Predictability, Determinism and Free Will

In ordinary language, the concepts of predictability and determination are taken to mean roughly the same thing: if something is predictable, then it has definite causes that determine it to be the way it is; conversely, if something has definite causes that determine it to be the way it is, then it is, in principle, predictable. In philosophy, however, these are distinct concepts. Something that is deterministic need not be, in principle, predictable, and again, conversely, something that is predictable need not be deterministic. I will use two examples to illustrate this point, remarking on the second statement first, as I think it is the less significant of the two.

First, we will examine quantum physics. We would like quantum physics to be deterministic and may even have good reason to suggest that it must be, but at this point, we cannot say that with any certainty that it is, in fact, deterministic. Still, even supposing that it is not deterministic, we can use probability based models to predict, with sufficiently high precision, what the results, or outputs, of a quantum system will be.

Second, and I think more importantly, we can look to the universe at large. If we assume that the universe is entirely deterministic—which again we cannot say with any certainty but have good reason to think that it is—then it does not follow that everything in the universe need be predictable, in principle. We could say that a super-being with all the information about every single particle and its momentum could, theoretically, predict the state of the universe at any given time, but if we add materialism to this deterministic universe, this suggestion becomes meaningless. So let us think of it this way: if we want to model a system, we can represent each part of that system in a computer program. In order to do this, we will need to map each bit of information onto its own bit of computer coding, in a one to one fashion. Put simply, if we want to model a system with 10 components, we will need 10 bits of computer code, each mapping one of the ten components*. But we cannot do this with the universe at large. By definition, we need to map every single particle in the universe onto its own bit of computer coding—how can we do this? We have already exhausted every single particle in the universe by defining our system to be modeled—we simply have no particles left that could make up the computer coding for our program. Going back to our system of 10 components: if our universe only contains 10 particles, then we cannot model this system except by using the system itself as the model, but then we aren’t really modeling it, we are just watching the original system play out naturally. In this way, we can see that, even if our universe as a whole is deterministic, we still cannot, in principle, predict everything that is going to happen, because we, in principle, lack the means to do so, excluding the existence of non-physical super-beings.

To drive this home, I am going to borrow a quote from Richard Feynman:

It’s again this chess game business. If you were in just a corner where only a few pieces were involved, you could work out exactly what’s going to happen. And you can always do that when there’s only a few pieces, so you know you understand it. And yet, in the real game, it’s so many pieces you can’t figure out what’s going to happen. So there was a kind of hierarchy of different complexities. It’s hard to believe—it’s incredible, in fact most people don’t believe—that the behaviour of, say, me, one yack-yack, and you, nodding and all this stuff is the result of lots and lots of atoms all obeying these very simple rules.

To conclude, in a way, I want to remark on the relation between determinism, predictability, and our naive conception of free will. Part of the naive conception of free will is that we can, in principle, act in unpredictable ways. It simply is not the case that someone external to me could predict my own own behaviour with perfect precision. Often, the view of determinism, and its lay-equivocation with predictability, is seen as an attack on this conception of free will. But using the argument above, we see this need not be the case. We will never be able to predict the state of the universe at large, and if we cannot do say, we may always be misdefining one of the variables that we use to predict a local, closed system (i.e., for the purpose of this example, a human brain). Determinism does, in fact, have profound implications for free will if it turns out to be true, but they are much more subtle than they might seem at first glance.

*This is an oversimplification. We would also need computer coding for each of the laws describing the relations between the different components, but we will see that we need not even invoke these to illustrate the point.

Indeterminism: What It Is, and What It Isn’t

I want to briefly remark on the concept of indeterminism:

It is sometimes stated that we have two choices: determinism in the strict sense, or probabilistic indeterminism. This could not be further from the truth. Simply because a system is not strictly deterministic does not mean that the only other option is probability, or “lawlessness,” as some have put it. Agent causation is another option (note: it is possible to redefine and subsume agent causation under one of the two former options, but it is not necessary to do so).

