"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Decision-making and rationality

The discussion on the post below is risking becoming a little too broad in my opinion – so I thought I'd try to focus the issue a little (for the time being).

I've stated on various occasions that the main problem I have with the concept of libertarian free will is its vagueness: Human decisions are, apparently, neither causally determined nor random. Yet quite what they are is never fully addressed. To me it seems that not only is LFW unprovable, it's not even describable either.

To this Alex has replied:

Which seems odd to me since you must assume it with every genuine deliberation you make. One would thing a persistent and ongoing experience of a certain phenomena would count for something.

But is this the case?

Does making a decision require that the decision-maker hold some form of LFW? Let's say that I'm faced with the decision of whether to have a final slice of pizza or not: The crucial factor here (all things being equal) is how hungry I am. If I'm hungry enough I will eat the pizza. If not then I won't. This decision doesn't require any grand supernatural view of human nature – it simply requires a dislike of hunger. What about deciding whether or not to buy 'The West Wing' on DVD: The crucial factors (again, all things being equal) are how much I enjoy the show and how much money I have to spare. These factors are determined by biology and environment – We don't choose whether we're hungry or not. We don't choose what we enjoy or get bored by.

The various factors that go into the decision-making process are usually quite numerous, but they all break down into a simple cost-benefit style of analysis. If the pros of joining my friends at the pub outweigh the cost then I'll join them at the pub. If it doesn't then I won't.

Under the determinist conception of decision-making the result is (putting randomness aside for the moment) entirely dependent on the circumstances. If the level of hunger is above a certain point the pizza will be eaten, if below then not. If the temperature outside is too cold then I won't pop out to the shops, if it's not then I will. This is because the individual is rational – they will act in the way that they see as best satisfying their desires (at that moment in time).

Libertarian free will, on the other hand, seems to conflict with this idea of rationality. Let's say there is an individual (Matt) who, being quite hungry, has just spent twenty minutes making dinner. The meal is done and Matt sits down to eat. However, the universe now splits in two: In the first (deterministic) universe, Matt A eats the meal. In the second (libertarian) universe, Matt B does not. Matt A's actions require little explanation, as they're perfectly rational – he was hungry, the food was ready and therefore he ate. Matt B's actions though seem quite odd. There was no reason for him not to eat the food, he simply chose not to. We cannot talk of his decision in rational terms – It was not the case that he wasn't hungry or that he had something better to do (as the cost-benefit analysis can't explain decisions in the Libertarian universe). So his decision must be irrational (yet at the same time meaningful).

As I can't reconcile this with my own experience of decision-making (I do things for a reason) my experience of deliberation provides no support for a non-deterministic theory.

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30 Comments:

Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I agree with you. LFW seems to hold not only that our actions are (partly) independent of prior physical conditions, but also that they're (partly) independent of our prior state of mind. So it introduces a gap between our character, preferences, plans etc. and what we then actually do.

Alex said on that previous thread:

"Kane makes the argument that most of our choices are to a large degree determined (perhaps influenced would be a better word) by our character. From here he argues that it is ultimately us who form our characters with each "self-forming action" we choose. Our characters then are slowly fashioned over time by the results of decisions where we are genuinely torn to move one way or the other. On this view we are, to some degree, "responsible" for our character and therefore still morally accountable when we act according to it."

I completely agree that our actions gradually shape our character, just as our character shapes our individual actions. But where does this start? At some point going back do we have a 'pure initial character' that then starts acting, and if so how could we possibly be responsible for our initial character?

3:13 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Yep, that's the main problem I have with it.

If someone wants to argue that our decisions are unpredictable due to potential random / spontaneous events (which "self-forming actions" would essentially be) then I've got no problem with that - although we could never rule out that what appears random now won't eventually be shown to be working under some as yet undiscovered law.

But the idea that decisions can exist outside the causal nature of the universe and yet still be, somehow, be made by us just seems incoherent.

8:14 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Fellers,
You both are raising great questions and I cannot tell you how much it pains me to just let this sit. Even so, since I have three classes this quarter I hardly have a minute to spare these days. So rather than continuing on trying to argue what men far better than ourselves have not reached consensus on, (as fun as that is) I must simply ask, If we assume determinism, as you wish to do, how do you go on talking about, "it's my choice," "it's a decision we all need to make for ourselves," etc...?

