Free Will Revisited - Soft Compatibilism (ver. 2.0)

Half Man Half Wit: I’m using the term volition for several reasons, most of which go back to version 1.0 of my model (before I recast it as one relying on emergence). One is to distinguish what I’m arguing for from LFW, which I have no interest in defending. Second, it was frequently complained in earlier threads (going back years) that LFW isn’t usefully defined, so I wanted to use a common term and give a meaningful definition which captures our ordinary sense of what it means. Third, and this goes back to a post I made several months ago based on version 1.0, I find it’s a nice parallel to the use of language as a facility or module (at the time not yet conceived as emergent). Fourth, now that I’ve proposed an emergent theory, it’s a convenient label for the macro level property I’m positing.

As for what it adds, of itself nothing. It’s just a label. Whether it’s a useful label depends on how one considers the observational evidence discussed in the OP. Your argument that socialization can be viewed as a deterministic process is sound, in the sense that it could be so. But I don’t think it’s an accurate description. We don’t raise little robots that grow into big robots. We don’t program them the way we do chess playing programs. We teach them to assemble decision trees. Some learn it better than others. The ones who learn it less well aren’t (in the main) programmed to be bad. Rather, they’re less skilled at directing their behavior. As for use of language, I’m at a loss to understand how you don’t see this as probably the biggest problem with the hard determinist conception. Do you really think everything we say is, in some complex sense, programmed into us? That Tolkein didn’t really write The Lord of the Rings but was simply the conduit by which it was realized in text? Commitment to determinism on aesthetic grounds is all very fine, but compatibilism by definition admits determinism in an ultimate sense. Whether determinism standing alone can make sense of what we do is the question. Frankly, I don’t see it.

Dr. Love: Regarding causation, I’ve just finished rereading Chapter 3 and was going to say something similar. In the coin toss, Dennett is saying the force applied etc. is a sufficient but not necessary cause. My point is that this isn’t the same thing as saying it’s uncaused. Also, I see on my third reading why I interpreted this passage as saying the toss is in effect random rather than actually so. It’s the sentence that says (p.85), “We set in motion a sequence that practically guarantees that nothing will be the cause of its landing head or tails.” (Emphasis mine.)

Regarding determinism, as you may have noticed, Dennett gives a similar definition at p.67, “There is at any instant exactly one physically possible future.” As for the gene-code-plus-life-experience definition I gave in Post #18, I’ve seen this many places, including various threads here on the SDMB from several years ago. See also Tom Clark, Anthony Cashmore and Tom Wolfe. (Notice, HMHW, that I’m not playing hide-the-cite.) Where I think these fall down isn’t that they’re untrue but rather that they’re incomplete.

If not “uncaused,” what should we call those events that have no deeper reason for occurring than “it just happened that way”?

I can agree to this, but I wouldn’t call the first an example of indeterminism – it’s just a failure to correctly delineate the boundaries of the system you’re considering.

I think one must be careful here: in general, the only way to produce a complete physical description of a system at some later point in time is through explicit, direct simulation – which is equivalent to letting the system evolve on its own (if you, for instance, were part of that system, the simulation would include you, and your complete inner state – i.e. to you, it would be the same as the ‘real’ system). In general, there are no computational shortcuts; so perhaps ‘produce a description’ should be changed to ‘lead to a unique evolution’, or something like that.

Not the complete state of the universe at some point in time, rather, the set of events in or on the past light cone, i.e. the set of all points in spacetime such that a light ray would have had time to travel from them to the moment of the coin flip – also often called the ‘causal past’. Nothing outside the light cone can have any influence on an event – what happened five minutes ago on Alpha Centauri can’t possibly influence what you do right now.

I have trouble picturing this. How would this mean anything but that one has failed to take the right factors into account in the experimental or counterfactual variation?

Well, but is saying ‘nothing caused the coin to land heads’ really more illuminating? And of course, ultimately, all explanations can be cast into such a tautological form – ‘gravity is an 1/r attractive potential’ and ‘1/r attractive potentials lead to elliptical orbits’, both of which perhaps may be considered insightful on their own, can be combined to ‘gravity working in such a way that it leads to elliptical orbits leads to elliptical orbits’, which seems as ‘empty’ as the statement above.

I think I still can’t see how what Dennett does is different from playing word games. To me, a cause is simply something like: ‘Event A is a cause of event B, if in order for event B to occur, event A must necessarily have occurred.’

