Monday, September 10, 2012

freedom: out of the corner of one's eye

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and one of the "Four Horsemen" of the New Atheism, has written another blog post, "Life Without Free Will," in which he restates his basic argument against the existence of human free will. His argument sounds Buddhist at first blush: we human beings, as nexuses or agents of moral action, quickly disappear into the noisy background of crisscrossing intercausality. The acting self, the moral agent, is impossible to find in all that noise. As Harris writes:

Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest? How, for instance, does one become a pediatric surgeon? Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid. You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby. Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood. Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well. At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one. Will you be the conscious source of this wanting? Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine? No. If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line. None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behavior. And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort. But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort? To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon? Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration? And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enroll in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments? Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious. Where is the freedom in this?

But Harris parts ways with Buddhism, not so much in the notion of the disappearing self as in the notion that people don't make their karma. "Making karma" is probably the closest Buddhist term we have to human freedom in the Western sense. Buddhists say there are "three karmas" that we are constantly making: thought, word, and deed. How we think, what we say, and what we do are all ways in which we make karma, which I take to mean the momentum of all cause and effect. If we're not free, we don't make karma: karma instead becomes everything-- it's all forces and no particles.

Most of the world's great religious traditions have some notion of moral cause and effect, which usually manifests itself as a sense of responsibility for one's actions, that actions are praiseworthy or blameworthy. This moral sense, by its pancultural nature, seems to be rooted in a basic ontological and deontological intuition. Harris at least partly agrees: he affirms that responsibility still figures in the equation even without freedom. But like Herbert Fingarette (mentioned a few times on this blog-- here, here, and here), Harris seems to divide responsibility into two principal senses: (1) moral agency, and (2) locus of action. Harris's emphasis is on sense (2). A crazed killer, according to Harris, is not unlike a charging bear: both are the proximate cause of death of someone, and something must be done about such beings to maintain social harmony.

Something about Harris's approach rings false to me, however. I can't shake the intuition that moral responsibility is intimately linked with human freedom, so the question then becomes how to prove that such freedom exists. I'm not sure that a direct proof is possible. Harris's intercausality argument seems to cover all the empirical bases; we'll never be able to parse a human being's consciousness and point to a particular region: "There's where freedom lies!"

Instead, I propose that freedom's existence can be inferred through an indirect method. For me, the main component in this act of inference is predictability. Truly free beings, according to the classical philosophical definition of freedom, have the ability to do otherwise, i.e., at any given moment in which two or more alternative paths present themselves to the mind, a truly free human being has an equal chance of choosing any discrete path. This equality is a necessary component of freedom: without it, we'd simply trace the lines of intercausality to see in what direction a person is most likely to be "pushed." I don't deny that the weight of previous circumstances may influence a person's choices, but at the very moment of choice, all opportunities present themselves as equally viable options, and that parity confers on the person the power to do otherwise than he would have done.

So there is something about freedom, and free beings, that resists prediction. The test of whether a person or animal has free will comes down to whether one can predict where that being will be, and what it will be doing, at the end of its life. I can't say for sure just what freedom is, but I suspect it's an ontological condition tied both to sentience and circumstance, a natural outgrowth or epiphenomenon of consciousness interacting with the world. Does this mean that an atom is free, simply because we can't predict where it's going to be at the end of its long atomic life? I'd say no: atoms are subject to Newtonian laws of physics; their paths through space-time are, to a great extent, complex but predictable-- at least in theory if not in practical reality. But with a human being, you can know all the possible initial conditions of a person at birth, and that won't help you one bit in understanding where that person is going. Freedom entails unpredictable worldlines. It's a quality that can't be seen directly: it has to be seen out of the corner of one's eye.



Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Kevin,

If you accept Harris's materialistic view, then humans are nothing more than complex systems of atoms (which, by the way, behave, in our modern understanding, according to non-classical, rather than Newtonian, laws).

So why is a human being's behavior any less predictable than that of any other complex material system?

Kevin Kim said...


If I understand your own position correctly, you view yourself as something of a compatibilist, yes? So you deny that human freedom doesn't exist. What part of Harris's formulation do you reject?

re: Newtonian vs. non-classical

I should have made myself clearer. I'm not unaware of quantum mechanics and how it has widened our perspective on things like atomic motion, but on a practical level, I think that Newtonian mechanics does a fine enough job of explaining behavior at the atomic-- if not the subatomic-- scale, and above, all the way into the anthropic and the macro scale. Predicting the general motion of atoms or astral bodies doesn't require reference to quantum theory, and I don't need QM to predict the motion of pool balls, either.

"So why is a human being's behavior any less predictable than that of any other complex material system?"

Because there is something about the nature of consciousness that makes it so (shades of Searle and his biological chauvinism?). I have no trouble predicting where a boulder will be in the next five minutes. I have great trouble predicting where a certain toad will be. Or person, for that matter. I think we'll learn to predict long-term weather patterns* long before we're able to do the same for human behavior patterns.


*I know: weather is considered an inherently chaotic system these days. Still, chaos theory is about the parsing of chaotic systems, and the theory is applied in predictive ways in fields like economics, etc.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Kevin,

Well, actually, QM effects (in particular, QM randomness) can rather easily be amplified into the classical world. To give an example example, I can make a bomb go off if a radioactive source triggers my Geiger counter more than X times in the next ten seconds - making the future actions of the people around the bomb very hard to predict in a deterministic way.

If, as you seem to be doing, you hold out that consciousness is not supervenient on physical causes, but in turn has a causative influence on the world (i.e. that it is an uncaused cause), then you have completely rejected Harris's materialistic model and have embraced full-blown dualism, I think.

Which is fine -- you'll have Bill Vallicella for company, among others -- but that view does have its own set of intractable problems to cope with.

Kevin Kim said...

"If, as you seem to be doing, you hold out that consciousness is not supervenient on physical causes..."

But I wrote:

"I can't say for sure just what freedom is, but I suspect it's an ontological condition tied both to sentience and circumstance, a natural outgrowth or epiphenomenon of consciousness interacting with the world."

The above doesn't imply that I think consciousness is causa sui. If anything-- and you know me well enough to know this-- I'm sympathetic to the physicalist camp.

My point isn't that consciousness is immaterial. It's that there's something about the nature of consciousness such that conscious beings defy prediction: they create worldlines that squiggle through space-time in ways that indicate both aliveness and consciousness, and that these patterns are qualitatively different from the worldlines of abiotic, non-sentient phenomena.

The above is, of course, a fuzzy claim, but that's why I titled my post the way I did.

Kevin Kim said...

And, hey-- did you deftly sidestep my question about where you and Harris part ways?

Malcolm Pollack said...

I part company with Harris in that he seems to think our embedding in a causal nexus somehow matters, while I don't.

The question of whether we are or are not radically "free" in the sense of micro-level causation (and I think the very idea of such freedom isn't even coherent) isn't, in my opinion, all that important. We are still the locus of our decisions, and the choices we make are still the result of our dispositions, our preferences, our deliberation. Regardless of the truth about the imperceptible microdetails of physical causation, all of our choices have to pass though us. What more do we want?

As Daniel Dennett said: "If you make yourself small enough, you can externalize everything." I don't want to make myself so small that I abdicate all responsibility and dignity. So I don't. We have that choice.

It will be curious to see what sort of society Harris expects to build out of his shrunken men.

I have much more to say about this, but I've already written a lot of it down over at my place.