Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is "free will" a fallacy? (Hint: the fallacy is in its definition)

It is irrelevant how brilliant your demonstration is: if you start with an incorrect hypothesis, your conclusion has no value.

Take Daniel Miessler article concluding free will is an illusion, also mentioned by Sam Harris. His hypothesis is that "true (free) influence on the world"—whatever that "true (free)" designation means—requires the ability to change the previous state of the world or to change the laws that govern the universe.

This is very much at odd with the common understanding of the word influence. Say you fail to see a banana peel on the curb, slip on it, and fail. Wouldn't you say that the banana peel influenced your fall? You would, as without it, most likely, you wouldn't have fallen. And I assure you that the banana peel neither changed the previous state of the world nor changed the laws that govern the universe.

Unfortunately, bending the meaning of words, or even worse, completely omitting definitions, too often plagues discussions on free will.

7 comments:

Daniel Miessler said...

Hi, Daniel here, the author of the post in question. So I specifically address the definition of free will in another post, which was linked at the bottom of the one you mentioned. It's titled, "Absolute vs. Practical Free Will".

http://danielmiessler.com/blog/absolute-vs-practical-free-will

Olivier Bruchez said...

I agree with Daniel's posts ("Free Will vs. Determinism as the Core of Political Disagreement" and "The Two-lever Argument Against Free Will") and most of Sam Harris' posts/videos on the matter of free will, but I also understand your point, Alessandro. My opinion is that "most people" (since we're talking about "common understanding", whatever that means) have a double standard when it comes to defining what "influence" is. They will be happy to say that the banana influenced your fall simply by being part of the chain of causes and effects leading to your fall, without changing the past or the laws of the universe. But a banana is an object, not a conscious being, and that's the crux of the matter. "Most people" aren't happy to say they have an influence on the world simply by being part of a chain of causes and effects. They want to be more than the sum of their atoms, particles, chemical reactions, etc. The *feeling* of free will we all have tells them they can escape the laws of the universe (i.e. determinism), somehow. The problem is that I just don't see how it's possible without believing in dualism (i.e. in magic). And, as far as I can tell, compatibilists aren't making the matter any clearer. They're just redefining free will (or, in our case, influence) until it doesn't contradict determinism. But, at the end, their definitions are not aligned on the "common understanding" of those words.

Alessandro Vernet said...

I share you disagreement with people who "want to be more than the sum of their atoms, particles, chemical reactions, etc". But this doesn't lead me to think free will doesn't exist. Denying the existence of free will feels to me like saying to someone who told you she is cold: "you are not cold; what you feel is just an illusion; see, it just happens that where you are, the temperature of the air molecules around you is quite low", and then explain what effect that has on her body. Your detailed explanation will be perfectly accurate. Nothing wrong with that. But to me, it is perfectly acceptable to look at this experience from a higher level, and call the whole thing being "cold". I would say the same about "pain", "anger", "love"… and yes, "free will".

Olivier Bruchez said...

What about people "feeling" that god exists, then? Does that mean god really exists? Just because billions of people "feel" it exists?

The problem with your example (being cold) is that you're talking about consciousness. It's a difficult subject. According to some philosophers (Sam Harris, etc.), it's the "ultimate mystery" and I'd tend to agree. I've never seen any clear and satisfying explanation of what consciousness really is. But that doesn't lead me to believe in dualism, i.e. the existence of the soul. So, for the time being, I have to accept the idea that consciousness somehow emerges from the activity of the brain and, at the same time, that it doesn't really make sense. The concept of soul, to me, makes even less sense.

Anyway, saying that free will is "just another feeling" and, hence, that it necessarily exists, sounds really strange to me. When I look at parallel lines that don't look parallel (a well-known optical illusion), it doesn't mean that the parallel lines are not parallel. Does the "feeling" that the lines are not parallel matter? Of course! It says something about the way our brain works.

To me, the illusion of free will is similar. Our visual cortex is hard-wired to see parallel lines as diverging in some cases. Our brain is also hard-wired to see us as being able to escape determinism (what free will is really about, IMO).

We can focus on several things: 1) the objective reality, 2) the brain and how it works, and 3) the model of reality our brain constructs.

Do you think free will (i.e. the ability of our brain/soul/spirit to escape, somehow, from determinism) exists as an objective reality?

Alessandro Vernet said...

I realized that what I (and others, but granted, not everyone) calls "free will", you will feel more comfortable calling the "feeling of free will", or even the "illusion of free will". More on this later, but in the meantime, just replace "free will" below with the "illusion of free will" if that makes you more comfortable.

The comparison with the belief in God is interesting but it breaks in one major way. God could exist independently from us, independently from the activity of our brain. Free will can only exist as a product of our thinking brain. Like, say, pain. You cut a branch of a tree, and there is no pain felt by the tree that we know of. You cut a limb of mammal, and there is pain. Pain is what happen in the brain. Free will, like pain, is universal as far as I know. I believe every sane person functions under the assumption they make decisions that influences the world around them and do so in a way that isn't just completely determined by their programming, unlike a chess program would (that "feeling of free will"), while most people I know don't believe in the existence of a God.