You do not posses any measure of ultimate responsibility. Thus, you are a chemical machine being carried along by forces antecedent to your being. This renders talk of "my choice" incoherent. A redefinition of "responsibility" is then in order the result of which must end in the complete neutering of the word.

Neither of our positions are beyond disputability. However, we must ask ourselves if is true how do we live consistently with such a conviction? It seems to me you ought to stop talking about "choices" as if they were meaningful statements. If determinism is true then History is a straight line from start to finish. We don't have any genuine opportunity to do other than what will necessarily be done. There's no such thing as "choices," just the illusion of choice.

This has been the cause of great anxiety for the philosophers, hence the appearance of compatibilism as an attempt to deal with the ramifications. Peter Van Inwagan's Consequence Argument has done a good bit of damage to traditional compatibilist attempts at preserving some measure of freedom. It seems to me the Consequence Argument is sound. And so the anxiety that determinism causes must remain.

Unless... we are not determined. Unless our choices really are in some way "real." Unless we truly are responsible moral agents.

Gotta run!

7:36 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hey Alex,

You do not posses any measure of ultimate responsibility. Thus, you are a chemical machine being carried along by forces antecedent to your being. This renders talk of "my choice" incoherent.

I don't think you can distinguish between "us" and those "antecedent forces" so easily - we are "just the universe doing its thing", after all. Those forces are a fundamental part of who I am - without them I'd be nothing, so surely that provides me with the requisite measure of responsibility?

There's no such thing as "choices," just the illusion of choice.

The idea that we can act in a way that is both "free" yet part of our character is an illusion. The idea that when presented with a number of courses of actions we will prefer one to the others is not. It is in the latter sense that we have choice.

9:55 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Howdy Matt,

"so surely that provides me with the requisite measure of responsibility?"

Only in the neutered sense that I alluded to above. A sense, I maintain, that renders the word essentially useless.

"The idea that we can act in a way that is both "free" yet part of our character is an illusion."

You are equivocating on me here. All I am maintaining is that if determinism is true, then "choice," in the relevant sense, is an illusion. You are here again arguing for a sort of choice that is determined. Which I would say is no real choice at all, for I do not see how it is meaningful to speak of a choice in which we retain no ultimate responsibility for the outcome.

If you are satisfied with your redefined versions of "responsibility" and "choice," then it seems we are at a stalemate. However, it might be helpful to use alternate terminology in the future as the vast majority of humanity is not going to understand what you are talking about when you use terms that are already laden with assumed freedom.

10:11 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

We may very well be at a stalemate.

If you refuse to accept determinism then, as I see it, the only valid stance you can take is agnosticism on the issue - as the evidence suggests that our decisions are determined (as they are limited and rational).

PS: The definition of free will I'm using has a long and illustrious history - so I think I'll stick with it for now. :-)

10:29 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

"the evidence suggests that our decisions are determined (as they are limited and rational)."

And by this it is clear I have not articulated myself properly as I am not advocating a position where our decisions are unlimited or irrational. There's nothing within Libertarian freedom that would require unlimited irrational factors to secure freedom. Neither does the fact that our decisions are limited and rational require determinism.

"The definition of free will I'm using has a long and illustrious history"

Perhaps so, but I was referring to the necessary redefinitions of "responsible" and "choice." :-)

10:39 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Neither does the fact that our decisions are limited and rational require determinism.

I think it does: Say we have three possible choices of action (A, B and C) - If one (C) is better than the other two then it would make no sense not to choose it, so reason determines our choice. In order for us to choose A or B we would have to be irrational. Neither what is best nor what is rational is within our control.

A libertarian seems committed to the idea that A, B and C are all equally likely courses to action.

Perhaps so, but I was referring to the necessary redefinitions of "responsible" and "choice

Again - these words predate LFW.

To say that X chose the apple over the orange is simply to say that X had the apple and not the orange. To say that X is responsible for her choice is simply to say that X was the most immediate cause of it.

Neither of these does any violence to the English language.

10:52 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

It's so much more enjoyable to keep the exchanges brief like this! Hardly feels like I'm wasting any time at all! ;-)

"A libertarian seems committed to the idea that A, B and C are all equally likely courses to action."

But this is only a half-truth. The Libertarian is committed to A, B and C being equally likely only when they really are. These would be what Kane refers to SFA's or Self Forming Actions. It is during those times when we are genuinely torn between alternate possibilities up until the moment of actually performing the action that start us down the road of forming our character.

