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May 23, 2007 11:30 AM   Subscribe

According to this guy, you’re not ultimately morally responsible for choosing whether to snark or not to snark in response to this FPP. A discussion of the philosophical problems surrounding freewill from British Analytic philosopher Galen Strawson. (Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s throw in this unrelated review of Strawson’s latest work on consciousness, just for an extra splash of color.)
posted by saulgoodman (115 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hmm. The Strawman argument has a child.
posted by eriko at 11:33 AM on May 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Funny you mention that. To me the name Strawson kind of evokes the Pinocchio story--you know, like there's this boy fashioned from straw whose father desperately wants him to be a real boy rather than an analytic philosopher...
posted by saulgoodman at 11:40 AM on May 23, 2007


Never mind!
posted by humannaire at 11:49 AM on May 23, 2007


you’re not ultimately morally responsible for choosing whether to snark or not to snark in response to this FPP

As if I really needed an excuse.
posted by IronLizard at 11:52 AM on May 23, 2007


If you are not 'morally responsible' there is no 'you'.
posted by tgyg at 11:55 AM on May 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


THE BELIEVER: You start out your book Freedom and Belief by saying that there is no such thing as free will. What exactly do you mean by free will?

GALEN STRAWSON: I mean what nearly everyone means. Almost all human beings believe that they are free to choose what to do in such a way that they can be truly, genuinely responsible for their actions...


Lucky the interviewer opened with that question and GS answered it honestly. It saved me the time needed to read the rest of it. For "All human beings" do not, in fact, believe any such thing.
posted by MarshallPoe at 12:02 PM on May 23, 2007


If you are not 'morally responsible' there is no 'you'.

That's what Buddhism holds. Gautama Buddha called it the principle of "an-Atman" or "no-self". People often mistakenly think the idea of no-self is a sort of goal you attain with practice (like, "Hey, this morning's meditation session was great! Now, I've achieved no-self. Kick ass!") But really, it's more a descriptive term for the actual state of affairs which through gradual practice you can learn to recognize as already being the case (like "the path of least resistance" in Taoism isn't a proscription but a description).

Marshall Poe: I mean what nearly everyone means.

I think his claim was slightly more qualified than your reading does justice, but still, are you positing that most people don't view others as:

truly, genuinely responsible for their actions
posted by saulgoodman at 12:08 PM on May 23, 2007


Fuck this guy (no snark intended).
posted by doctor_negative at 12:10 PM on May 23, 2007


So much of the time, when I read current philosophy, I get this weird feeling that Zeno's Paradox lurks behind every word and that it all boils down nothing more than an argument over precision.
posted by aramaic at 12:11 PM on May 23, 2007


Maybe I'm just taking classes with the wrong professors and reading the wrong philosophers, but I wasn't aware that denying free will was even vaguely novel. The arguments against are fairly numerous, while the arguments for boil down to "Man, it would be awesome if we like, had free will!"
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:14 PM on May 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Lucky the interviewer opened with that question and GS answered it honestly. It saved me the time needed to read the rest of it. For "All human beings" do not, in fact, believe any such thing.

Calling Wittgenstein to cleanup on aisle 6. Language-game confusion leading to uncharitable reading on aisle 6.
posted by treepour at 12:18 PM on May 23, 2007


pope guilty: try telling that to ironlizard or tgyg. the article confirms your position.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:20 PM on May 23, 2007


If I choose to snark/steal/kill/smile, it is by my own free will based on my understanding of the situation. To say that I am not responsible is absurd.
There are master snarkers here on MetaFilter. To deny them the credit due to their perfection of snarkery is unjust.
posted by Cranberry at 12:20 PM on May 23, 2007


That was a really interesting read, thanks. (I kind of wish you hadn't invited the snarks, but I guess they were inevitable anyway.) I usually find philosophical discussions of free will (or pretty much anything else) tedious and beside the point, but this held my attention (which is not to say that I agree with Strawson).

Of course, the fact that I enjoyed it probably means that when the philosopher MeFites show up they'll explain that it's complete nonsense.
posted by languagehat at 12:24 PM on May 23, 2007


I read the article, I'm just kind of "huh?" at the hostile responses.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:25 PM on May 23, 2007


languagehat: My reaction to this article was pretty much in-line with yours--nothing all that new here, I think, but the discussion was engaging and clear, and I'm glad you thought so too. (I thought I would preemptively foil the MeFi snark-squad by backhandedly reaffirming their perverse ethos).
posted by saulgoodman at 12:30 PM on May 23, 2007


For some reason, whenever I read arguments for or against free will, my mind wanders to:

Vizzini: Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

I am not responsible for this comment.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 12:42 PM on May 23, 2007


saulgoodman and treepour, he's how Strawson tried to make clear what he means by "free will":

responsible period, responsible without any qualification, responsible sans phrase, responsible tout court, absolutely, radically, buck-stoppingly responsible; ultimately responsible, in a word...

That's pretty clear. Does anyone believe we have that kind of free will? Most people (if I may generalize) believe and act as if we have limited free will. And that makes sense, because it accords rather nicely with what we observe in life.
posted by MarshallPoe at 12:43 PM on May 23, 2007


And that makes sense, because it accords rather nicely with what we observe in life.

We're certainly enculturated to observe it, yes.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:46 PM on May 23, 2007


What makes a person do this or that? Their will. A person's will exists in a 'black box', you can not examine it any more than you can see your own face without a mirror.

If you accept that one has a will, that makes the additional word 'free' in front of it superfluous.
posted by tgyg at 12:48 PM on May 23, 2007


Does anyone believe we have that kind of free will? Most people (if I may generalize) believe and act as if we have limited free will.

I guess I read the emphasis of the particular passages you cite as being more on the absoluteness of the moral responsibility we ascribe to acts, and less on the quality or degree of free-will we bring to the acts themselves. But I can see where you get your reading, too.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:52 PM on May 23, 2007


"But we aren’t responsible for our environment, and we aren’t responsible for our heredity. So we aren’t responsible for our characters. But then how can we be responsible for acts that arise from our characters?"

"I bet some ancient Greek said it, since they said almost everything"

Yeah this little known Greek named Aristotle. He might have had a famous teacher or something. It's not surprising that G. Strawson has never heard of him.
posted by oddman at 12:57 PM on May 23, 2007


oddman: not a fan of the analytic school, i'm guessing?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:59 PM on May 23, 2007


MarshallPoe, in the article he's mostly talking about the kind of responsibility that we presuppose people have when we assign praise and blame to their actions. As far as that kind of free will goes, I think people most people believe that we are "buck-stoppingly responsible." Or maybe another way to put it is: we assign praise and blame as though we believe that we are "buck-stoppingly responsible." If we believe someone hasn't acted entirely out of free will, we're less inclined to praise or blame (or the praise/blame isn't as intense and final). But our everyday discourse is certainly deeply informed by assignments of praise and blame, and debates over those assignments.
posted by treepour at 12:59 PM on May 23, 2007


Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger has a somewhat more interesting take on free will and obviously precedes this guy by a bit.

Ultimately though, I'm not exactly sure what the productive end of this debate is. Is he arguing that we shouldn't punish people if they do wrong? Clearly, if free will does not exist, for some people the only thing keeping them from committing crimes is some kind of mathematical function in their brains based on the probabilty of being punished severely for the crime they may or may not otherwise be predispositioned to commit. So basically, we should keep doing what we're doing. I suppose we could carefully study the genetics and raising patterns of particularly well behaved and successful adults and enforce such behaviors (and I dunno, do genetic mods, why not) to get everyone to be like them, but again this would upset the delicate balance of predispositions (maybe Alfred is only able to be a type A successful businessman if he smugly rest on the assurances that mostly everyone else is going to die wretched and poor).
posted by Deathalicious at 1:01 PM on May 23, 2007


Now that I think about it (warning: I'm not very bright), we don't even ascribe absolute moral responsibility, unless we are speaking hyperbolically. Isn't tempered moral responsibility what "mitigating circumstances" and "reduced capacity" are about in the law?
posted by MarshallPoe at 1:03 PM on May 23, 2007


The fact that we have concepts such as "mitigating circumstances" and "reduced capacity" indicate that we believe absolute moral responsibility to be some kind of norm rather than being exceptional or abnormal.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:10 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ultimately though, I'm not exactly sure what the productive end of this debate is.

I've been mulling those questions over myself, and I'm not sure I can answer that either. You'd think that abandoning something as basic to our understanding of the world and our role in it as the concept of free will would--i don't know, matter, somehow--but I can't really think of how it would. I think the interesting idea in this particular discussion is the suggestion that having a more completely informed understanding of moral responsibility in light of the limited nature of free-will could somehow potentially improve the quality of one's day-to-day experience of life. That suggestion seems especially interesting in light of Strawson's take on consciousness.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:17 PM on May 23, 2007


Pope Guilty. Does it? Doesn't it just imply that we understand shit always happens, but that sometimes more or less shit happens than usual. No reason to make "absolute" moral responsibility the norm--or anything more than an abstraction at the "less shit" end of the spectrum. Sorry, that wasn't very clear. But you get my point. Maybe. I hope.
posted by MarshallPoe at 1:19 PM on May 23, 2007


If you had your whole life to live over again, in *exactly* the same circumstances -- same parents/genetics, same environment, same *everything*, down to the electrons in the furthest star -- but you had no additional information that you did not have the first time around.... would you do anything differently?

