Friday, 21 October 2011

Free Will

More from Susan Blackmore's excellent Conversations on Consciousness, and a perennial problem: do we have free will?

As before I will only offer outlines of and quotes from their answers; buy the book for the Full Monty. Be aware that quote context is important, and I'm focussing on those comments that seem particularly relevant to me.

Bernard Baars: not asked.

Ned Block: "Yes...on free will I'm almost exactly of [Dennett's] view [a compatibilist view]. The trouble with free will is that it's both compatible and incompatible with determinism - and it's at once incompatible with determinism and incompatible with indeterminism." Of course, the last line shows that free will (traditional concept of) doesn't exist, since determinism and indeterminism together are jointly exhaustive contradictories. His first remark suggests that he realises that any notion of personal responsibility relies on determinism, so there may be some revised type of free will that can be formulated to account for this.

David Chalmers: "I don't know...[because]...I don't know what it means to have free will." He makes the pertinent observation that we do what we want, but what we want is (probably) determined. But who would want to choose what they want? I would add that if your choosing what you wanted wasn't determined, then why should you be responsible for it? In fact, no-one would be responsible for it, if it's uncaused, by definition, surely. An infinite regress beckons.

Patricia & Paul Churchland Pat - "If you mean 'Are my decisions not caused?' surely not." Paul seems to take comfort from our unpredictability, and the way two similar brains will diverge in their chosen actions due to complexity - "So one mustn't fear the story science seems to tell, that we are just robots."

Francis Crick: He thinks the feeling of will is an illusion, and that free will "must be deterministic."

Daniel Dennett: "Yes...The model that we want for free will is of an agent that is autonomous, not in some metaphysical sense, but in the sense of being able to act on the reasons that matter to the agent, and who's got the information that is needed to act in a timely fashion."

Susan Greenfield: She gives a rather confused answer which suggests she believes in her own free will but admits it might be an illusion. She expresses concern that responsibility cannot be laid if there is no free will, which strikes me as incoherent, and that she believes in a mistaken understanding of responsibility that also leads those of a theological bent astray.

Richard Gregory: Not asked, as far as I can see.

Stuart Hameroff: "I have no choice but to believe in free will!" Hameroff's explanation of free will in his and Penrose's model will appeal to those who see quantum indeterminacy as a factor in consciousness; it will exasperate those who cannot see how it helps!

"...we have quantum computations in the microtubules inside neurons that reaches the threshold for collapse 40 times a second, to coincide with the 40 Hz gamma oscillations that exist in the brain. And the outcome of each reduction is a process of quantum superposition, quantum computation which follows the Schrodinger equation, which is basically deterministic. However, at the instant of collapse there's another influence that enters. This is Roger's non-computable influence which is due to the fine grain in space-time geometry. This has a little influence on the choices, so that choices result from both the deterministic quantum computation and this non-computable influence. The experience of that is free will."

Well. I'm quite willing to believe there's a 'random' effect in there somewhere. The problem, of course, is that this doesn't appear to offer any explanation of the experience of free will. Just as mental content appears to be irreducible to scientific description when we are talking deterministically, so it does if we just bring in an indeterministic element, as Hameroff and Penrose have done. I mean, it's asserting that adding indeterminism is what causes the feeling, but not offering any way for that to achieve the feeling. I might just as well assert that the massive deterministic neuronal computations are what achieve the feeling. Sue Blackmore makes the point in reply, quoting Pat Churchland: "pixie dust in the synapses is about as explanatorily powerful as quantum decoherence in the micro tubules." It's hard to see that she's wrong.

Christof Koch: "Probably not...I only mean I am free in the sense that it's not you who is determining my actions; it's not blind force or destiny..."

Stephen LaBerge: He thinks we create an illusory conscious self, and he doesn't think that that 'I' has free will. "But 'Does who I am, and all that I am, decide how to answer this question?', then yes."

Thomas Metzinger: "If I didn't, could I ever have given you any other answer than this one?" His reply highlights a problem with free will; it suggests that people would vary their behaviour even in identical circumstances. If they don't, then it what sense is the decision not determined? This, it seems to me, just shows that the traditional concept of free will is incoherent, and if it were true, would not deliver the results people seems to expect.

