When you are faced with an unanswerable question—a question to which it seems impossible to even imagine an answer—there is a simple trick which can turn the question solvable.
- "Why do I have free will?"
- "Why do I think I have free will?"
The nice thing about the second question is that it is guaranteed to have a real answer, whether or not there is any such thing as free will. Asking "Why do I have free will?" or "Do I have free will?" sends you off thinking about tiny details of the laws of physics, so distant from the macroscopic level that you couldn't begin to see them with the naked eye. And you're asking "Why is X the case?" where X may not be coherent, let alone the case.
"Why do I think I have free will?", in contrast, is guaranteed answerable. You do, in fact, believe you have free will. This belief seems far more solid and graspable than the ephemerality of free will. And there is, in fact, some nice solid chain of cognitive cause and effect leading up to this belief.
If you've already outgrown free will, choose one of these substitutes:
- "Why does time move forward instead of backward?" versus "Why do I think time moves forward instead of backward?"
- "Why was I born as myself rather than someone else?" versus "Why do I think I was born as myself rather than someone else?"
- "Why am I conscious?" versus "Why do I think I'm conscious?"
- "Why does reality exist?" versus "Why do I think reality exists?"
The beauty of this method is that it works whether or not the question is confused. As I type this, I am wearing socks. I could ask "Why am I wearing socks?" or "Why do I believe I'm wearing socks?" Let's say I ask the second question. Tracing back the chain of causality, I find:
- I believe I'm wearing socks, because I can see socks on my feet.
- I see socks on my feet, because my retina is sending sock signals to my visual cortex.
- My retina is sending sock signals, because sock-shaped light is impinging on my retina.
- Sock-shaped light impinges on my retina, because it reflects from the socks I'm wearing.
- It reflects from the socks I'm wearing, because I'm wearing socks.
- I'm wearing socks because I put them on.
- I put socks on because I believed that otherwise my feet would get cold.
Tracing back the chain of causality, step by step, I discover that my belief that I'm wearing socks is fully explained by the fact that I'm wearing socks. This is right and proper, as you cannot gain information about something without interacting with it.
On the other hand, if I see a mirage of a lake in a desert, the correct causal explanation of my vision does not involve the fact of any actual lake in the desert. In this case, my belief in the lake is not just explained, but explained away.
But either way, the belief itself is a real phenomenon taking place in the real universe—psychological events are events—and its causal history can be traced back.
"Why is there a lake in the middle of the desert?" may fail if there is no lake to be explained. But "Why do I perceive a lake in the middle of the desert?" always has a causal explanation, one way or the other.
Perhaps someone will see an opportunity to be clever, and say: "Okay. I believe in free will because I have free will. There, I'm done." Of course it's not that easy.
My perception of socks on my feet, is an event in the visual cortex. The workings of the visual cortex can be investigated by cognitive science, should they be confusing.
My retina receiving light is not a mystical sensing procedure, a magical sock detector that lights in the presence of socks for no explicable reason; there are mechanisms that can be understood in terms of biology. The photons entering the retina can be understood in terms of optics. The shoe's surface reflectance can be understood in terms of electromagnetism and chemistry. My feet getting cold can be understood in terms of thermodynamics.
So it's not as easy as saying, "I believe I have free will because I have it—there, I'm done!" You have to be able to break the causal chain into smaller steps, and explain the steps in terms of elements not themselves confusing.
The mechanical interaction of my retina with my socks is quite clear, and can be described in terms of non-confusing components like photons and electrons. Where's the free-will-sensor in your brain, and how does it detect the presence or absence of free will? How does the sensor interact with the sensed event, and what are the mechanical details of the interaction?
If your belief does derive from valid observation of a real phenomenon, we will eventually reach that fact, if we start tracing the causal chain backward from your belief.
If what you are really seeing is your own confusion, tracing back the chain of causality will find an algorithm that runs skew to reality.
Either way, the question is guaranteed to have an answer. You even have a nice, concrete place to begin tracing—your belief, sitting there solidly in your mind.
Cognitive science may not seem so lofty and glorious as metaphysics. But at least questions of cognitive science are solvable. Finding an answer may not be easy, but at least an answer exists.
