Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills...
January 28, 2014 3:50 AM   Subscribe

Daniel Dennett's scorching review [pdf] of "Free Will" by Sam Harris.
posted by Rufus T. Firefly (249 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thou blind man's mark, thou fool's self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy's scum, and dregs of scattered thought;
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care;
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought:
Desire, Desire! I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware;
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare,
But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought,
In vain thou mad'st me to vain things aspire,
In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire,
For Virtue hath this better lesson taught:
Within myself to seek my only hire,
Desiring nought but how to kill Desire.

-- Sir Philip Sidney
posted by timeo danaos at 4:43 AM on January 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


Oooh, trouble in paradise!
posted by mobunited at 4:51 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Seriously I think Dennett may just now be getting that selling out to the "Third Culture" wasn't going to protect him from scientistic assaults on his field. The fact that the attack comes from Harris, a dude with an arts degree who jumped to a neuroscience degree to essentially impress his new friends (and did so in a way that . . . well let's say that I am skeptical that most people would be allowed to do it) is icing on the cake.
posted by mobunited at 4:55 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I had a conversation very similar to this last night with my girlfriend. Personally, I think determinism is no more relevant to the social utility of the concept of free will than oxytocin is to the social utility of the concept of love.
posted by Nothing at 4:57 AM on January 28, 2014 [11 favorites]


I refute them both by posting this comment.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:58 AM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


Seriously, Dennet's rising realization that his best buds weren't getting any of this right while struggling to be nice to their field of presumptuous I-know-your-field-better-than-you popular writing is a helluva thing. I'd prefer that this review begin with:

"Dear Scott Atran,

"I am sorry. So sorry."
posted by mobunited at 5:00 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I have a British humanities colleague who says of the crazy funding situation in the UK "we are all cognitive scientists now." Every literary critic and musicologist is frantically remaking him/herself to get grants and keep jobs.

Such pure-D bullshit.
posted by spitbull at 5:05 AM on January 28, 2014 [7 favorites]


Sam Harris re-posted the review on his own blog so I think ultimately what you have here is two people discussing something. Which is kind of how things are supposed to go.
posted by memebake at 5:16 AM on January 28, 2014 [16 favorites]


The fact that the attack comes from Harris, a dude with an arts degree who jumped to a neuroscience degree to essentially impress his new friends (and did so in a way that . . . well let's say that I am skeptical that most people would be allowed to do it) is icing on the cake.

There's a veiled accusation here that I don't really understand -- dude has a Ph.D. from UCLA, which isn't exactly a degree mill AFAIK -- and that I want to understand, since I kind of like Harris and tend to enjoy his work even when I disagree with it.
posted by eugenen at 5:31 AM on January 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


A friend and colleague of mine says, it's always good when people are discussing your work. So at some level at least Harris must be glad to be reviewed at length by someone (famous!) who's written two books on free will. It's just a little irony that the review is taking him to task for (in effect) ignoring the arguments of those books.

It's always nice to be reminded how smart Dennett is, though.
posted by grobstein at 5:33 AM on January 28, 2014


Ooh, the vipers are starting to snap at each other now.
posted by shivohum at 5:37 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


This isn't an excoriation of Sam Harris as much as an excoriation of what nearly all scientists think about free will. It's sharply critical but also very friendly toward Harris. When Dennett wants to write an unfriendly paper, he can do so with astonishing venom.

The paper actually a pretty nice introduction to incompatibilism. I could see assigning this in an undergraduate course.

Dennett's footnote 3 confuses me. I don't see exactly how what he calls "Austin's mistake" is at play in the Consequence Argument. I'm a compatibilist, but I do feel a little bit of pressure from the Consequence Argument and I'm not sure how to deal with it.

I like this: "When sunlight bouncing off a ripe apple causes me to decide to reach up and pick it off the tree, I am not being controlled by that master puppeteer, Captain Worldaroundme. I am controlling myself, thanks to the information I garner from the world." Captain Worldaroundme! Wasn't he a character on Candle Cove? Anyone else remember that show?
posted by painquale at 5:40 AM on January 28, 2014 [13 favorites]


Oooh, trouble in paradise!

Indeed.

With respect to philosophical issues, Harris is commonly a flat-out disaster. But IMO Dennett is no great shakes either. (The Intentional Stance was just awful...though, admittedly, that was a long time ago, and he's gotten better.) I don't mean to deride the guy--he deserves respect. But he's largely prominent as a philosopher known by non-philosophers.

Free will is not my area of specialization, but, honestly, compatibilism has always struck me as the most confused of the common positions. Yes, a very large percentage of philosophers identified themselves as compatibilists, but philosophers are no more immune to the desire to eat their cake and have it too than anyone else. And that has always been one of compatibilism's allures. Dennett is right that many of Harris's arguments are (characteristically) not very good...but there are lots of good arguments against compatibilism.

As for whether most people are incompatibilists or not, it's not clear. Most people probably don't have a very clear idea of what they mean when they say things in the vicinity. But the better way to motivate incompatibilism iis to note that, in order to make sense of ourselves, and of things like moral and epistemic responsibility, we need to presuppose or hypothesize that there is some type of freedom that's not merely compatibilist "freedom." That's controversial, of course, and compatibilists deny it, and it won't be settled in the comments section of MeFi...but that's a better way to understand why many philosophers still hope to make sense of (as they might put it) genuine freedom, and it's why many of us think that compatibilism won't cut it.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:40 AM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Dennet's review is entirely polite. If you find mere persuasiveness to be scorching, you might want to ask yourself why.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:43 AM on January 28, 2014 [16 favorites]


There's a veiled accusation here that I don't really understand -- dude has a Ph.D. from UCLA, which isn't exactly a degree mill AFAIK -- and that I want to understand, since I kind of like Harris and tend to enjoy his work even when I disagree with it.

Before getting a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Harris had a BA in Philosophy. Shortly before getting his PhD, one of the most common internal criticisms of his work was that he didn't have a PhD. I'm sure his degree is legitimate, and they'd let *anybody* jump from having no scientific qualifications to a PhD.
posted by mobunited at 5:46 AM on January 28, 2014


This isn't an excoriation of Sam Harris as much as an excoriation of what nearly all scientists think about free will. It's sharply critical but also very friendly toward Harris. When Dennett wants to write an unfriendly paper, he can do so with astonishing venom.

It's friendly because he's still trying to save the general project of popular scientism even as in encroaches on his own field. He simply wants to establish that surely, he is far too smart to get treated like the other carcasses on the side of the road trod by Harris, Pinker and co.
posted by mobunited at 5:49 AM on January 28, 2014


I have friends who were Phil. majors and English majors who are now doctors and nurse practitioners and who have PhDs in sciences, so I'm still confused by your point. Are you suggesting he didn't complete whatever requirements there might be for getting into that program?
posted by rtha at 5:50 AM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


LogicalDash- I only characterised it as "scorching" as this was a description Sam Harris used himself.
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 5:50 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Looking on at this discussion from the outside (a non-academic point of view) - is there any feeling in the field that this sort of issue can ever be 'resolved' in the way that (say) the Copernican worldview prevailed over the Ptolemaic one? Or will it forever remain totally an abstract discussion, made up (apparently) of endless word-play and discussion of how to define the terms?

Are there any testable theories here?
posted by woodblock100 at 5:52 AM on January 28, 2014


I'm sure his degree is legitimate, and they'd let *anybody* jump from having no scientific qualifications to a PhD.

"Jump?" He didn't complete a multi-year course of study including examinations, original research, writing a dissertation, and a defense?
posted by grouse at 5:56 AM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


I've always considered myself an existential determinist. That I have only a minimal amount of free will to overcome the overwhelming deterministic traits that I've acquired through nature and nurture. I'm fully aware of the bias my seemingly free decisions are based on and always try to understand the bias of others, especially when they act irrationally - which is most of the time. To do otherwise would mean a lifetime of bitter frustration.
posted by any major dude at 5:58 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


mobunited: Before getting a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Harris had a BA in Philosophy. Shortly before getting his PhD, one of the most common internal criticisms of his work was that he didn't have a PhD. I'm sure his degree is legitimate, and they'd let *anybody* jump from having no scientific qualifications to a PhD.

Do you have any evidence that he did not legitimately complete the work necessary for a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA? Because if you don't, you are coming close to libel.
posted by tavella at 6:00 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Oooh, trouble in paradise!

Philosophers (or even pseudo philosophers) disagreeing with each other is not really news. Its just what they do. Its a good read though.
posted by memebake at 6:04 AM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


I found very little to disagree with in the linked Harris video, and I quite liked this part.
posted by flabdablet at 6:10 AM on January 28, 2014


shivohum: Ooh, the vipers are starting to snap at each other now.

Yes, public debate certainly means the failure of a movement of free-thinkers, philosophers and scientists.
posted by spaltavian at 6:11 AM on January 28, 2014 [18 favorites]


Do you have any evidence that he did not legitimately complete the work necessary for a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA? Because if you don't, you are coming close to libel.

I don't think his degree is illegitimate. I do find it unlikely that the average humanities BA could do it, and I have my doubts that this is because Harris is Especially Smart, particularly since all of his scientific publications relate to a single set of experiments. I'm sure someone can get a legitimate certification as a mechanic for spending some time really getting to know his Dad's Chevy too.
posted by mobunited at 6:16 AM on January 28, 2014


mobunited: “I'm sure his degree is legitimate, and they'd let *anybody* jump from having no scientific qualifications to a PhD.”

Yep, they will. I can list a dozen people who have. My own father "jumped" from having a BA in engineering to a Ph D in plant biology. If you do the coursework and meet the requirements, you're allowed to move over to another specialty. This is how academia works.
posted by koeselitz at 6:20 AM on January 28, 2014 [15 favorites]


(I say this as no fan of Harris' or Dennett's rigor.)
posted by koeselitz at 6:21 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I know numerous humanities BAs who are neuroscientists or other similar things now, actually. For a number of reasons I attract a lot of neuroscience undergrads to my humanities classes. I could see some of them doing very well in a humanities phd program. The dad's Chevy stereotype is not true to my experience with really smart students, who are not neuro-reductionists by some essential trait.

Among the finer papers I have ever received in a general interest class (on intellectual property and appropriation in music) was by a Singaporan neuroscience major who went on to a PhD in that field, who gave me an amazing cultural reading of the nationalist tropes in Singaporan rap videos.

I take no position on the debate under discussion, but I would find it unremarkable that a neuroscientist could have a humanities BA (and a lot of science class work) because I see it all the time at an R1 university.
posted by spitbull at 6:25 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


The dad's Chevy stereotype is not true to my experience with really smart students, who are not neuro-reductionists by some essential trait.

I assume there's evidence that your students were involved in more than one set of neuroimaging studies, and that they continued to publish afterward.
posted by mobunited at 6:27 AM on January 28, 2014


Can we please drop the derail on how mobunited doubts the legitmacy of Harris's PhD on no evidence whatsoever?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:28 AM on January 28, 2014 [15 favorites]


My example was of course the opposite -- a neuroscience major with humanist chops.

But I've seen plenty of music BAs go on in neuroscience or psychology research and we have some significant crossover traffic with those fields (look up data auralization or gesture research for examples).
posted by spitbull at 6:29 AM on January 28, 2014


mobunited: “I assume there's evidence that your students were involved in more than one set of neuroimaging studies, and that they continued to publish afterward.”

As a graduate student in political philosophy, I find your veiled implication that only neuroscientists are rigorous or intelligent not only offensive but stupid.
posted by koeselitz at 6:31 AM on January 28, 2014 [11 favorites]


"Oh no, of course I don't doubt his credentials, perish the thought. I'm just saying he didn't do the necessary work and isn't smart enough to do it. I don't need any evidence whatsoever to make those claims, because I'm not actually saying the PhD is illegitimate."
posted by spaltavian at 6:31 AM on January 28, 2014 [9 favorites]


Evidence? Are we in court? I've spent 20 years almost at one of the world's top universities. Plenty of students I've taught or known have gone on to distinguished careers as publishing scholars and scientists in a dozen or more fields. You can look it up yourself. Many science oriented students major in music. It's a fact.

What a weird line of critique. Classic C. P. Snow nonsense. Undergrad BA field is not destiny.
posted by spitbull at 6:32 AM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


It's not just dumb, it's ignorant. My snarky quote from a British colleague aside, FMRI research on music cognition is practically a fucking fad right now and numerous teams of researchers blending humanities and science expertise are doing it. Most of it is very misguided from both sides, but it's a boom industry.
posted by spitbull at 6:35 AM on January 28, 2014


All I know about Sam Harris is that he's an especially abrasive New Atheist, and that he's a running gag on the /r/badphilosophy subreddit. He's not taken seriously by any academics, is he? Is there any particular reason why I should be surprised that Free Will is getting negative reviews?

I enjoyed Dennett's review, which was highly critical without being a mere hatchet job, but I have no real knowledge of the subject, so.

Relatedly: where does Dennett fit onto the "taken seriously" spectrum? I have no idea about these things.

What about Thomas Metzinger? Honest question.

...

mobunited, you'd be more persuasive if you'd just up and say something like, "it's weird that Sam Harris is referred to as a neuroscientist, but his PhD was just based on one set of neuroimaging studies, and he has not continued to publish afterwards." Sarcasm and innuendo is not working. It is also unclear why UCLA would let Sam Harris "cheat" his way to getting a PhD, as that appears to be your recurring implication?
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:36 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's not a court but if you're going to accuse someone of somehow skating on their academic credentials - and by extension the program for having allowed the skating - then you better bring something more than handwaving.

But it's a stupid derail and I'm sorry I furthered it.
posted by rtha at 6:38 AM on January 28, 2014


Look, Michael Savage has a PhD from UCLA (in ethnobotany, no less). So anything is possible.
posted by spitbull at 6:38 AM on January 28, 2014


Also wait ... Did I accuse someone of "skating on their credentials?" Hardly. I'm saying "but he has a humanities BA!" is not a legitimate criticism of a research scientist; if it were it would exclude thousands of serious scientists from consideration on specious grounds.

That's all. Now back to my NSF annual report.
posted by spitbull at 6:42 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Bad Religion's Greg Graffin has a PhD from UCLA, in zoology. There's no doubt whatsoever about his credentials, I just think it's an awesome fact and worth repeating.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:42 AM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


spitbull, you appear to have midunderstood yourself as the target as both my and rtha's comments when they were, in fact, pointed at mobunited. I'm not really sure how you got that we were attacking you, but we are agreeing with you.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:43 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I was addressing mobunited, not spitbull.
posted by rtha at 6:45 AM on January 28, 2014


IMNSHO, one of the snafus about New Atheism that's not really the fault of the New Atheists was the grouping of four very different people who had a handful of opinions in common into one "movement." That the two men disagree with each other shouldn't much of a surprise.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:47 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Ok, my bad. My "are we in court?" was directed at mob united.

I don't think any of us would disagree on what makes good or bad science.

I have a wonderful current advisee who is bound to be a research oncologist and who finished her premed requirements in three years so her parents would let her do most of a music major (she had a few classes along the way) as a senior.
posted by spitbull at 6:47 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Relatedly: where does Dennett fit onto the "taken seriously" spectrum? I have no idea about these things.

What about Thomas Metzinger? Honest question.


To be precise we'd have to ask, "taken seriously by whom"? But I think I can give summary answers.

Dan Dennett is taken very seriously by philosophers. He's probably the most famous American philosopher, which brings with it a variety of mixed feelings, but his work is regarded as very good and important. His most important contributions are probably from the '80s and early '90s. I gather that many people feel like he's got the right positions on most things, and he invented many of those positions, but he doesn't necessarily argue for his positions in the way that's effective in the philosophical literature.

Outside of philosophy, Dennett is taken at least somewhat seriously. He was taken seriously by some prominent AI researchers in the '60s(?) and '70s, although I think he is no longer really engaged with the field. He seems to be taken seriously by some brain and psychology researchers. I don't know what evolutionary biologists think of him -- he has written about evolution but I don't know if he is read within it. All of this is just my impressions, though.

Metzinger I know less about. Whenever I hear about him he is discussed positively but I don't hear about him that much.

So that's my attempt to answer the descriptive question, do people take these writers seriously?

On the prescriptive question, should people take these writers seriously, my opinion is, yes, they very much should.

. . .

Wow I spent way more time on this than I should have. :P
posted by grobstein at 7:13 AM on January 28, 2014 [10 favorites]


You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice!
You can choose from phantom fears, and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose Free Will!

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:33 AM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


I looked in the mirror today
My eyes just didn't seem so bright
I've lost a few more hairs
I think I'm going bald

posted by grumpybear69 at 7:36 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


it's funny and sad when materialists try to reinvent metaphysics...
posted by ennui.bz at 7:42 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


...is there any feeling in the field that this sort of issue can ever be 'resolved' in the way that (say) the Copernican worldview prevailed over the Ptolemaic one? Or will it forever remain totally an abstract discussion, made up (apparently) of endless word-play and discussion of how to define the terms?

I'm not an expert, but did this course a while ago.

The thing is, like many topics in philosophy, the debate is very sensitive to the precise definitions of terms like "free will" and "determinism". These terms might seem straightforward, but they're actually pretty ambiguous and can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

So if you start studying the debate seriously, what you will find is a number of subtly different definitions of what "free will" and "determinism" actually mean. Then, for each of these definitions, you will find long and complicated chains of argument, rebuttal, counter-rebuttal, etc on about whether free will exists, or determinism is true, or whether determinism is compatible with free will. Once you've studied all the chains of argument for one set of definitions, you haven't finished, you just move on to the next set of definitions.

It's possible that eventually such convincing arguments will be developed that a consensus will emerge about which definitions are best, and which side has won according to those definitions. But philosophers have been debating this for thousands of years and don't seem any closer to a resolution, and there doesn't seem to be anything on the horizon that's likely to settle things, so I wouldn't bet on any definitive answers emerging in the next few centuries either.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:50 AM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


it's funny and sad when materialists try to reinvent metaphysics...

Why?
posted by LogicalDash at 7:51 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


philosophers have been debating this for thousands of years

Almost all of that time without the benefit of scientific instrumentation and experimentation, though.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:57 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Once we start building things that can reliably pass the Turing Test I expect the Free Will debate to spend less time going round in circles. But even then I doubt there will ever be consensus. Maybe by the time AIs have voting rights we'll be able to call it settled.
posted by memebake at 8:00 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Steely-eyed Missile Man: “Almost all of that time without the benefit of scientific instrumentation and experimentation, though.”

"Will" is in the class of things which cannot be studied via scientific experimentation and observation. Scientific experiment and observation requires two things: that the thing to be studied can be observed, and that its behavior be reproducible in some way. But "will" can't be observed any more than "two" or "logical' can be observed. It can only be observed as a quality of a thing. And who ever heard of a scientific experiment to determine what "two" or "logical" mean?
posted by koeselitz at 8:11 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Almost all of that time without the benefit of scientific instrumentation and experimentation, though

That's true, but the argument is much the same so long as you believe in a deterministic world. Whether it's determined by laws of science or God doesn't make much difference. In fact it's possible to make a respectable anti-libertarian argument without appealing to either. If in fact I'm going to shoot X tomorrow, then it has always been true that I was going to shoot X - so how could I choose to do otherwise, etc, etc.

Variations on the correct answer have been set out carefully and repeatedly for hundreds of years but few people ever change their mind on this issue.
posted by Segundus at 8:12 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


It seems quite likely that an AI will contain large amounts of pseudo randomness in its algorithms. And it's only pseudo randomness because it's cheaper to generate that than physical randomness. So even in a deterministic single-CPU AI machine, there will almost certainly be large amounts of indeterminism. And once many CPUs are involved, there can potentially be indeterminism in the design itself.

Not having finished the linked critique, or taken an interest in free will, I'm not sure if this has much bearing on the discussion... Even physical process that we consider "deterministic" are effectively random in practice. (And again, I'm not sure if "in practice" matters to many philosophers...). Does an AI's ability to pass the Turing test have much bearing on the question of free will? I wouldn't think it has any direct bearing on the question itself, as AI is not the some thing as an animal mind, but it may get people to start about what they mean by will and agency.
posted by Llama-Lime at 8:16 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


it's funny and sad when materialists try to reinvent metaphysics...

Why?


Funny because they end up recapitulating arguments that are up to thousands of years old dressed up in outlandish scientific terminology and sad because they start off with a basic metaphysical assumption "materialism" and end up just biting their own tail over and over again without much self-awareness... oh the irony.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:18 AM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]



I don't think his degree is illegitimate. I do find it unlikely that the average humanities BA could do it,


You find it unlikely because you have no idea what you are talking about, frankly.

To paraphrase Kinsey, "How long will they keep referring to me as a entomologist?"
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:21 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


re: on the question of whether debates about Free Will will ever be settled:

I bring up the Turing Test because if we started to acknowledge that AIs were apparently 'conscious' then we would also have to kindof acknowledge they seem to have some sort of will. At least roughly the same as ours. I'm not saying a good enough AI would settle the argument, but I think it would progress the debate a bit.

When people imagine what a Turing Test conversation would look like, they frequently underestimate the conversation. I find Dennet's example of an imaginary Turing Test from Consciousness Explained to be a good counterexample:
Judge: Did you hear about the Irishman who found a magic lamp? When he rubbed it a genie appeared and granted him three wishes. “I’ll have a pint of Guiness!” the Irishman replied and immediately it appeared. The Irishman eagerly set to sipping and then gulping, but the level of Guiness in the glass was always magically restored. After a while the genie became impatient. “Well, what about your second wish?” he asked. Replied the Irishman between gulps, “Oh well, I guess I’ll have another one of these.”

