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April 21, 2009

Comments

Robin Hanson

This "free will" theory is strange enough that we need more details about it if we are to get a handle on confronting it with our data. So you say it is obvious that only humans have it. But Bryan's introspection on tells him he has it, and only at those introspective moments. Are we to presume that all humans have it at all moments? Can this ability admit of degrees, or are we to presume that it arose all at once in full power at some point among our ancestors? How long ago were they?

Nathan Smith

No, it's not obvious that only humans have free will. Rather, if Bryan or I claims that free will exists on the basis of introspection, that claim clearly extends either to ourselves alone or perhaps to some group of which we are representatives, such as human beings.

What seems obvious to me is that introspective evidence may help humans to establish knowledge about human beings in general, but not about things in general. For example, if I feel pain when I cut myself with a knife, or if I feel a sense of difficulty when solving large algebra problems, it is reasonable to infer, not with absolute confidence but at least with high probability, that other humans feel pain when cut with knives and find algebra difficult, but it is not reasonable to infer that carrots or rocks feel pain when cut with knives or that computers find algebra difficult in the sense of feeling a weariness or mental resistance when they do it. Likewise, my experience of free will leads me to the conclusion that humans in general have free will, but not that everything has it.

Perhaps this could be disputed. Why, one might ask, should one assume that humans have more in common with each other than with rocks or carrots or computers? Bryan and I are more similar in size and chemical composition than rocks, no doubt; for this we have evidence; but why should we believe the commonalities extend beyond anything that can be physically proved? Why shouldn't I embrace solipsism and assume that the world consists of myself and billions of 'zombies,' things resembling myself externally but lacking subjective experience of any kind? Solipsism is incredible to most people for some reason but is, I admit, difficult, probably in a sense impossible, to refute.

Whether animals have free will, I don't know. Animals' behavior is unpredictable in ways that the behavior of rocks is not. Certain aspects of morality seem to be present; dogs, for example, seem to be able to feel shame.

The historical question of whether free will is eternal or whether it arose at some point in time, and if so how, strikes me as impossible to answer. The problem with knowing about the past is that we can't go back in time and observe it. We can only make inferences from very sketchy data. I tend to think that we know a lot less about the past than we think we do, having a bias in favor of knowing something rather than confessing ignorance. The lack of evidence leaves room for just-so stories. I think it's important to avoid the trap of trying to build great systems-of-everything and then falsifying our primary evidences for the sake of making them consistent. If free will is inconsistent with certain grand theories, so much the worse for the grand theories.

Whether humans have free will at all moments, and whether it admits of degrees, are interesting and difficult questions. The evidence provided by introspection is, if anything, more fundamental and certain than that of sense experience-- 'I think therefore I am' is arguably a certain deduction; 'I see a tree' is clearly not, since we know that our senses can be deceived-- yet it is difficult to use, since the observer and the process of observation and the thing observed are all entangled with each other. Suppose I ask you: "Are you able to think about a shark and an aspen in exactly the same moment, not in quick succession or alternating between them, but holding both of them in your mind at once?" It is a difficult question to answer.

Similarly, suppose that I say that, "While sitting in the crowded theater, I was choosing at every single moment not to shout 'Fire!'" Presumably I had the physical ability to shout 'Fire!' at any time. Does that make the statement true? Suppose it never occurred to me to shout 'Fire!'-- is it true then? Surely not. If I was, for some reason, obsessed with the idea of shouting 'Fire!' and had to exert the utmost self-control to stay silent, then the statement probably passes the commonsense test. But what exactly makes the difference.

Choice occurs in a context of desires, information, plans, habits, the exhortations of others, physical constraints, limited imagination, etc. We often have the experience of facing two or more courses of action and choosing one of them for prudential or moral or capricious reasons; we know that we could have done differently. That is a primary experience. But it is observable only by introspection and by a single person. It is not observable from the physical world or what I call the domain of intersubjectivity (see here: http://freethinker.typepad.com/the_free_thinker/2008/12/the-domains-of-reason-and-of-intersubjectivity.html), and that may make it impossible to study with the methods of the natural sciences.

nato

I'll just put in my standard objection that the type of "ability" used in the discussion of free will begs the question. How could anyone know that they could have done otherwise in the physical sense? Because they feel like they could have chosen otherwise? If someone feels like they could fly, does that mean that they can? I mean, who have ever chosen otherwise, or what would that even mean? The mystery occurs because of the use of a sense of possibility that is either inappropriate or degenerate. That I "can" choose otherwise is interesting in a different respect than the manner in which a quantum random number generator "can" emit '0.534'. We can insist on both of these being the same form of "can," but I see no motivation therefor. If we keep apart capability, stochastic indeterminacy and epistemic incompleteness, I think the problems of free will become far more tractable and require no appeals to mystery.

Nathan Smith

re: "How could anyone know that they could have done otherwise in the physical sense?"

If it comes to that, how could anyone know that they could not have done otherwise in the physical sense? If someone feels they can fly, you can refute them by asking them to do it. In the case of free will, we cannot rewind the tape and see if the person could have done differently. The standard of proof Nato seems to have in mind is not applicable here. So we go with the overwhelming intuition.