No? Of course not. Why *would* you?

Then how are you not predestined to be what you are, to do what you do? Where is your free will?

The thing is... we have to pretend we have free will, even if we really don't, to function as a society. Orson Scott Card's 3rd book in the "Ender" series, Xenocide, deals with this issue more eloquently than I ever could, starting on page 384, IIRC. (Don't ask me how I remember that...)

Additionally, although the future may be predetermined, but we would need infinite information and computational power to know what that future is. So the illusion of "free will" is pretty damned good -- in fact, it might as well be reality.

Yet another philosophical duality.

(DNRTFA yet)
posted by LordSludge at 1:27 PM on May 23, 2007


Pope Guilty: I think the article was mainly focusing on the fact that even though most philosophers are happy to theoretically admit free will as commonly understood doesn't exist, actually incorporating that belief into our lives is difficult, if not completely impossible.

Perhaps in the field of philosophy this is already neatly decided, but I would say the vast majority of "laymen" would state, without hesitation, that free will exists, absolutely.

I think the concept of free will is a basic tenant of humanity. Regardless of cultural or religious background, I think most human beings if offered a glass of water would report that they have the ability to choose whether or not to drink it. Their only philosophical recourse at that juncture is to deny the glass of water exists.

I've long wrestled in my own mind about the concept of free will, usually in a religious context as opposed to purely philosophical, and the problem I have "admitting" that free will may be an illusion is that if true, it calls into question our very existence and instantly causes vast feelings of fatalism and nihilism, which make me profoundly unhappy and make me want to (choose to??) jump off a cliff.
posted by Ynoxas at 1:33 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


And I'm sorry if that post confuses or angers anyone.

Turns out it couldn't be helped. /smirk
posted by Ynoxas at 1:33 PM on May 23, 2007


It strikes me that whether or not we ultimately have free will is irrelevant. If a criminal is not responsible for his actions, the way we deal with him doesn't change -- we still need to remove the criminal from society. If someone is not ultimately deserving of praise, we still praise her, because we want to see that behaviour reinforced, whether the behaviour is performed by an autonomous person with free will or by a machine trapped by its environment.

I think Strawson the Younger makes an excellent case for the lack of ultimate moral responsibility. When you get right down to it, I didn't choose to be the person I am. Even when I examine the choices that I have made, the reasons why I made those choices and the reasons why I made the choices that drove those later choices, all the way back to the beginning, must have been driven by my heredity and environment. I work to get a better job because I want to attract younger and more beautiful women because I want them to have my kids because I both enjoy the sex and because it has been ingrained in me that having kids is good and I have no real reason to doubt those core behaviours. Other people might have reason to doubt them, or any of millions of other behaviours that are driven by whatever stimuli or quirks of genetics.

But whether or not I am ultimately responsible for getting a job or having a kid or eating a sandwich or snarking in the Blue, responsibility is a social construct, not a psychological one, I think. I may not have free will, but society determines the limits and extents of my responsibility and may punish or praise me appropriately depending on how I exercise that responsibility.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:43 PM on May 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


I wish more Western philosophers would read more Eastern philosophers.
posted by Abiezer at 1:45 PM on May 23, 2007


vast feelings of fatalism and nihilism, which make me profoundly unhappy and make me want to (choose to??) jump off a cliff.

why? why would it matter enough to make you suicidal that you don't matter since, in this scenario, even the fact that you don't matter doesn't really matter? if you abandon the idea of free will, nothing about the world actually changes except your understanding of the world, so why should you get depressed about having a more accurate understanding of the world? are you only living for the sake of your understanding of how the world works?
posted by saulgoodman at 1:50 PM on May 23, 2007


saulgoodman: Those are great questions. But all I can say is that when presented with the prospect of total and absolute irrelevance, it makes me very upset and devalued.

And that may be all there is to it: vanity. I am vain enough to want to believe that my choices matter in this world. If presented with information that nothing I do or do not do matters one whit, a dark cape of despair starts to creep over me.

Also, just the feeling of helplessness that borders on hysteria, feeling like I am not even an autonomous enough entity to have direct control over my actions from one minute to the next.

And then add to that the extreme counter-intuitiveness of it all. I mean, because my mother didn't breastfeed me I was predisposed to enter this philosophical discussion about free will? Seems, at best, far fetched.
posted by Ynoxas at 2:28 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


And then add to that the extreme counter-intuitiveness of it all. I mean, because my mother didn't breastfeed me I was predisposed to enter this philosophical discussion about free will? Seems, at best, far fetched.

Well, look, I can't in good conscience try to convince you of a fact that will make you want to go jump off a cliff, so I won't try.

Truthfully, I have some reservations of my own about the specific arguments presented against free will here, but the underlying argument is still pretty hard to dismiss, and I'm not sure you're giving it due credit: No one's arguing that seemingly random things inform the decisions you make, as your example suggests (although--who knows, maybe breast-feeding made you more outgoing and so willing to venture into the perilous territory of a discussion of free-will, but I doubt that, too.) More likely, you chose to enter this discussion precisely because you feel so strongly inclined toward your own particular position on free will, and by your own admission, you don't have any control over your emotional response to the idea that free-will doesn't exist. So in effect, you really aren't free to choose not to believe in free will, in this particular case.

Still, I think there may be a case to be made for free will as an emergent property, since no particular link in a causal chain leading to a particular intentional act has any better claim to primary causality than any other link in the chain, as far as I can tell.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:57 PM on May 23, 2007


Samuel Johnson on free will:
"All theory is against it, all experience for it" (or something to that effect)

I am not much for looking to science to resolve philosophical issues but this is an exception. Dr. Benjamin Libet did a fascinating experiment with profound implications for free will. You can read a brief description at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Libet

The experiments suggest that instead of choosing our mental content, thoughts and images run through our mind without control but we have free will in whether we act on the mental suggestion. This is similar to some teachings from Eastern traditions where meditation is described as freedom. Here it's freedom to be aware, freedom to pause. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz has a good discussion of this experiment in his book 'The Mind and the Brain'.

One paradox that emerges from this notion of free will is that when we are exercising our free will by stopping to notice our impulses we can fairly accurately be described as being in a state of 'choiceless awareness'.

On a different note, it's interesting how when some of you talk about the consequences of there not being free will, claim that we or society should still do and be the same. If there is no free will there is no 'should' to it. The concept of free will is such a deep assumption in our thought, and our grammar for that manner, that we can't act or communicate sensibly without that assumption being present. It makes no sense to say that I am saying this because I have no free will. Performing an act presumes that that act in some sense matters. Willing assent is implicit in our ideas about communication and behavior. How justified that presumption is, is another matter.

What productive end? If you admit it seems probable that freedom of will is at the least highly constrained you might be prone towards being a little more compassionate, a little less judgmental.

It's also interesting to observe that powerful intent and action is often found among those who believe strongly in free will and responsibility. Perhaps a clue that philosophy does not necessarily take you towards the 'good life' but that when the mind wanders, unhindered by the conventions of the community, it can arrive at a dangerous conclusions. Not mistaken, but dangerous. In other words, the true might not equal the good.

Hmmm.

What more do you want from philosophy?

-----

saulgoodman: Why do you ask your questions why? Do you want an answer? I would guess that you ask out of curiosity because you are engaged with the subject. Does that sound right? But if you don't believe in free will, you know why you ask, it's due to biology and environmental conditioning. And doesn't thinking that change your level of engagement? I know it makes me less curious when I consider it all a matter of some materialistic reductionism. So that change in what you think, or rather which thought you pay attention to, changes your experience. Sounds like free will is presumed when you are most involved, doesn't it? Your understanding of the world is not just some isolated mental concept, but also a substantial component of your mood and outlook towards the world.
posted by BigSky at 3:01 PM on May 23, 2007


Of my own free will, I have decided that this conversation is pointless. What the bleep do I know? None of us really exist anyway.
posted by valentinepig at 3:20 PM on May 23, 2007


Does anyone actually have an argument in favor of free will that doesn't boil down to "I would find it pleasing to have free will"?
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:27 PM on May 23, 2007


Pope Guilty,

Read the Wikipedia webpage that I gave the address for in my upper post. It isn't conclusive evidence but there's more to the argument than, "that's the way I want it to be".
posted by BigSky at 3:41 PM on May 23, 2007


saulgoodman: Why do you ask your questions why? Do you want an answer? I would guess that you ask out of curiosity because you are engaged with the subject. Does that sound right? But if you don't believe in free will, you know why you ask, it's due to biology and environmental conditioning. And doesn't thinking that change your level of engagement? I know it makes me less curious when I consider it all a matter of some materialistic reductionism. So that change in what you think, or rather which thought you pay attention to, changes your experience. Sounds like free will is presumed when you are most involved, doesn't it? Your understanding of the world is not just some isolated mental concept, but also a substantial component of your mood and outlook towards the world.