If Dennett wants to argue that we ‘ordinarily’ use a different notion of ‘cause’, then he also should argue that this is the correct one – otherwise, he is just arbitrarily re-drawing the boundaries of some words’ meanings, and saying nothing about the world at all – which is always trivially possible. For instance, one might argue that the notion of ‘natural law’ we ordinarily use is the one roughly given by Newton’s laws (it’s not, our intuitive natural laws are far more complicated, but for the sake of argument), so all that quantum and relativity business is not part of natural law – and hence, the supernatural exists!

Within the terms as defined, this is perfectly valid, but I suppose nobody would grant me that I have now demonstrated the existence of the supernatural. And neither, at least in my opinion, has Dennett demonstrated the existence of uncaused events.

Well, you’ve talked about emergence, and about volition, but I don’t see that you talked about how volition is supposed to emerge (or exactly what it does once it has emerged).

But do you reject it just because you don’t like it, or do you have grounds to prefer one over the other – things my model doesn’t explain, while your model does?

Which, incidentally, is pretty much how we do train chess programs, or other more sophisticated, neural-network based systems, these days…

But if your volition is ‘just a label’, and doesn’t contribute anything on its own, how does it yield a better, or even different description than determinism alone? You can chunk some parts of the whole together and call the resulting thing volition, but if underneath the same deterministic processes are at work as in a model without volition, then Tolkien was just as much – or as little – just a conduit in the model with volition as in the one without – you just call things differently, but this doesn’t chance anything about the fundamental reality.

By the way, I don’t think it’s right to say that Tolkien was just a conduit, or similar things along these lines. Determinism doesn’t entail that genuine novelty, genuine creativity and invention is impossible – the reason being the impossibility to predict the future even by Laplacian-demonic means: any system, provided it is computationally universal, has the potential to come up with genuinely novel creations, and those are creations due to the system, in the sense that without it, the creative act would not have occurred. And really, that’s not too different from how we view creativity ordinarily – after all, the environment and circumstances of Tolkien’s life did play a rather big role in determining content, setting, language and tone of his work.

To me, this indeterminability is as free as it gets; and I think that’s actually plenty, as everything else would just amount to randomness. (I’ve written a bit about these notions and related ones here, if you’re interested.)

Huh? I’m not sure what you mean by that; do you think I should have supplied more cites for my points? I can try, if you tell me where you think something’s lacking.

I was actually trying to avoid this argument since the world is often too complicated (it’s still correct to say that smoking causes lung cancer even though some people get lung cancer without ever smoking), but this is exactly the argument that Dennett is making about the coin flip. He says, “A coin flip with a fair coin is a familiar example of an event yielding a result (heads, say) that properly has no cause. It has no cause because no matter how we choose the set X (ignoring Austin’s mistaken advice that we consider circumstances as they precisely were), we will find no feature C that is necessary for heads or necessary for tails.” Just to clarify, the set X is his formal way of describing which conditions are to be varied to determine the cause.

I’m not seeing it. How about: the number of 180° rotations or flips, plus the original orientation. Originally oriented heads up, plus even number of rotations = heads, odd number of rotations = tails; oriented tails up, even number of rotations = tails, odd number = heads.

Sure, but that just changes which event is uncaused. What is the necessary feature of an even or odd number of flips?

Travel distance + rotation frequency.

Technically, it would be travel time and rotational frequency. Even then, is it right to say that 2 times 3 causes 6?

No, but that’s not analogous – rotating for some time at a certain frequency causes a certain number of rotations the same way travelling for some time at a certain speed in a certain direction causes you to be at a certain place. Or we could skip the middle man and point to the imparted angular momentum, or to the event of imparting a certain angular momentum, as a cause of rotation, and as a proximate cause of a certain number of rotations. Point being, there are always events such that their occurrence is necessary for the occurrence of the coin coming up heads – otherwise, it would not have come up heads.

I don’t see why it isn’t analogous. You’re taking two features of the flip, and dividing them to generate (half of) the cause of the heads. If you wanted to know about the cause of the 69 deaths on Utøya on July 22, would you really accept “The 69 deaths were caused by 49 deaths per hour happening for 1.5 hours”?