That said, it seems to me that the attempt to formulate the problem in this way is not mere carelessness, but, in fact, a deliberate attempt by strict determinists to belittle their opponents. Most anti-determinists do not propose that simple probabilistic indeterminism is the right way to go, but rather endorse some form of agent causation, as mentioned above. If you can convince your audience, however, that your opponents are arguing for nothing more than “simple indeterminism” (i.e., the probabilistic form of indeterminism), then you avoid having to actually take on your opponents arguments, seemingly strengthening your own position.  It is worth noting that some of the arguments that get labeled as indeterminism in this way are actually only arguments against the strictest form of determinism.

This kind of rhetoric is highly counterproductive, and should be attacked whenever it is identified.

On Schools of Thought in the Sciences

Joseph Schumpeter:

A man expressing his political will and the same man expressing a theory in the lecture hall are two different people . . . Especially in my case, ladies and gentleman, because I never wish to conclude. If I have a function, then it is not to close, but rather to open doors, and I never felt the urge to create something like [my own] school [of thought] . . . Quite a few people are upset about this point of view, because there are [many] who feel they are the leaders of such schools, who feel like fighters for total light against total darkness. That gets expressed in the harsh criticisms that one school levies against the other. But it doesn’t make any sense to fight about these things. One shouldn’t fight about things that life is going to eliminate anyhow at some point. In science momentary success is not as important as it is in the economy and in politics. We can only say that if something prevails in science, it has proven its right to exist; and if it isn’t worth anything, then it’s going to die anyway. I for myself completely accept the verdict of coming generations.

 

Brief Thoughts on Res Cogitans and Res Extensa

Descartes ultimately distinguished between two sorts of substances: those that are extended in space (res extensa) and those that are purely mental (res cogitans). However, physics now tells us that, at their most basic, all those “things”—or “particles,” if you will—that we once labeled as extended are not really extended at all. Atomic and subatomic particles are more accurately described as points of localized mass-energy, rather than spheres with discrete spatiotemporal dimensions. In light of this, Descartes’ dilemma can be, in a way, resolved: He viewed mental contents as distinct and incapable of scientific description because they lacked physical extensions that could be measured. We have now seen, however, that the very “things” that we once praised for their apparent extension (i.e., their property that we believed allowed them to be studied scientifically) are not really extended at all. Thus, it could be argued that the lack of physical extension is not sufficient for the exclusion of res cogitans, or the mental, from scientific inquiry.

(Note: I am not denying any distinction between ordinary physical events and mental events. There certainly is a distinction. I am merely proposing that this view of the distinction may be false, though this is certainly not new.)

 

Reblog: Problematical Property Dualism

 In the philosophy of mind, non-reductive materialism is a position taken by people who are convinced that there are non-material properties, yet still want to maintain a monistic ontology, while distancing themselves from idealism. Generally, this position entails a substance monism combined with property dualism. So, there is one kind of substance in which physical and mental properties are both instantiated. A brain would then be composed of a material substance which has both mental and physical properties.

This view is usually combined with the thesis that mental properties supervene onto physical properties, but are not reducible to physical properties. So, any substance S that has mental property Q will have physical property P; and it is necessarily the case that if  S has Q then is also has P. That is the general supervenience thesis held by non-reductive materialists who endorse property dualism.

There is a problem with this account of the mental, though. If there was a certain time in the past when there were no mental properties (a time before the existence of life complex enough to instantiate said properties), then there must be a time at which mental properties instantiated. It seems as though there’s literally a moment when mental properties didn’t exist, then they were ‘zapped’ into existence by whatever it was that instantiated the mental properties. It seems very implausible that such an account is true, given a monistic, materialist ontology. However, on substance dualism, the existence of non-material/non-physical properties like the ones endorsed by the property dualist is a plausible possibility. So, the moral of this story is that non-reductive materialism doesn’t seem as plausible as a substance dualism, given the existence of non-physical properties. If the materialist doesn’t find substance dualism plausible for the many reasons many philosophers of mind do, then the materialist may want to bite the bullet and give up his commitment to non-physical properties (unless he or she wishes to become a substance dualist).

