Sunday, November 3, 2013

Free Will: In Search of a Foundation

By Steve Rensberry

   Why do humans do the things they do?
   On the surface it would seem an easy enough question to answer.
   "Because they choose to do it," people will say. "Because they see some benefit in it for themselves and make a conscious decision to act on it."
   But does this not beg the question? What exactly is it, in a causative sense, that drives the choices we make? Are the things we choose not framed by the circumstances that surround us, by our genetic and biological attributes? When we say that a person chooses one thing over another, what exactly--on a cognitive or causative level--is truly transpiring? 
   Whether we can see beyond the puzzle of our own existence even far enough to formulate a sufficient answer is a question that philosophers from Thales to Dewey have been trying to determine, and one that continues to cry out for clarity. Like many things, the presumed basis upon which this strange and paradoxical thing we call free will, or free choice, proves all the foggier the closer we look. Is it truly what drives our behavior, as a cause produces an effect, or is something deeper at work here?
   Plato presented us with his theory of forms, in effect elevating abstract ideas to a position of supremacy in the quest to define true reality consists of. German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote widely of the noumenal realm vs the phenomenal realm, the former of which he considered to be the "real" world of reason and innate ideas compared to the subjectively-experienced phenomenal world. Empiricists such as Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill side with the view that sensory experience and physical evidence are fundamentally more trustworthy and real than the "tentative" world of abstract ideas. Naturalists, in embracing the world of natural causes, have stood in long opposition to theists and supernaturalists, who have welcomed the world of the immaterial and innate with arms extended.
   If only this persistent concept of free will--as a type of unaffected, infinitely untarnished and personal decision-making device--weren't so often used as a convenient battering ram, to place blame and to castigate. Do we seek to hold people responsible because they are responsible in an absolutist sort of way, because it reflects the type of human being they truly are, or because on some subconscious level we are driven to do so because it is quantitatively easier than acknowledging and dealing with the deep complexities of the human condition?
   Let me propose that the list of those factors in our lives which compel us to act and which demand either immediate or future resolution is far longer, far more influential, and holds a far greater share of responsibility for human action than does the list of those things which can rightfully be considered within the realm of free choice.
   Consider a fictional gentleman by the name of Mr. Jonathan Jones.
   Let us presume that Mr. Jones grew up in an average size town, that he was brought up a Protestant, and that he was well schooled to the point of obtaining a bachelor of science degree in business. He has a job, a wife, two small children, plenty of friends, and an adequate supply of cash thanks to a combined household income and some early savings. When he is not working, Mr. Jones likes to head for the hills to camp, hike, boat or simply to explore the countryside with his family or friends.
   But let us ask ourselves, is Mr. Jones free to choose whether to breathe or not?
   Is he free to choose whether to sleep, to eat or to hydrate himself?
   Can he choose to stop time in its tracks, or to reverse it?
   As he relaxes under a tree on one of his many favorite wilderness adventures, he imagines that he can fly above the mountain tops like a bird. Is this a choice that he is free to manifest without consequences?
   Can our friend choose to live under water, extend his life by 500 years, grow 10 feet tall or move objects with the power of his mind alone?
   He can decide to try, but to call such an exercise of the will a choice would seem rather meaningless.
   We can presuppose a dimension to the human intellect and conscious mind that rises well above the purely physical, a place that we may surely presume to be the seat of choice, but here again we come perilously close to pure conjecture.
   There is a sense in which the human will, as the locus of imagination and desire, is infinitely disconnected from external reality altogether in that it adheres neither to its limitations nor to the basic laws of cause and effect that govern it. Only within a very thin slice of what we can ultimately envision are the choices we make free to be manifest. French philosopher Rene Descartes makes little distinction between the concepts of will and choice, with choice thus perceived as being effectively unlimited in scope. More common, however, is the view that willings are substantively distinct from the idea of a truly free will, given the vast number of barriers to its full realization (Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
   Authors Xingxu Wang and Guenther Ruhe, in a 1997 article published in the International Journal of Cognitive Informatics and Natural Intelligence, present a fundamental cognitive decision-making process which they describe as "a sequence of Cartesian-based selections," with real-world decisions seen as but "a repetitive application of the fundamental cognitive process."
   Wang and Ruhe cite a layered reference model of the brain (LRMB), which they say "has revealed that there are 37 interacting cognitive processes in the brain," part of which parallels the processes which the mind goes through in problem-solving. Other elements include a combination of processes involving such things as qualification, quantification, comprehension, representation, memorization and search.
   "Contrary to the traditional 'container' metaphor, the human memory mechanism can be described by a 'relational' metaphor, which perceives that memory and knowledge are represented by the connections between neurons in the brain, rather than the neurons themselves as information containers," Wang and Ruhe write.
   In respect to the dissection of free will, let me plead for clarity on a list of several other ontologically relevant concepts, such as intention, determination, belief, desire, wanting, wishing, longing, thought, and meaning itself. Is it a case of the mind owning such concepts or reflecting them? Do they exist apart from the human mind? The supernaturalist will, generally speaking, be inclined to say "yes." Not only are we fundamentally connected on some otherworldly, quantum-like level with at least one particular entity far more powerful than ourselves, the argument goes, but the communication is ongoing, hyper-intimate and in need of no other evidence to justify the reality of it than the mere testimony of those who believe it. Evidence, thus defined, does not come from the outside in but from the inside out -- and our free will is deemed to be truly free because we are, theoretically, connected to the very source of all knowledge itself. Intuitively and innately, writers such as C.S. Lewis have argued, we are made aware of what is moral and what is immoral, what is right and what is wrong, what is the creator's will and what is not the creator's will. By such logic were are thus made 100 percent responsible for 100 percent of the choices that we make, the circumstances that preceded or shaped such choices notwithstanding.
