Matter of Choice

An awful lot of people attach tremendous importance to the notion that our decisions are somehow the uncaused product of our consciousness: that they happen not amongst the deterministic web of brain tissue, but impose themselves on that tissue, somehow, from without. I’m not one of them.

A good example of the strange certainty that people have about this assumption, which is supported by nothing more than an intuition and a wish, is given in this comment, taken from a recent discussion over at The Maverick Philosopher:

…we do know that organisms, at least conscious ones, do not act under the deterministic constraints of matter. This is clearly the case with rational organisms — i.e., human beings. I know this is true, because I have my own experience as proof.

You ask how can I actually know that I am not completely constrained by the determinism of matter? If I am, then my experience of consciousness is nothing but illusion. I have no volition. I merely function in accord with the laws of physics and chemistry. My current state unalterably determines my next state. I can form no intention, thus I can have no purpose or provide purpose to anything external to me.

And there you have it! First we are told about the intuition — “I have my own experience as proof” — as though it would be possible, somehow, for us simply to feel the difference between a subjective experience that was deterministically caused and one that wasn’t. Next, we are given the wish: “If I am, then my experience of consciousness is nothing but illusion. I have no volition. I merely function in accord with the laws of physics and chemistry.” Even if we set aside the question of why we should think that our consciousness, if physically caused, must be an illusion (whatever that means), this argument has no force: the fact that we might not like the idea of functioning solely in accord with physical laws has no bearing whatsoever on whether we in fact do so.

Meanwhile, neuroscience presses on apace. In today’s Physorg.com newsletter (I do hope that readers are by now beginning to notice what a rich source of breaking scientific news this publication is) we learn of a new study that will surely give no comfort to the antimaterialist camp.

The experiment involved examining the brain activity of subjects as they made an apparently “free” choice between two actions, while noting to themselves the time at which they made their decision. The results indicated that the choice was made by the brain — and predictable with high reliability — as much as seven seconds before the subjects were conscious of the decision.

Is this dispiriting news? It needn’t be. What ought to change is our insistence on clinging to a mistaken (and indeed, philosophically incoherent) concept of “freedom”. Yes, our brains are staggeringly complex biological and electrochemical systems, and our thoughts and choices are apparently the result of their physical activity. But we are still the nexus of this enormous engine of choice, the place where it all happens — and we are still every bit as “free” as we could reasonably or coherently wish to be. (We are still in the powerful grip of our habits of thought and action, but that is another problem altogether, and one we can do something about, if we are willing to work at it.)

I know that some of you will think I am mistaken. You are free, of course, to disagree.

Learn more here.

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21 Comments

  1. the one eyed man says

    I agree that it seems wrong for people to use their own experience as the proof of their theories of consciousness — it’s an unprincipled use of the Heisenberg principle.

    You could dismiss it as solipsistic phenomenology, but Saint Francis said it best: who you jiving with this cosmic debris?

    Posted April 14, 2008 at 11:26 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Pete,

    I agree with you about the jivin’, but the Uncertainty Principle? Do forgive me, but how so?

    Posted April 15, 2008 at 12:00 am | Permalink
  3. I am happy to admit I believe in free will; psychologically I am not free not to beleive in it! The trouble is, when you reject free will, you condemn yourself “to a life of perpetual logical inconsistency”, as Peter van Inwagen puts it, in which almost every word and deed contradicts your claim. The intuitive belief in free will is indeed a “strange certainty” which one cannot choose and without which one simply could not function. Even a hard incompatibilist such as Galen Strawson admits that in everyday life he does in fact believe in free will:

    “[T]o be honest, I can’t really accept [determinism] myself . . . I think the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty. It’s just that I can’t really live with this fact from day to day.”

    Galen Strawson, quoted in “You Cannot Make Yourself the Way You Are”: Interview with Galen Strawson, in The Believer, March 2003.

    http://www.believermag.com/issues/200303/?read=interview_strawson

    Posted April 15, 2008 at 4:20 am | Permalink
  4. the one eyed man says

    The act of observation affects the object being observed — so if you are examining your own consciousness, then in doing so you are affecting its behavior.

