Hard-wired to Choose

August 8, 2011

Seems like “the debate” is often structured so one has to either believe in some “exception” to cause and effect, or that that our preference for a Belgian triple ale with tonight’s dinner is merely fall-out from the big bang. I’m in the “hard-wired to choose” camp.

(Shawn P. Wilbur)

(University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor David Sosa talking in his office in the movie Waking Life)

Transcript (click here if you want to skip to the rest of the post):

In a way, in our contemporary world view, it’s easy to think that science has come to take the place of God. But some philosophical problems remain as troubling as ever. Take the problem of free will. This problem has been around for a long time, since before Aristotle in 350 B.C. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, these guys all worried about how we can be free if God already knows in advance everything you’re gonna do. Nowadays we know that the world operates according to some fundamental physical laws, and these laws govern the behavior of every object in the world. Now, these laws, because they’re so trustworthy, they enable incredible technological achievements. But look at yourself. We’re just physical systems too, right? We’re just complex arrangements of carbon molecules. We’re mostly water, and our behavior isn’t gonna be an exception to these basic physical laws. So it starts to look like whether its God setting things up in advance and knowing everything you’re gonna do or whether it’s these basic physical laws governing everything, there’s not a lot of room left for freedom.

So now you might be tempted to just ignore the question, ignore the mystery of free will. Say “Oh, well, it’s just an historical anecdote. It’s sophomoric. It’s a question with no answer. Just forget about it.” But the question keeps staring you right in the face. You think about individuality for example, who you are. Who you are is mostly a matter of the free choices that you make. Or take responsibility. You can only be held responsible, you can only be found guilty, or you can only be admired or respected for things you did of your own free will. So the question keeps coming back, and we don’t really have a solution to it. It starts to look like all our decisions are really just a charade.

Think about how it happens. There’s some electrical activity in your brain. Your neurons fire. They send a signal down into your nervous system. It passes along down into your muscle fibers. They twitch. You might, say, reach out your arm. It looks like it’s a free action on your part, but every one of those – every part of that process is actually governed by physical law, chemical laws, electrical laws, and so on.

So now it just looks like the big bang set up the initial conditions, and the whole rest of human history, and even before, is really just the playing out of subatomic particles according to these basic fundamental physical laws. We think we’re special. We think we have some kind of special dignity, but that now comes under threat. I mean, that’s really challenged by this picture.

So you might be saying, “Well, wait a minute. What about quantum mechanics? I know enough contemporary physical theory to know it’s not really like that. It’s really a probabilistic theory. There’s room. It’s loose. It’s not deterministic.” And that’s going to enable us to understand free will. But if you look at the details, it’s not really going to help because what happens is you have some very small quantum particles, and their behavior is apparently a bit random. They swerve. Their behavior is absurd in the sense that its unpredictable and we can’t understand it based on anything that came before. It just does something out of the blue, according to a probabilistic framework. But is that going to help with freedom? I mean, should our freedom be just a matter of probabilities, just some random swerving in a chaotic system? That starts to seem like it’s worse. I’d rather be a gear in a big deterministic physical machine than just some random swerving.

So we can’t just ignore the problem. We have to find room in our contemporary world view for persons with all that that entails; not just bodies, but persons. And that means trying to solve the problem of freedom, finding room for choice and responsibility, and trying to understand individuality.

Challenge accepted.

While the following should serve quite well as a response to this clip, it’s actually from a conversation I had a while ago in another venue. I’m just going to repost the conversation here (cleaning it up and stitching it together for readability) and, hopefully, it should end up forming a pretty coherent response to Prof. Sosa. Please note that most of the content is a prose rendering of Roderick T. Long’s lecture notes on the subject but everything here represents my current view on the matter.

But the fact that we have neurons, axons, neuro-transmitters, etc delivering all external messages to the brain only leads me to ask: why do we have a brain in the first place.

We might as well ask why it is that every time we come across a cube, we find certain facts about composition, temperature etc. that seem necessary to hold a cubical shape. So if the geometer’s definition of a cube as “a three-dimensional solid object bounded by six square faces, facets or sides, with three meeting at each vertex” is what a cube is, why do we have physical cube-shaped lumps of matter in the first place?

The truths of logic and mathematics do not depend on the nature of matter, so logical relations cannot be explained in purely physical terms. Therefore, nothing capable of grasping logical relations can be explained in purely physical terms either, which includes human beings, particularly their minds. That’s not a matter of practicality or technological limitation but fundamental.

So we can make a distinction between enabling conditions (those that make something’s existence possible) and constitutive conditions (those that determine something’s identity). For example, what composition, temperature, etc., are needed to keep a cubical shape? This is a question for physicists and chemists, i.e. a question about enabling conditions. What properties must a thing have to count as being a cube? This is a question for geometers, i.e. a question about constitutive conditions.

