Saturday, April 5, 2014

Consciousness, Free Will, and Evolution

One of the great problems with contemporary debates over free will is that two distinct and fundamental philosophical questions are frequently (almost always) confused.  One is the question whether the ubiquitous human intuition of an open future is metaphysically viable.  Do I really have choices that are not already made yet, in the sense of being predetermined by the state of the Kosmos before I make the choice?  The second is whether human consciousness is part of the chain of causation leading to human actions.  Did I drop the hot object because it hurt?  Or was my conscious pain merely an epiphenomenon, generated by the underlying physical processes but having no consequences of its own? 
This has been a persistent concern of mine for some years.  Tonight I have been reading Eckart Voland’s interesting article: “We Recognize Ourselves as Being Similar to Others: Implications of the “Social Brain Hypothesis” for the Biological Evolution of the Intuition of Freedom.”  Voland clearly regards our intuition of freedom as an illusion and sets out to explain how we came by it.  His thesis is that it is a byproduct of modeling the intentions of other persons.  Here is a bit from the abstract:
If, as the “social brain hypothesis” alleges, the main selective pressure among primates is on generating social knowledge about one’s cooperators and competitors, then it is the knowledge about others and not the knowledge about oneself that is the scarce cognitive resource. It is beneficial to make the others predictable and to form hypotheses about their probable behavioral tendencies. This is done by behavior reading and mind reading and by classifying the recurring stochastic patterns in everyday language as the “will.” Thus, the idea of free will emerged first as a social attribution and not as an introspectively gained insight.
I strongly suspect that Voland is right on the specific question.  It seems to me more than likely that the human sense of self and of deliberation (and particularly moral deliberation) emerged in tandem with a “theory of mind,” which is to say, a recognition that other persons have minds like “mine”.  However, I do not see how this thesis is required, let alone advanced, either by determinism or epiphenomenalism. 
Here is how Voland begins his essay:
The human psyche, with its ability to feel, think, and act, is a deterministic system. In the current discussion, this thesis is primarily supported by arguments informed by neurobiology.
I have long regarded determinism as one of the myths of modern science.  The problem with all myths is not that they are false but that they cannot be verified and that the reason for believing in them has nothing to do with their veracity.  It may well be that the state of the Kosmos at any moment, T1, rigidly determines the state of K at T2.  How one could know that is beyond me, and it is not a necessary assumption for any science.  All the scientist needs to suppose is that T1 determines some part of T2 within some specified margin of error. 
I will pass here on the question of why so many want to believe in something that is unverifiable and unnecessary.  I will point out that when Voland speaks of neurobiology, he has in mind certain findings that indicate that the brain makes up its mind before the mind becomes conscious of making a decision.  Again, this may be true; however, it is an argument not for determinism but for epiphenomenalism. 
Voland makes a pitch for the proposition that genuine freedom cannot have evolved. 
Contrary to other claims: Freedom does not evolve, and what is more: Freedom could not evolve, because if we assume that organisms which could make use of the freedom to not obey the biological imperative were created by a whim of nature, then natural selection would disfavor these genotypes to the degree that they were to make use of this freedom, and the endless game of evolution would proceed without them. Freedom here is understood in the sense of the indeterministic libertarian intuition of being able to behave in other ways, if one only wanted to do so.
To prevent a widespread misunderstanding: The antithesis of determination is indetermination and not flexibility. Humans, perhaps like no other species, are capable of special behavioral flexibility, which in turn is carried by special cognitive abilities designed for this purpose. This allows humans, more than other organisms, to adequately deal with situations that are new to them and to cope with unusual requirements (Kanazawa, 2004). This changes nothing, however, with regard to the fact that all of the knowledge of how requirements are to be mastered already must exist in the form of certain strategies of perception and thinking in the organism, completely within the meaning of Kant’s a priori (Heschl, 2001). There is no room in this system for a libertarian freedom of the will, i. e. the capacity to act differently under identical conditions and to cause behavior while oneself being uncaused.
This strike me as altogether wrong.  “Flexibility” means precisely not obeying “the biological imperative.”  It means this in two ways.  One is that the biological, preprogrammed imperative must be responsive to different situations.  The organism must be able to zig and zag in ways that cannot be fixed ahead of time. 
The other is that organisms that disobey “the biological imperative” may be the ones that flourish when the environmental niche has changed.  Evolution has engineered a vast number of modes of flexibility.  The most pervasive is genetic diversity, of which, the most interesting is sexual reproduction.  Is it not obvious that consciousness is precisely the most sophisticated form of flexibility?  Let us suppose that all conscious creatures are capable of some measure of freedom, in the sense of making choices that are not governed by deterministic rules.  That would allow such creatures to be very flexible in their responses to the environment. 
How then to keep such creatures honest in a Darwinian sense?  The obvious answer is to bribe them.  This is the function of pain and pleasure, discontent and happiness.  Rather than giving precise instructions to sentient animals, evolution was content to give them parameters.  Do whatever you want so long as you survive long enough to reproduce. 
This is the only account, as it seems to me, that explains why it hurts when I pick up something that is very hot.  If consciousness is really an epiphenomenon, produced by but not effecting biological processes, then it is a very odd phenomenon.  It is analogous to the occasionalism that you find in dualistic theories.  It doesn’t seem like a winner. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014