CHINESE ROOM: Very funny. No, I hadn’t heard it– but you know I find ethnic jokes in bad taste. I laughed in spite of myself, but really, I think you should find other topics for us to discuss.

J: Fair enough but I told you the joke because I want you to explain it to me.

CR: Boring! You should never explain jokes.

J: Nevertheless, this is my test question. Can you explain to me how and why the joke “works”?

CR: If you insist. You see, it depends on the assumption that the magically refilling glass will go on refilling forever, so the Irishman has all the stout he can ever drink. So he hardly has a reason for wanting a duplicate but he is so stupid (that’s the part I object to) or so besotted by the alcohol that he doesn’t recognize this, and so, unthinkingly endorsing his delight with his first wish come true, he asks for seconds. These background assumptions aren’t true, of course, but just part of the ambient lore of joke-telling, in which we suspend our disbelief in magic and so forth. By the way we could imagine a somewhat labored continuation in which the Irishman turned out to be “right” in his second wish after all, perhaps he’s planning to throw a big party and one glass won’t refill fast enough to satisfy all his thirsty guests (and it’s no use saving it up in advance– we all know how stale stout loses its taste). We tend not to think of such complications which is part of the explanation of why jokes work. Is that enough?
Dennett: “The fact is that any program that could actually hold up its end in the conversation depicted would have to be an extraordinary supple, sophisticated, and multilayered system, brimming with “world knowledge” and meta-knowledge and meta-meta-knowledge about its own responses, the likely responses of its interlocutor, and much, much more…. Maybe the billions of actions of all those highly structured parts produce genuine understanding in the system after all.”

(Consciousness Explained, p.438)
posted by memebake at 8:23 AM on January 28, 2014 [7 favorites]



I don't think his degree is illegitimate. I do find it unlikely that the average humanities BA could do it,


Well the "average" science graduate probably couldn't either. This is very "so what."
posted by grobstein at 8:25 AM on January 28, 2014


TheWhiteSkull: "You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice"

Came for the Rush jokes, was not disappointed.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:25 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Personally, my sense is that the insistence that there is no free will is based on so many unwarranted assumptions that it's hard not to want to reject it outright. It's a position that only makes sense as a polemical position against the notion of radical freedom of the will; but if you let go of defending radical freedom of the will, the outright denial of free will entirely is not a thesis that stands very well on its own. That's mostly because it's based on the idea of radical determinism, which is a hope people have held out for years without much payoff. Science is based on the assumption of a determinist world; as such, it can't provide evidence for it, and there have been times when it's even cast doubt on that assumption.
posted by koeselitz at 8:27 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I was surprised recently when I realized how much Kant's position on free will is similar to Dennett's.
posted by grobstein at 8:34 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Philosophy is officially added to the list of things Metafilter does not do well.
posted by thelonius at 8:41 AM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


it's funny and sad when materialists try to reinvent metaphysics...

You can't reinvent something that was never settled in the first place. You can only continue to explore the problems inherent in it.
posted by memebake at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


You can't reinvent something that was never settled in the first place.

Well, the problem is that the logical positivists and their "analytic" descendants purged much of the ancient discussion from academia in the English speaking world. So, there are lots of arguments that these "scientistists" haven't really gone through in school or saw dismissed somewhat casually as archaic.

re: on the question of whether debates about Free Will will ever be settled...

Kant to the courtesy phone...
posted by ennui.bz at 8:54 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'd hardly call this scorching. Dennett gives Harris blurbs galore for the paperback edition. Then he starts critiquing the book, as an academic is wont to to do.

I'll cop to this being my shallow tl;dr response (very busy today), but... while the scientists and philosophers duke it out, the engineers can just say "duh"--because it seems like where we're landing after the dust settles is "you don't have total free will, because you're embedded in the universe and are subject to its impositions--but you're not a zombie automaton either". Hasn't that always been the most sensible position, and best working hypothesis, to have, anyway?

Looking forward to getting past this knee-jerk response after spending time with the entire article, though. Thanks for finding it.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:01 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


So, I'm not a philosopher, but how can Sam Harris on the one hand espouse an incompatibilist position of hard determinism and on the other advocate for changes to social policy to accommodate that position? Aren't the concepts of advocacy and change completely at odds with his (stated) worldview?
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:15 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


But the one who studies nature and the logician would define each attribute of the soul differently, for instance what anger is. The one would say it is a craving for revenge, or some such thing, while the other would say it is a boiling of the blood and heat around the heart. Of these, the one gives an account of the material, the other of the form and meaning. For the one is the articulation of the thing, but this has to be in a certain sort of material if it is to be at all. In the same way, while the meaning of a house is of this sort, a shelter that protects from damage by wind, rain, and the sun's heat, another person will say that it is stones, bricks, and lumber, and yet another that the form is in these latter things for the sake of those former ones.

Which of these is the one who studies nature? Is it the one concerned with the material who ignores the meaning or the one concerned with the meaning alone?

[- Aristotle, "On The Soul" 403a30-403b10]
posted by koeselitz at 9:17 AM on January 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


Kant to the courtesy phone...

So, once Kant gets to the courtesy phone, what does he say?
posted by memebake at 9:18 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'll cop to this being my shallow tl;dr response (very busy today), but... while the scientists and philosophers duke it out, the engineers can just say "duh"--because it seems like where we're landing after the dust settles is "you don't have total free will, because you're embedded in the universe and are subject to its impositions--but you're not a zombie automaton either".

But see this is exactly the problem: you aren't embedded in the universe. What is most difficult about 20th century physics is that it changed the frame of the questions of physics fundamentally from "the universe" to "our observations of the universe." Both the state space of quantum mechanics and space-time of relativity are fundamentally spaces of "observables," not things. You are embedded in your observations of the universe, not the universe itself. Questions about the universe itself are actually outside of physics.

But the upshot is that "materialism" isn't really compatible with modern physics in a philosophically coherent way, but the concordant mathematization of physics makes it possible to pull the mathematical levers with a somewhat naive view of the whole business.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:32 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Will Smith?
posted by fairmettle at 9:40 AM on January 28, 2014


Questions about the universe itself are actually outside of physics.

But this isn't physics.
posted by thelonius at 9:42 AM on January 28, 2014


From the paper. (Remember the paper? It's a link about a paper):
As I tell my undergraduate students, whenever they encounter in their required reading a claim or argument that seems just plain stupid, they should probably double check to make sure they are not misreading the “preposterous” passage in question.
Quoted for Troof. Sure, it's entirely possible that if you've understood the issue correctly you can spot a defect in a position taken by a smart person. But if you arrive at it at a first reading, please consider the the (granted, vanishingly remote, hero) possibility that you're not intrinsically so much smarter than everybody else that you can see right through a difficult piece of work by the sheer power of your intrinsic smartitude.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:46 AM on January 28, 2014 [9 favorites]


You are embedded in your observations of the universe, not the universe itself. Questions about the universe itself are actually outside of physics.

My body's embedded in the universe. My consciousness is embedded in my perceptions of the universe. The two are coupled.

Not saying this is a simple thing to sort out. Hence my interest in the topic.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:46 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


ennui.bz: But see this is exactly the problem: you aren't embedded in the universe. What is most difficult about 20th century physics is that it changed the frame of the questions of physics fundamentally from "the universe" to "our observations of the universe." Both the state space of quantum mechanics and space-time of relativity are fundamentally spaces of "observables," not things. You are embedded in your observations of the universe, not the universe itself. Questions about the universe itself are actually outside of physics.

Causality in Einstein's universe is restricted to light cones emitted from events, but those light cones are still pretty damn huge and fast growing. So I'm not embedded in the whole universe (maybe) but I am embedded in a heck of a lot of stuff, whose light-cones intersect with mine. And whether I'm 'observing' that or not doesn't have a lot to do with it, observing is not the same as light-cone-intersecting.

Meanwhile, the role of Observation in the Quantum Mechanical view of the universe is very far from settled, despite the fun the new agers have with the concept. Although the equations for wave function collapse depend on 'an observation being made', that's just a convention used by the equations to make the sums add up. Its far from obvious what underlying reality this is supposed to hint at. For example, it could be that moving from micro to macro is what makes the wave function collapse, rather than observation by a conscious being per se.

So I don't agree that "You are embedded in your observations of the universe, not the universe itself. Questions about the universe itself are actually outside of physics."
posted by memebake at 9:46 AM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


they start off with a basic metaphysical assumption "materialism" and end up just biting their own tail over and over again

If you think Dennet is biting his tail, say how.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:46 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


So, once Kant gets to the courtesy phone, what does he say?

"What's a phone?"
posted by yoink at 9:50 AM on January 28, 2014 [9 favorites]


So, I'm not a philosopher, but how can Sam Harris on the one hand espouse an incompatibilist position of hard determinism and on the other advocate for changes to social policy to accommodate that position? Aren't the concepts of advocacy and change completely at odds with his (stated) worldview?

The glib answer is that as a hard determinist he doesn't believe that he can do otherwise.

A less glib answer is that hard determinism doesn't actually remove the idea of advocating for change. Simply because we are not free in a libertarian sense does not make what humans do somehow automatic or insignificant. A deterministic world can change, and from a certain viewpoint even improve, via advocacy from individuals, and the hypothetical nonexistence of libertarian free will does not impact on that. Hard determinism isn't a form of fatalism, although fatalism often falls under the same umbrella.
posted by graymouser at 9:52 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


So, once Kant gets to the courtesy phone, what does he say?

"It's up to you."
posted by spitbull at 9:58 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


But see this is exactly the problem: you aren't embedded in the universe. What is most difficult about 20th century physics is that it changed the frame of the questions of physics fundamentally from "the universe" to "our observations of the universe." Both the state space of quantum mechanics and space-time of relativity are fundamentally spaces of "observables," not things. You are embedded in your observations of the universe, not the universe itself. Questions about the universe itself are actually outside of physics.

This is an interpretation. The interpretations of 20th century physics are very much a live issue in the physics community. Plenty of physicists accept the view that we are studying a world, which we learn about through observations, not somehow just studying observations. You may think they're wrong but you're making it sound like everyone knows they're wrong.

A lot of results can be interpreted either epistemologically or ontologically (speaking loosely). So
We don't know whether the cat is dead or not dead until we look in the box,

vs.

The cat is not either dead or not dead until we look in the box, after which it is one or the other.
A lot of people just learn the latter view as fact. Bohr was very influential. But it's an interpretation. The Copenhagen interpretation is an ontological interpretation of wave-function collapse in quantum mechanics that incorporates "observation" into the fundamental structure of the universe. But those of us who think that "observation" is just a particular form of physical information-processing tend to regard this view as a little bit magical. We might prefer interpretations where observation is not one of the fundamental ingredients of reality, but just the way that we learn about reality (epistemological interpretations).
posted by grobstein at 9:58 AM on January 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


Hard determinism isn't a form of fatalism

Well, more precisely it is a form of fatalism, it's just that fatalism doesn't logically entail inaction or impassiveness on anyone's part. Determinist fatalism, in fact, tells us that we cannot just 'choose' to cease advocating for positive changes etc.

In the end, that is one of the frustrating aspects of this argument--it is rigorously inconsequential. That is, there is no action of mine that could possibly depend upon whether or not Harris or Dennet is right (other, I suppose, than actions having to do with congratulating, affirming or criticizing one or other of those authors).
posted by yoink at 10:02 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've become increasingly impressed with the compulsion of so many people to repeat maladaptive patterns of engaging with the social world and enact cognitive filtering. It's often so consistent and so manifestly "against" their will -- yet still often persists even when the framework of maladaption is brought to conscious awareness. The idea of "free will" for me is in practice a problematic ideal that some people strive for as a therapeutic goal. But I think it's probably a reification.
posted by meehawl at 10:08 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


(ennui.bz, from where I'm sitting, you turned up at this Philosophy party with a large bottle of snarky certainty, and when that happens lots of people are going to ask you for a dance-off.)
posted by memebake at 10:09 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Well, more precisely it is a form of fatalism, it's just that fatalism doesn't logically entail inaction or impassiveness on anyone's part. Determinist fatalism, in fact, tells us that we cannot just 'choose' to cease advocating for positive changes etc.

In the end, that is one of the frustrating aspects of this argument--it is rigorously inconsequential. That is, there is no action of mine that could possibly depend upon whether or not Harris or Dennet is right (other, I suppose, than actions having to do with congratulating, affirming or criticizing one or other of those authors).


Well, in fairness to Dennett, this is roughly his view.

The actual purposes for which we use the concept of free will -- assignment of responsibility, praise and blame, deliberation -- are all independent of the supposed metaphysical question of free will vs. determination. What we really mean by "acting freely" is acting under certain (physical) conditions, the ones in which the causal determination of our actions flows through the psychological mechanisms associated with voluntary action -- choice and deliberation.

"Free will" is almost like a word in a different language than the language of physics. It's part of taking what Dennett calls the "intentional stance" towards humans, treating them as "agents" whose behavior is in some sense rational. In the scientific stance we say that humans' actions are completely determined by physical processes, which is determinism. The intentional stance is a different way of looking at the universe that provides cognitive efficiencies when faced with complex decision-makers (ourselves and others). But adopting the intentional stance doesn't actually require us to deny determinism.
posted by grobstein at 10:09 AM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


Plenty of physicists accept the view that we are studying a world, which we learn about through observations, not somehow just studying observations.

In my daily life, I more-or-less hold the this view (there's an objective world out there that has "nothing" to do with what humans think of it). But I think ennui.bz's point is that this view is, itself, outside of physics. I'm inclined to agree with him, too. (Or, my perception of him!) In fact, I think this belief is a requirement for skilled practitioners of my craft (mathematical modeling of systems). Not only is the map not the territory, it's impossible to make a map showing how maps are not territories. To my naive inner philosopher, this is why metaphysics is unavoidable.

[Dammit. Stop saying interesting things. I have work to do!!]
posted by mondo dentro at 10:09 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Dennett: "free will" equals "self control", and control as in the engineering sense of "control theory" where we can effect our own decision process via mental feedback. He says:

In fact we know very well that I can influence your choices, and you can influence my choices, and even your own choices, and that this “bringing into being” of different choices is what makes them morally important.

Then Dennett discusses what distinguishes himself from the "raving psychopath:"

Well, we have more something than he does, and it is morally important. And it looks very much like what everyday folks often call free will.

BUT isn't there a necessary goal in mind for feedback-response to do any good? Like staying on the road while driving, or winning the card game. In that sense an intelligent psychopath who wants to dispense as much violence as he can IS similar to an equally intelligent social activist who wants to dispense as much altruism as she can. Both use feedback to effect their goals, one spurring himself on to more devious ways to avoid capture, the other encouraging herself to endure self-sacrifice. Isn't the goal/desire itself more of a matter of deterministic luck? In that case, the further along the spectrum towards perfect love that one finds oneself, the more responsibility they have to improve themselves and others. To whom much is given, of him much is required.

Maybe a better object of comparison is the bridge-playing robot who always plays the high card that Dennett discusses earlier. Clearly lack of intelligence implies lack of free will. So for Dennett, free will = intelligence-with-self-produced-feedback, but only if guided by "good" desires?
posted by TreeRooster at 10:19 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


"Will" is in the class of things which cannot be studied via scientific experimentation and observation.

I am not convinced that this is settled law, and it seems like there are people out there who are trying to study it via scientific experimentation and observation. So, as far as I can tell, the jury is still out.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:23 AM on January 28, 2014


But adopting the intentional stance doesn't actually require us to deny determinism.

Well, no, indeed: as anyone whose read through Kant's antinomies of pure reason would be likely to have been persuaded of. Still, there is an odd slippage in Dennett's language around his defense of compatibilist free will that does seem a bit like having his cake and eating it too. I mean, when he comes back at Harris with the "but I could choose to work on my desires, training myself to become the kind of person who will make choice Y rather than choice Z at moment X" one feels as though this is simply saying "well, sure, my will at moment X might be purely determined, but what if at moment X-1, or X-2, or X-3 I will myself to be more the kind of person who at moment X will choose to do Y rather than Z!" But isn't that just an infinite regression of "moments of willing"? It's not that it's incorrect, but it just seems utterly irrelevant to the question that Harris is pursuing. In the end, he and Harris actually have pretty similar understandings of the way the will works, it seems to me (and, indeed, Dennett concedes that at the beginning of his critique), what they are really arguing over is the definition of the term "free will," which Harris wants to ditch because he sees it as hopelessly tainted with absolute libertarianism and which Dennett wants to keep--with a suitably philosophically-chastened definition.
posted by yoink at 10:24 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


grobstein: “But adopting the intentional stance doesn't actually require us to deny determinism.”

The issue, I think, is that adopting the determinist stance is wholly unwarranted.
posted by koeselitz at 10:32 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


"There was a young man who said 'Damn,
For it certainly seems that I am
A creature that moves In determinate grooves.
I'm not even a bus, I'm a tram.'"

So, once Kant gets to the courtesy phone, what does he say?

Operator (Kant is on the phone with ethicist Bernard Mayo): Excuse me, Mr. Kant, but I have an emergency call on line five from a Mr. Hume.

Kant: Alright, give me a Hume on five, hold the Mayo .

Nietzsche (background announcement): Listen Heidegger, don't start up with your white zone shit again...

"You are no more responsible for the structure of your brain than you are of for you height"

Hmmm...

So Uday Hussain was the product of bad luck, but it's good luck that we shot him.

Basically the Han Solo philosophy. Believe in luck, but shoot first.

I have a lot of problems with Harris' ideas here, as expressed anyway, the generalization of 'religion' into the narrow spectrum of one slice of Abrahamic monotheism as straw man masquerading as serious inquiry for one.
As mentioned above, it drags us back into this Newtonian mechanistic perspective that runs like a machine regardless of components.

In this case, the 'God' concept is chucked aside, fine, but the entire framework remains, in that, everything is still controlled by an outside force (e.g. randomness; the past; luck) regardless of your illusion of free will, and we're an aberration or a bystander at best ("it could be that certain things have need to be promoted to consciousness in order to have the effects they have it's just that their promotion as conscious witnesses isn't something we ever engineer...") as opposed to being continuous with the physical universe.
The 'infinite monkey' idea. 'God' isn't in control of the machine. Nothing is in control. Ok. But the machine remains, no?

Yet we're in many ways self-authoring. Not only as life that grows, evolves and adapts to as well as changes the environment we're in, but as conscious beings that do it with more deliberation than, say, a hawk or a bear. Squirrels and birds build forests. Deliberately? I don't know. But life is a reciprocal system. And this is certainly expressed by science, but perhaps better expressed by poetry (I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.")

The practical upshot of where Harris is going is that we're a localized phenomenon that occurs between hospitals. Identifying with the world is wrong, there's only blind luck and we have to confront the fact that you're a gimmick and the idea you're a gimmick is also a gimmick.
No, sorry. Consciousness is a part of the physical universe as much as life is a part of the Earth. The fact that it's rare or random doesn't mean it's a worthless pebble that happens to have insignificant apes on it.
The apes are part of the equation of change as much as anything else.
The fact that the physical processes of consciousness are obscured by a marvelous complexity doesn't mean it's describable as something outside the process subject to dissection.
Perhaps more than anything else, life (and consciousness) is destroyed, and deliberate inquiry is limited, when broken into components and discarded rather than considered as part of the behavior of the environment.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:32 AM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


As a graduate student in political philosophy, I find your veiled implication that only neuroscientists are rigorous or intelligent not only offensive but stupid.

As someone whose social circle is almost entirely people who have stuck other people in magnets I can tell you it is wrong from the other end as well. Neuroscience is a notoriously sloppy field that is just starting to move past phrenology level conceptual confusion and the statistical nightmare of unlimited degrees of parameter freedom.
posted by srboisvert at 10:54 AM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'll cop to this being my shallow tl;dr response (very busy today), but... while the scientists and philosophers duke it out, the engineers can just say "duh"--because it seems like where we're landing after the dust settles is "you don't have total free will, because you're embedded in the universe and are subject to its impositions--but you're not a zombie automaton either". Hasn't that always been the most sensible position, and best working hypothesis, to have, anyway?

That seems to be Dennett's take.

Personally, in my haphazard layman's musings I've landed on "free will may not actually exist but we are obliged to act as if it does, because otherwise society cannot function." I can't shake the feeling that figuring out whether or not it actually exists is important, though....

Having read Dennet's critique, I still get some of that talking-past-each-other feeling, though he certainly seemed to score a few hits on Harris. Dennett seemed to argue that the fact that we have a conscious experience of will is enough to assign responsibility for an action to will, for the most part, despite the fact that other, unconscious X-factors may in turn shape will itself. But the bits where he says we may choose to shape our wills, that gets a bit fuzzy, to me --- there is a level on which that makes sense to me, and another on which it doesn't, and the critique didn't see to reconcile them successfully, to me.
posted by Diablevert at 10:54 AM on January 28, 2014


Yeah, so far I'm finding Dennett's critique an unsatisfactory primer on compatiblism -- and therein spot my confession that I need one. You may argue that it isn't meant to be one and more fool I for trying to use it that way, but that runs up against its stated objective, which is to critique a work which is overtly a primer for the lay person, largely on the basis that it, as such, falls down in its representation of compatiblism.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:01 AM on January 28, 2014


I really like Dennett, and that was a really great review of Harris (who I am more or less ambivalent about), but I really do disagree with Dennett here. I think he falls victim to this pernicious and long trend in American philosophy, this notion rooted in America pragmatism, that the middle ground is somehow the correct route, that the best answer is the one that somehow fits together a modicum of logical rigor with our own intuition and common sense. And I think it's actually usually wrong - and compatiblism is no exception. I think the core of Harris's argument is actually closer to the truth, though perhaps not necessarily as presented by Harris.

