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12/26/2014

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Peter,
Have very much enjoyed your posts, and would have taken an earlier opportunity to respond had the end of semester followed by the holiday madness not overwhelmed me. I find your neuropsych model of thought fascinating (though I am certainly in no position to pass judgment on it), and your account of how we can be significantly “self-made” is very insightful. It reminds me of Al Mele’s account (couched in very different terms) in Mele’s (Autonomous Agents) account of the child Betty, who overcomes her childhood fear of her basement, and in the process sets in motion the development of powers of self-control and careful deliberation that lead to positive future results, and thus plays a very important role in her own shaping of the character she later develops. You give a marvelous account of how this sort of thing can happen, and thus of how we can exercise important control over our lives and are not “bypassed” (as Eddy Nahmias describes it so well) by the events of our lives. But while this gives us a much richer understanding of free will and personal control, I cannot understand how it gets us any closer to the sort of ultimate moral responsibility you (and other worthy souls, such as Bob Kane) profoundly value. Consider another case, parallel to that of Peter in your example: Bruce’s loving spouse gently rebukes him for (let’s keep this realistic, not for working too much) for spending too much time at the tavern. But unlike Peter (who is a chronic cognizer, with a strong internal locus-of-control, excellent resources of self-control – most of which was in place by age 4 or 5 – and who is a basically considerate person), Bruce has a strong sense of external control, few resources of self-control, and is rather callous toward the feelings of others. Like Betty and Peter, Bruce would become a better person if he took the steps Peter is now taking; but given who he is (and who he was shaped to be by forces not ultimately under his control) Bruce lacks the resources for self-transformation that Peter exercises so effectively. Bruce was – as Neil Levy would emphasize – unlucky to have such initial resources, and Peter by contrast was quite fortunate. Peter is – and by his own efforts will become even more so – a much better person than Bruce; but why either should be regarded as ultimately morally responsible remains unclear to me.

So, freedom consists in our ability to reparameterize future decision spaces; and our decisions are ones for which we are responsible iff they emerged from a decision space that we parameterized. Does this sound correct? And does this responsibility also require that one be responsible for having reparameterized the decision space the particular way one did? And to be responsible for this particular reparameterization, doesn't one need to be responsible for whatever factors determine or influence the reparameterization? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then it seems the regress argument still applies.

And on the sixth day, Man looked upon his self-creation, and lo, it was very good.

I will attempt a diagnosis of where libertarians like Peter part from many of the critics. After an indeterministic self-forming event, the resulting character is that person's. You can't take that away from them. The fact that they didn't have this aspect of their character going in, is no strike against the fact that they have it now, and have taken ownership of it. (Lo, it was very good.) After many such self-forming decisions, this new character, not some infant, is the one that is claiming a high degree of freedom and responsibility. What more do you critics want?

Of course I, speaking for myself now, know what the critics want. They want the impossible: a self totally controlling itself in an infinite regress or causal loop of time, yet somehow constituting an explanation of the self's character. What I question is why Peter's account of free will should feel the force of such a demand. Does anything Peter has said ensnare him into such a commitment?

If Peter, or critics, think I've misdiagnosed the divergence, it would help me a lot if you'd correct me.

I should note that if you're ashamed of your character (instead of feeling Lo, it is very good), that's another way of taking ownership of it. And I don't remember Peter talking of taking ownership. That may be my own spin, there.

Sorry for the slow responses everyone. I am in NY visiting my mother, brother and sister in NY with lots of old friends popping in and out. So it has been hard to escape for even twenty minutes. In retrospect, choosing to be blogger of the month for the month of December was not too shrewd.