   It is quite understandable the comfort that comes from believing in some deeper reality, in the guiding hand of some transcendent being who is always there to give life order, purpose and meaning. But are we being intellectually honest with ourselves? Should not the evidence we choose as justification for such all-encompassing belief rest on more than subjective personal experiences or mere human testimony? Even more so when such testimony suggests that which contravenes all known laws of physics.
   Professor and author Douglas Hofstadter made the case, beginning with Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, for the role of analogy in the formation of human consciousness, and for the brain's use of self-referencing or feed-back loops in developing a sense of "I" and in the creation of meaning. In his book, I Am A Strange Loop, Hofstadter posits that this "I" which is created in effect can exist across multiple minds.
   "In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference," Hofstadter writes. (I Am A Strange Loop).
   Studies by Benjamin Libet in 2002 regarding decision making and brain activity revealed some interesting findings, among them evidence that appears to show that one's actions actually are sometimes set in motion even before the conscious mind wills it. Where does that leave free will?
   Consider once again our friend Jonathan Jones.
   When he gets up in the morning and decides to make a pot of coffee, what actually is it that causes the coffee to be made? We can say that Mr. Jones' decision, or freely chosen will, is responsible, but does it not take one thing coming into contact with another, or at minimum some kind of force acting upon another, for a cause to produce an effect? How is a motivation or something as abstract as a desire connected to something as material and physical as the human body?
   If Mr. Jones decides to do something dastardly, such that we feel compelled morally and ethically to hold him accountable, should we hold him 100 percent responsible or should we view his culpability as but pieces of some metaphysical pie, split among an unpredictable array of genetic, biological, educational, socioeconomic and psychological factors in his life? Surely, our friend has more control over some of these than others. And where does intent fall into the picture, if the consequences by change turn out to be different than expected? Imagine, for instance, that Mr. Jones witnesses what he thinks is an altercation on a neighboring street, decides to intervene, but when he steps between the two suspects one of them suddenly and unexpectedly steps backwards over a curb, then tragically dies after his head smashes against the pavement. The degree to which Mr. Jones is responsible would certainly seem to be less than 100 percent, but where do we draw the line?
   The concept of freedom would seem at best to be profoundly ambiguous, and nature of choice equally ripe with speculation, both requiring in effect that we take a conceptual leap from one unknown (the world of ideas) into another unknown (the world of physical cause and effect). No one fully understands what the nature, source and mechanisms are which form the fabric of human consciousness. Likewise, no one fully understands the mechanisms and forces that govern the physical world, whether we're talking about quantum physics or neurology. Yet somehow we feel confident in attaching a very individualistic form of responsibility to human actions -- as though the act of choosing were somehow akin to turning a light switch on or off and every decision came with a crystal clear set of consequences that always produced the same result.
   In the classic work, Tertium Organum, Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky writes about our experience of the world as a place existing in time and space and the near impossibly of conceiving of it in any other way, as unsatisfactory as that may be. Ouspensky writes:
   "In general, we say that the objective world consists of things and phenomena, i.e., things and changes in states of things. The PHENOMENA exist for us in time; the THINGS, in space . . . But such a division of the subjective and the objective world does not satisfy us. By means of reasoning we can establish the fact that in reality we know only our own sensations, perceptions and conceptions, and we cognize he objective world by projecting outside of ourselves the causes of our sensations, presuming them to contain these causes."
   The causes of our sensations have been one of the perennial philosophical questions since the "remotest antiquity," Ouspensky states.
   I would concur, but argue as well that we should include within that same conceptual framework the human faculties of motivation and will. Ouspensky implies as much himself in parsing the subjective (conceptual) world and the object-based world, or as he puts it, the world of "things."
   Ouspensky cites Kant in casting doubt even further, this time on the possibility of ever knowing exactly how the human mind is swayed by the outside world and declaring that the very concepts of space and time, apart from the human intellect, would not even exist. As stated by Ouspensky:
   "Kant established the fact that everything that is known through the senses is known in terms of time and space, and that out of time and space we cannot know anything by way of the senses; that time and space are necessary conditions of sensuous receptivity (i.e., receptivity by means of the five organs of sense). Moreover, what is most important, he established the fact that extension in space and existence in time are not properties appertaining to things, but just the properties of our sensuous receptivity; that in reality, apart from our sensuous knowledge of them, things exist independently of time and space; but we can never perceive them out of time and space, and perceiving things and phenomena thus sensuously, by virtue of it we impose upon them the conditions of time and space, as belonging to our form of perception."
Upon what foundation should we lay this ubiquitous concept of free will?
   Let me posit and answer that is both an appeal and a proposition.
   As I see it, human motivation and the human decision-making process in general would seem at best to be a complex, little-understood phenomenon that begs us to take into account the overall human condition before jumping to conclusions about the precise reason for any particular human behavior. Not only have we yet to find a definitive answer to the paradoxical relationship between mind and body, but a similar conundrum presents itself in dealing with the abstract vs the concrete, the emotional vs the empirical, the subjective vs the objective, the internal vs the external, the supernatural vs the natural, the absolute vs the relative, the teleological vs the accidental or nihilistic, the predestined vs the existential, and the intuitive vs the scientific.
   Holding people responsible for their actions is fine, I would say, if we understand that the term "responsible" is a relative one. How can we truly hold someone responsible for their actions when it is uncertain, in a metaphysical sense, exactly what this thing called free will really is, much less the precise mechanism by which non-spacial, abstract phenomenon cause motion within the human body? Yes, we can hold them responsible, but only as partially free agents in a grossly misunderstood, infinitely complex universe -- agents who often make choices for reasons that neither they nor we fully understand.

For further reading:

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion