain a notion of moral good. This is much harder to dispense with. Plenty of people claim to revel in amorality (and not just philosopher-types) but every single one of them that I've met had a notion of "good" (as in "this is good for me, that is good for you) that was still intact, and that still functioned as their basis of moral responsibility.

In short: it's not politically expedient to eschew moral responsibility, nor is it as simple as Strawson and Pereboom make it seem. Nietzsche, whom Strawson quotes haphazardly (it's almost always bad to quote just a little bit of Nietzsche), made what I think is one of the greatest attempts to do so, and even he spent a lot of time pointing out that eschewing freedom meant learning to live with a direct contradiction: you cannot get up in the morning without believing that you are acting when doing so.
posted by koeselitz at 4:55 PM on September 3, 2006


People already believe they behave morally without any knowledge of ethics, and they have no idea what morality is beyond their belief in it; and if they act in fear of God, then they are acting within an arbitrary belief for self-preservation anyway. May as well be without will too, the result is the same.
posted by Brian B. at 4:57 PM on September 3, 2006


Is it desirable to live without the idea of free will as we normally understand it? Is it even possible?

Really in a rush here, not even going to scan the article, just going to react to those two questions.

Speaking as a determinist: it's not desirable because attempting to live perpetually within that mindset leads only to misery as it is not one we are at all evolved for. Additionally, it is possible, but only if you're willing to accept that the molecular clockwork of the universe gives rise to the illusion of choice within the brain.

As far as ethics go, it puts a new light on things, but it doesn't result in any abdication. If a person murders another person, they're doing so because their neural network is configured into a pattern which permits said behavior. Or possibly they have a neurochemical disorder of some kind. Either way, the answer is clearly to seperate the person from society and work on repairing that neural configuration (or personality, if you want to raise it from the hardware to the semantic) or that chemical imbalance.

Prisons by necessity become less like rape camps, or places of 'punishment', and more like high-security rehab clinics.

As far as how you determine what constitutes crime, the answer to that is fairly complex (and I'm in a rush so I'm not going to get too far into it here). I'm going to make a mess of the following explanation in my rush, but here goes - there's nothing about determinism that is at odds with Cartesian reduction - yes, "I think therefore I am" may be executing on very visible hardware, but the basic experience from the individual's perspective is no less valid. That individual is, like all of us, merely accepting the world they are presented with as valid because they lack any other data with which to operate. Because all things are doubted, there is nothing which can truly be said to belong to an individual outside of their 'self' in the sense of their own private mental model of the universe and their relation to it.

With self as the only true possesion, and in the absence of an afterlife (which generally goes hand in hand with determinism), because one only has that subjective model of the universe, when you die, the universe (as far as you're concerned) dies with you. Thus the ultimate law is thou shalt not die.

As all that sketchy evidence from our senses seems to indicate that solipsism is false, then the universe is probably populated with other individuals laboring under the similar conditions. Thus the second law is thou shalt not kill.

Have to go now, but basically the argument pushes into infliction of anguish as a the next greatest evil. The ethical consequences of that within a determinist context are pretty easy to derive. Hopefully I'll be able to check back on this in a few hours.
posted by Ryvar at 5:27 PM on September 3, 2006 [3 favorites]


you cannot get up in the morning without believing that you are acting when doing so.

Susan Blackmore and other people who don't believe in a causa sui form of free will manage to get out of bed.

It seems that many of the proponents of free will prefer to ignore the genetic and environmental pressures that influence our actions. If we were ultimately autonomous (i.e. not subject to the controls of our environment), then I don't see how punishment and reward would influence our behavior.
posted by Human Flesh at 5:32 PM on September 3, 2006


Why waste time asking questions that can't be answered, or for which the answer imparts no useful knowledge.

I think it raises some interesting questions. Take, for example, our theories of addiction or alcoholism. Although we generally pretend that we accept that problem drug use is a disease, the reality is that we really believe that it's a disease with a major moral component.

Having identified the problem, the experts say, if the patient fails to embrace the treatment, then we're justified in regarding this as a moral failure, and we can send them to prison. This world view is deeply embedded in most of the political and criminal justice worldviews in the western world.

As justification for this theory, they point to the fact that there are those who do achieve abstinence, and as such, fall into the moral category of 'recovering addicts'. However, as the first article points out, we may be able to do what we want to do, but we cannot ourselves determine what we want. Those who manage to accomplish abstinence then, are those who tend to 'want' to do so. The effort of will involved in achieving and sustaining abstinence in such people is obviously of a much smaller magnitude than it is for those who -- by virtue of their genetics or environment, 'want' something else. Consequently, the eventual relapser might expend far greater effort of will into abstinence, and yet will still be punished, despite the greater amount of energy and distress expended in attempting to act in a moral fashion.

Of course, the same arguments hold true for psychopaths and paedophiles, but the difference between addicts and these first two categories is that with addicts arrested for possession, the offence that they commit affects nobody but themselves. It seems to me that the greater the clarity that we have around an issue like this, the less likely we are to expend a great deal of time, energy and public money on locking people up for victimless crimes, and seeking to change behaviour in people that just aren't likely to change until what they 'want' changes.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:34 PM on September 3, 2006


For whatever it's worth, it's entirely possible philosophically to create a legal code which isn't based on morality. This has to do with a difference known as "the law of the good" versus "the law of the right", and I myself happen to support the latter over the former.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:51 PM on September 3, 2006


Just once, I'd like someone to come up with a testable definition of free will. Something falsifiable, etc. Otherwise, it's like debating whether we go through life with an invisible glowing blue arachnid floating over our heads, or an invisible pink unicorn on our right shoulders.
posted by adipocere at 6:06 PM on September 3, 2006


I myself have both.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:12 PM on September 3, 2006


Imagine for a moment that instead of Timothy McVeigh destroying the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, it had been a mouse. Suppose this mouse got into the wiring of the electrical system, tangled the circuits, and caused a big fire killing all those inside. Now think of the victims’ families. There would of course still be tremendous grief and suffering, but there would be one significant difference. There would no extra bit of resentment, no consuming anger, no hatred, no need to see the perpetrator punished (even if the mouse somehow got out of the building) in order to experience “closure.”

And, there would be no concern that the mouse was part of a larger group of politically motivated killer mice, and no need to use the 'bad' mouse as an opportunity to teach other mice the difference between right and wrong.
posted by scheptech at 6:29 PM on September 3, 2006


Here again I'm seeing what I consider one of the classic fallacies associated with the free will vs. determinism question. It appears in the Pereboom page, in ryvar's and PeterMcDermott's posts above, and in the writings of many academic philosophers.

It goes like this:
Determinism is true. We have social policy A, which is based on assumption of free will. But with recognition of determinism, A doesn't make sense. Policy B would produce better results (e.g. harm reduction or this or that type of reform efforts instead of punishments). So let's move from A to B.
The fallacy is that on the assumption of determinism, it makes no sense to say we ought to have policy B instead of policy A. Any policy recommendation presumes a choice in the free-will sense. On the assumption of determinism, we will inevitably have one policy or another (and this may be influenced by beliefs about whether free will theory or determinism is true), but there is no real choice to be made in this, any more than there is about the individual behaviors to which the policy is addressed.
posted by jam_pony at 6:39 PM on September 3, 2006


You were born so that this post could be made on MetaFilter.
posted by caddis at 6:52 PM on September 3, 2006


Jam_pony, as you say this kind of thing is fraught with opportunities for logical traps.

I think that subconsciously the way most proponents of this tend to think is, "I, and a few others like me, actually do have free will but most of the people out there are actually automatons who are deceiving themselves into thinking they can make decisions. If only we few can manipulate the situation correctly, then all those sheep out there will do what we know they should do."

It's horribly arrogant, but it's a common attitude among elitists.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:54 PM on September 3, 2006


The fallacy is that on the assumption of determinism, it makes no sense to say we ought to have policy B instead of policy A. Any policy recommendation presumes a choice in the free-will sense. On the assumption of determinism, we will inevitably have one policy or another (and this may be influenced by beliefs about whether free will theory or determinism is true), but there is no real choice to be made in this, any more than there is about the individual behaviors to which the policy is addressed.

Not at all. Peter is standing at position A, with the options of moving to position B via a straight line or a circular path. The entire structure of his neural network is such that he receives positive reinforcement from making choices he deems to be efficient, so he invariably takes the shortest path to position B. There are a *staggering* amount of chemical reactions firing off in sequence inbetween the input and output in this situation, but all of them have a rational explanation.

To switch it over to your example: Magistrate Petricia has a choice between law A and law B. Law B is, by her philosophy of determinism, more helpful to her citizens than law A, and because of her belief in her duty to the citizens she governs (a belief imposed by her environment - read: society), she enforces law B. Much like Peter, there's no actual 'choice' - it's just people taking actions as dictated by the chemistry and neural configurations of their brains. This also applies to metacognition. It's all just organic clockwork, as are my thoughts on the topic.
posted by Ryvar at 7:00 PM on September 3, 2006


So if you can't change the way you are, but you might be able to change what you want based on wanting other wants...is it not conceivable someone might acquire free will? I'm no philosopher, but everything I've read in this thread seems to be concerning free-will/not as some absolute unchanging thing. You either have it, or you don't. Is there some clear reason why it couldn't arise one from the other?
posted by nightchrome at 7:01 PM on September 3, 2006


SCDB: you couldn't be more wrong. People looking to excuse or rationalize their own elitism will invariably find themselves *much* happier with Objectivism, if you can stomach that sort of thing.

I genuinely believe that all of my thoughts, decisions, and actions are simply chemical gears turning within the comprehension-defying clock that is our universe. Part of the shape of that universe is that both my brain and my sociological environment are fully geared towards the assumption of free will because it greatly simplifies things for both my mind and for society. Because of this, I cannot nor do I strive to carry a minute-to-minute awareness of determinism - but I do try to base my ethics off of it.
posted by Ryvar at 7:07 PM on September 3, 2006


I happen to think that philosophical conclusions should not contradict what is obviously true. It is obviously true that I chose to write this post, and that I could have chosen not too. In other words it is obviously true that I have free will. Thus, determinism cannot be true. (I'll ignore compatibilist positions, largely on grounds similar to Van Inwagen's.)
posted by oddman at 7:23 PM on September 3, 2006


It is obviously true that I chose to write this post, and that I could have chosen not too. In other words it is obviously true that I have free will.

Or perhaps the chemistry and neural topology of your brain combined with your environment both past and present merely dictated that you write the post you did, think the thoughts you did, and engage in the metacognition you did.

In short, your choice was an illusion.
posted by Ryvar at 7:31 PM on September 3, 2006


"When nothing that we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do." - Joss Whedon

"You're walking, and you don't always realize it, but you're always falling. With each step you fall forward slightly, and then catch yourself from falling." - Laurie Anderson

"We all have free will, whether we choose to use it or not." - Some Old Nobody.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:41 PM on September 3, 2006


koeselitz: ...you cannot get up in the morning without believing that you are acting when doing so.

You're saying that predetermined actions and outcomes would be so uninteresting as to make life worthless. But if that was true - that predetermined outcomes are uninteresting - no one would be interested in watching movies or reading books, as the director or author has definitely determined the outcome long before you start watching or reading (except for Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, of course ;).

adipocere: Just once, I'd like someone to come up with a testable definition of free will.

I heartily concur. In the deterministic model, the decisions a person makes are the consequence of the complex machine of the human mind accepting innumerable inputs and processing them, like the fuzzy logic chip in a washing machine deciding when to go from wash to rinse. Forget how it actually works - neural networks or whatever - but what would the alternative to the determistic decision-making-machine mind be in the case of the free will universe?

Obviously you're still deliberating upon a bunch of inputs. Your weighing of those inputs is still mostly a deterministic process based upon your past experience and knowledge and belief. What could the non-deterministic "free will" factor of the decision be? Free will can't be the decision algorithm, the weights you assign to the different inputs - that's something a complex machine could do. It seems to me that all that's left is randomness - the whim of the moment, the mood you're in. The "free will" part of you can't be anything more significant than a coin toss.

And yet, the inalienable sense of moral accountability... it's the reason I stopped calling myself an atheist.
posted by XMLicious at 8:05 PM on September 3, 2006 [1 favorite]


Free will can't be the decision algorithm, the weights you assign to the different inputs - that's something a complex machine could do. It seems to me that all that's left is randomness - the whim of the moment, the mood you're in. The "free will" part of you can't be anything more significant than a coin toss.

If I remember freshman philosophy correctly, Descartes justified his dualism with the belief that the soul directly interfered with the physical world by manipulation of the brain. This being the 17th century, he could get away with saying "uhhh, the thalamus" when asked for the mechanism of said manipulation.
posted by Ryvar at 8:12 PM on September 3, 2006


"In short, your choice was an illusion."

Well, if we are going to throw skeptical arguments around, what makes you think that nueral topologies aren't illusions?
posted by oddman at 8:18 PM on September 3, 2006


Ryvar: If I remember freshman philosophy correctly, Descartes justified his dualism with the belief that the soul directly interfered with the physical world by manipulation of the brain. This being the 17th century, he could get away with saying "uhhh, the thalamus" when asked for the mechanism of said manipulation.

I should have been clearer about how broadly I was speaking when I said "Forget how it actually works"... it doesn't matter if there's some supernatural component to human beings. We can have a spirit-Brahman-energy ghost-in-the-machine soul, but then that's the thing that's either doing the deterministic decision making or making random "choices". Its supernaturalness doesn't resolve the problem of what free will could possibly actually be.
posted by XMLicious at 8:19 PM on September 3, 2006


Some background on this topic is in order. Bejamin Lipet's experiments and his notion of veto. John Searle, syntax not semantics, possible gaps between reason and decision, allowing the possibility of a limited free will. Wolfram and the irreducible nature of the rules. How can humans have apparent free will in a universe governed by deterministic rules? Because, Wolfram says, though our brain works by definite rules of chemistry, "our overall behavior corresponds to an irreducible computation whose outcome can never in effect be found by reasonable laws."
posted by Brian B. at 8:22 PM on September 3, 2006


Why waste time asking questions that can't be answered, or for which the answer imparts no useful knowledge.