Let me just quickly write that infinite regress arguments can lead one to conclusions that run counter to common sense and facts as we observe them in reality. On the face of it, Zeno must be right, that Achilles can never pass the tortoise. And yet he obviously does. So something must be wrong with our reasoning, or our reasoning in terms of instantaneous moments rather than *processes* that are inherently durational must not apply to the world as it is. I would argue that the infinite regress used to imply that there cannot be responsibility-entailing character-reforming decisions is similar. It is built on the same faulty notion that leads to Zeno’s paradoxes, namely, that there can be (decisions at) infinitesimal instants. And it runs against concrete evidence that people can change their characters and that they quite reasonably believe that their decisions, say to join AA, played a fundamental causal role in bringing about the reformed character that they intended, say, before joining AA. If a philosopher insisted that a fast man could not overtake a slow tortoise, or that an arrow cannot move, we would think they were blind to obvious facts. Yet, if philosophers apply Zeno-like reductio ad absurdum arguments to decision-making, and reach the conclusion that self-forming decisions are logically impossible, we do not regard them as blind to obvious facts. We doubt our own capacity to change ourselves and become depressed about it. I say we should embrace the obvious facts that we can change ourselves through our acts and decisions, and instead cast doubt on the validity of Zeno-like arguments when applied to deciders as we find them in the world. I will respond more specifically to Tom, Tim, and Bruce's skepticism later, and have much more to say about the roles of reason and imagination in permitting self-forming decisions and morality.

Peter you have done a fantastic job in an especially packed month for responsibilities! And no pun intended!

I have to say that Bruce voices my worries well. It seems that at the very best your ingenious account might only wrest a quasi-ultimate form of responsibility at best. But I'll be patient and hear you out further on all that.

"Criterial causation therefore offers a path toward a degree of self-formation and a degree of ultimate MR."

I'm not sure how there can be degrees of ultimacy, since ultimacy admits of no connection *at all* to prior causes, which is what's needed to break the causal regress. No one denies we are self-forming, or that we can and often do take (proximate) ownership of ourselves, but skeptics question whether criterial causation, or any other libertarian account, can succeed in making the agent *ultimately* self-forming and therefore ultimately MR.

The idea of a regress is perfectly coherent and commonsensical, and there are well-understood causal regresses in accounts of cosmic, geological and biological change. We can also trace persons back in time to non-self factors and conditions, some deterministic and some perhaps random. It's the idea of ultimacy that's suspect, and it's satisfying the demand for ultimate self-formation and responsibility that makes the libertarian project so scientifically and logically problematic. But hope springs eternal I guess, since we seem strongly predisposed to want to see agents as deeply deserving, and being ultimately self-forming is the perfect justification for such a belief.

Paul, you wrote:

“the critics … want the impossible: a self totally controlling itself in an infinite regress or causal loop of time, yet somehow constituting an explanation of the self's character.”

I agree that that is what believers in the validity of the regress want. And I will grant them that that is impossible. Such would even be beyond the capacities of an all powerful God, because He would also get stuck in the infinite regress of choosing the (meta)grounds of choosing in an instant.

I think your point about taking ownership of one’s character and the consequences that follow from that character is an interesting point. I think it would be strange if a person felt responsible for an action that followed from one of their decisions, say to shoot, and a philosopher showed up and said ‘actually you are not responsible for killing that man because you did not choose the grounds for deciding to shoot.’ If the killer then said, “well it was I who shot!; It was MY decision!’ would he then be wrong or deluded? It was indeed his decision and he did shoot. Moreover, he made countless small decisions in the past that led him to a point where he would be a person who would be excessively 'trigger happy.' He did not take the training courses as seriously as he could have, and he recognizes this, say. He did not wait before shooting, when he is certain he could have and should have.
Here is a real world example. I have worked as an expert witness in cases where someone has killed someone else, usually as an expert in human perceptual systems. In one case, a man shot at and killed a man who was picking blueberries , thinking that he was a bear:

http://www.rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050906/NEWS/509060367/1003/NEWS02

