Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What Does Neuroscience Tell About Free Will? The Libet and Other Experiments, and Interpretations

Introduction and Context:
How do you think we "decide" to act? The common sense (and our experience) explanation is we (1)  make a conscious decision to do something (2) our brain activates whatever neuro-pathways are required for the action, the (3) we perform the action.  Libet's famous experiments give strong evidence showing that this is NOT the order of how our actions come about.

For many people, the famous Libet experiments show that we don't have free will.  Free will is only an illusion.  Our brains have already decided what we're going to do, then, after the fact, we only have the experience of deciding what we'll do.  Watch the video yourself and think about what the experiment shows.

In case it wasn't clear from the video, here's how the experiment goes:  The subject observes a timer thingy (the type of timer varies from experiment to experiment).  The subject is asked to raise their finger whenever they want.  By looking at the clock, they are also supposed to note the time at which they first became aware of their (conscious) desire to move their finger.  The subject is also wired up to an EEG (electroencephalography) sensor which measures the electrical potentials around the scalp coming from the part of the brain responsible for motor activity.  There's also an EMG (electromyography) sensor that measures the exact time the finger moves.

The results of the experiment show that there is a ramping up of brain activity .550 seconds before the subject's consciously aware of their decision or desire to move their finger.  This "ramping up" activity is called readiness potential (RP).  So, the order of events is (1) RP, (2) conscious willing to move the finger, (3) finger movement.   In theory, because readiness potential happens before conscious awareness of a decision, Libet can tell us we are going to move our finger before our own conscious awareness of our decision to do so!  Mind=blown.

Wegner's Interpretation
Libet's experiments seem to give compelling evidence in favour of determinism.  Our conscious experience of choice is an illusion.  Our body's physical systems have already "decided" what to do and our consciousness of what we will do occurs only after this happens.  Our conscious selves are merely along for the ride.  "Voluntary" actions don't go: (t1) "hmmm...I'm going to move finger now", (t2) *finger moves*.  They go like this (t1)  brain initiates preparations for moving the finger (t2) meta-brain says "I decide to move my finger" (t3) *finger moves*.

From these experiments it doesn't seem like we consciously will our actions.  Our dictator brain has already begun preparations for what you will do before you are even conscious of it.  Our consciousness selves just think they're making a decision.  Curse you, evil brain! I want to be free!

Libet's Interpretation
Libet's own interpretation was different.  He thought that rather than free will, we had "free won't".  He thought, yes, the brain initiates urges and intentions but we have a window (about .1-.2 seconds) to consciously override the brain's urge.

To test his hypothesis he set up the following experiment.  He set things up similar to the original experiment but this time he told the subjects to plan to move their finger at a set time on the timer and then to "veto" the intention to move their finger.

Results:  RP started about 1 second (vs .550 sec. in the original version) before the set time.  Then at about .1-.2 seconds before the subject was to move their finger RP flattened out.

Interpretation:  The brain generated the unconscious desire to move the finger but when this desire entered into consciousness "free won't" was able to veto the urge.   In other words, our desires and intentions are generated unconsciously but when they enter consciousness we have the ability to over-ride them.

Problem: What if the process that generated the 'free won't' is also unconscious?  Doh!

Mele's Interpretation
Alfred Mele be like, "whatchu talkin' 'bout Willis? That ain't no proof of determinism!"  Poor Libet. He doesn't have a philosopher's training and is therefore blurs some important distinctions.  In Libet's interpretation of the results, he uses the words "intention," "decision," "wish," and "urge" interchangeably.  Unfortunately for Libet, he never had the good fortune of taking philosophy 101 at UNLV where he would have learned that you can't just go around willy-nilly using words without first specifying what they mean.  Lets look at some of the important distinctions and see how they apply to interpreting Libet's experiments.

