Sunday, March 21, 2010

Determined to Do the Right Thing

I think it was while reading Mary Midgley's Wickedness (no, it's not a how-to book), years ago, that I got into an argument about free will with a student who saw me reading it. He rejected the idea, I forget whether it was on behaviorist or biological-determinist grounds, and it suddenly popped into my head to tell him: Well, I'd like to believe that I don't have free will, but I can't help it -- I was conditioned this way, or maybe it's in my genes. But either way, I have no choice. My friend spluttered at that, and I don't remember where the debate went from there. He might have tried the behaviorist riposte discussed by Noam Chomsky in his important demolition of B. F. Skinner:
Skinner would surely argue that reading the book [Beyond Freedom and Dignity], or perhaps the book itself, is a "reinforcer" in some other sense. He wants us to be persuaded by the book, and, not to our surprise, he refers to persuasion as a form of behavioral control, albeit a weak and ineffective form. Skinner hopes to persuade us to allow greater scope to the behavioral technologists, and apparently believes that reading this book will increase the probability of our behaving in such a way as to permit them greater scope (freedom?). Thus reading the book, he might claim, reinforces this behavior. It will change our behavior with respect to the science of behavior (p. 24).

Let us overlook the problem, insuperable in his terms, of clarifying the notion of "behavior that gives greater scope to behavioral technologists," and consider the claim that reading the book might reinforce such behavior. Unfortunately, the claim is clearly false, if we use the term "reinforce" with anything like its technical meaning. Recall that reading the book reinforces the desired behavior only if it is a consequence of the behavior. Obviously putting our fate in the hands of behavioral technologists is not behavior that led to (and hence can be reinforced by) our reading Skinner's book. Therefore the claim can be true only if we deprive the term "reinforce" of its technical meaning. Combining these observations, we see that there can be some point to reading the book or to Skinner's having written it only if the thesis of the book is divorced from the "science of behavior" on which it allegedly rests. ...

If persuasion were merely a matter of pointing to reinforcing stimuli and the like, then any persuasive argument would retain its force if its steps were randomly interchanged, or if some of its steps were replaced by arbitrary descriptions of reinforcing stimuli. Of course, this is nonsense. For an argument to be persuasive, at least to a rational person, it must be coherent; its conclusions must follow from its premises. But these notions are entirely beyond the scope of Skinner's science. When he states that "deriving new reasons from old, the process of deduction" merely "depends upon a much longer verbal history" (p. 96), he is indulging in hand-waving of a most pathetic sort. ...

Skinner claims that persuasion is a weak method of control, and he asserts that "changing a mind is condoned by the defenders of freedom and dignity because it is an ineffective way of changing behavior, and the changer of minds can therefore escape from the charge that he is controlling people" (p. 97). Suppose that your doctor gives you a very persuasive argument to the effect that if you continue to smoke, you will die a horrible death from lung cancer. Is it necessarily the case that this argument will be less effective in modifying your behavior than any arrangement of true reinforcers?
In any case, my response effectively ended our discussion, if not the debate. I still think that I put my finger on a crucial contradiction in the determinist position: if I can be persuaded by evidence and reason that I do not have free will, then I have free will after all. If I don't have free will, then it's futile to argue with me about it.

In saying this, I don't mean that I necessarily think I do have free will, because there's so much dispute about what "free will" refers to. Tamler Sommers's A Very Bad Wizard begins with an interview with Galen Strawson, a philosopher and the son of a philosopher, who declares (12-13):
Almost all human beings believe that they are free to choose what to do in such a way that they can be truly, genuinely responsible for their actions in the strongest possible sense -- responsible period, responsible without any qualification, responsible sans phrase, responsible tout court, absolutely, radically, buck-stoppingly responsible; ultimately responsible, in a word -- and so ultimately morally responsible when moral matters are at issue. Free will is the thing you have to have if you're going to be responsible in this all-or-nothing way. That's what I mean by free will. That's what I think we haven't got and can't have. I like philosophers -- I love what they do; I love what we do -- but they have made a truly unbelievable hash of all this. They've tried to make the phrase "free will" mean all sorts of different things, and each of them has told us what it really means is what he or she has decided it should mean. But they haven't made the slightest impact on what it really means, or on our old, deep conviction that free will is something we have.

TS: That's true. Biologists, cognitive scientists, neurologists -- they all seem to have an easier time, at least considering the possibility that there's no free will. But philosophers defend the concept against all odds, at the risk of terrible inconsistency with the rest of their views about the world. If it's a fact that there's no free will, why do philosophers have such a hard time accepting it?

GS: ... But to be honest I can't really accept it myself, and not because I'm a philosopher. As a philosopher I think the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty. It's just that I can't really live with this fact from day to day. Can you, really? As for the scientists, they may accept it in their white coats, but I'm sure they're just like the rest of us when they're out in the world -- convinced in the reality of radical free will.
Now, this is very odd. It's not true at all that philosophers (a group which includes many theologians) have always rejected the doctrine of free will. On one side you've got those who argue for a more or less radical determinism, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and election, and they do so not because of scientific evidence but for philosophical, theological reasons. For these people, freedom of the will is an illusion, just as it for Strawson, Skinner, and others. On another side, it's true, there have been philosophers and theologians who've argued for what Strawson calls "radical free will," the doctrine that we have no constraints on our choices at all, and that we are ultimately responsible for our acts, which are radically undetermined and uncaused.

