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12/29/2014

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Thanks for posting the article Thomas! I'm sorry it's behind a paywall. If anyone is desperate for a copy, I'll email you a version (but don't distribute or post). On Jan 27 I am allowed to post a text-only version on my website, and I'll add a comment here to let people know that I have.

The article will not offer particularly exciting news for people here--I was asked by SciAm basically to do an update of my NYTimes piece and respond to the neuroscientists who say free will is an illusion. But I am happy to get the response to willusionists in a venue that some scientists and the scientifically-curious public will see.

They picked the title (and wrote the 'In Brief' and content of the poll and did some serious editing of the article). It might be read: "Why We Have Free Will... is that it can and should be understood in terms of a set of psychological capacities that are compatible with physicalism, and certainly with the neuroscientific results used to challenge it and that we likely have to varying degrees..."

If people are interested in critiquing the article, both its content and the way I explain various issues, I'd be happy to see what you think here or by email.

Happy New Year Flickerers!

I read this article at the library on Saturday (the printed magazine version).

This was an OUTSTANDING read. Eddy not only does a tremendous job with the topic, but his contribution is a real credit to Philosophy.

Great job, Eddy!

"Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and pundits say that I am wrong."

However much scorn Harris gets around these parts, surely you admit his worries are more robust than the straw-man presented here. And even if pundits get overeager and are wrong for philosophically technical reasons, isn't it case that many real life philosophers agree with them on the larger point: a mechanistic brain is an obvious threat to MR. The "pundits" are right for the wrong reasons. These are cheap hits on low hanging fruit. MR skepticism is not merely the common mistake of those outside the field.

Jeff, thanks for your kind comments.
Brent, I'm not sure what is 'straw' about the man I present in the short article. Obviously, I was not trying, in that limited space, to address the important skeptical arguments of people like Pereboom or G. Strawson. Harris draws on these skeptics in his book without effectively explaining their arguments, but he also draws on the neuroscientific research that Mele and I (and others) have argued is ineffective in showing free will is an illusion. Furthermore, Harris, like other willusionists, completely ignores compatibilism (or worse, mis-presents it as a silly straw-man, which explains why Dennett went ape-shit on him in his review of Harris' book). And he asserts from the armchair that people will say that perfect prediction based on brain activity illuminates that FW is an illusion, a claim I then tested (with Shepard and Reuter) and found unsupported. (One reason I target Harris, Coyne, Wegner, Libet, Montague, Haggard, etc. is that they are very good at what they do, empirical research or clear science writing or both, and I respect their work, but I think they make mistakes when they talk about free will and, for better or worse, their claims about free will get much more exposure than philosophers like Pereboom and Strawson.)

Whether "a mechanistic brain" is an obvious threat to MR or FW depends entirely on what one has in mind by a mechanistic brain. That our mental activity is made up of, and made possible by, mechanistic neural activity, is not an obvious threat. On the contrary, it is because our 'mechanistic brain' subserves some remarkable capacities, such as imagination of alternatives, rational consideration of them, and self-control (capacities Peter has been highlighting in his recent posts), that we have free will. I'm not sure how we would have more free will if those capacities were subserved by a non-physical soul (or a 'non-mechanistic brain', whatever that might mean).

As I mentioned above, I've now posted a copy of the SciAm article here: http://eddynahmias.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Nahmias-Free-Will-in-Scientific-American-2015.pdf

They also ran a poll of readers asking if we have free will, and remarkably, 41% responded no, which is much higher than you'd get from surveys of other audiences (where it would be less than 10% saying no). The readers of SciAm have either read, and been convinced by, scientific skeptics, or read neuroscience and other science and been convinced that it shows we have no FW, or perhaps read some philosophical skeptics, or some combination of the above.

Eddy, thanks for posting the article. You say at the end: “Until neuroscience is able to explain consciousness - which will require a theory to explain how our minds are neither reducible to, nor distinct from, the workings of our brains – it is tempting to think, as the willusionists seem to, that if the brain does it all, there is nothing left for the conscious mind to do.”

The brain does it all, and as you argue in the article, the brain processes associated with conscious experience (conscious processes) seem essential for capacities which support reasons-responsive choosing and flexible behavior: memory, learning, deliberation, talking and interacting with one other, etc. So it doesn’t seem to me that we need a theory of conscious experience per se (what it is, precisely, and how it comes to exist) to convince willusionists that conscious processes are behaviorally efficacious in most real life situations that matter. They just have to look at the actual evidence and concede the point. Even if conscious experience per se adds nothing to our neurally-instantiated control capacities, the brain processes associated with experience are doing the high level behavior-controlling job just fine on their own.

Thanks for linking the PDF here, Eddy. Nice to see you in a mainstream venue like SciAm.

Hi Tom, 2 quick responses (which may not be entirely germane to your comment):

1. Willusionists may not need a theory to convince them that conscious neural processes (i.e., those that are, or are the subvenient basis of, or implement, or compose, conscious mental processes) are causally relevant,, but they often talk as if they think either (a) the conscious features of the processes or (b) the conscious neural processes are epiphenomenal. Option (a) seems to suggest a type of property dualism, which combined with physical causal closure, leaves no room for conscious causation (this is the way Libet and Wegner sound sometimes). And (b) is what I call 'modular epiphenomenalism' and it's the best interpretation of what the science could show as a problem for conscious (or rational) mental causation. But it's almost surely false as a universal claim, and certainly not demonstrated by studies like those we see from Libet (or Haynes or Wegner).

2. I think we will all see the issues more clearly when we have a Galileo of neuroscience (or neurophilosophy) who makes physicalism about mental states make sense in the way Galileo made Copernicus' theory make sense. We experience ourselves as stable with the sun revolving around us once a day. The Copernican theory is hard to accept without the Galilean theory of inertia (and the analogy of feeling still on a fast moving ship or airplane). While I don't think we experience ourselves as non-physical souls (not sure what that would feel like), we also don't experience ourselves or our mental states as electro-chemical interactions.

Can something exist if it can not be measured? Well, something outside of your internal states? We can measure love and hate and caring and beauty though different people may have different metrics for these things. But I think that few people will claim that no measurement exists for them.

Now give me a way of measuring this "free will" of which you speak. If you think that you can then tell me when it comes into existence. You are not going to claim that a newborn has free will, or that a person sleeping has free will are you? If not then at what point does this "free will" make itself manifest.

If you can not answer this question then how, exactly, do you claim that it exists. Or is it like pornography. You can not describe it but you know it when you see it.

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