I actually trace most of the current philosophical debate about free will to Spinoza. As a side note, the cognitive and neuro science aspects are very interesting - but only insofar as they can help explain the mechanics and physical processes by which free will (or, as I posit, the absence of) operates, but they do not in and of themselves explain any more about the nature of free will (or absence of) than philosophy can, since what we are really talking about is logic in a sort of a priori sense. I mean, that's the beauty of the free will problem, is that it is in some sense impossible to sort out empirically, by its very nature.

It is not a complicated argument that Spinoza makes, it's elegant and, at least in my somewhat studied opinion, relatively irrefutable (it should be noted that Spinoza too tries to fit a sort of compatibilist approach into the whole thing as well, at which point he kind of loses me).

Spinoza says look - there really can't be free will because either you believe that everything is caused or it isn't. If a thing is caused by another thing, then it makes no sense to say that we freely choose to do some thing, because that choice had some cause(s), and each cause is caused and so forth, back to the beginning of time. If we believe there are truly free choices, then we have to accept the notion that some things are uncaused, in which case we can hardly say they are 'free' in the sense we want to, because those actions must come about randomly, as if, as Dennet references, by miracle. So either there is complete determinism or complete chaos. So we are completely rule-bound or complete random, and in neither case can we really say we are free. I actually think this to be the case, and I am very dubious about theories that try to somehow split the difference.

It's difficult, I realize, as praise and blame are so deeply entrenched in how we see ourselves and the world. It very much goes against every sense of intuition we have. But it's also kind of freeing, to get past holding onto the idea of free will.

Many don't agree with me - that's fine, they don't have a choice.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:10 AM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


The concept of free will is incoherent, and it seems kind of silly to me to use it as a scientific concept. Any explanation of a behavior will involve causal factors that are not "free." That said, I still want to believe in it.

Consciousness is a part of the physical universe as much as life is a part of the Earth.

The fact that the physical processes of consciousness are obscured by a marvelous complexity doesn't mean it's describable as something outside the process subject to dissection.


This doesn't seem to be compatible with Harris's views on consciousness.
The problem, however, is that no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world.[6]  Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is “like something” to be what they are. The only thing in this universe that attests to the existence of consciousness is consciousness itself; the only clue to subjectivity, as such, is subjectivity. Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience.

posted by Golden Eternity at 11:12 AM on January 28, 2014


Someone just told me that Harris has a PhD. Is this true? That's crazy. The guy's an atheist - how could he have a PhD?
posted by bradth27 at 11:29 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think you're missing something.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:31 AM on January 28, 2014


Someone just told me that Harris has a PhD...The guy's an atheist - how could he have a PhD?

Could it be... oh, I don't know... SATAN?
posted by mondo dentro at 11:31 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


So, once Kant gets to the courtesy phone, what does he say?

"Free Will? It's an incorporeal ding an sich!"
posted by CincyBlues at 11:32 AM on January 28, 2014


Such “perfect” freedom is, of course, an incoherent idea, and if Harris is arguing against it, he is not finding a “deep” problem with compatibilism but a shallow problem with his incompatibilist vision of free will; he has taken on a straw man, and the straw man is beating him.
ICE BURN
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:35 AM on January 28, 2014 [7 favorites]


Obligatory xkcd. I swear to God.

Spinoza says look - there really can't be free will because either you believe that everything is caused or it isn't.

Dennett's rebuttal to this is that the freedom that people care about is not freedom from causality (which, as you point out, is not a very valuable freedom). Rather, people want their behavior to be caused by the "right" things -- they want to do things for the right reasons.

Now I guess you could take Spinoza's angle and say that "reasons" don't cause anything, we just live in a mechanical universe with atoms bouncing off each other. But that's pretty manifestly untrue. I mean, if someone tells you they're going to the grocery store, you'll be able to make a pretty precise physical prediction about where their body is going to go, the sort of prediction that seems impossible if you just pay attention to particle physics, but is actually pretty simple if you use the ordinary language of "reasons." (I'm sure Dennett has made this argument much more eloquently somewhere.)
posted by leopard at 11:44 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Ugh, by "manifestly untrue" I wasn't referring to us living in a mechanical universe, I was referring to the idea that "reasons" don't cause anything.
posted by leopard at 11:47 AM on January 28, 2014


No, I don't think reasons are causal forces in the universe. Reasons are ideas. Ideas cannot cause things, qua idea. They can cause things qua action potentials, etc.

I get that Dennet wants to somehow make freedom from causality somehow a special sort of freedom, and free will is really this other thing, but I don't buy that at all. There is only one type of freedom, and that is freedom from causality. The other notions of freedom are illusions. And we can certainly talk about illusions. Just because they are illusions doesn't make them not real, exactly, just incorrect.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:52 AM on January 28, 2014


Every American capitalist, bureaucrat, American politician - indeed, every American - should read these two lines, from Dennett's closing paragraph:
"Everybody who plays games must recognize that games without strictly enforced rules are not worth playing, and the rules that work best do not allow for differences in heritage, training, or innate skill".
posted by Vibrissae at 11:55 AM on January 28, 2014


Lutoslawski, so if you wanted to explain why someone was in the grocery store, it would not be acceptable to say it was because they were out of milk at home? You'd have to talk about action potentials? That seems really inefficient.

I mean, is it really just an "illusion" that the comment I'm writing right now is caused in part by what you just wrote, as opposed to the "reality" some atoms in the universe are just being shuttled around according to some rules? An explanation of what I'm doing literally this very second as I type that did not refer to the *ideas* we are discussing would be woefully incomplete.
posted by leopard at 12:01 PM on January 28, 2014


Lutoslawski, so if you wanted to explain why someone was in the grocery store, it would not be acceptable to say it was because they were out of milk at home? You'd have to talk about action potentials? That seems really inefficient.

Sidebar: in an odd way this whole essay + thread reminds me of Dante and his Ptolemaic spheres....the sphere of earthy delights exists and is real, but it is not the Primum Mobile....To me, Dennet reads as if he's saying, look, we're never going to get off Earth/escape consciousness, so we need not concern ourselves with whether at the level of biology / chemistry / Newtownian physics / quantum mechanics everything is determined, here on earth, in our heads, we're driving this bus, and that's all that matters." But how an it not matter, the difference between a mobile and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride...
posted by Diablevert at 12:16 PM on January 28, 2014


There is only one type of freedom, and that is freedom from causality. The other notions of freedom are illusions.

Some people are free from slavery, and others are not. This isn't an illusion. That's why we fight to end slavery. So: freedom from slavery is a second type of freedom that I hope you think is not illusory.

You probably think that this is another meaning of "freedom", or that it's irrelevant to discussions about free will. But I am simply objecting here to the notion that there is only one type of freedom. There are many.

If you grant this, then the next step for the compatibilist is this: what you call "freedom from causality" turns out to be hugely insignificant and unimportant. No one would ever have worried about whether they had a free will or not unless they were conflating freedom from causality with a bunch of these other types of freedom.
posted by painquale at 12:18 PM on January 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


A major beef I have with radical (philosophical) determinism is based on my lonely opinion that everyone vastly overestimates how much the nature of reality is prescribed by physical law. I say "everyone" because I've never heard anyone say otherwise--it's a common trap that all of us heavily schooled in the mathematical sciences seem to fall into. And to be clear, this counts for both purely "deterministic" laws, like those of classical mechanics, and "stochastic" laws, as in quantum mechanics. Both of these categories are deterministic in a philosophical sense (Merely shifting from having evolution equations for a deterministic quantity to having evolution equations for a probability density doesn't take away the fundamental determinism of the process: states evolve into other states in well-defined way, in both cases.)

The universe we experience (and study) is only constrained by physical law. There's otherwise a lot of "slop", and the higher up we go in the hierarchy of system complexity, the more this slop manifests itself by a promiscuity of form. For example, airplanes do not look the way they do "because" of the Navier-Stokes equations. Momentum balance constrains an airplane's form, but an astonishingly huge number of forms are capable of flight, just as long as the lift and drag vectors point in the right ways. This is even more true when we consider living organisms and the interactions among them. And when we add the goal-directedness of "autonomous agents" into the mix... fuggedaboudit.

Obviously, this is not a sound argument against determinism (not to mention causality), nor am I trying to make such a thing. I don't have the skills to do so, even if I wanted to. And I admittedly only have a vague inkling of how it connects to the topic of this FPP. It's really just a hunch based on my experience and observations, one that I probably would have never got if I hadn't switched from modeling physical processes to the behavior of living, goal-directed things. But it's a hunch that makes me chafe when I hear anyone say somebody's doing something "because" some atoms were bouncing together or whatnot. They have much less basis for saying such a thing than they think they do.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:21 PM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


To me, Dennet reads as if he's saying, look, we're never going to get off Earth/escape consciousness, so we need not concern ourselves with whether at the level of biology / chemistry / Newtownian physics / quantum mechanics everything is determined, here on earth, in our heads, we're driving this bus, and that's all that matters."

This seems right to me, although I think Dennett is saying something a little bit stronger. It seems like he's saying that there's really no scientific shame in saying something like "He's at the grocery store to get some more milk" -- that this is not just the human way of speaking and thinking that we're stuck with like it or not, but at a more abstract level it's also a perfectly valid way of (partially) understanding the universe. See Wikipedia on the intentional stance.
posted by leopard at 12:33 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Lutoslawski, so if you wanted to explain why someone was in the grocery store, it would not be acceptable to say it was because they were out of milk at home? You'd have to talk about action potentials? That seems really inefficient.

What is the case and what we talk about are two different things. Our language is very poor at expressing philosophical notions. This has been and continues to be a big problem actually. We ignore things for efficiency, and that's fine. Not like we have a choice anyway.

You probably think that this is another meaning of "freedom", or that it's irrelevant to discussions about free will.


I do think that.

If you grant this, then the next step for the compatibilist is this: what you call "freedom from causality" turns out to be hugely insignificant and unimportant.


No, I don't think this follows. In fact, I think freedom from causality (or lack of it) is the only sort that matters, and that all the others become insignificant in light of that. Freedom from causality, or lack thereof, necessarily determines the constraints within which we must consider all of these social or political freedoms and the like that we want to talk about.

For me, the free will question really is a metaphysical/ontological one, and nothing more.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:36 PM on January 28, 2014


More importantly, if a sufficiently wealthy defendant mounted a successful clockwork universe defense of nonculpability and was acquitted, would we have to live with the consequences or could a higher court vacate it?
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:38 PM on January 28, 2014


Freedom from causality, or lack thereof, necessarily determines the constraints within which we must consider all of these social or political freedoms and the like that we want to talk about.

How does it do that? Through action potentials?
posted by leopard at 12:39 PM on January 28, 2014


Action potentials, quantum mechanics, string vibrations - however small you want to go. The debate is over whether there is some mechanism by which uncaused (free) things can happen. And I simply don't think that exists, or if it does, it would be, by definition, total randomness, which is somehow worse in my opinion.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:42 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think he falls victim to this pernicious and long trend in American philosophy, this notion rooted in America pragmatism, that the middle ground is somehow the correct route, that the best answer is the one that somehow fits together a modicum of logical rigor with our own intuition and common sense. And I think it's actually usually wrong - and compatiblism is no exception.

But compatibilism is not a middle ground at all. It is an attempt to preserve the notion of free will – as in the common sense phrase "He/she acted of his/her own free will" – from the basically incoherent libertarian concept that decisions are somehow made without being determined by prior events. Beyond this modification, it is metaphysically identical to hard determinism. There's no middle ground; compatibilism does not hold that there is any libertarian free will. I've always looked at it as the philosophical stance that LFW is asking the wrong question.

More importantly, the differences between compatibilism and hard determinism mostly center on how you justify ethics. Compatibilism has an easier time from a certain point of view because it holds that a person is free (and therefore responsible) as long as they do not have external compulsion to perform an action. I think the reason so few philosophers hold to hard determinism is that the models of ethics are much more complicated when you don't have that premise in place.
posted by graymouser at 12:56 PM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


The debate is over whether there is some mechanism by which uncaused (free) things can happen.

Well, that's the appearance of the debate. But it comes across to me as a very sophisticated form of question-begging, since we have started from the premise that mind is epiphenominal, and that what we think of as "materialism" does not in any way include mind as a fundamental property.

I'm not saying I disagree with this starting point. But we shouldn't act surprised if we can't find a way out of the house if we have sealed all the doors and windows ourselves.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:57 PM on January 28, 2014


Action potentials, quantum mechanics, string vibrations - however small you want to go. The debate is over whether there is some mechanism by which uncaused (free) things can happen. And I simply don't think that exists, or if it does, it would be, by definition, total randomness, which is somehow worse in my opinion.

Lutoslawski, even as a wader in the kiddie end of this pool, I still have to point out that neither Dennett or Harris between them or anyone seriously invoked in the current form of this dispute, seems to take this position. Harris usually says at the top of his remarks on this subject that there is no magic blend of pure determinism and pure randomness that will yield up anything resembling free will, and the opposing view doesn't seem to have any takers.

As to what Dennett thinks does constitute free will, and per him, Harris might also even if he doesn't recognize it by the name it currently travels under, that's something I'm still trying to nail down.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:59 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


So, once Kant gets to the courtesy phone, what does he say?

Es tut mir leid, aber ich verstehe nicht was Sie mich bitten zu tun.
posted by Segundus at 1:09 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


The materialistic takes on the free-will problem all seem to ignore the domain of the concept--it's a concept that's only meaningful at a certain level of abstraction, like 'bicycle.' You can't reduce identity or self to its parts and then analyze the problem of free will from that starting point; only when you stipulate the self as a bounded concept (a sort of black box that takes input and produces outputs) does the set of relations and behavioral potentialities the higher order concept "free will" represents begin to emerge. Just as there's no formal scientific proof for the existence of 'bicycles,' because the meaning of the word is so contingent on function and social meaning there can't be such a proof for a higher order concept like free will. That's my version of compatabilism.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:14 PM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Saulgoodman, I have been trying to articulate that and doing a piss-poor job of it for years. The best I could do was something like "it's like looking at a brick and announcing that you can't see a building in it", but you just nailed it, IMO. Thank you.
posted by neuromodulator at 1:51 PM on January 28, 2014


You can't reduce identity or self to its parts and then analyze the problem of free will from that starting point

But isn't this begging the essential question? I mean, I suspect you're correct, in fact, but the whole argument really boils down to whether these kinds of emergent properties (consciousness, will etc.) are genuinely irreducible or if it is simply that our human understanding needs to operate at the level of the emergent "concept" while the billiard-ball atoms (or the probabilistic quantum flux or the holographic projection of a brane or what the hell have you) merrily go about their business with no reference to those levels of conceptual abstraction whatsoever.

Or, in other words, to say that we cannot understand consciousness/will/etc. at the level of the atomic or subatomic world and that we need to think about "reasons" and "ideas" and so forth in order to usefully conceptualize human action and human motivation doesn't mean that those things are inherently essential to the processes themselves.
posted by yoink at 1:57 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


only when you stipulate the self as a bounded concept (a sort of black box that takes input and produces outputs) does the set of relations and behavioral potentialities the higher order concept "free will" represents begin to emerge.

Are you saying that libertarian free will exists within "the self as a bounded concept"? Or that the operation of the "black box" is deterministic at the macro level (just as the universe is), but "free will" is something we only talk about at this level? Is the operation of the "self" deterministic, or not? That is the fundamental philosophical question of free will. You talk about bicycles, but the same physical laws still obtain despite the fact that some metal and plastic are in the shape of a functional bicycle.

Compatibilism says that determinism is true, but "free will" is when decisions are not constrained by outside entities. If that's not what you mean, then it's confusing in a philosophical discussion to call the position "my version of compatibilism."
posted by graymouser at 2:06 PM on January 28, 2014


Or, in other words, to say that we cannot understand consciousness/will/etc. at the level of the atomic or subatomic world and that we need to think about "reasons" and "ideas" and so forth in order to usefully conceptualize human action and human motivation doesn't mean that those things are inherently essential to the processes themselves.

Right, so one view is that human beings rely on an intuitive "folk psychology" in the same way that they rely on an intuitive "folk physics," but if you want to send a man to the moon you actually need to understand some "real" science that goes beyond what is superficially apparent to uneducated monkeys. Likewise, we can pretend we understand why people do things, but maybe it all boils down to quantum mechanics and once we had a real "scientific psychology" in place all this nonsense about ideas and reasons would melt away like Zeus's thunderbolts.

In my view, if someone tells me that they are going to the grocery store, I'll be able to find them fairly easily and without a tremendous amount of computational effort. Could a superintelligent being operating with a keen grasp of fundamental physics but no reference to "reasons" and "ideas" do better? Maybe, but it seems awfully computationally expensive and I'm not sure it's even physically possible. It's not clear to me that this is just a "human" limitation.
posted by leopard at 2:14 PM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


The most delicious part of Dennet's review is where he says, "Gee, maybe you'd want to talk to some actual philosophers before trying to write a book about free will" in almost exactly the same language that people have been saying "Gee, maybe you'd want to talk to some actual theologians before trying to write a book about religion" in response to Dennet's equally ignorant Breaking the Spell.
posted by straight at 2:17 PM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Maybe, but it seems awfully computationally expensive and I'm not sure it's even physically possible. It's not clear to me that this is just a "human" limitation.

Of course it's not "clear." That's why there's a debate. As I say, my own suspicion is that it wouldn't be "physically possible" and that we do, in fact, need to be able to understand the emergent, higher-order description of the world in order to understand people's actions. My point, though, is that we can't (fairly) resolve the argument by unilaterally declaring this to be the case.
posted by yoink at 2:20 PM on January 28, 2014


As a programmer, it's really easy to make an analogy to how different layers of abstraction in code interact in different ways at different levels, so maybe a computer analogy is useful. You might as a higher-level language programmer be able to talk sensibly about a particular webform element being displayed or not displayed, and when you talk about this, there's utility and meaning in discussing the problem at that level. But the machine code ultimately has no features that correspond to the features at the lower level--there aren't objects like forms and form properties you can talk about when you consider the lower-level machine code; there are only on and off switches for modulating and routing electrical current. The concepts that are meaningful at these different levels of description don't map to each other, but both are still compatible and meaningful in their respective domains of abstraction.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:23 PM on January 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


Compatibilism has seemed blindingly obvious to me ever since I read Raymond Smullyan's Is God a Taoist?, actually in a collection by Hofstadter and Dennet, The Mind's I.

I think some of the confusion arises from thinking of "the laws of physics" like human laws that are enforced upon an anarchic nature. But laws of nature are empirical summaries of how nature actually does behave. If your brain went through a blip contrary to the laws of nature, well, then, those weren't true laws of physics in the first place.
posted by Schmucko at 2:24 PM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


As I say, my own suspicion is that it wouldn't be "physically possible" and that we do, in fact, need to be able to understand the emergent, higher-order description of the world in order to understand people's actions.

Well, it's at least not possible in an information processing sense, that's for sure. In a sense, the fact that coherent emergent features exist is why we can survive. The macro-features of the world offer a sort of "data compression" that allows us to figure things out and make predictions that we just couldn't do if we had to estimate the states of all the atoms in the universe (or even our immediate surroundings).
posted by mondo dentro at 2:25 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


yoink: not sure, but it seems to me like the analysis of a concept has to respect its scope in context, and reducing free will to neurology redefines the term in a subtle way in order to apply reductivist analytic approaches to the problem.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:26 PM on January 28, 2014


yoink: not sure, but it seems to me like the analysis of a concept has to respect its scope in context

But that rather depends on what you mean by "has to." If you mean "if we are to understand these things the way humans understand them" then, sure. If you mean "in order to be able to explain these things in such a way that satisfactorily accounts for the observed phenomena" then the jury is out. It may be that for some Laplacean demon concepts like mind, identity, will etc, are laughably crude approximations which the demon can understand the utility of (for non-demonic minds) but which are of zero explanatory utility compared to the pure and perfect deterministic vision afforded him by his demonic powers. It may very well not be the case, too. It may be that we'll never know the answer to the question, either. But until we do, I think it best that we're honest about our ignorance rather than asserting as premises things that we later triumpantly discover in our conclusions.
posted by yoink at 2:53 PM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Sure, but the same conceptual problems apply to plenty of other higher order concepts we don't subject to rigorous analysis and that fact seldom causes us any worry. Technically, you might argue a bicycle doesn't exist, from a purely deterministic and reductionist perspective (there being nothing in nature that is or isn't inherently a 'bicycle,' either, yet no one ever circles back around to make the categorical claim that science has proven that bicycles as we know them in daily experience don't really exist, because that would be absurd.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:07 PM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


in almost exactly the same language that people have been saying "Gee, maybe you'd want to talk to some actual theologians before trying to write a book about religion"

The fact that they say it doesn't make it true. Dennett consulted with theologians extensively, and in the end became dismissive of their having any role in religion as it is actually practiced and preached. Organized religion will occasionally roust some actual theologians from their dens to engage with a Dennett or a Harris when it must, but it's not like it listens to them any other time, and it's not like they say, when wheeled to the podium in these debates, anything that resembles what is said from the pulpit or understood by a parishioner.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:11 PM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


... yet no one ever circles back around to make the categorical claim that science has proven that bicycles as we know them in daily experience don't really exist, because that would be absurd.