Further, I'm not sure that "almost all human beings" think of free will as Strawson's "radical free will", at least not consistently. Sometimes they do, though they may well have gotten that conception from philosophers. But they're also willing to qualify both freedom and responsibility when it's expedient to do so. "The Devil made me do it." "Here I stand, I can do no other." "The woman tempted me, and I did eat." "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." They may be wrong in specific cases, but I think most people are aware that freedom and responsibility are not always complete. Total consistency has been derided, but it's not something that human beings are in any great danger of succumbing to.

As it happens, though, I went to the library after I read the interview with Strawson, and checked out Antony Flew's The Presumption of Atheism (Pemberton, 1976), to reread his essays on Pascal's Wager and agnosticism. But it also contained a big discussion of the Free-Will Defense of God's goodness, which holds that there is evil in the world because God gave human beings free will. Flew criticizes what he calls "libertarian" free will, which roughly corresponds to Strawson's "radical" variety, pointing out that from the theistic point of view it contradicts the doctrine that God is the first cause of all things: if our choices are uncaused, then God is no longer the cause of everything. More seriously, libertarian free will is at odds with the fact that our choices are rooted in our biological bodies and our not-fully conscious psychology -- our choices are not fully unpredictable, whether to ourselves or to others. Hard-core determinism, on the other hand, glosses over the fact that we often can do something other than we do, and it is highly unlikely that all our choices (whom we marry, what religion we belong to, when we go to the bathroom) are totally determined in advance. Flew argues for a third alternative, which he calls "compatibilism" (that some freedom of will and choice is compatible with our physical nature), and shows that this alternative has been the standard view in Western philosophy and theology. He also argues that theistic compatibilism means that God is ultimately responsible for our moral choices. He debated this issue over many years, notably with the Christian philosopher John Hick, and I'm not sure it was ever settled, but then few longstanding philosophical debates are.

Strawson hews to a rather ambivalent compatibilism, though he seems not to realize it. He seems to think that a radical determinism is the truth of the human condition, but can't bring himself to believe it though he also recognizes the inadequacy of radical or libertarian free will. Still, he clearly believes that we have some conscious control over our actions and our states of mind, since he says that "perhaps it's not quite inevitable for human beings" (24) to be trapped in the illusion of free will and Deep Moral Responsiblility" (DMR): it might be possible, through years of hard disciplined work, to "live the fact" of our lack of freedom, "though actually one can get quite a ways by ordinary secular reflection" (25). But this takes us back to the contradiction I originally noticed: Strawson can't eliminate the terminology of choice and freedom from his discourse -- he still believes that we should believe we are not free, even if we can't.

Strawson offers a thought experiment in which you go to a bakery with only ten dollars to buy a ten-dollar birthday cake that you need immediately, and you encounter either an Oxfam canvasser or a starving beggar. "You may be convinced that determinism is true. You may believe that in five -- two -- minutes' time you will be able to look back on the situation you are now in and say truly, 'It was determined that I should do that.' But even if you do fervently believe this, I still don't think it's going to touch the feeling of DMR that you have right now as you stand there. And although the Oxfam box example is a particularly dramatic one, choices of this general sort are not rare. They occur regularly in our everyday lives" (24).

I don't think you have to believe in Deep Moral Responsibility to believe that some kind of moral responsibility is involved in Strawson's dilemma. Call it Shallow Moral Responsibility. You don't have to believe that God cares, or the Universe cares, or that Mother Nature cares if children starve in Lower Slobbovia. But you do, or you don't. Of course, you can also argue that giving your ten dollars to Oxfam won't change much; you can argue that giving your ten dollars to a hungry beggar is of little moment since the beggar will be hungry again tomorrow. You can also argue that feeding a hungry person today is more important -- or not -- than giving someone a birthday cake. (Is it for you? Your partner? Your young child? All these affect the dispute.) But these arguments still assume that there are choices to be made. And while you may not be Deeply Morally Responsible, you are still responsible in the Shallow everyday sense for the decision you finally make -- who else is, after all? (A lot of determinists fall prey to a radical dualism in their attempts to save their doctrine -- you didn't make the decision, your genes did, or Evolution, or your conditioning: there's a Homunculus in your pineal gland, driving you like a car or a kid with a joystick.) And I don't see any evidence or argument in Strawson's discussion here, any reason to believe that the outcome of his experiment is determined in advance. It seems to be at best a declaration of faith, not a statement of fact.

Scientific determinists also, I've noticed, exhibit a certain self-congratulatory glee and puffed-up moral superiority about their ability to grasp our fundamental mechanical natures. At the very least, this is incompatible with their determinism, since they clearly assume they might have done otherwise, but were too smart and realistic to join the ignorant many in their cowardly refusal to face Facts.

This doesn't prove that we are free after all, of course; the dilemma in whose toils Strawson groans might be an illusion. But I don't think so, provided we recall that I am not talking about libertarian / radical free will or Deep Moral Responsibility. I don't believe that our actions are completely determined, and that even though we haven't begun to understand how, we do make some choices. (One obstacle to understanding would be the deterministic structure of scientific explanation, which leaves no room for choice. For a while around 1990, following Roger Penrose's suggestion in The Emperor's New Mind, some people were actually arguing that "free will" might be due to quantum indeterminacy, but that didn't work either.)

There's more to say on this subject, but it can wait for my next subject from A Very Bad Wizard, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Meanwhile the cord to the power supply for my laptop just broke, so I'll probably have to work with public computers for a few days until I can get a replacement. As my aunt said when she ran over the kids with the car, "If it's not one thing, it's another!"