Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Free Will Was Overrated Anyway

I recently finished Isaiah Berlin's essay on historical inevitability (collected in Liberty); definitely a thought-provoking piece that's worth reading. However, I'm having a hard time squaring his unrestrained endorsement of the concept of free will with statements he makes elsewhere. Specifically:

Is is salutary to be reminded of the narrowness of the field within which we can begin to claim to be free; and some would claim that such knowledge is still increasing, and the field still contracting.

Where the frontier between freedom and causal laws is to be determined is a crucial practical issue; knowledge of it is a powerful and indispensable antidote to ignorance and irrationality, and offers us new types of explanation - historical, psychological, sociological, biological - which previous generations have lacked. (p. 125)

Given the above he had to recognize that his support of free will rested on a god of the gaps type argument, hoping that science would not further narrow the scope of action to the point of insignificance. Coincidentally, while I was working my way through the essay I ran across a recent article in The Atlantic discussing the biological causes of criminal acts, demonstrating that science has continued to advance in its ability to explain behavior since the original publication of Berlin's essay in 1954. You have to wonder whether he would continue to defend free will in the face of the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary?

Nevertheless, he hit the nail on the head in characterizing how determinism pulls the rug out from under most theories of morality:

What we cannot alter, or cannot alter as much as we had supposed, cannot be used as evidence for or against us as free moral agents; it can cause us to feel pride, shame, regret, interest, but not remorse; it can be admired, envied, deplored, enjoyed, feared, wondered at, but not (save in some quasi-aesthetic sense) praised or condemned; our tendency to indignation is curbed, we desist from passing judgement. (p. 125)

However, I think it goes much deeper than that. If we're nothing more than meat puppets does it even make sense to speak of "agency"? I assert that I'm self-aware, but who/what is making that assertion? The concept of "I", of an autonomous individual, seems to me to rest on the idea that there's some sort of independent pilot which resides in my head and steers the ship. But what if PZ is right and the thing which claims to be me is nothing but a thin layer of frosting over a bunch of disparate systems. If there is no "I" as that concept is traditionally understood, but merely a collection of biological circuits which happens to be able to pass the Turing test, that would seem to be an even bigger blow to theories of morality than the a lack of free will. Absent an "I" who can assert rights? An integrated collection of biological machines can flap its jaw and make the appropriate noises, but why should we care if someone steals its stuff or punches it in the nose?

The traditional answer has been something along the lines of "self-awareness", but that just brings us back to square one. Why is self-awareness special when it may be nothing more than a parlor trick to keep us motivated and thus more effective at spreading our genes? I dunno... you tell me.

Anyhow, I'll leave you now to contemplate the absurdity of automatons who worry about whether or not they're automatons.

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