Two straw men fighting


Sometime ago I posted to decision-theory-workshop an idea that may be relevant here. Hopefully it can shed some light on the "solution to free will" generally accepted on LW, which I agree with.

Imagine the following setting for decision theory: a subprogram that wants to "control" the output of a bigger program containing it. So we have a function world() that makes calls to a function agent() (and maybe other logically equivalent copies of it), and agent() can see the source code of everything inclucing itself. We want to write an i... (read more)

It is not news that, with ingenuity, (apparent) Alternative Possibilities can be accommodated within determinism. It is even less news that Alternative Possibilities can be accommodated (without the need for ingenuity) within indeterminism. The question is why the determinism based approach is seen around here as "the" solution, when the evidence for the actual existence of (in)determinism remains unclear.

0JanetK10yIs there any way that this applies to me or you making a decision? If it does can you give an indication of how. Thanks.
0Blueberry10yThis is brilliant. This needs to be a top-level post.

Two straw men fighting

by JanetK 5 min read9th Aug 2010163 comments


For a very long time, philosophy has presented us with two straw men in combat with one another and we are expected to take sides. Both straw men appear to have been proved true and also proved false. The straw men are Determinism and Free Will. I believe that both, in any useful sense, are false. Let me tell a little story.



Mary's story


Mary is walking down the street, just for a walk, without a firm destination. She comes to a T where she must go left or right and she looks down each street finding them about the same. She decides to go left. She feels she has, like a free little birdie, exercised her will without constraint. As she crosses the next intersection she is struck by a car and suffers serious injury. Now she spends much time thinking about how she could have avoided being exactly where she was, when she was. She believes that things have causes and she tries to figure out where a different decision would have given a different outcome and how she could have known to make the alternative decision. 'If only..' ideas crowd into her thoughts. She believes simultaneously that her actions have causes and that there are valid alternatives to her actions. She is using both deterministic logic and free will logic, neither alone leads to 'If only..' scenarios – it takes both. If only she had noticed that the next intersection on the right had traffic lights but on the left didn't. If only she had not noticed the shoe store on the left. What is more she is doing this in order to change some aspect of her decision making so that it will be less likely to put her in hospital, again this is not in keeping with either logic. But really both forms of logic are deeply flawed. What Mary is actually attempting is to do maintenance on her decision making processes so that they can learn whatever is available to be learned from her unfortunate experience.



What is useless about determinism


There is a big difference between being 'in principle' determined and being determined in any useful way. If I accept that all is caused by the laws of physics (and we know these laws – a big if) this does not accomplish much. I still cannot predict events except trivially: in general but not in full detail, in simple not complex situations, extremely shortly into the future rather than longer term, etc. To predict anything really sizable, like for instance, how the earth came to be as it is, or even how little-old-me became what I am, or even why I did a particular thing a moment ago, would take more resources and time than can be found in the life of our universe. Being determined does not mean being predictable. It does not help us to know that our decisions are determined because we still have to actually make the decisions. We cannot just predict what the outcomes of our decisions will be, we really, really have to go through the whole process of making them. We cannot even pretend that decisions are determined until after we have finish making them.



What is useless about freewill


There is a big difference between being free in the legal, political, human rights type of freedom. To be free from particular, named restraints is something we all understand. But the free in 'free will' is a freedom from the cause and effect of the material world. This sort of freedom has to be magical, supernatural, spiritual or the like. That in itself is not a problem for a belief system. It is the idea that something that is not material can act on the material world that is problematic. Unless you have everything spiritual or everything material, you have the problem of interaction. What is the 'lever' that the non-material uses to move the material, or vice versa. It is practically impossible to explain how free will can affect the brain and body. If you say God does it, you have raised a personal problem to a cosmic one but the problem remains – how can the non-physical interact with the physical? Free will is of little use in explaining our decision process. We make our decisions rather than having them dictated to us but it is physical processes in the brain that really do the decision making, not magic. And we want our decisions to be relevant, effective and in contact with the physical world, not ineffective. We actually want a 'lever' on the material world. Decisions taken in some sort of causal vacuum are of no use to us.



