synthetic zero

July 27th, 2010

My friend Jenny Doussan asked me for my thoughts on this New York Times op-ed on free will:

According to the Basic Argument, it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false. We can’t be ultimately morally responsible either way.

The argument goes like this.

(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.

(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.

(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.

(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.


It may be that we stand condemned by Nietzsche:

The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far. It is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness … (“Beyond Good and Evil,” 1886).

Here’s my take on it (slightly edited from my correspondence with Jenny):

I think Nietzsche is on the right track in asserting this as a non-problem, though he just sort of dismisses the problem rather than really examining it carefully. Basically I believe the fundamental problem comes in with the illusion we all seem to have that what we call our “reasons for doing things”, i.e., our conscious cognition, somehow comprises a complete picture of both the causal situation and all factors that go into any given decision or action. But obviously this is bogus, as any careful reflection shows, I believe.

The idea that “to be responsible” for something requires a metaphysical free will in operation I believe rests on a fundamentally false idea (or set of ideas). There is never a point at which we are in fact fully “in control” of our actions — what we call our reasons for doing things are obviously approximate factors that appear as symbols within our cognition and they influence things to the extent they do at that level of representation. There is a conflation going on when we decide that these symbols or concepts or ideas ought to somehow correspond to fundamental causal factors that operate in a complete fashion, metaphysically, so to speak — this makes no sense, really. First of all, any “reasons” or conscious factors we might be aware of for doing things obviously do not form a complete picture in any realistic sense of what is actually feeding in to our actions — that would be impossible, because it would require that we be aware of and take into account in some conscious way everything that factors into the causal picture — including, for example, the state of every cell in our body, every elementary particle impinging on us from space, and so on. So it’s evident that any description at the very high-level approximate picture we talk about as conscious causes for action can only vaguely describe a tiny fraction of what goes into any given decision — and that’s how it has to be. They operate at an abstracted level of cognition and they have a meaning only insofar as they feed into that level of cognition, inherently incomplete by necessity.

So the question of fundamental determinism or randomness really doesn’t enter into this. From the point of view of our conscious cognition, it can and must live at a level at which the vast majority of what is going on at any given moment must necessarily be unknown and unknowable, we have a fundamentally incomplete picture of ourselves, even our so-called inner world, and the known or knowable world, the represented or conscious cognitive process is a small island immersed in a sea of the unknown. Clearly it has some influence on what we do, but the nature of that influence is murky and approximate, and combined with factors beyond our direct control. Thus, when we say we have a notion of “responsibility” what this means operationally is a judgement of the coherence and efficacy of conscious cognition, that is to say, we are making a judgement about the quality of cognition. We can say someone isn’t responsible for their actions because of the quality of their cognition, insofar as it interacts with and is embbeded with all other factors in their being (i.e., are they delusional, mentally impaired, etc.) — relatively high quality cognition is what we operationally mean when we talk about responsibility. We cannot possibly be referring to something fundamental at a metaphysical level, because that exists at a totally different level, and statements about fundamental, total responsibility as it were are absurd on their face; when we talk about someone “choosing” to do something we obviously don’t mean that they are somehow consciously involved in the operation of every one of the cells in their body, all the elementary particles interacting with every atom in their body and their immediate environment and so on. Yet discussions of free will that bring in questions of determinism are inherently conflating the level of metaphysical, totalistic determinism or lack thereof with a question which properly operates only at the level of conscious cognition, which is inherently fragmentary, partial, vastly incomplete in its scope and reach. Responsibility is an idea, one which we use at the level of discourse or thought at which we operate consciously — it is not a statement about our relationship to the nature of the universe at the level of physical laws and elementary particles.

The fundamental mistake I believe comes in also because we have a false sense of agency. We think we “do” our actions as a self which somehow absolutely controls or decides what we do. That is clearly wrong! As the Buddhists have often pointed out, but many others as well. There’s no possibility that this description could be in any total sense correct. However, this doesn’t eliminate the idea of responsibility for the simple reason that the idea of responsibility operates at very different level; it’s not possible for anyone to be completely, absolutely responsible for their actions in a metaphysical sense — because that would imply the existence of a self-agent which controls things absolutely — and that is clearly impossible. But that’s not what we mean, operationally, by responsibility — even if we often think that’s what we mean. What we mean in practice functions as an idea or symbol and at that level it is perfectly appropriate and sensible to use, even if always operating at a level of cognition which must be both incomplete and approximate, where even the limits of that cognitive world are fuzzy and not entirely known or even knowable. But then all our ideas about the world, about how we operate, about anything at all, really, are similarly incomplete and imprecise.

So that’s my “basic argument” on free will… in a nutshell (a sketch of an argument, really, as I’m hardly being complete or rigorous in my discussion above… but one could take the sketch above and expand it into a rigorous argument.)