Rhetorical or not, you're still hung by your own petard, delmoi.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:25 PM on September 3, 2006 [1 favorite]


Well, if we are going to throw skeptical arguments around, what makes you think that nueral topologies aren't illusions?

Ultimately you can push doubt as far back as you like until you hit "I think therefore I am." From that starting point, all explanation for the source of the input flowing in through my senses are valid. I simply opt for universe-explanation my senses describe by default - scant evidence is better than no evidence.

That's what.
posted by Ryvar at 8:26 PM on September 3, 2006


Its supernaturalness doesn't resolve the problem of what free will could possibly actually be.

If it is supernatural, then the mechanism of free will could very well be outside the realm of human comprehension entirely, which makes the question sort of moot.
posted by Ryvar at 8:29 PM on September 3, 2006


Ryvar: If it is supernatural, then the mechanism of free will could very well be outside the realm of human comprehension entirely, which makes the question sort of moot.

I keep saying, I don't care what the mechanism would be that delivers it - The question is what is this free will thing that we're talking about having or not having? It's something that makes decisions, right? It's not simply an input-based descision-making algorithm that a machine could implement, and it's not a random throw-of-the-ten-sided-dice, but what is even left besides those two candidates?
posted by XMLicious at 8:42 PM on September 3, 2006


Look, here's another way to phrase it: above, you said that you chose to make a post, and that proves that you have free will. But were there reasons why you decided to post? If so, all you did was implement a decision algorithm. Even if you desired to post, desire is just another input - you have desires even if you're a non-communicative total paralytic and can take no action whatsoever. If the "choice" to post is just the sum of the inputs affecting the decision - if rewinding and re-running your life exactly the same way up to that point would result in you making the same "choice" - there's no free will involved.

But if you posted for no reason - if rewinding and re-running your life would result in a different "choice" even though everything be exactly the same, it was just a random choice, and there still isn't any romantic and inspiring "free will" involved.
posted by XMLicious at 9:00 PM on September 3, 2006


If it is supernatural, then the mechanism of free will could very well be outside the realm of human comprehension entirely, which makes the question sort of moot.

Sorry, let me correct that:

If it is supernatural, then the nature of free will could very well be outside the realm of human comprehension entirely, which makes the question sort of moot.


In any case, the best argument against molecular determinism I've heard is quantum mechanics (Heisenberg Uncertainty, Double-slit, some others I'm too tired to look up), so you might consider that.
posted by Ryvar at 9:17 PM on September 3, 2006


" I simply opt for universe-explanation my senses describe by default - scant evidence is better than no evidence."

Sure, but the phenomenology of your perceptions is compatible with just about an decent metaphysics. You could be a Berkeleyan Idealist, a Kantian, a Leibnizian, heck you could be a Platonist.

Since there is no sensory evidence against the existence of free will, it seems that you've simply chosen to conclude, via inductive reasoning, that a deterministic world makes more sense. I don't see how our sensations of an external world could give evidence for or against that conclusion.

In fact, my inner sense, as Locke might say, tells me that I have free will. I find it interesting that you dismiss our sense of free will as an illusion yet accept our sense of blue as real. An odd, some might say ad hoc, dichotomy.
posted by oddman at 9:24 PM on September 3, 2006


"The question is what is this free will thing that we're talking about having or not having?"

I know (i.e. I have a true, justified belief for want of a better definition) that I have free will. What more do you want? An inability to explain does not constiture a reason to dismiss.
posted by oddman at 9:29 PM on September 3, 2006


Refuting determinism is easier than it looks, but it doesn't necessarily change anything for free will, merely the way we see our fate as random or determined.
posted by Brian B. at 9:33 PM on September 3, 2006


Ryvar - Heisenberg Uncertainty and all that would be under what I'm referring to as "randomness".

That's a rather theological argument that you're proposing, that the concept of human free will is beyond human comprehension and thereby impossible to analyze. Especially for someone who accepts "I think therefore I am" - surely being and thinking might be beyond human comprehension, and similarly inaccessible to mere mortals such as Descartes? ;^)

oddman - So what you're saying is "I can't say what free will actually is, but I know I definitely have it"?

BTW, big oops on my part, sorry to both of you for getting oddman and Ryvar confused...
posted by XMLicious at 9:42 PM on September 3, 2006


Speaking as a determinist: it's not desirable because attempting to live perpetually within that mindset leads only to misery as it is not one we are at all evolved for.

Speaking as a compatibleist: it's rather freeing. Things appear largely unchanged but I find myself lacking the need to blame others for their actions -- a little like you described the different mindset that prisons might have. The criminal justice system doesn't fall down as a result; deterrence still works. But people end up a little less blameworthy (or praiseworthy) for their acts. That doesn't mean you can't recognize ugliness or beauty for what it is.

Additionally, it is possible, but only if you're willing to accept that the molecular clockwork of the universe gives rise to the illusion of choice within the brain.

It's a done deed.
posted by dreamsign at 9:43 PM on September 3, 2006


In any case, the best argument against molecular determinism I've heard is quantum mechanics

Yes.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:44 PM on September 3, 2006


XMLicious, I'm saying that exactly. Some other things that I can't explain and yet I know with absolutely certainty: I see colors (though I can't explain the phenomenology of colors), my love for my wife, her love for me, existence in an extended world. Heck I can neither define nor explain existence, should I therefore stop believing that I exist?

You don't really mean to suggest that we are only justified in believing those claims that we can fully explain, do you? (Should the ancient Greeks have had beliefs about the natural world?)
posted by oddman at 10:00 PM on September 3, 2006


But look, you know what love is, you know what colors are. And in fact, I would say that if you disagree with my above statement - if you assert that you do not know what blue is, for example, then I would say that you cannot determine that you're seeing blue.

The "phenomenology of colors" you're talking about is again just the physical mechanism, which is irrelevant to identifying the phenomenon itself. You can identify blue without knowing anything at all about physics, if you know what blue is. For that matter, all of modern physics could be completely wrong about the mechanism that produces the sensation of blue, but you could still identify blue.

If there's some feeling that you have and you want to call that "free will" while completely ignoring the relationship of that feeling to decision-making or any of the things that other speakers of English mean when they say "free will", go right ahead. But you might as well call your free will feeling "the color badflknsafggn" when you're talking to other people. (Unless, of course, you're willing to say that free will is not a color - but that would mean that *gasp* what free will is can actually be discussed!)
posted by XMLicious at 10:24 PM on September 3, 2006


Words, words, words.

I'll tell you the obvious secret - so obvious that nearly every philosophy and philosopher passes it completely and winds up with lots of words that hinge on hot air.

This entire class of dilemma stems from the word you.

The concept of you, as separate from everything else.

As concepts, Free Will and Determinism are both facile, because they assume a dichotomy of self vs. universe. When you view it as a whole, the self as a facet of the universe, and not a somehow magically isolated concept, both Free Will and Determinism cease to be relevant.

