Friday, July 25, 2008

Free Will

A discussion about the nature of free will and its relevance to ethics.


Blogger Derek Sansone said...

Nice chat guys.

I feel that oughts are still a matter of dealing with value. Because ought or "should" is contingent on my personal opinion. And that is the same. So why I ought to obey God, depends on if I value what God says...

If I don''t value what God says, then I won't obey him. It's hard to value the commands of a being that you have to hope exists...

8/17/08, 10:59 PM  
Blogger Leonard said...

I thought it was interesting that the conversation seemed to stick with the traditional, probably false, dichotomy of a) we have free will and therefore can talk sensibly and coherently about making moral choices or b) we don't really have free will, and so all of our lives can have no meaning or significance, and morality is an illusion.

Kudos to Dan for at least mentioning the existence of more productive lines of thought, even if they didn't get pursued too deeply in the podcast.

I don't have time for a longer post just now, but I'm wondering if any of the Apologia folk have had a chance to evaluate Ted Honderich's writings on determinism and the mind-brain problem?

I think he even asks the question more productively: "How Free Are You?"

8/18/08, 11:44 PM  
Blogger Psyconoclast said...

It seemed as though some of the panel were falling prey to a fallacious argument from final consequences: "I would feel depressed if there were no free will, therefore free will exists." That sentiment seemed to underlie many of the comments, even if it wasn't expressed syllogistically. I gain a lot of pleasure and joy from the decisions I make, so I would probably count myself in the number who would be depressed if I realized that free will was an illusion. Maybe that's why I'm a believer in free will -- maybe I commit on a personal, subconscious level the "argument from final consequences" fallacy, preventing me from accepting determinism as true.

The elimination of free will destroys all oughts, and thus moral judgments. I was listening to an archive interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast with a determinist, and the guest was saying that accepting determinism makes it possible to have compassion for people who commit crimes, and that people should accept that criminals didn't choose their actions and thus should be objects of pity, not chastisement. Of course, what the guest didn't acknowledge was that his audience, too, must not be objects of chastisement, and shouldn't be expected to act in any other way than the way they were acting.

I found the part on bounded free will was the best section of the discussion.

8/19/08, 4:09 PM  
Blogger Psyconoclast said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8/19/08, 4:11 PM  
Blogger Vern said...

The best point to come out of this was that free will is the crux of the atheist-theist divide. To me there needs to an entire series devoted to it.

The question to start with is not "how much" freedom of the will is there, but is there any at all? If there is, how can that be compatible with a purely physicalist view?

The physicalist analysis shows that no will is required to explain the result, only some combination of random and deterministic causes and effects, along with emergence resulting from any complex systems.

Sticking with the physcialist view, and applying Occam's Razor, then no free will exists at all, because it is not necessary to fully describe the resulting behavior of human action.

The result of the human mind in that view is no different from that of ants building a hive, or of a storm leaving interesting patterns of sandbars on the beach. There is no reason, design, intent or purpose in our actions at all - any more than the storm "wanted" the sand to be arranged on the beach that way.

The only alternative to that, is that physical effects sometimes require added explanation, over and above their complete causal descriptions. Intent, choice, design, reason lose all meaning if they are simply an emergent result and not the cause. But only theism allows those concepts to have that kind of primacy - i.e. some form of theism added over and above the physically observable is needed to allow them to be a sort of cause over and above the physical cause-effect analysis.

8/19/08, 8:31 PM  
Blogger Derek Sansone said...

It's simple.

You are not "free" from your will.

There that settles it...

8/19/08, 8:41 PM  
Blogger Derek Sansone said...

I really already handled this topic over a year ago from a moral position in, "Bar Talk with Derek Sansone" The audio is still up...

8/19/08, 8:50 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Thank you for the nice conversation guys.

You define "Intent, choice, design, reason" such that they are coherent only in a dualist worldview. These notions can be defined in a physicalist coherent way too. All you need is some non-deterministic mechanism in the brain.
On the other hand, the fact (using your definition) that "Intent, choice, design, reason lose all meaning if they are simply an emergent result and not the cause." says nothing about the truth of the matter. See the comment psyconoclast made about the argument from final consequences.

8/21/08, 8:10 AM  
Blogger Vern said...

Determinism is not the issue. Randomness is just as much of an issue. Neither allows choice.