Now you can deny that A, B or C are ever equally likely, though I'm not sure how you would empirically verify such a conviction.

I'm somewhat irked that you think I am doing some kind of pie-in-the-sky routine by denying it on philosophic grounds and that the evidence makes it clear humanity is exhaustively determined. Can you direct my attention to this evidence? I honestly haven't seen it yet. Furthermore, I do not see your conviction as unreasonable, but rather I see inconstancy in how you continue to speak and the entailments of your conviction. This simply leads me to wonder how possible it even is to practice what you preach.

"To say that X chose the apple over the orange is simply to say that X had the apple and not the orange. To say that X is responsible for her choice is simply to say that X was the most immediate cause of it."

And this is what I mean. This is a redefinition that does indeed do violence to the English language. By this account we would say:

A boulder rolls down a hill and hits a house but not the car.
Therefore, the boulder chose the house.

Clearly this is not right. The word "choice" clearly connotes more than something being involved in an action.

Likewise, the above boulder would be the most immediate cause of said house crushing and so would be responsible.

On on level this is true. However like much in the English language responsible in this sense is not the relevant sense. The relevant sense would be moral responsibility. In other words, would we "hold the boulder responsible?" Surely we would not.

And so you are left with two neutered terms that do not align themselves with how humanity has traditionally spoke for the last several thousand years.

Dang... that one got way to long.

11:26 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Alex,
I think you're begging the question a little with your main argument against determinism, here. If I'm right, I think you're suggesting that if the body is responsible for our choices (through deterministic mechanisms), then "we" are deprived of choice and responsibility. But this statement assumes that there is a separation between the "I"of the mind, and the material body.

An atheist believes that the mind is simply a product of the body's mechanics. The body is us. Our mind is a byproduct of the body's collation, interpretation and reaction to a constant stream of data. Therefore the choices made on the basis of the body's analysis of incoming data are "our" choices.

No redefinition of responsibility is needed. It simply requires that we dispense with the presupposition that mind and body are separate, and thus that mind is somehow not responsible for what the body does.

"Can you direct my attention to this evidence? I honestly haven't seen it yet."

The whole field of neuroscience presupposes that the actions of the body are based on a deterministic paradigm and prior conditions.

Both through surgery and chemical intervention, we have repeatedly shown that you can influence bodily functions, including decision making.

If you're interested, the place to research is in memory and learning. Long Term Potentiation and Long Term Depression are two opposing mechanisms that determine the frequency of inputs and outputs from neurons within given circuits. Our decision making comes down to which networks have the strongest synapses, the strength of which is determined by prior activity (and thus prior experience). These circuits can be disrupted and influenced both chemically and surgically.

Let's consider the hypothesis that decision making can, at times, occur independently of prior conditions (at the level of synapses or atoms, it doesn't really matter).

The central question would be this: what initiates the "choice"? In the deterministic paradigm, there is no set initiating factor. You can potentially trace the influences of a choice all the way back to the Big Bang. In a non-deterministic paradigm, it's a bit more difficult. If pre-existing conditions are not initiating factors, then what is? What is the first step?

For a person faced with a dilemma, we have to believe that somewhere in the brain a neuron, or group of neurons, will just suddenly and spontaneously start firing. This simply doesn't gel with the available results.

5:40 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Brevity shall be the watchword!

It is during those times when we are genuinely torn between alternate possibilities up until the moment of actually performing the action

Could you provide a concrete example? It seems to me that you're arguing that LFW only holds where a) we don't have the necessary information to make a proper decision or b) it makes no difference which one we choose.

The whole field of neuroscience presupposes that the actions of the body are based on a deterministic paradigm and prior conditions.

I think it's simpler than that - In order for a decision to be meaningful it has to be rational, and we don't get to chose what's rational or not.

We see this implicitly in how people talk about decisions - They look for determining circumstances: He was hungry... He was tired... It was raining... He wanted to be near his sister... Etc. Whether we have such desires is beyond our control, and whether or not can satisfy them depends on events beyond our control.

The determinist theory is the only one that makes real sense of decision-making.

8:44 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Boys,
"If I'm right, I think you're suggesting that if the body is responsible for our choices (through deterministic mechanisms), then "we" are deprived of choice and responsibility."

Kinda. A slight revision: If determinism, then all movements, thoughts, physical states, etc... cannot be or do other than they are and thus, they posses no ultimate responsibility and "choice" is an illusion.