Nathan Smith

One other thing. The appropriate parallel is not in feeling that one could fly, but in feeling that one is flying. Introspection says that we *are* choosing. That we could have chosen otherwise is implied by the nature of choice, but it is choosing itself that is from primary experience.

nato

Can I deny that I could have chosen otherwise while as the same time insist I chose? If not, why not?

To flip the matter a bit more: If *I* really could have done otherwise in a causal sense, then in what way am I determining "my" own choices? Am I just laying claim to randomness? It seems to me that if I am to own a decision entirely, then it must be the case that I, being who and what I am, would always make the same choice as long as the conditions are the same. That's not to say that statements like "I almost decided to go to the store" are unintelligible; we can likewise say that an arrow "almost" hit the target without requiring any physical indeterminacy.

Thus I have no trouble granting that people chose things all the time. I could even say that the "could have chosen otherwise" intuition is entirely applicable in the ordinary sense that the arrow could have hit a bulls eye, if conditions were just a little different.

Nathan Smith

When people want to stay that they could not have chosen otherwise, they say "I had no choice." Not to be capable of doing otherwise is not to have choice, that is, not to choose. This suggests that it is incoherent to say one chose and at the same time that one could not have chosen otherwise. In any case, to insist that having chosen implies having been able to do otherwise than what one did is a way of isolating the philosophical from the merely semantic question.

"In what way am I determining "my" own choices?"

By choosing. You might have various different reasons for choosing. But given the same set of reasons, people can make different choices. For example, suppose a man has an opportunity to seduce his friend's wife. The reason to do so is lust, desire for pleasure. The reasons not to are the immorality of the actions as well as fear of various material consequences; perhaps he will have to fight a duel with his friend. Given the same set of reasons, men make different choices. But if we could enumerate *all* the reasons for choosing one way or the other, would the choice be determined? No. Or at any rate, since there is no reason to think this is the case, the provisional best answer is no, which is consistent the introspective experience of choice.

"Am I just laying claim to randomness?"

No. There is no reason whatsoever to assimilate choice to randomness. Randomness indeed is a strange concept, quite difficult to define, and one of which we have less immediate experience than choice. A determinist can easily deny randomness and say that everything is caused in deterministic fashion, only some of the causes are permanently unobservable to us. Also, randomness implies such exogenous distribution of possible events. But in the case of choice, a person may choose to be polite, for example, every single time an occasion for choice between politeness and rudeness comes up, yet that person still has the option of being rude.

nato

"When people want to stay that they could not have chosen otherwise, they say "I had no choice.""

This is in the context of being under duress. It's a morally important context, because it lets the audience know that the speaker would have chosen otherwise in the absence of duress, but rarely do speakers mean that they were briefly without the philosophical construal of free will. In fact, the more common parlance when addressing something like that, they're more likely to point out something like "It wasn't me!" or "I wasn't in control of my body," or whatever. If we interrogated someone who uttered "I had no choice" into philosophical language, it would turn into something like, "I chose something that offended my conscience or otherwise ran counter to my goals because the other options were all worse." So, there are two forms of "choose" in play, and the ordinary non-philosophical version seems far less problematic than the (sorry) radical causation required in Nathan's formulation of the philosophical concept.

"But given the same set of reasons, people can make different choices."

It seems like Nathan segues into a discussion of the differences between people. I return to my complete original statement: "If *I* really could have done otherwise in a causal sense, then in what way am I determining "my" own choices?" It's not particularly notable that other people make different choices given the exact same reasons, and if Nathan meant something else then the subsequent reasoning needs more unpacking.

Note that this does not require or even imply physicalism; say I am a soul making these choices. Should not the content and structure of my soul, whatever that may be, fully determine (in conjunction with physical factors) the choices I make? If it does not, whence come these decisions? If I am making a choice, then the degree to which *I* determine the choice would seem to be the degree to which it is logically impossible for me to make some other choice. If I did, then it wouldn't be *me* making the choice.

Nathan Smith

re; "It seems like Nathan segues into a discussion of the differences between people."

No. There need be no relevant differences between people in order for them to make different choices. The only reason to bring different people into it at all is that it might be easier to imagine different people placed in the same situation than to address the hypothetical question of could the same person have done different things. In a sense, every situation is unique, so there can be no perfect experiments, and all we have is raw introspection: I was there, I know I could have done differently; I make choices all the time, I feel it. Choice is more fundamental than experiment, because the researcher chooses to vary some parameter and see the result. You can tell someone, if you like, "OK, I'm going to do the same thing, but you *choose* to respond differently. I want to see if you have free will." This would obviously be invalid, since my instructions cause the change in the response. Also, variation is not necessary as evidence that choice is at work, because some people always make the same choices-- always choose to be honest, or polite, or brave, for example, or to drive between the lines on the road-- but they are still choosing.

"In what way am I determining my own choices?" is a contentless question. It's like asking "In what way is blue blue?" To determine your own choices is to choose. You have grounds for your decisions, "reasons" for choice and action, but there is no basis for thinking that those reasons fully determine the choice, because given a list of all relevant reasons people may still make different choices.

