an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

with 11 comments

Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.

References

https://ussromantics.com/2018/05/15/is-free-will-a-thing-apparently-not/

R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’. 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/#FreWil

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/one-among-many/201803/five-arguments-free-will

https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/06/free-will-exists-and-is-measurable/486551/

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

11 Responses

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  1. It’s called the “brain”, Stewart. It’s an evolved neurological system that provides intelligent species with the ability to imagine, evaluate, and choose. At least that’s what neuroscience tells us. The only thing which is different from raw matter is the “processing” that’s currently running on the hardware. Like any other electronic process running on hardware, you pull the plug and it dies. The hardware’s still there, but the processing has stopped.

    As usual, philosophers make things much more complicated than they need to be. So, let’s keep this simple.

    Determinism assumes perfectly reliable cause and effect. A logical implication of this is that every event that has ever happened or ever will happen is the reliable result of preceding events. This means that every event that ever happens is “causally necessary” and inevitably must happen.

    I have no problem with that. Any hint of indeterminism just makes things complicated. But our question is this: What are the practical implications of the logical fact of universal causal necessity?

    Surprisingly, it turns out that there are none! It’s just a background fact of our existence. Every human concept has evolved within this deterministic universe, and subsumes reliable cause and effect.

    This includes free will, of course. Free will refers to the choices we make for ourselves, free of coercion or other undue influence. Free will does not mean “freedom from causation”. Never did. Just ask someone why they chose A instead of B, and they’ll happily give you the reasons why their choice was better. No reasonable person would claim that their choices were random, or chaotic, or irrational. So, they don’t.

    What they do claim is that reliable cause and effect does not enslave them, does not remove any real possibilities, and does not rob them of their choices. And they are correct, of course.

    In fact, without reliable cause and effect, they could not reliably cause any effect, and could not do anything at all. So this notion that reliable causation is some kind of constraint upon their freedom is a bit of philosophical b.s. Reliable cause and effect happens to be how freedom operates.

    Questions?

    Marvin Edwards

    October 27, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    • Hello Marvin, nice to hear from you.
      This will be brief – I’ll have time to respond in more detail later. As you know, I’m a complete determinist so much of what you’ve written doesn’t apply to me, but you haven’t really addressed the central issue of my post, captured well in the quote from Sapolsky. Compatibilists try to have it both ways, and it doesn’t work. What neurologists are finding, more and more – and the field is incredibly dynamic – is that what drives our decisions are a whole host of forces that we’re mostly completely unaware of let alone having control over. To put it perhaps crassly, we don’t make decisions, decisions make us.

      stewart henderson

      October 28, 2018 at 11:06 am

      • My position has nothing to do with Sapolsky. There is no “homunculus” other than the brain itself as it processes inputs, converts them into conceptual models representing the real world, and calculates what the organism should do next.

        Back when I first saw through to the other side of the paradox, I don’t think the word “compatibilism” had even been invented yet. Once you get it, and understand what the term “free will” actually refers to in our deterministic reality, then you’ll find, as I did that they are compatible.

        The opposite of determinism is indeterminism. The opposite of a freely chosen will is a coerced will.

        But as long as you choose to define determinism as “the absence of free will, or, you define free will as “the absence of determinism” they will continue to seem incompatible … to you.

        Marvin Edwards

        October 28, 2018 at 11:50 am

  2. Of course there is no homunculus, that Isn’t what Sapolsky is saying. He’s mocking the compatibilists because they’re holding out for ‘free will’ or, if you like, ‘uncoerced decision-making’, which amounts to having a view that there’s something/someone in the brain free from coercion and and all the multiple influences of a lifetime, that’s to say an ‘uncaused’ or ‘uncoerced’ or ‘uninfluenced’ or ‘rational’ decision-maker – call it what you like. Sapolsky called it a homunculus.