The Harris quote posted by Golden Eternity is jaw dropping in this regard: "The problem, however, is that there is no evidence that consciousness exists in the physical world," in which Harris uses a (correct) statement by Leibniz (that, in effect, looking at the workings of a brain doesn't explain consciousness) to override what is manifestly evident to any field biologist or anthropologist. It's a every odd refusal, this tendency to say that empirical evidence at the "wrong" scale is somehow not empirical evidence. It's like saying water waves don't exist because they're epiphenomena of water molecules.
posted by mondo dentro at 3:25 PM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's a every odd refusal, this tendency to say that empirical evidence at the "wrong" scale is somehow not empirical evidence. It's like saying water waves don't exist because they're epiphenomena of water molecules.

It's odd if you ascribe to him a good-faith interest in legitimately addressing such questions. It makes a lot more sense if you think his aim is primarily to sell a lot of books (like others in his circle).
posted by junco at 3:59 PM on January 28, 2014


But compatibilism is not a middle ground at all. It is an attempt to preserve the notion of free will - as in the common sense phrase "He/she acted of his/her own free will" – from the basically incoherent libertarian concept that decisions are somehow made without being determined by prior events

Oh, but that is the middle ground (I guess we could argue over the metaphorical meaning of 'middle ground.') Because compatibilism somehow wants to say, yeah, hard determinism does seems logically true, but that shouldn't preclude us from making intuitive or common sense judgements and such about our reasons for doing things. And I think that is complete nonsense.

You are right to say it has everything to do with ethics, however, in that accepting hard determinism completely changes the entirety of how we think about and act upon aesthetics and ethics (or does it, since that is determined, yadda yadda). I mean, this is the state of the free will debate for the past thousand years or whatever.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:26 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Lutoslawski, even as a wader in the kiddie end of this pool, I still have to point out that neither Dennett or Harris between them or anyone seriously invoked in the current form of this dispute, seems to take this position.

There are lots of philosophers who take the view that you are committed either to chaos or complete, really hard determinism. Not that philosophy is a democracy in any case.

Seriously though, a lot of philosophers basically don't even touch free will with any sort of actual, hard and fast opinion because of all philosophical inquiries it is maybe the most unsolvable or difficult to argue to anyone's satisfaction.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:38 PM on January 28, 2014


My last comment is that I think the onus is on those who posit some sort of will to prove its existence. And the funny thing is, in hundreds of years we haven't come any further in that regard than when Descartes said it was in your pineal body.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:41 PM on January 28, 2014


As a programmer, it's really easy to make an analogy to how different layers of abstraction in code interact in different ways at different levels, so maybe a computer analogy is useful.

This analogy fails on the face of it. A high-level computer program may be referencing entities that don't "exist" for the machine code, but the high-level language, by definition, has a 1:1 translation for any given machine instruction set. The entities that it references are just part of the shorthand that is used to create the result, a precise machine-usable set of instructions. By definition, the possibility of reducing it to machine code (however crude and "reductionist" it may seem) is the raison d'etre of the high-level code.

Technically, you might argue a bicycle doesn't exist, from a purely deterministic and reductionist perspective (there being nothing in nature that is or isn't inherently a 'bicycle,' either, yet no one ever circles back around to make the categorical claim that science has proven that bicycles as we know them in daily experience don't really exist, because that would be absurd.

A bicycle of course has certain properties that its individual parts don't; those mostly involve its relationship to human beings. If you disassemble the parts of a bicycle and lay them on a tarp, or more drastically reduce it to the pure form of its constituent elements and put them in jars ordered by atomic number, the resulting piles won't behave like a bicycle if you put them on top of a hill and let go, or try to ride them. But the bicycle doesn't cease to operate by the same physical laws because of its configuration. Similarly, if we strung out every neuron in your brain and laid them on a giant mat separate from each other, you'd no longer have consciousness as you currently experience it. That doesn't mean your mind operates by different physical laws than its constituent neurons, or that their interactions aren't governed by the same laws of cause and effect. Reductionism is a red herring complaint here.
posted by graymouser at 5:04 PM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


My last comment is that I think the onus is on those who posit some sort of will to prove its existence. And the funny thing is, in hundreds of years we haven't come any further in that regard than when Descartes said it was in your pineal body.

Do you really think this? You act as if you have some sort of choice in the matter of what you "believe," as if there is some amount of logical or physical evidence that could possibly change your "beliefs," but according to your own statements free will does not exist, so you don't actually have any choice in this matter. So why are you writing words that create the impression that there is something that is up for grabs, when the universe is just unfolding in a completely predetermined manner according to natural law? I guess you have no choice in the matter, haw haw haw haw.
posted by leopard at 5:17 PM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Lutowski: simple experiment to demonstrate weak free will would be to ask someone to perform the same task a few different ways, per their own discretion. In hard determinism, it shouldn't matter what we're intending to do or instructed to do when performing a given task. There'd be no possibility of choosing from among multiple alternatives at all if hard determinism were true. It should be pretty easy to prove that, in a given scenario, a given person always behaves the same way if hard determinism were true (ignoring the internal states of the mind, since that's going to a lower level of abstraction rather than looking at the problem in terms of a self making choices, which is I believe the correct interpretation of the original question).

Brain states, mental impressions, etc., are to the self as wheels, chains and handlebars are to that rhetorical bicycle I keep beating to death as if it were a rhetorical horse. You wouldn't expect to be able to explain why popping a wheelie impresses the girl down the street by analyzing the metallurgical properties of the bicycle frame, would you? Besides the strong interpretation of the uncertainty principle introduces a clear breakdown in the causal chain required to sustain a hard deterministic view of the world. You can callthe alternative "random" if you insist, but I think the reality is somewhere in the middle: some conditions may act to make a given range of choices more or less constrained, with a continuum of freedom of choice that runs from none at all to some relative degree of freedom that approaches but never reaches an absolute freedom of choice.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:28 PM on January 28, 2014


Dennett's contribution to this year's Edge question: The Hard Problem
posted by homunculus at 6:31 PM on January 28, 2014


Personally I'm adding philosophy to the list of things Metafilter does better than most Internet communities.
posted by flabdablet at 6:41 PM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


That doesn't mean your mind operates by different physical laws than its constituent neurons, or that their interactions aren't governed by the same laws of cause and effect. Reductionism is a red herring complaint here.

No, I don't think so. It just means that different physical laws may apply at different levels of scale and that physical structure at different levels of abstraction can play a role in determining function. We already know the laws of physics change in effect as we scale up and down. That's already established science. It's why reconciling quantum effects with classical mechanics has been such a challenge. The effects of gravitational forces even vary at different levels of scale. So that needs to be accounted for. There is a higher level of organization in the brain that may have unique properties and capabilities over its physical substrate because the laws of physics do have varying effects over different levels of scale.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:50 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


(...Not to mention the social nature of Free Will, which doesn't even relate to the kinds of questions hard science can answer.)
posted by saulgoodman at 7:51 PM on January 28, 2014


Lutowski: simple experiment to demonstrate weak free will would be to ask someone to perform the same task a few different ways, per their own discretion. In hard determinism, it shouldn't matter what we're intending to do or instructed to do when performing a given task. There'd be no possibility of choosing from among multiple alternatives at all if hard determinism were true.
Huh? This in no way shows that the person did those things "per their own discretion". Of course there would be no "choosing" - that's by definition - but that doesn't even remotely imply that what seems on its surface to be a choice is actually a choice.

I mean, why even bother with asking them to perform the same task a few different ways? The same argument can be made without any such thing; the only advantage to adding "ask the person to perform the task" is that it serves as a minor obfuscation of the circularity of the underlying argument: "If we can't choose to do something some way, then there's no possibility of choosing to do something some way, so since (by assumption) we chose to do something some way, it can't be true that we can't choose to do something some way."
posted by Flunkie at 8:07 PM on January 28, 2014


In hard determinism, it shouldn't matter what we're intending to do or instructed to do when performing a given task. There'd be no possibility of choosing from among multiple alternatives at all if hard determinism were true.

This doesn't make sense at all. Hard determinism would say that intention and instruction are completely determined by past events, not that they are irrelevant. In fact, from a pure hard determinist standpoint, intention and instruction are critical to understanding why a choice happens, because they are (wholly determined) parts of the makeup of an individual choice.

It's critical to understand that in the free will debate, the difference between libertarian free will and determinism is whether the choice that is made is determined by past causal factors, or whether the choice is free in a libertarian sense where it is indeterministic. In both scenarios, choices are made; the question is whether those choices are entirely caused by prior events (determinism) or not (libertarianism).

Brain states, mental impressions, etc., are to the self as wheels, chains and handlebars are to that rhetorical bicycle I keep beating to death as if it were a rhetorical horse.

You keep insisting on this, but that's very far from a given. The more we understand about brain states, the more completely they explain the phenomena we experience and label as consciousness or self. It's not even clear that there is a unary "self" as we think of it, instead of different parts of the brain operating separately. If you want to bring in a (implicitly dualist) self that exists apart from neuroscience, and has causative agency that is not wholly determined, you'll need to prove it by a lot better means than comparing the brain to a bicycle.
posted by graymouser at 8:11 PM on January 28, 2014


No, I don't think so. It just means that different physical laws may apply at different levels of scale and that physical structure at different levels of abstraction can play a role in determining function. We already know the laws of physics change in effect as we scale up and down. That's already established science. It's why reconciling quantum effects with classical mechanics has been such a challenge. The effects of gravitational forces even vary at different levels of scale. So that needs to be accounted for. There is a higher level of organization in the brain that may have unique properties and capabilities over its physical substrate because the laws of physics do have varying effects over different levels of scale.

There is no reason to believe that quantum effects have any role in human decision making, though to be fair it's a much less silly idea than to say that gravitation has a role. Aside from the fact that this would be nothing but randomness, human brains function at a scale where quantum indeterminacy has averaged out into reliable determinism.

As for the idea that the brain "may have unique properties" - isn't this just throwing your arms up and saying that maybe something will come along and justify dualism or non-materialism in a hypothetical future? Physics at the level of a brain-sized object is pretty well understood and I don't think it's going to change too drastically.
posted by graymouser at 8:25 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's critical to understand that in the free will debate, the difference between libertarian free will and determinism is whether the choice that is made is determined by past causal factors, or whether the choice is free in a libertarian sense where it is indeterministic. In both scenarios, choices are made; the question is whether those choices are entirely caused by prior events (determinism) or not (libertarianism).

Personally I see causality itself as a red herring. It seems to me that the fundamental principle here is "shit happens: deal with it" and that causality is but one of the mental constructs we invented in order to deal with it. Like any human-invented concept it has problematic edge cases (if you knew nothing about traffic control systems beyond the observed behaviour of the lights, would you be justified in claiming that red lights cause the subsequent green lights?) and when those bump up against similarly problematic edge cases in other concepts you get exactly the kind of Atlantis vs. Sicily non-conversation that dominates discussion of the topic at hand.

Interpreting the idea of causality as more of a guideline for inductive reasoning than some hard and fast principle about how things really are gets rid of vast amounts of handwaving on things like "choices" being "entirely caused by prior events" - as does refusal to take the very idea of "in principle" seriously.
posted by flabdablet at 8:48 PM on January 28, 2014


Physics at the level of a brain-sized object is pretty well understood and I don't think it's going to change too drastically.

My own expectation is that the rules of physics, applied to structures whose behaviour is as much dominated by internal feedbacks as is the brain, will continue to make very few useful predictions about the behaviours exhibited by those structures. To get a good handle on the emergent behaviours of systems like that we need a vocabulary of concepts that describe their emergent features, and I think this is where Dennett's writings on the intentional stance are well worth the time spent reading them.
posted by flabdablet at 8:54 PM on January 28, 2014


"If we can't choose to do something some way, then there's no possibility of choosing to do something some way, so since (by assumption) we chose to do something some way, it can't be true that we can't choose to do something some way."

There's statistical evidence our behavior doesn't look strictly deterministic. Our behavior is measurably chaotic in many respects, which is compatible with the idea that a naturally arising capacity to make free choices among alternatives when presented with some limited number of them might operate when you view things at the level of a 'Self.'

We do all report making conscious choices from among alternatives, and we appear to be able to select from among alternatives rather than always choose a single alternative in the statistical sense, whether you think that's proof of choice or not. You could just dismiss it as randomness, but that ignores considerations for whether it's a statistical randomness produced by a chooser's intentional choices (choices that mean something in social contexts and in other contexts that are real, observable, and describable, but not necessarily relevant in a purely statistical or scientific context) or choices forced by external influences. Our brains may operate according to strictly linear, deterministic processes or not (evidence seems to be not), but in either case, brains are inside of us.

The boundary for what we mean by 'Self' is at a higher organizational level than the brain, and even includes the rest of the body. But we aren't just those parts jumbled up in a bag, we're those parts put together in a particular fashion, with functional groupings of components. The self makes choices, as a whole unit with a relatively well-defined logical boundary (there are no physical boundaries that matter at a certain level of description, really, for another example of how this works, but boundaries certainly matter and are very real in practice in daily life). Whatever deterministic effect the operation of the brain has is still happening within the boundary of what we mean by 'Self' and it's at that level that we exhibit non-deterministic seeming behavior, if you consider various statistical analyses of human behavior. And there is evidence of that.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:45 PM on January 28, 2014


As a programmer, it's really easy to make an analogy to how different layers of abstraction in code interact in different ways at different levels, so maybe a computer analogy is useful.
This analogy fails on the face of it. A high-level computer program may be referencing entities that don't "exist" for the machine code, but the high-level language, by definition, has a 1:1 translation for any given machine instruction set. The entities that it references are just part of the shorthand that is used to create the result, a precise machine-usable set of instructions. By definition, the possibility of reducing it to machine code (however crude and "reductionist" it may seem) is the raison d'etre of the high-level code.

I think the analogy is more like looking at a page on Google about "add your site to Google" and saying "impossible -- the ADD instruction doesn't work like that at all!"

First, it's probably not actually possible to express "add your site to Google" in terms of machine code. Sure, it's ultimately implemented in machine code, but in all likelihood the actual mix of machine code is different every time, so there's not a particular set of machine code that captures the whole idea.

But mainly, the "add" in "add your site to Google" is really expressing something completely different from the "add" in "add these two machine registers". The only way to use the same word for both is by extreme analogy.

And I think this is the essence of the compatibilist position -- the "freedom" of indeterminacy is really so far removed from the "freedom" of intentional action that it's faintly ridiculous to insist that a physical constraint on one version really has a meaningful bearing on the other.
posted by bjrubble at 9:54 PM on January 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


The boundary for what we mean by 'Self' is at a higher organizational level than the brain, and even includes the rest of the body. But we aren't just those parts jumbled up in a bag, we're those parts put together in a particular fashion, with functional groupings of components. The self makes choices, as a whole unit with a relatively well-defined logical boundary (there are no physical boundaries that matter at a certain level of description, really, for another example of how this works, but boundaries certainly matter and are very real in practice in daily life). Whatever deterministic effect the operation of the brain has is still happening within the boundary of what we mean by 'Self' and it's at that level that we exhibit non-deterministic seeming behavior, if you consider various statistical analyses of human behavior. And there is evidence of that.

Ok, but this still amounts to description at a particular unit of analysis, it doesn't explain anything.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:18 PM on January 28, 2014



But some of us have long recognized these points and gone on to adopt more reasonable, more empirically sound, models of decision and thought, and we think we can articulate and defend a more sophisticated model of free will that is not only consistent with neuroscience and introspection but also grounds a (modified, toned down, non Absolute) variety of responsibility that justifies both praise and blame, reward and punishment. We don’t think this variety of free will is an illusion at all, but rather a robust feature of our psychology and a reliable part of the foundations of morality, law and society.


I don't see why a concept of free will needs to be "real" and can't be just an "illusion" to suffice as a robust feature of psychology that is a foundation of morality, law and society as long as everyone believes in it, so the last sentence seems like a non-sequitor to me. But is any concept of free will actually necessary for a moral and just society? I doubt it. I think society would get by just fine if it were to let go of the idea. Perhaps Dennett is also begging the question to suggest that any of this needs a "grounding" in free will.

It seems one could formulate a similar argument for the need of a robust, compatibalist concept of god as a large scale, complex, materialist, emergent, psychological, and cultural phenomena that provides a reliable foundation of morality, law and society. Perhaps if Dennett were to ponder this for a while, he wouldn't see a need for the atheist convention any longer.

The Harris quote posted by Golden Eternity is jaw dropping in this regard: "The problem, however, is that there is no evidence that consciousness exists in the physical world," in which Harris uses a (correct) statement by Leibniz (that, in effect, looking at the workings of a brain doesn't explain consciousness) to override what is manifestly evident to any field biologist or anthropologist. It's a every odd refusal, this tendency to say that empirical evidence at the "wrong" scale is somehow not empirical evidence. It's like saying water waves don't exist because they're epiphenomena of water molecules.

I would say there is no physical theory that explains (or predicts the existence of) our consciousness. I don't want to defend Harris's statement, but I think this is what he was getting at. To say there is no evidence of consciousness in "the physical world" is needlessly begging the question, though I probably agree with him that subjective experience is not ontologically compatible with materialism.

But I don't get what "scale" has to do with it, and I'm not sure what you are referring to that is "manifestly evident to any field biologist or anthropologist." Is there a consensus anthropological or biological explanation for consciousness at the right "scale" that Harris is ignoring or something? From what I've read recent studies of olfactory consciousness discount most contemporary theories of consciousness.
Contemporary neuroscientific theories of consciousness are typically based on the study of vision and have neglected olfaction. Several of these (e.g. Global Workspace Theories, the Information Integration theory, and the various theories offered by Crick and Koch) claim that a thalamic relay is necessary for olfactory consciousness. Studies on olfaction and the olfactory system’s anatomical structure show this claim to be incorrect, thus showing these theories to be either false or inadequate as general and comprehensive accounts of consciousness.
And I'm not sure that the "scale" of water vs H2O is a great analogy. I would think it would be possible to tell by looking at just a few water molecules if they were likely in a solid, liquid, or gaseous state. I kind of doubt it would be possible by looking at the mapping between however many neurons to say if they were part of forming the conscious experience of the color red, or a smell, a sound or a word, or whatever.

The more we understand about brain states, the more completely they explain the phenomena we experience and label as consciousness or self.

Citation needed. I'm skeptical that "we" understand much about brain states at all. I guess it is just me. It is amazing how often I read blanket statements like "they completely understand the vision system" or the "central processing" of this or that brain function, but when I look into it, I find experts in the field saying practically the opposite is the case.

Compatibilism says that determinism is true, but "free will" is when decisions are not constrained by outside entities. If that's not what you mean, then it's confusing in a philosophical discussion to call the position "my version of compatibilism."


It seems that contemporary compatibilism allows more than this. Free will is when someone is not constrained by outside entities and could have chosen otherwise.

Physics at the level of a brain-sized object is pretty well understood and I don't think it's going to change too drastically.

I dunno, I would think that we will need a lot of physics at the level of neuron sized objects, and synapse sized objects, and neurotransmitter sized objects to understand the brain well. I recently read that it is slowly becoming the consensus view that olfactory sensing works using quantum tunneling, and I don't see why it should be too surprising if quantum physics plays a big role in other brain functions. I think it is likely that "quantum pixie dust" may very well play a large role in our understanding of brain function some day. For one thing, just based on introspection, it seems that our conscious experience of a unified gestalt must require something like non-local coordination between individual elements of the brain.

Physics of life: The dawn of quantum biology
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:50 PM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


To expand a bit (and in so doing, risk lowering the level of the discussion – can’t help it, sorry), I think it’s sensible, in a way, to choose the bounded person as the unit of interest, because we want to appreciate how this unit functions, in the world we know, at least partly for pragmatic purposes. I think it’s our insistence on pragmatism that makes it difficult to accept ‘randomness’ as an alternate to determinism, because the sense in which ‘free will’ is meaningful to us is also pragmatic – we define it (in advance) as the self-caused action of a goal-directed, bound agent (which only takes us in circles).

I admire the way Bourdieu, in sociology, tried to transform the language of the debate by shifting the location of agency from the person, and using concepts like habitus, field, disposition, etc. Not precisely enough for philosophers, I think, but it’s an interesting take, sympathetic and complementary to Dennett’s imvho.

posted by cotton dress sock at 11:04 PM on January 28, 2014


It seems that contemporary compatibilism allows more than this. Free will is when someone is not constrained by outside entities and could have chosen otherwise.

I don't think that's really the case, you just have to accept a definition of 'free will' which would additionally grant it to plants, animals, zombies, robots and automatons.
posted by empath at 11:42 PM on January 28, 2014


For one thing, just based on introspection, it seems that our conscious experience of a unified gestalt must require something like non-local coordination between individual elements of the brain.

You're going to have to elaborate on that.
posted by empath at 11:43 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


You're going to have to elaborate on that.

Individual neurons, neurotransmitters, sodium ions, etc., are separated by space and time, but trillions of them together somehow cause a single unified experience in which a few objects of awareness against a contextual background are formed out of all of the noise of our sensory inputs and subconsconscious thought formation.

Or not. That's how it seems to me anyway.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:15 AM on January 29, 2014


Nerve cells transmit at a few hundred feet per second, enough to go back and forth across the brain 200 times a second.