    Posted April 15, 2008 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Yes, Peter, I thought that was what you meant – but how does that undermine confidence in our experience?

    Posted April 15, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi D.,

    I disagree. “The intuitive belief in free will is indeed a ‘strange certainty’ which one cannot choose and without which one simply could not function”? But I am a determinist, and I function just fine. It’s Dumbo’s magic feather again; I don’t think a belief in materialism need have the undermining effect that PvI and Strawson allege. Dennett, for example, argues this very well in his books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves.

    First of all, I think it’s important to keep in mind that uncaused decision-making is not even philosophically coherent; if our choices aren’t random, and don’t depend on a sum of our previous states, our inclinations, our memories, and our present context, then what do we imagine they come from? But all of this is exactly what can happen deterministically in a way that is utterly indistinguishable from within. When we make a choice, we consider the pros and cons, the moral implications, the wisdom of the various options based on our knowledge and experience, and all the rest of it. Everything we could possibly want to be true about our decision-making, we still have.

    Also, we are still the agents who are held responsible for our actions, and it is exactly knowledge of that fact that continues to make us responsible. In the moment of our choices, it is still we — the stupefyingly complex systems that we call by our own names — who choose, and others rightly hold that system accountable, because that being held accountable is part of the system itself. This is what I think Strawson, whom I broadly agree with, underplays here.

    I shall have to clarify all of this at more length in a post of its own.

    Posted April 15, 2008 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    I don’t know if it says anything about having confidence in our experience — only that having the same person being the observed and the observer seems intellectually flaccid to me.

    Posted April 15, 2008 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Well, Peter, that’s the only way we can study and report on our subjective experiences. We just have to be wary of cognitive illusions, that’s all. Like free will.

    Posted April 15, 2008 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  9. Well, we’ll have to remain in disagreement on this one for now. I’m open to persuasion, but not yet persuaded. Anyway, long posts will have to wait for another time. Just a few things:

    “But I am a determinist, and I function just fine.”

    But you don’t function as a determinist. Determinism is an intellectual belief, not an operational one. As John Austin is reported to have said:

    “They all talk about determinism and say they believe in it. I’ve never met a determinist in my life, I mean a man who really did believe in it as you and I believe that men are mortal. Have you?”

    No, I haven’t.

    “[U]ncaused decision-making is not even philosophically coherent”.

    Not sure where that comes from. Freewill is characterised as self-determination.

    “[I]f our choices aren’t random, and don’t depend on a sum of our previous states, our inclinations, our memories, and our present context, then what do we imagine they come from?”

    Well, that is the question. Freewill is characterised as that element — of whatever degree of efficacy — that is neither mere indeterminism nor prior-state determinism, but rather is originating self-determination. At the silliness of the very idea of an originating self-determining source, one might just as well throw up one’s arms in exasperation at the belief in the existence of the universe.

    “When we make a choice, we consider the pros and cons, the moral implications, the wisdom of the various options based on our knowledge and experience, and all the rest of it.”

    And it is here that we do not believe in determinism. If one had as a conscious thought that one’s choice had been settled since the beginning of the universe, then it simply would not be coherent — as a conscious act — to deliberate over it, where deliberation entails a choice upto ourselves. Now, I suspect, you will reply that this choice is up to ourselves in the important sense that we are the necessary link in the chain of causation. But that sense is a long way from the psychological sense that a choice is ultimately ours to be made, that the moment lies with us in which one believes that there is more than one possible future, and that this future is not ultimately out of our control and which does not find its origin at the beginning of the universe or in some weird quantum event of randomness in the meantime. It is only in that sense — as an agent — that the act of deliberation makes sense. It strikes me as psychologically impossible both to go through the act of deliberation and to believe that there is only one possible future, except perhaps if there were some psychopathic split or disassociation in a man’s mind between his deliberation and his choices, or his agency and his acts.

    “[W]e are still the agents who are held responsible for our actions, and it is exactly knowledge of that fact that continues to make us responsible . . . because that being held accountable is part of the system itself.”

