Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mu to free will

And to determinism, too.

Folr those of you not familiar with this word “mu,” I’m not being a cow with a French accent. Rather, I’m “unasking a question,” so to speak. The word comes from Zen Buddhism.

If you’re read the magisterial “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter, of course, you ARE familiar with the word.

Anyway, by “unasking the question,” the word says that the premises upon which a question is based are false.

And, in the case of free will VERSUS determinism, I believe that is very, very true.

First, per Dan Dennett, and many other students of Gilbert Ryle and others, there is no such thing as a little “Cartesian demon” in the middle of our brains, choosing what thoughts in our minds rise to the level of consciousness. Rather, although Dennett at least, here as elsewhere, overextends Darwinian parallels, different subselves are competing, if you will, for which one of them rises to the top. Arguably, more fragmentary sub-subselves are a level lower, but I’m not going to do a Hofstadter-type eternal expansion! Of course, dissociative identity disorder is a case of extreme lack of connection between these subselves.

In short, there’s no “Cartesian meaner” running the projector of a movie theater.

However, Dennett doesn’t go to the logical next step, even though I know he full well knows it IS the logical next step.

If there is no Cartesian meaner generating consciousness, then there’s no Cartesian free willer generating consciousness-level free will. (Or, pace Massimo Pigliucci, no "Cartesian volitioner.")

Now, per David Hume living comfortably every day despite his inability to “grasp” a “self,” we, too act “as if” we have conscious free will. But, that doesn’t mean we actually do, contra the Massimo Piglicccis of the world.

But, just because we don’t have conscious free will, even of a fairly weak sort of compatibilism, doesn’t mean that it’s all determinism, contra the Jerry Coynes of the world. Certainly not in his neo-atomistic physicalist, "hard" determinism.

Nor, pace Massimo, do we have to go down the route of dualism if we reject conscious volitionism. That's especially true if:
A. We see something like free will as developing as an emergent property;
B. We reject "hard" physicalist determinism, too;
C. We see whatever this "quasi-free will" is, and a "softer" psychological determinism as being two endpoints on a continuum, and not two poles of a polarity.
As for what this means?

How “free” or how “determined” our actions are is a case-by-case basis issue, and it depends on which subself seems to be in the saddle at the moment, and how determined or not a particular aspect of that subself is.

I wish we, both amateurs and professionals of the philosophical world alike, could move beyond the “free will VERSUS determinism” issue. It has religious-type moral baggage, at least to a degree, on the free will side, on issues of guilt and responsibility. More and more, it has scientism baggage on the determinism side. It’s so unproductive. But, I’m not holding my breath.

On the free will side, in comments within his latest post on the matter, Massimo admits the issue of guilt and responsibility is why he continues to defend free will VERSUS determinism (or other attacks, or "attacks").
(A)ny talk of free will and consciousness being illusions is a threat to humanism, since among humanist's cardinal principles are that we are responsible for our actions and that we can use reason as a guide to life.
Well, then, per the ways in which I've previously chastised Joseph Hoffmann, humanism, whether explicitly secular or not, without embracing scientism, needs to embrace scientific advances.

Ian Pollack, writing a guest post at Massimo's blog, appears to move a step in this direction, with an analytic philosophy type approach that includes saying Coyne is ... insufficiently reductionistic, of all things, in his use of language.

Here's the core of his thoughts:
So how would I tackle the issue of free will/volition?

Suppose I am driving along an undivided highway when the stray thought
comes into my head that I could steer into the opposing lane, resulting
in a horrible, deadly accident.

Of course, I don’t do so, because... well, I like living and I don’t
much want to kill others, either. And I just washed my car. But I could
have done it.

...Wait, was I right to say that I could have done it?

Yes and no. As we have seen, the pivotal word in that sentence is
“could,” and “could” has at least two meanings that are relevant to the
question of free will.

Meaning #1 maps physical possibility, and in this case returns the clear
answer “No, the physical state of the universe was such that you could
not have steered into oncoming traffic, as evidenced by the fact that
you did not, in fact, do so. QED.” Jerry sees this clearly, and I have
absolutely no argument with him.

Meaning #2 of “could” maps counterfactual statements. To say that you
“could” have done something in this sense is (roughly) to say that IF
circumstances had been otherwise, a different outcome would have
resulted. Meaning #2 returns the answer “Yes, you could have steered
into oncoming traffic, if you had wanted to.”

Meaning #2 is what people actually mean by “could,” most of the time.

If you’ve been sleeping through this post, pay attention now, because
the entire click of compatibilism lies in this realization.

#1: “No, the state of the universe was such that it was physically
impossible for you to have steered into oncoming traffic.”

Proposition #2: “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic (if you had wanted to).”

However, to my mind, he still fails. He addresses only the Coyne-type physicalist determinism, not "softer" versions, first. Second, he's committed to the "versus" stance, continuing to defend a compatibilist version of free will versus determinism.

For more excellent thoughts in this general vein, I strongly suggest Walter Kaufmann's book "Beyond Guilt and Responsibility."

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