I was hired by the defense to support the case that he could not have helped but see a bear under the circumstances when he did (mis)perceive a bear, and that he acted in a way consistent with his perception, over which he had no control. The defense wanted him to get off, but the young man himself wanted to go to jail. He felt completely responsible for the death that he felt he had caused by shooting into the blueberry bush. He said he should have waited to make extra sure it was really a bear. He said he should have obeyed the law, which is that you must see the entire animal, head to tail. I was in the strange role of the philosopher I describe abve, saying that he could not have helped but see a bear given how he had seen another hunter get a bear that morning (semantic priming). But my client, in his internal moral agony, simply knew that he could have and should have waited, and had he waited, a father would still be at home with his children instead of in the grave. This man took ownership of his actions, and the state of his character and mind at the time of the shooting. It did not matter to him that he might have been primed to be in a state that would lead to his misperceiving the black hair of a man for the black fur of a bear’s head. I do not think it would have mattered to him one iota if a philosopher came along and said he bore no responsibility for having the character he had when he decided to shoot, because he did not choose that character. He identified his self with the character he had, regardless where it came from. The defense lawyer, a friend of mine and now a judge in Vermont himself, was upset when the verdict came down that the man should go to jail. The defendant himself was relieved.

In our analyses of punishment, we often damn retribution and argue for interventions that remediate a person. I think one thing that is sometimes forgotten in our academic debates over the morality of punishment is how it feels to commit a crime, how terrible the guilt, sorrow and regret can be, and how important penance can be for the perpetrator.

There is a moment in Gandhi's life when a man comes to him wracked with moral anguish for having killed a Moslem boy. Gandhi understands what is at stake, namely moral salvation. Can you imagine Gandhi saying 'you could not have helped but kill the boy, since you did not choose the grounds for making that decision, so there is no reason to feel guilty or responsible.' Instead Gandhi told him to find another boy who had been orphaned, who was moreover Moslem, and to raise him as his own son.

If philosophers who reject MR believe that no one is to blame for anything, they are not confronting human beings as they actually are. Guilt, remorse, self-loathing and sorrow evolved as error-signals so that we can correct ourselves in the continual progression of small decisions that lead to us to the higher goals to which we commit ourselves. To call all of this is an illusion or delusion is, I find, nihilistic.

Tyler, when you wrote:

“to be responsible for this particular reparameterization, doesn't one need to be responsible for whatever factors determine or influence the reparameterization?”

I think you are again falling into the Zeno-like trap of believing a decision to reparameterize (in this way versus that), happens at an infinitesimal instant. If that were true, then to have any degree of ultimate responsibility, the decider would also have to be able to decide on the grounds for making that decision, ad infinitum. But this is not how decisions or reparameterizations work in the brain. They are processes that play out over sometimes very long durations of time.

For example, let us say a man is an alcoholic, looking for some way out of his suffering. He has lost his wife, his children, is broke and is desperate. He doesn’t have any idea how to stop. A friend says joining AA would help. He has no idea what he is actually deciding on, but agrees to go along, groping in the dark as he is for a way back to the light. His friend accompanies him to the first meeting. It seems quite hope-inspiring, so he decides to stick with it. That is, there is a continual evaluation of consequences relative to goals. This error signal (including positive ones like pleasure and hope, and negative ones like guilt, pain and regret) allows for online, continual correction. At the end of thousands of small decisions of this magnitude, constant error detection and correction, re-evaluation of goals in light of what has happened, he is a transformed man, no longer addicted to this drug.

Say the man is profoundly proud of having conquered his nemesis. Would an academic then feel justified in coming up to him and telling him that he is in no way praiseworthy for all the effort that went into transforming his life? Would a philosopher say ‘just as you had no choice but to become an alcoholic when you did, and bore no moral responsibility for driving away your wife because you beat her when you got drunk, you now had no choice but to get over your alcoholism, and you bear no praiseworthiness for any effort you think you put into it either, because you had no choice about that either.” Is that what you want philosophy’s role in our society to be?

I think we should give the basic argument against MR the same level of respect that we give Zeno’s paradoxes. It is a curiosity that indicates the fallacy of logic or its assumptions of instantaneity, when we live in a real world of durational processes that cannot be reduced to infinitesimals.

I can't see how "in advance" feature of the "action for deciding one's self at a point" would save the MR. Even if we assume a LAG between the "decision time" and "being oneself time":

In order for Agent A to be ultimately MR for her action X at time T:

Agent A must have chosen A(T) at time (T-1).
-->
Agent A(T-2) must have chosen to be A(T-1) at time T-2
-->
Agent A(T-3) must have chosen to be A(T-2) at time T-3

...