Yes, it is logically possible to deny free will without being physicalist. But there is no reason to deny free will, and a compelling reason to affirm it.

nato

"There need be no relevant differences between people in order for them to make different choices."

I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean, but it would appear to be bald asseveration.

"In a sense, every situation is unique, so there can be no perfect experiments, and all we have is raw introspection: I was there, I know I could have done differently; I make choices all the time, I feel it."

We constantly contemplate various options under the idea that any of them are available, which leads naturally to the conclusions that we could have chosen otherwise after the fact, and this has to be true in some sense. We struggle with decisions all the time, and sometimes it can be difficult if not impossible to point to any single thing that drove us to make one choice over the other. What intuition precludes us from searching for the sources of those choices? I mean, we do search for reasons why we do things, do we not? We try to find structure in our own decision-making, and sometimes we find it. If our intuition so unassailably resists the idea of our choices being themselves "determined" in some way, then why do we even do this? I submit that few peoples' introspection in this matter is so raw as to be unadulterated by theoretical preconceptions, and I would say the intuitive certainty of free will is not of a free will defined just as Nathan defines it.

"To determine your own choices is to choose."

But I can be fully determinist and say that I determine my own choices, can I not?

" You have grounds for your decisions, "reasons" for choice and action, but there is no basis for thinking that those reasons fully determine the choice, because given a list of all relevant reasons people may still make different choices."

And we're back to bald asseveration. *All* relevant reasons? Is Nathan really imagining this scenario in full detail? I presume he does not intend to imply that the different actions of two people presented with the same list of sentences covering pros and cons somehow stands in for "all relevant reasons" in the real world.

"it is logically possible to deny free will without being physicalist."

This made me chuckle, because I am not, of course, denying free will, but rather arguing about how it is to be usefully defined.

Tom

I think Nathan is conflating "freedom" and "free will". Freedom gives an agent options to chose from, and free will determines which option the agent chooses. If there is no freedom, then there is no choice, and thus the agent's free will is irrelevant. If there is freedom but no free will, then there is no agency and no choice, and the outcome is due to randomness or whimsy (in a colloquial sense).

Through introspection, Nathan sees that he has options to choose from, and through internal deliberation, he uses his free will to make a choice. This is a deterministic process; Nathan determines his choices. Nato's observation: if Nathan does not determine his choices, then to what extent can we attribute the choices to Nathan?

Logically, a proposition either follows or it doesn't: a thing is either determined, or it isn't. I've had this argument in great detail with Nathan before, and if I remember correctly, he asserted that in addition to determinism and indeterminism there is a third mode (and possibly addition modes) of causation: choice. His support of that assertion is subjective introspection, and his explanation of the mechanism of choice is revelation and mystery.

Needless to say, I'm in Nato's camp on this one.

Joyless Moralist

I'm not sure if you're implying that *logic alone* can rule out the possibility of free will, but if so that's absurd. Determinism and indeterminism only cover all the logical ground if indeterminism is taken in a trivial sense, to mean simply "anything besides determinism." In that case, what Nathan's advocating is a form of indeterminism, but it doesn't follow that if something is not determined, it must be simply random.

These free will conversations are funny to me, because the defender of free will is always accused of appealing to things he can't explain (mystery!) and bald assertions (I do too freely choose!), as if the other side were somehow in possession of a totally satisfactory, well-demonstrated alternative. Of course, this isn't remotely the case. At the end of the day, the determinist is likewise reduced to hand-waving references to things psychology hasn't explored yet, and table-thumping insistence that human actions *are* entirely determined by circumstance, despite our failure to give a remotely complete picture of how this happens.

I am also unable to give a full and complete account of human action. But what does seem true to me (though I know the point is contended by some) is that we need some notion of free will in order to preserve any satisfactory account of moral responsibility. Obviously if you accept that claim, you can go two directions: you can ditch free will, or you can deny moral responsibility. I'm strongly disinclined to do the latter (as is almost everybody at the end of the day), so I opt for the first of the less-than-completely-developed accounts of human actions, namely, the one that includes free will.

nato

"it doesn't follow that if something is not determined, it must be simply random."

Oh? Give a counterexample. To me, it is inconceivable that something simultaneously does not happen for a reason and does not happen for no reason. So, we might equally have chosen either of two options, but we can't say that our choice was determined by the content of our character, but neither was it random*. So then it's... "choice" What does that even mean?

Yes, "deterministic" accounts of human action are incomplete, but at least they are comprehensible. And neither do they rule out certain forms of free will. I mean, go ahead and posit that souls are eternal and uncaused; it order for them to meaningfully be themselves cause of action, they would have to have some sort of defined (though not necessarily known or understood) influence on the action. Undefined influences are necessarily meaningless, random influences shift some causation to randomness. I cavil against Nathan's definition of free will not because I'm a determinist or a naturalist but because I suspect the mystery obscures incoherence.

