Friday, May 09, 2008

Reasonable Cause?

Benjamin Libet's Experiment
Free or not? Decide for yourself...
(Image from Wikipedia)

Malcolm Pollack, of Waka Waka Waka fame, has lately been defending philosophical determinism, somewhat to my surprise . . . though if he's right about absolute causality, then neither he nor I have had any choice in our views.

In which case, of course, I ought not to feel surprised at my surprise (if "ought" has any meaning, given determinism).

Free will is one of those philosophical concepts that resists complete comprehension, at least for me. I can think about it and circumscribe it with my thoughts, but it remains elusive. I can, for instance, state that our will is free if a decision of the will is made freely, which entails that it not be the result of a chain of causes, either external or internal, but is a choice based on reasons.

Yet, how that works, precisely, is the elusive part, for an explanation as to how something works usually appeals to causality. I can only note that if the determinist demands that I give an explanation for how free will works, and means by that a causal explanation, then I can only reply that a causal explanation would not explain free will but deny it.

So, free will is a 'surprising' thing if it exists, but perhaps the world has a few surprising things, as the philosopher David Chalmers argues concerning consciousness in his book The Conscious Mind. One wouldn't, apriori, expect a world with consciousness in it. Why should some things in the world have any awareness? But some things, e.g., ourselves -- as we know from experience of our own qualia -- do have awareness.

I therefore asked Malcolm if he distinguishes between "causes" and "reasons." Malcolm affirms that he does, indeed, distinguish the two, but I'm left wondering what role reasons play in a deterministic schema. I sense a dilemma, so let me see if I can express it.

Assuming the truth of determinism, either the reason that one gives for an action taken does perfectly reflect the true cause of the action, or it does not perfectly reflect the true cause of the action. In the former case, the reason given reduces to the cause; in the latter case, the reason given reduces to a mistake. Therefore, either the reason is nothing more than the cause itself (or at most, one of the merely epiphenomenal qualia associated with the cause), or the reason is merely mistaken rationalization (whether in whole or in part) that itself reflects, albeit imperfectly, more basic causal processes. Determinism would thus seem to leave no genuine role for reasons.

Probably, I haven't expressed myself so well on this issue, and no doubt my friend Bill Vallicella could do far better, but perhaps my musings will spur Malcolm to further posts on this fascinating if maddening topic.

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At 6:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With Gay's illness, auto and tractor repairs, fields needing fertilizer, etc., etc., I 'determined' to go back to work to recoup my losses.
Also, the hay fields will soon be ready for me to cut, rake, bale and store the hay. So I have 'determined' to get the tractors serviced, the sickles sharpened, and the rake repaired.
Our cows are almost ready to have their new babies, so I have 'determined' to keep watch in case they have calving problems. Then the fences need repair, so I have 'determined' to do that as soon as I have time. I made these decisions of my own free will...........OR DID I????? After reading this blog, I am so confused, I may not be able to decide what to do, or even when to start.

At 7:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, Uncle Cran, if determinism is true, then you can comfort yourself by the fact that you bear no responsibility for your determination . . . so just do whatever the hell you please (not that you have any choice in taking my advice, or leaving it).

Of course, there will be blood...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:57 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

I have very definite opinions on all this- just too tired to express.
I'll get back to you tomorrow.

At 11:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like it was pre-dermined that I should not send anything in answer to your arguments and pleas,
I now have a clear conscience in that regard. After all, I am not to blame. Since my future address is in a higher place, I don't have any desire to do anything connected with the term 'hell." No blood need be shed.

At 11:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Don't worry, Jeanie. I understand that you had no choice.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, forces beyond my control compel me to ignore your comment. Not that there's anything wrong with your comment, but I have no choice in what 'I' am doing.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:48 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Jeffery,

I do think that there is still a great deal of murk to cut through on this topic, and indeed I plan to keep at it. It's hard, because I have so little time for writing, and on this topic I want to be very careful, not just dash off hasty posts. So I'm going slowly, a little at a time.

An example I might give about reasons and causes is that living things do indeed have interests, such as getting food, predator avoidance, finding shelter, etc.; so one could say that a spider makes a web for the reason that it must catch flies to eat. In other words, our bodies have evolved to act, however deterministically, in such a way as to further our interests. Humans are a more complex example - we are capable of exquisitely subtle deliberation, and of representing a great many more, and often conflicting, reasons and interests - but the principle is the same.

So you might say that our brains are highly evolved deterministic modelers of the genuine reasons and interests that have proven to be adaptive for us to follow. Not perfect "reasoners", mind you, but good enough to get by.