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July 24th, 2010

One of the interesting things about visiting or spending time in the context of other countries and cultures (I am just returning from an intense two week visit to India which I plan to write about at length later) is noticing the unspoken assumptions of your own culture much more forcefully. For example, one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how rule-oriented we are in the United States; perhaps driven to some extent by the fact that our social contract is very explicit, it’s written down, we have a tendency to want to be explicit about everything. We write these gigantic contracts hundreds of pages long, and we even have the temerity to ask people to “agree” to laughably enormous contracts as a routine matter when buying or signing up for online goods or services, based on a somehow ludicrous fiction that we are actually reading these things when everyone knows we don’t. Contracts in other countries are often either nonexistent, based purely on handshake agreements, or far more brief than what we use in America. The UK doesn’t have a written constitution, for example; rather it has a scattering of written documents overlaid with precedent and tradition in some cases only instantiated in the minds of living people.

A peculiarly American tendency is to want, therefore, to find some way to clearly define and capture life in terms of some clear rules; it’s actually quite beneficial in many cases, but it can descend into lunacy in others. Mandatory minimum sentences, zero tolerance, and so on, are all examples of this tendency taken to its ridiculous extreme, and there are many cases where taking away intuitive discretion leads to completely absurd results. I think taking this to an extreme shows us as still a somewhat adolescent, somewhat immature culture — for all the ways in which America leads the world, there are many ways in which we betray our relative youth as a civilizational system. In the end, however, for all our tendency towards excessively legalistic processes, we are also pragmatic; we’ve pulled back from our more absurd excesses (Prohibition, mandatory minimum sentences, zero tolerance, etc.) and I think we’ll continue to do so in the future. It’s a deeply embedded habit, however, and will be with us for a very long time.

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July 9th, 2010

I’m flying to India, starting fifteen hours from now. That is, if the plane manages to arrive safely (I’m not paranoid about flying, but I don’t like to be presumptuous about my continued survival). I am surrounded by little piles of stuff which make up my attempts at preparation, including “PacSafe” backpack protection meshes and all sorts of little travel doodads and clothes and mosquito repellent and maps. All this was prompted by my friend Orion inviting me (”you must come to India!”) and the fortuitous coincidence that three friends of mine happen to live in Bangalore and Orion also had a reason to visit Bangalore, so… I’m going to Bangalore and environs for two weeks.

I’m not entirely sure what to expect or not expect, so I’m more or less trying to be open to whatever might happen. I’m sleepy but I figure if I stay up later and later now I’ll have a bit less jet lag to deal with on arrival. Of course, it’s only 3pm in Bangalore and 5am here, but I’m into the gradual shifts…

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July 6th, 2010

I like the fact that the awkward “www” managed to survive from the earliest days despite various abortive attempts to replace it with something easier to pronounce, such as “home” or “web”. Many people may have forgotten that it stands for “World Wide Web”, but its survival attests to something a little delightfully perverse in human nature, a desire to retain something that simply looks cool despite its impracticality.

It’s odd to think of the “history of the web” having really started in earnest only fifteen years ago; Katharine is writing about her own struggles with keeping, rather than trying to efface, earlier identities; but we talk about the Internet as of ten or fifteen years ago like ancient ruins from a bygone progenitor civilization. It’s strange to think that most of us were in fact there at or near the beginning of the public Internet; Heather Anne Halpert, with whom I’m collaborating on an exciting new project, recently discovered, via Molly Steenson, that a brief interchange between herself and Peter Merholz about the word “weblog” (a word which Peter coined) is now enshrined in the OED; all people I know and have hung out with at various moments over the years; they’re not historical figures from fabled tales of yore. It’s strange to live at a time when the entire history of something is contained not only within one’s lifetime but within a fraction of one’s lifetime, yet thinking about things as they were ten years ago seems to telescope into something that feels a little like an archeological expedition.

I don’t worry as Katharine does about effacing or contending with my own past, so much; partly, perhaps, because I’ve never written in the overly confessional style myself, online, but also partly because I have structured my life so that even if some or all of my secrets were to get out, it wouldn’t be too terrible. Another reason, however, is simply that information and change seems to be exploding at such a rate that the online past seems to be more rapidly receding than it once did. Remember Alta Vista? ICQ? Friendster?

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July 4th, 2010

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” -Paul Bowles

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July 3rd, 2010

{S0NiK} Fest and Synthetic Zero Event

{S0NiK} Fest and Synthetic Zero are putting on a joint noise/experimental/video/art/performance event tonight, Saturday, July 3, 7pm-10pm and Wednesday, July 7 6pm-9pm at BronxArtSpace. Please forward this around and share the Facebook event or the event tweet with your friends.

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