*Nor a combination of the two, which would predominate even in a determinist's account because deterministic microphysical dynamics may as well be random for the purposes of interpreting behavior.

Tom

I think preconceptions are getting in the way of communication. For the moment, forget everything you think you know about determinism, the determinist position, and whatever you believe Nato's and my position to be. If there are reasons why a choice was made, then by definition, the choice was determined by those reasons. I suppose you could also say that your free will determines your choices. That is determinism. That is not indeterminism. Just because you can't predict what choices people will make, that does not mean that the choices are not determined. Determinism is A->B, A causes/leads to/implies B. If you are A, and you do not cause/lead to/imply B, then B is not your choice. Indeterminism is A->(B or C or D...). Choice is not indeterminism, for while the options B, C, and D are available to choose from, agent A only ever causes/leads to/implies one of the options for any given choice. The act of choosing is deterministic.

Nathan Smith

Nato and Tom seem to have an odd determination to refuse to accept the obvious. What does choice even mean? You do it every day. Pay attention to experience, and don't insist on finding some mechanism or backstory behind it before you accept it as valid.

Nato writes:

"To me, it is inconceivable that something simultaneously does not happen for a reason and does not happen for no reason."

Sure, I guess if you posit a category "things that happen for a reason" and then an alternative "everything else" then by definition those two categories cover all cases. But "things happen for a reason" is not clear. In particular, to the extent that I can ascribe any meaning to it at all, it covers *both* physical (or other) determinism and choice. The rock fell for a reason: gravity. My hand moved for a reason: I chose to move it.

Randomness, likewise, is not simply "things happening for no reason." It is a much more complex and specific concept. Random variables have distributions. A discreet uniform random variable, like the number shown on a six-sided die after a roll, takes all possible values with equal probability. A normally distributed random variable, such as (roughly) human heights, is more likely to fall on certain values in a way that can be described mathematically with great specificity. For all that there is still much that is mysterious in randomness. Why are certain distributions, e.g., the normal distribution, observed often in nature? Some partial and speculative answers could be offered, but we don't really know. The identifications of "things happen for a reason" with determinism and "things happen for no reason" with randomness are not accurate.

"If there are reasons why a choice was made, then by definition, the choice was determined by those reasons."

But this is what we are denying. There might be reasons A, B, and D for making choice F, and C and E for choice G, and the choose might choose either F, or G. Reasons influence but do not determine the choice. Unless you include the choice itself among the reasons. To say "your free will determines your choice" is tautological: for a will to determine is for it to choose. But it is not determinist, because the will can choose differently.

"for while the options B, C, and D are available to choose from, agent A only ever causes/leads to/implies one of the options for any given choice"

No. People in relevantly identical situations might choose different things.

Tom

'Randomness, likewise, is not simply "things happening for no reason."'

Nathan, you sound like a determinist here. Actually, I would take it further than you do. Randomness is merely a characterization of data, a way to describe statistical outcomes. Fundamentally, outcomes that we characterize as "random" are the result of deterministic processes.

So in a nutshell, choice, randomness, and all things are deterministic. Of course, that reductionist way of looking at things is not very constructive, which is why we come-up with characterizations that are not necessarily true, but offer good tractable approximations of the truth.


"People in relevantly identical situations might choose different things."

So what? That in no way means that their choices aren't determined. It doesn't matter what people might do. It only matter what they do do. I might become king of the world, but seemingly everything in the universe would have to conspire to bring it about; it would take a power (fate, destiny?) outside of my own will to bring it about.

nato

There's this incredible causal fulcrum that is neither reason nor random, but rather "choice". What is it? Well it's choice! Okay, besides a word, what is this "choice"? It's what happens when you make a decision when you abstract the rational and the random* elements. Why do we even think there is anything there? Because introspection tells us there is!

The above narrative would seem to leave us at an impasse if the different parties relate their experience of making choices differently. I have no trouble explaining my introspective experience of decision-making in terms of cognitive neurology. I think I understand, broadly speaking, why I don't have access to the details of the processes of my own thoughts, including those that lead to decisions. I *do* have intuitions to explain, and they are real intuitions. If a description of human decision-making cannot account for my subjective experience of life, including making choices, then yes, it must be rejected. Perhaps Nathan's experiences are different, and so we'll always be talking past one-another.