Strawson gains no ground here. Philosophers constantly make much ado about nothing.
posted by angelplasma at 11:28 PM on September 3, 2006


I think any experiment designed to refute or prove determinism would necessarily require time travel.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:52 PM on September 3, 2006


To save you from scrolling up, I'll begin by mentioning that I posted the link.

Is it desirable to live without the idea of free will as we normally understand it? Is it even possible?

I happened upon this interview because I decided to live without the (more or less interchangeable) concepts of free will and ultimate moral responsibility and I was looking for other people who had chosen such a life.

My conviction is that a world without free will has to be worth giving up a certain amount of pride. We would all finally be able to accept each other and resolve our problems in a spirit of understanding. People would feel comfortable with themselves and would act without fear of feelings of shame and guilt, but with the natural empathy that would emerge from a deep understanding that the lack of ultimate choice is at the heart of what it means to be a human being.

Check out the quotes from Darwin and Einstein in this interesting message board post, they put it much better than I could.
posted by teleskiving at 7:24 AM on September 4, 2006


The only notion of free will that matters--namely the one that occurs in everyday experience and common speech--does not require that our choices be entirely unconstrained by prior or present circumstances. The "total lack of prior determination" requirement occurs only when sophomores are trying to set the concept of free will up as a straw man and knock it down.

In the (correct) common understanding of freedom, what is generally called "free" is contrasted only to: 1. mechanical action (the millwheel is mechanically constrained to go round and round in one place and is not free to go rolling about the countryside) and 2. coerced action ("Sure I broke the speed limit and didn't stop for the police, but I wasn't free to stop because I had a bank robber in the passenger seat pointing a gun at my head.") If there is or has ever been any human action that is neither obviously mechanically restricted, like the millwheel, nor obviously coerced, like the driver with the carjacker, then freedom of choice exists. If I have more freedom than either of those two examples then I am free enough to be correctly called a free individual. That's all it takes.

I am not, indeed, free to flap my arms and fly to the moon, and that fact was determined by evolution and physics, but that kind of limitation is insufficient to make me unfree, as freedom is commonly and rightly understood. Likewise I am not free to be a Maori living in Queensland, and that was determined by past vagaries of migration and descent, but that kind of limitation on my freedom is insufficient to make me unfree, as freedom is commonly and rightly understood. Yet again, I am not free to be two men, each one taller than the other, and that limit on my freedom is imposed by logic, but it is insufficient to make me unfree, as freedom is commonly and rightly understood. Finally, perhaps my father drank and beat me, and that left its mark on my personality and subsequent career, but being thus marked is not remotely enough to make me unfree, as freedom is commonly and rightly understood--and you have both the right and the duty to hold me responsible for my free choices (to, for instance, throw me in the slammer if I mug somebody, no matter how loudly I play the "victim of my upbringing" card.)

Determinism as a philosophy is held seriously by two groups: sophomores (among whom it occurs as one of those silly, not-provable, not-disprovable speculations like "everything's just a dream that I'm having") and people with an agenda--agenda being to set up some favored group as "victims of circumstance" who should not be held responsible for what they did or are doing.

Freedom, as in freedom-vs.-determinism, is a case where the only useful thing philosophers have to contribute is to treat the concept as it is found "in the wild" as primitive and uncorrectable. They may collect examples and expound at length on how the concept is actually used, which is the same as saying what it actually means to the people who use it. But they may not try to correct common usage, on pain of identifying themselves as dimbulbs liked the proverbial engineer who tries to explain to the bumblebee that it can't really fly. The bee can indeed fly, well enough to carry out its life as a flying creature. Humans are indeed free, free enough to live their lives as free beings.
posted by jfuller at 7:25 AM on September 4, 2006 [1 favorite]


The question of free will, moral liberty, or DMR as Strawson prefers, (liberum arbitrium) is one of the 3 or 4 most important philosophical problems of all time. Full of ambiguity, paradox and by necessity requires thought be given to ethics, theology, metaphysics and psychology before a man can form a response or view if you will on the problem. The article and subsequent interview fail completely any attempt beyond sophomoric platitudes to break new ground concerning a solution to the dilemma posed. It's interesting to note that a lack of progress on this problem opens the door to all sorts of impatient scholarship and conjecture.

We still find ourselves held between the Pythagoreans model of allocating a certain degree of moral freedom to man, from their recognition of man's responsibility for sin with it's consequent retribution in the transmigration of the soul. The Eleatics pantheistic monism and their immutable one unchangeable principle which allows for zero human freedom. Democritus taught all events occur by necessity and the Atomist (luekkipus) like their modern representatives (determinist and their ilk) advocate a mechanical theory of the universe. With Socrates the moral aspects of philosophical problems become prominent, yet with his identification of virtue with knowledge and his conviction that it is impossible for one to do what clearly perceives to be wrong, led him to proclaim that the good being identical to the truth imposes itself strongly on the will as well as the intellect.

I still stand with xenophane and his epistemology concerning this problem. Thereactually exist a truth but that humans as mortals are unable to know it. Therefore it is only possible to act only on the basis of working hypotheses - we may act as if we know the truth, as long as we recognize that this is extremely unlikely. A conjecture Strawson and the determinist seem to have forgotten.
posted by xenophanes at 7:26 AM on September 4, 2006


> There actually exist a truth but that humans as mortals are unable to know it.

The sort of ultimate freedom and moral responsibility to which Einstein refers in teleskiving's link is exactly what's unavailable and unknowable. There's no way to determine whether it exists because a universe in which it does exist would appear exactly like one in which it doesn't. If one asserts sic or non in this case it may look as if one has made a substantive assertion, either claim has the form of a substantive assertion, but neither actually asserts anything real. They're content-free.

> Therefore it is only possible to act only on the basis of working hypotheses - we may act as
> if we know the truth, as long as we recognize that this is extremely unlikely.

Knowing the truth about the existence of some vague ultimate freedom/responsibility isn't needed. (Luckily, since the knowledge isn't available.) All we need to know is that proximate freedom and responsibility certainly does exists, subject to some very easy real-world tests. If I borrow your car and crash it into a tree then I'm proximately responsible for wrecking your car, unless it can be shown that the car was mechanically broken and out of my control or that I was forced to do it by some third party with superior force, in which case the third party bears the proximate responsibility. If neither is true then my proximate responsibility for the wreak involves some very ordinary, unphilosophical, uncontroversial consequences, i.e. in either a fully-determined or a free-will universe I owe you a new car.
posted by jfuller at 8:17 AM on September 4, 2006


Being responsible for your own actions is what being human is all about.
posted by Vindaloo at 8:40 AM on September 4, 2006


I scroll to the bottom, preparing a rant, and jfuller has nailed it.

