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05/25/2012

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Congratulations, Eddy! I've just read it and it is both informative and lots of fun to read!

Well, don't feel obligated to slog through the whole damn thing, but I hope people here will at least skip to the end and read my "poem" about free will, since readers here will be among the few to get the references. And sorry to those I forgot to mention at the end, including Mike McKenna, Joe Campbell, Kadri Vivhelin, Randy Clarke.... What am I doing?? Now, I'm just making it worse. Everyone is great!

Nice interview, in which Eddy says: "If we allow that the conscious mental processes are themselves instantiated in neural processes (i.e., naturalism), then the question is whether those neural processes are bypassed. To make a very long story short, I do not think the existing evidence shows that those neural processes that instantiate conscious mental states are bypassed."

Agreed, but since most folks aren't naturalists (right?), most will likely think there’s something besides neural processes that’s essential for conscious control, something non-physical and not subject to natural laws. It’s this that’s being bypassed in naturalistic accounts of agency since on those accounts it doesn’t exist. So when presented with naturalist-determinist scenarios, this non-naturalist orientation would predict that most folks would deny we can be in control and therefore responsible. But this isn’t what Eddy is finding. So I conclude his research is flawed :-), perhaps due to a biased sample of respondents. (Posted from my armchair recliner.)

Great interview--and I look forward to reading the new book! I just have two quick thoughts: (1) About the Nahmias, Kvaran, and Coates studies, Nahmias write "we found that determinism, when described as ‘working through’ “thoughts, plans, and desires in the agent’s mind,” is not threatening, but determinism, when described as ‘working through’ “chemical reactions and neural processes in the agent’s brain” led people to say agents could not be free or responsible. Again, the worry is not that there are sufficient conditions in the past for all of our actions (i.e., determinism), but that there are conditions that bring about our actions while bypassing what we identify with our selves (our mental, including conscious, activity)." It seem to me, however, that these findings may instead indicate that people are folk-psychologically committed to a non-naturalist account of the mind. That is, they ARE troubled by determinism (when viewed neuro-psychologically) but end up giving compatibilist answers when they view the mental as not identical to, supervienent on, or determined by chemical and neural processes. Perhaps they are smuggling in some special powers when viewing things from the perspective of the mind. To explain away the incompatibilist intuitions in the second case as bedeviled by "bypassing" seems to beg the question. If the folk were committed to a naturalistic account of the mind, and viewed the two levels of description as two different ways of describing the same physical/mental processes, wouldn't they provide compatibilist answers for both questions?

(2) Nahmias go on to say: "If people can see how their minds matter, even if their minds are part of the physical (perhaps deterministic) world, then they are unlikely to think free will is an illusion. So, I predict that a good naturalistic theory of the mind, including the conscious mind, will largely dissolve the free will problem… that is, as long as that theory shows that the conscious mind plays the right sort of role in our choices and actions." What justifies this prediction? I can just as easily see the opposite outcome. That is, perhaps adopting a "a good naturalistic theory of the mind" will strengthen the folks incompatibilist intuitions! What I think compatibilists really mean to say here is that "if compatibilists are successful in convincing people that compatibilism is true, naturalism will not be seen as threatening free will." This, however, involves a compatibilist PR campaign more than an assessment of what people really think about the compatibility/incompatibility of naturalism and free will. In fact, perhaps some of these experimental studies should shift from testing intuitions about determinism to intuitions about naturalism. Perhaps its naturalism (not determinism) that proves incompatible with free will.

(I had some additional thoughts but they will have to wait...it's time to grill up some hot dogs!)

Willusionism. I love it! (Not the theory, the name.)

Intelligent, informative interview Eddy. I agree with Joe on "willusionism"; an alternate might be that they are "freedummies".

Just got around to reading the interview, Eddy. Great job!!

Love the interview but the name "willusionism" is phucking terrible.

Awesome interview! I was wondering if you (or anyone with an opinion on the topic) could elaborate on what you said about the utility of intuitions:

“(I’m not in the ‘negative’ camp of x-phi that says the evidence suggests that all intuitions are unreliable), not even appeal to one’s own intuitions, nor the use of such appeals in one’s arguments.”

Is there a reason you aren’t in the ‘negative’ camp? From this passage, it sounds like you have arbitrarily decided that, despite the evidence, intuitions are perhaps sometimes valuable. There are of course mountains of examples of intuitions being laughably wrong. On the other hand, it seems that the only intuitions that turn out to be correct are correct by accident. I guess what I am asking is, unless there is other evidence pointing to as yet un discussed benefits of intuitions, how can one NOT be in the ‘negative’ camp (i.e. intuitions are worse than the plague)?

And of course I agree with this:

“I can’t imagine how attempts to get more systematic information about people’s intuitions or the psychological sources of them (the descriptive project) does any harm to philosophy”

But I can certainly imagine why they might be irrelevant. Something can be interesting without being relevant. But I guess that's what the x-phi debate is all about.

Thanks for the nice words. But not a word about my poetic abilities! I guess silosophers do phuck. (and I won't quit my day job)

Gregg and Tom, I'll post my review of Sam Harris' book when it is published at TPM. But here's an excerpt that might address some of your points:

I suspect that Harris and most other scientists who are skeptics about free will fall into this trap of thinking consciousness is a passive bystander because they find themselves in limbo about how to understand consciousness. Steeped in the modern zeitgeist, they believe that neuroscience will surely explain all human decisions and actions. But such explanations currently offer no place for consciousness, since there is not yet a neuroscientific theory that explains how certain neural processes are the basis of and explain conscious processes. So, they fall into the trap of thinking that your conscious self, if ultimately based in the brain, plays no role in your decisions and actions: as Harris suggests, “your brain has already determined what you will do.” If you can’t really get yourself out the very dualist picture you are trying to reject, you end up saying things like Harris does here: “The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence.”

