Monday, September 30, 2013

Four Thoughts on Free Will

I am lecturing on free will this week.  This is one topic that is logically well organized in the history of modern philosophy.  There are two fundamental questions: are human choices determined by the past, and can human beings be morally responsible for their choices?  These give rise to four possible positions. 
Hard Determinism.  This position may be described by the following argument:
1.       If human choices are determined by the state of the Kosmos (D) prior to those choices, then free will is impossible (~F). 
2.      D. 
3.      Therefore: ~F. 
That is a straight forward modus ponens argument, and so it is valid.  If you do not want to accept the conclusion, then you have to reject one of the two premises.  Here F can be understood as metaphysical freedom (uncaused action) or moral freedom (an action for which the actor is morally responsible).  The hard determinist rejects both kinds of freedom. 
The strength of this view is that it preserves the principle of the uniformity of nature, if that principle implies determinism as many thinkers suppose. 
Libertarianism.  This position may be defined by a modus tollens which begins with the same premise:
1.       If human choices are determined by the state of the Kosmos (D) prior to those choices, then free will is impossible (~F). 
2.      F. 
3.      Therefore: ~D.
Again, this is a valid argument.  As hard determinists boldly state D, libertarians boldly state F.  Libertarians conclude that determinism is false, at least as applied to human beings, who they believe to be agents capable of uncaused action. 
The strength of libertarianism is that it preserves our common sense experience of choosing.  My sense of having choices is as vivid as my sense that the world is solid underneath my feet. 
Because they share premise 1, the two positions are both called incompatibilist.  Hard Determinism and Libertarianism both regard determinism and free will to be incompatible. 
Compatibilism.  The third view, perhaps the dominate one in philosophy, rejects premise 1 above and may be expressed in a simpler argument. 
1.       F and D. 
2.      Therefore F.
3.      Therefore D. 
Again that is valid, if tautological.  Compatibilists believe that free will is not only logically compatible with determinism, but that it actually requires it.  Why do we praise a person as good because of her good actions if not because her good character determined those actions?  It is likewise with blameworthy actions. 
Compatibilists think that hard determinists and libertarians are focusing on the wrong things.  Am I free to leave the room I am sitting in?  To answer that question we don’t need to ask whether my decision to leave is determined by the state of the cells in my brain prior to my decision.  We need to ask whether the door is locked or not, or whether I know that someone is waiting outside to do me harm. 
Human actions are free, in this view, if at least two conditions are met:
1.       The agent is not compelled to act or not act (either by physical constraints or compelling threats) and
2.      If the agent had acted otherwise, she would have done otherwise. 
I suspect that condition one is contained in condition two.  The question is not whether my choices are caused by prior states of the Kosmos (they are, according to the compatibilist) but whether my choices are causes of my actions.  To the extent that the latter is true, I am free.
The strength of Compatibilism is that it saves moral responsibility by immunizing the same against determinism.  Why do we seem largely agree to hold sane people responsible for the crimes that they commit while holding that insane people are not responsible?  This is because sane people respond in more or less predictable ways to moral sanctions.  They understand that they will be punished for infractions and so are less likely to commit them.  Insane people are incapable of a rational response to such sanctions.  Precisely because sane people are more or less responsive to legal sanctions (along with moral opprobrium) such moral sanctions make sense.  There is no point in applying them to a full tilt loon. 
It occurs to me, however, that there is a fourth position.  This is in fact my position.  This position is compatibilist in so far as it denies that determinism and free will are incompatible.  I think that what matters is that my choice determine my action, regardless of whether my choice is determined by the past.  In that respect, I agree with the compatibilists. 
However, I don’t see any reason to accept determinism.  No reasonable person would deny that the past influences the future.  If yesterday you offered me a lot of money to write an essay, I am more likely to write it today.  However, influenced and determined are never the same.  If X influences Y in a very robust way, then Y is predictable from X.  That is the kind of relationship that science mines.  It is enough to calculate the influence.  Does X result in Y 99% of the time?  That is a robust finding.  Science rarely if ever gets to %100.  All or almost all science is probabilistic rather than determinist. 
It is common to assume that this is because of limits on the data or apparatus.  We can only measure anything to within some margin of error.  But why assume that?  The assumption is unnecessary.  This state of X makes the subsequent state of X more or less probable.  That is the best we can ever do. 
Determinism is one of the great myths of modern science.  It is an attractive idea, useful to some degree in thought, and altogether unfounded in reality. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Against Boundaries 3

