Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Conjectural Notes on Free Will

The intense interest on this blog in the question of free will has persuaded me to interrupt my series on the Cognitive Revolution and Objectivism to expound on this contentious topic.

Most criticisms of Objectivism focus on the alleged contradiction between Rand's acceptance of causality on the one side and her insistence on free will on the other. "Ayn Rand's views on causation contradict her views on free will," writes one commentator. "The reason is very simple: her views on causation are those of a determinist; her views on free will, however, make her a libertarian. And those two positions are, by definition, incompatible." Oh, well, if they are incompatible "by definition," that settles the question! Such reasoning, however, is circular: the terms have been defined in such way as to reach the conclusion desired. This is rationalistic verbalism—and is nothing to the purpose. Neither is Peikoff's assertion that "one must accept [free will] in order to deny it" very helpful. Surely the question is every bit as empirical as any other concerning matters of fact. So why not attend to the relevant facts, thereby supplying one's reasonings with the useful check of experience?

Causal determinism asserts "that future events are necessitated by past and present events combined with the laws of nature." The doctrine is very convincing when applied to physical objects. The material world does appear to be deterministic in just this sense, as innumerable experiments have shown. Things get a bit more dicey once we go down to a quantum level. But a propensity interpretation of quantum mechanics, as suggested by Karl Popper, may turn out to be a convincing way around these issues. In any case, the question arises: does the determinism found in the physical world (at least above the quantum level) hold good in the mental world? And if so, why?

One cannot simply assume, a priori, that all of existence is fashioned after a single plan, so that if determinism is found operable in the material world, it must also be found operable in the mental world as well. Do the facts support such a supposition? Not entirely. Do physical entities or events possess the same kinds of characters or properties as percepts and images? Do they exist in the same spatial and temporal order with them? Our experience suggests otherwise. Ideas, concepts, percepts, mental images are one thing, the material world is something else. The mental and physical orders are clearly worth distinguishing.

The next question is: how do these two planes of existence relate? Scientific determinism generally favors the view that the mind is solely determined by physical processes. Superficially, this view seems to be supported by the fact that the mental world depends so enormously on the brain. Yet here we must be careful. There are some facts that simply don't square with the idea that all mental processes are really only material processes in disguise. In the first place, this view strongly suggests that consciousness is epiphenomenal and, ipso facto, inefficacious. But if so, why did evolution breed and select it? Then there's the problem of our own introspective experience. We experience ourselves making decisions and choosing between alternatives. Is our own experience to be ignored as a mere illusion? But if that experience is illusory, why isn't our experience of the material world as deterministic also illusory?

If consciousness is efficacious, if the mind provides a contribution to human life that goes beyond merely physical processes, then free will, in some measure or form, has been established. In what precise measure or form is a question best answered, again, by consultation of the relevant facts. Here neuroscience can provide fascinating perspectives, particularly when combined with evolutionary psychology. If the brain is a product of evolution, then free will must also be a product of evolution. But if free will has evolved, then this suggests that it has in the past, and could still, exist in degrees. A strange notion, to be sure. Is there any evidence beyond evolutionary speculation on its behalf? Yes, there is. People with damage to the ventromedial frontal cortex of the brain are no longer able to engage in effective decision making. It is as if there free will is impaired. Decision making, initiative, planning all rely on the frontal cortex of the brain. If there exist innate factors that increase or decrease how well this prefrontal cortex functions, its plausible that differences in the degree of free will could be partially innate. Indeed, we know intelligence is partially innate, and individuals with greater intelligence probably have a greater degree of free will than those wilth less intelligence.

This view of the mind suggests the following conjecture: that free will is perhaps best conceived as a kind of module of the brain, working in tandem with other modules, such as those providing motivation and thought. There is certain level of innateness running through all these modules, particularly in the affect system, but there's also a certain amount of plasticity to both experience and thought, so that the mind is best envisioned as a complex web of drives and thoughts and self-initiative which interact against one another, perhaps even slightly altering one another in the process, and commencing in volitions that are influenced by thoughts, innate drives, memory, social-training and self-initiative, all working at difference degrees and intensities. Under this model, there is none of the sort of unsaddled free will imagined by Rand. The majority of humans beings are what we find them in everyday life, in history, in great literature, and in scientific research: inherently limited, imperfect, yet still capable, through initiative, discipline and hard work, of attaining a modest level of dignity and self-efficacy. Some may be able to attain more along these lines, some less, depending on the amount of intelligence, initiative, and emotional stability that they are born with.

7 comments:

Tarendol said...

This in an interesting and thought-provoking post, thank you! I hope you don't mind if I ask you a question.