Agent A(time before A was born) must have chosen to be A(at time A was born) at a time before A was born.

So it still reduces to absurdity.

Bruce and Alan, finally a little time away from all the family obligations…

Regarding your example Bruce, there are of course far more extreme examples than that your 'Bruce' example. People who cannot think at all, such as people in a coma, for example, cannot change their character. Then there are people who clearly lack any capacity to change their character even though they are likely conscious in the sense that they have experiences such as pain or color. For example, I have a neighbor with a ten year old daughter who has Trisomy 13. Her severe mental retardation likely makes it impossible for her to imagine alternative characters that she might work toward, or imagine strategies to cultivate those characters. As we move closer to the normally functioning end of the spectrum of the human capacity to self-transform, there are people who have more capacity to self-transform, though still limited. Someone with a very limited capacity to change their character might be a meth addict when consumed with a need for another hit. Less hindered would be a meth addict when not so consumed. A person such as the one you described might have a lower than average capacity to imagine alternative selves, or to imagine plans to realize that envisioned self, or motivation to stick to any such plans.

So I agree, there is no question that luck and causal factors beyond our control play a role in who we are, which in turn plays a role in the decisions we make. I agree that my neighbor’s daughter had bad luck to be born so severely handicapped, and I had good luck to be born healthy in both body and mind. But it can be true that luck and factors beyond our control shape who we are without luck obliterating all MR. The question is whether luck and causal factors over which we have no control ENTIRELY dictate who we are and how we decide. People who believe in the argument from luck, or people who believe in some variant of the basic argument, would argue that such factors entirely dictate who we are and how we decide. I would argue that they do not entirely dictate who we are and how we decide.

What is innately given is our potential. That is truly a matter of luck. I would have loved to compose great music, but the potential just was not there, no matter how hard I tried. What is not innate, however, is how our potential will be realized. FW and MR skeptics (e.g., Strawson, 1998/2004, 2002; Cashmore, 2010; Greene & Cohen, 2004) argue as follows that our genetically given potential, realized in a particular environment, entirely determines our character: Since we cannot freely choose our genetics, nor the environment we are born into, we cannot choose the character we develop through the interaction of genetics and environment; thus, we are not responsible for our characters, and therefore cannot be ultimately responsible for actions that arise from our characters. But this argument against both FW and MR fails to acknowledge that we can now prepare the physical basis of future decisions and that we are, ourselves, part of the environment that shapes how our genetically given potentials are realized. Concerning this second point, when a baby looks at its environment, it sees not only its surroundings but also its own body in those surroundings. Through much potentially frustrating trial and error, it learns that it can control through acts of volition that subset of its environment that is its body, and it learns that it cannot control that portion of its surroundings that is not its body. Of course it is not limitlessly free to will to do with its body whatever it will. It cannot will itself to fly, because it cannot fly, but it can will itself to move its arm. The child also learns that it can, in addition to its body, control the contents of its experience to some degree by willing to have or not have certain kinds of thoughts, by shifting attention at will, and ignoring what it chooses to ignore. Thus, how genetic potential is realized (and, indeed, how genes are regulated up or down through feedback mechanisms such as methylation) is influenced not only by factors in the external environment, but also by choices we make concerning what our bodies and minds will do or become in the future. Our character is not just a passive consequence of genetics and external environment, but is also, in part, the active consequence of choices we make concerning what we think, attend to, and do. We can choose to learn a new language, start exercising, or move to a new location, and these decisions will alter how our bodies and brains will function in the future. We are therefore responsible, in part, for the characters we have, and we are therefore responsible, in part, for the choices we make, as well as the consequences of our choices and actions.

Tom, this is not exactly controlling the magnitude of imaginings, but the capacity to control the magnitude of randomness 'injected' into neural processing may be an ancient strategy to harness the benefits of noise and take control of it for intended ends.