I tend to doubt this, however, because the examples in play all seem easy to explain in terms of a more nuanced view of mind. In the 1950s when logical positivism was in vogue, many hopeful theorists thought they would be able to reduce the brain to a sort of fitfully-operational calculator of propositional logic, and on this assumption made their (hilariously inadequate) attempts at artificial intelligence. In that era, it really did seem that it would be sufficient to enumerate a few relevant reasons/motivations that would feed into a decision and calculate the answer. But real humans don't make decisions like that, and it turns out that this owes to a variety of rather fundamental reasons. The apparent inefficiencies of the brain turn out to be far wiser than those researchers imagined.** Modern research in perception shows that one of the reasons we have so consistently outperformed machines in all sorts of perceptual tasks was because our perceptual mechanisms employed huge teams of varied networks and subnetworks which generated a vast array of heuristic judgments unavailable to introspection*** that summed to a highly reliable, context-sensitive set of senses. Describing the reason for any particular perceptual event, e.g. seeing a basketball, requires hundreds or thousands of different "reasons." We could not remotely say that we have empirical models for choice-making that we do for, say, visual perception, but besides Noam Chomsky and a few others, there are few major thinkers today who think that the inputs to any decision-making process wouldn't exhaust the alphabet many times over. Indeed, the problem these days is trying to figure out what brings order to the chaos. There are ideas, but the truth is that no one's theory of control has been robust and versatile enough**** to explain why we can maintain attention for such prolonged periods. Making choices - especially moral choices - are very much an interesting case at the center of it all, because the classical model of deliberating sort of implies that the grandest of all grand coalitions of different parts of ourselves, all offering reasons, hundreds and thousands of them. We're imagining the results of our actions and predicting our feelings and those of others, and busily trying to ignore how hot it is in here and and and and. What's relevant? Possibly everything, if it's a close call, or possibly a much smaller subset if we don't really have to wrestle with it. Which states mattered in the '88 election, or '92?

And that fits with how I feel about big decisions: like I'm trying to bring all of myself to bear, summon everything relevant, gauging the relative importance of various factors, engaging feelings, and, sometimes, making a snap decision between two or more alternatives when I don't seem to be leaning a particular way. If I have more time, I'll tentatively make a decision to "try it on" for a while, and see where it takes me mentally, and see if it fits. Perhaps I'm very strange in this approach, but I don't think so, and I don't see anything about this introspective experience that says anything about determinism or indeterminism, much less points to some singular metaphysical force operative when I'm choosing.

Nathan's account, then, leaves me stumped. There seems to be no description of choice except that it makes the difference between one path and another in "relevantly identical situations." Leaving aside my somewhat theoretically-informed feeling that "relevantly identical situations" would have to be vanishingly rare or perhaps even impossible*****, the term "choice" in this situation is curiously undefined. It's the input of will into the action-choosing process, but it's not determined by the characteristics of one's will, nor is it random. Or perhaps it is determined by will, but will itself is undefined. I don't know.

Let me try a similar move. My dexterity is the reason my arm imparts a particular motion to the basketball beyond the signals I send it. I mean, I make my arm do the same thing every time, but sometimes it does what I want, and sometimes I can sense that it isn't quite right, even though I don't seem to have done anything wrong. Through introspection, I can just tell that dexterity is operating in these cases, causing motion in my arms despite relevantly identical motorneuron signals. It is not randomness, because if it was I wouldn't know as soon as I shot that the basketball wasn't going where I wanted it to go. So, dexterity is neither determined nor random, and forms its own category of causation. Also, no one has been able to define exactly why my hand moves one way or another yet, so critics of my account are just handwaving themselves.

The above account actually references a real introspective experience in which most people share, but builds a poorly-motivate metaphysical position atop it. Granted, the experience of choice is more universal and is easier to imagine as a 'fundamental force' if you will, but the difference seems to me to be a matter of scale rather than type.

Finally, for Tom, I wanted to address "characterizations that are not necessarily true, but offer good tractable approximations of the truth." I think that such characterizations are, if not true, at least not false. If there is a sense in which cold fronts do not really exist and are instead merely tractable approximations of atmospheric thermodynamics, they still represent stable and interesting regularities of the world, featuring properties of which one can make intersubjectively verifiable measurements. Disqualifying such higher-order regularities for inclusion with "true" characterizations because of ontological impurity seems justifiable but inadvisable for most purposes.

*Random for the purposes of cognitive analysis. Deterministic neural nets can generate substantially random behavior.

**Early giants like Turing and Minsky were far more accurate but less popular with their comparatively dour view of the early AI efforts.

***Of course, carefully controlled experiments and research with minutely-mapped areas of brain damage have exposed some of these to introspection so that they could be reported to researchers. Magic Eye posters started as a research hypothesis about data retention in the visual system.

****That I know of. There haven't been many big re-thinks that have come out lately, which either indicates that everyone thinks that some variation on the frequency-based control theory will turn out to be the right answer, or most folks think neurologist will discover the answer before theorists will be able to think of one.

*****One could argue that if the situations were really so similar, it would really be the same person contemplating the same decision

Nathan Smith

"what is this 'choice'? It's what happens when you make a decision when you abstract the rational and the random*..."

No, rational elements are part of choice. A rock does not fall because it thinks falling would be a good idea. Only humans (and maybe animals) have reason, and reason causally affects the world through human beings and their choices.

"elements. Why do we even think there is anything there? Because introspection tells us there is!"

Yes, if you like, and that is a more fundamental form of evidence than any grounds we have for believing in natural laws. We know natural laws, if we do, by introspection. Introspection is a mode of thinking-to-knowledge which is ultimately not supported by strict logic, and depends on a sort of meta-belief or faith that, as we must inadequately express it, there is order in the world. That the sun rose the last 10,000 mornings doesn't mean it will rise tomorrow without this faith in order in the world. By contrast, choice doesn't require any faith. We can *know* that, in a way relative to which everything we usually call knowledge is only conjecture.

