Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Not to Panic, Everything's Under Control

In a Scientific American article on free will, philosopher Shaun Nichols defines free will as being incompatible with determinism:
Many scientists and philosophers are convinced that free will doesn’t exist at all. According to these skeptics, everything that happens is determined by what happened before—our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action—and this fact makes it impossible for anyone to do anything that is truly free.
He goes on to worry that “If people come to believe that they don’t have free will, what will the consequences be for moral responsibility?”

He then discusses a study by two psychologists, Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, that bears on this question. Their study purports to show that if people cease believing they are exceptions to determinism, then they are more likely to act immorally, in this case, cheat. (See here for a detailed discussion.) Vohs and Schooler suggest that to maintain moral responsibility, it might be necessary to promulgate the belief that that we have a kind of ultimate control over ourselves that transcends cause and effect: a contra-causal free will. But this would require a systematic campaign of mass deception since there’s no good scientific evidence that we have such free will. Maintaining the fiction of ultimate control and contra-causal freedom would be a grand exercise in anti-science brainwashing, not exactly the hallmark of an open society. Of course the Bush administration tried something similar in its fight to discount the reality of global warming (see Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science), so there’s precedent for a deliberate disinformation campaign that would pit moral responsibility against determinism.

But such dire and undemocratic measures are unnecessary. What Nichols doesn’t mention in the article is that many naturalistic philosophers think that we don’t need to be free from determinism to be morally responsible. There are good, easily understandable reasons to hold fully caused persons morally responsible, for instance, to cause them to behave morally and responsibly. Even if people are formed by factors that are ultimately beyond their control, they still have local, proximate control (what philosopher John Martin Fischer calls “guidance control”) in the sense that their actions are usually controlled by their own desires and motives. Whether or not people act on their desires and motives can obviously be influenced by the prospect of being held responsible. After all, every sane adult’s normal complement of cognitive capacities includes the capacity to anticipate praise and blame, to take into account the likelihood of being held accountable for their actions. Anticipating this, they unsurprisingly often make the choice to conform to moral norms.

So we can see that acting morally and responsibly centrally involves the causal influence of moral norms on an individual’s choices and behavior. As a locus of proximate but not ultimate, contra-causal control, a person generally (but not always of course) acts in ways that reflect the moral consensus. Put concisely: morality leverages each person’s local self-control to achieve social stability. We don’t need to have ultimate control, that is, be exceptions to determinism, for this to work, and indeed any part of us free from causation would be for that reason impossible to influence. So it’s a good thing we likely aren’t exceptions to determinism. If we were, we’d be uncontrollable moral monads.

Now, I take it that this commonsensical rationale for moral responsibility is not rocket science. It can be easily communicated in plain language (plainer than what I’ve used above), and what’s more, it’s the case. It’s how our moral responsibility practices actually work. This is why it’s puzzling that Nichols, who presumably knows of such rationales, said nothing about them in his Scientific American article. Had he done so, it might have forestalled the predictable free will/moral responsibility panic that sometimes ensues when people discover they are fully caused (for an instance of such panic incited by his article, see here). That he didn’t can only help inflame the culture wars between naturalism and supernaturalism.

Nichols does, however, mention research indicating that most of those who believe people are determined in their behavior (a small minority of the total population, but which includes many philosophers and scientists) still believe people can be held responsible. This suggests that, as he puts it “if you come to believe in determinism, you won’t drop your moral attitudes.” This is comforting to know, but he says it raises puzzling questions:
People who explicitly deny free will often continue to hold themselves responsible for their actions and feel guilty for doing wrong. Have such people managed to accommodate the rest of their attitudes to their rejection of free will? Have they adjusted their notion of guilt and responsibility so that it really doesn’t depend on the existence of free will? Or is it that when they are in the thick of things, trying to decide what to do, trying to do the right thing, they just fall back into the belief that they do have free will after all?
These puzzles are resolved by seeing, as suggested above, that yes, we can easily adjust our notions of guilt and responsibility to function perfectly well in the absence of contra-causal free will. Moral attitudes find sufficient justification in the necessity for holding each other morally responsible, so we don’t need to “fall back into the belief that [we] do have free will after all.” Of course, some of our attitudes and responsibility practices should change in light of a science-based naturalism, which shows human persons to be the fully caused outcomes of biology and culture. For example, absent contra-causal free will, retributive punishment is very difficult to justify, which has direct implications for our criminal justice system. But there’s no deep puzzle about the survival of moral responsibility overall under naturalism. We remain moral agents since we are often prompted to act out of moral considerations, considerations that are upheld and enforced by holding each other responsible. So no need to panic, it’s going to be OK - better, actually.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Can Ray Tallis Be Reined In?

Dear Ray,

I hope this finds you well. I wrote in Playing Catch With Dr. Tallis last March that

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.
I see from your April Voltaire lecture for the British Humanist Association, "Is Human Freedom Possible?," that you do in fact think there’s something contra-causal about us. I’ve appended below some comments on your talk, the thrust of which is that we don’t evade determinism (put otherwise, we don’t have libertarian, contra-causal free will) and don’t need to in order to secure any human good. You will of course disagree, but at least my critique might stand as an example of a humanistic, progressive naturalism that’s perfectly at peace with the absence of libertarian freedom. We don't need to resort to what I see as your metaphysical extravagances and obscurities to defend Enlightenment values. Btw, I should say that I like many of your points about the complexity of the self and its actions and our embeddedness in the social context. I just don’t think that this makes us first causes.

all the best,

Tom Clark

Ray writes:

"If we do not have individual freedom, or the capacity to be genuine agents, then the notion of political freedom, so crucial to progressive thought becomes more than a little problematic; which is why the issue of human freedom lies at the heart of the debate between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment."

It seems to me we don’t need libertarian, contra-causal freedom of the sort you champion to have political freedom. Political freedom simply requires freedom from certain sorts of constraints and coercions, namely those imposed by despots and tyrannies. See here, for instance. Being uncaused in any respect wouldn't increase our freedom or power.

"Most philosophers think that determinism is incompatible with free will."
Actually the reverse is true: most philosophers these days are compatibilists of one sort or another.

"There are, however, philosophers who believe that free will is compatible with determinism: the so-called compatibilists. As you will see, they include your Voltaire lecturer, though I believe that determinism applies only to the material world understood in material terms."
By carving out an exception to determinism in some sort of transcendent, non-material intentionality, and by making that the necessary condition of human freedom, you define yourself as an incompatibilist. If determinism ruled everything, material and immaterial, you’d say we couldn’t be free, so for you freedom is incompatible with determinism.

"Intentionality is entirely mysterious and not, at any rate, to be explained in terms of the processes and laws that operate in the material world. Its relevance tonight is that it is the beginning of the process by which human beings transcend the material world, without losing contact with it…"
I’m not sure how you go from saying that intentionality is entirely mysterious to then saying that you know for sure it can’t be explained in material terms. As you know, philosophers are hot on the trail of naturalistic accounts of intentionality that don’t appeal to anything immaterial.

"Intentionality is so central to the arguments about freedom and to everything I have to say today, that I want to dwell on it for a few more moments. The light enters the eye from the object and causes neural activity in the visual pathways. That is standard cause-and-effect as seen throughout the material world, where determinism reigns. The gaze looking out back at the object is anything but standard. The relationship that is established in this gaze, this counter-causal bounce-back that is intentionality, is more complex and key to human freedom."
I’m wondering if you have any citations/references for the idea that there’s something contra (counter) -causal about intentionality, about how contra-causal processes could be reliable, and how they connect with standard causal mechanisms, e.g., neural processes.

"Let me just go over again some of the consequences of the intentionality that is in the reverse direction to the flow of causality."
Again, I’m wondering what “in reverse direction to the flow of causality” means and whether it has any established basis in the scientific literature. I’ve never encountered this claim before.

"As our experiences are increasingly mediated by signs, intentionality expands beyond the body. We relate increasingly to an invisible, indeed immaterial world: the world of generality or of general possibility… The human world, in short, is a greatly expanded Space of Possibility that is not part of the material world."
I take your point about the increasingly abstract and multifarious nature of relationships made possible by signs and language, but don’t see that they transcend their material instantiation. Human reasons, for instance, are one variety of causes that need a physical basis in the brain and body and other media to be causally effective, as Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown point out in Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?. There is no opposition or contradiction between being “reason-driven” and “cause-pushed” (your terms, see below). As far as science can tell, the human world, including all its abstractions and concepts, is entirely encompassed by the material world, which is what’s amazing (but not miraculous): the material world, properly organized, does it all!

"This is where the buck starts: in a self that is not a thing, but not insubstantial, either: it is an embodied subject. This is the person as ‘an independent point of departure’ that Lucien Goldmann spoke of as central to the Enlightenment vision of humanity, of human freedom and human hopes for a better future."
I’m not sure how the fact that persons are embodied subjects of many talents, reasons and capacities makes the buck start inside them. After all, every bit of who you are originated ultimately from circumstances you didn’t choose. This doesn’t mean you cease having your talents, for instance for self-improvement, only that you can’t take ultimate credit for them. Nor does the Enlightenment vision depend on persons being undetermined, self-caused little gods. As you properly note later on, any uncaused, undetermined element of ourselves would have no reason to act one way vs. another. As you put it: “that which has no given properties would have no basis for choosing one action rather than another.”

"The determinist case, which slims down our lives to a linear succession of causes and effects, ignores the self and its world; indeed ignores the Space of Possibility within which we operate."
Not at all. Determinism doesn’t ignore or diminish the self, it only explains it, see Don’t forget about me: avoiding demoralization by determinism. Nor does a cause and effect view of things ignore possibility, since possibilities are constantly being considered and analyzed in human deliberations carried out by physical, deterministic neural processes in our brains and their external manifestations, such as your Voltaire lecture and this response. And of course randomness and indeterminism wouldn’t add anything to make us more free or rational. We want our cognitive processes to be reliable, accurate reflections of the world, and our actions to be reliable outcomes of our desires and deliberations. Introducing indeterminism or randomness anywhere in the human behavior-guiding process would subvert effective cognition and action.

"To see actions as cause-pushed rather than reason-driven is, of course, to prepare them to be reinserted into a causal chain extending backwards from a present material event to the Big Bang; and this is wrong. If we fail to spot the error of this first step, we shall find it difficult to combat a determinist case against freedom."
There’s no problem with tracing our selves and actions back to the Big Bang, it only shows our natural heritage. But wanting to be miniature first causes is problematic, since as science progresses setting ourselves up as little gods requires increasingly obscure accounts of human agency and intention, such as yours here. Not that your analysis of the complexity of human action and intention isn’t correct and enlightening in many respects, but we need not, and indeed cannot, insulate ourselves from the causal web in any respect.

"Have I rescued my personal freedom from the jaws of material causation and determinism only to feed it to the equally slavering jaws of external psycho-social causation and cultural determinism?"
Despite all I’ve said here and elsewhere it’s likely you will carry on in what I see as a quite unnecessary rescue mission. People very much like to hear that they are immaterial causal exceptions to nature. But of course we are no such things, nor do we need to be to have political freedom, moral responsibility and be effective, dignified agents, as explained at Naturalism.Org and in Encountering Naturalism. A summary of some reassurances about human agency, morality, etc. in a universe without libertarian free will is here.