Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Hard Determinism is Immaterialist Woo


Back on the topic of free will again.  As you may be aware, I call myself a determinist who also believes that we are responsible for our own actions.  The idea of free will, as conceived by religionists, is logically incoherent under theistic assumptions about God as the "unmoved mover".  This is a topic I have discussed previously.  But my compatibilist view also doesn't sit well with many materialists.  It is the view of many "hard determinists" that we can be no more responsible for our actions than a billiard ball is for its failure to fall into the pocket after being struck incorrectly.  Human actions are purely the result of a brain that acts in a deterministic manner, subject to the laws of physics, they say, and to think that we can do otherwise is just nonsense.  I explored the topic of compatibilism versus hard determinism in this article.

The topic of free will comes up fairly frequently in sites that I frequent.  Among materialists, I see two camps that appear to be sharply divided: the hard determinists (or incompatibilists) and the compatibilists.  In the view of the incompatibilists, if you are responsible for your actions, that implies some kind of libertarian free will.  It means that you can choose between different courses of action.  And since we know that our brain and our thoughts are subject to the laws of physics, it makes no sense to say that we are free to choose.  By this logic, the compatibilist (such as Daniel Dennett) is just trying to justify a hidden belief in free will, even though he claims to be a determinist.  The compatibilists, on the other hand, continue to insist that there is no actual free will, but that the process of deliberation is nevertheless part of the causal chain the ultimately results in making a choice of actions.

This disagreement echoes the debate between theists and atheists.  Needless to say, it can become somewhat divisive.  The incompatibilist, with hard science on his side, may claim that the compatibilist is just "smuggling in" his "immaterial woo".  As one who is on the receiving end of this claim, I can understand how many religionists must feel when they are accused of being purveyors of woo.  You have a strong feeling that your own position is correct, but yet, how can you respond to those who are backed by science and logic?  I have been told by religionists that they find it rude to called a purveyor of woo, and they'd be pleased if I'd just stop saying things like that.  This is, of course, in light of the fact that they don't have a solid response to the accusation.  If you can't fight science and logic with something equally compelling, then you may well find it unpleasant to be told that your beliefs are just "woo".

I know that the incompatibilists have a strong point.  I agree completely that the brain is a physical system, and is completely subject to physical causality.  I agree that our thoughts are physical, and that they are the result of purely physical processes in the brain.  But I disagree with the incompatibilists (and this includes Sam Harris, the neuroscientist) about the role that thoughts play in the causal chain that leads to making decisions about our actions.  And I believe I can show that they are wrong.  Unlike the religionist who has no good answer for those who call him a purveyor of woo, I have an answer for the hard determinist: he's the one who's peddling immaterialist bullshit.

How can I say that?  Doesn't he have science on his side?  Well sure, up to a point.  But we have an incomplete theory of mind, and that is the source, I believe, of the disagreement.  Determinists often point out those experiments that show how the brain makes a choice before there is any conscious recognition of the choice.  And this leads to an epiphenomenalist view of mind.  That is to say, the brain makes choices and takes action, and any conscious awareness of these things is merely an inconsequential shadow of what the brain has done.  This is what is shown by these experiments, and I agree.  But I think it's not the whole story, because our conscious thoughts are not purely inconsequential.  For one thing, we can remember what our thoughts are, and we can recall them.  And that fact in itself is proof that thoughts make a physical impression on the brain (in the form of a memory, which is encoded in the brain), and play a role in subsequent thoughts.

The fact is that we deliberate.  We consciously weigh choices and go through a process of thinking that results in making a decision about what to do.  I don't deny that this is a purely physical process, and every step along the way is subject to the laws of physics.  But at the same time, the conscious mind is certainly part of the causal chain that leads to making a decision, at least in some cases.  It is still true that much of what we do happens without any conscious deliberation, and we have a thought about taking some action only after the decision is made unconsciously by the brain.  And even in the case where we think about what to do beforehand, when the final decision is made, the brain still acts before informing our conscious mind of the choice.  But the whole process that leads up to that final decision has been influenced by the conscious thoughts that came before.

And this makes perfect sense from a materialist perspective.  Thoughts are physical.  Physical things exert a causal influence in the physical world.  The brain is subject to the causal influence of physical things, and that includes thought processes that serve to alter the state of the brain.  So the brain plays a role in influencing its own future actions by means of conscious deliberation.  And this is the compatibilist view, but it's not libertarian free will. 

Hard determinists deny that conscious mind can have any such role in choosing an action.  We are at the mercy of physics, they say.  Where they go wrong is in denying the causal efficacy of thoughts.  It's as if they believe that thoughts are immaterial.  Immaterial things have no causal influence on the brain, and that is consistent with their epiphenomenal view of consciousness.  But this is just immaterialist woo.  Of course consciousness is a physical phenomenon.  And it has physical consequences.  How can a materialist deny this?  Looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, conscious mind would not evolve without having some causal impact on the evolutionary process.