Oh, and also: the idea that cognitive science is not so lofty and glorious as metaphysics is simply wrong. Some readers are beginning to notice this, I hope.
This is one of my all-time favourite posts of yours, Eliezer. I can recognize elements of what you're describing here in my own thinking over the last year or so, but you've made the processes so much more clear.
As I'm writing this, just a few minutes after finishing the post, it's increasingly difficult not to think of this as "obvious all along" and it's getting harder to pin down exactly what in the post that caused me to smile in recognition more than once.
Much of it may have been obvious to me before reading this post as well, but now the verbal imagery needed to clearly explain these things to myself (and hopefully to others) is available. Thank you for these new tools.
I'm sure the meta-physicists will suggest something like the following. How do you know the causal chain you trace is meaningful? That is you are resting our ability to see thing on physics, and our ability to have a valid physics on being able to see things in the world. It is self-reinforcing but requires axioms taken on faith or blind chance to start things off. So is not really the same thing as meta-physics.
My reply would be to say, "Well, it works so far." And then get on with my life, and not worry about it.
``Why do I think I can avoid literary effects and reason directly instead?''
"Why do I think it is guaranteed that I think things for a reason, instead of for no reason at all?"
OK, time to play:
Q: Why am I confused by the question "Do you have free will?"? A: Because I don't know what "free will" really means. Q: Why don't I know what "free will" means? A: Because there is no clear explanation of it using words. It's an intuitive concept. It's a feeling. When I try to think of the details of it, it is like I'm trying to grab slime which slides through my fingers. Q: What is the feeling of "free will"? A: When people talk of "free will" they usually put it thusly. If one has "free will", he is in control of his own actions. If one doesn't have "free will" then it means outside forces like the laws of physics control his actions. Having "free will" feels good because being in control feels better then being controlled. On the other hand, those who have an appreciation for the absolute power of the laws of physics feel the need to bow down to them and acknowledge their status as the ones truly in control. The whole thing is very tribal really. Q: Who is in control, me or the laws of physics? A: Since currently saying [I] is equivalent to saying [a specific PK shaped collection of... (read more)
Q: Why do I think there is something instead of nothing? A: Because I think I'm experiencing, well, something. Q: Why do I think I'm experiencing something?
A: uh... dang, the urge is overwelming for me to say "Because I actually am experiencing something. That's the plainest fact of all, even though evidence in favor of it seems to be at the moment the least communicable sort of evidence of them all."
So, I see at least two possibilities here:
Either I'm profoundly confused about something, causing me to seem to think that I can't possibly be ... (read more)
Eliezer Yudkowsky: (can we drop the underscores now?): You did not break the "perception of wearing socks" into understandable steps, as you demanded for the perception of free will. You certainly explained non-confusingly some of the steps, but you left out a very critical step, which is the recognition of socks within the visual input that you receive. That is a very mysterious step indeed, since your cognitive architecture is capable of recognizing socks within an image, even against an arbitrary set of transformations: rotation, blurring, holes in the socks, coloration, etc.
And I know you didn't simply leave out an explanation that exists somewhere, because such understanding would probably mean a solution for the captcha problem. So I would have to say that made the same unacceptable leap that you attacked in the free will example.
What is the phrase 'free will' used to refer to? We cannot even start worrying about whether we need to answer or abolish the question until we understand what the question signifies.
We could ask ourselves "what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force?", and recognize that this question must be unasked. The reason why it's not a valid question is that the definitions of those two things turn out to be mutually contradictory once we analyze them down to their constituent parts.
I think there is a real something for which free will seems like a good word. No, it's not the one true free will, but it's a useful concept. It carves reality at its joints.
Basically, I started thinking about a criminal, say, a thief. He's on trial for stealing a dimond. The prosecutor thinks that he did it of his own free will, and thus should be punished. The defender thinks that he's a pathological cleptomaniac and can't help it. But as most know, people punish crimes mostly to keep them from happening again. So the real debate is whether imprisoning t... (read more)
"The nice thing about the second question is that it is guaranteed to have a real answer, whether or not there is any such thing as free will."
Who guaranteed this?
The claim that every fact, such as someone's belief, has a definite cause, is a very metaphysical claim that Eliezer has not yet established.