    Here’s the point. Humans are mammals. Dogs are mammals. Dogs behave like dogs. They behave according to doggy instincts, if that’s not too insulting to our best friends. Humans behave like humans. Of course there’s absolutely no doubt that the range of human behaviour is far far greater than that of dogs, but that doesn’t falsify the statement that humans behave like humans. But dogs and humans are also individuals who each behave in a narrower range of ways than all the ways a dog, or a human, can behave. They have individual characters. A dog isn’t responsible for her individual character. Neither is a human. Her characteristic responses are a result of genes, epigenetic factors, dopamine and serotonin levels, brain wiring over a lifetime, experiences in the womb and in early childhood, what happened two minutes ago, the list goes on and on. These are not necessarily ‘coercive influences’, a term I find less than useful. They just happen to be absolute influences, total influences, complete influences, sine qua non influences. And the sense of freedom is no doubt one of these influences, which is probably a good thing because it makes us feel more in control than we are.

    stewart henderson

    October 28, 2018 at 7:57 pm

    • Every event, including every thought and feeling you experience, is causally necessary and inevitably must occur. However, among these events are those involved in choosing what we will do. The objects performing this operation happen to be us (and any other species with sufficient neural evolution to imagine, evaluate, and choose). No prior cause participates in this operation without first becoming integral to who and what we are at that moment. So, if I’m sitting alone in a room with a bowl of apples, and I decide to eat one, it is I, myself, that has made this choice.

      Now, if someone else enters the room with a bowl of oranges, and points a gun at my head and insists that I eat an orange, even though I’d rather have the apple, then I am coerced to act against my will.

      “Free will”, being a choice I make for myself according to my own goals and my own reasons, is what we humans have decided to call the first event (it is a freely chosen “I will”), and “coercion” is what we call the second event.

      Reliable causation, in itself, is not “coercion”. Reliable causation is equally present in both cases, and makes no useful empirical distinction. In fact, it is equally present in the case of EVERY event.

      The philosophers and scientists who suggest that reliable causation is the same as “coercion”, may as well remove the term from their dictionaries, because it would no longer make a meaningful empirical distinction.

      The whole business of this determinism “versus” free will paradox is quite silly. The contradiction is an illusion. You’ve put your fingers in a Chinese finger trap and seem unable to extricate yourself back into the real world, where words have pragmatic meaning.

      Marvin Edwards

      October 28, 2018 at 9:57 pm

      • I don’t think the issue of free will is silly, I think it’s really important. It’s not so important when we choose to eat an apple, but it is when we choose to kill a person.
        Terms such as ‘choosing’ and ‘deciding’ are part of our pragmatic language system and that’s fine, but neurology is telling us that, for example, destructive or anti-social behaviour is often ‘baked in’ to our neural circuitry from early on, and we’re not sufficiently recognising this. Pedophila, for example, runs in families, which is suggestive of genetic factors. They also have atypically high rates of brain injuries during childhood, and there’s evidence of endocrine abnormalities during fetal life (Sapolsky). Can you choose not be a pedophile? That’s a very important question. Many would say no.
        I think the real issue is complexity. When a mosquito sucks your blood, do you blame it? I assume not (though you might squish it all the same!). It’s just doing what mosquitos do. But the more complexity creatures have, the more ‘freedom’ we grant them. A human is more free than a dog is more free than a mosquito is more free than a bacterium. Replace ‘free’ with complex’ in that last sentence, and the meaning doesn’t change.
        I haven’t said that reliable causation is the same as coercion. Nobody is saying that. The mosquito doesn’t feel coerced into sucking blood. The dog doesn’t feel coerced into barking at cars. The pedophile doesn’t feel coerced into performing those kinds of acts. What I’m saying is that causation is incompatible with the concept of free will. Though, obviously, it’s compatible with the illusion of free will.

        stewart henderson

        October 29, 2018 at 11:43 am

      • We have a meaningful and relevant distinction between two separate cases:
        Case 1: A person chooses for themselves what they will do.
        Case 2: A person is forced to do what someone else chooses, because that second person is holding a gun to their head.

