Peter Tse



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07/18/2014

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Josh,

You asked “Is the above control problem really a tough problem, and is it solvable?” I believe the answers are yes and yes – it’s a tough problem (due to our natural human references), but mankind will eventually solve it by acquiring a new perspective.

Here’s the basis of what that new perspective might be: Human thoughts exert new emergent forces (i.e., forces which don’t result solely from a direct sum of pre-existing forces), and as soon as science recognizes that those forces exist, we’ll have the new perspective needed.

I know the idea of “new emergent forces” sounds a little far-fetched, so here are three ideas that I believe support that hypothesis:

1. Imagine the interaction between two neurons within your physical brain while you’re thinking about an idea. Science believes that all of that interaction is controlled solely by the four fundamental forces of physics (i.e., the “laws of physics”) or else it’s random in nature. Let’s assume for a moment that said belief is true. Now let’s ask ourselves the following question: Is the interaction between two neurons one and the same entity as a “thought”? I think it’s fair to say the answer is no. Okay, so what if we change our viewpoint, and instead of looking only at the interaction of two individual neurons, we look at the bigger picture of neural activity within a brain. One way to imagine that, is to combine the separate interactions between billions of neurons together into a “wave” of neural activity. Would it be reasonable to say that’s a physical instantiation of a thought? I’m thinking that science basically views a wave of neural activity as one and the same entity as a thought. Here’s where I’m going with this… If we believe that all of the control between any two neurons within a wave of neural activity is solely from the four fundamental forces of physics (4FFOP), then the composition of control at the wave level is also controlled solely by the 4FFOP. In conclusion, the “thought” doesn’t exert any control, since all of the control is from the 4FFOP.

So here’s where that takes us: If our thoughts don’t exert any control, then mental causation must be false. I think it’s fair to say that most FoF readers believe that mental causation is true, so therein lies a difficult puzzle. In order for our thoughts to truly affect one another (i.e., to exert control and affect decisions), I’m thinking that there must be new forces that emerge at the neural wave level, and those new forces add together with the 4FFOP and affect the path forward, thereby creating ambitious free will. A person may believe that two waves running into one another on the surface of the ocean interact in a similar manner to how two neural waves interact inside a physical brain, and therefore there isn’t any issue here. The problem with that analogy, is that all of the interaction between the two ocean waves *is* controlled solely by the 4FFOP, so the analogy actually supports the idea that human thoughts don’t exert any control.

2. If human intelligence is attributable solely to the *configuration* of the physical neural net wiring inside our brains, then where do the forces come from that physically cause our neural wiring to change in an intelligent manner when we’re learning something new?

3. People need to think (i.e., form ideas) in order to learn. Doesn’t that suggest that ideas exert new emergent forces that effectively cause the neural wiring in a person’s brain to change while they’re learning?

In summary, due to our natural human references, when scientists take things apart and analyze how they work, they are only capable of sensing the *result* of the net sum of forces after it has already occurred for each moment of time, which naturally causes them to believe that everything is controlled in a predeterministic manner from the bottom-up solely by the 4FFOP. That belief results in the false conclusion that our thoughts don’t truly exert any control. If we’re able to open our minds to a new perspective, we may realize that human thoughts do exert new emergent forces (i.e., new life), which thereby results in the existence of ambitious free will.

Thanks for the post, Josh. Mental action is a crucial topic, but one that is seldom discussed as such. Hopefully that tide can be turned, slowly but surely, in another direction!

You asked: “How can we…have direct [causal] control over our decisions at the moment of deciding?”

The question is ambiguous. On the one hand, it could mean: “How can we have direct causal control over THE CONTENT of our decisions at the moment of deciding?” On the other hand, it could mean: “How can we have direct causal control over THE CAPACITY WITH WHICH WE MAKE our decisions at the moment of deciding?” As I hope is clear, the first concerns the content of our decisions, whereas the second concerns the capacity with which we make them occur.

If we assume that in making a decision we aim to resolve a state of epistemic uncertainty, we cannot have any direct causal control over the specific content of that decision prior our making it. The content is not present in advance of the decision made, and so it cannot guide the making thereof. If, however, making a decision requires that we employ a cognitive capacity, we can have direct causal control over the operations of that cognitive capacity, much like we can have a similar kind of control over the operations of our bodily capacities.

