Posts Tagged ‘free will’

What is it Like to be a Bat? A Cat? Or Me?

December 15, 2013

imagesI’ve written before about the problem of the “self.” What is it like to be a bat? was the title of a famous article by philosopher Thomas Nagel. All sentient creatures experience life – that’s what sentient means – but how does that work? For a bat, it’s so different that we have a hard time imagining what it’s like, to the bat.

I have a better idea of what it’s like being a cat, having long lived with one; still, his interior life is very alien to my own. But never mind bats and cats. What is it like to be me?



This I ought to know. But David Hume said no amount of introspection enabled him to catch hold of his “self.” And I have repeated his experiment (continually) with the same result. The problem is using the self to seek the self. Like using a flashlight to find light. images-1Hard as I try to grasp the true essence of being me, it slithers away like jelly.

I’ve also written about free will. Sam Harris wrote a book against it – but was his writing it not an act of free will? There’s a big difference between activities like that and quotidian everyday life. My choreography of motions in showering is exceedingly complex. And of course I’m conscious during it. But that doesn’t seem required, the motions are on automatic pilot, while my mind can be elsewhere. Like on another Humean attempt to fathom my self while it’s doing the shower routine. (Yet my free will could have chosen not to shower.)

Experiments have shown that the brain forms an intention to act milliseconds before one is consciously aware of it. This has bugged me no end. I try to beat it. images-4When I’m ready to get out of bed, I’ll try to do it precisely when I consciously decide, not when some uncon-scious process pre-decides. And it’s impossible! No matter how much conscious concentration I muster, I can never feel I’ve trumped that interior system. I’ll lie there, knowing it’s lurking, waiting to spring its decision on me. If I say “Now!” and get up, what made it happen at that particular microsecond? Me, or it? Even if I decide I’ll get up on the count of three, and do it, didn’t the decision to count to three at that moment precede my conscious awareness? Sam Harris would say this proves there’s no free will. However, I could have chosen to stay in bed.

We know what pain and pleasure are. But the true nature of these “qualia” is similarly elusive. images-5What is it like to experience eating a cookie? Or having sex? It’s in the mind where the pleasure takes place. And we not only have experiences and thoughts, but thoughts about them, attending to them. So when I have sex, I try to make sure I experience the experiencing of it; to reify it by, at the same time, visualizing that I’m doing the things I’m doing. As though watching myself doing them, with another part of me, apart from the part doing them. So that it’s being experienced on more than one level.

However, as this suggests, there’s a recursiveness here, a loop that cannot be closed. Unknown-1The problem once more is Hume’s: the attempt to unify experience with the self that does the experiencing. And is that even enough? Don’t you need a further experiencer that experiences the experiencing? And so on endlessly? So on what level do I truly experience anything? That’s why I struggle with the Nagelian question of what it’s like to be me.

Cookies, and sex, produce complex sets of sensory inputs, and why do our brains do a pleasure response, whereas some other set of inputs produces a very different response? That might seem an easy question: evolution has programmed our brains to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli, as adaptations, for survivability, to make us seek or avoid those respective stimuli. Calories (and sex) were good for survival and reproduction; pain (from injury), bad. So could a brain be reprogrammed to change those pre-installed responses? Of course; we do it all the time. images-6Some people somehow even get reprogrammed to feel whipping as pleasurable.

What is it like to be such a person? Almost as mysterious to me as what it’s like to be a bat.

So I sit here trying to truly understand who wrote that last sentence, really. We could go on like this all day, as better minds than mine have done, with no better result (or hardly any better).

But at least I understand the problem. At least I think so. Whatever “think” means. And whoever “I” is.

Freedom and Free Will

October 28, 2012

I recently had an article in The Humanist magazine, entitled “Is Freedom a Mistaken Idea?” Click here to read the whole thing; below is a condensed version (but with jazzier illustrations):

Freedom means doing what you want. But is that really important? Or even meaningful?

Some might say that individuals doing what they want isn’t even good; that we exist chiefly as social creatures, and the group comes first. Such ideas characterize some Eastern cultures, notably Japan’s; in stronger form this is the essence of ideologies like fascism and communism, where individuals exist to serve the collective.