"the examples in play all seem easy to explain in terms of a more nuanced view of mind."

Believing in choice is the more nuanced view of the mind. It is determinism and randomness which are the crude and untenable over-simplifactions.

nato

"It is determinism and randomness which are the crude and untenable over-simplifactions."

This is certainly true if one crudely oversimplies them. I'm happy to grant choice, if the term is to refer to some interaction between reasons* (as well as randomness, within limits) and circumstances. That is to say that if we describe choice as what happens when a conscious agent selects a course of action, then I have no objections.

"...choice doesn't require any faith. We can *know* that, in a way relative to which everything we usually call knowledge is only conjecture."

We certainly know we make choices, but what about the intuition says that the choice cannot be a product of deterministic processes? How can we dismiss my intuitions about the phenomenon of dexterity as being theoretical overreach while simultaneously holding that intuitions about choice lead pre-theoretically to a special metaphysical category?

*For clarity's sake I should point out that when I abstracted the "rational," I mean reasons in the form of causal factors with well-defined effects. This is not to say that humans do not have veridical reasons of the conventional type, which can be expressed in English propositions; I merely wanted to subsume all relevant factors with defined effects. Also, even if complexes of mechanistic electrical signals constitute conventional reasons(creasons), one can still meaningfully say that those creasons cause things to happen. We say that a tornado ripped the roof off a house and no one says that, well, what really happened was a scrim of high-pressure atmospheric particles pressed so hard against the underside of the roofing that the hydrogen bonds holding it in place broke.

Joyless Moralist

It seems to me like an improvement of Tom and Nato's account to ditch "randomness" as one possible explanation of events. I understand the motivation for being a determinist, but randomness seems at least as mysterious as "choice", unless you want to go Hericlitean and start raising doubts about causation.

Determinism may not be simplistic in every respect, but it is a *metaphysically* simplistic account of the universe. (Or at least it allows for one; I suppose one wouldn't logically HAVE to adopt a metaphysically simplistic view in order to be a determinist but I can't think of any other reason why you would want to.) For a determinist, the universe can be causally closed, and he can happily be a materialist if he likes, so metaphysically everything is very neat and easy to grasp. Causation is very commonsensical, and we don't have to commit ourselves to the existence of anything that can't be seen or touched or scientifically explained. There's no need to truck with confusing entities like souls or wills or gods.

Now of course, determinists are normally pretty happy to admit that the actual chains of causes that we find in the world can get pretty complex. In that sense, it needn't be "crude and simplistic." But the metaphysical simplicity is, as far as I can see, the main selling point of determinism. And if you're firmly committed to such a view, it's not surprising that you would be reduced to head-scratching and table-pounding when others insist on the existence of less easily tangible sorts of entities.

But lots of people (obviously including Nathan and myself) *are* committed to the existence of such entities, believing that the determinist's metaphysical picture is too impoverished to explain reality as we experience it. As I mentioned before, one thing I *don't* think it can do is offer a satisfactory account of moral responsibility. Though I'm well aware that people have tried, I don't think, at the end of the day, that a determinist can give any robust justification for praise or blame. Ultimately moral claims just boil down to an emotivist-type reports of having positive or negative feelings about something, which to me is an unacceptable consequence.

It does also seem true to me that it can't do full justice to our experience of choosing. Nato's explanation may seem phenomenologically satisfying when it comes to the aspect of taking lots of factors into account. But it still doesn't do justice to the strong intuition that it's ultimately *me* that decides, a unique and conscious self. A description of the relevant contributing factors, together with facts about my cognitive capacities etc etc, would not be adequate to fully explain what happens, no matter how exhaustive that description might be. Different options are laid out in front of me, and I contemplate the various reasons for choosing one over another, but in the end it's *my decision* that makes the final determination. I realize, however, that it's all but impossible to argue this point to people who are firmly committed to the more basic metaphysical view of the universe. But I *do* think, for what it's worth, that absent some sort of particular ideological commitments, the great majority of people are inclined to agree on the basis of experience/introspection that their choices are not determined by circumstance.

Tom

"As I mentioned before, one thing I *don't* think [determinism] can do is offer a satisfactory account of moral responsibility."

It offers a much more satisfactory account than any theology I've encountered. For instance, Christianity preaches that everyone is a sinner, and makes little to no distinction between severity/degree of sin. In fact, all one needs to do to claim ever-lasting happiness in the afterlife is to affirm the divinity of Jesus. Are you a serial killer? Well, as long as you find Jesus before you die, you're good to go. What if you're Mother Theresa and have doubts about your faith near the end of your life? Sorry, you go to hell. Claiming that everyone is a sinner is not a morally nuanced position. An equal claim would be to say that no one is immoral or has a moral responsibility in a purely deterministic universe because no one really has a "choice" in the matter of what they do. Both of those views are ridiculous, and thankfully, people in general don't act as if either is truly the case.