The problem with this blog is that you occasionally say amazingly insightful things but the majority of your posts, like this one, say something blindingly obvious in a painfully verbose way. But then it could be that some of the things that are amazingly insightful to me are blindingly obvious to someone else, and vice versa. Oh well.
I'll give (a few of them) a shot.
"Why do I think I have free will?" There seem to be two categories of things out there in the world: things whose behavior is easily modeled and thus predictable; and things whose internal structure is opaque (to pre-scientific people) and are best predicted by taking an "intensional stance" (beliefs, desires, goals, etc.). So I build a bridge, and put a weight on it, and wonder whether the bridge will fall down. It's pretty clearly the case that there's some limit of weight, and if I'm below that wei... (read more)
"Why do I think time moves forward instead of backward?"
Basically, because of entropy.
There are actually two questions here: first, why does time (appear to) flow at all? And second, why does it flow only forwards?
If the whole universe were composed only of a single particle, say a photon, you couldn't even notice time passing. Every moment would be identical to every other moment. Time wouldn't even flow.
So first you need multiple entities, in order to have change. So now let's say you had the same single photon, bouncing forever between two... (read more)
"Why do I think I was born as myself rather than someone else?"
So we adopt the intensional stance towards other humans. We imagine they have some "deciding" homunculus inside them, that makes choices. We don't know how it works or any of its internal structures, but it is influenced by beliefs, desires, memories, etc.
We know that much can change about the "mere body", while the homunculus seems the same. We age over decades. We lose a limb or eyesight in an accident. We get a heart transplant from a cadaver. We learn to ... (read more)
"Why do I think reality exists?"
We could well be in a matrix world, with all an illusion. Or, perhaps we arrived just a moment ago, but intact with false implanted memories. (Sort of like the creationist explanation of evidence for evolution.)
The assumption that "reality exists" is mere convenience. It's helpful in order to predict my future observations (or so my current memory suggests to me). Even if this is a matrix world, there is still the EXACT SAME theory of "reality", which would then be used to predict the future illusions that I'll notice.
The beauty of this method is that it works whether or not the question is confused.
I have to admit, to me the "Why do I think I was born as myself rather than someone else" example seems so confused that I'm having difficulty even parsing the question well enough to apply the method.
"Why do I think I was born as myself rather than someone else?"
Tiiba, you might be interested in For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.
A=A is not a tautology.
Usually the first A is taken broadly and the second A narrowly.
The second, as they say, carries a pregnancy.
This seems to me a special case of asking "What actually is the phenomenon to be explained?" In the case of free will, or should I say in the case of the free will question, the phenomenon is the perception or the impression of having it. (Other phenomena may be relevant too, like observations of other people making choices between alternatives).
In the case of the socks, the phenomenon to be explained can be safely taken to be the sock-wearing state itself. Though as Eliezer correctly points out, you can start farther back, that is, you can start with the phenomenon that you think you're wearing socks and ask about it and work your way towards the other.
It looks like the basic recipe for complacency being offered here is:
Something mysterious = Thoughts about something mysterious = Thoughts = Computation = Matter doing stuff = Something we know how to understand.
But if you really follow this procedure, you will eventually end up having to relate a subjective fact like "being a self" or "seeing blue" to a physical fact like "having a brain" or "signalling my visual cortex".
It seems that most materialists about the mind have a personal system of associations, between m... (read more)
Mitchell, what reason is there to think that materialism is false, other than our not-understanding exactly how mental events arise from physical ones? A lot of science has been done about the brain; we know that at least there is a very, very intimate connection between mental events and physical brain events. To me, it seems much more parsimonious to suppose that there really is a (not yet fully understood) identity between mental process X and physical process X, than to say that mental process X is actually occurring in some extraphysical realm even though it always syncs up in realtime with physical process X.
"Why do I believe I am conscious?" = "Why am I conscious?"
Z. M., let me answer you indirectly. The working hypothesis I arrived at, after a long period of time, was a sort of monadology. Most monads have simple states, but there is (one hypothesizes) a physics of monadic interaction which can bring a monad into a highly complex state. From the perspective of our current physics, an individual monad is something like an irreducible tensor factor in an entangled quantum state. The conscious self is a single monad; conscious experience is showing us something of its actual nature; any purely mathematical description... (read more)
James Blair: I've read JH's "On Intelligence" and find him overrated. He happens to be well known, but I have yet to see his results beating other people's results. Pretty theories are fine with me, but ultimately results must count.