The question we want answered


Just because philosophers pose questions and argue various answers does not mean that they are finding answers. No, they are make clear the logical ramifications of questions and each answer. This is a useful function and not to be undervalued, but it is not a process that gives robust answers. As an example, we have Zeno's paradox about the arrow that can never landing because its distance to landing can always be divided in half, but on the other hand, the knowledge that it does actually land. Philosophers used to argue about how to treat this paradox, but they never solved it. It lost its power when mathematics developed the concept of the sum of a infinite series. When the distance is cut in half, so is the time. When the infinite series of remaining distance reaches zero so does the series of time remaining. We do not know how to end an infinite series but we know where it ends and when it ends – on the ground the moment the arrow hits it. The sum of an infinite series can still be considered somewhat paradoxical but as an obscure mathematical question. Generally, philosophers are no longer very interested in the Zeno paradox, certainly not its answer. Philosophy is useful but not because it supplies consensus answers. Mathematics, science and their cousins, like history, supply answers. Philosophy has set up a dichotomy between free will and determinism and explored each idea to exhaustion but not with any consensus about which is correct. That is not the point of philosophy. Science has to rephrase the problem as, 'how exactly are decisions made?' That is the question we need an answer to, a robust consensus answer.



But here is the rub


This move to a scientific answer is disturbing to very many people because the answer is assumed to have effects on our notions of morals, responsibility and identity. Civilization as we know it may fall apart. Exactly how we think we make decisions once we study the question without reference to determinism or freewill seems OK. But if the answer robs us of morals, responsibility or identity, than it is definitely not OK. Some people have the notion that what we should do is just pretend that we have free will, while knowing that our actions are determined. To me this is silly: believe two incompatible and flawed ideas at the same time rather than believe a better, single idea. It reminds me of the solution proposed to deal with Copernicus – use the new calculations while believing that the earth does not revolve. Of course, we do not yet have the scientific answer (far from it) although we think we can see the general gist of it. So we cannot say how it will affect society. I personally feel that it will not affect us negatively but that is just a personal opinion. Neuroscience will continue to grow and we will soon have a very good idea of how we actually make decisions, whether this knowledge is welcomed or not. It is time we stopped worrying about determinism and free will and started preparing ourselves to live with ourselves and others in a new framework.



Identity, Responsibility, Morals


We need to start thinking of ourselves as whole beings, one entity from head to toe: brain and body, past and future, from birth to death. Forgot the ancient religious idea of a mind imprisoned in a body. We have to stop the separation of me and my body, me and my brain. Me has to be all my parts together, working together. Me cannot equate to consciousness alone.


Of course I am responsible for absolutely everything I do including something I do while sleep walking. Further a rock that falls from a cliff is responsible for blocking the road. It is what we do about responsibility that differs. We remove the rock but we do not blame or punish it. We try to help the sleep walker overcome the dangers of sleep walking to himself and others. But if I as a normal person hit someone in the face, my responsibility is not greater than the rock or the sleep walker but my treatment will be much, much different. I am expected to maintain my decision-making apparatus in good working order. The way the legal system will work might be a little different from now, but not much. People will be expected to know and follow the rules of society.


I think of moral questions as those for which there is no good answer. All courses of action and of inaction are bad in a moral question. Often because the possible answers pit the good of the individual against the good of the group, but also pit different groups and their interests against each other. No matter what we believe about how decisions are made, we are still forced to make them and that includes moral ones. The more we know about decisions, the more likely we are to make moral decisions we are proud of (or least guilty or ashamed of), but there is no guarantee. There is still a likelihood that we will just muddle along trying to find the lesser of two evils with no more success than at present.



Why should we believe that being closer to the truth or having a more accurate understanding is going to make things worst rather than better? Shouldn't we welcome having a map that is closer to the territory? It is time to be open to ideas outside the artificial determinism/freewill dichotomy.