I don't see a need to qualify free will as a "feeling" or an "illusion" just as I don't feel the need to talk about the "feeling" pain or the "illusion" of pain. This because I don't think one could reasonably conceive of free will (or pain) as anything but something going on in our brain. This unlike God or those parallel line, which also describe something that exists independently of us. And again, I am not trying to play on words and redefine free will as a feeling (or "illusion") because I don't believe it exists as anything but a feeling: it is that I can't imagine of any reasonable definition of free will as anything else.

As to your last question, on whether free will is (and I am rephrasing here): 1) an objective reality, 2) related to the brain and how it works, or 3) related to the model of reality our brain constructs, I would say it is all 3. The most controversial is maybe number 1: "an objective reality". Is something that only exists as a result of how our brain works, but yet is universal, again like pain or love, less real? To me, in the sense that all those things can be studied by science, they exist, and qualify as "objective reality".

Olivier Bruchez said...

> God could exist independently from us,
> independently from the activity of our brain. Free
> will can only exist as a product of our thinking
> brain.

Agreed. I guess. At least, free will is definitely related to brains.

> Like, say, pain. You cut a branch of a tree,
> and there is no pain felt by the tree that we know
> of. You cut a limb of mammal, and there is pain.
> Pain is what happen in the brain.

Agreed. That's our current model, but, as I said previously, "our" theory of consciousness is still very limited.

> I believe every sane person functions under the
> assumption they make decisions that influences
> the world around them

Agreed.

> and do so in a way that isn't just completely
> determined by their programming, unlike a chess
> program would

Here, I already disagree with you. Maybe I'm insane. Or maybe you weren't precise enough in your wording. A chess program makes decisions based on its programming *and* external inputs. I guess/hope recent chess programs can learn things and reprogram themselves (neural networks, Markov chains, etc.) or at least store their experience in one way or another. I feel that I do the same, except that my programming and the inputs I take into account are way more complex. According to you, what does determine our decisions outside our "programming" and our "inputs" - i.e. senses?

> I don't feel the need to talk about the "feeling"
> pain or the "illusion" of pain.

That's because "pain" is already defined as a feeling:

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pain
"an unpleasant sensation, resulting from (...)" (sensation => feeling)

Pleasure, hunger, joy, fear, etc. are all defined as feelings. And, once again, I agree with Sam Harris: "Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion." So pain, pleasure, hunger, joy, fear, etc. are not illusions.

Free will, on the other hand, is not defined as a feeling:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will
"Free will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. (...) Historically, the constraint of dominant concern has been the metaphysical constraint of determinism. (...)"

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/free_will
"1. (philosophy) The ability to choose one's actions, or determine what reasons are acceptable motivation for actions.
2. (philosophy) The doctrine that human beings (and possibly other beings, such angels or higher animals) are able to choose their actions without being caused to do so by external forces."

Free will is defined as an "ability" or even a "doctrine". Not a feeling. Here, we're talking about abilities, agents, choices, constraints, actions, motivations, causes, etc. Yes, it has something to do with the brain, but I think that consciousness (i.e. feelings, etc.) and free will are two problems that don't necessarily need to be discussed together. If you see free will as an "ability", then you can have it or not. You can also think you have it even though you don't have it. It really makes sense, that way. The minute you say it's a feeling, saying it's also an illusion doesn't make sense anymore.

Olivier Bruchez said...

> This because I don't think one could reasonably
> conceive of free will (or pain) as anything but
> something going on in our brain.

Agreed. But there are a lot of things going on in our brains that don't need to be *reduced* to feelings/consciousness. The firing of neurons, for example, is something that happens in our brain. We can talk objectively about it. I'm sure you don't see a need to qualify it as a feeling and/or an illusion. It's almost as if it happened independently of us. But it's not. When does the activity of our brain "becomes" us, i.e. becomes consciousness? I have no clue. Anyway, I think free will is another thing we can discuss objectively (i.e. it's really different from a "basic" feeling such as pain).

> I am not trying to play on words and redefine free
> will as a feeling (or "illusion") because I don't
> believe it exists as anything but a feeling: it is that
> I can't imagine of any reasonable definition of
> free will as anything else.

I guess that's what I don't understand. What's *your* exact definition of free will? It's still not clear to me. As far as I know, free will is pretty well defined (see Wiktionary/Wikipedia definitions above) and it has been debated for centuries. The disagreement comes from the fact that our world, as far as science can tell, is deterministic and we can't seem to accept that fact when it comes to our brains, because we *feel* that we are the ones who decide what we do, not the atoms/particles our brains are made of. But, until proven otherwise, both "we" and "the atoms/particles our brains are made of" are the same thing, so we can't really "make choices free from the constraint of determinism" (free will definition). In other words, "we can do what we want, but we can't decide what we want".

> objective reality". Is something that only exists as
> a result of how our brain works, but yet is
> universal, again like pain or love, less real? To
> me, in the sense that all those things can be
> studied by science, they exist, and qualify as
> "objective reality".

I don't agree that it's universal. As Sam Harris wrote (sorry...): "The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth." In other words, once you realize that, maybe, just maybe, our desires, thoughts, decisions, etc. are also deterministic, that feeling you're talking about ceases to be that clear and evident. Pain, on the other hand, doesn't diminish when you think about it as neurons firing in your head. That's a huge difference.