And consciousness is not as unified as you think, probably. The brain can be really thought of as a bunch of thinking organs that specialize in different tasks, and a lot of them will functionally perfectly well while separated from the rest of the brain.
posted by empath at 12:35 AM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


What does "thinking organs" mean? What "tasks?" Viewing the brain as a collection of modules each of which is devoted to a particular cognitive process is not really in line with current thinking (connectomics, for instance). To the extent that there is functional specialization in the brain, these functions tend to be of the sort that can be applied across a variety of tasks and only make sense in the context of a network of regions that interact in order to produce cognitive behavior.
posted by logicpunk at 2:29 AM on January 29, 2014


Sure, but it's not a unified consciousness. You've got a visual cortex, and auditory cortex, a section of the brain that handles face recognition and so on. Neurons are plastic and the brain can adapt and change in response to injury and it's a network that may not be organized spatially, so you can't exactly divide up the brain into clean sections, but there is definitely organization and specialization in the functions of the brain, and it's not a unified entity that experiences everything as a monolithic reality-- or even in a single moment -- the experience of time passing is fluid and just because you have an experience of simultaneous comprehension, it doesn't mean that that is actually what's happening.
posted by empath at 2:43 AM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


just because you have an experience of simultaneous comprehension, it doesn't mean that that is actually what's happening.

This is a really fun point to contemplate and introspect on under the influence of psychedelics.
posted by flabdablet at 3:34 AM on January 29, 2014


Primary visual and auditory cortex are mainly, but not exclusively, responsive to visual and auditory stimuli. The activity of neurons in auditory cortex is modulated by visual information - what you "hear" can change depending on what you see (e.g., the McGurk effect). Activity in visual cortex is modulated by sound - what you "see" can change depending on what you hear (e.g., the illusory flash illusion). Regions of the brain, even those with a high degree of specialization, do not function independently of what is going on in the rest of the brain. How is this not a unified entity?
posted by logicpunk at 4:35 AM on January 29, 2014


Just because there is communication and influence, that doesn't mean everything is perceived instantaneously throughout the entire brain.
posted by empath at 4:49 AM on January 29, 2014


And also, the McGurk effect happens during language recognition, not in the auditory cortex. So much of what you think you experience and know about the world is pieced together from incomplete information and guesswork by the brain.
posted by empath at 4:51 AM on January 29, 2014


And also, the McGurk effect happens in the language recognition part of the brain, not the auditory cortex

You're wrong.

From the article: "Results from electrocorticography in human STG depict speech representations in tertiary auditory cortex as being altered by attention or the context of a sound [25] and suggest multimodal influences on the early stages of auditory processing"
posted by logicpunk at 5:06 AM on January 29, 2014


So, once Kant gets to the courtesy phone, what does he say?

Kant gets to the phone, but there's no one on the other end anymore, because ennui.bz has ducked out of the party, taking his bottle with him.
posted by memebake at 5:53 AM on January 29, 2014


saulgoodman: “... simple experiment to demonstrate weak free will...”

That doesn't seem like a coherent route to go for me. Scientific experiment is based on the idea that results are always observable and reproducible, and aims at uncovering laws of the universe which can be discerned via observation and experiment. As such, it assumes that the world is deterministic. It can't prove the thing it takes as an assumption.
posted by koeselitz at 6:27 AM on January 29, 2014


Is it possible to talk about a bicycle as a unified entity despite it's parts not simultaneously being in communication? What does the unity of consciousness really have to do with it? Even stipulating that a self is made of parts at a lower level of description, that doesn't mean we can't talk meaningfully about the whole at the level of the whole, or that you can disprove the existence of the whole by explaining its inner workings.

It sure would be nice to believe we don't actually have any responsibility for our choices, I guess (if you're into that) but a concept like responsibility doesn't even lend itself to reductive analysis as it's an emergent feature of our social reality, not a feature of physical reality, so it just seems like a lot of fuss over stuff we don't usually make so much fuss about to me.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:03 AM on January 29, 2014


Koeselitz: chaotic systems theory doesn't assume the world is deterministic, nor does Quantum mechanics. Not all science is deterministic any more, yet we still seem to assume it is for purposes of discussions like this.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:09 AM on January 29, 2014


These are all very good points about determinism being far from proven, and while quantum mechanics is the place where it's assumed to be truly random by most practitioners, other physicists aren't necessarily right in their assumptions of determinism. Even a classical phenomena like Brownian motion, which plays a massive role in nearly every single biological function, appears completely random, and while some guess that there are hidden variables describing these apparently random events, they are likely to be hidden in practice even if we postulate their existence, just as the initial conditions in chaotic systems are forever hidden from our view. We just assume that they exist because they exist in our models of reality, and they models end up looking a lot like reality, even if we know that the universe isn't operating on 32 bit or 64 bit floating point calculations.. Determinism is far from a clear matter in science, just a pragmatic assumption if you want to actually make progress on discovery. (Sort of how free will is a pragmatic assumption by a conscious agent if it's going to interact with the world...)
posted by Llama-Lime at 7:32 AM on January 29, 2014


saulgoodman: “chaotic systems theory doesn't assume the world is deterministic, nor does Quantum mechanics. Not all science is deterministic any more, yet we still seem to assume it is for purposes of discussions like this.”

Can you explain this to me? How is it possible to theorize about the universe without being deterministic? What does such theorization aim at?
posted by koeselitz at 7:36 AM on January 29, 2014


Such theorization aims at creating models of reality that allow us to see how changes in general parameters affect general behaviors, where instead of predicting a precise event at a precise time and location, we can predict prevalence of events, or distributions of prevalence over space and time.

With the advent of computers, we were able to perform enough computation that it became clear that many physical models with deterministic computation have behavior that is indistinguishable from randomness. That is, if we wish to apply the model to reality and really test whether reality is deterministic, we'd have to have perfect measurements with zero error, which is not a realistic situation.
posted by Llama-Lime at 7:50 AM on January 29, 2014


Can you explain this to me? How is it possible to theorize about the universe without being deterministic?

"In the strict formulation of the law of causality—if we know the present, we can calculate the future—it is not the conclusion that is wrong but the premise." - Werner Heisenberg
posted by crayz at 8:01 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Some confusion has crept into the thread regarding determinism in mathematical physics and dynamical systems theory.

Chaos is absolutely a deterministic phenomenon: that is, chaos is a property of certain types of steady state solutions to deterministic dynamical systems. By "deterministic" we mean that the same initial state always evolves to the same future state, with probability 1. Chaotic solutions are odd because they are locally unstable everywhere along their trajectory (the famed "sensitive dependence on initial conditions"), while being bounded (they don't "blow up to infinity") and resting on a robust invariant set (the "strange attractor"). These features give chaotic solutions certain properties that seem stochastic (like a broad-band power spectra and a smeared out steady-state probability distribution).

Furthermore, quantum mechanics is deterministic in the sense that the evolution law (Schrödinger's equation) is completely deterministic (states evolve in time in a completely determined way from initial conditions). Indeterminacy arises in quantum mechanics only because the states cannot be localized, and so are represented by probability distributions (the wave function). But the evolution of that probability density is itself completely deterministic. This is analogous to the Fokker-Planck equation for stochastic processes, which is a deterministic evolution law that operates on probability densities as its states.

</pedantry>
posted by mondo dentro at 8:06 AM on January 29, 2014 [7 favorites]


My point is that both chaotic systems and quantum theory, despite having deterministic elements, also has some indeterminate outcomes, in that given indistinguishable initial conditions there are two or more distinct possible outcomes, which seems to be the key aspect for how these physical theories apply to the philosophical debate. Also, that the determinism is in the theories because it's a useful starting point for the scientific endeavor, and that it is an assumption, not something that is proven to be a fundamental aspect of reality. And in fact they are places where the scientific assumption of determinism has appeared to fallen down to some degree, which is part of what made both fields exciting.
posted by Llama-Lime at 8:20 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Completely agree, Llama-Lime. If one can only estimate states imperfectly, indeterminism is introduced into the picture. And, of course, that's precisely the situation that any intelligent, non-godlike agent faces when confronting the world. We never have complete information.

As you say, chaos and quantum mechanics are both places where "determinism has appeared to fall down". But what they call us to do is to not jettison or embrace determinism outright, but rather to understand how we have to keep the seemingly contradictory concepts of determinism and indeterminism in our minds simultaneously, as representing different aspects of the world which both exist, and which both interact, and which are strongly dependent on the scale of observation (as saulgoodman was rightly pointing out).

Philosophy (and I say this with with much humility and in the spirit of constructive debate) seems to have difficulty with problems that aren't "either-or" in nature, but rather "both-and". Modern mathematical modeling is so much more flexible and expansive than many people realize, and its tools have in many cases simply erased seeming contradictions. My standard (naive, amateur) example, one that I've used before at MeFi, is that philosophy gives us Zeno's paradox, mathematics gives us the theory of limits that eliminates the paradox. And empiricism (i.e., seeing that I can indeed traverse a room in finite time) plays a crucial role by simultaneously guiding us forward and keeping us honest.
posted by mondo dentro at 8:38 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


The argument about determinism strikes me as entirely a red-herring. I don't see what advocates of a "real" free-will gain by claiming that the world is not, or might not be, deterministic. If you're trying to develop a scientific account of a free will that will preserve it in a form we recognize as consistent with our subjective experience of the "exercise of the will" then random indeterminacy is entirely unhelpful. The experience of "exercising the will" is not, typically, one of suddenly finding oneself inexplicably and unmotivatedly wanting to do something that had never occurred to you before. In fact, we would regard someone whose actions were random, undetermined, unpredictable and inconsistent not as some kind of prodigy of the power of the Will but as quite the opposite--someone who was the victim of some kind of mental disease that had deprived him or her of a meaningful will.

There are, of course, absurdist and existentialist accounts of the will that do prize moments of radical discontinuity (we might call them "hey, let me prove my humanity by killing an arab" moments), but the very drama of such moments seems, to me, to prove that they are not particularly useful as models for "willing" as we typically understand it. It is an old (Humean) point, indeed, that typically our acts of willing are rather easy to place into causal chains: I reach for the cup of water because I'm thirsty. I go to work because I want to get paid. I write posts to Metafilter because I like receiving the royalty checks they generate (those start coming any moment, right?). Etc. etc.

We may, indeed, live in a nondeterministic universe--who knows?--but if we discover that that is true, that won't, or shouldn't, make the argument about "free will" any different.
posted by yoink at 9:06 AM on January 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


There are, of course, absurdist and existentialist accounts of the will that do prize moments of radical discontin (we might call them "hey, let me prove my humanity by killing an arab" moments)..

My version of this is more like: "Let me prove my agency by blowing up a conference of philosophers of mind and cognitive neuroscientists." What I tell my students as a sort of seriously-intended joke is that the difference between a living thing and an AI is that the living thing can always tell you to fuck off. But that's just my inner existentialist talking!

[Note to the NSA: I'M JOKING.]
posted by mondo dentro at 9:15 AM on January 29, 2014


As Llama-Lime points out, even if the universe is Deterministic, it remains absolutely unpredictable. As in, it may be deterministic, but it is so complicated and literally impossible to model that no process except for the unfolding universe itself is going to be able to say what happens next. A computer that could successfully model every atom and particle in the universe would have to be bigger than the universe, sitting somehow outside it, and able to get the initial conditions right. All impossible.

So, as yoink says, what has determinism got to do with free will? Well, nothing. But I think reflecting on Determinism makes people very aware that there appears to be little room left for 'Free Will' (in the traditional sense). But if you think about it carefully, exactly the same can be said for a non-deterministic universe where genuine 'randomness' occurs. Because randomness also doesn't leave any room for traditional 'Free Will'.

So all the focus on determinism is perhaps because it throws the Free Will problem into stark relief. But strictly speaking, determinism and randomness are equally problematic. Apart from dualism, is there a third thing between Determinism and randomness?
posted by memebake at 9:49 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


The main point to me, yoink, is that so many critical analyses of free will still present hard determinism as if it were indisputable scientific fact, and many of the more conventional arguments basically do argue that the main problem for free will is determinism. I agree it's a red herring, but it's still one of the most common assumptions underlying arguments against the possibility of even weak free will. It's a red herring that has legs.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:54 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


If one can only estimate states imperfectly, indeterminism is introduced into the picture. And, of course, that's precisely the situation that any intelligent, non-godlike agent faces when confronting the world. We never have complete information.

That's exactly what I'm on about when I talk about not taking "in principle" seriously. If philosophy - the love of wisdom - is to be of any use it needs to be about reality as we actually encounter it, not a bunch of completely unverifiable handwaving about some made-up Platonic ideal simplification.
posted by flabdablet at 9:56 AM on January 29, 2014


It's a red herring that has legs.

Hey, the axolotl thread is over there.
posted by yoink at 10:00 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


The problem is no one ever said free choice has to happen independently of a causal chain, all that's required is that the self viewed at the level of a bounded whole can be a causal agent of change when viewed at that level of organization. If the chain isn't strictly determistic, the self at that level may be able to play a causal role itself, acting as a deciding link in the chain as a discrete functional unit. All we have to be able to show is that it's possible for a self as a unit to behave more than one way in a given, otherwise identical situation due to processes internal to the organizational unit we define as a self, rather than due to external causal forces. For me, that's as much as free will has ever really meant.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:09 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


The problem is no one ever said free choice has to happen independently of a causal chain, all that's required is that the self viewed at the level of a bounded whole can be a causal agent of change when viewed at that level of organization

And that's compatibilism. I find it odd, though, that you go on to demand some kind indeterminism after this (" If the chain isn't strictly determistic, the self at that level may be able to play a causal role itself, acting as a deciding link in the chain as a discrete functional unit")--somehow you do, in fact, seem to need a non-deterministic world for this compatibilist will to really "count."
posted by yoink at 10:13 AM on January 29, 2014


"This doesn't seem to be compatible with Harris's views on consciousness."
He's essentially ignoring the process by which he makes a statement like:

"Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is “like something” to be what they are."
How does he know that? Well look at physical events obviously.

But everything is "like something" as regards consciousness. Not only in examining consciousness, but that there's no way to think about something without relating it to something else.
You can only describe consciousness in terms of what it does. Then you have to go on. A corpse can't walk. But if we describe walking we can't speak only of the body. We have to examine it in relation to the floor.
And if the floor is an infinite flat plane, there's no motion, therefore 'walking' can't really be said to be taking place.

A variants on this idea were said above. What I'm trying to add is that the territory is critical to description as is the relationship to the territory. As with the computer example above, except adding that without understanding the significance of the relationship to how consciousness acts, which is as a feature of its environment, you're essentially dissecting the anatomy looking for "walk." Or "walk to the store."

But that's not in the abstract and can't be if we're to understand what consciousness does.
So that is not described unless I describe my own behavior. I'm watching you walk to the store.
In addition, what is the difference between you walking to the store and me walking to the store?
Well, the difference is you're you and I'm me. Except it's not a separation. You're you because I'm me and vice versa. The system is interdependent and changing. By necessity. You can't walk to the store unless you're moving, and therefore changing in relationship to your environment and me (who is also part of the environment).

But that's what Harris is doing. His specific statement(s) (in some places) aren't wrong. But the premise is akin to saying nothing in the leg contains walking to the store because you're out of milk.
The statement therefore would be: "No milk is contained in any leg."
Well, yeah.

Now we can argue I'm just expanding the focus until I can say that consciousness is part of the process of the big bang (or quantum nucleation or whatever "the universe" descriptive is more accurate) but then, what is Harris doing if not narrowing focus until he can say consciousness doesn't exist?
Hell, I can do that with a few molecules of frog leg and a particle accelerator. Nope, just quarks here, no frog.
But he returns to the idea of what we're to DO with the concepts of ease and happiness and so forth.
So what is "happy", or experiencing ease? If there's no physical evidence of such a thing existing why be concerned with what it does?

Take for example the "Old Sow" whirlpool off the Canadian coast. It's a whirlpool. You could (theoretically) put your hand on it and touch it. It's there and real.
But the water that makes it up isn't the same water that was there just a minute ago.
And so, one might say, obviously. We all know it takes moving water to make a whirlpool.
Is that all? No. It takes a lot of water. A whole lot. Perhaps the entire ocean. And even then, is that enough?
Not really. It takes certain geological features remaining contiguous, as well as the cycles of the moon. Still not enough though because without energy from the sun, the whirlpool wouldn't be there.
And regardless of the nature of any discrete physical processes, we don't swim into it because whether we entirely understand it or not we know damn well what it does.

But because we can recognize Old Sow as the same Old Sow it was yesterday, we forget all the processes connected to it and the water moving through it in the same way our consciousness is a flow. We recognize "ease" without needing to discreetly define what is physically is being easy.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:15 AM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


But the water that makes it up isn't the same water that was there just a minute ago.

Heraclitus in the house!
posted by yoink at 10:23 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


"Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is 'like something' to be what they are."

How does he know that? Well look at physical events obviously.

Yeah, and this is one of the main reasons we've so blithely been able to justify our self-interest in abusing other living creatures (animals and "lesser" humans) for our own ends. Hell, until roughly the middle of the last century many people thought human babies weren't "really" feeling pain during surgery, and so didn't require anesthesia! I am nowhere near the brainiac that Descartes was, and I'd never say I was... but to modern eyes it's laughable to read the justifications he came up with for vivisection--basically along the lines of "animals are just machines, so even thought they seem like they're suffering, it's just an appearance."

This is an almost criminal denial of empirical evidence, isn't it? And, to the limits of my understanding, it's not fundamentally different from Harris' denial that there's any evidence for consciousness in the physical world. What he's saying, of course, is that when we look at atoms or neurons, their's no evidence of a subjective inner life. But there's manifest evidence of it at the level of whole organisms--why doesn't that count?! On top of that, as has been pointed out multiple times above, it doesn't seem to satisfy the most basic application of Occam's razor (not that that's sacrosanct, mind you...).

It's interesting (if not depressing) to ponder the social and ethical consequences of denying even the evidence of an internal life for beings in the universe.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:43 AM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


The problem is no one ever said free choice has to happen independently of a causal chain, all that's required is that the self viewed at the level of a bounded whole can be a causal agent of change when viewed at that level of organization

And that's compatibilism. I find it odd, though, that you go on to demand some kind indeterminism after this (" If the chain isn't strictly determistic, the self at that level may be able to play a causal role itself, acting as a deciding link in the chain as a discrete functional unit")--somehow you do, in fact, seem to need a non-deterministic world for this compatibilist will to really "count."

Is it compatibilism, though, or is slippage, a case of mislabelling the nature of the action of the observed supposed agent?

Just because (let's say) consciousness is an emergent property of neural processes -- instantiated by and consisting of complex interactions -- and we say that somewhere and some time within these processes is a measure of indeterminacy, but which does not in, its net effect, operate outside causal laws -- there is nothing to suggest there's a free anything, right? I read the top quote as determinism (but am happy to be corrected)..
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:05 PM on January 29, 2014


The fact that they say it doesn't make it true. Dennett consulted with theologians extensively, and in the end became dismissive of their having any role in religion as it is actually practiced and preached. Organized religion will occasionally roust some actual theologians from their dens to engage with a Dennett or a Harris when it must, but it's not like it listens to them any other time, and it's not like they say, when wheeled to the podium in these debates, anything that resembles what is said from the pulpit or understood by a parishioner.

Ha. This still sounds like Harris's reasons for ignoring more sohpisticated philosophical thinking about free will. Dennett's answer to Harris applies just as well to what you're saying about Dennett treatment of religion: (1) Laypeople don't need a sophisticated understanding of the concept to exercise free will or to practice religion; (2) The muddled understanding of laypeople is irrelevant to whether you need to pay attention to the work of more sophisticated thinkers before trying to make pronouncements about free will or religion; (3) You haven't actually demonstrated that the straw man you're arguing with represents even common lay understandings of the concept.
posted by straight at 12:09 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


But I think alot of what Dennett is saying here about free will is really interesting and insightful. Particularly his argument that in makes more sense to talk about whether a person in general has free will over time than to focus on instants of decision and try to figure out if a person was "free" in that instant.
posted by straight at 12:19 PM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


(And by insightful, I wasn't actually trying to compliment Dennett for knowing more than me about the free will debate (duh) but for saying it in a way that gave me insight, a perspective on the debate I hadn't understood / considered before.)
posted by straight at 12:48 PM on January 29, 2014


Is it compatibilism, though, or is slippage, a case of mislabelling the nature of the action of the observed supposed agent?

Just because (let's say) consciousness is an emergent property of neural processes -- instantiated by and consisting of complex interactions -- and we say that somewhere and some time within these processes is a measure of indeterminacy, but which does not in, its net effect, operate outside causal laws -- there is nothing to suggest there's a free anything, right? I read the top quote as determinism (but am happy to be corrected)..


Compatibilism is determinist. That's the whole point. Compatibilists say "sure, we live in a deterministic universe, and our free will is part of what is determined--and that's fine, it doesn't mean free will is illusory."

Of course, you can also go for the Kantian model, where we live in a determinist universe, but our wills are free and undetermined, they just happen to will exactly what a completely determined robo-brain would will in every given set of circumstances. (That, of course, is a rather unfair way of portraying Kant's argument.)
posted by yoink at 1:50 PM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


particularly his argument that in makes more sense to talk about whether a person in general has free will over time than to focus on instants of decision

There's something to be said for how the idea of "free will" works when you're consciousness is so interdependent on the world as well.
Do you have free will if 40% of your thinking comes from your environment? 50%? 90%?
We speak English (in this case) that certainly constrains our thinking to certain patterns (if you speak another, or several languages it's very clear. More clear when doing maths or sublimating thought. I pretty much forget language when I hunt.)

