Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Yet more of my mu-ing against Ye Olde Free Will vs Determinism

Cross-posted from my primary blog:

I've written two previous blogposts on saying "mu" to the old, tired ideas of "free will versus determinism."

Now, per a new piece at Massimo Pigliucci's Scientia Salon, and comments there, including from Massimo, to whom I may not be as close on these issues as I thought a year ago, it's time for No. 4.

And, evolutionary psychology (done right, and not close to Pop Ev Pysch) is going to be even more part of the issue than in previous posts.

I want to pick up further on the issue of “confabulation” and free will.

The evolution of the brain to produce “pattern detectors” and “agency imputers” could also, whether as a spandrel, or a deliberate add-on for better running of the pattern and agency “programs,” have also created the idea of free will.

Per the likes of Elizabeth Loftus, on things like memory, our brain is a great big confabulator. Along with that, why wouldn’t we also confabulate our own sense of agency at times? In short, that “agency inputer” of evolutionary psychology fame may be imputing agency to ME, myself, as well as YOU.

Simple, simple concept. But, again, one that traditional defenders of a more robust version of free will might not like.

Wikipedia's piece on the neuroscience of free will addresses this, this issue of post-temporal confabulation, to some degree. Specifically, it's under the section on "retrospective construction," if one wants something more scientific than "confabulation."

It also leads into robust defenders of classical free will seemingly wanting to say that Benjamin Libet's famous experiments have very little to do with issues of free will. And, to keep on saying it, and saying it.

They are true to a degree. But not the degree that they believe, and would have others believe.

In one response, I've said it before and will say it again now. I think at least some of Eddy Nahmias’ claims are overstated. As part of that, I’ll stand by my idea that, at a minimum, Libet has shown (along with others, such as Daniel Kahnemann from psychology with his "fast" and "slow" thinking systems, and others with similar ideas) we need to narrow our ideas about the amount of human mental activity that is fully conscious.

So, for Massimo and others who look at free will to fair degree through the lens of consciousness, he and follow-ups do make a degree of difference. That’s especially true per my idea of self-imputation of agency, above.

This, in turn, is another reason I say “mu” to the issue more and more. Consciousness is of course not the same as free will. But, they are entangled enough that lack of knowledge in consciousness affects lack of knowledge elsewhere.

I think until we know more about the details of how tasks that start becoming habitual are eventually pushed into semantic memory to be run automatically, we should be a bit leery about talking about free will and conscious vs. autonomic, or subconscious or whatever term you prefer for less than fully conscious behavior.

Also, given the amount of follow-up experiments to Libet’s originals, and the interest in them by philosophers, too, I think this claim of commenter David Ottlinger:
It’s the the common opinion of philosophers that Libet is very little obstacle to free will.
Is overstated. I've said that before, too, and noted that I've tussled with Massimo over this issue before, too.

On my essay, I used the phrase “free willer of the gaps.”

As for the fact that Libet and post-Libet experiments only cover a limited range of actions? Well, that’s about current limitations in neuroscience research; it doesn’t mean that what Libet found is guaranteed to only apply to such a limited range of mental actions.

And, again, let’s note that phrase “post-Libet.” Per Wiki, there has been a lot of additional study here. A lot.

Defenders of a robust version of "classical" free will who say the "Libet experiments" don't prove much? Libet's initial experiments are 30 years old. Even with neuroscience still being limited, even only in the Early Bronze Age today, it has still built on that — including with research experiments that have addressed the issue of whether people had enough time to "decide" to undertake an action.

Beyond that, I’ve read Daniel Wegner and others who have built philosophizing ideas about free will on post-Libet experiment findings.

First, as for the issue of consciousness?

To riff on the New Agey mantra, while we use much more than 10 percent of our brain at a time, the amount of our brain that is engaged in conscious deliberational processes may be closer to 10 percent than 90 percent, and surely isn’t 90 percent.

This relates to issues of free will as choice, and choice based on modeling alternative behaviors and their likely playouts.

First, of course, we often don't have time for such detailed modeling.

Second, when we do, if the situation's not totally novel, the modeling is usually at least in part subconscious.

I think much of the “choice” being made is not at a fully conscious level. Modern psychology would indicate this is certainly true in things like habitual behavior, which somewhat shades into my article here (thanks for the link) about psychological determinism.

Per that, and bringing in the evolutionary angle, we know that our brain tries to automate, or at least semi-automate, as many processes as it can, to save energy consumption. And, this process results in some of this modeling being done at a less than fully conscious level.

