Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dream job?

A couple weeks ago my girlfriend (yes, I have a girlfriend, it's not a secret, nor is it a subtle metaphor) notified me of an ad at an online classified website seeking... wait for it... a tutor in philosophy with... wait for it... both a focus on Kant's thought and... wait for it... the freedom-determinism debate! And the pay is more than adequate. I thought it was a prank. How much more fitting could it be? "Must speak good Chinese and excellent English... a background in humanities or philosophy or law... Etc." Long story short, after some flirting about an answer and providing samples of my writing, I and the contact arranged a meeting this morning. Well, sort of a meeting. (Who is Keyser Söze?)

Good news: I got the gig!

It's a week(end)ly 2.5-hour lecture-seminar that will be held at the man's house, with his daughter and her boyfriend, and perhaps the mother, in attendance. After the "heavy vetting session" this morning--during which I did not meet the man himself, but only his daughter and her boyfriend, and during which we spoke for over two hours on the fly without a single text--, I headed to a bookstore to get a few resources. I ended up getting a small book in Chinese on Kant (since I want to be clear on his terminology in Chinese), Pockett, et al. (eds.) Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?, and Mele (ed.) The Philosophy of Action. Needless to say (...), I have numerous other texts on my bookshelves and in my hard drive which I shall study and use for the seminars.

They mentioned that Powerpoint-style lectures would be nice (that's Asian politeness for "Use Powerpoint or die," I believe). Tonight I was also told I am to lecture in Chinese, though I know their English is good enough to read and understand my notes or desperate forays into English as I try to explain things I already barely grasp in a foreign language. I realized how worthwhile it will be to start assembling such lecture materials now, which I am sure I can use in the future, during grad school and beyond. Meanwhile, these seminars will sharpen my dialectical skills, give me constant material for my book(s) on these topics, and improve my Chinese by having to lecture and debate in that tongue, albeit with those occasional desperate trench-dives into English. So? I'm basically the research assistant for a seemingly very well-off retired man with a tickle, I suspect, to be convinced that determinism is wrong. Next week's topic is twofold: 1) Do humans have free will? 2) What have scientists (esp. in the past 100 years or so) said about determinism?

I now want to record a few notes from this morning's discussion (the conversation more or less followed the order below, though I have streamlined it to cut out the usual back and forth recursion of such conversations):
  • The fourfold nature of the debate [not that this begins to capture all the nuances!]: 1. incompatibilist determinism (ID), 2. incompatibilist indeterminism (II), 3. compatibilist determinism (CD), 4. compatibilist indeterminism (CI). (I think I invented the fourth category rather on the spot.) If these views could talk, they would say:

  1. ID: All things in our world, including humans, happen by necessity from antecedent causes, therefore human action happens by necessity from antecedent causes and free will is at best an illusion.
  2. II: While it may be true that all things in our world happen by necessity from antecedent causes, certain dimensions of human action are exempt from this principle, therefore free human action does not happen by necessity from antecedent causes.
  3. CD: While all things in our world, including human actions, happen by necessity from antecedent causes, human action is still "free" in the sense that if and when it emerges from humans as genuine members of the causal matrix.
  4. CI: The world is not determinist in the way ID, II, and CD suppose, but human action is not therefore free: things just happen.

  • If determinism (D) is the doctrine that all states of affairs (SOA) necessarily result from antecedent causes, then from what SOA did the initial conditions of the whole world (Ci:W) result? If Ci:W is supposed simply to exist from all time, then D is not true for all SOA. If Ci:W simply comes to be for reasons we do not know, and which perhaps we cannot in principle articulate, then why can't other SOA (such as my own actions) result in the same way?

  • The IDist wants to corner me between two articles of faith: first, that all my actions happen for compelling psychological reasons which "overrun" my rational free will, and, second, even if we don't know what such causes are for any case, they still exert their power on my will by 'occult' means. Imagine my consciousness as the hub of a cartwheel: it is frozen in place by the n psychological factors impinging on my power to act. For some reason, though, some spokes are "thicker" (i.e. stronger) than others, and therefore induce my will to move in line with their perceived vector. The problem, however, is that we must now ask what factor accounts for the greater thickness of some spokes (call them ego-spokes) versus others. So... we posit more occult spokes (them id-spokes or meta-spokes) around the dominant ego-spoke supposedly manifested in my action. But, then... what induced those id- or meta-spokes to influence the dominant ego-spokes? And so on, ad infinitum. Eventually the IDist will just say, "It's the universe, stupid," in other words, it's the entire SOA of the whole world which caused my action. This, unfortunately, is no more illuminating than saying, "You chose what you chose because you are the kind of person who chooses such things, and you live in a world which generates people like you." Oh. I see.