Contra Matt, choice connotes more than "X had the apple and not the orange." Likewise, responsibility connotes more than "X was the most immediate cause of it." Thus, the words choice and responsibility are rendered deceptive.

I'm not sure how you see me begging the question. All I'm arguing is that if determinism, then "choice" and "responsibility" (in the relevant sense) do not exist.

8:37 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Gah! My browser keeps trying to interfere with my free will by closing down.

I think there are really two separate (though linked) issues here: Determinism and its consequences.

The first is (largely) an empirical issue (as I see it): What's involved in decision-making. The second is much more an issue of meaning and value... and therefore a lot more complex.

If determinism, then all movements, thoughts, physical states, etc... cannot be or do other than they are and thus, they posses no ultimate responsibility and "choice" is an illusion.

My take on your arguments here is that they're a form of "greedy" reductionism - Everything can be explained in basic physical terms, therefore that's the only level of explanation that's valid. You keep bringing up "ultimate responsibility" as though it's the only kind that means anything - but I don't think I've seen an argument for this.

We hold individual's responsible for their actions and talk about "them" making a choice because it's the most relevant level of analysis for day-to-day life. I could analyse your actions here on many, many different levels - psychological, cultural, biological, physical, etc. But, while such analysis would be valid, it has little to do with the issues at hand. (As I believe Tom has already pointed out on the other thread).

9:15 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

I think further proof that the definition of responsibility fits more snugly with determinism is that the very existence of community outreach and rehabilitation programs is based on the acceptance that the actions of criminals are due to far deeper physiological issues than a simple momentary decision to do wrong based on a temptation to sin from a malevolent entity.

After all, what is the purpose of punishment if it isn't simply negative reinforcement (a deterministic paradigm)? In very few places (no doubt a few south of the Mason-Dixon line) is it still believed that punishment is more for the benefit of the victim than the criminal.

11:19 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

"You keep bringing up "ultimate responsibility" as though it's the only kind that means anything - but I don't think I've seen an argument for this. "

Fair enough. For our purposes the relevant sense of "responsibility" is moral responsibility. This sort of responsibility presupposes 1. having the ability to do otherwise (this is denied by some compatibilists, though in my opinion their objections only work under carefully rigged thought experiments that don't seem to connect with reality) and 2. being the purposeful originator of the relevant event. (Ultimate Responsibility)

That said, if determinism is true, premise 1. does not obtain. Furthermore, if determinism is true, premise 2. does not obtain.

Thus, if determinism is true, there is no such thing as moral responsibility.

"We hold individual's responsible for their actions and talk about "them" making a choice because it's the most relevant level of analysis for day-to-day life."

It is indeed the most relevant sense, but the question that must be asked is, "why?"

If a man shoots another man and so murders him, the most immediate cause of death would be from the bullet tearing through the man's body. Why don't we "blame" the bullet? It's certainly the most immediate cause of death. But that's obviously absurd! Instead, we blame the man who used gun, but not the gun, or the bullet. But if determinism is true isn't this a rather arbitrary place to assign blame?

It seems to me the reason we assign blame to other humans must have something to do with the fact that we really are (at least to some degree) the originators of the actions we act out. And this cannot be the case if we are mechanically determined machines, regardless of how complex we are.

Incit,
I think what you say here is getting to an important point. The notion of accountability within a broken system is certainly worthy of deep consideration. However, this is nothing new. I'm sure that as long as messed up parents have been raising messed up kids other looking in have noticed that the misbehavior of said offspring is set in motion by factors beyond their control. As such, pity is more readily available than malice or blame. Even so, influence and determine are two distinct technical terms that I think we really need to keep straight in this discussion.

2:07 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

It seems to me the reason we assign blame to other humans must have something to do with the fact that we really are (at least to some degree) the originators of the actions we act out

I think that assigning blame has much more pragmatic purposes: Firstly, to establish our own position ("I'd never do that!"). Secondly, and most importantly, to try to influence future behaviour. The reason society normally punishes offenders (minor and major) is to raise the costs of such behaviour and therefore make it less likely to happen again.

This is why we tend to blame the person who fired the gun rather than the bullet - The latter would have absolutely no affect on the probability of said action happening again.

(Although there is a long history of people blaming inanimate objects - Guns, books, films, music, etc. for causing certain types of behaviour)

I'm off to London for the week - So I'll catch up with any comments over the weekend.