        In both cases, the events were 100% deterministic, and causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity.

        Question 1: Which of these two cases is only an illusion?
        Answer 1: Neither one. Both were empirically observed to occur in objective reality.

        Question 2: Can we distinguish the two cases by the presence or absence of determinism?
        Answer 2: No we cannot. Both were equally inevitable from any prior point in eternity.

        Question 3: Is there some other, commonly understood way, to distinguish the two cases?
        Answer 3: Yes.
        In Case 1, the person is “free” to choose for themselves what they “will” do. This is commonly called “a choice of one’s own free will”.
        In Case 2, the person’s will is subjugated to the will of a second person by means of coercion. The person is not free to decide for himself what he will do.

        The concept of free will, correctly understood, makes a useful empirical distinction. This distinction is commonly used in the operation of assessing personal responsibility for the behavior.

        And the only time that free will conflicts with determinism is when someone explicitly defines free will as “freedom from reliable cause and effect”.

        Compatibilism simply chooses the meaningful and relevant definition of “free will”, the one that nearly everyone understands and uses in making this distinction in practical scenarios. Compatibilists simply reject the “freedom from reliable causation” definition as silly, irrational nonsense, just like any other determinist would.

        “Free will”, just like “choosing” or “deciding”, is part of “our pragmatic language system”. Choosing is what we call that real event where multiple options are input and evaluated, and a single choice is output. Choosing is a totally deterministic mental process running upon the hardware of our brains. Every choice we make of our own free will is reliably caused by that deterministic operation.

        The operation is represented as a consideration of multiple viable options, an evaluation according to our goals and reasons, and a chosen will to do something specific. The chosen will sets an intention that marshals the organism’s physiology to take specific actions. The actions causally determine what happens next.

        The causal chain is never broken. There is perfectly reliable cause and effect leading up to us facing a problem or issue that requires the operation of choosing. The operation of choosing is itself totally deterministic, caused by the nature of who and what we are at that moment. The nature of who and what we are at that moment is the inevitable result of prior causes. Yet, because it is “who and what we are” that is actually doing the choosing, “we”, ourselves, are in fact causally determining the choice. The choice results in our action. Our action causally determines what happens next. The causal chain is never broken.

        And there in the middle, in that chain link that control the choice, it will either be us doing the choosing (free will), or it will be the guy holding a gun to our head that is doing the choosing (coercion).

        The empirical distinction is not an illusion when you use the meaningful and relevant definition of free will.

        So, what about the neuroscience? Well, we had sufficient neuroscience right after Hippocrates noticed that brain injuries altered personalities. From that point forward, we knew it happened in our own brain. Current neuroscience continues to describe in more detail “how” we make our choices. But every experiment they do also reinforces the fact that it is “us”, our own brain, that is doing the choosing.

        As you point out, Psychiatry has enlightened us about the genetic correlates of certain tendencies. Genetics also informs us that tendencies may or may not be expressed due to environmental influences. Everyone is genetically predisposed to become addicted to heroin. But not everyone chooses to experiment with the drug. And one of the highest correlates of criminal behavior turns out to be the Y chromosome. Yet not every male becomes a criminal.

        One cannot choose one’s DNA, but we can generally choose what we do about our desires. In cases where the desire is an irresistible compulsion to commit criminal acts, then Psychiatric treatment is required, in a secure medical facility.

        Marvin Edwards

        October 29, 2018 at 2:09 pm

  3. Marvin, you must understand that, if you choose to engage with me, i’ll always insist on having the last word, haha.
    But most of what you’ve written above doesn’t engage me – I’m not quite sure why you continue to go on about determinism. I’m convinced, but what I’m pointing out is that it goes further than you think. A brain ‘chooses’, but its choice is entirely determined, and it’s only because of our brain’s complexity that we can imagine that it’s a ‘free’ choice, chosen by ‘the self’ or ‘the brain’.