My thoughts are re-printed below:

If I agreed that mental states had to “zap in” at some point in the past, then I would find this objection more appealing. That said, property dualism does not require that this occur. A more faithful property dualism would say, rather, that some form of “phenomenal character” existed at all points in the history of the universe, but this is not to say that it has to be recognizably “mental,” as we think of it today. The distinction between “physical” and “mental” is irrelevant to the discussion of property dualism—and philosophy of mind in general, I think, as everything mental is, so far as we can tell, necessarily physical is some way*—it is the distinction between objective and subjective that is most important. Each side of this more refined distinction has fundamentally different tools of explanation, and this is what I think of as a true property dualism.

*for support, I rely on a simple principle from Christof Koch: “No matter, never mind.”

via Problematical Property Dualism.

Minds, Brains and Science

mindsbrainsscience

John Searle’s Minds, Brains and Science is a collection of the six Reith Lectures that he gave in 1984 on the relation between our conscious, meaningful, phenomenal experiences and the backdrop of nonconscious, meaningless, objective physical reality against which all of the former inevitably play out. Essentially, the problem is this: We experience things, but everywhere else we look in the universe, we do not see experiences. How do we explain this seemingly trivial fact and make consciousness fit in with everything else we know?

This is inevitably a question that he is unable to provide a clear answer for, but, nonetheless, this was a successful, and worthwhile, work. The lectures were intended for a lay audience, so they are largely non-technical, but as far as I can tell, none of the necessary content was lost. Searle is still able to explicate each of the sub-problems and arguments very well. He manages to minimize caricaturing his opponents while simultaneously keeping the focus on what, he thinks, are the real issues. All the while, he manages to introduce several new ideas. His remarks on the social sciences and the freedom of the will are especially noteworthy.

In its entirety, the read comes down to less than a hundred pages, making it a perfect introduction to the problem at large. At the same time, it retains enough depth to catch the eye of even the most weathered philosopher-scientist—and for that, I give it five out of five stars.

Searle in Two Quotes

Today, I am reading John Searle’s Minds, Brains and Science, which is essentially an edited transcript of his 1984 Reith Lectures. I read two quotes that I thought were worth sharing, one for its humor, and the other for its insight. Enjoy!

Various replies have been suggested to this [the Chinese Room] argument by workers in artificial intelligence and in psychology, as well as philosophy. They all have something in common; they are all inadequate. And there is an obvious reason why they have to be inadequate, since the argument rests on a very simple logical truth, namely, syntax alone is not sufficient for semantics, and digital computers insofar as they are computers have, by definition, a syntax alone.

I think that he is almost certainly right here, but the manner in which formulates this paragraph is nothing short of comedic perfection. My own thoughts on the subject can be found in my article “Minds and Computers.”

Suppose no one knew how clocks worked. Suppose it was frightfully difficult to figure out how they worked, because, though there were plenty around, no one knew how to build one, and efforts to figure out how they worked tended to destroy the clock. Now suppose a group of researchers said, ‘We will understand how clocks work if we design a machine that is functionally the equivalent of a clock, that keeps time just as well as a clock,’ So they designed an hour glass, and claimed: ‘Now we understand how clocks work,’ or perhaps: ‘If only we could get the hour glass to be just as accurate as a clock we would at last understand how clocks work.’ Substitute ‘brain’ for ‘clock’ in this parable, and substitute ‘digital computer program’ for ‘hour glass’ and the notion of intelligence for the notion of keeping time and you have the contemporary situation in much (not all!) of artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

 

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Christof Koch’s autobiographical work Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist is just that: his confessions relating to his career, and why he does what he does. I’m going to keep this review short, since this book is not primarily about his own theories. Instead, he takes this book as a chance for him to drop his professional guise and explain why, deep down, he believes certain facts about the universe to be the way that they are. He does not pretend to have pristine motives, or that he only ever disagrees with other researchers based purely on an objective, reflective foundation. He states very clearly his most fundamental beliefs about the topic at hand. He talks, quite honestly, about his lifelong struggle with religion, about his relationship with Francis Crick, about his love of dogs—about anything and everything that he thinks is relevant to, as before, why he does what he does.

For anyone fed up with the sterility and impersonal nature of research on consciousness, this will be a long-needed breath of fresh air. It will be especially useful, I think, for those partaking, or aspiring to partake, in the great quest for consciousness themselves. In particular for those still aspiring, it may be nice to see, explicitly, that a larger-than-life researcher, decades into his own quest, still has some of the same doubts and moments of personal struggle that you may be faced with ever too frequently. Of note, this same researcher who spent 30 some years of life searching for a truly “reductive” explanation of consciousness endorses in this book, quite clearly, property dualism. Take that as you will.