Kevin O'Regan: "Yes, everybody does [believe they have free will]. Even robots believe they have free will, even if they don't." Good answer, I think, to a slightly different question to the one I ask above.

Roger Penrose:  "...the simple answer is I don't know." To be fair, unlike Hameroff, he says his non-computational influence is not free will.

Vilayanur Ramachandram: He really only discusses what could be causing the feeling, rather than the philosophical implications. Interesting, for the scientific implications.

John Searle: He points out that free will only makes sense with the concept of self, but thinks the self may be an illusion. It's plain he thinks we must believe we have free will; it's not too clear what his final position is, though.

Petra Stoerig: Not asked.

Francisco Varela: Not asked.

Max Velmans: " sense of being free is, I think, a genuine sense. That's not in any way to argue against determinism in science, but I am the kind of creature that's capable of choices - I can do what I want. But I can't want what I want, so there are deep inbuilt constraints." Echoing the comments by Chalmers.

Daniel Wegner: "It certainly seems as though I do." He notes that we don't have this sense of free will about all our actions, and thinks this may be because sometimes thoughts and actions are linked by our brains, and sometimes not.

These responses reflect the current consensus that we don't have free will, except possibly some compatibilist version. It's good to see that a few articulate the fatal problem it has; the traditional concept is not compatible with determinism or indeterminism.

I should point out that this is not a unanimous view; there are some incompatibilist theories of free will; they seem pretty hopeless to me, but knock yourself out reading about them.

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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The God That Hides Himself

In a piece called The mystery of faith that is baffling but beyond doubt in Saturday's Times (behind a paywall, sadly), the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Geoffrey Rowell wrote about something that does indeed baffle; what is the justification for belief?

Natural theology looks to establish good reason for belief in a god, and revealed theology looks to persuade toward a particular flavour. Neither is successful in their project, often by their own proponent's admission. William Lane Craig, for example, who runs a website called only believes because a 'radiant' girl told him that god loved him, not because he was persuaded by the arguments.

The believer is on the horns of a dilemma: if you have reason to believe, why should you be rewarded with eternal life - you're just doing what any reasonable person should do. On the other hand, if you don't have reason to believe, well, you shouldn't, and you won't be rewarded with eternal life! Either way, I don't see why belief with or without evidence deserves eternal life.

Rowell grabs this dilemma by both horns, and gets gored by both:
The biblical writers recognised that the God who makes himself known is at the same time a hidden God - as the prophet Isaiah exclaims, "Truly thou art a god who hidest thyself!"
Great; hidden but 'seen', somehow. This is the common refrain of the believer who wants to privilege his perception over non-believers'.

In Elijah's flight, God reveals himself in "a still small voice", or the "sound of thin silence":
It is this silence, almost the absence of God, which is the presence of God which awes Elijah into worship.
When almost absence is equated to presence, then we know we're skating on thin ice, not thin silence.
Centuries later the poet, R.S. Thomas, would speak of God's "absence which is his presence".
Now we seem to be getting into straight apophaticism. He then quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins as writing in a letter:
You do not mean by mystery what a Catholic does. You mean an interesting uncertainty... But a Catholic by mystery means an incomprehensible certainty.
I think we're familiar with the Catholic certainty supposedly delivered by 'divine light'

But this is hand-waving; if the certainty is incomprehensible, it is unjustified. If something is absent, it is not present. If it's hidden, it cannot be seen. If something is baffling, it cannot be beyond doubt. Embracing contradictions like these will simply result in absurdities. We are all allowed our own private absurdities, but it's time we grew up as a society and banished them from respectable public fora.

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Sunday, 9 October 2011

The P-Zombie

Continuing to summarise responses in Susan Blackmore's excellent Conversations on Consciousness, I now come to the problem of the philosopher's zombie - a being indistinguishable from any other human being but which lacks any mental content, such as feelings, thoughts and, in fact, consciousness: do you believe in the possibility of the philosopher's zombie?

As before I will only offer outlines of and quotes from their answers; buy the book for the Full Monty. Be aware that quote context is important, and I'm focussing on those comments that seem particularly relevant to me.

Bernard Baars: not asked.