    A simple formula: the illusion of free choice is directly proportional to neurological complexity.

    Think of an AI machine. The more complex we make the machine, with recursive learning processes, etc, the more ‘free to choose’ it will seem, because it will be more and more difficult to trace back the causal chain.

    Of course not every male will become a criminal, because the Y chromosome isn’t the only correlate, there are countless others, and synergistic effects etc. It’s not simply a matter of choice.

    You’re vastly underestimating these determining factors. The famous Dunedin longitudinal personality study, which I’ve written about on my blog, and which is the largest and most highly regarded study of its kind, shows to a rather disturbing degree that our ‘character type’ is largely fixed in early childhood. We might be ‘free’ to choose an apple instead of a banana, but we’re not free to change our characters to any great degree.

    The self is a useful term as a determinant, to distinguish you from me, but as a repository of freedom, not so much.

    stewart henderson

    October 30, 2018 at 1:56 pm

    • I’m unclear as to what you think I’m missing. Every event that ever happens, from the movement of the planets to the thoughts currently going through your head, are causally necessary from any prior point in eternity.

      “Freedom”, of any sort, NEVER includes “freedom from reliable cause and effect” (indeterminism). Period.

      The word “freedom”, to be meaningful at all, must refer to some meaningful and relevant constraint. When we set a bird “free” from its cage, the meaningful and relevant constraint is the cage. When we enjoy “freedom of speech”, the meaningful and relevant constraint is political censorship. When we speak of “free will”, the meaningful and relevant constraint is coercion or other undue influence.

      In NO case does “free” or “freedom” ever imply “freedom from reliable cause and effect”. It cannot, so it does not.

      You speak of our character being largely set for life in early childhood. Having a childhood is not an undue influence, since everyone has one. Everyone is influenced by their parents, their teachers, but especially their peers.

      These would be prior causes of “who and what the person is” at the moment that the person makes a choice. Any prior causes which have not become a part of who the person is would not be an influence. And all of the prior causes which HAVE become a part of who the person is are NOW the PERSON.

      It is the “person” that makes the deliberate choice. And it is the person that will be held responsible for his deliberate act. Ironically, to the degree that his character is so ingrained as to be incorrigible, his sentence in prison would be increased, if for no other reason than to protect the public from further harm.

      In the case of an undue influence, some extraordinary condition that effectively strips him of the ability to reason, or corrupts his perception of reality by hallucinations or delusions, or compels him to satisfy some inner irresistible drive, then THAT would also compromise his ability to decide for himself what he will do.

      In that case, instead of prison, he’d be provided psychiatric treatment in a secure medical facility.

      But ALL of these cases are causally inevitable, fully and thoroughly causally determined by some combination of physical, biological, or rational causation.

      My very simple point is that universal causal inevitability never makes a meaningful or relevant distinction. It doesn’t change anything. It has no utility to any practical scenario. And it can never help us to make any decision whatsoever, because all it can tell us is that WHATEVER we decide will have been causally inevitable.

      And once that has been said, it is truly pointless to ever repeat it again.

      Marvin Edwards

      October 30, 2018 at 2:57 pm

  4. Sorry I missed this comment.
    We’re not disagreeing about causation in any way shape or form, so you don’t need to keep bringing that up. What we’re disagreeing about is freedom.
    All my thinking here comes from neurology and what I understand about it. The philosophical arguments which might relate to personhood or reason don’t seem to work. I don’t think, for example, there is such a thing as ‘rational causation’ as you put it. Yes, we can describe people as more or less ‘rational’, as we see it, but that ‘rational’ nature, as well as the forms of ‘irrational’ nature, is just a descriptive term for behaviours that we more or less approve of. ‘Rationality’ doesn’t cause anything, in the way that physics and biology certainly does. You won’t find much about rationality in neurological writings, especially the most recent ones.

