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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one response to this post:
  1. mitsu says:

    I emailed Professor Strawson (the author of the NYT piece, above) a link to this post, and he was kind enough to read it and send me a brief reply:

    “Thanks I agree with a lot of this —

    July 31st, 2010 at 8:21 am

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