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Malcolm, for the comment.

I might not be fully understanding your point, but my sense is that what you're calling "reasons" would be just our imperfect, epiphenomenal consciousness of the real (if not always well-adapted-to-survival-goals) underlying "causes."

But perhaps we're talking past one another.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:34 PM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Well, Jeffery, there's no need for us to have to talk past one another; I think we are on the same page about causes, but perhaps we have to be clearer about what we mean, exactly, by "reasons". If you can give an example of what you mean by a reason that a creature might do something, we'd probably have a good place to start looking at whether there's a real problem here.

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

feeling somewhat inadequate to all these really Ex-Pat Academic guys and the Northeastern (US) Elitist guys arguments: I choose to rarify my capitaliztions as required:

i experience heartburn on a regular basis, my doctors Reasoned i needed medication.

tonight i really had a hankering for a McDonalds Quarter-Pounder with cheese (my keyboard doesn't have that "tm" thing and I do not want to get in trouble-no matter the philosophistry).

the Cause for my desire was an emptiness. the Reason was that the nearest (again tm) McD's was 40 miles away. if i wanted a Quarter-Pounder with cheese i Determined i'd have to drive.

all were in play- Cause, Reason, Determinism. it's all well and good for Academics and the NE Elitests to Determine when and if us hillbillies should have Reason to desire a QP&C, another thing to make the philosophical argument.

anyway, i Determined that since i'd a hankering for a QP&C, i Reasoned that the 5 beers my constitution required by the time i'd gotten through all the discussions as to why NE Elitests and Ex-Pats knew better than hillbillies what their dietary requirements actually were, were correct. beans and cornbread. unpasteurized milk, and spitten terbaccy.

just because a person wants a QP&C-that's the Reason part, well maybe the Cause part too, depending on "want or Reason" of which only the really qualified guys get any action doesn't really matter.

anyway, the algebraic formulation between these guys Determining whether the 5 beers i/we consumed either Causes or provides the Reason for whatever Determinization

uh, what was the question?


At 3:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Okay, here are two examples:

1. I was thirsty, so I drank some water.

The thirst was my reason.

2. I had a job interview coming, so I prepared a presentation.

The job interview was my reason.

In the first example, the reason is also clearly a cause, and the reason could plausibly be my epiphenomenal awareness of that cause.

In the second example, the reason is less clearly a plausible cause, for the job interview, although clearly my reason, comes later than my preparing the presentation, whereas cause ordinarily precedes effect (unless we're including the old Scholastic teleological cause).

But I don't want to make too much of this second example. My intention was simply to give a couple of examples for reasons.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, whatever it was that you did, it sounds 'overdetermined' -- as some Western Marxists used to like to say.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philosophical dialogue and reasonings can lead to strange conclusions, regarding determination, acts of the will, reason, responsibility, etc. The history of some notable philosophers is apropos. It is beyond my finite understanding. Practical matters of this life keep me from getting into this deeply. I am reminded of the testimony of the apostle Paul before king Agrippa and the Roman governor Festus. Near the end of his defense you find this: Acts 26:24-29 --"And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad. But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness. For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Aalmost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds."
This may be a naive view, but I at least have an anchor for my life based on the Scriptures.

At 11:34 PM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Or as Martin Luther said:

"Here I stand. I can do no other." Did he have a "real" choice?

Practical matters of this life keep me from getting into this deeply today, too, I'm afraid, except for two brief remarks:

First, Jeffery, I think the second example is a good one: the reason one would prepare for a job interview is indeed that if one is unprepared, one will not get the job. This is, of course, for the reason that hiring the clueless, or the lazy, is bad for business, which itself rests upon a tower of other reasons. So that is the "ground and consequent" side of things.

As human beings, we are equipped with fabulously sophisticated deliberating machines, that make enormously subtle models of the world in which we can "test drive" candidate behavior without exposing ourselves to the real-world consequences. We can "virtualize" different futures, and see where they lead us. Our models are sophisticated enough to represent all the "reasons" that we just mentioned (and of course a whole lot more), and even to model new ones on the fly, based on our cognitive efforts. So in my own deliberations I can take into account the possible effect, on the deliberations of my job interviewer, of my showing up unprepared, or wearing a Slipknot T-shirt, or no shirt at all - and test the different results as models before committing to any particular option in the real world.

None of this is in any way incompatible with determinism, of course, and the better my deliberating machinery is at making models that accurately reflect the reasons that impinge upon my interests, the better I'll do (and in evolutionary terms, the fitter I'll be).

