Friday, January 15, 2016

Free will, top down

I've been pretty busy, and so haven't had that much time to refresh myself on the recent history of "free will" debates in light of the recent post at Backreaction.

I do see, though, that there was recent pretty acrimonious debate between Sam Harris (no free will) and Daniel Dennett (there is free will, in a more limited way than most people might think, but it still exists in a useful and meaningful sense) which really covers much the same ground as Sabine Hossenfelder did at Backreaction.    I haven't had time to read up on all of that.   I would say, though, that atheists seem unusually touchy about their determinism being questioned.  

Of the many things I thought questionable about the Backreaction post, I think I can immediately note the following:

a.  given that physicists know that there is quite a way to go to understanding quantum physics and things like non-locality, possible retro-causation, and the nature and fate of information in the universe (black holes and information loss, for example), it seems pretty presumptuous to think that the state of play as currently understood is enough to write the final word on determinism and free will.  (I know that Hossenfelder disputes this line of argument.)

b.  Sabine writes (my emphasis): 
It doesn’t matter if you start talking about chaos (which is deterministic), top-down causation (which doesn’t exist), or insist that we don’t know how consciousness really works (true but irrelevant).
There's probably a definitional argument to be had here, but when I think of top-down causation I think of the matter of how peculiar it is that ideas that get transmitted between humans affect their decisions and moods.   This seems pretty important when talking about free will and what it means, and I see that there have been recent symposiums devoted to the topic.  (This one sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, who atheists dislike because they think it promotes mystery as a door to maintaining grounds for religion.   I don't like it so much because it also turns out they give awards to crappy libertarian ideas such as opposing a carbon tax.)

Let's just say that I'm not convinced that dismissal of the concept of "top down causation" isn't, again,  premature.

c.  Sabine's criticism of psychological studies that look at the effect of not believing in free will may have some good points, but I still doubt that this is grounds for dismissing all study of the effects of this belief.

That's all, for now.


7 comments:

TimT said...

I glanced at the post probably in not quite as much detail as you and Sabine H's critique of the concept of responsibility seemed pretty dodgy too: what was that example she gave of someone doing a crime and getting put in jail, and describing this in determinist terms? But one wonders how this would even take place in a strictly determinist universe, or why? We have made a decision as a society to punish those who do wrong by putting them in jail, etc - but of course no such decision would arise in determinism. Whether a wrongdoer should have something bad happen to them as a consequence of their wrongdoing, or whether they should not have something bad happen to them as a consequence of their wrongdoing, would seem, in Sabine's interpretation, to be entirely a matter of chance, inconsequential - whereas in practice we know this not to be the case. It strikes me as being similar to the old Marxist dilemma: everything is caused by market forces and we have no choice in the matter, including the inevitable socialist revolution; but the revolution is not coming as quickly as we'd like - let's cause it!

There are probably some societies which are governed by a determinist understanding, though the moral consequences may be somewhat different to those Sabine describes. I'm thinking of the old Scandinavian cosmological view, wherein every happening is described in terms of a governing 'fate' set by an indifferent God or Gods. It is difficult to tell justice and passion apart (disputes often ended up as generational vendettas, which had a habit of escalating): but whatever happened to you (and whatever you did to others) was merely a part of fate. Therein lay the consolation, though: you probably would die horribly - but you couldn't do anything about it anyway.

thedevilcorp said...

Good site.

Steve said...

Nice comment, Tim.

Yes I was going to visit that issue of responsibility, too. I have to go back to one her earlier posts on the topic, though, to clarify more as to she thinks it means if there is no free will.

John said...

....
but when I think of top-down causation I think of the matter of how peculiar it is that ideas that get transmitted between humans affect their decisions and moods.

