Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hays Struggles Against the Concept of Freewill

Over here, Steve Hays has a little flare-up of his denialism of freedom of action. Let's take a look at the "metaphysics of free will":

Steve Hays:
Traditionally, libertarians cash out the freedom to do otherwise in terms of alternate possibilities. Although there’s an enormous literature attempting to either prove libertarian freewill or reconcile libertarianism with some other belief, such as God’s knowledge of the future (which, however, some libertarians deny), there’s no comparable literature on the metaphysics of freewill. (In this post I’m going to use freewill as a synonym for libertarian freedom.)

Instead, it’s taken for granted that a free agent can instantiate these alternate possibilities. Let’s pursue that assumption from a number of different angles.
The "granted" obtains from its self-evidence. Whether freedom of action or will truly exists or not, the appearance of agency is simply overwhelming.

Steve Hays:
1.This goes to the question of how the future eventuates, or how time (or segments thereof) comes into being. Do we will the future into being by our choices?
Humans have the ability to influence their surroundings. This ability isn't exhaustive, or even significant on a cosmic scale, but the combination of a desire to effect a particular outcome and the abilities and resources available to a human can produce a "future" that is in line with that choice.

Steve Hays:
How do we will the future into being by our choices? How do we access these abstract possibilities and realize one possibility over against another?
We expend energy in efforts to influence our surroundings. If we find pepperoni more appealing at the moment than sausage for the pizza we are ordering on the phone, we expend the energy in such a way as to give voice to this choice to the person taking the order on the other end of the line. Like all other living beings, we consume energy, and use what we can (there's always waste) to pursue our goals, from survival on down the chain.

Steve Hays
2.From a libertarian perspective, I suppose there must be a general metaphysical divide between one class of events that are willed into being by the choices of free agents, and another class of events that eventuate apart from our volition
No reason to think that. It's fine to make conceptual distinctions in our heads, if that proves to be useful for some purpose, but there's nothing metaphysically different between an impersonal cause->effect chain, and a personal (will-based) cause->effect chain. It's physics-constrained either way. My choices are limited (and enabled) by the physical dynamics of my existence. The physical laws and constraints govern the tumbling rock in the same way they constrain me. Gravity, for example, doesn't care if I have a will or not. I have mass, just like the rock at my foot. There's no "will-based" exceptions to physical laws for humans that I'm aware of.
Steve Hays:
For example, if it rains tomorrow, that future outcome is not the result of human volition. So, if libertarianism is true, then some patches of reality are realized by human volition while other patches of reality are realized apart from human volition. But somehow, these blend into a seamless, unified reality. The reality that it will rain tomorrow, and the reality that I will take an umbrella to work tomorrow, align in time even though these two events are causally independent. One occurs because I willed it while the other occurs without my willing it, or even in spite of my wishing that it would be fair and sunny tomorrow.
Yeah, and the "somehow" has a name: physics. Physics provides the model for how all this is integrated. If I have the determination to bring an umbrella to work, and the physical capabilities (owning or acquiring an umbrella, for example), then I may well realize that goal; it's plausibly within my physical abilities to accomplish. At the fundamental levels of physics, though, the "will" is an irrelevant abstraction. My choice may provide the teleology, but physics governs the reality of it happening, or not.
Steve Hays:
It would be interesting to hear a libertarian explain the metaphysical machinery by which this occurs.
No metaphysics needed, as a metaphysic, to account for this. The "nature of nature" is such that physical dynamics govern all physical interactions, whether attached to something we call a "will" or not. We can muse about why the laws of physics are as they are, but the "machinery" that translates present causes into future effects is just physics. No extra metaphysical machinery needed once the physics are set up and in place.
Steve Hays:
3.At the same time, not everything that human beings do is voluntary, in the sense of a conscious choice. I can deliberately blind my eyes. I can deliberately blink one eye rather than another. I can deliberately blink my eye a certain number of times. But, most of the time, this is involuntary. I give no thought to blinking my eyes. Same thing with breathing and other semiautonomic functions.
Uh, yeah.
Steve Hays:
So, it libertarianism is true, then some blinkings eventuate as a result of human volitions while other blinkings eventuate apart from human volition. Some human actions are realized voluntarily while other human actions realized involuntarily, even when the same type of action is in view. Voluntary blinkings and involuntary blinkings. Human agents will some of their semiautonomic futures into being, but not others. The futurition of some future blinkings is willed by us, while the futurition of other future blinkings is not.
Perfectly uncontroversial.
Steve Hays:
Does this mean, from a libertarian standpoint, that there’s a default possibility which instantiates itself unless that is overridden by the deliberate choice of an alternate possibility? That the future will automatically turn out a certain way unless human volition intervenes? What is the mechanism?
Um, physics! Really, it's an extraordinarily robust model for predicting what will happen, based on what's already happening. At the quantum level, the predictions are probabilistic, and not deterministic. Because of that, the future doesn't evolve in precisely the same way, even from the same starting configuration. The differences at macro-scales are statistically like to be so small as to be undetectable by us. We can predict with remarkable precision where the planet Mercury will be 30 days from now, however, despite the fluctuations at quantum scales.
Steve Hays:
4. On a related note, take habitual actions. Let’s say I learn to operate a stick shift because I like to drive sports cars. At first I have to think about shifting gears. But after a while, it becomes second nature. Yet there are times when I might consciously shift into overdrive if, say, I’m on a wide-open stretch of road, and I want to drive the car flat out.