Ned Block: Block distinguishes between beings that are functionally equivalent to us, like his famous China Brain thought experiment, which he supposes functionalists would think had a phenomenology, but he doesn't know (he thinks possibly not), and beings that are physically just like us, which I think was Chalmers original idea. "My view is that no-one who takes the biological basis of consciousness seriously should really believe in that kind of zombie." So, no to the second type.

David Chalmers: "I think they're probably not possible in the sense that no such thing could ever exist in this world." He doesn't think it's contradictory ("at least in the imagination") that a p-zombie could exist, however, so he denies they're logically impossible. I'm not sure that conceivability quite helps here, though.

Patricia & Paul Churchland Pat - "Of course it's logically possible, but that's not interesting...we're interested in knowing whether or not it's empirically possible. And it does not seem to be, so far as we know." Paul says you can imagine a universe in which electromagnetic waves are bouncing around but it's still pitch black, but this doesn't get away from what light is as a matter of fact.

Francis Crick: "No. Contradiction in terms."

Daniel Dennett: "...we get a bifurcation of theorists into those who take the zombie hunch seriously, and those who, like myself, have sort of overcome it. I can feel it, but I just don't have it any more."

Susan Greenfield: "No, I think that consciousness is part of feeling, part of seeing; so I don't think you can separate out vision and emotion from consciousness, no."

Richard Gregory: "No. It is for simple behaviour."

Stuart Hameroff: A certain amount of talking around the problem, but basically, yes, because he thinks there is something specific that 'adds' consciousness - "...consciousness, or perhaps something proto-conscious, is fundamental to the universe..." Hameroff has some idea about microtubules generating consciousness, so anything that functioned the same as humans, but without these, wouldn't be conscious. The difficulty is to know what these add, of course. I think he would say that anything physically identical could not be a p-zombie.

Christof Koch: "No...But there's going to be something specific about the neurons that give rise to consciousness..."

Stephen LaBerge: Not asked.

Thomas Metzinger: "I am not a possible world surfer. As long as 'consciousness' is such an ill-defined term, many things remain conceivable."

Kevin O'Regan: "...I knew I was a robot...", which I think means, no, there is no difference between us and p-zombies.

Roger Penrose:  "A philosopher's zombie is something which I would say couldn't exist." Possibly some confusion surrounding the distinction that Ned Block draws.

Vilayanur Ramachandram: "No, they're not possible. I think if you create a creature which is identical to us - it doesn't matter how you create the zombie - it'll be fully conscious in the human sense."

John Searle: He is asked if the p-zombie could in principle exist and he answers, "In principle, sure." He thinks there is something extra that adds the consciousness, but it's not clear to me if 'in principle' means logically or empirically. Again, because of his anti-functionalist stance, I think he's talking about the possible existence of a functional zombie.

Petra Stoerig: "I think they are logically a biologist I think it's a waste of all the trees that go into this paper, because it's not biologically possible."

Francisco Varela: "I just don't grock it...I say it's just a problem that you create by inventing problematic situations. So what?"

Max Velmans: "...I think I would personally rule out the possibility that it didn't experience as we do."

Daniel Wegner: Not really asked, but seems to be an advocate of humans as robots, so probably no.

I think I was quite surprised that they all thought that physically identical beings could not be internally empty, but I suppose this just shows that they are all physicalists, so any other conclusion would be incoherent. There were one or two demurrals on the idea of a functionalist zombie (functionalism, very basically, is the theory of mind that posits that a mind is determined by what it does, rather than what it is made of). I think Ned Block, Hameroff and Penrose thought that this could exist. I'm pretty certain about the first type and less sure about the second, simply because I'm less sure about functionalism than I am about physicalism. In fact, I could imagine that there is something special about the particular combination of material and function that gives rise to consciousness, although I'm baffled what microtubules might add. I think I'm still much more inclined to believe that complexity in function will deliver consciousness than some ineffable I-don't-know-what in the biological make-up, because whatever biological detail is added, it still doesn't seem to solve the problem we're being asked to solve - intentionality, qualia and so on.

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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Gene-machine Darwinism and Responsibility

Many folk complain that an 'ultra-Darwinist', or 'gene-machine' Darwinist, view of the world renders us incapable of assigning blame to individuals. The implication is that we are creatures at the mercy of our genes, mere puppets, so cannot be blamed or praised for our behaviour. Is this true?