Here is a paragraph from my book:
Recent evidence (reviewed in Brembs, 2011) suggests that some neural response variability is not due to amplified microscopic noise, but is instead “injected” by neural responses whose variability can be changed to suit learning or task demands. For example, researchers have found that variability in fly head movements cannot be explained by the level of variability introduced by noise in visual processing (Rosner et al., 2009, 2010), suggesting that behavioral variability has endogenous sources outside the sensory system (Brembs, 2008). Similarly, fly turning behavior is more unpredictable than can be accounted for by system noise amplification (Maye et al., 2007; Reynolds et al., 2007). This can make behavior vary between completely predictable and random. Fly behavior seems to follow from neural activity that operates in the “sweet spot” of criticality, allowing maximum perturbation and unpredictability to input. Flies can be conditioned to reduce the range of behaviors over which variability is expressed (Wolf & Heisenberg, 1991) and specific fly brain circuits are involved in changing the degree of endogenous variability generated (mushroom bodies: Brembs, 2009; Colomb & Brembs, 2010; ellipsoid body: Martin et al., 2001). Similarly, mammals tend to increase behavioral variability when confronting novelty (Bunzeck & Duzel, 2006; Liu et al., 2007; Roberts & Gharib, 2006; Shahan & Chase, 2002), and specific neural sources of endogenous variability have been found (London et al., 2010). Although irregular input is central to neural computation (Destexhe & Contreras, 2006), information-processing circuitry that requires a consistent and stable input–output mapping would presumably amplify local fluctuations or receive endogenous sources of variability to a lesser degree than neural circuitry designed to generate multiple novel courses of action or thought. For example, we would expect to find less neuronally realized “annealing” in cerebellar or basal ganglia circuitry (Balleine & O’Doherty, 2009; Yin & Knowlton, 2006), with their stereotyped input–output transformations, than in the working memory circuitry used in creative problem solving. High variability affords creativity and exploration, but comes at the cost of efficiency and speed (Brembs, 2011). Control of the degree of endogenously generated variability would afford an animal the ability to flexibly optimize its neural processing to meet its needs.

Peter: in some ways you have set up my own upcoming role as guest blogger. My own take is that luck etc. need not entirely destroy our MR, and that our own potentials as you call them are our final resort. I might constrain them much more metaphysically than you have--but perhaps liberate them more as well. We may not be as far apart as one might think. Thanks again for your verve and close argument.

I look forward to reading your views next month Alan. It would be very nice if our dialogues could lead to cross-fertilization of ideas or even some degree of agreement or shared models across our fields. I realize disagreement cannot go away ever, but it would be nice if some things could get settled so that disagreements could move on to less settled matters.

Tell me, would people who believe everything boils down to constitutive or present luck say the same about volitional attention? It seems to me that this is one decision that is both entirely volitional in the absence of distractions, and very unconstrained. I can attend anywhere in current sensory spaces, to any part of my body, to any memory and so forth. Would they say that what I voluntarily choose to attend to next just boils down to luck?

Ali, the basic regression argument generally involves the need to decide the grounds of a decision at the same time that that decision is made. That is, it involves the impossibility of self-causation at an instant, and a stack of such impossible decisions at the instant of the decision. That is absurd enough. I don't think too much is gained by making it even more absurd, by forcing the infinite regress to go backward in time. But I understand the gist of your comment: whatever reparameterization of the grounds of future decisions is made now, itself had to be made on some grounds, and unless we chose those, we cannot be responsible for the reparameterization we chose on the basis of those grounds. In the case of kinds of self-forming reparameterization that may prove important in the functioning of a type 2 LFW, those grounds may involve acts of imagination that were unconstrained by past states of the system (e.g. they might involve random combinations of existing mental representations), which if they are then endorsed by the executive systems as worthy of pursuit, can lead to changed character that is not determined, and that has been endorsed by the agent as his or her intended goal.

Oops Tom, the above comment to you was a follow-up to a comment on a different thread, under "Criterial causation overcomes the luck argument against MR," where I argue that unconstrained imagination is the creative grounding that makes for a libertarian FW. Imagine a 'firehose of madness' whose rate of flow is under agentic control, at least to some degree, but whose content need not be.

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