So the next time you hear a hard determinist claim that atheistic compatibilism is just a way to smuggle in some free will woo, you can tell him that he's the real woo-meister.

10 comments:

  1. My academic background and career have all been in scientific and rational areas, yet I still think that we have at least some limited form of freewill.

    Evolution, while it does not have a purpose or direction, is nevertheless not wasteful. The human brain consumes huge amounts of energy, per unit body mass, compared to all other animals. A lot of that consumption is, I assume, due to just thinking - the process of consciousness, and the sense that we are making decisions about future actions. If it were not useful in survival, then evolution would have eliminated this energy-expensive process that we think of as freewill.

    I will admit, however, that some people seem to do stupid, rote things with zero reflection about consequences or outcomes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it's fair to say that the way we respond to our world is not the same as a billiard ball. We influence our own response, according to our desires, needs, and fears. This is not absent of causation, as in the case of libertarian free will. But in terms of physical processes, you have to look at it at a higher level of analysis, where emergent behaviors come into play.

      Delete
    2. Unknown: "Evolution, while it does not have a purpose or direction, is nevertheless not wasteful."

      Wasteful to whom and by what measure? One could argue that a process [evolution] that persists in expending tremendous energy for millions of years, and in spite of doing so, only results in the extinction of a species, is pretty wasteful by any standard. So I don't think 'wasteful' is a particularly useful metric in evolution science. Moreso, 'wasteful' is rather a conclusion we derive from a clash between the emotional and the judgemental senses of our psychology in acquiescence, more in keeping with our HADD [hyperactive agency detection device]. I don't think wastefulness is any more pertinent to the discussion than purpose and direction are.

      The closest to an analogy that currently serves me best in understanding is to think of freewill [or the lack of it] within the context of a chess game:

      The board [the playing field] is fixed. The number of black and white squares, the various chess pieces, the manner in which each piece are able to move, the rules of the game, are all fixed, immutable. The world in which the game plays out is unshakeably established, with not so much as even a tinkering of the rules allowable. One can't smuggle in a Draughts or American Checkers piece. But within that transfixed cosmos, there are countless variations in movement of pieces and flow of the game possible, the outcome of which could be a very short or a very long game. Any first move and subsequent move is possible and allowable.

      Now, the question is, are all those countless possible and permissible moves a function of genuine freewill or the illusion of freewill?

      I tend to think it is an illusion, in the Soft Determinism sense, where ultimately immutable Determinism is the operant paradigm.

      Delete
  2. "Hard determinists deny that conscious mind can have any such role in choosing an action. We are at the mercy of physics, they say. Where they go wrong is in denying the causal efficacy of thoughts. It's as if they believe that thoughts are immaterial. Immaterial things have no causal influence on the brain, and that is consistent with their epiphenomenal view of consciousness. But this is just immaterialist woo. Of course consciousness is a physical phenomenon. And it has physical consequences. How can a materialist deny this? Looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, conscious mind would not evolve without having some causal impact on the evolutionary process."

    Say whaaaa?

    Sorry Skep, you seem all twisted up in knots here.

    "Hard determinists deny that conscious mind can have any such role in choosing an action. We are at the mercy of physics, they say."
    False dichotomy. We are "at the mercy", as it were, of physics, indeed. Thoughts are a physics process. Quite apparently thoughts have a role

    "So the brain plays a role in influencing its own future actions by means of conscious deliberation. And this is the compatibilist view, "
    That sounds like the physicalist determinist view. The brain influences itself with internal data feedback paths, a physical deterministic process.

    "It's as if they believe that thoughts are immaterial. Immaterial things have no causal influence on the brain, and that is consistent with their epiphenomenal view of consciousness. But this is just immaterialist woo"
    Who is "they"? What materialist determinist ever said thoughts are immaterial? Thoughts are like running, a process of our material bodies, not independently existent things.

    In summary, thoughts are a process of the physical brain, the brain influences itself using internal physical signaling feedback pathways, thoughts are not immaterial and they are not independently existent things, free will is an illusion, responsibility is an emotion like our personal sense of ought or any other brain process evolved as a mechanism to drive social behavior in a social species for a net propagation advantage absent any immaterialist woo whatsoever.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the battle between compatibilists and hard determinists is just matter of talking past one another, I suspect. Neither of them believe in some immaterial aspect of mind. And yet, there are many determinists who accuse compatibilists of trying to "smuggle in" some kind of non-physical or non-determinist free will. This is simply their failure to understand the compatibilist position.

      What I have attempted to do in this article is to turn the tables on them by illustrating how their own position is just as much subject to accusations of smuggling in their own non-physical aspect of mind. Many of these people do in fact believe that conscious thought is purely epiphenominal - that is to say that it has no impact on behavior or subsequent thought.