The solution here is to recognize our place in history. Neuroscience is a young science. As it matures, consciousness and rationality will be the hardest mental phenomena for it to explain. Whatever future neuroscientific theories explain conscious and rational processes, it is highly unlikely they will show that the neural processes involved in conscious deliberation, rational planning, and self-control are somehow side-streams that have no downstream effects on what we do. If these processes are a part of the stream, this will explain how we are “authors” of our choices, since authors can create even if caused to do so. Harris nearly recognizes some of these points, but then gets twisted into knots worrying about our thoughts coming “out of the darkness of prior causes,” the conscious part of the mind “living at the mercy of other parts,” and being unable to “choose to choose what I choose.”

It is ironic for scientists like Harris to think that science will explain away free will, rather than helping to explain how it works. Organic chemistry did not make life disappear by explaining how living processes work. Copernicus did not explain away the earth by explaining how it moves. The only reason to think free will can’t be explained is to define it such that it must be inexplicable—to assume that people demand the impossible.


Your consciousness isn’t what “drives” your free will. Instead, you’re conscious *of* your free will.

It’s possible to believe that’s true while also believing that FW exists – the ideas aren’t mutually exclusive.

In other words, if you believe that the processes within your physical brain aren’t controlled solely by the four fundamental forces of physics (i.e., you believe that new forces are an emergent property of human thoughts, and those new forces add into the mix thereby affecting what occurs within a brain), then it doesn’t matter if there’s a small time delay from the moment when a thought process occurs within your physical brain, to the moment when you become conscious of that thought. FW still exists, because new emergent forces exist.

We need to grow past the idea that our consciousness is *the* fundamental entity that comprises who/what we are, and we need to realize that humans emerge from multiple subcomponents. The processes within my brain are part of “me” just as my finger is part of “me”. I am not simply comprised of my consciousness.

Nice interview, by the way!

Hi Eddy, thanks for the snippet from your Sam Harris review but I’m not sure it addresses my original concern. What I was questioning was your interpretation of the Nahmias, Kvaran, and Coates studies. Isn’t it possible that ordinary folk are committed to a non-naturalist account of the mind and hence view neuroscientific descriptions of decision making as incompatible with free will but not mental descriptions? If so, what warrants your prediction that “a good naturalistic theory of the mind, including the conscious mind, will largely dissolve the free will problem”? Perhaps when neuroscience progresses to the point when it can adequately explain consciousness and rationality, and ordinary folk fully understand and absorb said explanations, they (the ordinary folk) will view the concept of “free will” as antiquated and obsolete. My point is simply that it is an open question how ordinary people will react (and, of course, your studies are about what ordinary folk believe). My comment about the importance of a PR campaign, though a little flip, may actually be accurate. It’s possible that the concept of “free will” may survive some revision (as it probably has already), but it may also end up in the eliminativist refuse heap right next to the concept of phlogiston. Time will only tell.

(BTW, I agree with Tamler about “willusionism.” I think it’s a bad name for several reasons. Does it apply only to Wegner and those on the epiphenomenalist end of the scale or does it apply to all those who deny free will? Does it also apply to some compatibilists? Michael Levin (a compatibilist) argues in a 2007 Phil Rev article, ““Compatibilists should not say ‘choice’ causes action.” This is because, “choices as traditionally conceived—spurts of pure will—are strangely elusive.” Levin instead argues that we should view the onset of a want/desire/intention as the cause of action. As I understand his position, the raising of my arm is not caused by a choice or an act of will, but rather an event involving me—i.e., the onset of a want/desire/preference for my arm being up. Does this make Levin (and similarly minded compatibilists) willusionists too?)

Eddy,

Thanks for your preview of Harris. Your implicit definition of having free will (of the compatibilist variety) is that *I* decide/do things, and that to be free and responsible my consciousness must be an active participant in decision-making (although I am not just my consciousness).

You say "But [neuroscientific] explanations currently offer no place for consciousness, since there is not yet a neuroscientific theory that explains how certain neural processes are the basis of and explain conscious processes."

Conscious processes are just those associated with being phenomenally conscious (having experience), and we already know they are neural processes and that they play important roles in higher level behavior and cognition, http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm#Neuroscience So it seems to me we already have a secure place for conscious processes (and therefore for compatibilist free will as you define it) in our explanations, it's just that we don't know the ins and outs of their neural mechanisms. So we can all agree now that "[Since] these processes are a part of the [behavior-controlling] stream, this...explain[s] how we are 'authors' of our choices, since authors can create even if caused to do so." It's just the mechanisms of compatibilist free will that are yet to be nailed down.

However, (as you've heard before from me) if we take consciousness as something *non-identical* to its associated neural processes, namely phenomenal experience, then it isn't clear it can play a role in neuroscientific explanations since from a neuroscientific perspective the brain does it all. Since it’s hard both pre-theoretically and post-theoretically to literally identify conscious experience with its neural correlates, this opens the door to skepticism about the role of consciousness per se (as contrasted with processes associated with consciousness) in guiding behavior. (I propose a phenomenal-physical parallelism to handle this epiphenomenalist worry, see http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm )

What Harris inveighs against in his book (among other things) is the non-naturalistic folk conception of ourselves as an immaterial, causally exempt source of behavior control, the non-physical conscious controller that rides herd on the brain. From a subjective standpoint, it seems obvious that (apparently non-physical, contra-causal) consciousness is in control. I suggest this impression of who we essentially are, and the co-occurring impression of having libertarian, non-naturalistic freedom, is simply a reflection of the intractability of the mind-body problem.

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