1) Because 'why' is the only question I've ever found worth asking, and the only type of question that always seems to generate more useful information than it destroys in the asking. And yes, I was curious about why a simple change in perspective that seems relatively trivial to me has the power to transform the world into someone else's personal hell.

2) I actually do believe in free will, though I find it next to impossible to frame a succinct argument for it (an argument, yes, but not a succinct one)--it seems almost axiomatic to me, but I definitely don't subscribe to any kind of absolute conception of free will. In fact, I believe acting freely in non-trivial ways is possible, but takes a kind of heroic effort.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:58 PM on May 23, 2007


Libet hasn't found evidence of free will. He notes that we can choose not to do something, but that says nothing about that choice, which may be free or unfree without affecting his research.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:01 PM on May 23, 2007


saulgoodman,

I pretty much agree with your second answer. Those questions were asked in response to your post (4:50) that nothing changes about the world when you deny free will. I think something does change, and that change is non-trivial. It's difficult to take seriously my beliefs about my own motives without presupposing free will. I think motive and desire entail some kind of belief about choice. That's what I was trying to get at with the questions.

Pope Guilty,

You're right it isn't hard evidence. That said I do think it's more compelling than "I want there to be free will". Perhaps it's my own experience with meditation, but the description of thoughts and impulses coming into the brain and the recognition of that moment where you can ride along or let it pass is more accurate than any other I've heard. For that reason, along with the difficulties of denying free will, I think it presents a more convincing view of what's going on than any other I have encountered.
posted by BigSky at 4:35 PM on May 23, 2007


Is he arguing that we shouldn't punish people if they do wrong?

In the absence of free will, prescriptive statements have no meaning. One can only describe what is, not what should be.

Does anyone actually have an argument in favor of free will that doesn't boil down to "I would find it pleasing to have free will"?

It accords with observation of everyday life. It's not "I would find it pleasing to have free will," but rather "I feel like I have free will, based on self-observation." Not that this means that free will exists, but it's alienating to argue that it doesn't. Hard determinism is one step away from total nihilism, and who wants that?

When you get right down to it, I didn't choose to be the person I am. Even when I examine the choices that I have made, the reasons why I made those choices and the reasons why I made the choices that drove those later choices, all the way back to the beginning, must have been driven by my heredity and environment.

Other people with similar heredity and environment may end up being significantly different from you, though.

If you had your whole life to live over again, in *exactly* the same circumstances -- same parents/genetics, same environment, same *everything*, down to the electrons in the furthest star -- but you had no additional information that you did not have the first time around.... would you do anything differently?

No? Of course not. Why *would* you?


You're begging the question. Honestly, I don't know if I would do anything differently. Neither do you. I've made decisions in my life that, as far as I can tell, have no deep driving factor behind them. I may well have made them differently. Not all decisions are the result of careful, rational planning.
posted by me & my monkey at 4:52 PM on May 23, 2007


there may be a case to be made for free will as an emergent property

That's my take on it. If there's one thing 20th-century science taught us, it's that simpleminded x+y=z explanations don't explain the universe, which is immensely more complex and unpredictable than we seem able to imagine. After quantum theory, indeterminacy, chaos theory, and the various other unsettling ideas that now form our picture of how things work, it seems pretty silly to suppose that genetics + environment = every single thing we think, say, and do. Put in the same input a dozen times and I'll bet you'd get a dozen different results. We just don't know enough to be smugly scientistic about life and mind, and I doubt we ever will
posted by languagehat at 5:08 PM on May 23, 2007


See how that sentence trailed off without any punctuation? That was totally deliberate! It's a metaphor for the lack of conclusiveness to our reasoning processes! And if you believe that, I have some phlogiston to sell you!
posted by languagehat at 5:10 PM on May 23, 2007


Most here seem to be approaching this from the point of view of their own specific narrative (not surprising and there's nothing wrong with that), although saulgoodman touched on something in his discussion of Buddhism and "no-self" being a recognition of the way things already are but....
Instead of arguing whether or not we have free will, why not consider what "we" are?


For my personal take on things, and hopefully this won't come off as too solipsistic or banal...
To the best of my ability to perceive, I see each of us (and everything) as an individual piece or aspect of a single conciousness. At the levels our individual conciousnesses inhabit we are largely aware of the connection to everything else, especially since our culture and society engender this behavior, but in seeking to answer the question "What 'is' reality" (insert lengthy existential rant on is-ness, E-prime, phenomenology, quantum mechanics, wave theory of matter, and scalar energy here) I come up with a Brahman sort of a concept. So in this 'reality' as I perceive it, we all make our own choices (freely or not isn't significant; what is is the fact that we choose), but somewhere/when another someone/you/me will make a similarly opposite choice so it all tends to balance itself out. What matters is what we strive for in our relationships. In this model we "are" all parts of ourselves and each other. The choice to be loving and kind to others equates with a choice to be kind and loving to various parts of ourselves. The choice to be cruel to others equates to a choice for masochism. So it's not really about free will at all, it's about free love (in a cosmic rather than hippy/horny sense).

/rant
posted by krash2fast at 5:21 PM on May 23, 2007


Free Will v. Determinism is an interesting, but somewhat fruitless discussion. First of all, how would we know the difference between the two states. Wouldn't the world, as it appears to us, appear the same under either situation? That is to ask, what facts are we interested in that may settle the question? I hold there would me no such facts to be had. The non-trivial change between the positions depend to much on mental states when mental states are what is being questioned.

The question, then, is not whether or not we have free will, but in what way do we, as a community, praise or blame community members. That is, Free Will is a forensic notion - one necessary to our politcal/social/moral theories, but not relevant to our physical theories. In talking of responsibility, Free Will is a relevant concept to employ. But in talking of the physical state of human nature, Free Will doesn't seem to have much going for it.
posted by elwoodwiles at 5:22 PM on May 23, 2007


correction... At the levels our individual conciousnesses (is that a word?) inhabit, we are largely UNaware of the connection to everything else...
posted by krash2fast at 5:23 PM on May 23, 2007


fucking html
posted by krash2fast at 5:23 PM on May 23, 2007



Yeah, I think it's an emergent property, too. Babies don't have it-- at some point, two-year-olds do. Dennett has a great deal that is interesting on this point, arguing that, as one of his book titles says, Freedom Evolves. He makes the case that we have the kind of free will that is "worth having."

It also appears to be true that learning increases free will: if you make a bad choice, you can often learn not to do so again and the more you practice resisting bad choices, the better you get at it. Libet's research-- and lots comparing humans to other animals-- suggests that free will rests in being able to resist "instinct" not in being able to create new wants. And it also may have to do with choosing environments that will shape what you want in order to help reinforce the choices you want to continue to make.

Also, there are traps like addictions which can reduce one's ability to make good choices-- when one is in one, there is a definite feeling of not being able to want what one wants to want-- or not want it or not act on that want in a way that is different from how other choices are made.

So, while genes, environment and randomness clearly all play a part, the ability to learn and to learn from what one has learned changes the ball game, i think. there are degrees of freedom and i think saying it's all "no free will" doesn't account for this.
posted by Maias at 5:33 PM on May 23, 2007


Um. Why isn't this obviously stupid in at least two ways?

First, if the past doesn't uniquely determine the future, then everything he says is wrong, e.g., "They will be products of your genetic inheritance and upbringing that you had no say in. In other words, there’s a fundamental sense in which you did not and cannot make yourself the way you are."

Over 50 years of experiments in quantum mechanics have shown that in fact the past does not uniquely determine the future, that the same starting conditions do not result in the same ends.

Worse, his argument refuting human desire is an utterly bogus use of reductio ad absurdum that actually begs the question: "It’s theoretically possible that you had a want to have a want to have a want. But this is very hard to imagine, and the question just re-arises: Where did that want come from?"

Sure, that argument is good if you don't believe in free will! But if you do, you can stop the regression in its tracks: "I wanted to do that. I chose with my free will do that. I define my free-will as that thing that allows me to make this choice, and no matter when you regress, I'll eventually cut you off with the same refutation."

Now, I certainly haven't shown that free will does exist either, just that his arguments seem to me to be obviously wrong.

I personally try to act as if I have ultimate free-will and am supremely responsible for my actions but as if my fellow-humans have and bear somewhat less responsibility -- when I manage to succeed, it keeps me honest and makes me tolerant.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:34 PM on May 23, 2007


I am the only one in this universe that I know of —FOR SURE— with any sort of free will.

But I still blame the rest of you anyways.
posted by tkchrist at 5:42 PM on May 23, 2007


It accords with observation of everyday life. It's not "I would find it pleasing to have free will," but rather "I feel like I have free will, based on self-observation." Not that this means that free will exists, but it's alienating to argue that it doesn't. Hard determinism is one step away from total nihilism, and who wants that?