      That evidently doesn't apply to your own conception of mind.

      Delete
    2. " Many of these people do in fact believe that conscious thought is purely epiphenominal - that is to say that it has no impact on behavior or subsequent thought."

      Ok, that is an interesting position, so I looked up a few things, thanks for getting me going on this. Apparently Huxley and others used experiments with animals and some injury studies to conclude that motor activity persists even after consciousness ceases so therefore consciousness does not impact behavior.

      That seems to me to be a highly incomplete and obsolete 19th century view. The brain has many internal pathways. Motor activity can occur without consciousness, and it can be initiated because of consciousness. It would be simplistic to choose between the two.

      I might wonder where I put my keys. Then I recall I left them in my jacket pocket. So I keep that conscious image in my mind as I walk through the house. If a family member happens to be in my way I adjust my path around her and continue on with what is actually a highly complex sequence of motor activity, adjusted continually in a negative feedback algorithm driven by a "setpoint", as it were, consisting of my conscious image of keys in a pocket in a jacket in a closet in a location in my house. Finally, I open the closet door, identify the jacket visually distinct from the other objects, locate the pocket with tactile feedback, reach in, and retrieve the keys.

      So, that is just one simple example of a complex series of motor activities involving sensory feedback, adjustments to unanticipated obstacles, and eventual achievement of a physical goal, all driven by consciousness and visualization of my keys in a pocket.

      If I were unconscious would I be able to do all that? No, I don;t think so.

      On the epiphenominal view perhaps our visions and our awareness are just monitors, a bit like a computer screen, displaying the flow of data but not influencing the flow of data. But who is watching? It must be me, or some part of me, I mean, who else?

      Clearly, we imagine things, conclude things, and act on those conclusions.

      Here is a fairly simple control loop diagram
      http://3l4sbp4ao2771ln0f54chhvm.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Current-Velocity-Position-Loops.gif

      Here is a bit more complex diagram
      https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Pascual_Campoy/publication/27473980/figure/fig3/AS:339753267417092@1458014899452/Fig-6-Schematic-flight-control-system-The-inner-velocity-control-loop-is-made-of-three.png

      It should be apparent that our control loop diagram, if we could ever construct it, would be vastly more complex than these simple machine control architectures.

      Consciousness is one of the elements in the overall architecture of the human mechanism. To say it has no effect on motor activity or further data processing is, I think, palpably short sighted.

      Are there really people who call themselves deterministic materialists who think consciousness is somehow not part of any motor control loop?

      If so I would ask that person, what happened the last time you decided you wanted to go to a particular restaurant? Was your conciousness of that restaurant somehow disconnected from you getting dressed, putting your wallet in your pocket, driving your car without smashing it up, parking the car, walking into the restaurant, and ordering the food? Consciousness output no signal drive to those motor actions? That seems to me to be a rather incredible position to take.


      Delete
    3. Feedback in a motor-control loop doesn't itself imply a conscious aspect of the control mechanism. However, I agree that consciousness is part of the control loop for deliberative action.

      The hard determinist points to experimental results that show the brain makes decisions that produce motor action before any conscious awareness of it. This is the source of their epiphenomenal view of mind. And I get that. Our conscious thoughts don't directly produce actions, but they certainly cause feedback in the neural processes that produce some actions.

      Delete
  3. Off topic, SP, I notice you have been dislodging a few hornets' nests over at Reppert's DI blogsite recently. Brings a smile to my face.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, but Victor does not seem to get on line himself very much.

      It's mostly the usual disjointed theistic thinking, sometimes transparent dishonesty, the typical problem of a breakdown of rationality in the theistic mind on the subject of god.

      Every now and then somebody will try to follow a whole argument carefully and completely, up to a point, but then the process always stops at the brink of the individual realizing how irrational his or her argument actually is.

      It's a lot like talking to a bunch of little kids, but it keeps me sharp and I am a bit of an optimist so I keep on.

      Delete
    2. Victor's participation in the past few months (and the frequency of his blog posts) seems to have diminished. But he likes to just quote what someone else wrote, and then throw it open for discussion. Very often it goes like this: Bob Prokop steps in with his unbending Catholic perspective that nobody else wants to challenge (with the occasional exception of Ilion, who invariably declares that everybody is intellectually dishonest), and then Joe Hinman comes in with some totally off-topic announcement of his latest blog post at MetaCrock. And that pretty much sums up the state of affairs at DI.

      When there is some extended discussion, the usual denizens are unwilling to actually listen to the logic, but just ride the band-wagon of their fellow theists, and automatically reject anything else. It's not what it was in the past, when there was some actual philosophical debate. They just don't seem to want to hear that any more.

      Delete