I think it’s fair to say that, in operating a stick shift, there are degrees of conscious control. Sometimes I consciously shift gears. At other times my mind is elsewhere, and I do it through force of habit. And, at other times, I’m vaguely aware of shifting gears while l listen to music or take in the scenery.

From a libertarian standpoint, how are these alternate possibilities realized? Since they range along a continuum, from subconscious to conscious, what’s the threshold between an outcome that is voluntary and an outcome that is involuntary? What is causing these outcomes to eventuate?
Um, physics! Expressed as biology/physiology here, but physics all the same. In this example, shifting is a task we learn, and eventually learn to do with little to no conscious direction. That is, the tachometer needle and the whining RPM sound of the engine serve as cues that trigger a learned response -- something we have trained ourselves to accomplish with little or no active thought.

The mechanism, then, is our physical capabilities (our muscles, bones, nerve endings, etc. being activated by "macros" we have stored in our brain through learning, practice and repetition. Our memories serve as repositories not just for recognizing the stimuli for an indicated gear shift (tach in the red zone, for example), but for actuating the physical signals and processes to make the action happen (shift from 4th to 5th, for example).

The 'continuum' here is a reflection of the depth of our "automation" through learning, practice and repetition. Not all actions can be so automated, but a great many tasks can be delegated to "habit", requiring little or no CPU cycles from our active thoughts. Humans have a range of capabilities, then between the strictly autonomic (breathing, for example), and the purely directed (focused attention on the task). Physiology as physics.
Steve Hays:
5.How do we cause a possibility to become a reality? Is it simply by willing it into existence, like a Genie? Yet there are many things we cannot will into being.
Um, physics? We are constrained in our abilities to influence the world around us by physical law. We might well manage to locate an umbrella and manage to carry it along with us to work on a day that looks like rain -- well within the constraints of physics for many people. But we'd fail to if decided we desired to drag a 2,000lb boulder in our back yard along with us to work, as a prank. We would need some help, some tools or machinery beyond the strength of our arms, arms which were more than sufficient to tote along the umbrella in our closet.

If our goal is to get the boulder in the backyard to the parking lot at work, we might plausibly devise a way to realize that goal, to achieve the object of our desire. But we would have to interact with our environment -- other people and other things -- in such way as to produce the desired effect within the constraints of physics. We expend energy and resources to coordinate a physics-compliant process to make it happen. Some of our energy is perfecty preparatory; we invest the energy and time to call a neighbor with a Kubota front-loader, for example, and interact with them in such a way that we can bring his machine to bear on our goal ("Don, can I borrow the Kubota, please?").
Steve Hays:
Two young brothers fight over a toy. Both brothers will to have the toy, but the older brother wins the fight because he can overpower his younger brother.

So how is the outcome realized? By willing an alternate possibility? Or by brute force? What’s the relationship between superior strength and actualizing an alternate possibility? Do muscle men have more control over the future than 90-poundl weaklings?
I have twin one year old sons here at home, so this is not an abstract example at all. Physical strength is definitely a factor, but "strength of will" is one also. One of our twins is just a bit smaller and not quite as strong or heavy as the other. But often enough, he prevails, simply because he wants that too more than his slightly larger twin brother. Realizing an effect requires investment of energy and resources, and in many cases, the smaller, weaker twin is prepared to sacrifice more energy and resources than the larger, stronger twin in obtaining/keeping the toy.

