Saturday, July 16, 2016

Can we live under the idea of determinism?

Interviewed here, the philosopher John Searle is an articulate, unabashed incompatibilist, someone who holds that free will is incompatible with determinism - the fact (if it is a fact) that there are causally sufficient conditions for our character, thoughts, deliberations and actions. He says there is good reason to suppose determinism is true about human behavior, given what we know, but he also says that we experience having free will (that we and our actions are not causally determined). Thus we have inconsistent but equally plausible conclusions about human agency, which blocks progress on the free will problem.
But do we really experience “that [our] decisions themselves were not forced by antecedently sufficient causal conditions”?  I don’t think so. We sometimes don’t experience or otherwise know what the causes of our decisions are, on the assumption they have causes (sometimes the causes are obvious). However, what we don’t experience is the purported fact that they aren’t caused. And we can’t conclude from our experience of the ignorance of the (possible) causes of our decisions that they actually are uncaused. So it seems Searle is mistaken about what he thinks is the experience of free will, that which drives our conviction we have it. Further, and more generally, why should we take subjective experience as being a secure basis for drawing conclusions about any substantive, factual matter – in this case the conclusion we have (incompatibilist) free will? Drop that assumption and the problem of free will as Searle poses it disappears: there is no good reason to suppose we are uncaused creatures, in any respect, so we should accept that we aren’t. Moreover, indeterminism, should it play a role in our lives, wouldn’t add to our powers of control or origination, see here.
Searle says (start at about 3:30) “when it comes to free will, you can’t live your life on the assumption of determinism.” Why not, precisely? Well, he says that you can’t sit back and wait for determinism to happen, for instance when choosing a meal at a restaurant, because if you do, the refusal to engage in decision-making is itself free will in operation (“that refusal is only intelligible to you as an exercise of free will”). But of course this begs the question of whether conscious decisions are caused or not, and the neuro-biological evidence strongly suggests that they are, as Searle himself concedes at the end of this interview (see quote below). So I can indeed “wait for determinism to happen” by deciding not to decide – it’s all a fully caused process in which the waiting itself is included. But of course I will at some point be forced to decide (the waiter is waiting too!) – and I’ll likely be conscious of having been pressured by circumstances to choose.
If free will is an illusion, says Searle, then it’s a puzzle that evolution would have given us “this expensive [that is, glucose-intensive] mechanism for conscious rational decision-making and it’s all useless, all epiphenomenal.” That evolution went to such pains seemingly counts against the idea that free will (as conscious rational decision-making) is an illusion. Indeed, rational decision-making and its neural mechanisms are of course essential to successful behavior control, but only under the idea of determinism: our reasoning plays a role in causing behavior. What’s epiphenomenal (causally inert), from a scientific explanatory standpoint, is the experience of free will. So there’s no particular puzzle here, so long as we don’t take that experience as referring to something real outside cause and effect (many folks do, apparently). 
At the end of the interview Searle says
But the tougher question is what about the level of the neuro-biology? If the neuro-biological level is causally sufficient to determine your behavior, then the fact that you have the experience of freedom at the higher level is really irrelevant.
In my experience, the relevance and importance of the experience of freedom doesn’t diminish when living on the assumption of determinism (as I do). The experience of freedom, properly construed, isn’t that we are uncaused in some respect, but that no one is forcing our hand, that we get to do what we want, more or less. It corresponds to very real, concrete senses of freedom of belief and action that we enjoy in an open society where we are more or less left alone to think and do what we want, so long as we don’t hurt others or infringe on their freedoms.
Searle suggests at one point that if determinism is true, then “we’re at the mercy of causal forces.” Not so, or at least not always, since as individuals we are tightly knit, highly organized wielders of causal forces ourselves, often putting other things and people at our mercy. If we should start living under the idea of determinism (not holding my breath here), we might actually become less at the mercy of impersonal causal forces, and more merciful and compassionate in how we exert our very real power and control, one goal of

Friday, July 08, 2016

Harris and Dennett on free will: could they have done otherwise?