It concerns what you mean by "individuals with greater intelligence probably have a greater degree of free will than those with less intelligence." (and I suppose more generally what you mean by degree of free will.) Do you mean that individuals with a higher degree of free will can make non-determined choices in more situations than those with less? I think the reason I am having trouble getting my head around this is that the only advantage I can see intelligence giving someone with respect to free will is that they might be able to think of more possible choices than a less intelligent person. But I don't think this leads to more free will. It's easy to think of programming a computer to react to some scenario, and give you all the options considered by the algorithm. The computer might consider many more possibilities than a human but it's final choice would be completely determined. I think what I'm trying to say is that I don't think intelligence and free will are necessarily related at all (though they could be).

I've always thought the Objectivist position was pretty odd when it came to 'unsaddled' free will. I mean... why do some of her heroes become railroad managers and some engineers? I would say (in real life) that it's due to innate proclivity + environment + (some degree of) self-determination. I can't see how an Objectivist can say more than it's JUST due to self-determination which doesn't make any sense - then why would people pick different jobs? How could one person's self-determination lead to one choice and one to another if it's not influenced by some innate or environmental factor? It's far logical to have the situation you present (at least as I understand it).

Jay said...

Excellent post. My favorite words:

"If consciousness is efficacious, if the mind provides a contribution to human life that goes beyond merely physical processes, then free will, in some measure or form, has been established. In what precise measure or form is a question best answered, again, by consultation of the relevant facts."

Although I'm not sure Rand would disagree, either. She did acknowlege factors other than pure choice.

gregnyquist said...

Tarendol: "I think the reason I am having trouble getting my head around this is that the only advantage I can see intelligence giving someone with respect to free will is that they might be able to think of more possible choices than a less intelligent person. But I don't think this leads to more free will."

I guess it all depends on how one sees free will. I take free will to be the ability of the self or the mind to contribute to the decision process. The more intelligent the mind, the more it can contribute to that process. There are other possible ways in which free will could be "increased." There's a folk theory that says if you discipline your children, they will have more self-control when they grow up. If this folk theory is true, then this suggests that you can increase free will (i.e., increase the ability of self-initiative and thought to act against impulses).

Of course, all this conjectural. The point of the post is to try to reduce the overly speculative problem of free will to something we can discuss in more empirical terms, so that we're not just reasoning about vague instructions which no one really understands in practical or empirical terms.

"How could one person's self-determination lead to one choice and one to another if it's not influenced by some innate or environmental factor?"

I'm not sure anyone knows the answer to the question. But I think it is obvioius that genetic and cultural factors play a role in decision making. The question is: how much of a role does "self-determination" play? I'm not sure the mind is well-equipped to figure that one out. After all, it's not as if knowledge of this sort would have given our ancestors a darwinian advantage over their competitors.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "Although I'm not sure Rand would disagree, either. She did acknowlege factors other than pure choice."

Perhaps not, although I do doubt Rand would like the phrase "in some measure or form," which implies an attenuated free will.

Jay said...

As an aside, I am a subscriber of the Objective Standard. Not long ago I put in a request for an article on the biological basis of free will, perhaps written by Harriman or someone with a scientific background.

I think it would be an interesting read. I see free will as self-evident because I exercise it every day, but I cannot argue with the sophistication of a scientist.

Let's see if the article gets written someday.

Jay said...

One last aside. Found this analysis of free will (or as the author spells it, "freewill) very interesting and in-depth. Check it out if you're interested.

http://www.optimal.org/peter/freewill.htm

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "One last aside. Found this analysis of free will (or as the author [Peter Voss] spells it, "freewill) very interesting and in-depth. Check it out if you're interested."

www.optimal.org/peter

Thanks for the link. A curious mixture of Dennett and Rand. My own position is superficially close to compatibilism, but is really quite different. I don't agree, for example, with Mr. Voss' view that thinking is mechanistic in a cause-and-effect way. If that were true, I don't see how free will, in any meaningful sense of the term, would not be possible. Indeed, I cannot help suspecting that Voss' compatibilism is simply determinism with one major amendment: the identification of the mental self with the determining forces. The forces that make me think and act as I do our my own forces. Those forces are my self.

Voss has what I would describe as an irrational prejudice against pscyho-physical dualism — a prejudice shared by most secular thinkers, because of their paranoia of religious conceptions. But if the mental world is simply an extension of mechanistic material processes, a byproduct one might say, I don't see how that view is in fact "compatible" with freedom of the will.

One other error to note in Voss' account of free will: "The decision to start thinking, to be focused, must be made by our minds," he writes. This is the Randian influence in his doctrine, and it's psychologically absurd. To be conscious is, ipso facto, to be focused. Free will involves choosing what to focus on, or what to think about. Every conscious person is focused on something, and is probably thinking about something as well.

I do appreciate that Voss admits "degrees" of free will. At least we are allies on this point. But I do think his prejudice against psycho-physical dualism lead him astray on other issues.