However, there is a deeper problem here, to which your post alludes. If we assume that decisions are intentional mental actions, and that the standard account of intentional action requires that such action be non-deviantly caused by an intention to make that decision, then causal control in such cases resides in the intention to make that decision. But what about that intention?

Here, I think, we face a troublesome dilemma with respect to causal control. Either that intention is an intentional mental action or not. If it is, then it must be non-deviantly caused by another intention, which itself must be non-deviantly caused by yet another intention, and so on, ad infinitum. Causal control would reside in an infinite series of intentions, which seems implausible. If the intention to make that decision is not an intentional mental action, then it seems it must be a mere non-action mental event, something that merely happens to you in the course of your daily mental life. Causal control would reside in the mere occurrence of a mental event, which seems equally as implausible as the other alternative.

What say you?

Josh,

I have a clarificatory question (as per usual). I'm somewhat confused as to what's being claimed in the setup. The motivating question is how do we exercise control over our decisions. And at least part of the puzzle is generated by the idea that one way in which decisions are intentional is by being caused by an intention to decide what to do. But surely that intention often just causes us to deliberate about what to do, the decision itself being a practical conclusion?

I guess I'm not sure about the motivating question until I'm sure about whether we're talking about deliberating or deciding. Practical deliberation ordinarily concludes with a decision about what to do. I find it natural to say I control my deliberation, but no so much that I directly control my decision. My decision occurs when practical deliberation is resolved. But, in some sense, it doesn't seem to me that I control when it resolves itself. In this way, deciding seems more akin to believing to me than acting (though I don't take this to deny the existence of mental action).

Do you think there's a difference between deliberating and deciding? If so, is it important for understanding the problem you're raising?

Hi James,

A lot of interesting thoughts, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to say illuminating things about all of them. An initial thought: you speak of the 4FFOP as exerting control. I might rather think of the 4FFOP as a constraint on some dispositional package the manifestation of which counts as a token exercise of control. Am I mistaken?

Another thought. About mental causation: like some other FoF readers, I’d like to think of the problem of mental causation as in principle solveable, and so to speak of the ‘neural realizers’ of a mental cause. In places, though, you seem to assert that thoughts in general couldn’t exert causal influence according to many scientists. I don’t think a lot of scientists would agree – lots of people think the neural realizers of attentional and other executive states exert ‘top-down’ influence on other parts of the brain, and, through the motor cortex, on the body and world.

Finally, about this question: ‘If human intelligence is attributable solely to the *configuration* of the physical neural net wiring inside our brains, then where do the forces come from that physically cause our neural wiring to change in an intelligent manner when we’re learning something new?’ Tough question. One way to start in on it is to think of brains as fairly sophisticated learning machines, and fill in the details from there – I like Andy Clark’s recent Behavioral and Brain Sciences piece ‘Whatever Next?’ in this connection. But we still have quite a ways to go.

Hi Michael,

I like the content/capacity distinction, but with respect to the problem I laid out, I’d say that unless we exercise control over the content, control over the capacity is bound to be not very useful (it would be as useful as guesses, although I suppose these guesses could be constrained in certain ways by deliberation – say deliberation primes a few choices so that what we end up deciding isn’t completely random, for example).

Regarding the regress you laid out: I would say the relevant intention – the intention to decide what to do – is acquired passively (i.e., not intentionally), in response to uncertainty about what to do. So I’m not thinking of this as a problem where a regress gets a hold. Nonetheless, I do think that this problem could motivate a non-actional view of deciding. I gave this problem as a short paper at the Joint Sessions or the Aristotelian Society/Mind Association last week, and most in the audience seemed happy to go this route (of course, I didn’t offer my own solution! Not like it would have mattered…).

Regarding your question about what I say to the problem at hand, for what it’s worth, in a paper in progress I offer a solution. I doubt you’ll fall in love with it, since it is in the broadly event-causalist family. But maybe you’d find it interesting in the way we sometimes find arguments for false claims interesting. The solution I prefer does in fact try to sneak the content of the decision in the back door – it involves an appreciation of the nature and function of deliberation, and of the role of perception and attention in skilled action, including skilled mental action. (If you want to see the paper I can e-mail it to you, but of course don’t feel bothered about reading the paper!)

