Highlights from some recent conversations
Great article, both clear and honest. I was following you in everything, except perhaps the very end:
> Dodging these questions by explaining them away—saying that free will and consciousness are just an illusion—would be intellectually dishonest. We have these sensations, and we should be asking how exactly they correspond to physical reality.
I disagree here. You have set to explore the possibility that consciousness and free will are NOT illusions arising from deterministic processes, but exploring this possibility doesn’t immediately make it so. Conversely, it doesn’t make the opposing effort intellectually dishonest, right? Just a different starting point, rather.
It’s like, upon seeing a magic “trick”, say, a rabbit getting out of an empty hat, one audience member would say “this is an illusion, the rabbit was somehow in the hat before or put there while I got distracted” and another member would say “Sure, but let’s assume rabbits COULD appear inside empty hats, how would that work?” I feel like Sam Harris is the first person and you’re the other one, and I don’t think either is intellectually dishonest.
Or did I miss why Harris is wrong?
This was clear and engaging writing on a topic that can become really esoteric really fast. You have a knack for taking dense, multi-faceted, topics and presenting them in a way that is accessible but not patronizingly simplistic. I really enjoyed it.
Metaphysical questions like free will vs determinism are fun, and I suppose are important on a very fundamental level, but as a pragmatist I resolve the dilemma by asking myself: "will taking a position on this change what's required of me? No? OK, I'll carry on as if I have free will." If we accept that things are determined, well... what do we with that knowledge? Knowing that the future is determined gives no insight into the future itself, so we must act as if we have free will in either case. You could see this as dodging the question, but to me it's an answer.
This feels like the right way of approaching the problem - playing around with causal definition and seeing what lines up with our intuition.
The thing about 'constraining future actions' is that it doesn't seem like it relates so much to willpower. For example, i might resolve to quit drinking, but then keep on drinking, causing suffering in my life and work and contributing to an escalating cycle. This is totally 'restricting future actions', but i don't think most people would identify it as being an exercise of willpower.
I think for a lot of people, the importance of the 'free will' concept is precisely in the difference between 'constraining future action so that i stop drinking' vs. 'constraining future action so that i continue drinking'. I have a longer piece to write up on this, but i think where most people who believe in free will would get on board is if you said something like, "free will is when a person's actions are more constrained by their desired course of action when evaluated rationally, outside of a situation, rather than by whatever they've been doing or by their passions in that moment."
If there were a 'magic notebook' such that, whatever you write as your plan for the next day in that book, it will happen, i think most people would really want that notebook. Even if that notebook can _only_ control my personal actions, that's still a phenomenal kind of technology. I think of people who believe in free will as prosessing, in effect, a primitive form of that notebook. They believe, in a sense, that their actions are caused more by their own long-term values, rather than by their passions or instincts in the moment. People who don't believe in free will don't have this "causal hook" where a feedback loop between "present values" and "future actions" can grow.
The post i plan to write on this will of course link to your bit about causal diagrams not being DAG's. This is, i think, the rub: some people hear 'free will' and imagine a "magic node" upstream of the "my actions node." People who don't believe in free will draw the upstream nodes as being things like 'my body, my emotional state at time T', and then 'my actions at time T+1' as being directly caused by the upstream nodes. This is where your point is crucial: how you shape that dag is going to influence your behavior; if you believe your values are causally upstream of your actions, and you gather evidence for this proposition, your belief in it strengthens and it thereby becomes more true.
I have managed to accomplish _something_ like this, with the caveat that the contents of the book can't be arbitrary; i can't set goals that i don't think i'll accomplish because my desire to maintain self confidence makes that neigh impossible for me to do: if i think a goal is unrealistic, i can't help but see the likely consequences and thereby avoid writing it down.
The intuition about 'total severance from the past' seems... i'm not sure what to make of that. It seems like a separate question. I don't know how much most people care about the question, "are the words i am writing anything i can really control or are they merely a byproduct of chemicals zapping each other." I think most people really, really want that book, though.
Great piece and thank you for the reference!
However, trying to find free will in physics is a lost cause. There will always be causation. The only issue is whether the cause is predictible or random, and free will would not exist either way. We risk making actually meaningful concepts meaningless if we subject them to a scientific lense in search for a material basis (morality, meaning, desert, free will, etc.)
Instead of asking how our sensations map onto reality, we should accept that our sensations simply are what we call reality. If I see a cup on the table, then there IS a cup on the table, regardless of whether or not the cup on the table exists in a mind-independent objective reality. The same is true of free will. Because I feel free, I am free, regardless of any free will physics.
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Does quantum mechanics really tell us that randomness exists? Or, are we simply not yet fully comprehending the dynamics at play that appear to be random to us as novice observers? The latter just seems more likely given our relationship with science over the centuries.
But I think this is OK: I don't think we need randomness to exist to have free will. I think apparent randomness via system dynamics is a close enough approximation that we can still keep the idea of free will around.
In this mental model, free will is only constrained by the system the free will exists within. So, it's not entirely free, but, really, what is?
I created a "to do" app for myself that is entirely about injecting randomness. I enter into the app a list of all my non-core-focus tasks, like "clear one email from my inbox". Then I let the algorithm pick the next one for me to do. It has some nice features like task history, stats, and weightings. Huge productivity booster for me.
I am not fond of the argument that because we experience the sensation of a thing, it holds some fundamental truth. I think that the sensation of decision making is indeed an outcome of the narratives that we have developed to communicate about the unfolding of the present.
As a kind of reasonableness test, I would consider the idea presented above that consciousness could collapse the wave function. We know that these uncertainties that exist are on the subatomic level. If consciousness exists where we think it does, somewhere closer to the level of the neural pathway, it would be almost preposterous to suggest that relatively macro assemblages of matter are able to orchestrate a “decided” collapsing of wave functions at the subatomic level. What mechanic could facilitate this?
I think what’s more reasonable is that what feels (again, in large part or perhaps totally because of the social narratives we tell ourselves and each other) like decision making is a gestalt of tipping points being reached as a result of probabilities we can know but not determine, all playing out on the relatively more macro level.
I don’t think this makes things either random or determined. There are both stochastic processes, and there are real and fundamental constraints. We are all brief and beautiful clusters in time and space of that process playing out, and indeed we are quite perplexing outcomes of it in our complexity and interactions which lead to the development of communication, narratives of ‘experience’, ‘sensation’, ‘will’ and so on. It’s quite lovely, poetic even.
If we use this logic then while dreaming, i am actually not dreaming, since i do not feel like it is a dream.
Why not simply accept the logical truth that free will is one of the many illusions that we are subject to? In fact hinduism and buddhism both require overcoming this free will illusion as a first step toward enlightenment. After that first step, those two religions radically diverge.
"I’m surprised1 at how seriously some people take this argument. As The Contractualist points out, we have a clear sensation of free will. Denying its existence is like denying the existence of the color yellow. “It’s an illusion!” you say. “It’s just electromagnetic waves vibrating at 520 THz!” And yet I plainly see yellow."
It's already agree that yellow is a sensation/appearance, so you can
't dismiss it by saying it's "just" a sensation or appearance. It isn't agreed that free will is a sensation , so the same trick doesn't work. Free will is supposed to be a capacity or ability.
Having said that, there is a problem with the argument from physics: false dichotomy.