There is nothing peculiar about that Steve, even computers will change their behavior in response to inputs. However it does touch on an important issue regarding decision making - if people do bad things because of information they receive should the giver of that information be punished? One of the framing problems with free will is that the argument is set up as if we are making decisions entirely through our own thinking; as if we come to decisions without any reference to the contingencies in our present environment, our physiology, and our personal history. How we make decisions is affected by many factors, even our circadian cycles can influence our behavior let alone many higher order issues in our physiology. The problem with so many free will debates is that all these contingencies are ignored and that is done in spite of a huge amount of research indicating how our thinking can be both consciously and unconsciously influenced. If we discuss free will without reference to those studies we are, ironically, choosing to ignore a huge amount of valuable data. I regard that as outright intellectual dishonesty because I don't think any person investigating the subject can be ignorant that such knowledge exists.

...Whether a wrongdoer should have something bad happen to them as a consequence of their wrongdoing, or whether they should not have something bad happen to them as a consequence of their wrongdoing, would seem, in Sabine's interpretation,

Only if the argument is morally framed. For example, consider drug addiction. There are numerous studies now indicating that a good treatment for drug addicts is rewarding them not to use drugs. There are a number of studies showing that instead of punishing drug addicts if we are serious about curing addiction we should pay them not to use the drugs. Good studies point to that. From a moral perspective though it is abhorrent.

Punishment is a contingency. The expectation of punishment does shape behavior. It won't stop all criminals but it does discourage a huge number of people committing offences. Whether you believe in free will or not is not the issue, the issue is what constitutes an effective deterrent of bad behavior. Punishment can be an effective deterrent but it is not really a remedy for the punished individual(all too often the converse is true), it is example to others contemplating similiar bad behavior of what the possible consequences could be.

The sad truth is that if you look at studies of career criminals you will find inordinately high rates of learning and behavior disorders. The diagnosis of behavior disorders probably does entail some level of circularity(ie. by definition a criminal has anti-social issues). Not so for the learning disorders, these are disorders that have existed prior to a life of crime and because in our culture education is so important an individual with a learning disorder is at a huge disadvantage in the social status seeking that is intrinsic to all primates.

Psychopathogy does fit a neurobiological pattern and is largely untreatable. The only chance there is very early intervention, preferably before puberty. Even then, because the anomalies involve a complex interplay of childhood abuse, certain genes(COMT,SERT in particular), and inadequate activation of the dorsolaterals and\or over activation of some limbic regions, I wouldn't hold out much promise in fully addressing the condition.


Steve said...

"There is nothing peculiar about that Steve, even computers will change their behavior in response to inputs"

Perhaps I should have tried another example: what about novel ideas that are generated by the brain itself? A mathematician who proves something for the first time, and gets pleasure from that?

John said...

Perhaps I should have tried another example: what about novel ideas that are generated by the brain itself? A mathematician who proves something for the first time, and gets pleasure from that?

Not just mathematics either. That is a genuine mystery because even after the discovery sometimes it can be impossible to ascertain how the individual came up with the idea. Most ideas, upon hearing them, we can perceive how that idea came to be, often just a joining of the dots.

Roger Penrose has argued that in mathematics it is as if the ideas truly do "come out of the blue". For myself this isn't just about free will, it raises some interesting questions in relation to dualism. Dualism is a dirty word in science but I've read enough evidence that leaves me puzzled, that perhaps there is more to human consciousness than just the standard materialist model. In fact trying to explain consciousness by reference to known neurobiology can offer some insights in relation to the machinations(eg. default mode network) but it is still ridiculous to believe that materialist approach explains consciousness. To further add to the mystery our senses are truly astonishing, it is, at present at least, a miracle that our senses can provide so much useful information about the world.

TimT said...

John, you remind me of Chairman Mao's method of treating drug addiction: he simply threatened all the heroin addicts in his country with death if they didn't quit within a short time frame. It was remarkably effective... but that takes us back to that moral perspective because few people in Australia would think that this treatment is *right* - however effective it is. Nor would they choose it as an appropriate societal response to drug addiction....