Wanting/Urges to vs Intending/Deciding to
You can want to do A without having settled that you are actually going to do A.  I want to live on a ranch with a herd of wiener dogs but I don't intend to do it (right now, anyway).  I can want to eat all the donuts in the bakery but still not form the intention to do so...

We can further see the distinction when we have competing wants.  I want to finish my grading by 9pm but I also want to finish writing my lecture by 9 pm.  I can't do both.  The one that I end up doing is the one for which I formed an intention.  When you make up your mind about a course of action between competing wants then you can say you intend to do it.  In short, wanting to A is simply having the desire to A.   Intending to A requires making a decision to A.

Distal vs Proximal Intentions
We can also distinguish between distal and proximal intentions.  A proximal intention is when I intend to do something that is temporally close.  A distal intention is when I intend to do something in the more distant future.  For example, on Saturday I intend to take my dogs for a hike.

Ok, back to Libet.  Libet says that the process that produces the urge to move the finger (the 'act now' process) is occurring before conscious awareness to decide to move the finger.  This process begins at around 550 msec before the finger moves.  Also, the urge that initiates the 'act now' process creates a proximal intention to flex the finger.   So far, we can agree with Libet that the "'act now' process is initiated unconsciously, [...] conscious free will is not doing it"; i.e. conscious free will is not initiating the 'act now' process.

However, why should we suppose that the role of conscious free will is to produce urges or causally contributes to urges?  Typically, free will is thought to apply to situations where the agent is deliberating between between possible courses of action or whether they should or should not act.  Free will is not thought to have the role of producing urges, rather, it is about choosing.

Free will does this:

Processes Have Parts
Free will doesn't create the urge.  The origins of the urge are unconscious.  However, the process that begins with an unconscious urge can give rise to a conscious intention to act or not act in accordance with the urge.  The conscious intention is temporally closer to the final act (move finger) and so it seems as though it is the conscious intention rather than the unconscious urge that is causally responsible for the act.

Issue:  What is the relationship between temporal distance and causal power?

Other Objections/Issues to Deterministic Interpretation of Libet Experiments

Issue:  Do these results generalize?  Lab conditions vs Real life.  Do the results generalize to all types of decisions/intentions?

Objection: Of Course There's Prior Brain Activity!
If brain events underlie mental events then we shouldn't be surprised that there is brain activity prior to a conscious decision.  Why should we suppose that the production of conscious decisions doesn't involve prior brain activity to lead up to the brain state that is a conscious mental state?  Having no prior brain activity to a conscious decision would be the surprising finding.  Not that there is prior brain activity.

Objection:  The Meta-State
Consider that you've been reading this post for the last minute or so.  The entire time that you were reading or watching the video were you actively conscious of the fact that you were reading or watching the video?  Or were you reading and watching without the awareness "I'm reading/watching".

The argument here is that the Libet experiment measures an awareness of a conscious state; i.e., a meta-consciousness.  Most activities that we do, we aren't actively aware.  When we drive, read, walk, etc...often doing so isn't part of our immediate conscious awareness, yet no one could seriously say that we aren't conscious when we do these things.  Only when something draws our attention to our activity do we become aware of what we are doing;  this is the meta-conscious state.

The Libet experiments measure the meta-conscious state about a prior awareness of our decision to move our finger, not the immediate state of awareness that we want to move our finger.  The time delay between the primary state and the meta-state is what accounts for the effect.

Further Studies that Might Prove Determinism True:

In further studies using an fMRI machine, scientists in lab coats have been able to predict a subject's decision of up to 7 SECS before the subjects own awareness of what she will choose.  Ho.  Lee.  Crap. If this doesn't sound like evidence against free will, I don't know what is!

Objection 1:  The Media Isn't Reporting the Whole Story and Sensationalizing (Surprise!)
What the data actually shows is that the scientist can predict your decision to move your finger at a rate 7% better than chance.  If you were to make predictions blind, over the long run, you'd be right about 50% of the time.  The fMRI data allows you to get it right around 57-58% of the time.