3:54 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Choice is self-aware causation. We have the ability to have higher-order thoughts about ourselves, ie to understand ourselves as having beliefs, preferences, personalities, histories and the like, and we can anticipate consequences of different actions and which of these consequences fit best with which of our desires. These mental states are what then cause our decisions and actions. The difference between us and non-sentient moving objects is that expectation of and desire for the consequences causes our actions, whereas objects in motion merely, blindly, lead to consequences. The difference between us and other animals is that we are able to think critically and comparatively about our own mental states.

A good person is a person of good character with good desires that cause good actions. A person is responsible for their actions in so far as their character has caused those actions unimpaired by insanity, coercion and other things that might disrupt the rational process of anticipation and evaluation. If there’s no such impairment, then the actions fairly reflect the person’s character and they are the person’s own.

Ownership of actions doesn’t come from the operation of some metaphysically obscure process that posits something distinct from a person’s character to bring about one option rather than another. That seems, rather, to distance one’s actions from who one is.

We’ve been talking about determinism, but indeterminism doesn’t change the picture (which do I believe in? Ask a physicist in a couple of hundred years) if there is still universal event-causation: randomness in itself doesn’t help. What the libertarian needs is a certain element of indeterminism, which creates room for a kind of irreducible ‘agent-causation’ that operates in its own unique and separate way. I have yet to find an intelligible explanation of this.

I want to quote some chunks of Kane, as Alex is keen on him. I think it makes sense to put that in a comment all of its own.

8:09 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Robert Kane proposes that a “condition of ultimate responsibility” can be upheld [all that follows is him]:

to be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient reason (condition, cause or motive) for the action's occurring.

Often we act from a will already formed, but it is "our own free will" by virtue of the fact that we formed it by other choices or actions in the past (SFAs) for which we could have done otherwise.

these undetermined self-forming actions or SFAs occur at those difficult times of life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become. …we are faced with competing motivations and have to make an effort to overcome temptation to do something else we also strongly want. …
When we do decide under such conditions of uncertainty, the outcome is not determined because of the preceding indeterminacy--and yet it can be willed (and hence rational and voluntary) either way owing to the fact that in such self-formation, the agents' prior wills are divided by conflicting motives. … When we… decide in such circumstances, and the indeterminate efforts we are making become determinate choices, we make one set of competing reasons or motives prevail over the others then and there by deciding.

Note that, under such conditions, the choices either way will not be "inadvertent," "accidental," "capricious," or "merely random," (as critics of indeterminism say) because they will be willed by the agents either way when they are made, and done for reasons either way--reasons that the agents then and there endorse. … Of course, for undetermined SFAs, agents do not control or determine which choice outcome will occur before it occurs; but it does not follow… that one does not control or determine which of them occurs, when it occurs.

in the case of self-forming choices, whichever way the agents choose they will have succeeded in doing what they were trying to do because they were simultaneously trying to make both choices, and one is going to succeed. Their failure to do one thing is not a mere failure, but a voluntary succeeding in doing the other.

On the view I proposed, one cannot separate the indeterminism and the effort of will, so that first the effort occurs followed by chance or luck (or vice versa). One must think of the effort and the indeterminism as fused; the effort is indeterminate and the indeterminism is a property of the effort, not something separate that occurs after or before the effort. The fact that the effort has this property of being indeterminate does not make it any less [one’s own] effort.

8:09 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

There we go. Interestingly, Kane is clear that he’s not proposing some sort of “extra-factor” agent-causation. So I’m happy for the sake of argument to accept his metaphysical set-up, but I think it can’t offer the “ultimate responsibility” that libertarians want.

Say that I have reason R1 to do action A1 and reason R2 to do A2, and I am torn as Kane describes. I end up doing A2 because of R2. I have made a deliberate decision for a rational reason. In his terms, I voluntarily succeeded in doing A2 because of R2. I chose. No controversy so far.

But why did I choose A2? Why did I not voluntarily succeed in doing A1 because of R1? Because reason R2 was stronger than R1? No: if that had been so, I’d not have been so torn. I chose A2, according to Kane, because I decided to treat R2 as more important.

But was that reason-preferring decision distinct from the action-performing decision? Kane suggests not, and if they took place in the same instant, perhaps that could be possible (although big life decisions may well be made during deliberation some time before they are carried out). But either way, was there a reason for my deciding that R2 mattered more than R1?