    Indeed, operant-conditioning, if you will, has a powerful effect on pigeons and humans alike. No freewillist denies influence, which would be absurd, and one can even speak of near total influence. (But if it is believed that there is no freewill, then why not cut out, or at least reduce, all this messy, intermediary, nay, redundant talk, of responsibility, by the institution of a system that more efficiently controls the conditions of behaviour, as B.F. Skinner once proposed?) But, anyway, from the fact that we are held responsible for our actions, and that we are made to feel responsible, it does not follow that we are responsible. (For there to be a defence of the compatibility of determinism and moral responsibility, it seems that the word “responsibility” needs to serve several senses.)

    “In the moment of our choices, it is still we . . . who choose”

    No, not really, not if there is no freewill. That is where we can start talking of philosophical incoherence, or rather of a sophisticated philosophical fudge performed — we may be thankful — for the sake of practical social purposes. Choose between what? Possible futures? But if determinism is true, then there is only one possible future — and it was never up to us. Of course, this leaves aside that determinism is on dodgy ground these days. Indeed, if we’re going to jump the gun and call freewill an illusion — and not even a necessary one for normal psychological functioning — then why not characterise determinism as a left-over from the eighteenth-century? It certainly hasn’t fared well recently.

    Posted April 16, 2008 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Thanks, D., for this excellent comment, which gets right at the important points. While it may well be that I am not going to win you over to my view, I’ll respond in a new post (this one might take a few days), as there is more here than I can in good conscience attempt to answer during working hours.

    I will ask you this, though: is this an expression of aporia or denial? When it comes to the notion that our thoughts and actions are solely the result of the activity of our brains, do you say “I must have free will, so I hope this idea is wrong, despite its apparent scientific truth,” or is it “I do have free will, period”?

    Even the Strawson paper you linked to above is quite clear that our illusion of ourselves as uncaused agents is philosophically indefensible; he quotes, with approval, Nietzsche’s remark that

    “The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic.”

    I think that we have all the freedom we need. Our deliberations are in any meaningful sense ours — they happen in our skulls, and are the sum of all of our history, influences, and dispositions. The additional psychological comfort of imagining that they are determined by nothing is simply an illusion that we cling to: a relic, a habit of thought that we can do without. Indeed, there is no reason that any of our experiences, any subjective observation we might possibly make, is any different in a deterministic world from what it would be in our imaginary life as uncaused agents.

    Finally, I must part company with Austin on this one. I truly do believe that our mental activity is the result of what goes on in our brains. He says that everyone says that, but nobody believes it; I wonder how he knows everyone is lying.

    Posted April 16, 2008 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  11. JO says

    Malcolm
    does this mean you are a determinist because you chose freely to be one? I am deep into “In Search of the M.” If we have many conscious”es” , how many levels of determining is going on where “me” is concerned. Does this make sense, if not just say, “Jeanie, you haven’t read enough yet!”
    later
    JeanieO

    Posted April 16, 2008 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Hi Jeanie,

    I’d say I’m a determinist because that’s what my understanding of science and philosophy have led me to believe. Whether our beliefs are themselves subject to our choice — “doxastic voluntarism” — is an interesting question in itself, quite independently of anything to do with free will! Bill Vallicella has written a lot about that lately.

    As for the other matter, there are several different pluralities you might be referring to — along orthogonal “axes”, one might say. But this topic would take us far afield from this thread. Perhaps we might discuss it offline.

    Posted April 16, 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  13. Hello all,
    I am thinking that there are different states of being at different times for each of us. Some are more “willfully” operational then others are.

    For instance, our mutual friend GF, often has no ability to control his own thinking, but he is able to “watch” his behaviors instigated by his brain’s functioning… (or perhaps more aptly, non-functioning), from a vantage point within his own consciousness that tells him what he is doing does not make sense -(when he is suffering under an extreme instance of OCD)…

    So his activities are being directed by a chemical imbalance, that at least are a part of his brain’s activities, even as his consciousness finds itself “outside” of that realm of activity.

    Therefore I can see a seperation of self from brain activity in him that is very apparant at times.