A lot of free will depends on thinking about 'you,' what it is that wills.
Best analogy I've heard is a wave on water. It's moved by the moon, earthquakes, deep currents, shallow currents, ships, ice, animals, the wind...
Better to think about how - or whether - our conception of ourselves is an illusion before we delve into the software of the self.
We look to be just another kind of indeterminable wave propagating though the myriad medium of the universe.
If that's the case, not only am I responsible for me, I'm responsible for everything. But that's cool because so are you.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:12 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yoink--I like the compatabilist argument as far as it goes, but I think there's room in a non-hard-deterministic universe to argue for an even stronger version of free will (without necessarily substituting pure woo for clear reasoning as many of the arguments along those lines do). But unfortunately, I'm not quite up to the challenge of making that argument just yet.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:47 PM on January 29, 2014


Compatibilism is determinist. That's the whole point. Compatibilists say "sure, we live in a deterministic universe, and our free will is part of what is determined--and that's fine, it doesn't mean free will is illusory."

Thank you, and sorry for asking you to go through the reasoning. I’d known or at least heard it years ago, but it never quite stuck, and I wasn’t quite clear on how it applied above. (I'd remembered it as vaguely akin to dualism. Anyway, there's the Stanford Encyclopedia a click away, sorry.)

(I actually still can’t grasp the argument, because I don’t understand how all the words in the quoted sentence could be true at once. But I could now probably identify it in a lineup. Excuse me and carry on!)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:43 PM on January 29, 2014


Nerve cells transmit at a few hundred feet per second, enough to go back and forth across the brain 200 times a second.

It's not clear to me that that helps. Assume many different neurons work together to create a single smell or a sound or color as an example. Even if they can be precisely synchronized they are still separated by space, each 'unaware' of the other. To me it is a big mystery what they could be doing that would create subjective experience, and suggests the possibility of non-local pixie dust. The easy thing is to describe the network as performing a computation, but there are a number of thought experiments that can show this to be absurd, imo. What computation is the color red exactly?

But everything is "like something" as regards consciousness.

Sulfur has a pungent smell; methane is odorless. 700nm photons are red; 2um photons are invisible.

Not only in examining consciousness, but that there's no way to think about something without relating it to something else. You can only describe consciousness in terms of what it does. Then you have to go on.

Being "like something" is not a great way to define consciousness; I would just define it as subjective experience.  Describing "what consciousness does" is a great way to avoid the problem that consciousness presents to physicalism, but I don't think it is the only way to describe it, which we do any time we describe our experiences. I am much more interested in trying to find out what the physical basis of consciousness is.  It would be easy to simply explain color vision as a function that discriminates between wavelengths of light to facilitate humans or robots getting around better and leave it at that, but this doesn't help explain how 690nm photons being absorbed by the retina combined with whatever action potentials they ignite in the visual cortex or whatever produce the experience of red while 540nm protons produce green instead of the other way around or something completely different.  Or how sulfur produces a pungent odor, etc. (Interestingly, I recently read somewhere that scientists produced molecules not found on earth that have unique scents that most likely no humans ever smelled before, and where it is not clear from an evolutionary standpoint why they should have any scent at all.)

After finally finishing Dennett's review, the compatibilist definition of free will is still not petfectly clear to me. I take it as a conflation of "could have done otherwise," rational thinking and decision making, and executive function. I think the "could have acted otherwise" part should just be dropped. This clarified Dennett's idea of free will for me.

Well, if the events that cause your intentions are thoughts about what the best course of action probably is, and why it is the right thing to do, then that causation strikes me as the very epitome of freedom: you have the ability to intend exactly what you think to be the best course of action.

Dennett's review is so much more worth reading than the actual book.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:33 AM on January 30, 2014


What computation is the color red exactly?

This is a good question for summing up the mystery of consciousness. From what I've understood of Consciousness Explained, Dennett would answer it like this:

- your retinas detect a certain wavelength of light reflected from a tomato
- some part of your visual cortex labels that as $colour
- thats it. the information about the $colour of the tomato is now in your brain

It seems to us that something more should happen here - perhaps the image should be re-assembled on some inner Cartesian Theatre for another part of the brain to 'look' at? But thats just pushing the perception problem recursively back.

Analogy: my phone monitors its internal state. If its running low on memory it shuffles things around. If its low on battery it takes certain actions. Thats an 'awareness' of sorts, although a very basic one. My brain is millions of times more complex than my phone, and it also monitors its internal state. From that a much more rich and complicated awareness arises.

This is of course an unsatisfactory explanation for many people. But then so is the non-local pixie dust you mention. Consciousness is a huge mystery, but I think Dennett's general approach is that people have lots of confused intuitions about how it should work, and that makes the problem even harder to fathom. What he adds as a philosopher (rather than a scientist) is concepts and frameworks for grappling with the ideas more rigourously (e.g. Cartesian Theatre).
posted by memebake at 1:11 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is a good question for summing up the mystery of consciousness. From what I've understood of Consciousness Explained, Dennett would answer it like this:

- your retinas detect a certain wavelength of light reflected from a tomato
- some part of your visual cortex labels that as $colour
- thats it. the information about the $colour of the tomato is now in your brain

It seems to us that something more should happen here - perhaps the image should be re-assembled on some inner Cartesian Theatre for another part of the brain to 'look' at? But thats just pushing the perception problem recursively back.


This is Dennett's picture more or less, or anyway Dennett's picture circa '91-'92. He would also have acknowledged that there are particular brain regions that seem to be associated with color "judgments."

The state of the art has advanced a bit, though. There may be, if not a "Cartesian theater," some kind of internal stage, from which the contents of consciousness are projected. In that case, Dennett's arguments about experience being "smeared" across time and space in the brain seem to be wrong; it is localized rather than smeared. I take this to be an implication of the "Global Workspace" theory and its descendants. Dennett is a fan of workspace theories, but I'm not sure what he thinks their implication is for his earlier arguments.
posted by grobstein at 4:32 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah that global workspace paper looks interesting. I think Dennett's objection to the Cartesian Theatre was that there can't be anything watching. A theatre as in a focal point where information is assembled is still ok I think, Dennett always talked about a threshold that multiple drafts might cross to reach the 'conscious arena', that would fit with the global workspace idea I think.

As for smearing across time and space - even if its localised its still distributed across a short time and a small space. So within the global workspace it would still be hard to say what 'order' things arrived. There is presumably not a single focal neuron at the centre lf it all. Hence still no official finish line for events to arrive at.
posted by memebake at 5:43 AM on January 30, 2014


From what I've understood of Consciousness Explained, Dennett would answer it like this:

- your retinas detect a certain wavelength of light reflected from a tomato
- some part of your visual cortex labels that as $colour
- thats it. the information about the $colour of the tomato is now in your brain


This is actually what Dennett was arguing against in Consciousness Explained. The notion that there is a single place in the brain (the visual cortex) where color is represented and where color consciousness is determined is exactly the myth of the Cartesian Theater.

Dennett is much more behaviorist than this. What determines whether we consciously experience redness? Well, if you put me in front of red things, I'll say, "that's red"; I'll find foods more appealing and have my appetite stimulated more when red light is shined on them than when green light is shined on them; etc. All these various behavioral and bodily dispositions metaphysically ground consciousness and its contents.

And these dispositions are realized not just by the computations in my retinas and in my visual cortex, but by high-level computations performed by the frontal lobe, emotional responses generated by the amygdala and insula, etc. These computations are just as important. But thes various mechanisms will be doing different stuff with the information coming from your eyes. This is where the "Multiple Drafts" metaphor comes in. The computations in the visual cortex are but a single draft with no more claim to being the content of our color consciousness than the drafts written by other swarms of homunculi in the brain.
posted by painquale at 6:46 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


The old joke about Dennett's book Consciousness Explained is that it should have been titled Consciousness Explained Away.
posted by shivohum at 7:11 AM on January 30, 2014


He makes that joke himself. It's the title of the final section of the book.
posted by painquale at 7:35 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, points for honesty. I think we'll eventually look back on this desperate, flailing focus on physicalizing consciousness -- instead of delving into and engaging with it in more individual, artistic, introspective, and spiritual ways -- as an embarrassing waste of time.
posted by shivohum at 7:53 AM on January 30, 2014


But what is at stake here, shivohum, is whether consciousness can be infinitely created, expanded, uploaded and extended. Or whether it is a phenomenon forever restricted to soggy grey cells locked inside skulls, and creatable only by copulating animals.
posted by memebake at 8:13 AM on January 30, 2014


Yeah that global workspace paper looks interesting. I think Dennett's objection to the Cartesian Theatre was that there can't be anything watching. A theatre as in a focal point where information is assembled is still ok I think, Dennett always talked about a threshold that multiple drafts might cross to reach the 'conscious arena', that would fit with the global workspace idea I think.

I think the workspace theories contradict the Multiple Drafts idea, at least as laid out in '91 and '92. So did its originator, Bernard Baars, who wrote into Behavioral and Brain Sciences to distinguish his theater of consciousness from the maligned "Cartesian Theater."

Dennett claimed then that there is no definitive fact of the matter as to what is conscious at a given time, basing this in part on the claim that there is no consciousness "box" in the brain (no discrete consciousness system). By contrast, if there is a box that holds the contents of consciousness at a given time, then there is a definitive content of consciousness at that time. I think the "workspace" in some theories is a "box" in the sense Dennett was trying to deny. Workspace theories talk about the workspace as a limited capacity system that can be "full" with one content-of-consciousness, leaving no room for another, etc. (One vision scientist I talked to even agreed that the prefrontal cortex is like a homunculus that "looks at" the contents of the workspace, making it a Cartesian Theater, but I haven't got this in writing.)

So I think that part of the Multiple Drafts picture has to be revised. I might be confused though. I wrote a short paper on this that Dennett is supposed to be reading now.

Much of what Dennett was saying in '91-'92 is still right, though. In particular, there is no definitive fact of the matter as to what is conscious of a given time. Our subjective time doesn't map in any orderly way into objective time. The phenomenal "stream of consciousness" is not what it seems. There may be many unconscious representations of a given event in the brain, which can contribute to conscious contents in different ways depending on cues. Etc.
posted by grobstein at 8:16 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


But what is at stake here, shivohum, is whether consciousness can be infinitely created, expanded, uploaded and extended. Or whether it is a phenomenon forever restricted to soggy grey cells locked inside skulls, and creatable only by copulating animals.

Interesting. I suppose I'm of the opinion that if consciousness can be created, it certainly is not by any means at our disposal or even on the remote horizon. Meanwhile, what's really magical about consciousness -- its contortions and folds and the mindboggling complexity of each of our phenomenological worlds -- has still been examined, after millenia, in only intermittent and disorganized fashion.
posted by shivohum at 9:15 AM on January 30, 2014


Meanwhile, what's really magical about consciousness -- its contortions and folds and the mindboggling complexity of each of our phenomenological worlds -- has still been examined, after millenia, in only intermittent and disorganized fashion.


The sort of exploration you want sounds lovely, but I'm a bit confused as to what you're referring to and/or why you don't think there's much of it happening?

Don't we all explore our phenomenological worlds every night in our dreams? Are the legions of artists and poets and musicians and dancers in the world not exploring this horizon? Or do you mean mystical explorations? There's plenty of mystics about still. Within 10 miles of where I'm sitting there are hundreds of thousands of people dreaming, imagining, painting, singing and ... er ... mysticising.
posted by memebake at 9:35 AM on January 30, 2014


grobstein: Thanks for posting In The Theatre of Consciousness by Bernard J Baars, its a great read, with lots of examples of consciousness-related phenomena that it parades through your mind while you're reading it. The bits about the 'narrow limits of conscious capacity' remind me of experiments that were done into measuring the bandwidth of consciousness, which produced numbers such as 18 bits per second, a surprising number that I wrote a lengthy blog post about a while back.
posted by memebake at 9:42 AM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]


The sort of exploration you want sounds lovely, but I'm a bit confused as to what you're referring to and/or why you don't think there's much of it happening?

Well that's just the thing. I'm confused too - and more people should be. The study of subjective experience is split up among various warring schools of psychology, art, literature, philosophy, and so on. The concepts used to describe our experience, the categories, the frames, are themselves in perennial confusion. So that people do work, as you point out, independently, but only light their own candles. There seems to be no effective framework for collaboration, for a more effective and cooperative delving into the psyche.

I have no simple solution, but it seems to me that all the most heated and urgent problems of human existence, from personal fulfillment, to love, to political conflict, to family relations and much more center in that stormy zone of nearly-inarticulable subjective experience. The best minds should be trying to understand that zone better as it is in itself - there must be a new kind of synthesis of science and art which is not reductive but is nevertheless explanatory.

Even framing the problem is not easy, as you can see. But that's the point: people should be more concerned with framing it.
posted by shivohum at 10:07 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


"Being "like something" is not a great way to define consciousness"

The word 'define' itself is the setting of boundaries and discrimination. Being like something is not how to define consciousness, it's what consciousness does. Pattern recognition and correlation between experiences is how the mind works. Perception is not understanding.

You can look at ten different bits of data and depending on how they're sequenced, you would have different conclusions for each sequence even though the data remains the same.

Looking for a discrete physical basis of consciousness, at least as far as higher order (human) thinking goes, is an attempt to sway others' subjective perspectives with ostensibly objective truths while justifying one's own subjectivity.

Wherever consciousness is, what it does is overlooks the bounds it sets and that when these bounds change, the opposite side moves with it. Both sides move together.
So what *isn't* you? Any other physical system? The guy on the other side of an imaginary line? All depends on where one sets the bounds.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:32 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


(late, but anyway)

Sam Harris has interesting ideas but he wildly overstates his case. I think that "Imagine there's no free will..." is an interesting thought experiment, but: "Imagine there's no free will; Therefore free will absolutely-does-Not-exist!" is leaping to a conclusion. He makes some intriguing arguments, but they're never really completely convincing of the premise. He presents his speculations as facts, and then he expects us accept them--- on faith.

(Of course, making a provocative argument sells the books, yeah).
posted by ovvl at 8:12 AM on January 31, 2014


Imagine there's no free will. It's easy if you realize there's no such thing as "trying."
posted by yoink at 8:15 AM on January 31, 2014


The old joke about Dennett's book Consciousness Explained is that it should have been titled Consciousness Explained Away.

When I was writing about his earlier work Content and Consciousness many years ago, I similarly renamed it Consciousness and Contentment in my head.

I didn't agree with his conclusions, but I found the books wonderfully stimulating to read, like a Penn and Teller routine where they explain every step of the way but you still can't quite identify exactly when the ball was palmed.
posted by chortly at 2:43 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


cortex is like a homunculus

Then why the hell can't I ban people?
posted by homunculus at 6:05 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


- your retinas detect a certain wavelength of light reflected from a tomato
- some part of your visual cortex labels that as $colour
- thats it. the information about the $colour of the tomato is now in your brain


$colour must be a magical label if it can cause itself (or whatever is "accessing" it) to see color. Assuming 'detection of wavelength' can result in a boolean or numerical symbol that could reside in a 64-bit register, does the register then see color? Or whatever accesses it (a DMA or CPU)? Or the numerical value itself? Or accessing $colour simply is the universe seeing color?

Dennett is a fan of workspace theories. Not having read Consciousness Dennied, it is nice to have this summary of Dennett's views. I like aspects of multiple drafts theory and global workspace theory, but Dennett's demand that everyone fall in line behind his behaviorist approach to understanding consciousness seems like an unhelpful obstacle to further progress.
Theorists are converging from quite different quarters on a version of the global neuronal workspace model of consciousness, but there are residual confusions to be dissolved. In particular,theorists must resist the temptation to see global accessibility as the cause of consciousness (as if consciousness were some other, further condition); rather, it is consciousness. ... it is the very mutual accessibility that gives some informational states the powers that come with a subject's consciousness of that information.
...
In Dehaene and Naccache's terms, this political difference is achieved by "reverberation" in a "sustained amplification loop" [ms, p20], while the losing competitors soon fade into oblivion, unable to recruit enough specialist attention to achieve self-sustaining reverberation.
...
What a theory of consciousness needs to explain is how some relatively few contents become elevated to this political power, with all the ensuing aftermath, while most others evaporate into oblivion.

...the only way to explain consciousness is to move beyond consciousness, accounting for the effects consciousness has when it is achieved.
...
"Phenomenality is experience," (Block) announces, but what does this mean? He recognizes that in order to keep phenomenality distinct from global accessibility, he needs to postulate, and find evidence for, what he calls "phenomenality without reflexivity"-experiences that you don't know you're having.
The mistake Block is making is trying to distinguish between "access" consciousness and "phenomenal" consciousness. Experience = phenomenality = subjectivity = color, smell, pain, sound internal dialog, etc. I'm not sure how Dennett could have a hard time with that. The burden is on Dennett to define "mutual accessibility", "global availability," "reverberation," "amplification loop," etc. in rigorous mathematical and physical terms and then show they are equal to color, smell, pain, etc.

His assertion that the only way to explain consciousness is to move beyond it and account for its effects doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Is the only way to explain lightning to move beyond lightning and explain its effects? Photosynthesis? Gravity?
We are beginning to discern how the human brain achieves consciousness.
Really? How? By watching fMRI images? fMRI and lesion studies have helped map location of conscious and unconscious brain functions and reveal patterns in brain signals, which is great but doesn't really start to account for how the brain achieves consciousness, imo.

What determines whether we consciously experience redness? Well, if you put me in front of red things, I'll say, "that's red"

This seems backwards. What determines whether we see redness is something the brain and retina are doing. Saying "that's red" is something our language function is doing after the fact. If someone lost their language faculty would redness lose its metaphysical grounding?

Dennett:
...if one defines qualia as whatever is neither the downstream effects of experiences (reactions to particular colors, verbal reports, effects on memory . . . ) nor the upstream causal progenitors of experiences (activity in one cortical region or another), then qualia are, by definitional fiat, intrinsic properties of experiences considered in isolation from all their causes and effects, logically independent of all dispositional properties.
Not by "definitional fiat." We can define 'qualia' from first person experience, just not very well, and I think it is better to say 'qualia' are experiences than are properties of experiences. Because we perhaps can't have a first person science, that doesn't mean that our first person experience does not exist or is "an illusion." It means our ability to report and introspect is not reliable enough to individually verify a scientific claim. The analogy of 'qualia' with money doesn't work, because money is not something we experience directly, whereas qualia (color, smell, etc.) are direct experiences. Color, smell, etc. do exist and are indeed *logically* independent of brain states and dispositional properties. You can not equate experiencing red with reporting "red" and cannot equate experiencing red with a pattern of neurons firing or a computation, but red is causally dependent on these brain states. The science of consciousness is the search to discover the exact causal progenitors.

The bits about the 'narrow limits of conscious capacity' remind me of experiments that were done into measuring the bandwidth of consciousness, which produced numbers such as 18 bits per second, a surprising number that I wrote a lengthy blog post about a while back.
This is much too narrow to be able to register the information we routinely receive and act on. As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 million bits of information per second. The bandwidth of consciousness is around eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.
Apparently a lot of people are throwing money away on 55" 4k OLED TV's. This is confusing conscious experience itself with our ability to act on it or describe it using language.

Ben Young (PDF) makes a strong argument that the anatomy of olfactory consciousness reveals faults with neuronal global workspace and other theories as currently formulated. From Dennett:
An information (2) becomes conscious, however, if the neural population that represents it is mobilized by top-down (3) attentional amplification into a brain-scale state of coherent activity that involves many neurons distributed throughout the brain.
- Recent data shows attention to be independent of awareness (consciousness).
- The anatomical structure of olfactory system is problematic for GWT because it does not have the 'thalamic relays' generally thought necessary for access to the distributed global workspace.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:37 AM on February 2, 2014


cannot equate experiencing red with a pattern of neurons firing or a computation

Why not?
posted by flabdablet at 1:26 AM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


Because they are not identical. Neurons are grey for one thing.
posted by Golden Eternity at 1:47 AM on February 2, 2014


What determines whether we consciously experience redness? Well, if you put me in front of red things, I'll say, "that's red"

This seems backwards. What determines whether we see redness is something the brain and retina are doing. Saying "that's red" is something our language function is doing after the fact.


It's illustrative to try to apply this criticism to a property that we're more inclined to be dispositionalists about, like being a vehicle. What determines whether an object is a vehicle? It needs to have the ability to transport people. People can use a car to ferry themselves around, so a car is a vehicle.

Here's a criticism that is analogous to the one you just made: "This seems backwards. What determines whether a car is vehicle is something the carburetor, the pistons, the spark plugs, and the tires are doing. Actually transporting people around is something the car is doing after the fact."

If someone lost their language faculty would redness lose its metaphysical grounding?

No, there'd still be a whole suite of other non-linguistic dispositions that ground conscious experience; probably none is necessary and it's a vague matter. If you cut the wings off an airplane, is it still a vehicle? Well, it can still taxi people around, so yes, but doing too much more damage to it will push against the limits of its vehiclehood.
posted by painquale at 2:54 AM on February 2, 2014


Because they are not identical. Neurons are grey for one thing.

Since we're not attempting to compare the neurons themselves with the red thing that's prompted the firing pattern that happens during perception of red things, that observation strikes me as an irrelevant category error. You might as well claim I can't store the number ten billion in my computer because it only has eight billion memory bits.

So again: why, exactly, is it not reasonable for me to investigate the possibility that my subjective experience of red - that portion of my subjective experience that always occurs when I perceive or contemplate the perception of a red thing - can be reliably correlated with an objectively observable and accurately identifiable neural firing pattern in my brain?