If not, then we have to say that, despite Kane’s insistence, this decision was irrational. But if there was a reason, then we have to ask how that came to be: if it was because of some previous “self-forming action”, then we have to ask the same questions over again and face a vicious regress; if it came to be through factors for which I did not have “ultimate responsibility”, then the whole approach collapses.

Alex, I think there’s more that an anti-libertarian can say about moral responsibility than you perhaps credit.

Try this from Derek Pereboom (which also connects to Kane’s topic of character formation – highly relevant if you’re attracted to his view because it aims to let us freely shape our own characters):

It is not implausible that good moral character is to a large extent the function of upbringing, and furthermore, the belief that this is so is common in our society. Parents typically regard themselves to have failed if their children turn out to be immoral, and many take great care to raise their children to prevent this result. Accordingly, people often come to believe that they have a good moral character largely because they were brought up with parental love and skill. But I suspect that hardly anyone who comes to this realization experiences dismay because of it. We tend not at all to be dispirited upon coming to understand that our moral character is not our own doing, and that we deserve at best diminished respect for having this character. Rather, we feel fortunate and thankful for the upbringing we have enjoyed, and not that something significant has been lost.

He defines “strong accountability” as when an agent’s action belongs to the agent in such a way as to be deserving of praise or blame, rather than just evaluation as good or bad. “Weak accountability” is when an agent’s action is in accordance with their reasons, and thus revealing of their character. He thinks determinism rules out the former but not the latter, and that this still leaves a lot intact:

abandoning strong accountability would seem to jeopardize guilt because it essentially involves a belief that one is blameworthy for something one has done. And if guilt is undermined, the attitude of repentance might also be threatened, for it could well be that feeling guilty is required for motivating repentance. However, suppose that you perpetrate some wrongdoing, but because you have rejected strong accountability, you deny that you are blameworthy. Instead, you agree that you have done wrong, you feel sad that you were the agent of wrongdoing, you deeply regret what you have done (Waller 1990). Also, because you are committed to doing what is right and to moral advancement, you resolve to forbear from wrongdoing of this kind in the future, and you seek the help of others in sustaining your resolve. It would appear that only weak accountability is required here — strong accountability need not enter in.

I’d disagree with his use of “blameworthy” as applying exclusively to (non-existing) libertarian situations. I’d say that blame is worthy when trying to prevent recurrence of bad behaviour in others. Otherwise, I agree.

8:13 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
Hope you have a great trip to London! Off to see your bro?

It is true there is a pragmatic element in play here. You address that point well in your last comment. We don't assign blame to bullets, because, pragmatically speaking, blaming bullets won't change anything for the future.

This is true so far as it goes, however the assignment of pragmatic responsibility and moral responsibility are two different things. It's the latter we are dealing with, hence our discussion of the meaning of "choice" and "responsibility."

I have not seen you (or anyone for that matter) deal with my critiques of your redefined notions of these words. I'm curious to see where your thoughts lie here.

10:03 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Tom,
You bring up what I see to be the central difficulty for the Libertarian account.

"But either way, was there a reason for my deciding that R2 mattered more than R1? If not, then we have to say that, despite Kane’s insistence, this decision was irrational."

I don't agree that the decision is irrational, because, in this case, either choice is consistent with prior SFAs and so either decision meets the criteria of sufficient reason, and so, is rational. Even so, this characterization does not seem to be able to dodge the bullet of being arbitrary.

Here Kane introduces the concept of what he terms a value experiment. He argues that decisions of this sort are not fully justified by antecedent conditions and that they, to some degree, rely on the future for their justification.

So it seems that Kane is forced to bite the bullet here and concede this element of randomness in the ultimate distinction between choosing A1 and A2 (as opposed to the reasons behind them) at least in the context of SFAs.

It seems to me his final analysis contains elements of determinism, randomness, and reason which all operate in a dynamic system which allows for the sort of freedom necessary for genuine moral accountability. (and also in such a way as to allow for the continued use of traditional notions of "choice" and "responsibility."

Though I certainly don't claim to have come to a peace on how all that works out, I get the feeling that if it is erring, it is at least earring in the right direction.

As for Derek Pereboom, I'm reading an essay of his at the moment, though I fear I'm going to have to reread it as (much like the discussion Matt and I are having regarding the meanings of the words "choice" and "responsibility") he tends to use many words that must suffer drastic revision under a determinist scheme, but he does not take the time to address any of them. As such, I find myself reading through a paragraph, then having to rethink what he must be meaning if he commits to determinism. (a point he seems to remain agnostic on btw.)