Five out of five stars, one of my new personal favorites. Be sure to check out the cover art, it’s quite impressive.

A Brief Overview of Integrated Information Theories of Consciousness

I have posted before on the proposed relationship between information theory and conscious, phenomenal states. For a brief background, consider the following: Information states have two fundamental attributes, one being intrinsic and the other extrinsic, the latter of which can also be called “relational.” Take, for example, one bit of information, say 11001101. In this bit, a sequence of 1s and 0s stands to mean something when it is called upon. The individual 1s and 0s can be labelled as the intrinsic elements. The extrinsic aspect, then, refers to the internal structure of the bit, which is where the term relational comes in. Each element has a definite position within the bit—there is a 1 in the first position, and a 0 in the third position—which marks where it is relative to all of the other elements. We can apply this to consciousness research, some say, by thinking of the intrinsic elements as the subjective side of an issue, or what it is like to be something. On the other hand, the relational parts represent the third-person perspective that we take when we study physics (that is, when the study the relations between fundamental things. This is why, as I have commented before, physics is utterly hopeless when it comes to understanding phenomenal consciousness).

Now, the view of Integrated Information theorists takes this a step further. (If we weren’t to clarify the relationship between information and consciousness, then it might seem like we were saying that anything and everything that has an information state—e.g., a thermostat—is therefore conscious, in some, perhaps limited, fashion. Some, the panpsychists, do say this, but this is not necessarily the view from Integrated Information.) They claim that the phenomena of consciousness, while in some ways fundamental to information states, also depends on the integration and differentiation of those information states. Our brains, along with those of many mammals and “lower” species, do an excellent job of fulfilling these requirements. Through less-than-clear mechanisms, our brains are able to both synchronize activity at a global level, but also keep information very well stratified throughout the layers and structures contained therein. For a counterexample, think of the brain during an epileptic seizure: information is everywhere, with electrical signals firing at multiple locations simultaneously. It could be said that this represents a form of integration, but this situation also clearly does away with any sort of differentiation. As predicted, seizures are generally accompanied by a loss of consciousness, or a diminished conscious state at most.

It is still hard to see how exactly the tenets of this theory might explain the “why” of consciousness, but it presents, at the least, some interesting ways to think about the “how.”

Determinism, or Indeterminism: That is not the question.

In my Metaphysics class today, the following argument was put up for scrutiny:

1) If determinism is true, then no one acts freely, ever.

2) If indeterminism is true, then no one acts freely, ever.

3) Either indeterminism is true, or determinism is true.

4) Therefore, no one ever acts freely, ever.

5) If no one ever acts freely, ever, then no one is ever responsible for their actions.

Premise 1, in brief, relies on that assumption that if the world is deterministic, then everything that happened today was a necessary consequence of what happened millions of years ago. If everything that happened today was a necessary consequence of events in the distant past, then no person has any control over the present—it is all set in stone, as it were. Free will dictates a certain amount of control over present actions, so if this control is absent, then so is free will.

Premise 2, on the other hand, relies on a purely probabilistic definition of indeterminism. If events are indeterministic, which is to say that they are merely an odds game with event A having a 40% probability, and event B having a 60% probability, then we still lack any sort of “control” over the situation. Which event occurs is largely arbitrary, relying only on some unknown odds, written in the sky or otherwise.

This is not to say that these are the only ways in which premises 1 and 2 can be formulated, but this is how they were presented in this case.

Most of the objections raised, both in my class and in the literature, from what I’ve seen,  have attempted to disprove either premise 1 or 2. That is, there can be free will under determinism, or there can be free will under indeterminism. Most of these amount to some re-formulation of free will. I will not be taking either of these positions. Instead, I will attack premise 3: That the world is either deterministic or indeterministic.