Hi Matt,

You have hit the nail on the head. I’m talking here about deciding as a momentary mental event, not an extended event (such as deliberation), and it sounds like you are espousing a non-actional view of that, while maintaining (as Wayne Wu does) that deliberation can be seen as a mental action. Can I ask: what’s your reason for denying that the moment of decision – the formation of an intention that is the practical conclusion of some deliberative episode – is not something you control? Is it anything like the control problem I elucidated, or is it phenomenological, or something else?

Hey Josh,

Thanks for the reply. If one controls anything at all, my hunch is that one controls the content of what one is thinking *by* employing the relevant cognitive capacities, just like one controls what one is saying by employing the relevant linguistic capacities. The analogy with controlling what one is saying when one is correctly using a natural language can be helpful here. When speaking with my native tongue, I control what I am saying – the content of my utterance – *by* employing the relevant linguistic capacities. Similarly, when thinking with my native conceptual repertoire, I control what I am thinking – the content of my thought – *by* employing the relevant cognitive capacities, and this seems very much to be a matter of my performing a mental action. But you seem to think that this is incorrect?

I agree that there are circumstances in which one acquires an intention to decide what to do in a kind of passive, non-actional manner, but it's not the case that *every* intention to decide is acquired in this kind of way. Why should we think otherwise? (I’ll have a look at Wayne’s paper in case an answer is presented there, and feel free to e-mail your draft if you offer an answer there.)

Cheers, MB

Hi Michael,

I don't think we disagree about controlling content by using the relevant capacities. I also don't think we disagree about the multifaceted importance of mental action to thought. I was I guess just underscoring that given the open-ended content of the relevant intention (to decide what to do), something extra needs to be said about how the exercise of a capacity to form an intention could be thought to be an exercise of control (there is a view of control in the background here driving my thinking -- it's the one laid out in that Phil Studies control paper, where one important feature of controlled behavior is the fact that it matches the content of a relevant motivational state to some degree).

Hi Josh,

Well I'm bound to get something right now and then...

I used to think a lot more about control than I have lately, but I guess my thought is that control isn't ever really exercised momentarily. At least, 'deciding to' seems to me a success term, much like 'making the shot' in your action analogy. Success terms are satisfied or unsatisfied, but you typically don't make progress towards them. Since you can't make progress, you can't really be guided either. One is undecided until one isn't. Then one has decided. The process in between, deliberation, is something one can make progress on, guide, and control.

I guess the rough and ready way to put it is that 'deciding', like 'believing' and 'concluding' isn't something we do, it's only ever something we've done. That in itself could be puzzling, but I'm not sure whether it speaks directly to the problem you're posing.

Hi Josh, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

You said “lots of people think the neural realizers of attentional and other executive states exert ‘top-down’ influence on other parts of the brain, and, through the motor cortex, on the body and world.”

I agree with that statement – something exerts ‘top-down’ influence in a physical brain. The question is: Is the “something” which exerts downward causation manifested only in the “weak/modest” sense, or is it manifested in the “strong/ambitious” sense?

When two ocean waves run into one another on the surface of the ocean, I believe that it’s reasonable to model that interaction as one wave having a “downward causation” (i.e., top-down) affect on the other wave. But the truth of the physics is that it’s only downward causation in the “weak” sense, since all of the interaction is actually controlled solely by the four fundamental forces of physics (4FFOP) in a predeterministic manner from the bottom-up. In other words, a top-down analysis of all the forces in play is simply a mirror image of a bottom-up analysis, and there are truly no new forces exerted from the “wave level” (i.e., no forces exist at the wave level which aren’t a direct sum of preexisting lower-level forces).

In order for true ‘top-down’ causation to exist (i.e., in the strong sense), I’m thinking that there needs to be new emergent forces at the wave level.

So here’s where I’m going with this… When scientists say that human thoughts exert ‘top-down’ influence, they’re likely only referring to the weak sense, not the strong sense of downward causation. This is similar to how compatiblists claim that free will exists using the weak sense (i.e., given a choice, a person can make a decision), and incompatibilists claim that free will doesn’t exist using the strong sense (i.e., given a choice, a person can make a decision that isn’t controlled solely by the 4FFOP).

