Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Playing Catch with Dr. Tallis

Raymond Tallis, physician, philosopher, poet and novelist, is a very smart and amusing champion of free will against determinism. You can see him in action as a panelist in Fora TV’s Battle of Ideas, where he read a paper denying that neuroscience can help us decide about criminal culpability (comments here). He’s also defended free will at the Manifesto Club in London (comments here), and most recently in the pages of Philosophy Now, in an article titled Who caught that ball? (warning: sports metaphors ahead). Tallis is a one man whirlwind of well intentioned, well expressed, but ultimately misguided arguments to the effect that in order to be free and responsible, human beings must transcend causation in some respect. Here I’ll respond to his latest sally, returning the ball to his court.

Tallis considers a cricket player who’s just made an amazing catch, and asks whether he deserves the praise coming from his teammates. On a close analysis of the rapid fire physical processes underlying the catch, most of which were necessarily carried out automatically and unthinkingly, it might appear that the player himself didn’t do much. He’s just the “lucky possesor of bodily mechanisms” that did the real work. Tallis points out that much of our behavior is in fact automatic and mechanistic, it “does itself” without intention on our part. If so, that seems to leave the conscious agent without much of a role to play. Further, as neuroscience is telling us, consciousness itself seems to be a function of the physical brain. If so, Tallis says we might worry that
...our brain is calling the shots. We persons are merely the site of those events we call ‘actions’. It all looks pretty bleak for those who believe that we really do do the things we think we do.

In rebutting this point, he goes on to point out, quite properly, that it’s only by virtue of conscious, voluntary decisions (to practice hard, schedule his time, show up for games) that the cricket player is ultimately able to make the catch. Further, to understand all this requires not just consideration of his brain, but the whole person and the field of action in which he is engaged. We are active conscious agents, not merely a collection of passive, unconscious processes.

All this is certainly true, but Tallis seems to think that broadening our explanation to include the person and environment somehow escapes determinism:

…we are always positioning ourselves to acquire the experience, skills, knowledge and even the attitudes that will enable us to perform effectively. And this is how it is with much of our lives, which consist of acting on ourselves in order to change ourselves, from going to a pub to have a drink to cheer oneself up, to paying good money to cut a better figure in Paris by polishing up one ’s French. Stuffing all this back in the brain and denying the larger background to our actions, which are to a significant degree chosen and shaped by us, is the first step to handing actions over to the impersonal material world and making determinism seem almost plausible.
But the plausibility of determinism – the law-like cause and effect regularities exhibited by events in the world that science describes at many interlocking levels – isn’t abrogated by being a person, since after all we are fully embodied beings. Nor is it abrogated by being very complex, recursively self-modifying beings that have reasons and intentions. There’s no basis to suppose that our choices to self-modify, and the reasons for those choices, aren’t fully explicable as a function of the intricate causal interplay between us and our “larger background.” As Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown argue in their book, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (pp. 191-237), reasons aren’t opposed to causes, they are a category of causes. Indeed, to understand ourselves rationally requires that we analyze our choices and reasons in a deterministic fashion, to see them as causal operators with their own antecedents in our desires and motives, which in turn have their causal antecedents in our life history and genetics. Absent this sort of understanding, our behavior ends up an inexplicable, indeterministic fluke. In short, there’s no antinomy between determinism and personhood, between determinism and full-blooded voluntary intentional agency, or between determinism and the ability to modify ourselves or the environment to our own advantage. To suppose otherwise, as Tallis does, is to think we must be something more than natural creatures to be properly dignified and self-shaping. But this something more can only be an inexplicable, a-causal mystery.

It’s ironic that by objecting to “stuffing all this back in the brain” Tallis actually distributes part of the responsibility for our choices to the wider context of action, including other people. This is not what a defender of a buck-stopping free will would want, one supposes. But the point (an own goal, perhaps) is nevertheless well-taken: seeing that choices arise within a larger background, that we are not “stand-alone brains” as he puts it, militates against the idea of an uninfluenced, self-caused chooser within the person that bears ultimate responsibility for action.

Tallis ends his paper on a tentative note, saying that his argument “does not entirely refute the notion that we are small mechanisms in the great mechanism of the universe, but it makes it more difficult to hold.” This concession gives away a great deal, since the difficulty of holding a properly nuanced idea of ourselves as mechanisms is not that great. Remember, Tallis thinks for us not to be mechanisms we must transcend cause and effect determinism in some important respect; if we don’t, then we are mechanisms. Now, since we don’t transcend determinism (and importantly even if we did, that wouldn’t help us be responsible agents, see here) we are mechanisms, by Tallis’ definition.

But notice what amazing mechanisms we are, namely the kind Tallis describes in his essay: capable of all sorts of self-modifying, intentional, conscious and voluntary actions. We are a far cry from simple, inflexible mechanisms, which is usually what people mean by the word. So perhaps we should use a word that better suits our capacities. How about person? So long as we don’t have something supernatural or contra-causal in mind when thinking about persons and their capacities, this is the way to go.

It isn’t clear that Tallis believes that persons have something supernatural or contra-causal at their core, since after all he’s a medical doctor and therefore most likely a physicalist. But his desire to wiggle free of determinism in defending free will necessarily introduces an obscurity into his account of human action. This is too bad, since otherwise his is a first class intelligence, one that naturalists would love to have on their team. Meanwhile, Dr. Tallis, the ball is approaching rapidly.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I kind of sympathize with Dr. Tallis. Although I think you are right, determinism [no freewill], is a tough pill to swallow.

Mar 28, 2008, 9:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well put. I thought I understood this after reading Dennett, but I feel I understand it better now.

Jun 4, 2008, 6:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Raghavendra said...

you are right about Naturalists’ commitment to science in this regard isn’t a matter of faith, it’s based on experience – the widely shared experience that beliefs about the world based in science are generally more reliable than those that aren’t.

Jun 16, 2008, 3:07:00 AM  

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