The core of my argument rests on the claim that premise 3 presents a false dilemma. It is either determinism, or it is indeterminism, but not both. I assert that it is, indeed, both, or at the very least, we are not in a position to rule this possibility out. Current physics, which is where most of these theories claim to have their support, does not itself claim to have sorted this issue out. We know that under certain circumstances, such as when the scale is microscopic, that the world behaves in an apparently indeterministic way. Under other circumstances, such as when the scale is macroscopic, the world behaves in an apparently deterministic way. Many propose that we can link these two, and show that it is really one, and not the other, in virtue of a fundamental property of nature: namely parsimony—or, that the universe is, at its most fundamental, simple (simple in the sense that it all can be reduced to more or less the same thing). But, what they miss, is that it does not have to be this way. There is, in fact, no law that says that the universe must be simple. It may very well turn out that the universe is complicated, perhaps even too complicated for us to understand it, in the proper sense of the word.

(The following is mere speculation, I have absolutely no empirical basis for the ideas that follow; however,  I still, personally, find a great deal of plausibility in them, but you have been warned, nonetheless!)

Building off of this, and the fact that most of the arguments that place free will either in a purely deterministic or a purely indeterministic light typically have to resort to a reformulation of free will itself, I now assert that free will is only a coherent construct in a world that is both deterministic and indeterministic. What I propose is the following, which relates this more specifically to the theme of this blog: free will can only exist in conscious creatures. This may seem unnecessary to state in so many words, but the following should provide reasons for it. Complex brains are, in a general sense, specialized organs for planning and deliberation. Given that the microscopic events of this world are largely indeterministic, and that the macroscopic events are largely deterministic, we can postulate the following: brains serve to make sense of a vast multitude of indeterminacy. Through the process of evolution, and, to steal a phrase from a neuroscientist I once knew, thanks to the goddess of molecular evolution, they came to be in a position to turn underlying indeterminacy into coherent, conscious actions. This is not an appeal to a “collapse-of-the-wave-function” view of consciousness, to be clear. Rather, it is an attempt to reconcile the disparate aspects of reality into one coherent framework.

We can use this argument to strike down some of the objections raised to both purely deterministic and purely indeterministic accounts of free will. One variety of the former asserts that if you could not have acted otherwise, then you could not have acted freely, as stated above. If there is some underlying indeterminacy, however, this is clearly not the case. There are, in fact, a multitude of different ways in which you could have acted. Aha! But this just reduces to a variety of the argument from indeterminacy—that actions are merely arbitrary instantiations of probabilities, right? But that is where the deterministic aspect of reality kicks in. Once the most basic underlying facts about the world are set, in a probabilistic fashion, then determinism takes over. For this, I draw on an idea put forth by John Searle: downward causality, but in no way do I claim to restate his argument. The higher-order functions of the brain, namely consciousness, do indeed have “causes” that exist as smaller, microscopic bits, but these higher-order functions also have the ability to rain down causation on these smaller bits, much in the way that higher-order theories of economics can influence the activities of lower level commodities. Neither of these can be “smoothly reduced,” as Searle puts it, to the other, but that does not imply that one or the other does not exist, or play a meaningful role. In fact, Searle says that typically, reduction of one thing to another serves the purpose of showing that one of those things does not exist, not the other way around, as is often claimed.

This may seem counter-intuitive, and in some ways, it does have to re-formulate the popular idea of free will. In particular, it draws a distinction between free will at its most basic on the one hand, and conscious will on the other. Conscious will, or the idea that you are consciously in control of all of your actions and thoughts, is inevitably false. A handful of psychological experiments demonstrating non-conscious biases and predispositions shows this very simply. But this is not what we are talking about when we say free will, or so I claim. Free will is much more general than the limited definition of conscious will. At its most basic, it requires that you be capable of acting in certain ways that rely on intentional stances. Even if you are not consciously aware of your decisions to act in certain ways, it is still you that is making them. You are your brain, and everything that comes along with it. Simply because something is non-conscious does not make it any less a part of you. It may clash with the popular account of who you are, but at the end of the day, you are made up of more non-conscious pieces than conscious pieces, so restricting our definition of free will to the conscious pieces seems to make little sense. Now, this is not to say that our conscious feeling of free will is irrelevant, but it is a different matter to bring up—specifically, it is more of an epistemic question than a metaphysical question.