  • Add to this the problem that, every time you nudge me to explain how my decision is determined by psychological factors beyond my control, you thereby expand my self-awareness and sharpen my rational agency by allowing me to be even more keenly, and thus freely, introspective, about my motives. If by such means I asymptotically reach a reflective equilibrium, which includes a humble awareness of my savory and less-than-savory inclinations, and make a full self-aware decision F, and yet you still insist I did F for some motive that's not even possible for me to be aware of... well, this begs the question: Are motives which are not consciously felt and not even unconsciously detectable really "motives" at all? If I act based on occult factors which plague me despite my best rational efforts, you might as well say I have demons. Actually, being told I have demons would be better, since at least then I'd have even more radically expanded self-awareness and publicly rational means for exorcising them and augmenting my freedom. If D can be true based on a promissory complete science which we only asymptotically achieve, then by the same token, ID can be true as a promissory, asymptotic victory. If it's only rational to accept beliefs based on adequate, if not compelling, empirical evidence, could it ever in principle be rational to espouse D (especially considering free will informs not only the myriad of normal human encounters, but also pervades our self-consciousness as agents)?

  • Gödel. Say I devise a system S of five axioms: 1. A = A. 2. A ≠ B. 3. B = B. 4. A = D. 5. A = D. Fine. But then for S to be consistent, I need to add an axiom that no other axioms can be added which might compromise my axioms under different conditions. So then I have axiom 6: This is the last axiom of S. How would I secure this finality without a seventh axiom, though? On the completeness side of things, notice that I did not give an axiom for the sequence of 1-->5, nor that D in axiom 4 is the same D as in axiom 5 (or that A in axiom 1 is the same as A in axiom 5). I need more axioms, ad infinitum... or not, since it's up to me to decide when and where S "ends." So it is with every system of deduction: we decide its limits. As the boyfriend put it, "We are not limited by the tool if we don't want to use it." If human action supposedly falls out from deduction from its own assumptions, then there's good reason to think such deduction is actually subject to the agent's usage of them, not vice versa.

  • Who says multiple layers of explanation are incompatible? I may say my nephew is being cranky because "his atoms are out of whack," my friend may say it's "because of a chemical imbalance," my neighbor may say it's "because society warps kids with TV," while his mom may just say it's "because he's hungry." They're all true, but only the latter account "maximizes intelligibility" (as Kant likes to put it in reference to natural teleology) and provides us with an efficient, rational course of action: put a sandwich in his mouth.

  • Here's another tenet of ID: Science resorts to probability due to ignorance, not due to an actual indeterminacy in an event E's microconstituents. Imagine E is the flipping of a coin on a cool spring morning. Even though we say there is a "fifty-fifty" chance of the coin landing heads or tails, in fact, unseen by our pinhole eyes, there is strictly only one possible outcome for the coin. If we could implant a supremely cognizant observer (SCO) at the time of the coin toss, he could predict with total certainty how the coin would land. Unfortunately, however, his presence would alter the initial conditions of E (Ci:E), which would render invalid his prediction of E. We would then need a higher observer (SCO') to account for the influence of the SCO on Ci:E. But then we'd need an observer (SCO'') for CSCO:E, and so on ad infinitum. It turns out then that D is only coherently possible if we grant there is an omniscient, immaterial agent who puts total attention on our world. In other words, D is just Calvinism with some serious Father Issues.

  • Certainly we can retrospectively reconstruct the causal chain of events that led to an event G--say, a man finding a winning lotto ticket in the gutter after he storms out of an unforeseen feud with his girlfriend--, but this is not logically equivalent to saying that before G, there was only one possible chain of events which could lead to that SOA. The problem for the scientifically inclined IDist is that, while he wants to defend ID based on the elegant rigor with which science constructs causal accounts of events like G, he also must admit that our science is riddled with uncertainty--recall that it is only "human" weakness/ignorance which generates probability. The tools of science, which include probability, are supposed to vindicate determinism, which excludes probability, by providing an absolute, logically incontestable explanation for G. Here we see, though, how D is more of a theological superstition, a dogma, than a logical deduction. If the IDist says my defense of freedom is a "will of the gaps," then I can just as easily say his defense of D is based on a "determinism of the gaps." For imagine if one day science discovered a randomizer--a genuine cosmic gizmo that randomly altered the micro-principles of natural law--, science would prove not-D. This eventuality aside, the key point is that the 'deterministic' rigor of our scientific reconstructions of causal chains is a function of the exactitude of our science(s), and insofar as empirical science is always revisable, always provisional, always falsifiable (or so they say), always statistical, etc., so too are "deterministic" reconstructions revisable and probable (viz. not deterministic).