It is more than a lack of time and effort that prevents us from reducing geometry to physics and chemistry. Constitutive conditions cannot be reduced to enabling conditions. Logic and psychology deal with the constitutive conditions of mind and neurophysiology deals with the enabling conditions of mind.

Then why are there subjects like psycho-physiology then or neuro-psychology? These subjects alone sort of contridict what you are saying. I do not have the book on me at the moment but in The Essential Chomsky, Chomsky talks about in the section of “Brain and Language” about how different areas of discourse and study were coming together to essentially solve matters of language and its relationship with the brain. For example, he talks about Chemistry and Biology and now we have Bio-Chem. I understand what you are saying but I do not neccessarly agree. Yes, a chemist has an area of experieties and are answering different questions than an astronomer. This does not mean that chemistry cannot serve as a suitable purpose to Astronomy or that it may be vital to certain aspects of about knowing about the universe. (an example will be about dying stars and how the development of Iron is a way of knowing how long a Large Star has to live) or the area in the universe as to where there is completely nothing but thick gas and clouds [where it is believed to be the orgins of the big bang]). Does that make any sense?

My point is has nothing to do with the taxonomy of university departments and interdisciplinary studies. It’s more fundamental than that. Just coming up with a field of study called geometric physics isn’t going to get you any closer to expressing what a cube is by describing the physics of all actually-existing cubes. I propose the the same goes for minds and brains. “Neuropsychology studies the structure and function of the brain related to specific psychological processes and behaviors.” Fine, that doesn’t contradict anything I’ve said. It might as well read “Neuropsychology studies the structure and function of the brain that are the enabling conditions of specific psychological processes and behaviors.”

So to return to your question, the answer to why we have a brain at all is the answer to the question “Why does the brain serve as enabling conditions of mind?” It simply is a different question from “What constitutes mind?”

So the dualists aren’t full of “just plain bullshit” when they say that the mind cannot be explained in purely material terms. But the materialists are also not crazy for saying that to explain the mind, we do not need to posit a non-material component. They do, however, both make the same mistake. They both assume that if the mind has only material enabling conditions, then it can be entirely explained in material terms.

Materialism says the mind does have only material conditions and, therefore, it can be explained in purely material terms. Dualism says the mind cannot be explained in purely material terms and, therefore, it must have some non-material enabling conditions.

But a cube’s geometrical properties are not additional physical components alongside mass and chemical composition. Likewise, mental phenomena are not non-material enabling conditions in addition to the mind’s material enabling conditions. Mental phenomena are not enabling conditions at all; they’re constitutive conditions.

Creatures with minds are made of matter and maybe always will be found to have brains. That is an empirical finding about what seems to enable thought. It tells us that brains apparently have the physical properties that are compatible with our mental properties. Our physical properties do not have to explain our mental properties.

The fact that when I think, I realize that my thoughts are coming from my head, leads me to believe that my thoughts are coming from my brain and nowhere else. What seems to be the issue is this: well how is it possible for conscious experience to arise out of a lump of grey matter endowed with nothing but electro-magnetic chemical properties?

I claim this question is similar to the question “How is it possible that the geometric properties of being a cube can arises out of a lump of matter?” I also say that we satisfy our curiosity in the same way.

But wouldnt you agree that when we have profound transformative experiences. When we raise our level of awareness. When we change ourselves, we are changing ourselves we are actually changing the physiology of our brains right? A lot of scientist have stated this many times.

If that is the case then that would make sense given that different mental phenomena might require different physical enabling conditions. If I want to turn a cube into a pyramid, I’m going to need a chisel.

I do not mean to put the burden of proof on you but wouldn’t you say that all evidence suggest that all roads leads to the brain?

If you mean do I think that brains are necessary enabling conditions of thought, that’s not a bad theory.

Consequently, all of this has significance for the discussion of free will. Indeterministic quantum events make free choice possible. Yes, quantum physics is fairly deterministic at the macro level and quantum effects mostly cancel each other out (though there are things like Geiger counters that amplify indeterminism and are worth noting). But nevertheless, they are enabling conditions of our free choices. But indeterministic quantum events do not cause or explain our free choices. Free will software would only ever run on indeterministic hardware. But the hardware is only an enabling condition, not a constitutive condition, of the software.

But how do we make the quantum events happen? By exerting a mysterious soul-force on our component particles? Free will is not an additional enabling condition; it’s what gets enabled. Our free choices don’t interfere with physical law any more than “a cube is a three-dimensional solid object bounded by six square faces, facets or sides, with three meeting at each vertex” interferes with the physical law of this cube-shaped lump of matter over here. Physical law determines only the probabilities of quantum events. Our free choices don’t alter those probabilities. We don’t make the enabling conditions more likely; we just make the enabling conditions happen.

But how? Spooky soul-force? Well, how do you move an atom without special equipment? Just move your hand. In other words, we cause quantum events, without interfering with physical law (which is only concerned with probabilities), simply by performing the actions which have those events as underlying enabling conditions.

