3/20/12

Free Will Free-for-all

The online debate about free will is heating up, thanks to high profile author Sam Harris's new book on the subject. The Chronicle of Higher Education had a nice forum on free will yesterday, starting with an essay by Jerry Coyne. Hilary Bok and Al Mele write in defense of compatibilism, but not in response to Coyne.  His argument is very simple. Restating a bit, the idea is that any mental event, M, must be identical to some brain event N.  Brain events lawfully necessitate further events in the brain and body.  So whatever thought or behavior actually happens after M, nothing else could have happened. So at least in one important sense, the owner of M isn't free.

If we can't rebut this argument (wouldn't it be nice?), maybe we can get more comfortable with it than it first appears.  If I know my daughter is thinking if p then q, and p, then I can predict fairly confidently that she will think q. Why? Because the mental has a certain sort of  lawfulness, independent of the underlying physical stuff that makes it up.  Like you can know things about a sphere, regardless of what it's made out of, you can know things about thoughts, without knowing anything about their physical composition. If you want to feel free from something, you can feel free from your brain, like a ball could feel free from being made of plastic or mud or ice (if balls could think).  It's going to have the same geometry, regardless.

Hey, it's something ...

How is it that the laws of neuroscience, and ultimately physics, govern what happens in our brains, but the laws of thought do as well?  Why do these two sets of laws mesh with each other?  When you say mental states are brain states, it's not time to retire, because everything's now nice and clear.  You actually wind up with a lot of new and difficult things to think about.

5 comments:

ʟʋɥɑɻʣɝʓʯɐɠʂʃʡʞɰʥʙʔɞ said...

Isn't this the usual debate about Physicalism and Supervenience?

I honestly find a bit "pretentious" that SH thinks he can jump into fields he knows very little about (e.g. morality with his previous book, now free will) and put aside all the existing literature, do a little handwaving et voilà, problem solved.

He actually wrote things like "I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," "noncognitivism," "anti-realism," "emotivism," and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. "

Why is this guy even taken seriously by professional philosophers? Because he sells a lot they hope gain some indirect exposure?

Jean Kazez said...

I think philosophers really just like seeing more philosophy in the public square--not just because it sells their books, but because they think philosophy is good for people. So they like seeing Sam Harris get a public discussion going, at the same time that most secretly (or unsecretly) don't expect to learn much from him. It sounds to me like his book just presents hard determinism, but in a readable way. Then again, I grant that I haven't read it.

Russell Blackford said...

The longer these debates go on, the less I understand what hard determinism is.

I understand so much less than when I was an undergraduate and we had (locally) accepted definitions for all these things. ;)

ɷɠʎɼɵɯɡɦɲɾɩʂʁɤʇʉɩɐʋʁ said...

yes, but don't you think he's a bit "disrespectful"? I remember watching a video were his previous book was discussed with with a stellar panel (singer, blackburn, churchland, ...) and he was almost unbearable. He's quick but "snarky" remarks are not considered good practice in the field I think. How can you dismiss an argument because it is "boring"?

Eli Horowitz said...

"If I know my daughter is thinking if p then q, and p, then I can predict fairly confidently that she will think q. Why? Because the mental has a certain sort of lawfulness, independent of the underlying physical stuff that makes it up."

Two things:

1. If you can only predict fairly confidently what's going to happen, then it's not much of a law. And, in fact, it's not: people are not logical thinkers in general, so believing "p" and "p->q" is not anywhere near a guarantee that you'll also believe "q". (See: all of behavioral economics, for a start.)

2. In what sense is the "sort of" lawfulness of thought "independent of" physics? I mean, we can also predict the actions of calculators just using high-level rules, but surely calculators don't work independently from their physical components.