Second, to JK:

"Elitist"? Moi???

At 3:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reasoning to Cause myself to ignore conventional grammatical rules Determined that I would confuse me, and everybody else.

I consider Cran's comment "on the money."

Malcolm, on one of your recent posts you mentioned a book of poetry fell off the shelf and you went on to self describe, "It’s just the sort of thing we elitist Northeastern intellectual snobs..."

Now. Has anyone determined anything yet?


At 4:32 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

your opening pic for this post looks like my EKG strip! All physics/math professor's daughters know that the chaos theory is deterministic. Also, can not recall the author of the butterfly representation, but I remember a friend of dad's explaining to me as a little girl that all matter is acted upon by energy and thus affecting all subsequent action. With all due respect to the Christian religion, I once had a preacher tell me that my deterministic beliefs were interferring with my path to accepting my religion. My response that I didn't believe that "someone" controlled the universe and picked and chose the recipients of action,like a car wreck, caused me many a dour look from the pulpit. Determinism is so often mixed up with the term "fate". It is truly more of a scientific concept than a philosphical one. When dad helped set up the first computer at ASU, and he took me to see the huge room sized machine that hummed like it was living, he explained that each step "determined" the next in computation. I guess I always think of the universe like that. So, do I have a say so? Yes, the deterministic chaotic model is fluid. Why have you and I( and JK) come back into each other's realm? It's like a web sticking at causal points, my illness. The reason for my illness was determined to be the spinal shots that introduced a virus that attacked my body. My reaction to all of this has been determined by the universal factors that developed my brain. My examination of the will needed to go on was developed long ago in the unknown areas of my brain. I now have a mind that through external factors will move in a certain pattern.
I feel the one area that I can exert dominion over would be the gaining of knowledge. I have been reading a book that suggests that there is just so much knowledge out there. Many people don't want their share, so I gathering up the leftovers. In this case, my mind has deliberated over choices, not the same as choosing.

At 5:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey JeaniO,

If you'll do a bit of waking you'll find that Malcolm a few weeks ago posted an obit concerning a mathmaticians' passing.

I responding by pasting a link on the obit of the guy who developed "Chaos Theory." It was the guy that developed "Chaos" who came up with the analogy.

Oh and Malcolm,

I know that when Prof. Jeffery sees me write "Academics" he understands I'm making an effort to be funny. I hope you didn't take offense by my using "elitest" in any mean-spirited way. It was just that you had provided me a means of injecting a bit more humor in what I intended as a fairly goofy exposition.


At 5:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, are you implying that much learning hath made me mad? But I'm not angry at all.

Just kidding.

This is a deep topic, and I'm also inadequate, but I like to sharpen my ideas on various topics, so I go on with it...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Malcolm, maybe the way for me to help clarify my inchoate distinction between reasons and causes in our current discussion is as follows.

Reasons occur at the level of our conscious experience; causes occur below the level of our consciousness experience.

Hence, we are experientially aware of our reasons, but we must abstract from events to recognize causes.

Another way of putting it is this. Reasons are mental events of which we are aware. Causes in the neural networks that make up our brain are beneath our awareness.

Let me leave it at that for the moment.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, perhaps the falling book was a randomly stochastic event governed by the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics...


It was a symbolic event signifying the fall of East Coast elitisim.


It was just a book falling off a shelf. A coastal shelf. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as quickly as you can, and don't have any kids yourself...

Yeah, that's it.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeanie, when I worked for your dad on his surveying crew, I once interrupted his work with a philosophical question.

I asked, "Do you believe in free will?"

Annoyed at the distraction, he retorted, "I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

It was a puzzling remark but probably intended to be offputting because he was 'determined' to finish his job.

I did once hear him dismiss the Muslim notion of fate, so I certainly knew that he was no fatalist.

From your remarks, I see that he, like Malcolm, was a determinist, so I suppose that his remark about his free will was simply a retort.

You see . . . all questions are eventually answered.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I'm sure that Malcolm took no offense and will be replying as soon as Blogger -- or maybe just my blog -- stops acting up.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Jeff,

Your last puts me at ease. Your Blogger is not the only one acting up, I'm having trouble getting the verification letters to appear on J's.

But just now Tavis Smiley then the PBS Newshour is coming on so I might as well run the scans I was planning.

I just wanted Malcolm to know where I got the description 'cause I definitely don't want him on a plane coming to kick my hillbilly ass for plagiarism. Or calling him names.


At 11:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I'm sure that everything will be fine.

Besides, if Malcolm is right about our having no free will, he has no reason to blame you for anything, for you had no choice.

