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Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club Message Board › Critique of neuroscientific attack on free will

Critique of neuroscientific attack on free will

Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 545
The below is from the first comment on

http://www.3quarksdai...­

It's baffling to me how otherwise smart people like neuroscientists can be so simpleminded about things like 'free will' and 'consciousness'.

There is a simple hypothesis that unifies both the experimental results and our intuitive conceptions of having 'free will': suppose the subconscious mind is as capable of rational and free thought as our 'conscious' mind, just without the introspective, reflective, meta-cognitive abilities.

There is no reason to assume that you have to be introspectively aware of your reasoning, in gathering data and weighing options, to be engaging in free and rational thought. Most decisions don't seem to require meta-cognitive abilities to reach a better conclusion and that means most thought processes could take place in exactly the same way -- and reach the same conclusion -- without allowing a reflective part of our mind to reflect upon what is happening.

If decisions are reached in such a way by your subconscious mind, and you only become 'consciously' aware of those decisions after the fact, then that would mean the decisions were still reached in a rational and free manner. Afterwards, the decision process can be replayed in your 'conscious' mind to allow for introspection, elaboration, second-guessing and improvement: you may find that, given more time, you would have reached a different conclusion. There are also necessarily possibilities for revisionism, so you can never be sure whether you are relaying your true decision process or are revisioning it after the fact, for instance for reasons of social acceptability. That's not an argument against the hypothesis: it actually rather nicely explains feelings that we are making up reasons for our decisions.

I think the main cause of the confusion that causes people to overlook, or even dismiss, this possibility, is that Freud and consorts have caused most people to think that the subconscious mind could not possibly be rational or trustworthy. Most people, scientists and philosophers including, have focussed on our 'conscious', introspective, abilities for so long, that they don't consider that some other part of the mind could be as important -- or even more important.

I think that is the fatal mistake: my hypothesis is that the introspective abilities that are generally considered the pinnacle of our conscious capabilities are in fact much less important than the basic rational abilities that are needed for most decisions. The subconscious mind actually does most of the hard work.

Patrick Haggard asks: "How can I call a will 'mine' if I don't even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?" My answer is: just like you call a child yours, even if you don't know when it occurred and what it will do with its life. That something is 'yours' does not imply you have full control over it. Sometimes you have to correct afterwards; mostly you don't have time to correct, but it wasn't necessary either, because of the groundwork that was already done.

Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 546
Another critique below:

https://www.bigquesti...­

Interview with the author of this critique:

http://www.3ammagazin...­
A former member
Post #: 46
Nice post Gene. I agree with much of this.
Margalit
Margalit
Seattle, WA
Post #: 11
Gene, the unconscious mind does make decisions, many of which may be rational in the sense that they can be shown to give desirable results. But being free of external coercion is not sufficient for the notion of "free will" as I understand it. Once you say that consciousness is not essential to the idea of free will then there is not much free will left that is worth talking about. Free will that you are not conscious of is not meaningful. This is NOT because subconscious thinking is necessarily not trustworthy or irrational. It is because the there needs to be a conscious agent to exercise free will. An unconscious agent is an automaton in which case by definition it does not have free will.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 557
Gene, the unconscious mind does make decisions, many of which may be rational in the sense that they can be shown to give desirable results. But being free of external coercion is not sufficient for the notion of "free will" as I understand it. Once you say that consciousness is not essential to the idea of free will then there is not much free will left that is worth talking about. Free will that you are not conscious of is not meaningful. This is NOT because subconscious thinking is necessarily not trustworthy or irrational. It is because the there needs to be a conscious agent to exercise free will. An unconscious agent is an automaton in which case by definition it does not have free will.
Margalit,

This presumes the unconscious activity was never first structured by conscious activity. Consider an elite athlete or musician. Much of their activity - which impresses us - is unconscious but this came in the first place from 10000+ hours of conscious practice to turn the conscious into the unconscious. So a demarcation between conscious and unconscious seems unwarranted in many if not most cases, in fact, the highest levels of human skill are often unconscious.

Now if unconscious activity makes us automatons, and both unconscious and conscious just are brain states, aren't we always automatons? In other words, what is it about being unconscious that makes one an "automaton"?
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 167
Gene,

Perhaps what Margalit is getting at is the intuition, especially relied on by some non-consequentialist ethical theories, notably forms of deontology, that expressly forbid moral responsibility being tied to non-conscious mental activity. Kant, for example, made a point of denying that an act that was habitual---the result of conditioning---could be a truly moral act. Such acts may well have good consequences, and there is nothing wrong in cultivating them, but once they become habitual they become essentially amoral. Now, the initial conscious choice to cultivate such a habit would be a morally relevant act. But to qualify as such, it must have been a fully conscious free act. And to keep *staying* moral it must be revisited by consciousness and initial act of will that freely chose it renewed.

Deontology places a premium on consciousness at the time one's will is decided. Consciousness of it is what makes the free will I exercise mine and what later I can be held responsible for.