Stated another way, why is there any fundamental difference between the Empire State Building, or a termite mound, or between either of those and the patterns of sand bars left by turblent wind/wave interactions after a storm, or anything? If you want to define free will differently, then what does it apply to and what does it add to the description of the result or behavior? Consciousness is complex, but it's not magic. Why is it any different than turbulence patterns in the wind?

In short, if there is no "designer (chooser)" required to describe the existence of a termite mound or DNA or wind patterns, or anything else (which I think is pretty much fact at this point), then why is it needed to describe any of the things we do? Conversely, if the ability to design or choose IS useful to describe our actions, then why would the utility of such a concept be limited to us?

8/21/08, 9:01 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

You are the wind. The randomness IS the choice.

8/22/08, 7:23 AM  
Blogger Leonard said...

I think Vern has overstated his case. Determinism of the mind doesn't say anything more than that the course of events that occurs during a mental process obeys immutable natural laws and that an outcome is causally established by initial conditions and the course of events leading to it.

That this might be the nature of human thought does not at all mean that choice or reason are illusions. They are most certainly objectively real phenomena that we experience (or try to, in the case of reason) every waking moment of our lives.

After all, a 'choice' is a selection of one option from a set of many weighed against some criteria, and there is no reason to believe that a deterministic mental process means that no choices are being made.

I think what most people object to is the possibility that, if one knew exactly everything about the complete history of the formation of every memory, emotion, goal, neural pathway, physical state, and so on of a person's mind, and had complete knowledge of the physical processes that constitute sensory processing and decision-making, and followed the course of mental events from an observation to a decision, that you would be able to predict what decision would be made by a person with something like certainty.

But we are able to come quite close to this on a regrettably regular basis today with demonstrably woefully incomplete knowledge of this kind of information. How well are you able to predict how your spouse is going to respond to certain actions by your children after observing various facts about the spouse's likely mood and disposition at the time of the action? Do you think you would be able to foresee this sort of thing if there were a non-deterministic process leading to your spouse's decisions?

How would you ever be able to claim to "know" your spouse's character if there was no such determinism and predictability involved in mental processes? It is precisely the absence of this kind of predictability and coherence that leads us to diagnose people with mental disorders. For these reasons alone, Vern is at least correct in stating that the idea of a kind of manifest quantum randomness in mental processes as an explanation of 'will' is fatally flawed.

But the theist is left with appealing to the 'soul' for such explanations of the origin, nature, and consistency of a person's character, limited as the soul apparently is by the biotool it is purported to have at its disposal to express itself. My view is that this position is hard pressed to delineate any meaningful or observable difference between how an immaterial soul would account for these realities any better than the unappreciably incomprehensible complexity of the physicality of the human mind.

The other objection that emerges when talking about the human mind as deterministic is that moral systems, reward and punishment, must as a consequence be completely irrelevant and unjustifiable. This assertion is in my view completely bewildering.

If it is in fact the case that our actions are shaped (at least, if not solely) both by our physiology and our social interactions, as it most certainly is, then nothing can matter more to us than establishing systems of right and wrong behavior and continually sending reinforcing signals to one another throughout our lives. We must teach, discipline, reward, forgive, and seek forgiveness, and we must do so consistently and in alignment with our best understanding of what is true and in the best interest of humanity.

We do this because it is objectively true that our actions have real consequences for us and those around us, and it is in our best interest to influence the probable course of one anothers actions to the extent that we can. This cannot be done without moral systems, and under a purely physicalist view of humanity morality is as critically important as we all already understand it to be.

Theism most certainly does not have any special status as an authoritative source to provide moral systems. They can be (and I would argue they in fact actually have been, despite their religious pedigrees) arrived at through simple empirical observation of human nature and the use of reason, using the flourishing of human life as the core value we all share.

8/24/08, 3:26 AM  
Blogger Kyle Deming said...

I regret the fact that few positive arguments in favor of libertarian freedom were marshaled. I actually think that a good case for this position can be made philosophically, but it was a path we didn't get the chance to explore in depth. I try to avoid pragmatic arguments whenever possible, though I think in the case of the free will debate a pragmatic argument can actually be quite relevant. Hopefully issues we could discuss in a future episode.

8/28/08, 9:10 PM  

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