And if that were in fact the case, why would be be unreasonable for me to conclude that such a neural firing pattern is me subjectively experiencing red? Or to put that in slightly different words that I can see no reason shouldn't be equivalent, is my subjective experience of red?

The fact that my subjective experience of anything appears completely different, from your point of view, to your subjective experience of the same thing: that shouldn't matter. After all, from my point of view I'm the only person in the world with an invisible face. That's an inherent characteristic of subjectivity, but I can see no reason to let it interfere with the working out of an objective model that explains and predicts how and when and where subjectivity is likely to occur.
posted by flabdablet at 5:01 AM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


Golden Eternity: $colour must be a magical label if it can cause itself (or whatever is "accessing" it) to see color. Assuming 'detection of wavelength' can result in a boolean or numerical symbol that could reside in a 64-bit register, does the register then see color? Or whatever accesses it (a DMA or CPU)? Or the numerical value itself? Or accessing $colour simply is the universe seeing color?

Your use of the word 'see' in the above, multiple times, sounds like you're expecting a Cartesian Theatre. The retina's do the 'seeing', after that the information is being shuffled around the brain. No further seeing is necessary. There isn't something in your brain that needs to 'see' it again.

Why are apples red? Because trees are green and the sky is blue. Colour is an evolved response in our brains that processes certain wavelengths to make interesting things (like berries) stand out against other things. Things with certain wavelengths get tagged with certain $colour tags. And thats it.

I know that seems like I'm missing something out, but really, I dont see what else could be happening. Unless you want to go all dualist, which is a valid response but not so interesting to discuss.
posted by memebake at 7:30 AM on February 2, 2014


Which is to say, its not that I think I'm definitely right, but the possiblity that consciousness is fundamentally information processing is a really interesting angle to explore. We're having these arguments to establish whether that is feasible or not. It seems like a massive stretch, but then so does dualism. Consciousness seems a very hard thing to explain; Dennett's hunch then, is that we need to change the way we think about it.

I'd recommend Consciousness Explained, not because at the end of it you feel like its been explained (you definitely wont) but because its a whistle stop tour of all the major philosophical arguments and thought experiements (at that time anyway) about Zombies, Qualia, the Chinese Room, Mary The Colour Scientist, Blindsight, Libet's experiments etc.
posted by memebake at 7:44 AM on February 2, 2014


It's illustrative to try to apply this criticism to a property that we're more inclined to be dispositionalists about, like being a vehicle.

I'm not convinced a dispositionalist account of color is appropriate for a scientific explanation of the physical basis of color vision. Red refers to the subjective experience of seeing red we all have. Such an extensional account is sufficient, and dispositionalism seems to be unnecessarily adding language difficulties into the problem.

So again: why, exactly, is it not reasonable for me to investigate the possibility that my subjective experience of red - that portion of my subjective experience that always occurs when I perceive or contemplate the perception of a red thing - can be reliably correlated with an objectively observable and accurately identifiable neural firing pattern in my brain?

(Based on my firsthand experience, the subjective experience of contemplating red is not anywhere near the same thing as actually seeing it. It is not as vivid, etc.)

I do think subjective experience can be correlated with brain activity. I wasn't objecting to correlation, I was objecting to logical dependence/identity of subjective experience on/with brain activity. There is nothing about neurons and synapses or whatever that would necessitate them having the property of subjective experience a priori. Perhaps if we find the true physical basis of color vision, it will show subjective experience of red to be a necessary property of a brain process (or computation) a posteriori, such that subjective experience of red is known to happen wherever/whenever this process or computation is instantiated in the universe (and all other possible universes?). I predict such a process will not be a simple Boltzman machine based model of neurons forming a computation, but will be an inherently bio-chemical, physical process. sys_rq said this best in a previous thread:
Anyone who doesn't believe that life and consciousness are chemical needs to do more drugs.

(I'm not even kidding.)
In any event, I would agree with Dennett that the "hard problem" (the metaphysics of consciousness) is not something scientists need to be concerned with.

The retina's do the 'seeing', after that the information is being shuffled around the brain. No further seeing is necessary.

By 'seeing' I meant having the subjective experience of vision. It seems clear from lesion studies that more than the retina is required for this.

Why are apples red? Because trees are green and the sky is blue. Colour is an evolved response in our brains that processes certain wavelengths to make interesting things (like berries) stand out against other things.


Why couldn't apples be orange, trees yellow, and the sky green? In any event, I don't think this is the kind of physical explanation of consciousness we are looking for. If we want to know how a car works we aren't asking for an explanation like "a car is used for moving humans from one place to another," it is an explanation of internal combustion, gears, etc., that we are looking for.

the possiblity that consciousness is fundamentally information processing is a really interesting angle to explore.

I think John Searle provides a solid objection to this. An "information process" is observer-relative and therefore can not in itself explain subjectivity. It's behind a paywall, but his review of Koch's recent book provides a pretty good discussion of it:

Can Information Theory Explain Consciousness?
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:10 PM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


memebake: The retina's do the 'seeing', after that the information is being shuffled around the brain. No further seeing is necessary.

Golden Eternity: By 'seeing' I meant having the subjective experience of vision. It seems clear from lesion studies that more than the retina is required for this.

Obviously more than retinas are needed for the subjective experience of vision. I am distinguishing between sensing and processing. The retinas do the sensing. Everything else (I am arguing) is processing. From what I understand the signals from the retinas go to many areas in many ways.

The thing is, if consciousness is not just information processing, then what is it? Which brings me to:

I predict such a process will not be a simple Boltzman machine based model of neurons forming a computation, but will be an inherently bio-chemical, physical process.

Right, but any bio-chemical, physical process can pretty much be modelled as a computation. At least to some degree of fidelity. And if you credit the boffins with enough time and processing power, to any degree of fidelity that you want.

Which is to say - if its happening in the physical world, as understood by science in 2014, then it can be modelled as a computation. I guess you do have room here to argue that althought it might be theoretically possible to model, its not practically possible and will not be for thousands of years.

So altogether, I think the alternatives are:

A) Materialism. Consciousness is a physical/bio chemical process in the brain, but although it is modellable in theory, in practise we will never make a model good enough to capture the spark
B) Materialism. Consciousness is a physical/bio chemical process in the brain, ultimately it will be modelable as a computation and with the help of Moores Law we might get there in a couple of centuries
C) Substance Dualism - we have souls, operating under some system outside our current understanding of Physics, and those souls interface with out brains in some way
D) Property Dualism - most of the activity that generates consciousness is a physcial/bio chemical process in the brain, except for specifics like Qualia which are provided by some system outside our current understanding of Physics
E) Panpsychism - a form of Dualism in which consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter, again provided by some system outside our current understanding of Physics
F) Idealism - its all just a dream, dreamt by a mind that doesn't exist anywhere. Or something.

I'm arguing B, I think you're arguing D. If you're saying consciousness doesn't arise from information processing then there has to be some as-yet-undiscovered-by-science process happening that sits outside all the physics we have so far observed. Some process that cannot be modelled as a computation.

Why couldn't apples be orange, trees yellow, and the sky green?

In your head, they might be. Its that old chestnut that when we all talk about 'Red', none of us actually know if anyone else sees it as the same colour. The important thing about colours is that they distinguish themselves from other colours. I am arguing that that is literally all that they are - colour is your brains awareness of the different wavelengths it has picked up from objects. Its hard to accept, but then so is the alternative - a whole class of undiscovered unmodellable physical processes that we have seen no hint of in all of our science so far.
posted by memebake at 4:29 PM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


There is nothing about neurons and synapses or whatever that would necessitate them having the property of subjective experience a priori.

True only if you ignore the elephant in the philosophical living room: that subjective experience is itself necessarily prior to any amount of reasoning about it.

There's only one hard problem of consciousness, as far as I can tell, and that's nailing down exactly what it is that the word "consciousness" refers to. Until we've done that, we're doomed to continue talking past each other.

There are those who use "consciousness" to refer to a generally ill-specified universal property shared by every human and rock and tree and blade of grass and star, and those who use it to refer to a specific but equally ill-specified local property observed in certain organisms including us. I'm closer to the latter end of the spectrum. I have other labels for the oneness of all things, so I have no problem at all with putting consciousness under the information processing umbrella and considering it a local information processing phenomenon.

Consciousness, it seems to me, is a little like art: I don't know exactly what it is, but I knows it when I sees it. And I am currently able to recognise it in two places: in myself by direct observation, and in other organisms by analogy. I have it for sure, and if you're sufficiently like me it seems simplest to assume you have it too. Furthermore, I don't see consciousness as an inherently binary has it / don't have it kind of deal: I think it's useful to consider it as a scale. For example, there are features of human consciousness that dog consciousness is missing. Given dog noses, though, I'm sure that cuts both ways.

For the purpose of making categories, and remaining fully aware that edge cases need special consideration, it seems safe to me to assume that (for example) ants and cockroaches are far enough along the conscious - non-conscious scale to make ascribing anything much resembling human consciousness to them unjustifiable. I'm unconvinced that an ant brain is complex enough to implement the degree of meta-modelling required to conceive of itself as itself. Yes, that's essentially prejudice on my part, but it follows from spending a lot of time watching ants.

I've also spent a lot of time watching and working with computers, and so far I wouldn't describe any of those as conscious either. So even though both ants and computers are capable of making information models of the world, and acting on the basis of those models, I'm as yet unconvinced that the property of subjective experience can reasonably be ascribed to either.

Now, if you have something you also instantly recognise as consciousness, but I don't recognise it in you: that's not problematic for you in yourself - hell, you know you're there - but it might cramp our relationship some. So if you're a non-biological entity and you can make me a good case as to why I should recognise you as conscious, I'm willing to be persuaded. I am as yet not so persuaded by any attempt at AI I've ever encountered, and I remain fairly convinced that I'm unlikely ever to be so, but I've been wrong before and will probably be wrong again.

With all that as background: if I can find fine-scale objective behaviour (such as neural firing patterns) that's well correlated with self-described subjective experience, what that does for me is increase the likelihood that when I see such behaviour I'm not only seeing evidence for the existence of somebody or something else's subjective experience; I'm observing that very experience happening to somebody or something else. I'm not in there with them, in the subjective sense, so I'm unsurprised that when they're seeing red I'm not also seeing red - but I have no problem with the idea that I'm seeing them seeing red.

I've never read anything from Searle to indicate that he actually understands this distinction.
posted by flabdablet at 9:19 PM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


Which is to say - if its happening in the physical world, as understood by science in 2014, then it can be modelled as a computation.

I have no objection to this, but the computer model is not identical to what it is modelling. A model of photosynthesis does not do actual photosynthesis. The model is just a structure of numbers and relations between numbers. It is not physical.

I don't think my beliefs are formed well enough to be categorized, but I would define property dualism this way: all of the activity that generates consciousness is a physcial/bio chemical process in the brain, yet consciousness is logically independent of these physical states (mental properties are logically independent of physical properties).

I am arguing that that is literally all that they are - colour is your brains awareness of the different wavelengths it has picked up from objects. Its hard to accept, but then so is the alternative - a whole class of undiscovered unmodellable physical processes that we have seen no hint of in all of our science so far.

- There are plenty of ways to distinguishing between wavelengths without having our experience of color. Neil Harbisson has awareness of different wavelengths but doesn't have color I would argue.
- I'm not sure if the physical basis of consciousness is inherently unmodellable, I just think more must be discovered to get from wavelength detected + neural firing to subjective experience of red. More specific correlation and counterfactual experimentation is needed to show that a specific pattern of 'neural firing' "is" a specific mental state (such as experiencing the color red). And I am skeptical that the spiking neuron model is up to the task.

True only if you ignore the elephant in the philosophical living room: that subjective experience is itself necessarily prior to any amount of reasoning about it.

I don't really follow. An a priori conclusion can not rely on empirical observation. Neuroscience does not in itself demonstrate that conscious experience (including reasoning about conscience experience) results from neural firing. That a posteriori conclusion relies on correlating psychological reports with fMRI and other brain state observations as you described. Anyway, perhaps an a posteriori justification of consciousness is sufficient to weaken the claim that subjective experience is logically independent (ontologically independent) of physical activity. SEP has a discussion of this.

I'm closer to the latter end of the spectrum. I have other labels for the oneness of all things, so I have no problem at all with putting consciousness under the information processing umbrella and considering it a local information processing phenomenon.

I'm not sure that either the 'oneness of all things' or the binding problem (unity of consciousness) I was referring to before are a challenge to information processing theories. The trouble I have with IPT is seeing that information exists to anything but an observer (a subject). Semantic information *is* a mental state (as I see it) and therefore can't be used coherently as a physical explanation of mental states. But, I realize I am in the minority if not completely alone in this view, and I must admit the concepts of information and representation confuse me tremendously.
posted by Golden Eternity at 1:33 AM on February 3, 2014


the computer model is not identical to what it is modelling. A model of photosynthesis does not do actual photosynthesis.

Neither does my brain's dance of neural activation when I contemplate photosynthesis. And although my brain is not doing detailed numerical simulation of the photosynthetic process (at least, I have no reason to assume that it is) it's still modelling it well enough to make useful predictions about it; from my inner POV that's what "understanding" means.

The model is just a structure of numbers and relations between numbers. It is not physical.

It's also neither conscious nor self-assembling. That makes a numerical simulation of photosynthesis unlike enough to an in-brain model of photosynthesis hat you'd want to be quite skeptical about drawing conclusions about one based on the other.

all of the activity that generates consciousness is a physcial/bio chemical process in the brain, yet consciousness is logically independent of these physical states (mental properties are logically independent of physical properties).

I can't see why such a view is useful, except in a "weak" sense that would also apply to the behaviour of running computer programs. It's certainly worth being able to put aside multiple levels of detail in the physical description of a system in order to think about the subtler aspects of its operation. If I were to attempt to debug a running program by investigating electron flows on and off the electrodes of every one of a computer's billions of transistors I'd obviously get nowhere, but that doesn't mean there's no underlying physical basis for acts like acquiring a mutex to arbitrate between competing threads of execution.

Experience with computers demonstrates clearly that any given high-level operation can be implemented using radically different underlying hardware. If consciousness is indeed a particular kind of information processing - a proposition that strikes me as quite plausible - I can see no reasons, other than practical considerations around physical size and power supply and heat removal, why it could not eventually be implemented on a substrate we designed. I just expect those practical considerations to remain dominant for at least the rest of my lifetime, because my gut feel about the scale of the job is that it's way, way harder and way, way less susceptible to mass production than the average transhumanist would give it credit for.

In other words: the key difference between the physical/biochemical basis of consciousness and the subjective experience itself seems to me to be an artifact of analysis, rather than something that must necessarily make it erroneous to treat consciousness as a form of information processing.

There are plenty of ways to distinguishing between wavelengths without having our experience of color. Neil Harbisson has awareness of different wavelengths but doesn't have color I would argue.

Since neither you nor I nor Neil Harbisson is in any position to compare anything stronger than descriptions of subjective experience, I see no rigorous basis for either confirming or denying that the world model his brain generates from his augmented senses is so different from mine that he doesn't experience "real" colour. Sure, he's getting his via engineering-assisted synaesthesia; I'm not at all sure that matters.

If you have a strong opinion that what he experiences isn't colour but something else, I urge you to spend a few hundred hours training up your ability to echolocate, and then pay attention to the differences between navigation by echolocation vs. navigation by flashbulb. They're nowhere near as stark as you might at first imagine, basically because you're navigating the same world and your brain is really good at modelling it.

I'm not sure if the physical basis of consciousness is inherently unmodellable, I just think more must be discovered to get from wavelength detected + neural firing to subjective experience of red.

Strongly agree, with the proviso that "get from $a to $b" means "correlate $a with $b to a sufficiently convincing degree to make treating them as aspects of a single phenomenon reasonable" (the blind men and the elephant thing).

An a priori conclusion can not rely on empirical observation.

Well, I guess that depends on how seriously you take Plato's notion of ideal forms. In the world I live in, ideal forms and a priori conclusions are both things we made up; without our existence (detectable only via empirical observation) there would be nobody to make conclusions, a priori or otherwise. Which makes all of philosophy contingent.

Neuroscience does not in itself demonstrate that conscious experience (including reasoning about conscience experience) results from neural firing.

Physics does not in itself demonstrate that gravity "results from" mass. That doesn't make the understanding that gravity and mass are the same thing considered in different ways, or the 100% reliable rules that correlate the two, any less useful.
posted by flabdablet at 3:21 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


The trouble I have with IPT is seeing that information exists to anything but an observer (a subject).

Introspection is a thing.
posted by flabdablet at 3:22 AM on February 3, 2014


Holy crap I didn't know humans could echolocate. That really ties into the whole 'what would it be like to be a bat?' question.
posted by memebake at 7:48 AM on February 3, 2014


Colour is really weird.

What is it like to be an animal that can see ultraviolet light, like a Reindeer? They experience a colour that none of us can experience. We can't even imagine what that might 'look' like. But then, how do I know that what other people experience when they talk about 'Red' is the same 'thing' that I experience? Everyone else's internal 'experience' of colour is just as alien to me as a Reindeer's.

You heard of the experiment where people wore upside-down glasses (that inverted their visual field) and eventually their brains adapted?

Imagine the same thing with colour. Lets say I give you a pair of special goggles that you have to wear all the time. Something like an Oculus Rift with two black and white cameras on the front. The cameras show you a black and white reproduction of more or less what you would have seen anyway.

You get used to that for a few weeks (you'd have to wear them all the time for the brain to adjust). Then we swap the cameras on the front for colour cameras, with the usual R/G/B channels. But we keep the image inside in monochrome. Instead of adding colour to the image, we add little 'tags' all over it that show the HTML colour value of that area. I mean little flat bits of text like [#FF4311] rendered in monochrome. E.g. looking at an apple it would be tagged with lots of values like [#FF0000] [#DE2211] etc.

(For this thought experiment to work, your own eyes have to be really good at reading the tags. There's an engineering/imagination problem here of how to display all the tags without drowning out the main image. Lets say we make it easier by having the Oculus Rift detect where you're foveas are looking and just displaying the tags around that area.)

So you're still getting the colour information, but in a different way.

You walk around with the goggles for months and momths, your brain gets so good at noticing and recognising the tags that you barely notice them anymore. You just know that an apple has a bunch of different tags to a lemon, etc.

What would you actually subjectively 'experience'? My bet is that you would just experience that some things are giving off different tags to other things. Your brain - with enough practice - would generate a shorthand for that information, some way of just making you instantly perceive the difference. After enough time, your 'subjective experience' might be pretty much the same as before you put on the goggles.

So colour could just be an awareness of different wavelength information, tuned to our particular evolved needs (spotting a berry in a bush, etc). Of course to us, it 'seems' like something very vivid and immediate. Like Red is a definite thing that must have some meaning outside of our minds. But then it would, wouldn't it?
posted by memebake at 8:37 AM on February 3, 2014


You heard of the experiment where people wore upside-down glasses (that inverted their visual field) and eventually their brains adapted?

I think in this example you're glossing over the crucial question which is, what does it mean to say that their brains adapted to the upside-down glasses? What was the difference between experiencing the visual data as upside-down vs. experiencing that same data as not upside-down?
posted by straight at 10:26 AM on February 3, 2014


What does it mean to say that their brains adapted to the upside-down glasses? What was the difference between experiencing the visual data as upside-down vs. experiencing that same data as not upside-down?

People who wear the glasses for a few days generally report that after some time their vision just 'seems to be the right way up again'. Their brains have adapted.

I take that to mean that their sense of touch and space and balance and proprioception started to correspond with their visual sense.

I'm not sure what your question is getting at. Do you mean: "Did the brain adapt by processing differently to compensate for the change in signal, or did the inner camera just flip upside down so that it could see the resulting image properly?"
posted by memebake at 11:10 AM on February 3, 2014


Dennett writes:

Everybody who plays games must recognize that games without
strictly enforced rules are not worth playing, and the rules that work best do not
make allowances for differences in heritage, training, or innate skill.

But there are games that aren't like this: Wikipedia (s.v. Handicapping) lists go, chess, croquet, golf, bowling, polo, basketball, and track and field sports. What makes it acceptable to offer a novice player odds of a rook in chess, whereas it would be unthinkable to give a novice poker player a free ace? I have no clue.

As for loose enforcement, are sandlot baseball and shinny really not worth playing?
posted by johnwcowan at 7:05 PM on February 4, 2014


I can't see why such a view is useful, except in a "weak" sense that would also apply to the behaviour of running computer programs. It's certainly worth being able to put aside multiple levels of detail in the physical description of a system in order to think about the subtler aspects of its operation. If I were to attempt to debug a running program by investigating electron flows on and off the electrodes of every one of a computer's billions of transistors I'd obviously get nowhere, but that doesn't mean there's no underlying physical basis for acts like acquiring a mutex to arbitrate between competing threads of execution.

It's sometimes relevant that computation has a physical basis, because it allows you to do things like read a pgp key from the sound of the computer and do crazy circuit bending tricks for sound synthesis.

It may be the case that human consciousness is so dependent on physical hacks that it would be very difficult to extract it into a form we could run on another substrate. It does tend to be the case that evolution prefers efficiency over elegance.
posted by empath at 10:47 PM on February 4, 2014


Neither does my brain's dance of neural activation when I contemplate photosynthesis.

This was supposed to be my point. Consciousness is not computational. We might be able to model the physical basis of consciousness computationally, but the model would not be conscious. Those who believe consciousness is computational would have to leave open the idea that a good model of consciousness would itself be conscious.