But we don’t really want a society like a beehive full of drones. Indeed, when individuals are motivated to advance their own proclivities, you actually get a society better for everyone in it. Further, it’s when we have a strong sense of ourselves as individuals, rather than as cogs in a societal machine, that we can truly respect the individual worth of others. While people do have naturally groupish and even hivelike instincts, they’re best served when free to choose for themselves how to express those instincts.

Yet a deeper question is whether we can truly be free, in any genuine sense. Arthur Schopenhauer said you can do what you want, but cannot will what you want. That is, you can fulfill desires and wishes, but can’t choose what desires and wishes to have.

This is the ancient problem of free will. A recent Humanist article suggests that punishing Anders Breivik for mass murder may be as immoral as his crimes themselves, because the shootings were caused by brain events over which “Breivik” had no control. I put “Breivik” in quotes because, on this analysis, the person virtually disappears. Does this make sense?

We start with the premise that everything has causes. If you choose chocolate over vanilla, that’s caused by a pattern of interactions among neurons in your brain—a product of your whole life history. Your choice is thus actually predetermined. Ponder this deeply enough, and the “you” that “chooses” does disappear, like a computer program that does what it does because it’s programmed to.

Moreover, science has shown (as discussed in books like Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational) that not only don’t we choose our wants and desires, but often we don’t even know what they are. We can misjudge what we think we want; and how fulfillment will actually affect us. (As George Bernard Shaw said, there are two big disappointments in life: not getting what you want, and getting it.) This leads some to consider the assumption of “rational choice,” supposedly underlying free market economics, a myth.

But let’s go back to the most fundamental question: What matters? Why does it matter? And to whom?

The only possible answer is sentient beings, capable of feeling. Without someone or something feeling, and being aware of it, nothing can be said to matter. Thus such feelings—principally, of course, human feelings—are themselves the only things that ultimately matter. And the only ultimate good versus bad is good versus bad feelings.

This idea is easily mocked. There is a suspicion that humans aren’t important or worthy, and fixating on our feelings is narcissistic and trivial. And you can loftily argue that something can be good or bad in some objective sense, irrespective of human feelings. But what is the point of considering something “good” if it doesn’t somehow contribute to sentient beings feeling good? Remove that from the picture, and what is there to care about?

I will not purport here to fully resolve the problem of free will. True enough, thinking and decision making are deterministically governed. However, what’s unique about humans is that we think about our thinking. This gives us an override capability—exerting what might legitimately be termed “will.” (Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has called this “free won’t.”) Sigmund Freud too, who considered us creatures of unconsciously rooted primal urges, nevertheless recognized in Civilization and Its Discontents that most of us suppress these impulses. And surely long-time smokers exhibit a particularly powerful form of determinism—physical addiction on top of the psychological and behavioral aspects—yet they can quit. Some functionality in the mind is making a choice that is real—and free—in every practical sense. Thus, people live their lives feeling they have that kind of free will, and behave accordingly.

So returning to Breivik, his brain did produce violent impulses he couldn’t control. But, as psychologist Thomas Szasz has argued, so do all our brains; yet to act upon those impulses crosses a behavioral line that almost everyone is able to control. Hence it’s not immoral to punish the behavior. It is no mere illusion to feel we have that kind of free will.

And again, the only thing that can ultimately matter is feeling. The fact remains that actual human beings experience actual feelings that are more positive the more they perceive themselves able to advance their desires. Further, notwithstanding all the ways in which we misjudge our desires and their likely results, surely there is a greater probability of being happy with outcomes produced by acting on your own desires than when what you get is merely random or chosen by others.

This is true even if those desires arise deterministically, and even if people pursue them with imperfect rationality. That’s still better than not choosing at all. In fact, despite all the imperfections, we nevertheless act, in our day-to-day continuous decision making, with a very high degree of rationality. The overwhelming majority of your choices are more or less reasonably calculated to enhance the quality of your life, in fact with long-range forethought to increase pleasure and avoid pain. And you are by no means clueless about what pleases or pains you. You know exactly how dark you like your toast. Thus the idea that “rational choice is a myth” is simply wrong.