I don’t see the necessary cause. Flipping a coin at f rotations per second for a travel time of t would make it land on heads. But so would 1.1f and 0.90909…t. So would 0.90909…f and 1.1t. So would an (effectively) infinite number of other combinations. Which one (or strict subset) of these is necessary for getting heads?

The coin rotating at a certain frequency for a certain time is certainly the reason for it coming up heads, no? While 2 and 3 are not the reason for 6.
But in any case, you can strike that, and just consider the flip itself – it imparted an angular momentum and velocity, such that the coin necessarily landed heads.

You could view the disjunction of all of them as the necessary cause. Whenever (f and t) or (1.1f and 0.909…t) or … obtains, we will get heads; whenever (f’ and t’) or … obtains, we will get tails. Why should the possibility of multiple causes leading to the same effect render the effect uncaused? There are in general multiple possible past reconstructions, as there are, for instance, multiple possible microstates to a macrostate in thermodynamics. To say that since there are many possibilities, there is no actual cause, is like saying that since there are many possible microstates, there is no actual microstate.

Also, the coin flip really only discusses part of a system; to a certain extent, the ambiguity regarding the determination of a necessary cause results in us willingly ‘forgetting’ certain other variables that characterise the whole system, like the precise point the coin landed, the trajectory it took, and whatever else (so if one were to point to the force, and hence, angular momentum and acceleration imparted as a necessary cause, it would still be true that there are multiple possible ways for it to come up heads, but not to come up heads and land on the same position and take the same trajectory). And as you already noted, you can always create an apparently indeterministic system by choosing the right boundaries, i.e. leaving out part of a deterministic one.

And of course, ultimately, in quantum mechanics, evolution is always unitary, so that from each state, any prior state can always be reconstructed (leaving out the issue of measurement for the moment). To this prior state one can thus always point as necessary cause.

Suppose I’m asking what causes heat sensors to fire. Someone might say “heat sensors are caused to fire by the sun, by fire, by electricity, by matches, and by many other things.” This is an answer, and it’s even correct, but probably not the answer I’m lookig for. What I’m probably after is more like “heat sensors are caused to fire by the proximity, at a particular named scale, of particles moving with respect to each other.” The first answer is true, but doesn’t give me a handle on the causal facts invovled in the firing of heat sensors. The second answer is also true, and does give me that handle.

I believe Dennett’s view is something like this: There is no answer like the second answer above that can be given in answer to the question “What causes coins to come up heads?”

It can be determined, on purely mechanical grounds, whether a coin will land on heads or not. But Dennett’s saying tha mere determinability doesn’t make for causality in a sense relevant to the question compatibilism. He’s saying that for determinism’s truth to imply the nonexistence of free will, it would have to be that mental states aren’t just determined but caused, and as for what he means by “caused” see the above discussion. If you don’t think that’s the correct definition of the English term “cause” that’s one thing, but what we ought to do is just give him the term (call it Schmause if you must!) and see if he’s right about the concepts.

What Frylock said, more or less. When discussing the cause of an event, I think there’s an important difference between (1) enumerating all ways the event can occur and proclaiming the disjunction to be the cause and (2) submitting the variety of ways to analysis, finding the similarities and using to discover the cause.

To advance the discussion, it probably be would helpful for me to expound on what I think emergence brings to my model. I don’t have the time to do that this evening, as it will require me among other things to type in some lengthy quotes from the book linked in the OP, Emergence (2008), but I’ll try to do it tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll make a few comments on today’s posts.

Dennett on Causation. The more I think about it, the more I think my original reading, if not what Dennett intended, is what he should have said. That is, a coin toss is determined but in effect random. Rather than uncaused, Dr. Love, he should have said it’s unpredictable. Which, of course, is obviously true. Or in the case of another problem he discusses, the historical conundrum of identifying the causes of World War I, he should have said it’s inscrutable, not uncaused. And, Frylock, welcome to the discussion. I was hoping you’d drop in.

Socialization and Language. Notice these are but two of half-a-dozen observations about human behavior which cause me to conclude the determinist conception standing alone is inadequate. Whether emergence fills the gap certainly can be disputed - I’ll try to make that case further tomorrow - but it’s plain to me there’s a gap. HMHW obviously disagrees, but give me credit for one thing. No, I’m not trying to force the conclusion. Indeed, that’s why I pointed out I’m not playing hide-the-cite. I’ve tried very hard to find a way to push through any of the three common theories, LFW, determinism and traditional compatibilism. I can’t. That the debate is still going strong suggests I’m not the only one.

