Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Freedom, determinism and Indeterminacy

Disputes over free will and determinism are old ones, and here I just want to sketch in some of the ways in which such debates might be affected by the notion of culture, or language-based consciousness, that's been developed here.

My position on the issue can be described as "compatibilist" -- the at-first-sight odd idea that free will and determinism can go hand-in-hand. Determinism, of course, is pretty much required by a naturalistic or physicalist account of consciousness and culture (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which wouldn't affect the argument here in any case). But free will is another matter -- it's bound up with notions of agency, culture, and that cultural Indeterminacy Principle that was the topic of the previous post. As we'll see, I think free will and determinism are compatible simply in the sense that both are indispensable in their particular ways.

Compatibilism is a philosophical position that goes back a fair way, but it's never really surmounted the common intuition that the two are fundamentally incompatible, an intuition well captured by the so-called "Consequence Argument" (quoting from SEP):

1. No one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature.
2. No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail that only one future is possible (i.e., determinism is true).
3. Therefore, no one has power over the facts of the future.

But the tack I want to suggest here is that, in situating an agent in the midst of a causal sequence, this argument is in fact conflating two properly distinct orientations or "modes of discourse", one that deals with causation and one that deals with agency.

This might be seen as a version of "Multiple Viewpoints Compatibilism", for philosophical categorizers. Within the perspective of causation -- what I'll call the mechanistic orientation -- the notion of "freedom" is either meaningless or pointless, since the only alternative to saying that our behavior and our will is caused is to say that they're uncaused or random. And within the perspective of will -- i.e., the agency orientation -- the notion of cause appears simply as reason or intention, which is always present no matter how minutely we examine ourselves (or others, to the extent we're able). In the latter orientation, freedom does indeed have meaning, but it means precisely that our will, our behavior, and the facts that result from that, are determined by our own reasons/intentions, rather than by some other force or agency (e.g., "fate", as Sartre suggested some while back*) that might be manipulating them. Given different facts (that is, counterfactually), from the mechanistic orientation our present behavior would be different and so, therefore, would the future facts -- and from the agency orientation, our reasons/intentions would be different, and so, therefore, again, would the future facts.

Now, Dennett has put forth a version of "Multiple Viewpoints", with "Intentional" and "Personal" Stances contrasted with a Deterministic one, and arguing that the former are simply more pragmatic when dealing with certain complex systems. My feeling is that, while the idea of the "stance" is a good one, this isn't quite right, nor sufficiently far-reaching. The "Intentional", in fact, isn't really a "stance" at all, but applies literally to all conscious or aware entities (and is only metaphorically, or, worse, sentimentally applied to non-conscious mechanisms like thermostats). And the "Personal Stance", or what I'm calling the agency orientation, hasn't to do with the complexity of an entity, but rather simply with the fact that we're in communication with it. If we encountered an alien species that was without language, for example, it wouldn't make sense (and certainly wouldn't be practical) to adopt a Personal Stance toward it regardless of how "intelligent" or complex individual organisms appeared to be (they might, in fact, even be manufactured rather than evolved entities). If we're able to establish communication, on the other hand, then, regardless of the "natural" status of the beings involved, the agency orientation comes into play and a moral dimension comes into being. And what enforces this is precisely that cultural Indeterminacy Principle mentioned above -- because they cannot deal with one another in a purely instrumental fashion, beings in mutual communication are in an inherently moral as opposed to instrumental relationship with one another (and the attempt to deal with one another instrumentally or manipulatively is itself widely viewed as an immoral act).

Thus, the notion of an "agent" -- the "one" assumed in the Consequence Argument above -- has meaning only within a particular orientation, in which "causation" has, at best, only a secondary significance, after "will" or "purpose". Within the mechanistic orientation, on the other hand, the notion of an "agent", in the true sense of the word, simply vanishes, to be replaced by causal sequences. Both orientations are needed --mechanism because of its obvious practical benefits, and agency because of the inescapable moral dimension. But trying to conflate the two, as the Consequence Argument does, is just a mistake -- and the result is often the sort of confusion and mystification that we find in the unfortunate, homunculus-like image of the "ghost in the machine".

* "So, contrary to what could be believed, the imaginary world occurs as world without freedom: nor is it determined, it is the opposite of freedom, it is fatal." The Psychology of Imagination, Washington Square Press, 1966 (1948), p. 221.


At 7:41 AM, December 02, 2005, Blogger Steve said...

This is clearly argued.

I reject determinism as being based on an inadequate view of causality.

But if I thought determinism was true, I could certainly sign on to such a version of compatibilism.

At 9:10 AM, December 02, 2005, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

Thanks for the comment, Steve.

I'd be interested in hearing more about what you regard as determinism's "inadequate view of causality". For my purposes, I'd be happy to replace simple determinate causality with more of a spectrum model, in which 100% determinate is at one end, 100% random at the other, and in between are various mixtures of more or less determinate "causes" or influences. This would allow, among other things, for the possibility of so-called "stochastic" machines, such as living cells. But it still wouldn't, in my view, make it any more coherent to attempt to introduce the notion of an "agent" into such an orientation.

At 6:22 PM, January 31, 2006, Blogger edjog said...

I have to say i'm unfamiliar with much of the jargon ellis, but you've laid your article out well enough for a lay person to grasp, i think. Thanks.

What about when a person's choices are limited by their environment/experience? If they are unable to contemplate what their true "will" might be, let alone act on it, doesn't that put determinism in the ascendant? If we do accept then that "cause" can trump "will", where does that leave morality, for any person thus affected? Surely it's not logical to expect morality from a coerced person, any more than it would be from a thermostat?

At 7:40 PM, January 31, 2006, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

Thanks for the comment, edjog.

One of the main points that I wanted to make in this -- and I apologize for the jargon, by the way -- is that will and cause are not in conflict with one another, despite the fact that it can appear as though they are. To use another metaphor, they're just not on the same track but on separate tracks, so that one really can't "trump" the other. What matters for moral responsibility, therefore, is not whether there are factors influencing certain choices -- there are always such factors, after all, for rascists, fascists, etc., as much as for "criminals" -- but whether one is, or should be aware of such choice. It can certainly happen, though, that there are circumstances where will or choice is just not available, whether through coercion, ignorance of options, or some kind of impairment -- and in those cases, as you say, moral responsibility is also reduced or absent.

I'm certainly no expert on ethics or morality, by the way, and couldn't even play one, but I would make one additonal point: the concept of moral responsibility doesn't seem to me to be exclusive to either the political right or left, but it does seem important -- and if we let go of it, either for ourself or for others, then I think we let go of an essential aspect of our humanity.

At 9:16 PM, January 31, 2006, Blogger edjog said...

No,no, don't apologise. It's my lack of education that i'm seeking to correct by reading philosophical blogs.

I got it though, the "compatibilist" stance. What i'm saying is that there are causes which effectively render will meaningless and with it individual morality. I'd agree that we should not lose sight of morality, in fact, given what we see happening these days, we need it more than ever. But i'm suggesting that we are morally responsible collectively for the immorality committed by individuals reduced to determined behaviour. Trying to hold those individuals guilty, to demonise them, merely feeds into the system of amoral responsibility avoidance, which seems a common feature of many western societies.

To take your tracks analogy: it's like the train operator claiming no responsibility for somebody ending up at the wrong destination, blaming the passenger for getting on the only train available. Yes, the other track was there and had there been a train on it, the ultimate destination may have been different...


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