This is still "It's more pleasant to believe in free will."

Over 50 years of experiments in quantum mechanics have shown that in fact the past does not uniquely determine the future, that the same starting conditions do not result in the same ends.

None of which has any impact on the presence or lack of free will. It's still a mechanistic system. I'm not sure where the "quantum mechanics = supernatural" meme got started (What The @#$@ Do We Know is a prime offender), but a probabilistic reality doesn't entail either freedom or unfreedom.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:59 PM on May 23, 2007


"I feel like I have free will, based on self-observation."
This is still "It's more pleasant to believe in free will."


Is not. Take for example the similar statement, "I feel like I'm having a heart attack, based on self-observation." Self-observation is perfectly reasonable and cannot trivially be dismissed as meaningless self-indulgence.
Over 50 years of experiments in quantum mechanics have shown that in fact the past does not uniquely determine the future, that the same starting conditions do not result in the same ends.
None of which has any impact on the presence or lack of free will.


I very explicitly said, not two sentences later, that my argument had nothing whatsoever to do with the presence or absence of free-will. As I said, that sentence a refutation of Strawson's argument "proving" the non-existence of free-will. If you don't believe it refutes the argument, lay it on us; but don't claim I said something I didn't.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:16 PM on May 23, 2007


This is still "It's more pleasant to believe in free will."

No, it isn't. I can certainly come up with cases where it would be more pleasant to believe that my errors in judgment are unavoidable. Free will simply appears to be true based on personal observation. You can question the validity of that observation, but that doesn't make it wish-fulfillment.

If a person truly believed in hard determinism, what would their behavior be like? I suspect they would still behave as if they thought they had free will, because the concept of making decisions is so deeply ingrained in how we behave. I think this demonstrates the naturalness of belief in free will.
posted by me & my monkey at 6:26 PM on May 23, 2007


Is not. Take for example the similar statement, "I feel like I'm having a heart attack, based on self-observation." Self-observation is perfectly reasonable and cannot trivially be dismissed as meaningless self-indulgence.

You did nicely omit the rest of the quote, which is. As to that sentence, observation is a poor argument- human beings are notoriously poor at separating what they want to perceive from what they actually are perceiving. You might be having a heart attack, but you might be having chest pains for other reasons.

I very explicitly said, not two sentences later, that my argument had nothing whatsoever to do with the presence or absence of free-will.

If you weren't playing the "quantum mechanics = supernatural = free will" card, there wasn't any point in bringing it up.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:33 PM on May 23, 2007


Coming at the question from the other side in my meditations. Attempting to get to a place where I act from some center, without all the processing of alternatives, without making apparent choices. "Doing happen" as a nephew said at age 3yr. It is hard to do.
posted by pointilist at 7:30 PM on May 23, 2007


First, it seems like many people here didn't finish the article, as it pretty much addresses every point people keep bringing up (What would there not being free will change, how should we act if it's true, should we choose it, does it make a difference, would it make us sad, etc)

lupus_yonderboy,
Worse, his argument refuting human desire is an utterly bogus use of reductio ad absurdum that actually begs the question: "It’s theoretically possible that you had a want to have a want to have a want. But this is very hard to imagine, and the question just re-arises: Where did that want come from?"

Sure, that argument is good if you don't believe in free will! But if you do, you can stop the regression in its tracks: "I wanted to do that. I chose with my free will do that. I define my free-will as that thing that allows me to make this choice, and no matter when you regress, I'll eventually cut you off with the same refutation."


How does that refute his argument? The question would be, "Why did you choose to "stop the regression in its tracks"? His point is that you have reasons for making your choices, even making the choice not to do something. I think it's odd that BigSky brought up the Libet experiment as possible evidence for free will, because the same question arises: what makes you act or not act on those subconscious impulses? There seems to be no grounds to say that the jump from impulse to action occurred in a void, because the choice of what choice to make is a choice. Where can you stop the chain and say, "Here is a moment in which I made a choice that was independent of all else?" You can't, because the reasons for your choices come from somewhere. If, for instance, someone severely angers me, what makes me choose to argue with him rather than smashing his face in? You could say that I chose to be non-violent, but why did I? Why do I have such ideas and attitudes? Strawson's arguments are not so easily dismissed unless you address how you can make a choice to do or not do something without it being caused or influenced by some other factor.

Ultimately, though, Strawson notes (near the end) that though in theory it might be possible to live and act with the idea that there is no free will, in practice for most of us it's impossible, as it is so ingrained in our thinking and society. We would act as if we did have it, with perhaps more compassion and understanding, though he agrees that the idea of living without it is a sad one, which it would be.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:55 PM on May 23, 2007


You know, what really annoys me when people trot out the quantum indeterminacy thing in discussions of free will is that, even if the extrapolation of quantum theory to things the size of neurons and neurotransmitters makes any sense at all, at most, this means that there's some small random element to my predetermined decisions. Like, the fact that it may not ever be possible to predict whether I'll choose a chocolate or vanilla frosted donut for breakfast tomorrow means that I have free will? Really? That has to be the least satisfying conception of free will ever.
posted by myeviltwin at 8:04 PM on May 23, 2007


myeviltwin,
I think the idea behind it is that, over time, each tiny little change adds up to big changes.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:06 PM on May 23, 2007


Granting that possibility, it's still the case that unless those little changes are systematically biased all you end up with is a lot of random error. I still don't see how that's free will in any satisfying sense.
posted by myeviltwin at 8:23 PM on May 23, 2007


Sangermaine- you mean we have to have reasons for the choices we make? Oops!

"independent of all else" this is a tremendous strawman. What in the world has this quality? Could you see it? Taste it?

In the late 60's they were arguing over nature vs nurture as if it could only be one or the other. Here "choice" has to be independent of both to exist. Get real.

posted by pointilist at 8:32 PM on May 23, 2007


And, now that I think about it, the quantum indeterminacy thing isn't even an effective argument against Strawson, because he'd just say, "Fine, accepting that there is some amount of unpredictable random variation in the universe, that's just yet another thing over which you had no say, but which has contributed to the way you are."
posted by myeviltwin at 8:48 PM on May 23, 2007


pointilist,
Huh? What are you talking about? I think you're misreading me, and agreeing with me. I was saying Strawson's argument holds. Some people were rejecting to Strawson's argument that all desires are dependent on desires that came before them by positing that they have the free will to make a choice independent of this chain. I was merely saying that this "free will" choice is part of the same chain. I'm not even sure what you mean by the last two sentences. Get real about what? Choice would have to be independent of heredity and environment, or, more fully, the chain of motivations, to be free. Otherwise how is it a counter to Strawson's argument? Could you more fully explain what you were trying to say (and perhaps be a little less snarky)?
posted by Sangermaine at 8:57 PM on May 23, 2007


Does anyone actually have an argument in favor of free will that doesn't boil down to "I would find it pleasing to have free will"?

I'll give it a go. Free will is an illusion, but being an illusion does not make it any less real. Dreams are clearly illusions, but when we experience them, that fact doesn't make them any less real.

Think of somebody that is forced to live in a computer simulation of the world, but a really bad one, the physics don't make sense, there are glitches all over the place, etc. It would be possible for the subject to deduce the fact that he was living in a merely simulated world. However this fact would not make that world any less real to him. On a day to day basis he would have to deal with the world as he experienced it. This is what it is like for us with free will. Though logically and scientifically we can deduce we do not have free will, we must live with the fact that we have the illusion of it.

What's up with his theory of consciousness? It seems to boil down to the argument that non-conscious matter can't organise itself into something that is conscious. WTF is neurogenesis then?
posted by afu at 9:08 PM on May 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


FWIW, every argument I've ever had re: the existence of God that carries to conclusion comes to, "I find it pleasing to believe in God, and who are you to say I can't??"
posted by LordSludge at 9:27 PM on May 23, 2007


saulgoodman, I'm actually a degree holding member of the analytic school. What I can't stand is gross ignorance of the history of one's profession. I mean, if he didn't know it was Anaxagoras or Xenophanes, it would be understandable. But to put forward a theory related to one of the most important parts of one the most important philosophers in the history of philosophy, and have no idea who are you talking about is just pathetic.
posted by oddman at 9:29 PM on May 23, 2007


oddman,
Maybe he was just playing it fast and loose because it was an informal interview? He seems pretty familiar with other philosophers both recent and historical, Eastern and Western. I'm sure he was just joking.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:34 PM on May 23, 2007


From the second article linked in the FPP:

Strawson’s second principle is a kind of monism: everything that there is is the same sort of stuff as such familiar things as tables, chairs and the bodies of animals.

No, no. The bodies of animals are made of cells.

The third of Strawson’s leading theses... that emergence isn’t possible. ‘For any feature Y of anything that is correctly considered to be emergent from X, there must be something about X and X alone in virtue of which Y emerges, and which is sufficient for Y.’ But Strawson holds that there isn’t anything about matter in virtue of which conscious experience could arise from it; or that if there is, we have literally no idea what it could be.