But it’s also not really a unique answer, the likes of which Dr. Love seems to be seeking, is it? There are many different configuration of moving particles that cause the heat sensor to fire, so no single one of those could be pointed to as necessary.

I still don’t see why ‘starting out tails (heads) and flipping an odd (even) number of times’ is not such an answer.

You’re right – causality, schmausality, what matters is whether or not it grants us freedom; but unfortunately, I just don’t see how. Freedom, to me, would entail options, choice, unconstrainedness – but in a deterministic universe, with or without strict schmausality, there’s none of the above; at any instant, there is one physically possible future, and that’s what’s gonna happen.

Of course, one could possibly redefine freedom appropriately, say as ‘being unschmaused’, but then, one would really be talking about schmeedom, and come to the conclusion that, yes, in a universe without strict schmausality, schmeedom and schmee will are indeed possible, which is a very good answer to a question nobody ever asked. In the same manner, we can proceed to prove the existence (or nonexistence!) of some appropriately defined schmod, find a theory of schmeverything, and solve all of the other great problems of schmience and schmilosophy. It’s just that nobody’s particularly interested in those fields.

Sorry for the perhaps excessive snark, but I really fail to see how word games are going to lead to any insight here – whether or not one considers causality, schmausality or whatever other notion, there’s no denying that in a deterministic universe, there are no alternatives; and without alternatives, there’s no choice, so even if we were to call what we have ‘free will’, it would only entail our ability to freely choose the only option available to us. This just doesn’t constitute anything I would call ‘free’ to me.

Well, then explain where exactly you see that gap! What’s missing? What can’t be explained deterministically? And how does volition – which after all appears to just be determinism as well – solve these issues?

It was indeed an odd amount of snark. As you yourself said in acknowledgment of my point, it’s freedom that’s important–not schmeedom.

I think you’re making one of the same points Dennett is making in “Higher Order Truths About Chmess,” and I doubt anyone here disagrees. The point isn’t to play word games, but to get at what’s important–the actual concepts people are trying to express using those words.

I haven’t read Dennett here but based on what I’ve seen in the thread it looks like Dennett is arguing that we can ascribe actions specifically to people (and hence blame or praise them) and not just to the deterministic forces behind them because their actions are (while determined) not caused in his sense. (Caused, schmaused, call it what you like–insisting on a term is a word game and you’re the one who doesn’t like to do that, correct?) This lets us ascribe actions to them because other than ascribing the action to them, there’s no way to get a handle on their action–no way to explain it in a way that lets us make generalizations about how to handle similar actions in similar contexts. Since, then, we can’t have a handle on these actions, we are only able to say something like “that’s just what that person did, there’s no further useful explanation that can be made.” And this is what allows for us to lay the blame or praiseworthiness of the action at that person’s feet, instead of looking for some causal forces behind the person’s action and dealing with that instead.

Geez that was muddled and I have to go. But basically what I’m saying is I think for Dennett what’s important in the question of freedom is “in a deterministic universe, can we make sense of saying that actions belong to people and that people are to be blamed or praised for their actions?” Dennett thinks the answer is “Yes we can because some actions are (while determined) not caused, so the best explanation we can have is just to point to the person and say ‘s/he did it.’”

So you disagree with Dennett about what’s important in freedom. He thinks what’s important is the question “how can we genuinely ascribe actions to persons in a deterministic universe?” You think what’s important is the question “How can someone have a choice if their action was determined?” It’s not a word game–you think different things are important when it comes to the question of freedom. I guess the discussion needs to be over which of these is more important, or whether they can be found to be different ways of asking the same question or something.

Sorry for the low quality post. :wink: I now have to meet some obligations IRL.

Again, I’m sorry, but it wasn’t directed at you – it’s just that it seems to me there is an undercurrent of equivocation present, which obscures what we’re really talking about, or perhaps should be talking about. Of course, you can call anything whatever you like, and you can define your terms in whichever way you choose, but these redefinitions don’t change anything about what’s really there, and we must be careful what we assert about that, and keep consistent.