I have found Leon Wieseltier’s anti-scientism screed in The New Republic to be thought provoking, to say the least.  In the last post I pointed out this comment from the screed:
This is a fine instance of the incomprehension, and the buzzkill, that often attends the extension of the scientistic temperament to literature and art.
Read that in the light of the following passage from the same essay:
What von Mises and Diamond—and Pinker—deny is that the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final.
Together those two passages suggest that “scientism” is indicated not only by reductionism or scientific triumphalism, but by any crossing of the boundaries between “the various realms of human existence” by “the disciplines that investigate them.” 
I pointed out in the previous post that this works both ways.  There is a lot of poetry and fiction that focus on science.  Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith comes to mind.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s unforgettable story “The Birthmark” is another example.  I presented a poem by Szymborska in the last post.  If the boundaries between Wieseltier’s realms is indeed “final”, then surely these are illegitimate works. 
But what about art?  Last summer I returned to the National Gallery in London to view my favorite painting: “Experiment with an Air Pump,” by Joseph Wright of Derby.  It is a very large canvas, and I present it here. 

It almost more cartoon than work of art in so far as it tells a story (if that, with amazing artistic genius.  In the center of the painting is a glass chamber on a pedestal, with a bird inside.  The role of the living creature is to die and so demonstrate that a vacuum has been achieved in the glass. 
On the left of the canvas are three young men and a young woman.  The former are staring intently at the experiment.  The young woman is staring at one of the young men.  She is drawn away both from the experiment and the drama by more ordinary passions. 
On the right, one figure seems to be lost in thought.  Perhaps he is pondering the philosophical and ethical implications of what is taking place.  We also see a more mature gentleman comforting two young girls (presumably their father).  His finger held aloft tells that he is trying to explain what is going on, perhaps to reassure himself that he is doing the right thing. 
One of the young ladies has her head buried in her hands.  The other looks, tearfully but interested, at the dying bird.  We also see a boy holding a rope attached to a bird cage.  It is hard not to come to this conclusion: the bird in the glass is a family pet. 
In the center, just to the left of the pedestal, is the scientist.  He is dressed in a red robe and has long white hair.  He stares out into space while holding the top of the apparatus in his left hand and pumps out the air with his right hand.  He is terrifying. 
This is a view of science from an artistic temperament.  Joseph Wright clearly understands and, I think, appreciates the science that is going on.  He also recognizes a problem.  The passionate desire to understand things as they are is not necessarily in harmony with the more ordinary human concerns.  Atrocities have been committed in the name of science and not only by Nazis.  Many famous experiments could not be repeated today because they brutally abused their subjects.  The farseeing Wright was way ahead of us. 
Science does present a danger to human life, even it is one of the most magnificent expressions of human life.  Science is, in my view, only a specific case of philosophy; and philosophy has always been in tension with morality, politics, and religion.  Just ask Socrates in his last day.  The farseeing Wright reminds us to be wary. 
The moral of his morality tale is not to prohibit science or to draw boundaries between the realms of science and other disciplines.  It is to make sure that everyone is paying attention.  Artists and writers should vigorously invade the realm of science.  Mine its riches for all that they are worth to the poet and painter.  Sound the alarm when something is amiss. 
Meanwhile, scientists should investigate everything.  Not all questions are open to scientific investigation, but we cannot know which is which until some researcher frames her question.  There is no way forward, except for through. 
Critics of scientism are conservative in the worst sense of the word.  They are fearful of the implications of science and want to hobble her.  They are afraid that science will tell them things they don’t want to hear.  They are cowards.