    In most of us there is a better cohesion between our “inner beings” and our minds. And by inner being I do mean a “spirit” or “soul” -something that has duration and inter-action on a level other than that which the brain controls…

    I have great faith in reason, but I also have reasons to have faith in my eternal connection to what i shall call- spirit. The part of me that is not of the body, that which reason can not quite pin-down as it were…

    I hope that does not open up a new topic inadvertently…

    Posted April 16, 2008 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    No, Pat, not a new topic. I will differ with you, though, in that I see the “watching” part as much an aspect of the brain’s activity as the part being watched.

    Posted April 16, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  15. hi again Mac,

    (I hope yr birthday was fine and dandy !)

    yeah that is what it seems like in a way… but I’ve found that meditation that quiets the mind and “empties” it can have interesting results – that seem to point to a “seperate reality”, as Shamanism and assorted Eastern practices also claim “spirit questing’ and such activities that lend effort to leaving the brain driven element of our thoughts seem to have offered an avenue of internal experiences that are not directly attributable to brain activity…

    Alas only those who have died can have any assurence of these suppositions. My near-death, out of body experiences lead me to have some respect for these notions, even tho I can not fathom a way to prove them in a plausible manner… perhaps work that I have heard of using cat-scans while folks meditate will shed some light on these seemingly experiential non-brain related activities…
    Pat

    Posted April 16, 2008 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  16. “[T]here is more here than I can in good conscience attempt to answer during working hours.”

    Oddly, such a thing has by-passed my conscience!

    “I will ask you this, though: is this an expression of aporia or denial?”

    Good question, and I shall endeavour one day to give a long and considered answer. All I will say now is that the existence or no of freewill will remain a contention, for, however much one is impressed with the arguments for its non-existence, one has, as a psychological fact, – and at the risk of uttering a semi-droll cliché – no choice but to believe in it. Not much of an answer for now, but it’ll have to do.

    “[O]ur illusion of ourselves as uncaused agents is philosophically indefensible.”

    It is defensible when not put in hostile terms. In fact, there are some very impressive philosophical defences of freewill.

    “I wonder how he knows everyone is lying.”

    I don’t think he means it that way (and I don’t mean it that way). It is just that intellectual beliefs do not often filter down into our intuitive beliefs, and that there is often a discrepancy between what we profess to believe by means of our intellects, and what we actually believe “deep down”, as it were, as manifested internally in the operations of our thoughts and externally in our behaviour.

    Posted April 17, 2008 at 4:49 am | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Hi D.,

    I must disagree. I honestly don’t believe in the sort of free will you are counting on, but that doesn’t mean that I am inclined to relinquish my postion as a deliberator and chooser, any more than I am inclined to stop enjoying cheesecake because I know that its yumminess is simply a mechanical, adaptive mechanism for getting me to consume high-calorie foods when available — or, for that matter, any more than I am inclined to go ahead and kill myself now because I’m going to die anyway and the Earth will be vaporized in a few billion years regardless. My choices are still my choices — they only happen as a result of the deliberation that takes place inside my own skull – and an abstract fact about the microscopic and utterly imperceptible details of causation does not, for me at least, constitute a psychological catastrophe.

    As for impressive philosophical defenses of that “rape and perversion of logic”, I’ve yet to see one that I thought was persuasive, or indeed anything other than a desperate search for loopholes. Certainly Galen Strawson, as cited above, was not impressed.

    Yes, “lying” was the wrong word. We have many inner divisions; our sense of ourselves as a unity is, with the exception only of those who have done enormously difficult esoteric work, an illusion. Like free will!

    But all this needs a far more persuasive development that I can give it now, and I’ll respond more fully in a new post.

    Posted April 17, 2008 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  18. PDG says

    check out this apt link-

    http://www.world-science.net/othernews/080415_brain

    Posted April 17, 2008 at 7:41 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Pat, this was the same story that I wrote this post about to begin with!

    Posted April 18, 2008 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  20. AH! SO SORRY BRO I DIDN’T SEE ANY LINK TO IT HERE… JUST THE MAV. PHIL ONE…MY BAD…IT SEEMED SO IN-SYNCH WHEN I SAW IT…LOL

    Posted April 19, 2008 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    As it was!

    Posted April 19, 2008 at 1:04 pm | Permalink