Reply:  Yes, but 7-8% above chance is still a significant result.  If you were given these odds in a casino, you'd be a fool not to take them.

Counter Reply:  True dat.  However, this result may be a consequence of how the experiment was set up.  If subjects were incentivized to try to fool the experimenters, this predictive power might disappear. (If you have an fMRI machine, please do this study!)

Further Study:  There may be newer studies that use better equipment and more sophisticated models that have better predictive power.  There doesn't seem to be any a priori reason to suppose in the future 100% predictive power could be achieved.

Preferences Vs Free Will
Suppose you frequently go out to dinner with someone you know very well.  You've eaten with them many times.  You know what their preferences are.  You go to a new restaurant and based on what you know about them, you successfully predict they will order the T-bone steak.  Does the fact that we can accurately predict someone's actions tell us anything about free will?

The Mechanistic Brain Vs Free Will (Adina Roskies)
So maybe being able to predict someone's behaviour--be it from fMRI scans or from preferences--isn't sufficient to imply determinism is true.  Do these studies provide evidence for any other challenges to free will?

One thing these (and subsequent) studies make clear is that the brain is mechanistic.  We can identify which parts of the brain and which neurons are responsible for certain actions and behaviours.  In short, the brain behaves in mechanistic law-like ways.  So, the difficulty is to explain how we get free will out of a mechanistic law-like system.  Consider a computer.  It performs its functions in mechanistic law-like ways, yet we don't attribute to it free will.  How are we different?  Are we really all like 2Chainz showin' up to scene with our top down but not consciously deciding to do so?  Is it cuz we're made of meat rather than metal and silicon?  What's so special about meat?

The underlying worry is that because we are meat-based mechanisms we don't have free will.  But Adina Roskies suggests maybe this conclusion needn't follow.  If we suppose that having a mind is necessary for free will then maybe having a better understanding of the brain's mechanism gives us a better understanding of mind.

For example, most theories of free will tell us that there certain mental capacities are required for free will:  the capacity for rational deliberation, the capacity to assign moral value to certain outcomes, the capacity to put judgments into action.  So, while at first blush it may seem that neuroscience undermines free will, in fact it doesn't, it gives us a better understanding of the brain mechanisms, functions, and states that underlie the mental capacities that are integral to free agency.  This type of study can inform us of things that can happen to the brain that can impede capacities for free agency.

An often cited example in the literature is a patient that led a perfectly normal life up to a point when he started to have pedophilic urges and eventually couldn't control himself.   When he was sentenced to jail, he complained of a headache.  When they scanned his brain they found a large tumor.  When they removed the tumor his urges completely went away.

Later he started to feel the urges again and when they scanned his brain, they found a tumor in the same place.  Once the tumor was removed, the urges disappeared again.  This is fairly strong evidence for a causal relationship between the tumor interfering with normal brain activity and the ability to exercise one's will.

Epiphenominalism: The Role of Consciousness in Decision-Making
Epiphenominalism is the idea that our conscious experiences don't play any causal role. They just "ride on top" of whatever our brains our doing. They're superfluous. We encountered this idea earlier with Chalmers' Zombies, and blind-sight.

So, if our brains are causing us to act before we have any conscious awareness of what we're going to do, then why should we think that consciousness plays a role in decision-making? First of all, it looks like there are at least some areas where consciousness does play a causal role. Conscious experiences (memories) can inform decisions event if those decisions proceed unconsciously.

For example, my memory of the salad bar being really slow causes me to choose something else like subway for lunch. The decision might be unconscious, but a conscious state plays a causal role in the decision.

Maybe Libet's results support limited epiphenominalism about decision-making.  Consciousness doesn't cause the decision but it doesn't make consciousness irrelevant. My conscious experiences figure into my unconscious decisions.  But the decision isn't caused by consciousness.

