Sunday, November 09, 2008

After Free Will

Paul Davies (not the astrophysicist but the philosopher at William and Mary) gets interviewed here (and there’s an audio clip here) on the possibility that we might have to give up on free will and what that might mean for us. By free will he has in mind some sort of capacity to transcend the neural instantiation of personhood, and he rightly suggests that a science-based, naturalistic understanding of ourselves calls such a capacity into question.

Of course compatibilists (those who say free will is compatible with determinism) will argue that Davies is mistaken about what free will is, and that it has nothing to fear from science. But they will likely agree that what he means by free will might not survive a naturalistic understanding of ourselves. The obvious point being that we can avoid confusion on the free will issue by stating up front what capacity or characteristic of an agent we refer to when we say "X has free will." Or better yet, simply talk about the capacities and characteristics themselves, whether there’s reason to believe they exist, and what their existence or non-existence implies for how we think about ourselves and, for instance, our responsibility practices. Talk about free will, absent clear definitions, is simply a recipe for miscommunication.

Davies himself speculates that even as strictly material creatures, we have robust, neurally based capacities for extracting and creating meaning that will likely see us through the death of free will as he defines it (the death of the contra-causal soul, more or less). He says there’s no evidence yet for such optimism, but I think there’s at least some anecdotal evidence coming in, see here. And as Shaun Nichols pointed out at the end of his Scientific American article (discussed by yours truly here), there’s evidence that determinists don’t give up on moral responsibility. Life, meaning and ethics and will go on after the soul is gone. Not that it’s going quietly, see Creationists declare war over the brain and Steven Novella's good 3 part commentary starting here.

I also take some (friendly) issue with Davies' description of the poor beleaguered self: he says it gets pushed around by internal and external stimuli. But if we agree the self isn’t an immaterial soul, is there anything else we’d call the self that’s separate from neural activity or from the brain and body that could be pushed around? If not, then we might say there is no self, in which case the problem of being pushed around disappears. But we might instead say (and this is my preference) that the self or person is, for instance, an integrated, functionally coherent construction of physical and psychological parts (see here). This stable, identifiable agent is just as real as its causal antecedents and external environment, and therefore we can justifiably assign it causal powers, just as we assign causal powers to the antecedent factors that created it and the environment that impinges on it. So we shouldn’t feel demoralized, disempowered or in any sense disestablished when admitting our complete integration into the causal matrix (see here). After contra-causal free will is gone, we'll still be recognizable as people, moral agents, and the readily identifiable individuals we so reliably are. And again, life will go on with its usual ups and downs, but minus a major incitement to pride, contempt, resentment, shame, guilt, and other not-so-lovely reactive attitudes.


Blogger Priam's Pride said...

Having not read the book (though I am certainly interested now), I can only comment on the interview link you provided. It appears that you have not read the book either, so I suppose we are on an equal footing.

First, Davies' claim that modern neuroscience and psychology should have an effect on the justification of our beliefs concerning free-will would require some serious theoretical support. That is, in order to tie free-will to these sciences, it is necessary to work out the problems that underlie the concept itself. The most obvious example, in this case, is that there is no agreement among indeterminists on the what the connection between feeling free and being free is, in the first place.

Second, it is easy to imagine that the sort of evidence Davies is using can be circumvented. Suppose it is true that actions are not directly associated to the feeling of freedom. One is not yet warranted to claim that, therefore, freedom itself does not exist. X can cause both Y and Z, and the relationship between Y and Z need not be evident for such a thing to happen. For example, the Sun might cause both sunburn and skin cancer, but it is not exactly evident how the two are connected. It took significant research just to show a correlation. similarly, it might take significant research to determine how action and the feeling of freedom are connected. This question is simply impossible to resolve by such psychological means without first obtaining a psychology far superior to anything we have so far.

Third, you close your post with the comment: "And again, life will go on with its usual ups and downs, but minus a major incitement to pride, contempt, resentment, shame, guilt, and other not-so-lovely reactive attitudes." I cannot help but wonder why you have left out the lovely reactive attitudes, the ones that make all the not-so-lovely ones worthwhile. Honor? Forgiveness? Charity? Admiration? Love? Authorship? Indeed, such a life would lack any ups and downs at all.

Given these three considerations, it is very difficult for me to feel the force of your position.

-Priam's Pride

Nov 14, 2008, 3:57:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...


Thanks for your good thoughts.

1) Yes, the concept of free will has to be specified such that we can evaluate whether findings from neuroscience actually bear on it or not. This is related to my point that “we can avoid confusion on the free will issue by stating up front what capacity or characteristic of an agent we refer to when we say ‘X has free will.’”

2) I agree that the connection between the feeling of freedom and action is an empirical question needing research. Of course the feeling of freedom alone couldn’t count as prima facie good evidence for (contra-causal) freedom anyway, since first-person impressions of how things objectively are are notoriously unreliable (see here for instance).

3) I’m not sure I agree that the unlovely reactive attitudes are what make the lovely ones worthwhile, and I find myself wanting to minimize the unlovely side. Since these attitudes are biologically based, there will still be plenty of ups and downs even if we come to believe we don’t have the sort of contra-causal freedom often used to justify them. Tamler Sommers has written some interesting stuff on all this, see his paper The objective attitude, and chapter five of his Duke dissertation, Free will skepticism in action.

Nov 17, 2008, 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Priam's Pride said...


Thanks for the response; indeed, it was a fair response. We have no reliable empirical evidence about what happens to a human psyche when it is fully given to the belief that all action is determined. Furthermore, because of the subjective nature of this belief, it would be virtually impossible to do any sort of scientific test on it. It seems, at least on the surface, that we really have no idea how a belief one way or the other about the free-will/determinism debate will affect us psychologically.

Of course, this isn't necessarily problematic; it just means that whether you believe that it would be beneficial or you believe that it would be detrimental is a matter of conjecture. I suspect that, for most people, the possible positive effects of relinquishing belief in free-will will simply not be enough to convince them that it is a belief worth having. I suppose, though, that you do not expect that it would be enough for most -- hence all the argumentation. So I guess I am commending you and your site for at least looking for an answer about free-will. Even if there isn't an answer (or if it is not the answer your hoped for), it will be worth it to have looked.

-Priam's Pride

Nov 28, 2008, 12:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honor? Forgiveness? Charity? Admiration? Love? Authorship? Indeed, such a life would lack any ups and downs at all.

Of all these emotions, authorship is the only one that determinism would negate. 'Honor' as well, I suppose, but I'm not sure what you mean. Consistent determinists are both humble and forgiving, since no one deserves credit or blame for their behavior (we can still admire personalities even though we know they aren't self-imposed).

Brains are physical objects, physical objects don't choose to behave in the way that they do, their behavior is causally determined. A brain no more chooses to rob a bank or donate blood any more than it does to instruct the heart to beat or control breathing when it's not consciously thinking of doing so. Studies have already proven that brains calculate decisions nanoseconds (sometimes up to 10 seconds) before it becomes consciously aware of making that "decision". We the exact same genetic and environmental influences that Hitler had, I would think and behave in the exact same way that he did.

I do not understand how people who consider themselves to be materialists can claim a belief in free will. I can't blame them though. lol..

Jan 24, 2009, 8:24:00 PM  

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