Of course, he might blame you anyway, giving as the 'reason' that he has no choice in doing so.

Sigh . . . there's just no end to passing the buck in a totally deterministic universe.

Personally, I blame the Big Bang. (Please, no puerile wordplays!)

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:48 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi JK,

No worries: I'm guilty as charged. I fessed up in my own post, as you pointed out.

But I disagree with Jeff about one thing: we are right to hold one another responsible for the things we do, determinism or no.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You had to say that, Malcolm.

I didn't know that you would, but I now know that you had no choice...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Jeffrey,

Well, I'd say the choice was all mine. But you're free to disagree, if you so decide.

At 1:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Malcolm, I see that once again, you were determined to get my name wrong.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Good Lord, not again! How mortifying. Do forgive me, if you can.

People misspell my name all the time, and it irritates me no end. I'll make sure to be more attentive in future.

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nothing to forgive, Malcolm. It's not your fault, but rather the fault of those damned causal chains over which you have no control.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how to address the envelope I intend to send McD's with a suggestion to begin a take out service?


At 4:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

How to address the envelope? Doesn't that depend on the status of the envelope?

Sorry, but I can't help myself...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Even though we do not know exactly how our brain works, our brains are human, which will determine a set of decisions, rational or not. Our DNA determines how the wiring is expressed, and if different among us, still define us as human. That set of decisions is finite, but extraordinarily large.

Similar to the spider.

I think of the Mandelbrot set, if this make any sense.

At 3:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I wish that I understood mathematics better. I'd not heard of the Mandelbrot set, but I looked to Wikipedia and got your point, I think, about complexity arising from simplicity.

I also know little about genetics and DNA, but there is apparently some role for the environment play in brain development.

All that aside, my focus is on our experiential sense that our actions are free, the locus of this sense in our self-awareness, the implications of determinism for moral responsibility, and the difficulties in defining what, precisely, free will might be.

This complex of issues fascinates me, though I don't expect to get to the bottom of it.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Jeffery, as for those damned causal chains, well, I knew you'd say that.

Without any doubt, environment plays a critical role in brain development - babies who are deprived of the right sort of stimulus grow up with severe cognitive impairment (also, Google "fire together, wire together" for some interesting info).

Indeed, every time we notice something different in the environment, or hear a spoken word, our brains change...

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Malcolm, I'm a great believer in brain development, even at my age, for I've seen my ability to think more clearly improving over the years.

Not that I'd do any better on an IQ test -- I've a terrible short-term memory.

I'll definitely Google those clauses . . . if I don't forget.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:33 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

However the environment changes you, you will never think like a mouse.

At 1:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The free will versus determination debate extends into the scientific community. A few weeks ago, I read in Science Daily, one of my favorite online news sources, about a research study using MRI images to understand brain activity during decision-making. It was found that certain parts of the brain were activated several seconds prior to making a decision and that these parts were used consistently for certain kinds of decisions. The conclusion was that a decision is often made by your subconscious prior to you consciously reaching the decision. One can talk about physiological determinism in addition to religious and philosophical determinism.

When I first came back to the US from China, I had digestive upset on a daily basis. I went to a doctor, who gave me a quick examination and a common diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome. Dissatisfied, I went to see a gastroenterologist, who set up an appointment for an upper GI endoscopy. As the date approached, my symptoms subsided. This experience impressed upon me the power of the subconscious mind.


At 4:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, "Of Mice and Men," I prefer to think like a man . . . or is that just my own 'speciesism'?.

Anyway, I agree that we are limited to seeing the world as our species does, so our brain structures determine some things, our perspective and our limits, perhaps . . . yet, I still feel that I have free will, that I have and make meaningful choices.

I don't know if mice have such a sense or think about such things even though things "gang aft agley." I suspect not, but I have no way of knowing, of course.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, the image at this top of this blog entry was the finding of one such experiment. I'm not sure what to make of experimental findings such as these.

I think that our conscious awareness plays a role in the next decision as we reflect on what we have already previously decided, but I have no rigorous thoughts on this issue.

Doubtless, philosophers and others have dealt with it already, so I ought to take a look.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Jeffery, I certainly wouldn't dispute that you do have and make meaningful choices.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Depends on what one means by "meaningful," I suppose.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Or, much more to the point, what one means by "you".

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That, too, but the truly amazing thing is that 'you' and 'I' can discuss such matters meaningfully.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:22 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

True, Jeffery - especially given that you're in Korea and I'm in New York!

At 9:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, our species has done some things rather well.

Not that I can take much credit...

Jeffery Hodges

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