Should non-determinists be worried?
From a neuro-science point of view, Libet's findings make sense. The decision-making system does its job first, then the conscious monitoring system does its job. Of course the decision has to come first, otherwise there'd be nothing for the conscious monitoring system to monitor!

Possible Compatibilist interpretation: The urges/wants I have are going to be a consequence of my values and preferences. In that sense, they represent what "I" want rather than being totally random.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

X-Phi and The Freewill Determinism Debate: Are We Natural Compatibilists or Incompatibilists?

Introduction and Context
So far in the free will vs determinism debate we've looked at the two major positions (libertarian free will and causal determinism), two interpretations of the debate (compatibilism and incompatibilism), and two positions on the relationship between the free will debate and moral responsibility (Strawson's Basic Argument and Frankfurt's compatibilism).  

All the positions in the debate seem to rely on eliciting our intuitions in favor of their case.  Each side assumes that the "man on the street's" intuitions will support their respective position.  Of course, the proponents of the various arguments don't have any evidence of this beyond anecdotal responses from students in their 101 classes.  However, as any good scientist who wears a lab coat will tell you, the plural of anecdotes is not evidence.  

With this in mind, Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer, and Turner (NMN&T) set out to scientifically investigate exactly what the general public's intuitions are about the relationship between causal determinism, free will, and moral responsibility.  More specifically, they wanted to find out if people are natural (i.e., pre-theoretical) compatibilists or incompatibilists.  Otherwise stated: are the common sense notions of free will and determinism mutually exclusive or compatible? 

Lets see the details of what they found out and how it might impact the philosophical debate...But first, do the first thought experiment to see what your own intuitions are:

Thought Experiment 1:  Jeremy Case

Imagine that in the next century we discover all the laws of nature, and we build a super-computer which can deduce from these laws of nature and from the current state of everything in the world exactly what will be happening in the world at any future time.  It can look at everything about he way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy.  Suppose that such a supercomputer existed, and it looks at the state of the universe at a certain time on March 25, 2150 AD, 20 years before Jeremy Hal is born.  The computer then deduces from this information and the laws of nature that Jeremy will definitely rob Fidelity Bank at 6pm on Jan. 26, 2195.  As always, the supercomputer's prediction is correct; Jeremy robs Fidelity Bank at 6pm on January 26, 2195.

Questions:  (1)  Did Jeremy rob the bank on his own free will? (2) Do you think when Jeremy robs the bank, he is morally blameworthy for it? (3)  Could Jeremy have chosen not to rob the bank?

Method and Objectives
Philosophy corrupts!  There have been quite a few studies showing that people's intuitions change (on a vast array of philosophical issues) depending on how many philosophy classes one's had.  Philosophers on either side of the debate think that their arguments are the most intuitively compelling and most in line with common sense...but of course they do!  They've been corrupted!  Testing philosophers won't do, we need to test the intuitions of the pure, innocent, and uncorrupted general public...

Why is it important that philosophical theories take into account folk intuitions?  
(1)  Because if a philosophical position has no roots in common intuition it "runs the risk of being nothing more than a philosophical fiction."  In other words, for philosophical theories have to any practical value, they have at least some relationship to common sense views of the world. 

(2)  Because our theories of free will and determinism should use notions of such that are also captured by the common sense understanding of the terms--not some highly technical meaning that is unrelated to how folk think of the terms.

What Do the Results Mean to the Debate? BoP
In resolving the free will determinism debate, why should we give a crap about what people's intuitive judgements are?  This presupposes that intuitive judgments magically track truth.  Without any good reason to believe the truth-tracking nature of intuitions (e.g., they are often wrong), it seems that eliciting folk intuitions is perhaps interesting data about the psychology of humans but it isn't evidence either way in the debate.   NMN&T agree but suggest that folk intuitions can be used to determine burden of proof.  If the majority of people's intuitions strongly align with one position, then it seems reasonable to shift the burden of proof to the opposing side. 