It's not atoms. It's neurons. Neuron + neuron --> synapse!! That's the trick: passing information from cell to cell. That's the thing both X and X are capable of doing, yet requires X + X to achieve: communication between cells. And the special thing about X and X that let them do that is their structure.

In particular, we can’t imagine any way of arranging small bits of unconscious stuff that would result in the consciousness of the larger bits of stuff of which they are the constituents.

A brain. Which is very complex and something we don't fully understand, I admit. Evolution by natural selection is funny that way-- it comes up with all kinds of stuff I wouldn't have thought up on my own either. Countercurrent exchange still pretty much blows my mind every time I read about it, and it's far less mysterious than how I am able to think about countercurrent exchange to begin with.

It’s not like liquids (Strawson’s favourite example of bona fide emergence) where we can see, more or less, how constituent molecules that aren’t liquid might be assembled to make larger things that are. How on earth, Strawson wonders, could anything of that sort explain the emergence of consciousness from matter? If it does, that’s a miracle; and Strawson doesn’t hold with those.

I take the text here to mean that surface tension and capillary action are miracles, since they're things that single water molecules are quite incapable of performing in isolation, yet they pull it off when in groups.
posted by Tehanu at 9:36 PM on May 23, 2007


Sangermaine- Sorry for the snark.
Simply because nature/nurture is involved in choice does not imply that they are the only things. Inspiration is a possibility. Just because I can imagine there being a want for a want for a want, etc. does not mean that this is the case.

My choices have constraints on them. I can make choices that lead to less constraint. I may be inclined toward certain choices without those choices being fully determined. I claim the sloppy middle ground.

If by "free" we mean "independent of everything" then we have a meaningless word. There are degrees of freedom. That is what I mean by real.
posted by pointilist at 10:01 PM on May 23, 2007


'I think it's odd that BigSky brought up the Libet experiment as possible evidence for free will, because the same question arises: what makes you act or not act on those subconscious impulses? There seems to be no grounds to say that the jump from impulse to action occurred in a void, because the choice of what choice to make is a choice. Where can you stop the chain and say, "Here is a moment in which I made a choice that was independent of all else?"'

You only revert back to an endless sequence of 'causes' if you are committed to the denial of free will. For many of us, the concept of choice has tremendous psychological force and is inherent in any discussion of desire or motive. That isn't to say that the object of my desire is a matter of choice but that there is a strong sense of choices being made in the going after it.

I'm not denying that free will has no good proof. Seeing human nature as automatic behavior lacking in autonomy makes a lot of theoretical sense. You can fit a deterministic view of consciousness over the Libet experiment. No argument there.

I mentioned the Libet experiment in part because it gives some further support to free will being an illusion in that we start to act before we are conscious of the impulse. But the experiment also leaves room for free will in the possibility of not acting on the impulse. As I said above this fits with my own observations and it is a view of free will and consciousness that makes sense of life as it is lived. For those who want free will explicitly proved, it will not satisfy. Still, it seems pretty relevant to the discussion.
posted by BigSky at 10:46 PM on May 23, 2007


Big Sky,
If I'm getting you correctly, you're saying that even if free will can't be outright proved, we can and possibly should live our lives as if we have it? I think pointilist is saying something similar is well.

I actually agree with that sentiment, and I think to some extent Strawson does too (towards the end of the article):

"Suppose you arrive at a shop on the evening of a national holiday, intending to buy a cake with your last ten-dollar note to supplement the preparations you’ve already made. Everything is closing down. There’s one cake left in the shop; it costs ten dollars. On the steps of the shop someone is shaking an Oxfam tin—or someone is begging, someone who is clearly in distress. You stop, and it seems quite clear to you—it surely is quite clear to you—that it is entirely up to you what you do next—in such a way that you will have DMR for what you do, whatever you do. The situation is in fact utterly clear: You can put the money in the tin (or give it to the beggar) or you can go in and buy the cake. You’re not only completely, radically free to choose in this situation. You’re not free not to choose. That’s how it feels. You’re condemned to freedom, in Sartre’s phrase. You’re already in a state of full consciousness of what the options are and you can’t escape that consciousness. You can’t somehow slip out of it.

BLVR: No matter what your other commitments might be…

GS: Right. You may be convinced that determinism is true: You may believe that in five—two—minutes’ time you will be able to look back on the situation you are now in and say truly, of what you will by then have done, “It was determined that I should do that.” But even if you do fervently believe this, I still don’t think it’s going to touch the feeling of DMR that you have right now as you stand there. And although the Oxfam box example is a particularly dramatic one, choices of this general sort are not rare. They occur regularly in our everyday lives."

Personally, I feel that every moment in all our lives is such a moment. Whether we have free will or not, we can only make the choices we come to as we come to them as if we are free. Perhaps I love my fiancee because vast, interlocked forces have brought me to that point, but even so, I'll live as if it were a product of choice. It's all we can do. The only benefit of denying free will, in terms of behavior or thinking patterns, would be that it forces us to take a "long view" of things that perhaps will give us a better perspective of our situations and more thought for other people. So, I'd say I agree with you two, I was just trying to hash out the theory behind it.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:57 PM on May 23, 2007


How does that refute his argument?

Instead of having an infinite regress of "prior causes" (a flaw which he does not notice applies to any of his arguments against free will just as well, or indeed, pretty well any argument involving causality at all), the "free will" is the uncaused causer, the very thing that causes the actions and is not caused by anything else.

His argument is a prime example of begging the question. If you believe in "free will", clearly you don't think it's "caused" ny anything else, it only causes other things to happen. By tacitly assuming that "free will" must be caused by other things, he's assuming the very thing he's trying to prove.


The question would be, "Why did you choose to "stop the regression in its tracks"?

No "why" is needed. The "free-will" supplies the entire "why" component. Indeed, that seems to be the point of free will.

To reiterate: if you think "free will" is caused by something else, you are basically saying it doesn't exist. Conversely, if you believe that free-will exists, then the correct answer to the question, "What caused your free-will?" is "Nothing at all. My free will is a premise, not a consequence."
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:07 PM on May 23, 2007


To elaborate:
The idea that we lack free will is, I think, both wonderful and terrible. Terrible in the sense that, since we naturally think of ourselves as at least somewhat free, the idea that we may be just blind automatons acting out predetermined plays is a horror that strikes at the very core of our concept of being, as others here have noted. But I think it can be wonderful in that, if we can get past that first glimpse of the Void and pull ourselves together, we really can be free. Perhaps not in the sense that we control our actions, but that we can learn to accept things as they are. We can recognize the lack of free will, and live with it as if we had it. Moment to moment, you can only act as if you choose what happens, and you can thus work towards whatever end you want. Knowing that things are predetermined, that end can be compassion, towards making the world better for everyone. Even if all my actions were already set, I can reflect on life and what I should do, and act as if I am making a goal and pursuing it. This can give a meaning, an informed meaning, to anyone's life, a meaning which is satisfying because it comes from within. You don't need any god or man to set up a meaning, though if after reflection you feel that following a god or man is what you should do that's perfectly fine too. I think the only real sin in a world where you are free to determine your own rules and meanings is violating Socrates' ancient admonition: "Know thyself", or, to paraphrase: Examine your life, then live it.

But perhaps some talking dinosaurs put it better than I can...
posted by Sangermaine at 11:13 PM on May 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


lupus_yonderboy,
How is it begging the question? You can't just axiomatically proclaim that free will exists. Strawson's is a logical argument that shows how what appears to be free choice can be explained via a chain of choices. Just saying, "Well, by definition free will is free so that's that" is not a logical argument. If you are positing a free will that is an "uncaused causer", you are saying that there is something outside of this causal chain. But you'd have to show that it exists, not just proclaim it.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:16 PM on May 23, 2007


But the experiment also leaves room for free will in the possibility of not acting on the impulse.

Except that that possibility is no more significant than the original impulse to, say, move or not move one's hand, or the possibility of changing one's mind and acting on the impulse anyway. This is not some bit of space that has been cleared out for free will- it's just a scientist attempting to engage in a field (philosophy) which is outside his area of study. Taking his comment as some kind of philosophic insight is roughly like asking Peter Singer about high-level maths.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:17 PM on May 23, 2007


On reflection, I can see what you're saying, but it appears to invoking something almost supernatural. It would be positing that between causal steps there exists something that is somehow impervious to causality that acts on them. It would seem that such an extraordinary claim would require extraordinary proof, or at least extraordinary argument. How is it that there is something which is not caused by anything, when everything else except this thing is?
posted by Sangermaine at 11:20 PM on May 23, 2007


If you weren't playing the "quantum mechanics = supernatural = free will" card, there wasn't any point in bringing it up.

It is as if you are willfully refusing to read what I wrote. I brought up this point only to refute his poorly his poorly-formulated argument, not to prove anything about the supernatural (when did that come in?)


For the third time, here is my reasoning:

1. he claims that you don't have free will, one reason being that everything you do is completely caused by your past.
2. quantum mechanics proves that the past does not completely determine the future.
3. therefore that part of his argument is false.

