Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Free Will Again?

(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.
But 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.”

For 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?

Clearly 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.

So 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?

And 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.

Coyne 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 “everything”.)

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.

Yet of 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?

And 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.

All 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.

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