The Results for the Jeremy Case
(1)  76% said Jeremy robbed the bank on his own free will. 

Controlling for the Type of Act
In order to control for the fact that Jeremy performs a blameworthy act (which could cause emotional responses that prime the subjects for blaming judgments and overwhelm the effect of determinism) 2 other versions were introduced.  In version 2, Jeremy does a praiseworthy action--saving a child, and in version 3, Jeremy does a neutral act (goes jogging). 

(2)  In cases 2 and 3, the results were similar to the original case:  68% and 79%, respectively, said Jeremy acted on his own free will.  So, it seems that overall, people judged that Jeremy acted on his own free will regardless of the type of the act.

Relationship between Judgments of Moral Responsibility and Judgments of Free Will
(3)  The next question was to determine evaluation of moral responsibility ("do you think that when Jeremy robs the bank/saves the child, he is morally responsible?"):  83% said he's morally responsible in the bank-robbing cases and 88% for the child-saving case.  Conclusion A:  Judgments about free will are closely tied to judgments about moral responsibility. 

Relationship between Judgments about the Agent's Ability to Choose Otherwise and Judgments about Free Will and Moral Responsibility
The final issue to investigate was the folk intuitions about the relationship (in a deterministic world) between an agent's ability to choose otherwise (ACO) and judgments about that agent's free will and moral responsibility.  

(4a)  In the blameworthy variation (bank robbery) evaluations of Jeremy's ability to choose otherwise more-or-less followed evaluations of free will and moral responsibility.  67% said he could have chosen not to rob the bank.  (Difference of 9% from "he robbed on his own free will")

(4b)  In the praiseworthy variation (saving the child), only 38% of subjects said he could have chosen to act otherwise Vs 68% saying he acted on his own free will (Difference of 30%!).

(4c)  In the neural version (going jogging) only 43% say he could have acted otherwise compared to only 79% who said he goes jogging on his own free will: A difference of 36%! 

Main Conclusion: The data seems to suggest that folk notions of having free will and the ability to do otherwise are not the same thing. The evidence is that, especially in the praiseworthy and neutral versions, the folk intuitions of Jeremy's free will varied quite significantly from the folk intuitions about Jeremy's ability to choose otherwise.
Most People have Frankfurtian Compatibilist Intuitions: an agent's actions can have free will and be responsible without possessing the ability to do otherwise. Recall that Frankfurt's version of compatibilism is that freedom of the will=having second-order volitions. However, you still have freedom of the will even if your second order volitions are genetically, environmentally, or psychologically determined.  The case for compatibilism is most pronounced in the non-blameworthy cases. (Agent can't choose otherwise yet most people still say the agent has free will).

The Data Supports Wolf's Asymmetry Thesis:  We tend to judge an agent to be blameworthy only if we believe he could do otherwise, but we are willing to judge an agent to be praiseworthy even if he could not do otherwise.  

Bottom line: For most people, determinism is compatible with an agent's acting of his own free will and with being morally responsible.

Fred and Barney Cases: 
Some incompatibilists could complain that the deterministic nature of the Jeremy case wasn't strong enough to bring out the incompatibilist intuitions. What's needed a scenario that emphasizes that causes of behavior are outside the control of the agent.  Enter the Fred and Barney Case:

Imagine there is a world where the beliefs and values of every person are caused completely by the combination of one's genes and one's environment.  For instance, one day in this world, two identical twins, named Fred and Barney, are born to a mother who puts them up for adoption.  Fred is adopted by the Jerksons and Barney is adopted by the Kindersons.  In Fred's case, his genes and his upbringing by the selfish Jerkson family have caused him to value money above all else and to believe that it's OK to acquire money however you can.  In Barney's case, his (identical) genes and his upbringing by the kindly Kinderson family have caused him to value honesty above all else and to believe one should always respect others' property.  Both Fred and Barney are intelligent individuals who are capable of deliberating about what they do.

