(Originally posted by Pat in 2/2012)
The argument over free will continues. Frankly I think we're just talking past each other at this point. Jerry Coyne quotes approvingly Jeff Johnson's assertion that compatibilists are just pseudo-dualists.
And truth be told, pseudo-dualists clearly exist: John Searle and David
Chalmer clearly want to have their monism and eat it too.
And yes, anyone who thinks that quantum indeterminacy (which I'm not even sure I believe in!) or de facto
unpredictability (which applies as well to weather as it does to
politics) or epiphenomenalism (which is a dead end at best and
incoherent at worst) is a way to save free will deserves to be called
“pseudo-dualist” (or worse). This is bad science and bad philosophy.
my strand of compatibilism (like Dennett's) is what Eleizer Yudkowsky
calls “requiredism”; it's really as thoroughgoing monism as it is
possible to have.
See, I don't think incompatibilists are even quite as monist as we are.
They seem to think that in order for consciousness to be real and
important, it would have to be dualist; it would have to be some sort of
magical extra thing that gets added on in some... mysterious way. They profess the Basic Fact, but they do not really believe it
with the full force of an internalized component of their worldview.
When they say “consciousness is a product of the brain”, what they
really are thinking inside is “consciousness isn't real; atoms bounce
around and it makes something that we mistakenly call 'consciousness'.”
But you see, if you've really internalized identity monism, you don't think of consciousness as something that appears to arise from matter; you realize that it is something that actually does arise from matter. It is not a gnomed mine, but a rainbow.
Don't get me wrong; I can only begin to sketch in the vaguest way an account of how consciousness
arises from matter. We're working on it, and when I say “we're working
on it”, what I really mean is “I hope to devote a sizable portion of my
career to solving this massively mind-boggling problem.”
a (surprisingly close) little analogy, consider computer software. Is
Windows 7 an illusion, because it's ultimately implemented by a bunch of
vibrating electrons in tiny bits of tantalum? Is UNIX all a fiction,
because it isn't added to a properly-functioning piece of
computer hardware, but rather is a result of its lower-level
functioning? So when you send an email or log into Facebook (or read
this blog!), you're not really doing that, it's all just atoms in motion?
something is wrong with that line of reasoning. You've taken the
machine apart, and somehow forgot that before you did so it actually was a
functioning machine. No, it isn't just a bunch of little pieces; they
have to be put in the right places and moved in the right ways. Is it
“more than the sum of its parts”? Yes and no; I guess it depends on
whether the word “sum” includes the arrangement and interrelations.
Clearly a pool of liquid tantalum is not a computer, if that's what you
mean. But no, there's not something extra that needs to be added once all the pieces are put together.
yes, we're made of atoms. We are hunks of matter, with mass and charge.
(If you doubt that, try hitting your head against a wall, or touching
your finger to a live wire. Behold! Mass and charge have effects on
consciousness! This effect is called pain.) What else would we be made of? Indeed, what is an atom,
if not “whatever things happen to be made of”? Does anyone think that
if we'd discovered some different set of subatomic particles with
different properties, we would have called them “fairies” instead?
yes, the universe is (probably) deterministic (at least at macroscopic
scales). I can qualify or unqualify that statement however you like; for
the sake of argument we can even suppose absolute time-reversible
determinism. It never would have anything to do with consciousness or
volition. Honestly, the only way that determinism would become an issue
would be if the world were so very indeterministic that we
couldn't make even basic predictions about the future—if we were in Pink
Unicorn territory rather than merely Black Swan. This is why Yudkowsky
calls it “requiredism”; a minimal level of determinism (which has
already been verified to several decimal places) is required for conscious volition to work. The world must be orderly enough and comprehensible enough for rational thought to take place.
And no, there are no ontologically fundamental mental entities. As Yudkowsky puts it, nothing is fundamentally complex—because
what would that mean? If something is complex, it must be made of
smaller parts. But if it's made of smaller parts, it can't be
fundamental. Since consciousness requires work—real, thermodynamic work
in terms of energy being exchanged (there are some really neat theorems
involving information and entropy)—it requires moving parts. Since it
requires moving parts, it can't be irreducible.
makes much of the “could have done otherwise”, the idea that because
physics is deterministic, we could never do other than as we actually
do. Yet this is a surprisingly subtle issue. If physical determinism is
the concern, then you seem to be saying, “If everything about everything
was exactly the same, the result would have to be exactly the same.”
This is surely true; it's also a hair's-breadth from outright tautology. In no possible universe could this have failed to
be true. Even if we were dyed-in-the-wool substance dualists who think
that consciousness is made by an invisible immaterial substance called a
“soul”, we would still be committed to the proposition that if
everything is the same, the result will be the same. (We'd merely have
to include “immaterial substances”, whatever those are, in our list of
I think what you actually mean when you say“I could have done otherwise” is quite a bit weaker than this. It implies that if you were
different—if you had desired differently, or perhaps known more, or
been of a different moral character, you would have decided differently.
It implies that you were basically rational and sane, not coerced or
unduly influenced, presented with viable alternatives; it implies that
you made a willful decision based upon the evidence available and your
capacities of reasoning (which were not in some way extremely
defective). It implies that you had reasons for what you did, that you did it on purpose, that you made a decision which weighed alternatives. When
it is ruled in court that you acted freely and with intent, this
judgment is not based on theological questions of substance, but on
eyewitness accounts of circumstances and behavior.
course this happens all the time—even the staunchest incompatibilist
doesn't deny that. Instead they try to argue that this is somehow “not
good enough”, not “real freedom” in some ultimate sense. But it seems to me that it is good enough—it is magic that is real; if you refuse to call it “real magic” that's your problem, not mine.
What's more, rational volition—what I would call “free will”—is not merely existent; it's also exceptional. It's really not something that rocks or waterfalls or even bacteria are capable of. There really is a real, measurable difference in behavior between Homo sapiens and Escherichia coli, and
the fact that they are both made of atoms (indeed, both made of DNA!)
is frankly beside the point. So when I say that a person has free will
and a rock doesn't, I'm not just stating my own prejudices—I'm actually
making a falsifiable claim about observable reality. I'm saying that
humans can respond to circumstances and desires in a way that rocks
cannot. This difference is reducible; it's computational; it's made of
physical processes. Of course it is! What else would it be made of?
yes, to a degree even human-made computers are capable of this kind of
decision-making, as when a chess program compares possible moves or a
Monte Carlo simulation runs through possible outcomes. This is a kind of free will. I
have never said otherwise. It's clearly not the same level of free will
human beings have; but it's far more than bacteria, and compares
favorably to cockroaches. As computing power improves and artificial
intelligence research advances, we will build machines with the free
will of lizards, then birds, then apes—and finally, yes, machines with
as much free will as we do, and perhaps even more. If you deny that this
is “really” free will, I submit that it is your carbon-centrism, not my account of free will, which is causing the problem.
of this makes perfect sense once you really try to internalize the
Basic Fact that we are our brains. Free will is something that brains actually do; it's not an illusion, it's not a mysterious addition from on high. It's a matter of hardware and software.
So you see, it is not we who are pseudo-dualists. The shoe is firmly on the other foot.