Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Choose

The arguments for determinism are fairly straightforward, and unlike a lot of philosophical speculation can be formulated in relatively easy to understand terms. Sam Harris has a series of posts in which he outlines, in pretty accessible terms, the basic structure of the argument for determinism. In what follows here I'll discuss some of the interesting features that Harris brings out of the arguments for determinism, and take a careful look at some of his claims about the relation of the free will problem to moral philosophy.

Let's start with the problem itself:
The concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically. There is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for this freedom that we habitually claim for ourselves and ascribe to others.... [N]o account of causality leaves room for free will—thoughts, moods, and desires of every sort simply spring into view—and move us, or fail to move us, for reasons that are, from a subjective point of view, perfectly inscrutable.
For Harris, we are screened off from the neural underpinnings of all of our thoughts and desires--in other words from the things that prompt us to act or refrain from acting. We are neither in control of nor conscious of the microprocesses of our brains that generate the sorts of decisions that we make. In a very real sense our choices are made for us, at the level of the neurons, independently of the phenomenal feeling of freedom. The fact that there is some indeterminacy and randomness within our brains is not helpful, either. As Harris notes, the same is true of chicken brains, and we don't really think of chickens as possessing free will. So if we accept the fact that our decisions are brain processes, then we have to accept that they are the product of processes that are independent of our choosing. I can't consciously will my neurons to fire in a different way, right?

Harris thinks this argument can be extended to a dualist conception of the soul and thus does not depend on materialism, but I'm not convinced of this. He thinks that you can substitute "soul" for "brain processes" and the point will still hold. But that hinges on people thinking of the soul as something that acts at least in some way independently of them, which is probably not even coherent. If I have a soul, then I am my soul. It doesn't do things without me. But this digression is relatively unimportant since there are plenty of reasons to reject dualism independently of free will discussions.

Another interesting point Harris makes is that we cannot salvage free will by saying something like , "Well, if my brain is choosing to do something then I am choosing to do it, and so I'm free in the sense that the decision is coming from me." Something like this intuition is behind the notion that for an action to be my free choice it has to derive from me as an agent (I discuss this here). The problem with this response to determinism is that it mistakes the necessary conditions for an action being a free choice for sufficient conditions. It's true that if some brain other than mine has decided something then it wasn't my free choice, but it isn't enough to say that. My brain does lots of things I wouldn't say exhibited free will. As Harris notes, the brain performs numerous non-conscious and autonomic functions, most of which would not be ascribable to us as agents:
Each of us has many organs in addition to a brain that make unconscious “decisions”—but these are not events for which anyone feels responsible. Are you producing red blood cells and digestive enzymes at this moment? Your body is, of course, but if it “decided” to do otherwise, you would be the victim of these changes, rather than their autonomous cause. To say that I am “responsible” for everything that goes on inside my skin because it’s all “me,” is to make a claim that bears no relationship to the feelings of agency and moral responsibility that make the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy.
So, we don't have free will. This makes for some difficulties when we want to talk about moral responsibilities, however. And this issue is really the one that is at the root of most rejections of determinism, I think. One of the principal reasons we value freedom is that it makes the culturally embedded systems of praise and blame, reward and punishment coherent. Harris attempts to salvage moral responsibility in the absence of free will by making a subtle distinction between free action and voluntary action.
There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, of course, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will (nor does it depend upon it). The former are associated with felt intentions (desires, goals, expectations, etc.) while the latter are not. All of the conventional distinctions we like to make between degrees of intent—from the bizarre neurological complaint of alien hand syndrome to the premeditated actions of a sniper—can be maintained: for they simply describe what else was arising in the mind at the time an action occurred. A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, while an involuntary action isn’t. Where our intentions themselves come from, however, and what determines their character in every instant, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms.
Although we cannot control our intentions, if we act in accordance with them then we are responsible for our actions. If, however, we do something against our intention we would not be considered responsible. So for Harris, this preservation of voluntary action in the absence of free action can still allow us to more or less use our standard moral categories and to understand when circumstances call for us to think responsibility is mitigated. I'll use one of his examples to draw this notion out a bit more:
A twenty-five-year-old man, who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.”
We'd rightly brand him a pyschopath and hold him responsible for his actions. Compare that to:
A twenty-five-year-old man, who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.” An MRI of the man’s brain revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex (a region responsible for the control of emotion and behavioral impulses).
Now we have a mitigating factor, one which absolves the actor of all responsibility for his action. For Harris the conscious intentions of the psychopath that makes his action blameworthy. The conscious intentions of agents are worth singling out as connected to praiseworthiness and blameworthiness because they more adequately reflect who the person is, giving us relevant and evaluable information about the person.

But there is still a problem here. What gives us warrant to evaluate the character of the person in these morally laden terms? I can understand (although not necessarily agree) if Harris wants to say we have more reason to lock up the first killer than the second (assuming the tumor is operable) because he seems more likely to commit the same infraction again. But this claim is not the same as the claim that the first is more morally blameworthy. Praise and blame are concepts that are deeply entangled with the traditional concept of free will. We praise people for good actions that they did when they could have refrained; we blame people for acting poorly when they could have done otherwise. On the assumption of determinism, in neither case above was the agent able to do otherwise than he did. In one case the intention arose from some unknown neural cause; in the other, a tumor. Why is the one case more blameworthy than the other? In both cases the actions are done in accordance with the intentions of the agent and in both cases the intentions come from causes other than the agent's choice. It appears that determinism (at least Harris's version) has some work to do if it's going to make room for anything approximating our moral categories.

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