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


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