To be fair, I am a liberal both domestic and international, and I believe in the ability of systems to shape behavior. I believe that most people share roughly the same large desires, and will be motivated by them.
But this does not obviate the idea of freedom as both important and extant. Freedom exists in how desires are realized, and how people interact (the only person truly free lives entirely alone). And while I acknowledge that backgrounds both genetic and environmental have an influence on behavior, the idea that any behavior made must be unfettered by influence is as laughable as the handwaving about the ultimate underpinnings of determinism ("it's quantum molecular brain chemistry").
Further, while Wittgenstein might have rightly pointed out that this debate over free will isn't a great philosophical problem, but a linguistic one, I'd look to the latter-day work of Karl Popper, when he rejects the doctrine of falsification and puts forth a more probablistic model of philosophic truth. Call me Continental, but the things we can know with absolute certainty are very few, and I find that an argument against determinism rather than for it.
(And ultimately, I suppose I see determinism as a philosophy that only really is respected on the internet, where the rigor is weak and the cranks are many).
posted by klangklangston at 8:48 AM on September 4, 2006


Those who argue for determinism because it is a beneficial belief, frequently point to the increase in detachment as the major selling point. As Steven C. Den Beste and jam_pony point out the logical fallacies in determinism make arguing for it ridiculous. Determinism subverts the possibility of dialogue.

To a degree, I subscribe to a lot of the notions that determinists put forward: to not take the actions of others personally, that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, that we can not choose what we think, etc. It is not however necessary to reject free will in order to do so. I'd encourage anyone interested to check out the above link for Benjamin Lipet. Instead of free will a better description of our freedom in the world is "free won't". Like many meditation teachers propose, thoughts come before our field of awareness constantly. How we interact with them is up to us (assuming no neurological issues). Most of the time, especially when the thoughts are associated with a lot of emotion, we believe our thoughts and respond automatically. When we slow down and recognize the thought or the impulse as a thought that comes before the mind we can choose our response to it.

Detachment then does not require determinism. If you value detachment because you believe in determinism then you have entered into a paradox where your knowledge of the automatic mechanical aspect of human nature has allowed you to make a conscious adjustment in how you live. Paradox may be necessary in describing some elements of the world but I am not convinced this is one of them. Instead you can value detachment because it allows you to have free will (or rather free won't). Detachment then is no longer a protection from the uninteded cruelties of the world, but your means of dealing with your perceptions so that you are less reactive and freer to act in ways that are ouside of your own beliefs of your self. Can this last sentence be scientifically proven? I don't think so but the experience of many suggests that it is likely the case. And the experiment of Lipet is very suggestive about our mind having a window where it can acquiesce or not to the suggestion that comes across.

The next question is, well once you have detached from one thought, e.g. "I'm terrified of making this presentation.", what comes next. Detachment from that one thought has freed up space for more of your experience to come into awareness, and again you have a choice whether to identify and focus tightly on that segment of experience or to detach from it as well and bring more of your experience into consciousness. So what if you keep doing that until all of your experience is in consciousness and you are holding it all with a noticing detachment? That would be what some call "choiceless awareness". Heh. I guess there is a paradox there after all.
posted by BigSky at 8:52 AM on September 4, 2006


The problem with all of this is that it presupposes that the mind is just a computer, that our consciousness is a mere computer program.

The brain may be, but the mind - our consciousness - is something much more.

This kind of argument is like the kind of Empirical arguments that end with solopsism.

Yes, if you follow some train of reasoning down this primrose path, and presuppose that we are nothing more than computation, then, yes, I suppose we have no free will.

But the mind is far more than a computer. Reasoning is far more than just a+b=c.
posted by MythMaker at 8:54 AM on September 4, 2006


"I happened upon this interview because I decided to live without the (more or less interchangeable) concepts of free will and ultimate moral responsibility and I was looking for other people who had chosen such a life."

If you "decided to" then you exercised free will something you say can't exist. Perhaps living a paradox is more in your nature!

Now about my car..........
posted by xenophanes at 9:07 AM on September 4, 2006


We can agree that people are not exercising their free will when they are being coerced, but does positive control (the lure of reward) negate freedom? Traditionally, we establish freedom by limiting the effects of punitive contingencies. A determinist may claim that our freedom to act in an arbitrary manner is further constrained by the controlling effects of reward (positive reinforcement).


Are people still exercising their free will even when we understand their motives, or is free will just the noise in a stochastic system? Are we most free when we capriciously act against our own best interest? If so, what's so great about free will? Why would I want to have it?
posted by Human Flesh at 10:30 AM on September 4, 2006


Mythmaker: You're confusing two issues, functionalism and dualism. Functionalism, the idea that the "the brain is just a computer", as you put it, is an open philosophical question. I recommend Turing, John Searle, DeRose, and late Putnam for interesting arguments on the issue. There are a host of others who write on this topic, but I think these guys see things pretty clearly.

Dualism, the idea that the mind and the brain are in some sense seperate entities, is a dead position in philosophy, for the most part because no one has been able to solve the mind/body problem. How can the mind/consciousness-ethereal, nonspatial-interact with the brain/body-corporeal, spatial? There haven't been any satisfactory answers to this question, and consequently every serious philosopher, psychologist, and neuroscientist thinks that the brain gives rise to the phenomonology that we experience as consciousness, in some way or other.

The question then is how that process occurs. Functionalism is a hypothesis intended to answer that question, but if it is wrong, it doesn't follow that dualism is correct. It just means that the philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists need a better hypothesis, which of course might be dualism, but most likely would be something else entirely.

As far as free will goes, jfuller has it.
posted by Kwine at 10:40 AM on September 4, 2006


If you "decided to" then you exercised free will something you say can't exist. Perhaps living a paradox is more in your nature!

Of course, within my framework I had no choice but to make that decision. I still think the word "decided" is meaningful though, it distinguishes between internally-imposed and externally-imposed behavior and also implies that some (also unavoidable!) process of deliberation took place.
posted by teleskiving at 10:43 AM on September 4, 2006


jfuller: If there is or has ever been any human action that is neither obviously mechanically restricted, like the millwheel, nor obviously coerced, like the driver with the carjacker, then freedom of choice exists. If I have more freedom than either of those two examples then I am free enough to be correctly called a free individual. That's all it takes.

You qualify the predicate with "obviously"; to whom?

If I borrow your car and crash it into a tree then I'm proximately responsible for wrecking your car, unless it can be shown that the car was mechanically broken and out of my control

Strawson's point is that the trend of scientific discoveries is converging towards the maxim that there is no agency inherent in the human person. That any semblance of control is a result of the limited capacity of human cognition to deal with complexity. Furthermore, this "common and correct" understanding you refer to, isn't a static formulation, so 'common' may be an accurate adjective but "correct" is your opinion.
posted by Gyan at 11:06 AM on September 4, 2006


> A determinist may claim that our freedom to act in an arbitrary manner is
> further constrained by the controlling effects of reward (positive reinforcement).

In that case the determinist is trying to alter (and narrow) the concept of freedom, by adding requirements and so making the criteria harder to meet. Nope, won't wash. The job was to decide whether what we already commonly mean by free will is a valid concept, not whether it's possible to redefine it so that the new, redefined meaning is clearly invalid.

Would you let me prove pigs don't exist by redefining them as "porcine mammals with wings?" Didn't think so. Likewise, determinists don't get to prove freedom doesn't exist by substituting their new and more restrictive definition for what we previously meant by freedom.


> You qualify the predicate with "obviously"; to whom?

Twelve good men and true would be adequate to the purpose. Any twelve, if chosen at random.