The view sometimes assigned to sociobiologists, or evolutionary psychologists, that we must follow our genetic blueprints, gains traction from the analogies drawn to illustrate their ideas, such as Dawkins’s ‘lumbering robots’. This inference is unfair, since they do accept cultural influence on behaviour, but, relevant to this question, they would expect the sexes to have evolved differently (even competitively) because of their differing physical characteristics. Women have larger sex cells than men, and carry the foetus for nine months. Because men can afford more reproductions in a lifetime, sociobiology would suggest that emotions would evolve differently to motivate men to spend more than women; i.e., have more promiscuous tendencies. Does this mean that some of the more rabid accusations aimed at evolutionary psychology are true? If we consider this statement, typical of the sort of thing:
If gene-machine Darwinism is true, then we cannot blame a man for sexual infidelity, nor praise a woman for being faithful.
To tease out the implications of this conditional statement, we can consider it the outline of an argument, with the antecedent as the premise and the consequent as the conclusion:
Men’s genes give them a tendency to sexual infidelity
Men cannot be blamed for sexual infidelity
This is invalid; there is a hidden premise or two. We could complete it like this:
Premise 1
Men’s genes give them a tendency to sexual infidelity
Premise 2
Men cannot be blamed for their tendencies
Men cannot be blamed for sexual infidelity
This looks valid, although there is a slight equivocation on the word ‘men’. Not all men will have a tendency equally, so we cannot conclude that all men are blameless for sexual infidelity. But we’ll pass on this and assume ‘men’ refers to the average man.

The implication of P2 is that our tendencies are overwhelming in their force. This doesn’t seem to be true at all. We are all aware of temptations and understand we can resist them. In such circumstances, other inclinations and reasoning help us to resist. Sociobiology claims we are a basket of competing traits and tools evolved for dealing with the world, and it’s too simplistic to say we blindly follow our tendencies. And to say we blindly follow one tendency, such as a sexual imperative, is even more so. The law recognises in cases of diminished responsibility that in some circumstances, including natural aberrations, we cannot be held wholly responsible for our actions. But this principle acknowledges that the average person is responsible for their actions, and it’s the average person we’re considering.

The ‘gene-machine’ charge might be levelled by a 'blank-paperist' (a believer in the social science model that holds that a large part of our nature derives from the cultural environment), in which case we can ask if their counter position can be justified. This would have to look something like this:
People’s behaviour is determined by their culture
People determine their culture
People can be blamed for what they determine
People can be blamed for their behaviour
Some say that people do determine their cultural environment. In a sense, that’s true about their current situation. But the development of traits that occur pre-adulthood is inaccessible to us as adults. Many traits form in the years before 16, so there may be an opportunity for the blank-paperist to determine them in childhood that is not available to the gene-machinist. That may be relevant to the wider community, but no individual, contra P2, can determine their own culture in their formative years. And there is no reason to believe that how these traits are formed makes them more or less mutable in adulthood.

So, once determined, however that may be, the problem of blame presents itself. To determine one’s own traits, one would have to exist prior to one’s own conception – a logical impossibility. So determinism seems to be the enemy of blame, not genetic determinism.

Looking at P3, we do blame people for what they do, often ignoring prior causes. This arises from a sense of localised or ordinary responsibility because, perhaps, it’s more important to understand immediate causes. Consider a house underneath a cliff that suffers from rock-falls. If the rock-falls are due to an unstable rock face, the instability can be addressed. If they’re due to someone pushing rocks down, then they should be held responsible and prevented from re-offending. Observing that, ultimately, both the unstable rock face and the vandal are simply following causes deterministically as part of one long chain of causality from the Big Bang doesn’t help us to decide a future course of action.

Consequentialists and deontologists would take different approaches to the vandal; the consequentialist would see little value in blame unless it resulted in greater benefits than other responses. Deontologists would lay blame because of the inherent wrongness of the act. But neither would blame, morally, the unstable rock face for falling on the house, because it lacks agency. If agency is a temporary phenomenon, it would not be appropriate to say that someone is, or is not, ultimately to blame, but to say that they are locally to blame is pragmatic. We recognise prior agencies as mitigating factors; if the miscreant has been unduly influenced by another, for example. But the further back from the current moment we move the less responsibility we assign. So the passage of time is relevant to the level of responsibility, in conjunction with agency, and neither rests on the truth of gene-machine Darwinism.