Mitchell, I think it's far too early to give up on the materialist program, which has so far been a smashing success. Consciousness is (as it is said) a hard problem, but even if no one ever finds a solution, one might at least first give solemn consideration to the possibility (I forget exactly where I read it proposed--Hofstadter?) that humans are just too stupid figure out the answer, before vindicating Leibniz.
Frank, what does that have to do with the quality of the paper I linked?
Z. M., "my" monads aren't much like Leibniz's. For one thing, they interact. It could even be called a psychophysical identity theory, it's just that the mind is identified with a single elementary entity (one monad with many degrees of freedom) rather than with a spatial aggregate of elementary entities (a monadic self will still have "parts" in some sense, but they won't be spatial parts). I suppose my insistence that physical ontology should be derived from phenomenological ontology, rather than vice versa, might also seem anti-mater... (read more)
"So, why do you believe you've stopped beating your wife?"
If Eliezer has his way, consciousness is not a "hard problem" at all, since asking why people are conscious is the same as asking "why do people think they are conscious," while "thinking one is conscious" is identified with a physical state of one's brain.
The reason Eliezer cannot have his way is that the identity or non-identity of physical and mental reality is irrelevant to explanation. For example, presumably light of different colors is identical to light of different wavelengths. But if I ask, "why does that light ... (read more)
Mitchell, Unknown, I worry you may have misunderstood the point.
The question "Why am I conscious?" is not meant to be isomorphic to the question "Why do I think I'm conscious?" It's just that the latter question is guaranteed to be answerable, whether or not the first question contains an inherent confusion; and that the second question, if fully answered, is guaranteed to contain whatever information you were hoping to get out of the first question.
"Explain" is a recursive option - whenever you find an answer, you can hit "Explain" again, unless you hit "Worship" or "Ignore" instead. If the answer to "Why do I think I'm conscious?" is "Because I'm conscious"; and you can show that this is true evidence (that is, you would not think you were conscious if you were not conscious); and you carry out this demonstration without reference to any mysterious concepts (i.e., "Because I directly experience qualia!" contains four mysterious concepts, not counting "Because"); then you could hit the "Explain" button again regarding "Because I'm conscious."
The point is that b... (read more)
Since our introspection ability is so limited, this method sounds like it could easily end up resulting in, not the correct explanation of the belief and explanation-away of the phenomenon, but a just-so story that claims to explain away something that might actually exist. This is not a Fully General Counterargument; a well-supported explanation of the belief is probably right, but more support is needed than the conjecture. Look how many candidate explanations have been offered for belief in free will.
Eliezer, in the last few posts you have proposed a method for determining whether a question is confused (namely, ask why you're asking it), and then a method for getting over any sense of confusion which may linger even after a question is exposed as confused ("understand in detail how your brain generates the feeling of the question"). The first step is reasonable, though I'd think that part of its utility is merely that it encourages you to analyse your concepts for consistency. As for the second step, I do not recall experiencing this particu... (read more)
I think the confusion may have arisen from the incongruous title to this post. Inserting 'Why do I believe...' before your query is an excellent heuristic, but you can't right a wrong question. You can only get better at recognising them.
Frank, what does that have to do with the quality of the paper I linked?
James, everything. The paper looks very much like the book in a nutshell plus an actual experiment. What does the paper have to do with "And I know you didn't simply leave out an explanation that exists somewhere, because such understanding would probably mean a solution for the captcha problem."? I find these 13 and 12 year old papers more exciting. And here is some practical image recognition (although no general captcha) stuff.
I retract the statement that the question about the relationship between the subjective and objective is unanswerable. I started to see how it is possible to answer it.
Nice post, and great method.
On free will, I'd like to pose a question to anyone interested: What do you think it would feel like not to have free will?
(Or, what do you think it would feel like to not think you have free will?)
During the first month or so after my stroke, while my nervous system was busily rewiring itself, I experienced all sorts of transient proprioceptic illusions.
One of them amounted to the absence of the feeling of free will... I experienced my arm as doing things that seemed purposeful from the outside, but for which I was aware of no corresponding purpose.