> ...the trend of scientific discoveries is converging towards the maxim that there is no
> agency inherent in the human person.

Oh, yes, yes, and for that matter the very notion of the "I," the internal self, is probably an overtrained social convention and not anything objectively real. Nevertheless people are going to continue saying "I'm going to bed now" and that's not an incoherent locution and everybody knows what it means. Likewise people are going to continue to attribute agency to themselves and others, and this attribution is not confused or incoherent and everybody knows what it means. The job of philosophers who insist on treating the subject is to grasp the concept of agency anthropologically, beginning with what they are given by common usage, and analyze it so that its coherence and non-confusion become understandable. (The job of scientists is to refrain from philosophizing beyond their data because when they do they're no more competent than shoe salesmen, and sound just as foolish.)


> That any semblance of control is a result of the limited capacity of human cognition to deal with complexity.

That right there is entirely sufficient to support what is commonly meant by freedom. If you don't feel the chains. for whatever reason, then you effectively aren't chained.
posted by jfuller at 11:49 AM on September 4, 2006


Libertarianism claims the following here: All libertarians subscribe to the philosophy of incompatibilism which states that an action cannot be both free and physically predetermined in the commonly understood sense. Free actions are ones which could have been different. Traditionally, this has meant that there is no causal chain that necessitated the action prior to the agent freely choosing it; the agent is an originator of causal chains.

Such a doctrine would be necessary to blame the victim or assert an individual privilege, but it contradicts its claim of free will and belief in fatalism by implying that someone necessarily deserves the fate they have "willfully" chosen or gambled against. In other words, the game isn't fair by determinism but, absurdly, we're fair game by free will.
posted by Brian B. at 12:03 PM on September 4, 2006


That's a willful misreading.

Actually, I doubt there is free will- I hope quantum mechanics can rescue it from scientific determinism- and this is in no way a conflict with Libertarianism. If there's no free will, it doesn't matter anyway, but there is no harm in having a philosophy in case there is free will.
posted by spaltavian at 12:10 PM on September 4, 2006


> You qualify the predicate with "obviously"; to whom?

Twelve good men and true would be adequate to the purpose. Any twelve, if chosen at random.


This is specious. You appear to be arguing that because the mechanism is unintuitive and unobvious it doesn't exist.

I am unconvinced by appeals to quantum indeterminancy also. Half life works as a concept because exactly half of the atoms will decay, though you don't know which ones. It is entirely plausible to build a regularly operating machine based on that fact.
posted by Sparx at 12:15 PM on September 4, 2006


If you don't feel the chains. for whatever reason, then you effectively aren't chained.

If you don't feel the molecules, for whatever reason, you aren't composed of molecules. And medicine won't work on you. MAGIC!

I have a dog in the race for in the determinist position (surprise), for the same reason I am an atheist. I have yet to see a good reason why I shouldn't be that wasn't circumlocution and appeals to MAGIC! The human mind works differently from everything else in the observable universe - just because! I remain unconvinced. And I argue about it because it really annoys magicians - but that is a personal failing based on the shape my personality ended up in.

And it is a rather liberating position to take.
posted by Sparx at 12:33 PM on September 4, 2006


> This is specious. You appear to be arguing that because the mechanism is unintuitive and
> unobvious it doesn't exist.

Specious but false, you probably mean. I am not arguing that at all. I claim that easy, common-experience judgements like "that action was mechanically constrained" or "that action was coerced" (which is what the jury was going to be called on to identify. Remember?) operate at an entirely different level of experience from the things determinists appeal to, and this ordinary level of experience is not invalidated no matter what may be true at other levels (e.g. the level of psychological reinforcement, the level of neuronal connectivity.) To say otherwise is like claiming that our everyday experience that common macro-realm objects like doors are solid and you can't walk through a closed door is somehow invalidated by the scientific knowledge that, way down at an entirely different level of analysis (namely the sub-micro, molecular realm) "solid" objects are mostly empty space. So what? You still can't walk through a closed door, common experience is not invalidated by refined knowledge of uncommon levels of reality.


> If you don't feel the molecules, for whatever reason, you aren't composed of molecules.

On preview, what a perfect time for someone to say this. Fuller tips hat.
posted by jfuller at 12:54 PM on September 4, 2006


I just discovered that there is tons of stuff on this subject at naturalism.org.
posted by teleskiving at 1:26 PM on September 4, 2006


common experience is not invalidated by refined knowledge of uncommon levels of reality

Not invalidated, it certainly occured, but it must be re-understood in its implications. We perceive the world as largely flat. Uncommon knowledge once uncovered, points in an entirely different direction - spherical (elliptical) world! And we must thus adapt our positions, regardless of thousands of years of experience to the contrary.

If it transpires that free will is merely emergent yet deterministic phenomona, then we have to accept that our experiences, while real, point in an entirely different direction to the customary one - because we have gained a greater understanding of what contributes to those experiences. To hold other positions is to be wilfully perverse in the face of greater evidence.

That said - I do not think determinism has been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. But the absence of any mechanism by which it might work otherwise is telling.

I've never been a huge fan of tradition, either.
posted by Sparx at 1:30 PM on September 4, 2006


I think that a good argument against theism is the idea that one cannot be a "supreme being" and yet willfully make a flawed being that is both free AND culpable for not being robotic. It's no wonder why there are competing religious perspectives that must interpret the problems with free will.

The idea that one must be dogmatically punished is simply enforcing a thought crime against a master's will. On the other hand, we impartially punish a citizen in order to limit the explosive process of revenge, the perpetrator contained as an agent of disturbance and not as a thought criminal. If victims see it as revenge, so be it, as long it doesn't infect the process of justice to become the master's terror.
posted by Brian B. at 1:30 PM on September 4, 2006


I fail to see how what jfuller -- accurately -- says about freedom and our concepts of it, in any way counters determinism.

There's nothing about the human mind and consciousness being driven by a causal chain that in any way rules out it having a perception of freedom to choose. They operate at two different levels -- just as my computer desktop doesn't really exist, and is driven by a frantic adding machine on rails.
posted by bonaldi at 1:34 PM on September 4, 2006


jfuller: Nevertheless people are going to continue saying "I'm going to bed now" and that's not an incoherent locution and everybody knows what it means.

That everyone knows what it means just indicates a shared background metaphysics, and nothing beyond that including whether this metaphysics is provided innately, and hence, is "correct".

The job of philosophers who insist on treating the subject is to grasp the concept of agency anthropologically

Who sets this job description? The common dictionary meanings don't set forward such a qualification.

If you don't feel the chains. for whatever reason, then you effectively aren't chained.

I agree that if you don't feel chained, you shouldn't worry about it and ultimately that's all that matters, but your conclusion also comes from "beyond your data", as you can't show whether the sense of agency is accurate or illusory. If your thesis is, if we feel that we are free in certain respects, then we ought to treat that feeling as authoritative and reflect it in societal conventions, then that's fine, but philosophy, which as per one of the dictionary meanings, is supposed to conduct "critical analysis of fundamental assumptions or beliefs" isn't obligated to leave it at that.
posted by Gyan at 1:53 PM on September 4, 2006


I suspect JFuller is a secret compatibilist. But I have enough respect for him that I'll wait for him to announce it publically.