Feel free to refute what I said. Do not waste your time contradicting something neither I nor anyone else claimed. I did not claim that free-will exists, nor that quantum mechanics proves or disproves its existence, and certainly nothing about the "supernatural".


You know, what really annoys me when people trot out the quantum indeterminacy thing in discussions of free will is that, even if the extrapolation of quantum theory to things the size of neurons and neurotransmitters makes any sense at all, at most, this means that there's some small random element to my predetermined decisions.

Perhaps you are annoyed because you haven't thought very deeply about the matter.

A little more thought, perhaps a bit of study about chaos theory and the like, would convince you that small changes at one point in a complex system can result in changes of arbitrarily large magnitude at later stages in that same system.

I might -- and humans really do this -- bet all my money on one roll of a die, a result which is basically as indeterministic as quantum mechanics is (i.e., it's impossible in practice to predict). The result might have profound effects on the future trajectory of my life.

"I was a victim of a series of accidents, as we all are." If you really think your life is so stable that arbitrarily small perturbations at key moments wouldn't have resulted in dramatically large changes in it, then you are either in error or have had a remarkably dull life.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:25 PM on May 23, 2007


On reflection, I can see what you're saying, but it appears to invoking something almost supernatural. It would be positing that between causal steps there exists something that is somehow impervious to causality that acts on them. It would seem that such an extraordinary claim would require extraordinary proof, or at least extraordinary argument. How is it that there is something which is not caused by anything, when everything else except this thing is?

This is a much clearer and more rational argument than the above, but it depends on a flawed axiom.

It's absolutely NOT clear that everything is caused by some prior thing. In fact, this claim is clearly false by the same reductio ad absurdum that Strawson attempts to use because it requires an infinite regress of causes ("what caused that? OK, what caused that?...")

If I roll a die fairly and it comes up 1, it's not reasonable to say that something "caused" this.

It is quite likely that dice are even at a sufficiently large scale that they are, in theory, deterministic, that quantum mechanics isn't sufficiently large a cause to actually influence a fall of a die in most cases. My intuition in fact tells me that the mechanical influences on that falling die, things like how hard you throw, where your hand is when you let the die go, how bouncy the table is, and a hundred other factors, are several orders of magnitude greater than quantum effects on the same object.

But any attempt to model the results of a fair throw of a fair die through classical deterministic mechanics are not only infinitely infeasible but practically stupid. For both practical and philosophical purposes, that result is random -- it is not "caused" by anything.

There is absolutely no reason why "free will" shouldn't be in the same category. Perhaps it isn't -- but there weren't any arguments presented in the article I read that had any logical bearing on the matter, to the best of my reasoning.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:37 PM on May 23, 2007


Sangermaine,

I agree with that but I'm saying a little bit more. First, that I suspect I agree more with his father than with Galen. Free will and choice is deeply embedded in how we conceive and speak about behavior. In other words, when it comes to daily life we must have free will assumed. Concepts like 'meaning' and 'intent' seem to have it presupposed in a number of contexts.

Now, this naive concept of free will might be mistaken or an over statement of the case but the other extreme, insisting that there is no free will because it can not be proven, can be harmful. That understanding of the world can have some negative consequences on one's mood. I think that pushing your mind too far along these paths can put you in a place where "that feeling of DMR" will fade. So we should buy into a notion of free will for our own mental health. But, of course, that warning presupposes that things could be different and thus, free will.

Being skeptical of free will can lead to greater compassion, so it isn't some masturbatory waste of time to think about the issue. I'm skeptical of it myself.

One last muddled point, I also think Strawson conflates the choiceless awareness of meditation with the automatic behavior of someone reacting as if they had been given a post hypnotic suggestion (which might well be how we do act for much of our lives). Neither of these are examples of free will as we conventionally think of it. Still, I think there is a difference between awareness and trance. And this is one place that Libet's experiment is interesting. Free will, if it exists, is, in my opinion, strongly associated with awareness and it is cultivated. Perhaps our language doesn't have a way of exploring this distinction well, as the choicelessness of awareness, where you welcome and accept whatever comes into your mind, is a rather strange notion of freedom.

-----

Pope Guilty,

That's a bit unfair. I don't think Libet is the most penetrating mind on philosophical matters. Reading some of his comments about his experiment is disappointing. Afterwards I felt like he was committed to his conclusion before he started thinking.

Still, I think his experiment is of interest. More in its description than anything else. It resonates with the first person perspective and in this conversation I think that counts for something. It's not like we have much else to go on. Much else beyond first person that is, not much else beyond Libet.
posted by BigSky at 11:38 PM on May 23, 2007


As this thread well demonstrates people will always hold fast to their most cherished illusions. Though I'm surprised this guy hasn't been run out of England yet. With most of analytical philosophy teaming up with neurologists in the Quest for the Holy Self you'd think they'd have no tolerance for somebody throwing out the prize. Though it's difficult to see what this guy is actually contributing. This critique of the conscious will was introduced by Kant, refined by Schopenhauer and perfected by Nietzsche and it's been well integrated into the continental tradition.
posted by nixerman at 11:42 PM on May 23, 2007


lupus_yonderboy,
Thank you for taking the time to respond. Yes, you are right, Strawson's arguments do depend on a certain rigid classical determinism that doesn't address the possible "butterfly effects" that a quantum model brings into the picture. In fact, famous physicist Roger Penrose believes that "human consciousness is the result of quantum gravity effects in microtubules". Anyway, I appreciate the interesting responses you've given in this thread.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:42 PM on May 23, 2007


lupus_yonderboy,
How is it begging the question? You can't just axiomatically proclaim that free will exists. Strawson's is a logical argument that shows how what appears to be free choice can be explained via a chain of choices.


What "choices"? He claims that no "choices" exist! He claims that what you think of "choices" are in fact the result of an infinite chain of prior causes.


Just saying, "Well, by definition free will is free so that's that" is not a logical argument.

No, I claim that free will, if it exists, by definition does not require a cause. Hardly the same thing.


If you are positing a free will that is an "uncaused causer", you are saying that there is something outside of this causal chain. But you'd have to show that it exists, not just proclaim it.

I'm not claiming that free will exists -- I'm merely claiming his argument is wrong. BIG difference.

In fact, I'll go further. Let's postulate that free will does NOT exist. His argument continues to be stupid. It requires infinite chains of causality back infinitely far into the past. Each event that occurs is required to have a cause or set of causes -- and for each of those causes, I can continue to ask for its causes and recurse indefinitely, like a 6-year old asking, "But why is that?" to each answer you give it.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:54 PM on May 23, 2007


It's somewhat too late. I've enjoyed this discourse -- please send further correspondence to the email address in my profile, however, as I must now sleep and the chances are that I'll forget to check this tomorrow.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:04 AM on May 24, 2007


(and if you were wondering, I do actually believe in free will -- though not one part of my arguments above depends on its existence. I find the argument from personal experience difficult to refute and since the only arguments against it are clearly fallacious I'm forced to accept it for the moment...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:06 AM on May 24, 2007


When we abandon the idea of free will, it will no longer be possible to divide people into those who deserve love and those who don't. The world will be a much, much better place for this change.

We can still have a justice system. We can still have passion, courage, ambition, romance, and all the other good stuff. But no part of life is better for having hate in it.
posted by teleskiving at 12:10 AM on May 24, 2007


It’s not like liquids (Strawson’s favourite example of bona fide emergence) where we can see, more or less, how constituent molecules that aren’t liquid might be assembled to make larger things that are. How on earth, Strawson wonders, could anything of that sort explain the emergence of consciousness from matter? If it does, that’s a miracle; and Strawson doesn’t hold with those.

This argument against emergence is an interesting play but it's not very convincing. The argument 'I don't understand it therefore it can't be real' isn't an argument at all. And emergence isn't some made up deus ex machina it's a real observable phenomenon.

Actually there's something very fishy going on here. I think he has a secret agenda pushing him to reject emergence.

His monism should suggest to him to question identity itself. If he accepts that the world is composed of nothing but forces acting on each other then the next step ought to be how identifiable entities can arise out of this force soup. Of course they can't -- so he avoids this area.

So I suspect the reason for his rejection of emergence is precisely to preserve this illusion of an identifiable self. If the self is taken to be consequence of emergence, the product of a vast array of forces which are forever in motion and flux, then it cannot be a stable, identifiable entity. And if the self isn't a stable, identifiable entity then it cannot be said to be conscious or possess any kind of real properties. Unlike liquids which are not real and can only be spoken of abstract terms and so only possess abstract, theoretical properties, Stawson's self must be solid and unchanging and subject to hard and fast rules.

I give him some props. He has courage. Sacrificing free will and accepting monism is somewhat extraordinary for an analytic philosopher. But this is very much a case of stinginess. He's made some sacrifices but only in the interest of preserving his most cherished belief. Just goes to show that you really can never trust analytical philosophers.
posted by nixerman at 12:23 AM on May 24, 2007


The thing with acceptance of no-free-will (NFW hereon) is that it places its own supporting cognition in jeopardy. To elaborate, there's reasoning employed in rejecting the notion of free will i.e.