Well, I’m less concerned with what people are trying to express, but with what is a matter of fact. And there seems to be a bit of sleight-of-hand in the argument, substituting one for the other: Dennett asserts that what we really mean by saying something is caused is different from what we think we mean, goes on to craft a new definition, shows that under this definition, there are uncaused events, then inserts ‘uncaused = free’, and uses this to prove the existence of freedom! (This is a rather stark caricature of his argument, of course.) The problem is that ‘uncaused = free’ only held under the ‘old’ definition of causality. If you change the meaning of words, you can’t go on to use them in the same way you did before!

I’m not insisting on a term (at least I don’t think I am), I’m insisting on a concept – the word game is to keep the same term, but change the concept. That’s fine of course, but then you’re not talking about the same thing you talked about before anymore, and this has to be acknowledged.

Why can we only ascribe actions to people if they are uncaused? Everything my computer does is perfectly caused, yet its actions are still its actions – without the computer, they would not have occurred. Of course, I don’t lay moral blame on it, because it is not the kind of thing I conceive of in moral categories, that I contextualize as a moral being, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t hold it responsible for, say, drawing the pictures I see on the screen. To me, and I’d go out on a limb and say to most other people, it’s the computer who does this; so if we are (as Dennett is) fond about framing discussion in terms of what we really talk about, or what we really mean, then we should conclude that we readily attribute agency to perfectly causal processes, such as those occurring in a computer.

I think what’s discussed when the question of free will is discussed is more along the lines of the latter question. To me, what Dennett is doing just seems too much like: 1) Define ‘free’ as meaning ‘brown’, 2) define ‘will’ as meaning ‘bunny’, 3) observe that brown bunnies exist, 4) conclude that free will exist. Of course, free will, thus defined, does exist perfectly well, it’s just that that’s not remotely an interesting conclusion to come to – add to this that it’s then usually presented (though I’m not accusing Dennett of doing this) just in the form ‘free will exists’ without an added ‘and by free will, I mean brown bunnies’, and people will think an interesting conclusion has been reached where in fact, terms are just used in an unfamiliar manner.

Don’t get me wrong, I think compatibilism and its discussion has a lot going for it – above all, the question of how to assign moral blame in a deterministic world is a tough one, and I think here Dennett actually does an admirable job (I’ve referred to his stance in other discussions on this board, but I’m too lazy to dig anything up right now). But it shouldn’t be construed as answering questions that it doesn’t in fact answer, which to my reckoning, almost all versions of ‘compatibilist free will’ (that I’m familiar with, at any rate) seem to do on some level.

In fact, most would probably regard my own stance on the matter as somewhat compatibilist – in my view, the closest thing to freedom we’ll ever get is the indeterminability or irreducibility resulting from issues of undecidability in complex systems: it is in general not possible to, say, determine your choice between some alternatives in any way other than having you actually make that choice. The information just isn’t there; prior to your choosing, there exists no fact of the matter as to the kind of your choice. So your choice brings something genuinely new to the universe, despite there being only one way things could have played out. There is no set of causes from which your choice would follow immediately – the only way to do so would be to bring into existence a version of you that to itself is indistinguishable from yourself, living in the same circumstances you do, and observe this 'simulation’s choice. The act of your choosing can thus be viewed as being ultimately your own, irreducible to anything but you making that choice. But I wouldn’t advertise this as free will – at bottom, no choice was made at all, after all.

No one thinks brownness is what is important when we are using the term “freedom,” and no one thinks bunnies are what are important when we are using the term “will.”

But many people think that the ability to ascribe actions and assign responsibility is what’s important when we use the terms “freedom” and “will”.

That’s the point at which your “brown bunnies” analogy fails.

As to your other point, the argument isn’t that being uncaused is necessary for the assignment of responsibility–the argument is that an action’s being both uncaused and part of a system towards which it is sensible to take the intentional stance is sufficient for the assignment of responsibility. That’s one claim. Then there’s a second, separate claim that the ability to assign responsibility is what’s centrally important to discussions of free will.

That wasn’t the point of the analogy. Rather, if there were some group of people that thought that brownness and bunniness mattered, for them to produce an argument to the effect that brown bunny-free will exists, and then to conclude that free will exists, is invalid – what exists, what’s really out there, are brown bunnies.

And apart from that, I really have a hard time believing that there are people to whom ‘freedom’ does not have a connotation of being able to do differently – that freedom does not mean to most people the existence of choice. Free to do just one thing is not free at all, at least not free in any sense I would consider meaningful. Under this conception, a slave is perfectly free to do whatever his master tells him to.