That aside, I'm not so sure "Weak Accountability" saves as much as you think. If we are accountable insofar as our actions are in accordance with our reasons and so illuminate our character, (which has been brought about through a process which we have absolutely no control over) Then it seems all you are left with is a descriptive account with a little "bling" that continues to present the illusion of freedom.

What do I mean by this? The argument seems to go like so. (condensed for brevity)

1. Agent X commits act A. Agent X committed act A because of her reasons. Agent X's reasons are determined by her character (essentially a bias born from a history of various actions being realized through Agent X) and environmental realities.

2. Responsibility can legitimately be assigned if an action is done in accordance with the Agent's reasons which are reflective of the Agent's character.

Conclusion: Agent X is responsible for action A.

This argument certainly does seem to show that a certain "kind" of responsibility can be assigned. However, the "bling" that I refer to tends to mask the reality of what is going on here. The moment we start introducing words like "reasons, agent, committed and character" there is a tendency to "feel" them in the sorts of ways we have traditionally conceived them. That is with some sense of freedom assumed. However, if determinism obtains the above argument could be radically simplified and thus the "feeling" changes quite dramatically... I would argue this shift is more true to what determinism must entail and also gets back to the discussion of the redefinitions of words like "responsibility."

What I mean here is this: If determinism is true, then the above argument should be able to make a rather clean transition from people to things that are "clearly" determined. (random) For instance, Perboom's "Weak Accountability" ought to be able to apply just as strongly to my familiar "boulder" scenario.

1. Boulder X commits act A. Boulder X committed act A because of its reasons. Boulder X's reasons are determined by its character (essentially a bias born from a history of various actions being realized through Boulder X) and environmental realities.

2. Responsibility can legitimately be assigned if an action is done in accordance with the Boulder's reasons which are reflective of the Boulder's character.

Conclusion: Boulder X is responsible for action A.

Now you'll read this and think, "Good grief, we've lost him! He's talking like an idiot!" I know... bear with me. The point is this. Such an argument is flawed on an number of levels but most importantly it is clearly an act of equivocation. Humans and boulders are not the same. Obviously. We'll come back to this. But for our purposes of considering choice and responsibility I don't see any relevant way they differ if determinism obtains. They are both material being acted upon by forces beyond their control. Granted, one is more "complicated" in how it reacts, but complication does nothing to secure anything resembling "choice" or responsibility" in the relevant sense.

And so we are left with two words that once held a certain meaning that must be drastically redefined to exist in an assumed deterministic universe. Something in you should rebel at this notion. However, searching for a more nuanced version of how determinism works itself out doesn't seem to hold any relief. I would offer that perhaps the fact we constantly use words like choice and responsibility speak to something we just know in our very being. Perhaps its not the words that need revising. Perhaps it's our conceptions of reality.

Boulders and people are different. Indeed. The way we speak and feel about each display as much. I continue to maintain that the reason for this lies in the great mystery of what humanity is. Reductionist programs cannot contain us. And not being able to give an exhaustive account of what we are should not be seen as convincing proof that we "are not." Our lives are constant projections of a deep mystery. And for my part this mystery is one that only Jesus has been able to satisfy.

10:03 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I accept that in Kane’s view, there are rational grounds for either option, but as you say, the choice between the two seems arbitrary. The notion of decisions that “rely on the future for their justification” – well, I think this sort of thing definitely happens a lot, but it’s more a case of reasons coming into alignment with preceding actions rather than actions being produced for preceding reasons. It means ‘the self’ maintains its rational integrity, but I don’t think this gives the ‘ultimate responsibility’ Kane wants to sell.

I also agree with you that Pereboom’s use of words is annoying. I’d have liked to quote him directly on his definition of ‘weak responsibility’, but there’s no clear statement of it. Grr!

You don’t like the idea that “we are accountable insofar as our actions are in accordance with our reasons and so illuminate our character, (which has been brought about through a process which we have absolutely no control over)”. My take isn’t quite this (my first Pereboom quote directly addresses this worry, and I think it doesn’t have any iffy terminology).

Character formation is iterative, with lots of different influences interacting and affecting how subsequent influences will work. As the process goes (lifelong, surely, but concentrated in childhood), your character becomes less a set of infantile habits and impulses and more a coherent structure. It is real, even if its myriad origins are ultimately impersonal.

