15 February 2009

Free will, and the meaning of loaf

Roughly twice a year, I am in the supermarket and see sliced a fruit loaf from a particular well known manufacturer which specialises in disguising polystyrene ceiling tiles as bread products*. "That looks nice", I think to myself, and pop it in my trolley.

Back at home, I take out a slice. It sits there, pallidly lifeless, on my plate. At this point, I remember that I have been here before, many times. I don't like this product. The only way to pretend that this slice of knitted white starch and sundry additives is palatable is to plaster it with a thick (at least three millimetres) layer of margarine and accompany it with coffee. I eat two slices and feel queasy.

I have a deep seated moral resistance to throwing away food in a world which is short of it, so over a period of several days I gradually eat about three quarters of the loaf (with coffee, but without margarine) ... and then feed the rest to my starling and sparrow neighbours despite my moral qualms.

All of which tends to anecdotally support Dr C's reasserted argument that there is no such thing as free will.

I am deeply "conflicted" (ugh) about this free will business.

First, I am completely agnostic about whether free will exists, or can exist. I just don't know ... and doubt whether it is possible to know.

I understand Dr C's argument, and agree with every intermediate step of it. I remain unconvinced, however, by the final conclusion that because every action narrows down to a single chemical event gate there is, ergo, no free will. After all, every event in the world is singular however complex the chain leading to it. Whether cows escape from a field or remain within depends upon whether or not I open the gate to that field ... the complex of events which place me at that gate and shape my personality do not alter that ... but that doesn't mean, ipso facto, that I have no free will in the matter of whether or not I do in fact open it. Inside General Loan's revolver there is a mechanical gate (the trigger latch) which decides whether or not the pin impacts the cartridge and fires the bullet ... it, like the chemical gate in General Loan, is at the end of the long tangle of influences which led to the final event, and once again there is no intermediate state: it unlatches or it doesn't.

None of that means that I reject the idea that Dr C may be right. I just don't know.

I am equally unconvinced by arguments that quantum physics offer free will. The best that I can say of those arguments is that quantum physics could (in some interpretations) provide both options: General Loan (or perhaps two bifurcated General loans) both does and does not pull the trigger ... but in both cases he may or may not have done so by exercise of free will and how the f*** would I know?

Again, I don't reject the possibility that free will lies in quantum effects ... I just don't know. And nor does anyone else.

Heisenbergian arguments about uncertainty of effect don't really get me off the hook either ... but they do account for some of the chaotic fog which prevents me from knowing. More of that later.

Then we have assertion, put forward by Unreal Nature a couple of days ago, that Dr C's is an "assault on what should be left unassaulted". Now, I have to confess that I am, emotionally, entirely in agreement with this view. At a gut level, and with every fibre of my being, I regard any questioning of free will (and with it the very concepts of morality and responsibility) as horrendously dangerous. BUT (and Unreal Nature, whose philosophical rigor is at least as well developed as anyone I know, is certainly already aware of this) ... intellectually, how do I square that with my rationalist credentials and my criticism of others who refuse to consider what contradicts their belief? How am I different from those who compelled Galileo Galilei to recant? How am I different from those who refused to consider Darwin's theory because it contradicted the literality of a seven day creation?

If I am to remain intellectually and philosophically honest, I must admit that the answer to whether or not free will exists can never depend upon whether or not I like it, or whether or not it is valuable. If Dr C can prove that it does not, then I must accept that proof – he hasn't, so far, as far as I am concerned, but I must remain open to the possibility that he will. If the quantum physicists can prove that it does, then I must accept it upon their evidence, not upon my wish to do so.

(Of course, if Dr C is right, then it follows neither his proof nor my acceptance or rejection of it have very much objective reality ... but the whole issue is beset by variations on this paradox and I shan't trouble you or my migraine with them any further.)

My intuitive feeling is that (as I mentioned a year and a half ago) we are unlikely to ever resolve this one definitively: an analogue of Gödel's incompleteness theorem means that we cannot completely analyse the system from within, using its own rules. I repeat, that is an intuitive feeling, not an evidential offering. What scraps of intellectual scaffolding I can manage to assemble, however, do show a tendency to lead in that same direction.

Whatever the system is or is not, and whether or not its free will component can or cannot ever be fully analysed, it is certainly immensely chaotic. Its complexity and scale are two aspects of that; the Heisenbergian uncertainty analogues mentioned above are another and simultaneously plays a large part in the difficulty of perceiving it

As with many things in the real world, being agnostic about the issue does not remove the necessity for grappling with its implications. Though if Dr C is right, there are no implications; everything I do (including my existence, and Dr C's existence, and every one of our actions including every word of this post and my rapidly approaching headache) were inevitable. The plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, the massacre of the Jews, the dead of the 2004 tsunami, the starvation of millions, were always going to happen in a deterministic universe. If free will does exist, however, then we are all culpable for those things because we did not sufficiently exercise it.

All that I am left with is a version of Pascal's wager, though I can dignify it with game and decision theory by looking for the minimax.

There are two possibilities. Either free will exists or it does not exist.

There are two responses. Either I act as if I have free will and have potency in the shaping of events, or I accept that these things are illusory and let the world be what it will be.

Here's a truth table to summarise my wager.

I act as if free will exists I act as if free will does not exist
Free will does exist I may make things better or I may make things worse. I can claim to have contributed to any good which results from my actions, and to reduction of harm which might have resulted from my inaction. As a corollary, I must accept responsibility for harm which results from my actions and for good which was lost through them. I have abdicated responsibility for events which I might have influenced. I could have made a difference and chose not to. I share blame for avoidable harm, and cannot claim contribution to achievable good.
Free will does not exist I am obviously acting as if free will exists because that is what the aggregated biochemical gates have made me do; I had no choice in the matter. I will feel satisfaction and disappointment for the same reason, and neither are meaningful. I am acting as if free will does not exists because that is what the aggregated biochemical gates have made me do; I had no choice in the matter. I feel relieved of satisfaction and disappointment for the same reason, not because I have brought it about.

What that table leads to is as moot as everything else. For myself, the least unsatisfactory outcome option is the green cell at top left while the most unsatisfactory is the pink one at top right. I choose (either because I was able to do so, or because the swirls of a biochemically statistical universe have made me do so) to act as if I believe in free will.

Not very satisfactory; but hey, where is it written that this vale of tears must be satisfactory? We pick up our burdens and shuffle on.

And, if you examine everything else that either Dr C or Unreal Nature have written, you find that they too join me in the green cell. I am (either because I have decided to be or because biochem has made me so) very happy in their company, even if (through intellectual differences which we may or may not have had a hand in fashioning) we differ on the science and/or philosophy of how we got there.

And now, either because I think it's a good idea or because biochemistry decrees it (or both), I am off for a cup of coffee and ... no, not a slice of fruit loaf but a chocolate bourbon biscuit.

*Addendum: this has no connection whatsoever with Unreal Nature's thoughts on deist coprophagy.


Pauline Laybourn said...

After reading this blog entry, I wondered if I am on same playing field as a Google search. If Dr.C really subscribes to "...every action narrows single chemical event gate, there is, ergo, no free will", then I, too, differ with him. Otherwise, Google search and I have about the same stature.
-enter data
-search enters "thinking" mode
-chemical lab goes to work
-electrical charge pumps out data

When it is my computer brain lab that has searched, the results from that data trigger certain behaviors. In Dr. C's view the action/behavior triggered is freed from any response-ability or any responsibilty or consideration.
In other words, "nothing is my fault", as some would say.

I prefer to think that predetermination and free will are compatible. At birth our parents, genetics, natal chart all set up what has been called a blueprint. We are planted within certain parameters of space and time. Indeed, this is predetermined.

How we deal with that blueprint in later stages of our life results from our freely made choices. Those choices, in turn, determine the kind of person we become. So we go from being preprogrammed at birth to being masters of our own fate -- almost.

Our ability to choose our destiny or to master our own fate has limits; it is, shall we say, predetermined. Our "free" choices are made within the RANGE of the program handed to us at birth.
E.g., I will never be a linguist nor play piano like Mozart. But I can choose to study another language and practice the piano.

So here I am, a hybrid. Set forth at birth on a predetermined path with innumerable options from which I can freely choose. Those freely chosen options make me the person I become or want to be. It is, then the free will that determines -- there's that word again -- who I am, a hybrid.

Dr. C said...

Pauline, Thanks for joining the discussion. I will agree that I have taken what appears to be an extreme position. But, in some ways, I feel forced into it as the result of a long dialog that Felix and I had starting a year ago (for a list of those posts see:
The problem with discussing this issue is that, if you should be so unfortunate enough as to accept the premise that there is no free will (as we have understood it to date,) it opens up a gaping chasm into which one must inevitably fall, as both Felix and Julie have so well pointed out to me.

The problem that I continue to have is the assertion that there is an independent (non deterministic, or any other word you want to use) entity that has "responsibility." As Julie alluded to in a recent post, one has to first resolve this mind (soul)/body (brain) conundrum before having credibility.

As for being a Googlelike thingy, consider that a very large percentage of what you do (like driving a car, playing the piano, brushing your hair) is programmed response to external stimuli (Felix has a great article on robotics). It is only when we get into the putatively moral field that free will becomes the problem.

Recently there was an awful attack by a chimpanzee on a human. The chimp was immediately shot. Consider, though, that the chimp has 99+% of human DNA and is, in almost all respects, a sentinent being. Does a chimp have free will as we understand it? What is different between that sad little animal and ourselves?

Dr. C.

P.S. I like hybrids but am anxiously awaiting the electric car (of course).

Pauline said...

It takes a bit of courage to challenge your thinking, Dr. C. Instead, I will raise some of my own unresolved questions -- raised respectfully. Some are related to the one you raise at the end of your comment.

-Do mind, soul, free will differ in source?
-Does someone who denys free will, necessarily deny concept of "soul"?
-If humans have souls, and non-human animals do not, when in evolution does soul enter humans?
-Do animals have a mind?
-How do humans and non-humans differ regarding brain and electrical activity? is there any?
-What is the source of emotion: affection, compassion, misery?
-And what about humor, language, intelligence measured in animals?
-How do neuron patterns differ in non-humans and humans? and do they?
-Who chose the word "animal"?

I admit to no order in laying out the questions. Rather, a free flow of unresolved issues that are of interest to me -- like your blogs.

If I can better understand the mystery lurking behind some of these questions, I could better understand the dialog between you and Felix -- which is so carefully laid out in the series of blogs you wrote over the past year.
Much of it beyond me, by the way! Until then, I remain confused and somewhat bemused.

One last comment on the chimp who made headlines recently. It boggles my mind that ONE chimp gets shot for ONE attack on ONE human. Never mind some humans "freely choosing" to kill thousands of Iraqis in an unconscionable war. But that's another whole mattter.

It is a joy to find people like you and Felix who believe these issues/values are important. The day the world no longer cares, is the day I no longer care to be part of that world.


p.s. I too await the electric car.
And life will continue with more electrical activity as we head down the road. Happy trails...

Dr. C said...

Pauline, Your observations deserve comment but I don't want to clog up The Growlery's blog. (I like it, clog the blog.) So, give me a few days and I'll post at home.