Frankly, morality as is described in the bible is horrifying. Most of the lessons of the bible are ignored, to society's benefit. Morality has evolved so much over the millennia that what used to pass as a good moral standard is now comical. "Thou shall not take the lord's name in vain" is just one example.

"Different options are laid out in front of me, and I contemplate the various reasons for choosing one over another, but in the end it's *my decision* that makes the final determination."

Right. You, your soul, your free will, your metaphysical being determines your choice. That is determinism. Are we talking passed each other here?

Nato

"...if you're firmly committed to such a view, it's not surprising that you would be reduced to head-scratching and table-pounding when others insist on the existence of less easily tangible sorts of entities."

May I pound the table and scratch my head until I get an account of why dexterity isn't a metaphysical player but choice is? Or are we to be so permissive that we must seriously entertain dexterity as a fundamental causal fulcrum? Basically, I'd like to pound the table until someone serves an account of the choice intuition that clarifies why it commits us to Nathan and JM's special handling.

"...the great majority of people are inclined to agree on the basis of experience/introspection that their choices are not determined by circumstance."

Well, I certainly agree. Peoples' character determines their responses to circumstance.

And if I leave it there, we all agree. It's only when we get to asking how peoples' character (howsoever constituted) came to be how it is that we get into stickier wickets, or if we start asking people to speculate on whether history has fated their particular lives or whatever. Even then, I think phrasing would have a tremendous influence on how people answered the question. For example, many people have a commitment to immaterial souls and might shy off from anything that sounds like it might be setting up a physicalist dissolution of cherished beliefs. We'd have to be very careful to study the distribution of pre-theoretical intuitions.

"You, your soul, your free will, your metaphysical being determines your choice. That is determinism."

Thus it must seem to me. Your soul must have some sort of minimally-stable characteristics that stand in some defined relation to the choices made, or how can the soul be said to have actually made the choice? If will defies logic, then can anything intelligible be said about it?

I mean, it seems plausible that some things exist that are literally incomprehensible, but then how is any discussion of those things to have a truth value? Is this what mystery means?

Joyless Moralist

"Are we talking past each other here?"

Insofar as we are, I think it evidences a bit of obtuseness on your part, in preferring to respond to the lines you can twist to your purposes instead of the ones that more clearly distinguish our differences. For example, I also included this line in my post above in describing a non-determinist view:

"A description of the relevant contributing factors, together with facts about my cognitive capacities etc etc, would not be adequate to fully explain what happens, no matter how exhaustive that description might be."

Would you agree with that? If you had a full and complete description of my psychology (or, if you prefer, the make-up of my brain), together with every relevant detail of the circumstances I was encountering, would that be enough in principle to predict with 100% accuracy what I would do? Everyone admits the puzzle would be difficult, but would it be *possible*?

If so, I think that has serious implications for moral responsibility. Your account of Christian morality is obviously absurd and intended to bait me, so we'll leave that aside. In any case, I don't need to say anything very specific about the *content* of morality in order to make my point. If my behavior is completely and necessarily determined by a combination of my physical/psychological properties at birth, and the circumstances I encounter in my life, then blaming me for the things I do seems very much like blaming the river for rising in a storm and flooding people's homes, or blaming a tree for blowing over in a high wind and killing someone. We express *dismay* at these events, but even in our distress it doesn't make sense to us to *blame* trees and rivers, because their behavior was necessitated by circumstance. Likewise with us, if our actions (call them choices if you want to, but there seems to be no real contingency to "choice" in your understanding of it) are necessitated by the combination of our own state and circumstance, I don't think praise or blame can really be much more than expressions of delight or dismay at the results.

"Basically, I'd like to pound the table until someone serves an account of the choice intuition that clarifies why it commits us to Nathan and JM's special handling."

Well, one reason is that a lot of other people, including many great philosophers, have believed in something like the freedom of the will, and written extensively about it, whereas so far as I know nobody, including Nato himself, believes in "dexterity" as a separate metaphysical entity. Which makes it a bit hard to take seriously.

But very well. If you seemed to seriously believe in "dexterity" as a "metaphysical player" I would proceed to ask you some further questions. I would have to start by asking: what do you mean by "metaphysical player"? Are you proposing dexterity as an independent metaphysical entity, or merely as one capacity or power of your own soul? If the former, the picture starts to get rather strange, because it seems that your dexterity is under your direct control, and it's hard to imagine what kind of entity would exist independently, and yet at the same time be utterly subject to you. Where does it go when you're not being dextrous? What is the purpose of its existence? On the other hand, if you think of it merely as one capacity or power of you, that's somewhat less wacky; then I would just want to know more about when you exercise this capacity, what you think it does, what it would mean for it to be in a state of perfection, etc. Where THAT conversation would go would obviously depend on your answers, but I suspect I would end up suggesting that the substance of what you call "dexterity" is better subsumed under some other, broader capacity of the soul.

So, yes, there would be a conversation to be had here, if you really believed in a "metaphysical player" of dexterity. Since you don't, it's hard to speculate too much about what to make of that player.