I also purposefully removed an analogy about religious experience and replaced it with a flat earth one. Can'o'Worms Mr Brian B.
posted by Sparx at 2:00 PM on September 4, 2006


I agree that if you don't feel chained, you shouldn't worry about it and ultimately that's all that matters

Dammit - shoulda previewed that one.

I disagree. Why limit yourself to your perceptions when there is much to be learned from exceeding them? If microscopes help us defeat germs, why can't an understanding of the physics of the brain (and I know you totally own me in this area Gyan) help us use them correctly in interpreting events?
posted by Sparx at 2:05 PM on September 4, 2006


Sparx: Why limit yourself to your perceptions when there is much to be learned from exceeding them?

You never exceed your perceptions. You can only change your narrative of the phenomenology i.e. how you connect your various perceptions (rainbows exist because of a bored God who decided to color the sky...etc --or-- rainbow exists because of so & so atmospheric conditions). Then when it comes down to utility, treating the sense of free will as true is more consonant than the opposite, especially if it is intuitive, which I think it is.
posted by Gyan at 2:19 PM on September 4, 2006


Point taken. But I disagree with the consonance in this context. Free will is an intuitive assumption that I do not think is satisfactorily validated by the empirical, so in all honesty we should assume the default position: that we aren't special and that we work the way the rest of the universe works- upon mechanical precepts based on stochastic interactions. So much of society is based on FW's validity that its a hard impression to lose. That is not to say that we shouldn't lose it.

An article in the FPP mentions the problem of punishment. If punishment is merely a social vengeance thing, and has nothing to do with rehabilitation - then this would be an area where correct interpretation of events based on determinism would lead to less unpleasantness in favour of the greater good. Why should evidentially correct assumptions lose place to long held conventions? I ask as a monkey whose altruism had lead to such cool stuff as internet porn.
posted by Sparx at 2:36 PM on September 4, 2006


Species' altruism, obviously.
posted by Sparx at 2:38 PM on September 4, 2006


Crikey - I am wandering along the happiness utilitarianist path. Oh well, let's see where it leads.
posted by Sparx at 2:45 PM on September 4, 2006


> I suspect JFuller is a secret compatibilist.

Well, there's hardly any shame in saying "Dave Hume agrees with me that...," is there?

I'd actually claim to be sort of a hyper-compatibilist: not only are the (undoubted) facts adduced by determinists not incompatible with free will, the mere inconvenient lack of a personal Supreme Being is not incompatible with being a theist. Now there's broadminded.
posted by jfuller at 2:53 PM on September 4, 2006


Sparx: Free will is an intuitive assumption that I do not think is satisfactorily validated by the empirical

a)'Assumption' is the wrong word; it's an intuitive sense, not an assumption.
b)Not satisfactorily validated for you, perhaps, but that's not true for me.
posted by Gyan at 2:54 PM on September 4, 2006


jfuller: hyper-compatibilism: you have ventured into territory I do not presume to understand.

Gyan: intuitiveness has never been a strong argument for me - elegance and simplicity are. Both quantum physics and relativity being the strongest arguments against intuitiveness I can come up with at this time yet have both

"I do not think is satisfactorily validated" is, of course, a very subjective statement. All useful input (or where to find it) appreciated.
posted by Sparx at 3:07 PM on September 4, 2006


Not satisfactorily validated for you, perhaps, but that's not true for me.

This is the bit that riles me slightly about philosophical debate: there can be no real recourse to outside standards of validation, because someone can always say "yeh, but it's OK for me". And so the dog chases its tail.
posted by bonaldi at 3:09 PM on September 4, 2006


Sparx: intuitiveness has never been a strong argument for me - elegance and simplicity are

Why favor those two and reject the first? Isn't 'elegance' simply a label for aesthetic intuition?
posted by Gyan at 3:30 PM on September 4, 2006


Scientists sometimes call a theory elegant if it's parsimonious.
posted by Human Flesh at 4:02 PM on September 4, 2006


Isn't 'elegance' simply a label for aesthetic intuition?

No.

Intuition is often wrong because it relies on "common sense" which is often demonstrably disprovable (see examples above). Elegance, ^ on the other hand, in its mathematical context, implies a number of things. As does simplicity - as does parsminony. Perhaps I was tautologous, but I'm writing for general understanding here not a peer reviewed publication. My apologies for any misunderstanding.

It's Occam's razor all over again. But I was trying to phrase it in a way that suggests (and by all means take me to task for my description, but please separate that from what I'm raising as points) that, from my understanding, any description of free will requires an additional aspect that is so far undefined and as yet undefinable. I suspect that free will is definable within currently understood terms and events - it just doesn't equate to the traditional understanding of free will, nor is there anything free about it. Until such a time as a truly free mechanism is exposed I suspect I won't accept any currently unexplainable descriptions. And I do not consider "it feels like it", which is the extrapolation of intuitive, to be an acceptable mechanism.
posted by Sparx at 4:05 PM on September 4, 2006


Parsimony. D'uh. It's very late. 'pologies again.
posted by Sparx at 4:10 PM on September 4, 2006


Also - well spelled Mr Human Flesh :-)
posted by Sparx at 4:13 PM on September 4, 2006


Sparx: Intuition is often wrong because it relies on "common sense" which is often demonstrably disprovable

You're using intuition to mean "quick on-the-spot conclusion", whereas I mean "A sense of something not evident or deducible;" as in a sort of primal knowledge.

Also, equating elegance to parsimony("Adoption of the simplest assumption in the formulation of a theory or in the interpretation of data") is circular as "simplest" again leads us back to square one.
posted by Gyan at 4:40 PM on September 4, 2006


I'm not sure how they really differ.

A "quick on the spot conclusion" can be the same result as a "A sense of something not evident or deducible" if alternative, more detailed information is not available. I didn't mention time as a factor - I was talking about available info.

And again - in your second point, it's only circular if you assume equal information in each case. With better information you should be able to make better decisions. Regardless of the history of thought. Those shoulders of giants aren't just going to stand on themselves.
posted by Sparx at 4:52 PM on September 4, 2006


'Assumption' is the wrong word; it's an intuitive sense, not an assumption

The same arguement was used by Liebniz although he called it the "principal of sufficient reason" , the doctrine that man must choose that which the intellect judges as the better" intuitive sense if you will so allow in your words. Combined with the optimist theory that God Himself has inevitably chosen the present as being the best of all possible worlds, these views, when logically reasoned leave very little room for "free will". I see these as merely hangovers from Descartes own ambiquity. In Meditations III and IV Descartes himself maintains the freedom of the will then attenuates this view and leans towards a providential determinism which is of course the logical result of his flirtation with occasssionalism. Really no new ground to be found anywhere in this post, certainly nothing definitive in which determinism is validated or the reality of free will is debunked. However Sparx' clever hint of "additional aspects" certainly deserves a follow up from him.
posted by xenophanes at 5:18 PM on September 4, 2006


I come late to this, and offer my contributions from the parallel AskMe thread.