The charge from immaterialists, typically theists, is that determinism follows from materialism (immateriality is redundant in gene-machine Darwinism). Science suggests that materialism may not entail determinism, but we’ll allow this assumption for the sake of argument. Immaterialists suggest that morality is meaningless without ‘free’ choice; if our actions follow unavoidably from prior events, blame cannot be laid:
Materialism entails determinism
Determinism dictates that every cause has a prior cause
Responsibility rests where the causal chain stops; at a cause without a prior cause
Materialism precludes responsibility
We blame the person responsible, but if the causal chain doesn’t stop, neither does the responsibility. The argument looks valid; P1 we are allowing, P2 is just determinism defined, but P3 looks suspect. As discussed above, a local responsibility is understandable, even with a chain of events extending back into the past to other ultimate causes. In fact, to rest the responsibility where there are no prior causes can prevent us laying blame. Consider the following scenario: a woman sees a man advancing toward a baby with his arms outstretched. She hits him with her handbag, knocking him out. Among the reasons for her actions could be:
a)       She knew the man meant to harm the baby.
b)       She’s a lunatic out to hit the first man she sees.
c)       She made the decision to hit the man, or acted to hit the man, with no prior cause.

The first two explanations allow us to draw on further evidence and perhaps assign praise (a) or blame (b, with diminished responsibility). But (c) leaves us helpless, because intentions are a major factor in moral judgements. Indeterministic acts happen for no reason. Further, it’s hard to see why someone could do something without prior cause; how would they know what to do without the knowledge of the situation? Perhaps knowledge of the situation exists, but does not count as a prior cause? But the woman is hitting the man because he’s there, else she’d be flailing at nothing. It is a necessary precursor to the act, so must be a component of some prior cause. So indeterminism stops us placing blame, and gene-machine Darwinism is not to blame for that!

The expanded argument for the second part of the conditional we're considering shares the same problems:
Women’s genes give them a tendency to sexual constancy
People cannot be praised for their tendencies
Women cannot be blamed for sexual constancy
The implication is we have no choice but to follow our tendencies. To expand further:
Women’s genes give them a tendency to sexual constancy
People have no choice but to follow their tendencies
People should only be praised for choosing to act well
Sexual constancy is acting well
Women cannot be praised for sexual constancy
P2 is false per gene-machinists, but P3 is troublesome too. Comedian Richard Herring cracks the joke “I was very moral as a teenager; I was a virgin by choice, but also because no-one would have sex with me.” We recognise a difference between acting well by choice rather than by circumstance (imagine if Herring's setup was that he was trying to be promiscuous, but failing). But the charge against gene-machine Darwinism is a little deeper than this; it’s the suggestion that we have no choice because of our nature and cannot choose to act well, so never act well. But we hear stories of people acting ‘heroically’ and afterwards saying ‘I had no time to think’ or ‘It all happened so quick’. Heroes often act instinctively, not through choice, but we think they are praiseworthy still. We praise them because of the nature that compelled them; the hero could have done otherwise in a way that the rock from the previous example could not, but didn’t, and wouldn’t. The idea that they might do something else in the same circumstances would just make their actions arbitrary, and them unreliable, which would hardly attract plaudits. Natural compulsion, then, doesn’t preclude praise, and gene-machine Darwinism’s supposed denial of choice is not fatal to praise-giving, either.

Whether we can praise or blame, then, may still be an issue, but the fact of it does not turn on the truth of so-called gene-machine Darwinism. The arguments to support the conditional could be constructed differently, so we have not exhausted all possible justifications. Nevertheless, based on the arguments considered above, it's clear that the implications often ascribed to ultra Darwinism are quite unwarranted. Ultimately, all that it argues for is the origin of personality traits, not their strength or immutability. As Dawkins says in The Extended Phenotype, when he complains about the unjustified reputation that genes have acquired as 'sinister' and 'juggernaut-like':

Educational, or other cultural influences may, in some circumstances, be just as unmodifiable and irreversible as genes and ‘stars’ are popularly thought to be.



Radcliffe-Richards, J. (2000) Human Nature After Darwin (A211 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University

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