1)there are physical laws
2)we are physical creatures
3)hence we are subject to, and a product of, physical laws.

Note that this preceding description is not an attempt at sketching the actual arguments themselves.

Now, we hold 'Reason' as a valid tool in & of itself. Now, if there's no free will then we can't be sure that whether Reason is a virtuous phenomenon or not e.g. Is AskMe's background orange? No. Why? Because it's green and it can't be two colours at once. Now, is there any meaningful way to say that this sequence of reasoning performance is "valid"? Given no free will, this could simply be the inevitable temporal sequence of conscious activity that I experience, in other words, when I react to an argument and think "that's wrong", can I be sure that it is because it is actually 'wrong'? The common rejoinder I get upon considering this argument is that we know that reason obviously works; we can see it working "correctly/fruitfully".

To which I ask, by which process is that ascertained?
posted by Gyan at 2:33 AM on May 24, 2007


Gyan,

Great post. That's a strong argument. It shows how much the possibility that 'things could be otherwise' underlies so much of our outlook towards the world.
posted by BigSky at 5:58 AM on May 24, 2007


A little more thought, perhaps a bit of study about chaos theory and the like, would convince you that small changes at one point in a complex system can result in changes of arbitrarily large magnitude at later stages in that same system.

Thanks for the snark, dude! Are you aware that chaos theory deals entirely with deterministic systems? Perhaps a "bit of study" is in order? Anyway, all this "chaos theory" "quantum uncertainty" mumbo-jumbo is irrelevant to free will and to Strawson's argument, as I've pointed out here and here.
posted by myeviltwin at 6:20 AM on May 24, 2007


Quantum mechanics does not disprove causality- it is a deeper understanding of how reality works, and a still-incomplete one at that. Saying "Well, quantum mechanics seems to indicate some randomness, therefore it is proven that there is no direct causality" is absurd. And at any rate, even if quantum mechanics did prove what the people citing it in this thread want it to prove, it wouldn't make a lick of difference about free or unfree will, the topic of the thread.

If I roll a die fairly and it comes up 1, it's not reasonable to say that something "caused" this.

Absolutely it is. The way you held the die, the way you released it, the way it hit the table and bounced along it- all these things are part of the cause. Just because you can't see the causes doesn't mean they aren't there. The fact that we lack the measuring tools to create the models/equations/whatever to predict how dice will land does not in any sense mean that they were not caused. Ignorance of causes does not prove a lack of causes- this is basic magical thinking.

Though it's difficult to see what this guy is actually contributing.

He does seem to be getting the idea out there and helping to spread it, and that's admirable.

It requires infinite chains of causality back infinitely far into the past.

So we have an infinite regress on one side and a total failure of scientific comprehension on the other. Neither seems more or less absurd.

Gyan: You're working in epistemology more than metaphysics, here. Freedom or unfreedom are as unrelated to reason as they are to gravity- we can be free or unfree with or without reason, and we can have or not have reason without freedom or unfreedom being caused.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:35 AM on May 24, 2007


saying "Well, quantum mechanics seems to indicate some randomness, therefore it is proven that there is no direct causality" is absurd. And at any rate, even if quantum mechanics did prove what the people citing it in this thread want it to prove,

>cough! cough!<

what was the comment about straw men earlier in the discussion?

granted, pope guilty, maybe a couple of contributors here are hand-waving and pointing to "quantum uncertainty" as a line of argument on one side but that line of argument seems to represent the minority view here anyway, so why attack this one particular argument as if it represented all the potential counter-arguments proposed here? i feel like your overstating the extent to which many of the participants in the discussion are relying on vague intuitions about quantum mumbo-jumbo. or do you only mean to single out those specific arguments here that do rely on the quantum mechanical and non-linear concepts because it's a personal pet peeve? i just want to make it clear, not all the counter arguments suggested here rely on appeals to quantum mechanical uncertainty or the like.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:59 AM on May 24, 2007


I'm aiming mostly at lupus_yonderboy, who needs to put down the copy of What the #$%@ Do We Know? and back away slowly.

And yeah, it's a pet peeve. Newage use of "quantum mechanics" in ways that spit on science riles me up.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:14 AM on May 24, 2007


Pope Guilty: You're working in epistemology more than metaphysics, here.

Epistemology will inform our beliefs on what ontological judgements we think we can make. Take your statement as an example - "we can be free or unfree with or without reason". How, exactly, do you know this to be the case (ignoring the fact that I don't quite comprehend what it means in the first place)?

My argument doesn't touch on whether 'free will' actually exists or not. My argument touches on our ability to infer it and any reasoned process that produces an inference that free will is false runs into the paradox. All claims on this page in favor of NFE, in one way or the other, present some reasoning or reference some reasoning process.
posted by Gyan at 9:18 AM on May 24, 2007


Yes! Every philosophical thread needs a dinosaur reference.
posted by Tehanu at 9:37 AM on May 24, 2007


Gyan, by that logic, we can't discuss anything in any sense. The most we can do is say "I think this" and respond with "well, I think that", with no way to evaluate them. Sure, that kind of global skepticism can be appealing, but it's completely useless.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:57 PM on May 24, 2007


'The most we can do is say "I think this" and respond with "well, I think that", with no way to evaluate them.'

courtesy of Raymond Smullyan:

_The Universal Philosophical Refutation_

A philosopher once had the following dream.

First Aristotle appeared, and the philosopher said to him, "Could you give me a fifteen-minute capsule sketch of your entire philosophy?" To the philosopher's surprise, Aristotle gave him an excellent exposition in which he compressed an enormous amount of material into a mere fifteen minutes. But then the philosopher raised a certain objection which Aristotle couldn't answer. Confounded, Aristotle disappeared.

Then Plato appeared. The same thing happened again, and the philosophers' objection to Plato was the same as his objection to Aristotle. Plato also couldn't answer it and disappeared.

Then all the famous philosophers of history appeared one-by-one and our philosopher refuted every one with the same objection.

After the last philosopher vanished, our philosopher said to himself, "I know I'm asleep and dreaming all this. Yet I've found a universal refutation for all philosophical systems! Tomorrow when I wake up, I will probably have forgotten it, and the world will really miss something!" With an iron effort, the philosopher forced himself to wake up, rush over to his desk, and write down his universal refutation. Then he jumped back into bed with a sigh of relief.

The next morning when he awoke, he went over to the desk to see what he had written. It was, "That's what you say."
posted by BigSky at 2:29 PM on May 24, 2007


The common rejoinder I get upon considering this argument is that we know that reason obviously works; we can see it working "correctly/fruitfully".

To which I ask, by which process is that ascertained?


Gyan, I suspect, argues a version of the Problem of Induction, but fails to note that science will never guarantee a result, it will merely state that the probability for one result, based on prior experience, is inordinately higher than for a different one.

By the same token, it's entirely reasonable to suspect that reason - at some strange point in the future when diamond dogs howl up at the flying venusian elephant bathrobes - might no longer be a useful tool. Simultaneously, it's a very, very stupid thing to place money on.
posted by Sparx at 3:38 PM on May 24, 2007


courtesy of Raymond Smullyan:

_The Universal Philosophical Refutation_


Wow. That was great, BigSky. I get the feeling I've read Smullyan before, but I can't place him...

Thanks for the great discussion all around.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:31 PM on May 24, 2007


C'mon people, my point has nothing to do with Problem of Induction, as Sparx implies, or path to consensual objectivity, as Pope Guilty does. Let me try again.

We believe reason works, as in

1)If I can have only one name

and

2)my name is Gyan

then

3)my name isn't Sparx

4)my name isn't Pope Guilty

....ad infinitum

Reason is like a glue that tells us what we can connect and not connect together.

So I can't suffix 'my name is saulgoodman' to the above sequence of 4 statements.

There's an implicit belief in the actual coherence of reason i.e. in some metaphysical sense, the glue means something useful or true.

Now, for any given sentient being, all mental activity occurs in a given substrate, i.e. a brain. Now a sentient being uses some chain of reasoning applied on a mass of gathered empirical data to put forward the notion that free will does not exist. Now, the paradox arises is that her very own faculty of cognition is itself a product of the same externally-driven brain (i.e. has no free will) and she has to wonder whether the coherence of reason is itself an illusion just like she believes her sense of self to be (as most in modern neuroscience hold). So when she's contemplating

if A then B but not C or D,

does that mean anything true or is her consonance with 'reason' just another artifact of the inevitable stream of consciousness she is subject to? How can she tell, without invoking some type of reasoning to do so?

The key point here is not whether free will really exists or not. It may or may not exist regardless. But one can't reason one's way to no-free-will without introducing the scope for the collapse of its very reasoning.
posted by Gyan at 9:01 PM on May 24, 2007


Now a sentient being uses some chain of reasoning applied on a mass of gathered empirical data to put forward the notion that free will does not exist.