Even when the "strength of will" is normalized, brute strength is not the only determining factor. Not by a long shot, as any good martial arts instructor can show you. The dynamics of cause and effect are as complex and diverse as physics itself, so the answer to the question of control would have to take a broad view of not just the determination of the parties involved, but the complete suite of resources and strategies for their use. My eight year old daughter regular "controls" her 11 year old brother without any physical display of strength or control at all, but by psychological and emotional strategies.
Steve Hays:
If it comes down to brute force, then an act of the will is not what instantiates this alternate possibility.
As above, there's a lot more to consider than just physical or muscular strength. But even if we allowed, for the sake of argument that muscular strength was the only determining factor in a contest of wills, then it would be what instantiates the result when there is a conflict. If my goal is to win an arm-wrestling match, the outcome will be determined by my determination and my strength compared to my opponent's. In some cases, the strength differential makes determination and resolve irrelevant -- one contestant is simply too strong, even if just trivially committed to winning the match for the other to prevail.
Steve Hays:
5.Or does it work like this: God causes our choices to eventuate. We choose, but it is God’s creative power that enacts that alternate possibility.
Why would we think that? And even if we imagined such a relationship, this kind of metaphysical subjectivity would be perfectly unfalsifiable, and thus no more 'true' than 'false', so far as we are concerned.
Steve Hays:
But if that’s the case, why does God defer to some choices, but not to others? Why did he defer to the big brother’s choice rather than the kid brother’s choice? Seems unfair to let the older brother win.
Um, yeah. And that doesn't even scratch the surface with respect to the logical problems and conundra this idea introduces.
Steve Hays:
6.And what about animals? Animals also seem to range along a continuum. Higher animals are apparently more intelligent than lower animals. When my dog chases a cat, and I summon my dog, does my dog deliberate over choosing to obey me or choosing to pursue the cat? Are dogs and other animals endowed with libertarian freedom?
Sure, they're part of the physical context too. Their brains aren't as large or well developed, and as far as we can tell, they don't have the same level of congnition, self-awareness and reasoning as (most) humans do. But their brains are organized along the same evolutionary lines -- synapses, neurons, pattern recognition, stimulus response wiring, etc. You can see the differen parts of a dog's brain light up on an fMRI in response to different interactions and stimuli, just like you can with humans (the responses and patterns are different, but the basic neurology is the same, if more primitive).

My dog is often visibly torn between the attraction of the neighbor dog (whom she likes to play with) barking next door, and my command to return to the house. Most of the time she comes at my command, but sometimes she struggles with obeying (visibly!), and runs off to the neighbor's house.
Steve Hays:
A dog is smarter than a crow. A crow is smarter than a clam. Indeed, the idea of an intelligent clam seems pretty absurd—although I’ve never been a clam, and—for all I know—clams have a very low opinion of human intelligence.
"Smarter" is something we can understand in an anthropocentric sense, for sure. Very few clams can read a book and recount its major themes, as far as I'm aware. But by the same measure, the human brain is evolutionarily very poorly suited for life as a clam. Clam brains are highly tuned to serving the needs of a clam, and are "smart" in the sense of utility and efficacy for survival in its ecological niche (it must be, or it would be an extinct species). A human brain would be totally "stupid" for a clam's purposes (survival, reproduction) -- way too large, outrageously expensive in terms of it energy demands.

The brains different animals have are a reflection of what is both a) practically achievable in terms of evolutionary development and b) maximally efficient for survival/reproduction in its environment.

At what point an action becomes "conscious" or "voluntary" is not a discrete boundary, so far as science is aware. If "consciousness" is simply "awareness of one's surroundings", -- and that's a very useful definition for many purposes -- then many forms of life are "conscious".
Steve Hays:
From a libertarian standpoint, are higher animals accessing alternate possibilities? And where’s the threshold below which some animals do not contribute to which possible outcome will, indeed, eventuate?
I don't see the basis for assuming there is a discrete "threshold". If the 'contributary curve' is smooth, then the point at which you would say "this is volitional" and "this is not" seems to be an arbitrary one.
Steve Hays:
Libertarianism presents a patchwork reality in which some pieces of the quilt are willed into being while other pieces come into being without our willing them. Isn’t this a very ad hoc ontological scheme?
It's anything but. The "ad-hockery" here comes from Hays' demand for a discrete threshold. For any given action ("should I open and eat this bag of chips?") there are numerous influences interacting. Some of them are involuntary (when you are hungry, you feel hungry whether you 'will' it or not), while others are more volitional ("I better eat these before my son shows up, or he'll take them and devour them").