The concept of autonomy opens up an existential space in the human being.  It is possible to lay down the law for oneself if an only if one can be both the regulator and the regulated person.  Two other key terms frequently employed by Plato have the same force: ατάρκεια, which means literally “self-rule” but more often indicates independence or self-sufficiency, and γκράτεια, which means “self-control”. 
In the Republic, Socrates demonstrates that the soul is not one simple thing but is divided into parts; or how else is that someone can simultaneously want to do something and not want to do it?  For example, we may want to avoid looking at something horrible, say a pile of corpses dead from the plague, and yet something in us wants to look and so we feast our eyes in spite of ourselves. 
Evolutionary psychology recapitulates this line of thought with such theories as the modular theory of mind: the mind is composed of a number of distinct, problem-solving engines that involved in the context of persistent problems that confronted our ancestors.  Somewhat less daring is the concept of evolved psychological mechanisms.  These are mental schema that process information (clues and contexts) into behaviors or into information that can be used by other mechanisms.  For example, if I pick up something hot, I drop it.  If I get the signal that others around me are turning hostile, I grow fearful; in turn I may respond with aggression or retreat.  The simplest model presents mind as constant competition between evolved psychological mechanisms for control of behavior. 
This is no doubt true at some level and on some occasions, but it is obviously superficial.  The human mind is capable of generating a coherent self.  The self may be indeed composed of a wide number of mental and ultimately neural mechanisms; however, it exists to the degree that the whole can exercise command over the parts.  When I deliberate, I consciously manage the debate between the various wills that Flannery O’Connor speaks of in the quote in my previous post. 
I have long suspected that two of the most profound problems in modern philosophy‑the problem of consciousness and the problem of free will, are really the same problem.  Consciousness is free will; it is the human self as a causal agent in thought and behavior.  The problem for evolutionary thought is how to explain the emergence of this phenomenon in the history of life. 
Without going deeper into that problem, I think that Plato points the way forward.  In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that self-government means that the higher part of the soul rules the lower parts.  In the Republic, the philosopher is presented as the person in whom intelligence rules the passions which in turn rule the appetites.  Elsewhere, the Protagoras I think, he acknowledges that, for most people, the role of intelligence is played by the nomoi.  The nomoi are the collective written and unwritten moral rules that define a particular human community. 
It seems likely that the human capacity for self-government emerged from the necessity of keeping track of the number of other human minds in our first communities and the subsequent necessity of internalizing the rules that governed our interactions.  Individual and collective self-government made for a dynamic that drove human evolution.  If this turns out to be correct, Plato will not be surprised.  He always suspected that the key to everything intelligible is the idea of the good. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Flannery O'Connor on Integrity and Freedom

I spent spring break this year in New Orleans and when I am in New Orleans I always find myself reading Flannery O’Connor.  I won’t bother to explain.  Anyway, since I have been thinking about autonomy, I was struck by the author’s note to the second of edition of her novel, Wise Blood.  Here is most of that note:
Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations.  That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think that it is a matter of no great consequence.  For them, Hazel Motes integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.  For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.  Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?  I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.  Freedom cannot be conceived simply.  It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen. 
For “an author congenitally innocent of theory”, O’Connor writes with astonishing clarity and penetration about the presuppositions underlying her fiction.  Integrity is a term often used loosely to mean a sense of moral rectitude, but its precise meaning indicates that one is in possession of one’s self.  It is the essential requirement for moral responsibility.  That integrity is more a matter of what one cannot do that what one can is an insight that goes back at least to Plato’s Gorgias.  Self-government, the virtue focused on in that dialogue, means that the self imposes limits the self.  For that to be possible, the self cannot be conceived simply; it must be sense as the integration of its various parts. 
Thus “free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.”  That extraordinarily powerful line encloses the peril of O’Connor’s century.  The greatest threat to human autonomy that the world has ever known came from those who insisted on a singularity of will (do we need to add the triumph of the singular will?).  Genuine freedom indeed means many wills in conflict whether in an assembly of persons or that assembly that constitutes a natural person. 
Her insistence on the element of mystery implies, I suggest, that the capacity for freedom is ultimately miraculous.  She may be right about that.  Belonging as I do to the tribe of philosophers, I am not entirely convinced.  But I do believe that this implication is vital for philosophy.  The philosopher may try to explain and hence demystify the human capacity for freedom of thought and action.  Unless he takes seriously the possibility that such freedom depends on the intervention of a creator God, his speculations degenerate into mere dogma.