    We are the products of our bio-neurological states and nothing else, though of course those states are mind-bogglingly complex.

    What you call the person is just what Sapolsky criticises as the uncaused homunculus smuggled in to allow ‘free will’. Of course you claim the ‘person’ is entirely caused but somehow free, presumably because of its ‘rationality’, which means it somehow has control of its neurobiological state. I say it doesn’t. We don’t get to choose how ‘rational’ we are.

    You write a lot here about ‘persons’. It might sound silly for me to ask – what is a person? But that isn’t such a silly question, since you use personhood as the ground of decision-making. For example, can a dog be a person? We know dogs have ‘personalities’. It sometimes seems a dog makes ‘decisions’ at different times, to bark, to eat, to have a nap. In the past we described non-human animals condescendingly as having ‘instincts’ – and we always called them ‘it’, which is not unrelated. Now the newly sensitised among us prefer to use ‘he’ or ‘she’, so does that mean we’re close to granting dogs ‘free will’? Or ‘rationality’? Rats, too, are very smart, and birds. They have individual personalities too, so why not grant them personhood? There’s no reason why personhood should be a human trait. So what about, say, mosquitos? Surely that would be going too far. So where exactly does this ‘personhood’, this decision-making entity, kick in?

    You might want to say that non-human creatures have ‘limited’ free will. Some kind of graduated free will (and personhood!). But this is absurd, you’re either free or not. And if you do somehow allow graduated free will you’d have to apply it to humans too – a baby has less free will than an adult, and that would be just the beginning. A child brought up in a severely deprived environment, mal-nourished and regularly beaten, will be less ‘free’ to make informed decisions than a more ‘well-adjusted’ child, and there are an infinity of points in between. Infinite degrees of personhood?

    To me this isn’t the way to look at things. I will repeat, with some bells and whistles, my previous statement. We, whether we’re well-nourished adults or brain-damaged children, or cats, rats, ravens or elephants, are the products of our bio-neurological states and nothing else, though those states are mind-bogglingly complex and everlastingly fascinating.

    stewart henderson

    November 4, 2018 at 10:55 pm

    • Okay, I see the problem you’re having with “rational” causation. It might be clearer if I say “calculation”. Calculation involves useful operations performed upon symbols. A mechanical calculator performs arithmetic operations upon numbers, like adding them up so we know the total of our grocery bill, or dividing them to determine a probability, and so on.

      But not all symbols are numbers. Democrats and Republicans are symbols representing a collection of policy choices that may affect our lives. If we want group A events to occur then we vote for Democrats. if we want group B events to occur then we vote for Republicans.

      The electro-chemistry of our brains, per se, does not perform these calculations. However, a physical process, consisting of a series of rapid micro-changes in the electro-chemical state in specific locations of our brain, models reality symbolically and manipulates these symbols to determine what we will choose to do.

      We end up calling this a “mental” process because it is the source of the thoughts and feelings that we experience.

      This physical process is different in character than the instinctual calculations performed to keep our heart beating and to maintain other reliable processes in the body. One of the key distinctions is that we have conscious awareness of many of the symbolic manipulations at the macro level. (And consciousness, itself, is also a physical process, with some built-in recursion that allows consciousness of consciousness). (See Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and the Social Brain”).

      What we would do in the absence of this ability to calculate the possible outcomes of different choices, would be quite different. So, the ability to calculate has a direct causal influence upon what we will do next.

      And that’s what I call “rational” causation. The specific operation of considering multiple options and calculating what we will do next is called “choosing”.

      We choose what we will do. We have a number of options: “I will X”, or, “I will Y”, or, … So, we literally choose our next “I will”. Having chosen a specific intent, the CNS marshals the body’s resources to carry out that intent.

      Hope that helps.

      Marvin Edwards

      November 5, 2018 at 5:02 am


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