The thing is, what you call “constitutive conditions” are entirely subjective. For example, nothing prevents me from saying that what constitutes mind is the ability to see the color blue. It’s simply an assertion (more accurately, a definition) and thus cannot be proven or disproven – it can only be accepted or rejected.
No nothing prevents you but that’s hardly the point, and nothing that isn’t equally true of any scientific theory. We begin with learning what can’t be reduced and that is what leads us to the distinction between the two, lest we want to go down a dualist route. What we do seem to know (or least that’s what the evidence says to me) is that the mind does have only material enabling conditions and that the mind cannot be explained in purely material terms. It’s up to use to put the best theory together that retains those features.
A geometer defines “cube” as “three-dimensional solid object bounded by six square faces, facets or sides, with three meeting at each vertex”. Strictly speaking, however, “cubes” defined that way don’t actually exist.
I don’t deny any of this (I explicitly stated it was a definition). But that doesn’t change the larger point that geometry can’t be reduced to physics and chemistry.
You might want to look at AI work that’s been done here. A good starting point might be perceptrons. The idea is that what you call “constitutive conditions” can be mapped to “enabling conditions”. Hence the former can be expressed in terms of the latter, making everything ultimately a matter of “enabling conditions”.
I make a living at AI and neural networks are mostly in the rearview mirror in my industry. But to your larger point, that’s precisely what seems pretty easy to deny: reductionism continues to be a pretty big dead end and AI, despite your implication, hasn’t even come close to answering the Hard Problem.
It appears indeterministic because each of us (and even all of us collectively, to my knowledge) lacks the ability to calculate what another person willl do at any given point in the future.
But there are good philosophical reasons for thinking that there is no perfect calculation or set of rules that can ultimately account for plausible reasoning, not to mention the fact that conscious experiences contribute positively to that reasoning.
To do that would require the ability to simulate the entire universe – in other words, it would require omniscience.

But our best theories already tell us that a simulation of the entire universe isn’t even coherent, given it’s fundamental indeterminacy.

As far as I can tell, saying that one’s consciousness is the constitutive condition of one’s brain activity is the same thing as sticking the label “consciousness” on “one’s brain activity”. Please correct me if I’m wrong here.

You’re wrong here. First of all the form of your statement is wrong. The claim is that consciousness is a constitutive condition of thought and the brain activity is the enabling condition. No one made the claim you are putting forward here.

You talk about “determining our actions”, but that’s not what I mean by “determinism”. What I mean by it is that, ultimately, there are no forces acting on us besides the laws of physics. In other words, I’m a determinist because I’m a materialist.

That’s a pretty odd use of determinism in a conversation about free will. Being a physicalist (what you seem to be describing), need not lead to determinism (as it’s usually used), if the laws of physics aren’t determinant.

Being a materialist means understanding (as I would put it) that there is ultimately no “me” as a thing distinct from the fundamental particles that I’m made of. What I call “me” simply emerges from the interactions of those fundamental particles. The fact that I can even call myself anything, that I can even have a concept of “self”, and that I understand what I wrote above in no way changes the underlying structure of the universe.

The fact that everything is physical doesn’t require that everything is only physical. There can be a “you” distinct and irreducible to your physical particles without having to posit any additional inventory in the universe.

In that case, I side with Einstein – God (so to speak) doesn’t play dice with the universe. In other words, I don’t think anything is ultimately random. Everything is therefore ultimately deterministic. Things appear random to us because we don’t have all the underlying information (i.e. we’re not omniscient).

You are welcome to theorize that if you like but it isn’t currently in line with the best science. The best science doesn’t theorize that quantum indeterminacy is just a lack of information. As a matter of fact, attempts to create deterministic versions of quantum theory always end up in quite a bind because they “undermine the scientific method by denying experimenters access to random samples. Any suggestion that the scientific method supports strict determinism is thus self-refuting.”*

On the other hand, I’d say that many, if not most, determinists have been more than happy to take up the burden of proof. Science is the result.

Like I said, the best science points to the conclusion that strict determinacy is unlikely.

including himself, if he’s part of it

Well there you have it. Attempts to do this aren’t just a technological hurdle but “undermine the scientific method by denying experimenters access to random samples. Any suggestion that the scientific method supports strict determinism is thus self-refuting.”

That being said, infallible prediction by a human is what I’d say seems absurd – because it is!
You have just explained why free will exists, not just appears to, but actually exists. This absurdity makes it “reasonable to believe that plausible reasoning enables us to make judgments on the basis of inconclusive reasons, that this reasoning depends in part on experiences grasped as gestalt wholes, and that these experiences can make a contribution to reasonable decision-making that is not random (it is a positive contribution) yet not wholly determined by rules.”*
*David Hodgson, probably the foremost defender of libertarian (i.e. non-compatibilist or “common sense”) free-will. Worth checking out.
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