The ontology is unified. Physics governs the interaction of physical entities. The "will" doesn't exist in a vacuum, and has complex interactions with other dynamics, dynamics which may be other desires and goals (and ones that may conflict), or which may be entirely "automatic", so far as the mind is concerned. All of that is normalized in our physical context, however. All choices, to the degree that they are choices and not just effects proceeding directly from a determining cause, are still subject to the physics that govern our reality.
Steve Hays:
By contrast, the ontology of Calvinism is far more economical. God has decreed just one unified reality. His decree is realized by means of creation, providence, and miracle.
You don't need Calvinism for a 'unified reality'. Got one without it, check it out. Moreover, the Calvinist use of 'unified' here is just a euphemism for metaphysical subjectivism here, which is unification of reality in the mind of God (what God wills to be real is real), but exhaustive "ad-hockery" for man. Reality isn't "unified" around structures and constraints in this model, but simply whatever the will of God is. Given that, reality is fundamentally as unknowable and as arbitrary as the mind of an impassible God.

But yes, problems notwithstanding, it does make things neat and tidy when struggling with the concept of agency, to just suppose there is none. That I'll grant.


Hays has responded in the comment stream:

Steve Hays:
T-stone is just confused, as usual. I wrote a critique of libertarianism. The version of libertarianism I'm reviewing is committed to possible world semantics.
Makes no difference. There's a good number of physicists who endorse the Many Worlds Interpretation - quantum decoherence instead of wave function collapse. Steve can protest that he's really picking on something completely detached from reality, and I'd agree; that's his milieu. But even if we suppose his object of critique is completely brain-dead, it doesn't matter. Since Steve insists what he is reviewing is committed to "possible world semantics" he's got a problem. If he is looking for a "mechanism" (his term) for how our reality is unified, it's useless to look for such a thing if he's only playing around with speculative philosophy. The "possible worlds" are purely conceptual -- no other "mechanism" obtains. If he's wondering what really happens, what the mechanism for unification would be in a reality-based many worlds scenario, the answer is that no unification is even happening -- the world we are "in" and calling the "actual world" is just one of many (hence the name!). Terribly confused, he is.

Steve Hays:
T-stone is substituting his own theory of the will. That's irrelevant to my critique of libertarianism.
What "libertarianism"? Steve's shadow-boxing, again. He doesn't provide any citations or source material to substantiate what he's, um, "critiquing".

Steve Hays:
He's also too obtuse even to accurately summarize libertarianism. No one said that my idea or concept *is* an abstract object (e.g. a possible world). The issue, rather, is how my idea corresponds to an accessible alternate possibility.
What does "accessible" mean here, Steve? If I have two options A and B, what's the "issue"? If I want to choose A, then what? There isn't even a coherent enough concept in his statement words to address beyond this.

Steve Hays:
Once again, this is not simply a case of how *I* (as an opponent of libertarianism) frame the issue. This is how many *libertarians* frame the issue. Just spend a little time with The Oxford Handbook of Free Will.
Steve doesn't supply anything that suggest he's read this or is conversant with the ideas it presents. How about a quote of the arguments you're critiquing, Steve? How about something you can be checked against?

Steve Hays:
T-stone is also assuming the truth of physicalism, despite many cogent objections to physicalism.
Not. Rather, I'm assuming the reality of physical law. That doesn't have to be all there is, but it's at least part of what is. And importantly, it's sufficient to provide substantial answers to Steve's questions. Physical law governs how all the various forces and actions around us coalesce into a unified reality.

Steve Hays:
Finally, if T-stone thinks that all future events are the effect of physical determinism, then that commits him to hard determinism. It's the polar opposite of libertarianism.
You can't be passingly familiar with modern physics and mistake it for a "deterministic model". At macro scales it's stable and predictable. At quantum scales, it's only predictable as a matter of probability (try "determining" just when the next atom in an amount of U-238 will decay, for example).


roadracer said...

sounds like you didn't understand what he meant. Did you read his reply to you?

Touchstone said...


Steve said:
The agent chooses from a panloply of possible futures. Indeed, billions of human agents are choosing from a panoply of possible futures. These are not physical entities. They are abstract objects. They have yet to be instantiated, and most of them will remain unexemplified possibilities.

So, according to the libertarian, the future is partly realized by incorporating snippets from various possible worlds into the actual world. And, somehow, all these individual choices, by individual agents, fall into place to create a unitary future. What is coordinating the lockstep alignment between my alternate future of choice, your alternate future of choice, and the billions of other alternate possibilities accessed and instantiated by billions other agents?

Steve's just confused. My plans to have lunch with a colleague today do not represent some "abstract world", but an idea, a concept in my mind. As such, it's as physical and concrete as any other thought in my brain -- a different electrical/chemical pattern than my other brain-states, but a brain-state all the same.

And that's governed by physics, just like everything else. My plans may be unrealistic, and practically unachievable. Or maybe my desires change and I want to postpone luch to do someting else. Neither of these are the least bit problematic in the metaphysical sense, or present some sort of quandary for the physics-governed world we live in. He's thinking magically here, where there's no need.