In short: ISTM that quantum mechanics clearly invalidates strong (causal) determinism, and that there is no necessary conflict between free will and the less ambitious flavours of determinism.
posted by flabdablet at 5:22 PM on September 4, 2006


Sparx: A "quick on the spot conclusion" can be the same result as a "A sense of something not evident or deducible" if alternative, more detailed information is not available.

Let me put it this way: you're using intuition as the instant application of a heuristic, whereas I use it to mean an innate sense as certain as the feeling that I'm seeing & hearing right now. I should make clear that this sense of agency precedes any formalized doctrine of it i.e. I don't sense free will because I have read about the concept, so there's still a vagueness about what this sense actually is, but 'free will' seems to broadly fit.

xenophanes: The same arguement was used by Liebniz although he called it the "principal of sufficient reason" , the doctrine that man must choose that which the intellect judges as the better" intuitive sense if you will so allow in your words.

The PSR looks to be a different beast, going by your description and my vague recollection. Intuition, as I use it, isn't a "judgement", intellectual or otherwise.

flabdablet: ISTM that quantum mechanics clearly invalidates strong (causal) determinism

Well, there's the mathematical QM formalism and then's there the various physical interpretations. Gerard 't Hooft, a physics Nobel laureate, put out a paper some years ago, on how QM could still turn out to be completely deterministic.
posted by Gyan at 5:50 PM on September 4, 2006


I don't sense free will because I have read about the concept, so there's still a vagueness about what this sense actually is, but 'free will' seems to broadly fit.

How much do I have to write before you get the picture that this broad sense is what I am arguing against. It is demonstratively true that your brain lies to you. Frequently. Learning how this occurs gives us a new framework for understanding what we consider we understand. Holding on to previous frameworks may give us comfort - but no better, and possibly a worse, picture of what reality is.
posted by Sparx at 9:29 PM on September 4, 2006


Also I am shocked (SHOCKED!) that Gyan is arguing terms rather than arguments. If there are terms to be defined - let us know what they are - otherwise I fear we might get engulfed in strafe fire.
posted by Sparx at 9:42 PM on September 4, 2006


Sparx: How much do I have to write before you get the picture that this broad sense is what I am arguing against.

Oh, I get what you are arguing against.

It is demonstratively true that your brain lies to you. Frequently.

You do realize the self-refutation inherent in this contention?
posted by Gyan at 10:10 PM on September 4, 2006


If I might


a) Then refute it, sunshine


b) of course I do. The problem lies within examing diffierent brains and seeing how they similarly deceiive. You know what I mean and you are merely being disingenuous . What next - a defense of Intelligent Design?
posted by Sparx at 10:28 PM on September 4, 2006


Sparx: you haven't made your case for determinism. It's a long leap from Humean constant conjuction to establishing determinism.

The problem lies within examing diffierent brains and seeing how they similarly deceiive.

But the examination is conducted and appreciated by the same brain, so there's no escape there.
posted by Gyan at 10:33 PM on September 4, 2006


Deceptive. Sorry for the spelling. Kill me now

That said, Gyan - you are falling for the same fallacy that completely irritates people with a clue about ID.

A model is in no way indicative of the system that creates it. It's a model - nothing more and nothing less. Its basis tell you nothing about the model framework save that stuff can be modelled upon it. The fact that a model can be made is telling.

And finally - I wasn't making a case for determinism - I was asking for a case to be made above and beyond the default response, which is determinism. You have failed to make anything like it.
posted by Sparx at 10:42 PM on September 4, 2006


And should I be wrong about the default response - I'd like to hear that too
posted by Sparx at 10:45 PM on September 4, 2006


Fark it. I just had to adjust my computer 12 hours. Why not attempt to adjust my comments?

The brain adjusts itself. Examine lenses that twist things the right way (upside down to our eyes) before the optic nerve takes over, See how long it takes for the brain to adjust. When confonted with the right way of seeing - the brain soon accomodates. Remove those glasses and everything seems the wrong way up.

Thus we learn that the brain will lie in the most useful fashion.

Extrapolate that: the brain provides a useful narrative - a survival narrative. It is useful for survival for the brain the interpret things a particular way.

Knowing, as we do, how the brain behaves - is it right for us to assume free will is Free Will, and not just a convenient narrative? And if we make that assumption - what is the evidence behind it?

Still waiting for the evidence rather than wishful thinking that we "see things the right way round"
posted by Sparx at 11:28 PM on September 4, 2006


Sparx: "A model is in no way indicative of the system that creates it. It's a model - nothing more and nothing less. Its basis tell you nothing about the model framework save that stuff can be modelled upon it. The fact that a model can be made is telling."

Which model are you talking about?

I was asking for a case to be made above and beyond the default response, which is determinism.

The default response is 'free will', so it's the other way around. It's reflected in societal conventions.

Thus we learn that the brain will lie in the most useful fashion.

Which one's the "lie"? Like you said, the brain tries to be useful. Where does the truth figure in?
posted by Gyan at 7:41 AM on September 5, 2006


Gyan: what sort of free will are you arguing for? That the brain has some decision-making mechanism that isn't constrained by cause and effect?

Or merely that we have a perception of such a thing -- a perception enduring enough that we can build upon it?
posted by bonaldi at 8:42 AM on September 5, 2006


My apologies. I was getting quite drunk by the end there, and may have been responding to questions that weren't actually there. I am now appropriately hungover.

I consider deterministic materialism to be the default position as there is no evidence for anything else that I've seen and has within it all that's necessary to explain what we experience. That the brain will misrepresent events if it's useful for survival is demonstrably true. That's not a real face in the clouds, and that's not actually a decision you had any control over, no matter how much it might seem like it. If you want to claim extra magic you should have very good evidence for it.

Whether the appearance of free will is a useful way of perceiving things or a side effect of other things is in interesting question in itself. (No, I don't claim to know).

And Bonaldi's question is a good one.
posted by Sparx at 4:15 PM on September 5, 2006


Sparx: I consider deterministic materialism to be the default position as there is no evidence for anything else that I've seen and has within it all that's necessary to explain what we experience.

Like I said, for most people, free will is the default state, but that's neither here or there. Materialism can't explain consciousness, which is a fundamental deficit. As per Hume, establishing determinism is a far stretch from observing conjunctions. It's not the concept of cause and effect, which is a problem but assigning cause-effect pairs.

That the brain will misrepresent events if it's useful for survival is demonstrably true.

We keep on coming back to square one. You can only claim that something is misrepresented because you have a different expectation in mind, which is not fulfilled by the apparition. But how does one know if the expectation is a valid one to have?

bonaldi: what sort of free will are you arguing for?

Some sort of agency that's inherent to the Self.
posted by Gyan at 4:36 PM on September 5, 2006


Free will leads naturally to damnation. - John Glover as the Devil, in Brimstone

Heh heh, hearing this quote just reminded that one of the primary reasons this is an interesting and oft-revisited topic is that it's a central theme in Judeo-Christian mythology. I was looking for somewhere to reference the bits in Exodus / Va'eira where God hardens the pharoh's heart, but the opportunity did not present itself...
posted by XMLicious at 8:12 PM on September 6, 2006


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