Sam Harris podcasted a conversation with Dan Dennett about free will in which they try to sort out their differences. Here I offer what I hope is some even-handed commentary that might contribute to an amicable reconciliation, well underway apparently. Your reactions welcome over at the FB naturalism group
Could have done otherwise. As a good determinist, Dan knows that we couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations, but he denies this has relevance for human agency. What matters (is worth wanting), he says, is being able to pick out competent agents that can be held responsible. We do this by considering counterfactual situations: does the agent have enough degrees of freedom of action that, had the situation been somewhat different, he might or would have done otherwise? Fine, but pointing out that we couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations – what Sam often adverts to in “rewinding the tape” – is also important since it gets at a fundamental truth about ourselves that many (most?) folks, being libertarians, don’t recognize. Getting the word out about this can help to soften retributive and punitive attitudes based in the idea that we are miniature first causes and ultimate self-shapers. This isn’t Dan’s concern, but as Sam rightly says libertarianism is the central issue when it comes to naturalizing agency (so to that extent Dan is “failing to interact with some core features” of folk free will). The truths of neuroscience are compatible with much but not all of most folks’ understanding of responsibility and desert and the ways in which we currently treat each other.
Explanation and excuses. Sam argues there’s something exculpatory about determinism and not being ultimately self-caused. But as Dan points out, cosmic bad luck and being the end result of an explanatory causal chain don’t count as excuses when standing in the dock. But it’s still important to see that the person standing there is cosmically and perhaps locally unlucky to have been determined to become a responsible agent that made a bad choice. There’s no way in the actual world that he could have turned out or acted otherwise in a way that would have been up to him. This is so even though his actions are up to (controlled by) him as a reasons-responsive, deterrable agent. So our status as responsible agents doesn’t obviate the fact that some of us are simply cosmically unlucky to end up like Madoff, a point Dan never concedes despite Sam’s constant adverting to determinism.
Self-shaping. Dan argues that we are proximate, do-it-yourself, self-shapers even though we’re not ultimately self-originated. True, but pointing this out can be used to deflect attention from the fact that the course of self-authorship is completely set by factors outside one’s control. Some of us are lucky to have been bequeathed the biological and environmental conditions that produce good choices in setting our priorities and habits, and then in controlling our actions to good ends. And as Dan says, some people fail miserably at this – they are the unlucky ones. To deny that luck swallows everything, that it goes all the way down, including the process and outcomes of self-formation, is to assert that we stand outside natural law. Drawing attention to proximate self-formation and proclaiming the duty to become a good citizen are fine but shouldn’t be used to hide or downplay the big deterministic picture.
Control and consciousness. Dan claims rightly that we are pretty decent controllers even if we aren’t ultimately in control or in control of everything. We’re not in control of our brains since we are our brains, but such is the necessary fate of any autonomous cognitive system. The system controls its behavior and some downstream effects, not its own control processes except as they become targets of meta-control over time (Dan:  at the “temporally macro level”). That consciousness might lag or not be privy to its neural antecedents is no threat to agency, although it does help overthrow the intuition that we exist as immaterial controllers. The neural processes associated with consciousness obviously play crucial roles in behavior control, even though the causal role of experience itself is contested. In any case, we’re not passive puppets but active agents with robust causal powers.
Consequentialism and criminal justice. Both Sam and Dan endorse a consequentialist, pragmatic conception of responsibility and criminal justice. Dan emphasizes the need for punishment for general deterrence and maintaining respect for the law, but with reasonable and revisable excusing conditions. Although he concedes the necessity of punishment, Sam is more concerned to point out the fully determined, unlucky, non-ultimately self-authored status of offenders, which should help to reduce punitive attitudes based in libertarianism and motivate a shift from retributivism to a more humane consequentialism. Lack of libertarian agency - the revolution in our self-concept driven by naturalism - doesn’t count as an excuse, but it does require we rethink our justifications for punishment and the nature of desert.