In summary, in order for an event to occur within a human brain which is truly “downward causation” in the strong sense, I believe new forces must be an emergent property of human thoughts. If a person believes that human thoughts interact with one another only in the weak sense, that’s okay, but just as two waves on the ocean don’t truly exert any control on one another, the person needs to believe that two human thoughts don’t exert any control on one another. Since that’s intuitively unreasonable (i.e., we experience our thoughts exerting control on one another every day), it pushes us toward the realization that human thoughts exert new emergent forces.

Hi James,

I think you’re right most scientists would sign up to emergence only in the weak sense. One question for you, then: what’s different between waves and thoughts? Is it consciousness, for you? Or some other feature of mentality?

Another thing you say: if there’s no strong emergence, there’s not really any exerting of control going on from one thought to another. And you add that we do in fact experience our thoughts exerting control on other thoughts.

Further question: is there something in the phenomenal character of the experience that rules out (for you) the thought that this is just causal interaction in a weak sense? I don’t see anything in my own experience that licenses strong-sense emergence. And I suppose I’m okay with whatever weak-sense control comes along with weak-sense emergence. But maybe this is in part because I don’t fully understand the nature of the kind of strong-sense control you’re talking about. It seems similar to the kind of sourcehood control some libertarians have discussed. Is that right?

Josh,

Thanks, it’s nice to hear back from you.

You asked “what’s different between waves and thoughts? Is it consciousness, for you? Or some other feature of mentality? My (humble) response is that thoughts are a type of wave – thoughts aren’t “different” than waves. I believe there are emergent properties associated with our thoughts that cannot modeled solely by a wave theory, but I don’t know how to explain things much better than that (i.e., I don’t claim to have complete answers – I only have infantile hypotheses that seem to make some sense).

Regarding your statement in your second paragraph of your last comment (about the existence of strong emergence) , I’m trying (awkwardly) to make the point that there *must* be “strong emergence” since we experience one thought within our minds exerting control on another thought within our minds. In other words, if it’s true (which I don’t believe is the case) that our thoughts interact simply like two ocean waves, then there couldn’t be any real *control* exerted from our thoughts, since all of the control is exerted (theoretically) from the 4FFOP.

Finally, the reason I think we’re “licensed” to believe in strong-sense emergence, is because our thoughts *do* interact with one another (i.e., our thoughts exert *real* control). So yes, I think it’s fair to say that’s similar to the “kind of sourcehood control some libertarians have discussed”. If we don’t believe in “strong sense” emergence, then we’re simply compatiblists believing in weak/modest free will (which I don’t see as a significant accomplishment).

Sincere thanks for accepting the challenge as July’s featured author – it’s great to see people willing to lead and coordinate the exchange of ideas.

Josh,

I know it’s super late in the month and you’re getting ready to wrap things up as the featured author, but I’ve been thinking about a question you asked on 7/25/14: “is there something in the phenomenal character of the experience that rules out (for you) the thought that this is just causal interaction in a weak sense?”

Let’s compare two scenarios and see if they illustrate the difference in experience between “weak sense” and “strong sense” causal interaction.

Scenario #1: You’re in pre-op getting ready to have minor surgery. The IV is already installed in your left hand, and the anesthesiologist arrives at your bedside asking if you’re ready to go. Your answer is yes, let’s do it. Shortly thereafter, the anesthesiologist begins injecting medication into your IV that will render you unconscious. As you begin experiencing the effect of the medication, you realize that as your brain state is changing, “you” have no control over what’s happening. If someone were to evaluate the control “you” were exerting in this case, it would be fair to say that “your” control was only in the “weak sense”.

Scenario #2: You just left work for the day and you’re out with some friends to get something to eat. The waitress asks which of their specials you’d like to order; a veggie burger or a cheesesteak sandwich. I believe it’s fair to say there’s a fundamental difference in the type of control that you *experience* in this case vs. the hospital case. In the restaurant, you clearly experience that “your” control is more than the “weak sense” – you’re able to influence the path forward.

Perhaps that illustrates the difference in experience between causal interaction in the “weak sense” and “strong sense”.

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