Libet-type experiments, as I note, yes, have their limitations. That doesn't mean they're foundational limitations; they're quite possibly just structural limitations of the current level of research ability. As for those structural limitations, per the fact that we're 30 years on from the actual Libet experiments, when neuroscience was, if not Paleolithic, then Mesolithic, says something. The Early Bronze Age of today may not sound fantastic, but it's steps forward.

(After all, did we reject Dalton or Mendeleev because their theories about periodicity in chemistry had structural limitations?)

Martin Seligmann would try to rescue free will with the idea of prospection, back-formed off retrospection. Big problems, though, as I see it.

It's heavily invested in teleology, which is no wonder he's getting Templeton money for it. Beyond the religious overtones of Templeton, not to mention the fundraising overtones (and other ethical issues in his past) of Marty Seligmann, I have non-religious issues with teleology.

In ev psych done right, while we may have evolved "pattern detectors" and "agency imputers" hundreds of thousands of years ago, I doubt that we have evolved "teleology focusers" before the last 100,000 years, if we have at all. I think homo sapiens would have had to evolve not only at least a firm level of second-order thought, but even a tentative degree of third-order thought, for such. (A blue jay may be able to think about another blue jay stealing nuts, but not (at least not non-instinctually) about how it should try to prevent that in a goal-oriented way. In turn, this is why, although I have no problems seeing some degree of consciousness in many "higher" mammals and birds, I don't see something like volitional action in most of them.

A rise in third-order thinking among humans would then likely have gone hand in hand with, among other things, a rise in teleological thinking. But teleological foci wouldn’t have happened before that, I don’t think.

Of course, these are all just speculations on my part; fMRIs of animals that can't communicate with us avail nothing, and while old fMRIs showed action in the brain of a dead salmon, real fMRIs, should we find the brain of a dead Homo erectus, will show us nothing.

That said, if neuroscience can't necessarily tell us a lot about what IS involved with issues of volition in general, and what variety of free will, or something like free will, we may have actually evolved, before that, it can tell us more and more what varieties of free will we don't have.

And, to riff on Dan Dennett, it can tell us about what varieties of free will, or something like free will, that we may actually have, whether we consider them "worth having" or not. It will certainly contribute, per a blog post on this issue a month ago, about the varieties of free will worth discussing.


Finally, and once again, none of these critiques of current ideas of free will mean that determinism is “the default option.” Again, let’s please stop thinking inside old two-position polarity boxes. And, let's not forget that determinism, as classically stated, is simplistic in the extreme and has worse issues than classical versions of free will.

This cannot be stressed enough. The limitations in various ways of current theories on free will have nothing to offer to boost the viability of determinism.

Nothing. Period.

Another way of putting this is that determinists are like Jesus denialists. They think that every brick removed from the wall of classical versions of free will not only proves classical free will in its various incarnations wrong, but proves the possibility of anything like free will wrong, and proves determinism right.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Say "mu" to Camus on meaninglessness

Albert Camus famously or infamously said in "The Myth of Sisyphus" (summary and Wikipedia) that there is one ultimate issue in philosophy:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.
Of course, that relates to, and cornerstones, issues in his absurdist philosophy, and in the related existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and others.

Theists, especially Christian apologists, have used this as a cudgel, whacking secular existentialists over the head with the idea that they, or we, claim that life is "meaningless" and that there is therefore no recourse at end but suicide.

Well, a new essay at Massimo Pigliucci's Scientia Salon, by John G. Messerly, deals with this issue in part. And, it's stimulated me to yet further thought, reflected in part, and starting with, my second comment on the essay.

That said, let's unpack this issue a bit further. I'll then get to the second half of that second comment and go from there.

Camus, of course, said suicide was not the answer — revolt was. Which might be true. Revolt while accepting the modern absurdity of life.

Modern humanistic psychologists of a secularist mindset say that meaning is what we bring to the table.

But, beyond that, what if "meaningless(ness)" as traditionally defined in philosophy and psychology isn't exactly the issue?