Some major event at age 12, say, will affect your character, but the way it does so will largely be a function of what your character already is by then. Once the structure of your character starts coming together, it contributes to shaping its future development, in the sort of way that Kane says – so we do have some control and responsibility, but not of course the hypothetical ‘ultimate responsibility’.

Your boulder scenario is a treat. As you intend, the logical parallel is valid and, as you say, of course boulders and humans are different. “Boulder X committed act A because of its reasons. Boulder X's reasons are determined by its character…” If boulders had reasons or characters this would be true. That’s the difference. To reiterate:

We have the ability to have higher-order thoughts about ourselves, ie to understand ourselves as having beliefs, preferences, personalities, histories and the like, and we can anticipate consequences of different actions and which of these consequences fit best with which of our desires. These mental states are what then cause our decisions and actions. The difference between us and non-sentient moving objects is that expectation of and desire for the consequences causes our actions, whereas objects in motion merely, blindly, lead to consequences.

On illusions – I think that LFW is one, and so any sense of responsibility or accountability that necessarily depends on LFW is also illusory. But because LFW threatens the causal link between reasons and actions, I don’t fear or rebel at the loss – indeed, an illusory loss, because LFW seems incoherent and thus impossible.

9:13 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"Even so, influence and determine are two distinct technical terms that I think we really need to keep straight in this discussion."

It's clear why that may seem to be the case superficially, but if our upbringing's "influence" is due to specific material changes in our brain development, then the verbs "influence" and "determine" are inseparable. "Influence" simply refers to the subjectively probabilistic appearance of determined events. i.e. A certain influence will cause us to act in one way more likely than another. But the way that we do finally act is still determined, based as it is on the brain's state and the precise conditions with which the brain is confronted at that particular moment.

Unless of course, we have a naked singularity hiding amongst our neurons, in which case all bets are off.

12:47 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Hey guys!

There's a nice paper by John Searle, "Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology" on his website:

http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~jsearle/articles.html

1:53 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Thanks Timmo,

Just had a look through the first couple of pages. I think I'm pretty much in agreement with him so far. I certainly concur with his framing of the discussion.

"In the case of the mind-body
problem, we had, I believe, a false presupposition in the very terminology in which we stated the problem. The terminology of mental and physical, of materialism and dualism, of spirit and flesh, contains a false presupposition that these must name mutually exclusive categories of reality - that our conscious states qua subjective, private, qualitative, etc, cannot be ordinary physical, biological features of our brain. Once we overcome that presupposition, the presupposition
that the mental and the physical naively construed are mutually exclusive, then it seems to me we have a solution to the traditional mind-body problem. And here it is: All of our mental states are caused by neurobiological processes in the brain, and they are themselves realized in the brain as its higher level or system features.
"


This is what I was trying to get at earlier, in my less than erudite fashion. I think it certainly is a brain problem (and a mammoth problem at that). But dispensing with the assumption of dualism at least adequately allows Free Will and determinism to co-exist, even if it does still leave us with a pretty tricky question of biological engineering.


I will read on...

7:27 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

That's a very interesting paper. I take issue with Serle voicing his misgivings about Hypothesis 1; he does seem to stumble into the very Cartesian hole he made a point of stepping around in his opening, imho.

At the same time, he does seem resigned to #1, and yet he doesn't explain why this resignation is reluctant. I would say he is only reluctant to it because, as he says of us all, we're just too emotionally attached to dualism. If he follows his original tack, surely there is nothing to feel reluctant about?

Or perhaps Serle is right, and I'm just being defensive because I'm too emotionally attached to determinism?

8:21 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

rev. dr. incitatus,

I find Searle's approach to the mind-body problem very appealing. He talks about it a bit more in his papers, available on his website, "Biological Naturalism" and "Why I am not a property dualist". His book, Intentionality, has an appendix in which he very nicely explains his view on the mind-body problem. (I think he talks about this stuff in The Rediscovery of Mind, too, but I haven't read that one.)

2:30 PM

 
Blogger moe said...

Pizza....mmmmm

What if I am not hungry but just dont want that last piece to go to waste?

PS. I favorite color is also blue.

11:05 AM

 
Blogger moe said...

timmo,

I just played that game last night! Threw the pop can at the baddy!

11:06 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Look at that, I go away for a few days and the discussion really takes off. :-)

I'm going to resist commenting (aside from this, obviously) as all I'd be doing at this stage is (badly) paraphrasing Tom and Incitatus.

7:37 AM

 

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