Deontology distrusts conditioned behavior because of the lack of vigilance. Vigilance requires consciousness. Otherwise we operate on automatic pilot which is a recipe for moral disaster. Ideally this view of morality requires constant scrutiny and re-scrutiny of our acts to make sure they stay moral in a changing internal and external environment. Morality is not a skill, so the analogy with a skilled musician, for example, doesn't work. Maybe the model of a composer of music might fit better. Creative people may draw on unconscious impulses, rational and subrational, but they don't unconsciously create. At the moment of creation they must know what they are doing.
Jon C.
JonCohen
Mercer Island, WA
Post #: 204
There are several different meanings associated with free will. Margalit is referring to first a metaphysical freewill and then contrasting that with a more legal sounding sense. I'm sure there are more specific technical terms for these different meanings. I agree with Margilit that if one believes in free will in a metaphysical sense in regards to consciousness acts, then it stands to reason that the same metaphysical condition occurs in many cases for unconscious acts. It is of course natural that other unconscious acts are automatic.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 560
Gene,

Perhaps what Margalit is getting at is the intuition, especially relied on by some non-consequentialist ethical theories, notably forms of deontology, that expressly forbid moral responsibility being tied to non-conscious mental activity. Kant, for example, made a point of denying that an act that was habitual---the result of conditioning---could be a truly moral act. Such acts may well have good consequences, and there is nothing wrong in cultivating them, but once they become habitual they become essentially amoral. Now, the initial conscious choice to cultivate such a habit would be a morally relevant act. But to qualify as such, it must have been a fully conscious free act. And to keep *staying* moral it must be revisited by consciousness and initial act of will that freely chose it renewed.

Deontology places a premium on consciousness at the time one's will is decided. Consciousness of it is what makes the free will I exercise mine and what later I can be held responsible for.

Deontology distrusts conditioned behavior because of the lack of vigilance. Vigilance requires consciousness. Otherwise we operate on automatic pilot which is a recipe for moral disaster. Ideally this view of morality requires constant scrutiny and re-scrutiny of our acts to make sure they stay moral in a changing internal and external environment. Morality is not a skill, so the analogy with a skilled musician, for example, doesn't work. Maybe the model of a composer of music might fit better. Creative people may draw on unconscious impulses, rational and subrational, but they don't unconsciously create. At the moment of creation they must know what they are doing.
Victor,

The point I was making was that the highest levels of human skill typically involves large amounts of unconscious behavior which was at an earlier time, conscious. If we watch an elite tennis player who got there from practicing 10,000 hours, would we say that this player is less responsible for his success because he now acts largely unconsciously? Are Federer and Nadal just automatons? The distinction between unconsious and conscious is largely artificial when one realizes that the continuum often goes the other way - conscious is worse because it does not work as well when one must decide quickly and accurately - which is often the case for moral behavior. Should one act quickly to save a drowning child? Think about it in the Kantian manner, and it may be too late. Now perhaps if one just acts from habit to save the child, one acts amorally by Kantian standards, but that is not how the wider world views it. In fact, if you look at people who do "heroic" spur of the moment acts, they will almost always way they did not think, they just did it. Now perhaps Kant would say that one should deliberate, the child may drown by the time one decides to save him, but it is the deliberation that counts?

Now as for morality not being a skill, Aristotle thought of virtue as analogous to the arts, to be improved with practice.

Like Aristotle, I'm interested in how morality might work, or not work, in the world we live in. Aristotle was a man of the world, the tutor to Alexander. Kant, who never left his hometown, wasn't.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 561
I'd also add that the Kantian approach does not accord well with what we do know about actual human "moral" behavior. I use that word in quotes, because this behavior just wouldn't be in the realm of morality by Kant's standards.

For example, if we make a "moral" judgment, this is often just a post-hoc rationalization (moral dumbfounding). Self-control, which is involved in acting "morally" in the real world, usually is a habit, rather than an exercise of will (Roy Bauermeister's work for example). In other words, those with greater self-control do not typically exercise will to avoid temptation, they just avoid temptation to begin with by habit.

Of course, this is all desciptive rather than normative, but it points to the great difficulty in participating in the moral realm by Kant's standards.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 168
Gene,

What you describe is the virtue theory take on what makes for moral behavior: moral behavior is behavior that was conditioned by actions taken during an earlier, extended time. Reason and consciousness are relevant, to the degree they are, during that earlier period.

Aristotle did have a picture of morality explainable in terms of acquired skill, and, in a loose sense, that may well be closer to the everyday person's conception of what ethical behavior is. It is basically what people who are considered decent in one's community do. The behavior may be codified in written or unwritten rules. Being moral is the fairly simple (conceptually-speaking) practice of being judged a competent player according to these rules in a game of skill. The only strenuous part is the long (life-long, Aristotle said) training. Conceptually, though, it's just---as Skinner used to say---a form of operant conditioning.

This picture also seems to describe childhood moral development. You don't discuss theory involving universalizing maxims and being a member of kingdom of rational autonomous ends, or even consequentialist ideas such as the happiness of the greatest number, etc. with a four year-old who is pulling his sister's hair...

So I have no quarrel with your description of what's called moral behavior in practice. Rational deliberation and all it entails is not too deeply involved in that practice.

The problem is the source of the practices or the rules and principles they are based on. Are they sound and coherent? Unless you want to say reason never enters the picture or reason and moral self-awareness are never required at any stage of moral development other than as tools to measure conformity---and this has certainly been a view held by some, how do we explain moral progress, such as it is, if some people do not step outside mere conformity to existing norms and attempt to judge them against the light of some higher principle?

How did human slavery or the genocide of those outside one's moral community come to be judged wrong historically? They weren't always so judged.

How does a young person come to reject aspects of the moral belief system of their parents or their parent's whole generation?

Virtue theory has its virtues as an accurate descriptive theory, but as a normative one I think it is seriously lacking. I call it a rule-of-thumb or heuristic theory as opposed to a genuine foundational theory which is one that offers explanatory hints as to the source of value.
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