And now, to that comment.
I think Camus was asking the wrong question. 
 Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless, if we take “meaningless” to be the opposite of “meaningful.” 
 If we instead, talk about “without meaning” or “meaning-less” (sic) we can hopefully understand this not as an opposition to “meaningful” but simply that the issue of “meaning” is, if not a category mistake, one of those issues about which we should be silent, or even more, per logical positivism, a question that is itself … without meaning!
 It’s true that, as part of our attempts to control our surroundings, we probably have “meaning seekers” as well as “pattern detectors” and “agency imputers” halfway hardwired into our brains.
 But, per Hume’s is ≠ ought, that doesn’t mean that we have to follow them in falsely looking for agency — or falsely imputing meaning where it doesn’t exist, or falsely looking for it when it’s not part of the issue.
Let's go a bit further.

"Meaning" and "meaninglessness" also seems to be one of those polarities, like "free will" vs. "determinism," that's wrong in other ways.

First, it's presuming that a polarity should exist.

Second, it assumes that one should, in some degree at least, "reduce" to the other, rather than both be "unified" in a larger theory, just like general relativity and quantum theory will surely "unify" rather than having one reduce to the other.

Third, like the free will half of that first duality, a desire for meaning — or, a desire to frame ordering one's life around meaning, and trying to justify how to frame it without meaning — seems based in part on religion. I've said that this seems true to some degree of many secular defenders of classical free will, on religion and guilt connecting to free will.

Indeed, the Sparknotes summary, on the first link, puts this in is vs. ought terms, as far as how Camus treats Sisyphus:
As his starting point, Camus takes up the question of whether, on the one hand, we are free agents with souls and values, or if, on the other hand, we are just matter that moves about with mindless regularity.
 Camus is interested in finding a third alternative. Can we acknowledge that life is meaningless without committing suicide? Do we have to at least hope that life has a meaning in order to live? Can we have values if we acknowledge that values are meaningless? Essentially, Camus is asking if the second of the two worldviews sketched above is livable.
But, just as I have repeatedly, most  notably here and in my own essay for Pigliucci, said that we should say “mu” to the traditional “free will versus determinism” polarity, I think we need to similarly “unask” Camus here.  (And Monty Python.)

So, per my pull quote from my comment at Massimo's, if life should not be viewed though a "meaning versus meaningless" filter, what should we then do?

Well, the reference to Farmville, Candy Crush and other Facebook games aside, in this issue of Existentialist Comics, keeping an intelligent Sisyphus happy is probably harder than this. That's especially true for those like Camus and other professional and amateur philosophers who wrestle with these questions. We are "cursed" with intelligence, and speculative intelligence in general.

That said, where do we go from here, to find a better, more authentic contentment than Sisyphus?

To me, the original existentialism, or the Zen of the east from which I get my "mu" to Camus' question, is our starting point.

Recognizing that life simply "is," not in the scientific sense, but in a philosophical and a psychological sense, is the lodestar.

From there, finding contentment comes next. Contentment, to me, is both "deeper" psychologically and less ephemeral than "happiness."

And,, it's not necessarily based on old ideas of how we "have to" find meaning, or create meaning, to be happy.

Second, per the essay that I linked that sparked these comments, as one other commenter noted, "progress" is usually defined in teleological terms. People often define meaning in the same way, which of course is another problem, and one recognized in part by existentialist and absurdist philosophers.

If your meaning is defined from achieving a goal, then you are doomed to frustration in never achieving it, or, like Sisyphus, having your "achievement clock" reset, or new layers added to it, or whatever.

And, what if you do achieve a goal of teleologically-based progress? What then? In the modern West, often, "emptiness," followed by chasing after some new goal.

"Revolt" might be one way of achieving this. But, I think it needs to be somewhat more comprehensive, maybe even somewhat more Cynical, as I discuss in calling for a neo-Cynicism, than Camus realized. The revolt has to include a revolt against teleology.

Even "authenticity" must be put under our Cynical microscope. Too often, "authenticity" is seen in a quasi-Platonic sense, as in "There's some ideal Me out there, and that's what I want to be."

Well, no there's not.

Each one of us is the result of massive contingency in a materialist universe. There's no way any ideal Me or You exists.

So, authenticity means rejecting the strictures of society that don't agree with deeper layers of our selves — before they become part of those deeper layers.

At the same time (heads up, Black Bloc!) it means questioning the idea of "revolt for revolt's sake" (sorry, any hyper-Camuseans) or any other "X for X's sake."

I'm not a process theologian, or anything close.

But, I will call myself a sort of "process psychologist."

As such, meaning is created, not found. And, it's created on an ongoing, not a static basis. It's part of a dialogue between a changing self, a current moment, and a current moment that is part of a larger stream of time.

And thus, meaning changes throughout life. Why wouldn't it?