For example, I ate breakfast one morning without experiencing control over my arm. It fed me, just like it always had, but I didn't feel like I was in control of it.
To give you an idea of how odd this was: at one point my arm put down the food item it was holding to my mouth, and I lay there somewhat puzzled... why wasn't my arm letting me finish it? Then it picked up a juice carton and brought it to my mouth, and I thought "Oh! It wants me to drink something... yeah, that makes sense."
It was a creepy experience, somewhat ameliorated by the fact that I could "take control" if I chose to... letting my arm feed me breakfast was a deliberate choice, I was curious about what would happen.
I think that's what it feels like to not experience myself as having free will, which is I think close enough to your second question.
As for your first question... I think it would feel very much like the way I feel right now.
Yeah, that's more or less how I interpreted it... not so much lag, precisely, as a failure to synchronize. There were lots of weird neural effects that turned up during that time that, on consideration, seemed to basically be timing/synchronization failures, whcih makese a lot of sense if various parts of my brain were changing the speed with which they did things as the brain damage healed and the swelling went down.
Of course, it's one thing to know intellectually that my superficially coherent worldview is the result of careful stitching together of outputs from independent modules operating at different rates on different inputs; it's quite another thing to actually experience that coherency breaking down.
"Why do I think I have free will?"
One answer might go like this: "But I don't think that. If I use W to denote the proposition that I have free will, I can think of no experiments whose results might provide evidence for or against W. I don't assign a high subjective probability to (W|). For any other proposition Y, I don't see any difference between the probability of (Y|W) compared to (Y|~W)".
"Nevertheless I choose to assume W because I often find it easier to estimate P(Y|W) than to directly estimate P(Y), especially when ... (read more)
(Note: this comment is a reply to this comment. Sorry for any confusion.)
Sereboi, I think once again we're miscommunicating. You seem to think I'm looking for a compromise between free will and determinism, no matter how much I deny this. Let me try an analogy (stolen from Good and Real).
When you look in a mirror, it appears to swap left and right, but not up and down; yet the equations that govern reflection are entirely symmetric: there shouldn't be a distinction.
Now, you can simply make that second point, but then a person looking at a mirror remains co... (read more)
If we ask "why does reality exist instead of not exist?", it's like asking "why does existence exist instead of not exist?". Well that's because it's existence. That which is or is a part of reality, is what exists. Something being a part of reality or reality itself is a sufficient condition for that thing existing. So of course reality exists, it's the base case.
A more complicated question is "why is existence like this as apposed to some other way?". That's the business of physicists, and i don't have an answer.
This reminds me of "Why do I have qualia?" I've also asked "Why do I think I have qualia?" I then realized that that's still not quite enough. The right question (or at least one I have to answer first) is "What do I think 'qualia' are?" I'm still thoroughly confused by this question. You could try that with free will too.
"Why does reality exist?"
I think the problem with this question is the use of the word "why." It is generally either a quest for intentionality (eg. "Why did you do that?) or for earlier steps in a causal chain (eg. Why is the sky blue?). So the only type of answer that could properly answer this question is one that introduced a first cause (which is, of course, a concept rife with problems) or one that supposed intentionality in the universe (like, the universe decided to exist as it is or something equally nonsensical). This is ... (read more)
As for me, I mainly believe I'm wearing socks because I can feel socks on my feet. :-)
In retrospect this seems like an obvious implication of belief in belief. I would have probably never figured it out on my own, but now that I've seen both, I can't unsee the connection.
"Tracing back the chain of causality, step by step, I discover that my belief that I'm wearing socks is fully explained by the fact that I'm wearing socks. This is right and proper, as you cannot gain information about something without interacting with it."
Maybe I'm being pedantic on this point, but doesn't the interaction with the socks constitute the act of putting them on which actually fully explains that you're wearing them? Of course, you can go back further along the causal chain to the reason you put them on - perhaps the room was cold... (read more)
This never got solved in the comments.
I was sitting in microeconomics class in twelfth grade when I asked myself, "Why am I me? Why am I not Kelsey or David or who-have-you?" Then I remembered that there are no souls, that 'I' was a product of my brain, and thus that the existence of my mind necessitates the existence of my body (or something that serves a similar function). Seeing the contradiction, I ... (read more)