  • On a camping trip. My friend is across the lake using his flash light to tell me, in Morse code, "Hurry, fire, help." I go there and help him. That night we are drifting off to sleep in our only slightly singed tents when it starts to rain. I hear a pattern of raindrops on the canvas which sounds exactly like "Hurry, fire, help." Why don't I get up to rescue the sky? Well, we "know" that my is rational and "know" the rain is not. How do we know this, though? Presumably, because we have "access to" a level of cognition which includes both people and raindrops and Morse code and our own appropriate action. It is this "higher level" of cognition, however, which is at the heart of rational freedom. Human freedom means that we can "take a step back from" our options and rationally deliberate about a course of action. Moreover, we can take another step back from this primary mode of deliberation (d:d1) to deliberate about the worth of deliberation (in d:d2). We can even "take a step forward," so to speak, and choose to "deactivate" our rational deliberation (in d:d0), such as in the movie Yes Man.

  • In any event, a retort I've heard before about the raindrops/Morse code scenario is that a human is more complex than a series of raindrops, and therefore rightly amenable to a rational interpretation. By this logic, rationality is a function of complexity. (As one of my philosophy professors put it when challenged by the incredible complexity and spontaneity of human behavior, "Yeah, well, lots of weird stuff happens when billions of atoms jiggle together.") If this were true, I should credit more rationality to more complex things. (I should also view Rube-Goldberg machines as monuments of reason... but I will leave it to you to ponder why that's crucially absurd.) By all accounts, a weather system, such as the one raining on my smoky tent by the lake, is at least as complex, if not much more complex than, the system of a man's thumb on a flashlight and some photons hitting my eye. At the extreme we'd have to say that the entire universe is the most rational thing in..., well, in the world. But then "stoically reductive hard science" just gets us pantheism and gross anthropomorphism. Add to this the scenario that, when I was a small child, my big brother trained me in Morse code precisely by training on the pitter-patter of raindrops (like a music buff who challenges his friends to "name that clip" before he can). Despite my years of education, I never really shook the profoundly beautiful idea that, when it rains, "the world is talking to me." And so I listen when it rains. You never know what the world might reveal. Fortunately, I've learned to block out most of what people say, since we all know everything people say is just neurologically determined sea spray from the waves of their genetic rise and fall in spacetime. Oh. Wait....

  • The bottom line is that, if I and the rain and the coin to be tossed are in principle equally subject to the same single set of causal constraints (i.e. if ID is true), then I either have just as much reason to treat rain and "triple rainbows" as complex rational agents as I treat my friends and family, or I have just as little reason to treat my friends and family with rational deliberation as I have to respect the rational interests of rain and black holes. If I can always in principle reduce anyone's decisions to the occult ramifications of their psyche and cognitive defects, then I not only have no obligation to listen to others as genuinely rational coins, I mean, people, but also have no grounds for faulting anyone for rejecting D. If it is irrational to base one's career choice on a coin toss--and, indeed, sadistically irrational to decide the fate of another person on coin tosses, as seen in Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men--, and if people are just as mechanistically determined as those coins, then it is irrational to base one's actions on the behavior of those pathetic bundles of tossed coins, those paragons of Kludgedom, known as human beings.
Above I linked to Bob "The Information Philosopher" Doyle's website about the nuances of this debate and I happened to discover his excellent Flash tutorial for his own thesis.


Anonymous said...

Shouldn't compatibilist indeterminism be the view that determinism is false but that freedom would be compatible with it anyway? Or is that just too boring a view?

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I see your point, so perhaps I should just call this indeterminism simpliciter. Or maybe agnostic indeterminism, since this viewpoint isn't strongly to any 'real' view of determinism and free will: both are fictions, as far as we can tell.