Finally: you keep referencing "character." What is character to you? Where I come from, that word tends to get an Aristotelian cast, and most Aristotelians (though this is not exceptionless) are not determinists, so your regular use of the term feels a little misleading to me. One question would be: does character mean anything over and above "psychology?" If so, what? Could talk of one's "character" be cashed out through descriptions of the physical conditions of one's brain (at least in principle)? If not, why not?

Nato

"...if our actions (call them choices if you want to, but there seems to be no real contingency to "choice" in your understanding of it) are necessitated by the combination of our own state and circumstance, I don't think praise or blame can really be much more than expressions of delight or dismay at the results."

Why? If the things we do are a product of our state (presuming that 'state' here includes all the permanent things about our constitution) and the circumstances do not change the meaning of the act, then it would seem that we can assign praise or blame to that state. If my "state" is such that I lie under ordinary circumstances, then we can say I'm a reprehensible liar.

"...it seems that your dexterity is under your direct control..."

Actually, it's not, in my account. I attempt to control it, but it does seem beyond my ability to always sink the basket, even though I introspectively feel like the commands I sent my arm were the same. 'Move the same way as that last time when I made the basket,' I think to myself, and so far as I can tell while it's happening, that's just what I'm doing, yet as soon as the ball leaves my hands I intuitively know it wasn't quite right. I know that with practice, my dexterity increases, and more and more it seems that I can achieve the correct movements, but though I experience it, I don't seem to control it. Thus, I name dexterity an independent metaphysical force. The ancients might even have agreed, or placed it as part of the vital force that drives living things. I don't know what its purpose is, or where it goes or anything; that's not part of the intuition. For it to be perfected is to always move gracefully as long as I know in what way I should be moving.

I suppose we could subsume it under the soul, but that seems only as motivated as subsuming the soul under the physical universe. After all, it seems that the will has some influence over my dexterity, but is not identical.

Moving away from that exercise and on to 'character': I use character as in an agglomeration of characteristics, howsoever constituted. It would equally apply to a set of psychological states, if that exhausted one's self, or the union of neurological dispositions and the makeup of one's soul, or whatever, as long as it's a complete list of all the things that are both stable* and endogenous to a person. This could bear quite a bit more description, but that's a general outline.

*As opposed to, say, influences introduced by psychotropic drugs, or a stroke.

Nathan Smith

I don't really understand Nato's challenge. Clearly, he's trying to make a case for dexterity as a source of primary causation as a sort of *reductio ad absurdum* of the argument for choice as a causal factor. But it's clear that the grounds for belief in choice as a causal factor-- introspection-- do not apply to dexterity. A concept of dexterity is not at all fundamental, but is derived from the experience of physical action. Even then, how does dexterity differ from agility, or strength? It would be odd if someone who distinguished dexterity from agility were to argue that someone who equated them was making a philosophical error. These concepts are not sufficiently well-defined or fundamental to allow for much philosophical discussion. Certainly nowhere near as fundamental as choice.

re: "If my 'state' is such that I lie under ordinary circumstances, then we can say I'm a reprehensible liar."

No, this modification of word meanings for compatibilist ends is not acceptable. If it is simply your 'state' that you lie under ordinary circumstances-- you are programmed, as it were, to do so; it is outside of your control-- then you cannot be blamed for it. Only if lying is a choice, either at the moment of the lie or more generally in the way you have allowed your choices to shape your character, can it be an appropriate object of blame.

re: "Your soul must have some sort of minimally-stable characteristics that stand in some defined relation to the choices made, or how can the soul be said to have actually made the choice?"

It is just the opposite. Your soul must have some input into the choices you make, beyond the influence of circumstances, or you cannot be said to have made the choice any more thanthe world can be said to have made the choice. If every time-t world-state completely determines the time-t+1 world-state, no particular thing has particularly caused any other particular thing; the whole world is a single predestined pattern. We don't refer to a billiard ball "choosing" to fall into the pocket, because that is determined externally to the billiard ball. But we do refer to a human will choosing to hit the ball into the pocket, because a factor enters here which is causally independent. The human being could have put down the cue and walked out of the bar instead. It is the entry of this causally independent factor that makes it correct to attribute a choice to a specific person rather than to the universe as a whole.

I should perhaps clarify something. That there is choice we know by introspection; but interpreting the evidence from introspection is difficult, particularly since this does not lie in the domain of intersubjectivity and so is not amenable to experiment and proof. What I am saying is simply that part of the experience of choice itself is that we could have done differently. We experienced the capacity to do A or B, rejected one, did the other. It is like walking along a straight road, and then encountering a fork. You know that it is in your power to go right or left. It is the nature of arguments which appeal to introspections and other non-intersubjective evidences that you can only express your convictions, try to make them understood, and hope people will assent to them. In that sense, though this is the strongest kind of evidence internally, it is weak in an argument. And the non-intersubjective nature is a considerable disadvantage even for internal use because it limits one's ability to check one's own perceptive and reasoning skill against that of others.

That's why for some purposes I prefer to use a negative argument, pointing out that the determinist's belief that the time-t world-state wholly determines the time-t+1 world-state is groundless and radically deficient in evidence in its favor.

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