Would it make any difference if the chain of reasoning were entirely a priori and not applied to empirical data?
posted by treepour at 11:00 PM on May 24, 2007


treepour, I don't know - give me an example of a chain of reasoning that is entirely a priori.
posted by Gyan at 11:45 PM on May 24, 2007


Wait a minute! Of course, it doesn't matter.

Anyway, I'd still like an example of a reasoning chain with no reference to empirical data.
posted by Gyan at 12:04 AM on May 25, 2007


Gyan, why wouldn't a mathematical or logical proof work?
posted by treepour at 11:48 AM on May 25, 2007


Gyan:

What you seem to be saying (excuse me if I restate and break down, I find it helps the thinking process, but may lead to drift, so foreapologies):

If I reason that free will is not the case,
yet I know that the tool of reasoning I am using is able to give me incorrect or incomplete results (as brains do as a matter of course - hence my initial belief in free will in the first place)
then can I truly trust that reasoning, as an act or a result?

I am having a hard time seeing this as anything more than a sophisticated 'brain in a vat' type argument. It is almost trivially true that brains lie. And yet, brains don't lie about everything - this is how we are able to discover that brains do lie and often why they lie and sometimes even in what manner they are able to do so. Sure, we can distrust every internal or external stimulus we receive, but then we're back in the vat.

So one point in favour of reason's coherence is that it actually enables us to understand our evolutionary mental foibles and potentially work around them. You can say "Brains (and by extension, reason) - ptui - can't be trusted", but then you're down the rabbit hole again, to no good purpose.

A brain is not simply a reasoning machine (which is part of the problem, reason just seems to be something that came along with it, along with complicating lusts and frailties and all that human stuff). But we can share our reasoning and test it against formal logic AND the world we can observe AND other's impressions of that world, and thus avoid a lot the idiosyncracies of a single brain.

Yes, it looks a bit like bootstrapping (family-sized can'o'worms there) and the balance of probability comes into play and assumptions are being made and it behooves us to acknowledge them. But without those assumptions, we're not going anywhere at all. Except back to the vat.
posted by Sparx at 7:01 PM on May 25, 2007


Sparx: yet I know that the tool of reasoning I am using is able to give me incorrect or incomplete results

It's a deeper issue than that. It's not about occasional misfiring. It's about the coherence of reasoning itself. With no-free-will, you aren't actually checking for the accuracy of any reasoning. You can't. You simply possess no agency at all. That instinctive reaction that occurs upon contemplating any phenomena, not just reasoning, is not divined from you. For example, as you're reading this very comment, maybe there's instinctive judgment of "that's so wrong" or "sounds wrong" or "maybe, it's right" or 'yeah, it's right" (it doesn't have to be an internal monologue). That reaction itself is just another conscious experience. In other words, since under no-free-will you possess no agency, you don't possess the agency to reason as well. Reasoning itself is an illusion.

But we can share our reasoning and test it against formal logic AND the world we can observe AND other's impressions of that world, and thus avoid a lot the idiosyncracies of a single brain.

I don't see how one can. All my experience is just that, my experience. I happen to see other people in my vision and hear what they say, but that's still my vision and hearing. In other words, you experience your impression of what other's people impressions of the world are. It's still that single brain mediating.

Once thing I noticed is your end reaction:

But without those assumptions, we're not going anywhere at all. Except back to the vat.

The core point of Strawson, and maybe yours, seems to be that

"sure, accepting the illusion of free will is necessary for a consonant and productive experience, but as I see it, the TRUTH is that we have no free will"

and yet your end reaction comes down to utility - "But without those assumptions, we're not going anywhere at all. Except back to the vat."
posted by Gyan at 9:58 PM on May 25, 2007


If I write a program on my computer to check mathematical proofs, you surely wouldn't argue that that program couldn't produce meaningful results because it doesn't have free will.

and yet your end reaction comes down to utility

I don't think that's so much about utility as the fact that saying "yes, but maybe the whole reasoning process you're going through is just an illusion" is a complete dead end for any interesting discussion.

And I still don't see why it would be any more or less true with or without free will. You might as well say that if you do have free will your actions can't have causes, which seems to me to be a pretty bad impediment for a reasoning process.
posted by teleskiving at 4:07 AM on May 26, 2007


teleskiving: If I write a program on my computer to check mathematical proofs, you surely wouldn't argue that that program couldn't produce meaningful results because it doesn't have free will.

Except that it is you who's writing the program, and it is you to whom the results are meaningful or not, the processor just takes in certain electrical input and pumps the same out. In any case, this objection too misses the point, which is not that in no-free-will reasoning *has* to be false or meaningless but that accepting no-free-will entails accepting the illusory aspect of reasoning. The illusory reasoning process may be true after all, either by coincidence or design.

saying "yes, but maybe the whole reasoning process you're going through is just an illusion" is a complete dead end for any interesting discussion

Which is completely besides the point and unrelated to the soundness, or lack thereof, of my argument. Many long mathematical proofs are boring and tedious but the logical sequence of steps isn't decided based on their interestingness.

You might as well say that if you do have free will your actions can't have causes

But they do, that's what 'free will' is - a cause, but an endogenous one.
posted by Gyan at 4:40 AM on May 26, 2007


But they do, that's what 'free will' is - a cause, but an endogenous one

Alright, let me put it another way, it's like saying that if you do have free will your actions may only have endogenous causes. So you don't get to make reasoned arguments either, because the act of making an argument implies that your actions are being constrained by the rules of logic and the facts of the situation, which implies that you don't actually have free will after all.
posted by teleskiving at 12:59 PM on May 26, 2007



If free will exists, it's gotta develop out of "meta levels" of thought-- knowing about what you know and how you've behaved in the past and the effects thereof and using that knowledge to shape behavior. This clearly happens.

Once systems can learn and change in response to that knowledge, there's a freedom that doesn't exist with systems that are preprogrammed and cannot learn.

Most animals, for example, cannot restrain their behavior -- a cat will pounce before it has a chance to think about whether pouncing might not be a good idea in this particular instance, that's how it's programmed. Humans, on the other hand, are more free to use information to change their responses-- and other animals learn, too, obviously, but they have less flexibility to change in response.

This is free will worth having. This is what *does* make us responsible for our behavior-- because we *can usually* learn from mistakes and change. The arguments in that paper don't seem to acknowledge this. It's not all predetermined that when you have x in front of you, you will do y. you might do that the first time, but you can learn and do something different the next time.

All that information does not pre-exist, so you can't tell from day one what everyone will do because their responses change in response to what others do and learning changes this and randomness may have an influence as well (i agree with Dennett and whoever above said that just adding randomness in doesn't give free will, it gives you a chance to accidentally make the right choice sometimes).

Genes, also, are expressed only in the environment and the enormous lifetime complexity of this interaction (gene expression is probably part of learning, for one, in neurons) means that you simply can't say "this baby will turn out this way for sure." The way brain growth works is that tiny, almost imperceptible differences have enormous results-- one word of encouragement at the right time might make the difference between someone being a genius and just average at something if it is the thing that makes the person persist with practice, rather than stopping, for example. This makes kids incredibly vulnerable-- though fortunately, there is also extraordinary resilience.

learning, basically, changes everything..
posted by Maias at 5:12 PM on May 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


teleskiving: because the act of making an argument implies that your actions are being constrained by the rules of logic and the facts of the situation

No, it implies that I'm constrained by what I think the rules of logic and the facts are. Do note that your counterargument, in any case, hasn't invalidated my argument.
posted by Gyan at 9:50 PM on May 26, 2007


Gyan: if there's no free will then we can't be sure that whether Reason is a virtuous phenomenon or not.

That I can't wrap my head around this notion, which appears to be the crux of your argument, is perhaps evidence of the degree to which age has ravaged my brain.

But I'll ask anyway. Why does NFW imply that "we can't be sure that whether Reason is a virtuous phenomenon or not"? I'm afraid I just don't get it. To me, you might just as well said "if there's no basketball, then we can't be sure that it will rain tomorrow."

Also, perhaps unrelated and less significant/interesting:

Reason is like a glue that tells us what we can connect and not connect together.

Why "is like"? And I'm not sure that reason "tells" us anything. Rather, I'd venture that reason IS the glue that connects one (rational) thought or proposition to another. Such propositions are, so to speak, "already connected." We don't connect them according to either our will or arbitrary rules; we discover how they actually are connected.
posted by treepour at 10:23 PM on May 26, 2007


treepour, we think we have free will i.e. if I'm feeling hungry but I do not eat right at that time, I believe that I chose not to eat i.e. I exercised my agency. But with no free will, I didn't actually choose not to eat. It just appears that way to me. Reasoning also is conducted by the same brain, so when I contemplate the sum of 2 + 2 and think of the number 4, I believe that I came up with 4 because that is the accurate conclusion of the reasoning process. But with no free will, I didn't reason anything (because I can't do anything), thinking of 4 as the answer could just be the out-of-my-control conscious experience that I'm having.
posted by Gyan at 10:41 PM on May 26, 2007


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