Theory on framework issues

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

10.2. The what, how, and why of "free will": A metaphysical digression—Part 2. How "free will"?

New data could conceivably disprove Libet’s results, but the correction would mean nothing metaphysically because at the end of the day, Libet’s contribution was conceptual. Libet solved the mind-body problem en passant; his data forced him to grasp the distinction between the deciding experience and deciding itself, but the data themselves are metaphysically otiose. For metaphysics, Libet’s experimental results serve only as scaffolding for distinguishing deciding from decision and showing that temporal associations in the experience of deciding explain why we feel we exercise mentalistic control. The perception of deciding to act, distinct from the fact of acting, both explains the impression that we have free will and demonstrates free will’s untenability. The objective temporal ordering doesn’t bear on these distinctions and explanations—as long as the experience is that the act of will preceded or coincided with the act of deciding.

Libet (somewhat unknowingly) showed how human experience creates a predilection for a misplaced, impossible, perceived causal relation, and connections experienced create the causal illusion; real temporal relations are irrelevant. Simplicity recommends this explanation of phenomenal free will, and the explanation displays exactly why free will is illusion: sensations don’t cause physical events. Holding that experience interacts with the physical world, Descartes was the only important metaphysician to disagree, and every metaphysician today holds that two substances essentially different can’t interact. Physical laws govern physical events and leave no room for entry of purely mental causes.

A possible source of confusion about these arguments is metaphysicians’ acceptance of one class of mental causes, beliefs and desires. In response—perceiving willful efficacy differs from attributing beliefs and desires, in that nothing in the concept of “belief” and “desire” identify them as phenomenal experience. While belief and desire aren't experiences—available for association with other experiences—the error of considering beliefs experiential, held even by metaphysicians until the 20th century, may have generalized from free will to nonexperiental mental entities like belief and desire, causing the naive error that beliefs and desires are experiential.

Finally, since (if) sensations are brain events, one might contend that associating experienced decisions with actual action results in no anomalous causation. First, nothing in the experience of deciding points to the under-strata, and conditioning usually can target only phenomena. Second, if the objection holds, it’s at the expense of the mind-brain-identity theory’s credibility, in its insistence on a direct relationship between phenomenology and physics.

Next essay: Why free will?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

10.1. The what, how, and why of "free will": A metaphysical digression—Part 1. What is "free will"?

The Libet experiments can reinvigorate the free-will debate—now deadlocked and dull—if applied to clarify concepts, not merely refute opponents. In the current standoff, almost every philosopher and scientist rejects libertarian free will, the doctrine that willful acts produce physically unpredictable outcomes, but the scholarly majority wants its physicalism and its free will too. This compatibilist maneuver to have both turns the question of free will’s existence into a jejune debate about words; but unfortunately, free will’s inherent ineffability condemns determinists to rejecting what they can’t define. These essays fill the gap.

Compatibilists equate the exercise of free will with voluntary behavior, as when I move my arm because that’s what I want to do. According to the desiccated compatibilist definitions, free will is comprised of the ability to behave voluntarily, notwithstanding that volition is cortical matter physically causing chemical events. Although it’s hard to describe an alternative, this position seems obviously wrong; a science fiction story can quickly show why. Imagine an intelligent species that directly experienced the causal path between brain and arm, as we might experience the causal connection between pain and object causing injury. Such beings would perform the action voluntarily, but would this tempt anyone to call it “free”? Unfortunately, the answer is affirmative. While the thought experiment can allude to the distinction between voluntary and freely willed behavior, a compatibilist would answer the question, “Yes, that is an example of free will.”

Determinists can concede that volition is one meaning of free will but insist on another meaning, origination, the sense that you are your behavior’s source. Although origination separates determinists from libertarians—by the lights of both—compatibilists circumvent the issue by limiting the manifestation of free will to voluntary behavior. That they’ve gotten the better of the argument, despite their evasiveness, must be admitted, because origination is nebulous, unsuited for creating a clear counterpoint to volition. Free will, the agent’s contribution to the event, the umpf we give an act seemingly making it occur, seems ineffable except by the vaguest allusion. Intuitively, we feel we will freely in a sense distinct from mere volition—most everyone thinks they know this other free will—but unsupported mass intuitions truly deserve little respect.

My trick defines the experience of free will by its cause instead of its experiential quality, much as the ineffable red patch observable in your mind’s eye can be defined as the physical reception of an object reflecting certain long light waves. With a difference. If we define the free-will experience by its cause—as we can define the sensation red by its external cause—then, if the definition posits a demonstrably nonexistent entity, it undermines the doctrine of free will, including its compatibilist version.

Recall that Libet found that subjects perceived the act of deciding, the initiating event of the free-will experience, later than the actual decisionthis demonstrated neurologically. Determinists see that misplacement of the subjective experience of deciding disposes of libertarian free will. But who believes in libertarian free will? Since they haven’t described the experience of free will, these scholars haven’t refuted compatibilism.

My small contribution is to articulate a definition of free will:

Free will is the (mis)perception that experienced deciding causes behavior.

This project relies on Fritz Heider’s classic psychological experiments as much as on Libet’s neurological studies. Heider showed that despite the abstractness of the concept of cause, temporal precedence and spatial contiguity produce the direct, noninferential perception of causality. (An animated demonstration lets you experience the direct perception of causality.) This sense of a causal connection, resulting from associating perceived decision with act, is the sense of free will.

Attributing the free-will experience to a unique cause frees determinists from the vexation of defining it experientally, since it explains the experience by an invalidating mechanism: if the experience of deciding regularly precedes an act, it will seem its cause. Determinists, therefore, can demonstrate a sense of free will distinct from voluntary control.

Next part: How free will?

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Joshua Tree, California 92252-2141, United States
SUPPLIER OF LEGAL THEORIES. Attorneys' ghostwriter of legal briefs and motion papers, serving all U.S. jurisdictions. Former Appellate/Law & Motion Attorney at large Los Angeles law firm; J.D. (University of Denver); American Jurisprudence Award in Contract Law; Ph.D. (Psychology); B.A. (The Johns Hopkins University). E-MAIL: Phone: 760.974.9279 Some other legal-brief writers research thoroughly and analyze penetratingly, but I bring another two merits. The first is succinctness. I spurn the unreadable verbosity and stupefying impertinence of ordinary briefs to perform feats of concision and uphold strict relevance to the issues. The second is high polish, achieved by allotting more time to each project than competitors afford. Succinct style and polished language — manifested in my legal-writing blog, Disputed Issues — reverse the common limitations besetting brief writers: lack of skill for concision and lack of time for perfection.