I can't see why such a view is useful

Well the main intent was to be right, not necessarily useful. The point was to show that "qualia" are not defined by fiat - they refer directly to our subjective experience - though they are indeed logically independent of dispositional and physical states. The usefulness of the argument is in showing that finding neural correlates of qualia and doing counterfactual experiments to verify causality are worthwhile approaches to studying consciousness. This is something that Dennett seems to dispute in Quinning Qualia, and perhaps other dispositionalists would as well(?).

Of course there are big problems with this approach as it may be next to impossible (if possible at all) to find the ultimate physical basis of consciousness and would be so easy to make a mistake. As (a terrible) example, suppose alien AI researchers try to find the physcial basis of color consciousness of a human playing a video game taken together as a system. The aliens understand human language and the person being tested is able to tell them when they see certain colors on certain objects in the video game. However, the alien AI's make a mistake and think the computer in the video game is the brain causing human vision. Since they were made of Silicon themselves, they just assumed this human thing would also have a Silicon brain. By probing the node voltages and currents in the computer chip they are able to find R,G,B values in the graphics memory that perfectly correlate to the human's reports of color vision. They are able to do counterfactual tests by changing the contents of these registers directly and the experiments prove out. They have now determined the physical basis of color vision. It is either Silicon based SRAM memory, or it is the information (the numbers) stored in the SRAM memory. .... Not sure if this is just the blind men and the elephant.

the key difference between the physical/biochemical basis of consciousness and the subjective experience itself seems to me to be an artifact of analysis, rather than something that must necessarily make it erroneous to treat consciousness as a form of information processing.

If the physical basis of consciousness is actually physical then it is not "information processing," and rather then an "artifact of analysis" there is an ontological divide. If the basis of consciousness is "information processing" then there is no physical basis of consciousness at all as "the substrate doesn't matter." Perhaps everything is just information and the physical world is an illusion, and Dennett is a crypto-idealist.

I see no rigorous basis for either confirming or denying that the world model his brain generates from his augmented senses is so different from mine that he doesn't experience "real" colour.

It is not absolutely rigorous but he clearly states it is sounds that he is associating with wavelengths of light. He "dresses in C#," etc.

without our existence (detectable only via empirical observation) there would be nobody to make conclusions, a priori or otherwise. Which makes all of philosophy contingent.

I don't know, I think 1+1=2 even if we don't exist to make that conclusion.

Neuroscience does not in itself demonstrate that conscious experience (including reasoning about conscience experience) results from neural firing.

Physics does not in itself demonstrate that gravity "results from" mass. That doesn't make the understanding that gravity and mass are the same thing considered in different ways, or the 100% reliable rules that correlate the two, any less useful.


Hmm, yes I think I agree. Consciousness is to present day (neuro)science what the double split interference pattern was to classical physics. We can observe it, but can't explain it. The addition of a theory of consciousness to neuroscience that was able to predict subjective experience (of color, smell, etc.) from brain activity would be analogous to the addition of quantum mechanics to classical physics.

The trouble I have with IPT is seeing that information exists to anything but an observer (a subject).

Introspection is a thing.


Yes, it's a a mental process. We can't say neurons become consciousness by introspecting because introspection already presumes consciousness.

After enough time, your 'subjective experience' might be pretty much the same as before you put on the goggles.

So colour could just be an awareness of different wavelength information, tuned to our particular evolved needs (spotting a berry in a bush, etc). Of course to us, it 'seems' like something very vivid and immediate.


I'm not sure I'm following you. Tags are not the same thing as colors. If our brains could learn to produce colors from tags the colors would be just as vivid and immediate as they are now, and the question would remain - what are they and how is the brain "creating" them.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:30 PM on February 4, 2014


Consciousness is not computational.

It seems to me that although the detailed structure of a conscious human being and that of a modern computer are obviously completely different, there are indeed strong enough analogies between the kinds of things they do that dogmatism on that point is not justifiable.

It seems to me that the meaning of "computational" in this context does not in fact require such a huge amount of stretching as to render it unhelpful when thinking about these things.

I also have no problem at all with considering my own consciousness to be biological information processing at work. Note well: not to be the result of biological information processing, or to depend upon biological information processing, but to be biological information processing.

If my main basis for deciding whether or not you are conscious is by analogy with what I know about me, which is the only viable non-solipsist position I'm aware of, then I can see no reason to avoid increasing my own knowledge about how I do what I do in order to allow a wider range of systems to be considered analogous.

I can certainly imagine a day when an engineered structure, as opposed to a biologically evolved one, is so far past passing the Turing test as to become a genuine personal friend, at which point questioning the reality of their consciousness would be more bigotry than philosophy. I have no "in principle" reason, only a huge pile of practical ones, to believe that I won't actually get an opportunity to have such a friend before I die.

We can't say neurons become consciousness by introspecting because introspection already presumes consciousness.

That position makes no allowance at all for the possibility of degrees of either.

Even so, I don't think any reasonable person would suggest that neurons "become" conscious "by" introspecting. In fact, I don't think anybody who has actually thought this stuff through more than superficially would claim that neurons, in and of themselves, are conscious; that seems to me to be an example of the lazy category error that makes Searle's Chinese Room argument so utterly specious. It ain't the neurons that are conscious: it's the embodied brain. Forest for the trees, and all that.

By the way, just to get all pre-emptive strike for a minute: if you ever dare to characterise the information processing my brain does as "mere", I will fight you.
posted by flabdablet at 2:07 AM on February 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


Consciousness is not computational.

It seems to me that although the detailed structure of a conscious human being and that of a modern computer are obviously completely different, there are indeed strong enough analogies between the kinds of things they do that dogmatism on that point is not justifiable.


I'm not intentionally being dogmatic. I do not see how computation explains (or is) consciousness. I do agree that a lot of things that humans do can be described computationally and a lot of what the brain is doing (in human vision for example) likely is mathematically equivalent to signal processing (as used in machine vision.) However, I just don't see how subjective experience itself can be equated with information processing/consciousness, but I probably just don't understand.

That position makes no allowance at all for the possibility of degrees of either.

Even so, I don't think any reasonable person would suggest that neurons "become" conscious "by" introspecting. In fact, I don't think anybody who has actually thought this stuff through more than superficially would claim that neurons, in and of themselves, are conscious; that seems to me to be an example of the lazy category error that makes Searle's Chinese Room argument so utterly specious. It ain't the neurons that are conscious: it's the embodied brain. Forest for the trees, and all that.


By "neurons" I was indeed lazily referring to all of the physical activity in the brain. I'm not sure that I really meant anything different by "neurons introspecting" than "embodied brain introspecting." And the point was that introspection can't be used as a physical mechanism that explains consciousness because it presumes consciousness, even if only to a small degree. That is the category error that is apparent to me. Maybe I misunderstood your point about introspection. I don't see the "neurons" vs "embodied brain" category error. I think the Chinese Room is a good refutation of computationalism. It seems to me the systems reply (if that is equivalent to "embodied brain") is refuted well by Block's "Chinese nation" and Searle's own reply. (I really don't like the use of "Chinese" here).

I kind of agree that the Turing test is practically legitimate. It seems unlikely that an unconscious program could fool an adult human into believing it was really conscious. But who knows, machine learning and NLP are getting better and better, and humans love to anthropomorphize everything. It certainly seems theoretically possible that we could be fooled.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:19 AM on February 5, 2014


It seems unlikely that an unconscious program could fool an adult human into believing it was really conscious.

Sure. That would take a conscious program.

I am left totally cold by the idea that an information-processing system engineered so as to model the world in much the same way as an embodied human brain does, and given as much access to information about the world as my embodied brain has and has had, and given as much time as it took my embodied brain to exhibit self-awareness and as much education as it took my embodied brain to be able to give an account of itself, would not also do so.

Really, the whole thing becomes so much less conceptually awkward once you just drop the iron assumption that consciousness must indeed be some privileged, in-principle ineffable quality that even in principle can only be found associated with biological brain activity. It seems to me that there's not actually a principle there, only a massive pile of question-begging passing itself off as erudite.

How does your worldview change if you allow yourself the possibility of thinking of consciousness as a potentially emergent property of information-processing systems with certain kinds of organisation - not successfully engineered as yet, but with plenty of biologically evolved examples?

It also seems to me that there's no good reason for declaring the concept of "information" out of bounds when thinking about these things. Yes its precise definition is inherently woolly and slippery, but if you put it in its place amongst a web of related concepts like representation and coding and filtering and modelling, and you never forget that the context you're thinking in is this world rather than some imaginary isolated toy universe that you're trying to work out how to inject consciousness into, I can see nothing show-stoppingly wrong with it.

As for preferring that ideas be right rather than useful: is there a difference that matters? :)
posted by flabdablet at 11:04 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sure. That would take a conscious program.

This seems a bit dogmatic to me. It's certainly conceivable that it might not. Human intuition is often wrong, and humans are amazingly willing to attribute a mind to an other. Just look at the history of religion.

drop the iron assumption that consciousness must indeed be some privileged, in-principle ineffable quality that even in principle can only be found associated with biological brain activity. It seems to me that there's not actually a principle there ...

I don't know that I think consciousness is privileged and ineffable, I do think that a color blind person could not "know" what the color red is, because knowing color is just seeing it - maybe it is "ineffable" in that sense. In the same way it is difficult for me to see how color could be computational. I know what color is; I am somewhat familiar with computation (numbers calculations, equations algorithms, etc); and I simply can't put them together as being the same thing in my mind (or one being an emergent property of the other) anymore than I could get 1+1=5. 'Information processing' as far as I can tell, is either equivalent to computation or already presumes consciousness. I don't think this is a "principle," it is simply my inability to reconcile the two. When someone says 'consciousness is information processing,' I think about it and conclude that I simply don't know what they are talking about. I understand I am in the minority, and most people who think about this stuff don't seem to suffer from this failure in comprehension.

How does your worldview change if you allow yourself the possibility of thinking of consciousness as a potentially emergent property of information-processing systems with certain kinds of organization - not successfully engineered as yet, but with plenty of biologically evolved examples?

I don't think it changes it much at all. I do think it makes sense to search for ncc's ('certain kinds of organization') in the brain which correlate with consciousness experience whereas some functionalists and behaviorists may not, but that doesn't seem to be your position. I guess it could be me not disagreeing that "Siri" or "Watson" or "google" or some future AI is actually conscious, but it doesn't seem that anyone really believes any current AI is. Though, this raises the question, if consciousness is a matter of degree of information processing, couldn't today's programs be conscious to some degree? I'm not sure why proponents of "information processing" theories of consciousness don't suspect that Watson is a little conscious. “Many people in AI believe that we’re close to [a computer passing the Turing Test] within the next five years,” said Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google, speaking at The Aspen Institute on July 16, 2013. Or as Eric Schwitzgebel points out, any well formed information processing theory would seem to imply that the United States is conscious, the global economy is conscious, the internet is conscious, etc. It certainly seems that many living organisms with far less complexity than humans have conscious states like pain, smell, touch, etc, that in and of themselves wouldn't seem to require a ton of processing.

Of course, I don't know of a good alternative and I sense that there is no way to avoid some sort of property dualism. I think we can start by trying to assess what physical and computational properties an NCC should have in order to correlate with mental states based on introspection and look for where the brain might be showing those properties. It's not that I think a brain's biology is "privileged," it's just that I think it is the place to look for a physical explanation of consciousness (with the aid of computational models).

This is interesting: Researchers create prosthetic hand with sense of touch
Tyler can tune the electrical signals sent to the cuff to produce a variety of sensations. Spetic says sometimes it feels like he’s touching a ball bearing, other times like he’s brushing against cotton balls, sandpaper, or hair.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:25 AM on February 6, 2014


Human intuition is often wrong, and humans are amazingly willing to attribute a mind to an other. Just look at the history of religion.

Sure, but consider this: who are you to judge whether any other entity is conscious or not, and on what criteria do you base that judgment call?

If an entity claims to be conscious, and interacts with a substantial number of humans willing to engage seriously with the question of whether it's conscious or not, and manages to convince a substantial fraction of those people that it is conscious, then on what grounds can we justify a claim that those so convinced have merely been fooled?

In other words, how could we ever know for sure whether a simulated consciousness is a consciousness? I'm with Alan Turing on this: since subjective experience is inherently private, we can never have direct experiential proof of any other entity's consciousness; it follows that the only reasonable way to confirm or deny some other entity's consciousness is via some suitably rigorous walks-like-a-duck, quacks-like-a-duck test. Therefore, we must scrutinize ducks with an extreme scrute.

Or as Eric Schwitzgebel points out, any well formed information processing theory would seem to imply that the United States is conscious, the global economy is conscious, the internet is conscious, etc.

I see nothing in that essay to convince me that Eric Schwitzgebel's handwaving is any better than mine. Maybe get back to me when the United States, the global economy and/or the internet find some way to present a convincing case for their own consciousness?

It certainly seems that many living organisms with far less complexity than humans have conscious states like pain, smell, touch, etc, that in and of themselves wouldn't seem to require a ton of processing.

With no disrespect implied, I'm not really prepared to give much weight to your opinion on the nature and speed of processing required to achieve these things; it seems fairly clear that you do have only a quite restricted grasp of what the idea of "information processing" actually encompasses, and I encourage you to discount intuitively attractive conclusions on this topic somewhat until your intuition is rather more thoroughly primed.

Since the invention of computers, people have been finding countless ways to process information that don't result in anything much resembling consciousness; strong AI has been ten years away for at least the last fifty. It seems to me that the likely cause of this is that most such attempts have come out of Schwitzgebel-style attempts to characterise and design a consciousness as something built from high-level conceptual pieces. This has long struck me as analogous to trying to put up a house by starting with the paintwork.

The more promising lines of inquiry I'm aware of are those that simulate neuronal connectivity and activity at a low level; if I do see an engineered consciousness emerge in my lifetime, that's the kind of research I expect it to emerge from. I also expect that if we do manage to engineer such a thing, it will turn out that it keeps working even if the underlying simulation of individual neurons is done quite crudely. Emergent systems are often quite robust in that regard.
posted by flabdablet at 8:31 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's not that I think a brain's biology is "privileged," it's just that I think it is the place to look for a physical explanation of consciousness (with the aid of computational models).

That's exactly where I'm at as well. The main difference between your view and mine seems to be that you're rather less willing to accept any such physical explanation at face value; instead of looking at a bunch of stuff happening and going "yep, that's what consciousness looks like from the outside", you're going "well that may well be how it happens but that still doesn't explain what it is."

What's wrong with the position that seeing how the magic happens is explaining the trick?
posted by flabdablet at 8:46 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


it follows that the only reasonable way to confirm or deny some other entity's consciousness is via some suitably rigorous walks-like-a-duck, quacks-like-a-duck test. Therefore, we must scrutinize ducks with an extreme scrute.

As described and if done rigorously, yeah it would be pretty convincing if a "robot" were able to live in society and convince everyone it was 'alive' and conscious and has feelings. But if google puts out a chatbot in five years and claims it passes a Turing test and is conscious, I will be skeptical to say the least. This is a somewhat insane suggestion, but perhaps a computational theory of consciousness could be verified with a brain prosthetic. In 10,000 years or however long it would take, it is not entirely inconceivable to me that scientists might be able to wire an artificial neural network (or wirelessly interface it somehow or something) such that entirely new sensations of some kind, perhaps new sounds, new scents, new touch sensations, new colors, etc., could be introduced to a human brain. This would be far better proof of a theory of consciousness than the Turing test.

With no disrespect implied, I'm not really prepared to give much weight to your opinion on the nature and speed of processing required to achieve these things; it seems fairly clear that you do have only a quite restricted grasp of what the idea of "information processing" actually encompasses, and I encourage you to discount intuitively attractive conclusions on this topic somewhat until your intuition is rather more thoroughly primed.

Well, functionally they don't seem incomprehensibly complicated. Psychologically mapping color experience to light wavelengths, pain to bodily harm, or olfactory sensations to certain molecules does not seem *that* involved, and should be even simpler in a less complex organism. So it is interesting that the explanation to get to the last step of having an actual sensation should require an immense amount additional information processing over and above the describable behavior and function of the sensation. What could the nature of this processing be? It seems you believe you have an understanding of some kind that I'm missing, perhaps you could provide a few sentences more than "forest through the trees" or whatever or a link. But again my objection to 'information processing' is either that it is essentially the same as computation on empty symbols (Shannon, etc.) which I think Searle makes a good argument does not get you to consciousness, or it presupposes semantic, intentional content without explanation.

The more promising lines of inquiry I'm aware of are those that simulate neuronal connectivity and activity at a low level; if I do see an engineered consciousness emerge in my lifetime, that's the kind of research I expect it to emerge from. I also expect that if we do manage to engineer such a thing, it will turn out that it keeps working even if the underlying simulation of individual neurons is done quite crudely. Emergent systems are often quite robust in that regard.

I like this approach as well. As I do have the mostly ignorant intuition that consciousness is not computational, which is also perhaps not very coherent, my prediction is that this approach, if rigorously testable, will fail miserably until something very new is discovered about the world. I'm not sure what would a "non-computational" process that can't be done algorithmically even look like. I also still have the intuition that non-locality is required on a physical level to explain binding or unity at the conscious level.

What's wrong with the position that seeing how the magic happens is explaining the trick?

Absolutely nothing. I haven't seen anything that gets us close to how the magic happens. It's easy enough to say "the embodied brain is doing it, it's just an illusion; it emerges from the information processing" but that is not really seeing much of anything as far as I can tell.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:29 PM on February 6, 2014


It's easy enough to say "the embodied brain is doing it, it's just an illusion; it emerges from the information processing"

I agree with two out of those three things. I think the part about the illusion is wrong.
posted by flabdablet at 10:57 PM on February 6, 2014


my objection to 'information processing' is either that it is essentially the same as computation on empty symbols (Shannon, etc.) which I think Searle makes a good argument does not get you to consciousness, or it presupposes semantic, intentional content without explanation.

I think you need to tread very carefully around that word "empty".

All a symbol is, really, is a smallish chunk of information that refers to some other and generally more detailed collection of information. And sure, exactly what "refers to" actually means in any given context is heavily system-dependent (as is what "means" means). But from the point of view of describing how existing consciousnesses do what they do, as opposed to the point of view that presupposes that consciousness cannot possibly exist without unknown properties X, Y and Z, the notion of a symbol is pretty much vital and not at all "empty".

As far as we presently understand the operation of human brains, much of their activity can reasonably be described as symbol processing. The symbols are typically not anywhere near as static and stable and clearly defined and repeatable as the raw bit patterns you'd typically see used as symbols inside a run-of-the-mill digital computer program - symbols in the brain are higher-level dynamic phenomena, more akin to the complex patterns of resonances you'd find in a musical instrument - but that doesn't make them any less symbolic; once a symbol appears in the brain's activation state, other symbols it refers to will appear soon after, and the demonstrability of that chain of associations is enough to make describing the more-or-less identifiable stages in it as symbols.

For the purposes of figuring out roughly how consciousness works (though obviously in nowhere near enough detail to be able to design or replicate one) it seems enough to me to note that there is this ongoing representational dance in the connections between neurons, and that "having an experience" could plausibly be one such dance involving interaction of symbols triggered by external phenomena and those referring to the entity having the experience. I strongly suspect, though obviously cannot rigorously demonstrate, that a collection of such symbols that mean "me" is necessary - and, if detailed and adaptable and dynamic enough, sufficient - to generate subjectivity. I certainly experience no conceptual difficulty in applying that perspective to myself.

Sure, it's a Just So story. But then again so is every other theorist's, and mine has Occam on its side; if qualia are not some form of self-related information, I can't understand where to put them in my picture of things. Words without referents are useless words.
posted by flabdablet at 11:28 PM on February 6, 2014


if google puts out a chatbot in five years and claims it passes a Turing test and is conscious, I will be skeptical to say the least.

Personally I'd be paying much more attention to the claims the chatbot was making about itself than to anything somebody from Google said about it. If some novel form of what claims to be consciousness arises, the only Turing test result I'd be even vaguely willing to take seriously belongs to a test I administered myself.

No chatbot I'm presently aware of even comes close; all of them that I've encountered feel like Eliza variants with bigger databases, and I have never been given any good reason to believe that machine consciousness is to be found down that particular road.
posted by flabdablet at 11:37 PM on February 6, 2014


Harris responds. I kinda think he doesn't get it, but I also kinda think that the compatibilism-determinism debate is about words and emphasis rather than a real dispute.

The first part of the reply is a curiously indirect attack on Dennett's character. The second half of the reply has some interesting points, I think.
posted by grobstein at 9:46 PM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]




Harris's response is exceptionally rude. Wow.
posted by painquale at 8:29 AM on February 14, 2014


Ok, this thread has turned me completely into a compatibilist. It's not an intuitive position, but after putting in the work it seems obviously correct to me.

Thanks for the video, it's amazing what human vocal intonations can do to speed understanding. The first question in the Q&A of the the video also deals with the (perhaps side-tracking) discussion of determinism, and distinction between pseudo/predicatable randomness, and randomness that's unpredictable by humans.

Daniel Dennett is the only philosopher that I can read and completely agree with everything he's saying. Perhaps it's because he's deep into evolution and computation, which are the theories that most heavily shape my world view, so pretty much every argument he puts forward are perfectly shaped to fit my mind already. Time to thoroughly investigate the criticisms...
posted by Llama-Lime at 11:20 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I also kinda think that the compatibilism-determinism debate is about words and emphasis rather than a real dispute.

Never go in against a Sicilian when Atlantis is on the line.
posted by flabdablet at 4:18 AM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


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