Tuesday, February 21, 2017
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 that 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.