One day Fred and Barney each happen to find a wallet containing $1000 and the identification of the owner (neither man knows the owner).  Each man is sure there is nobody else around.  After deliberation, Fred Jerkson, because of his beliefs and values, keeps the money.  After deliberation Barney Kinderson, because of his beliefs and values, returns the wallet to the owner.

Given that, in this world, one's genes and environment completely cause one's beliefs and values, it is true that if Fred had been adopted by the Kindersons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to return the wallet; and if Barney had been adopted by the Jerksons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to keep the wallet.  

Questions:  (1)  Did Fred and Barney act on their own free will when they kept/returned the wallet?  (2)  Was Fred morally blameworthy?  Was Barney morally praiseworthy? (3) Could Fred and Barney have acted otherwise?
  • Free will:  76% say Fred kept the wallet on his own free will and Barney returned it of his own free will. (similar to Jeremy)
  • Moral Responsibility:  60% said Fred was blameworthy and 64% said Barney was praiseworthy. (94% consistency) 
  • Conclusion: Evaluations of moral responsibility tracks appraisals of free will.
  • Ability to Choose Otherwise (ACO): 76% say they could have acted otherwise: ACO tracks MR and Free will.

Conclusions: People's pre-theoretical intuitions are compatibilist.  There's no conflict between pre-theoretical concepts of determinism and free will.

  • The ACO needs further study.  These preliminary results only come from 1st year north american college students.  For a stronger inference about universal intuitions on free will and determinism, similar studies would have to be conducted on a wider demographic (different cultures, geographies, socio-economic groups, etc...)
  • To better understand how are people interpreting the terms (free will and determinism), the study needs to be applied to a wider demographic.
  • Despite the fact the the majority seem to be compatibilist, there is a large minority that are incompatibilists. Maybe there's diversity in the population. It might be interesting to study if there is any unifying traits in the determinist group. 

Philosophical Implications
  • The Burden of Proof Shifts to incompatibilism.  Incompatibilists often cite intuitions as evidence for their view, but the study's results show that they're going to have to rely on some other from of support/evidence. 
  • Complaint: Deterministic nature of the scenario still isn't strong enough to capture the technical meaning incompatibilist philosophers have in mind.
    • Reply:  Ok, but how do we do that without bringing in other confounding factors?
    • Brilliant neuroscientist example: A neuroscientist pre-programs Jeremy to want to rob the bank.  Problem:  maybe judgments about moral responsibility and free will are not because of deterministic nature but b/c the presence of an active manipulator.  Determinism is supposed to be a position about how the world "just is".  Determinism doesn't imply that we are being manipulated, unlike what the neuroscientist case would imply.
    • If we can find a way to "turn up" the determinism in a thought experiment and it leads to lower evaluations of moral responsibility and free will, then maybe incompatibilists are right. But if the contrary happens, then it is more certain they are wrong about common intuitions.
What is the evidentiary role of intuitions?  Why should we suppose they track truth? Should philosophical theory's have to take into account untrained intuitions? 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

US Healthcare Debate: Resources. ACA Arguments For and Against, and Facts

I've been doing my own research on the ACA and doing my best not to let my biases get the best of me--as happens to any human being.  Anyhow, here's a list of some of the best articles I've found.

Begin Here:
Listen:  I know it's an hour, but it's important. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/392/someone-elses-money
Fairly even-handed summary of the core issues: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/the-hurdles-to-success-for-the-affordable-care-act/

Who pays more, who doesn't (sources from across the political spectrum):

The ACA and the Effect on Taxes, the Deficit, and the Budget: http://247wallst.com/healthcare-economy/2013/10/10/the-economic-impact-of-obamacare/

US Healthcare Costs vs Other Industrialized Nations (With Socialized Healthcare): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/10/health-costs-how-the-us-compares-with-other-countries.html

Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person: Frankfurt

Introduction and Context
Up until now we've looked at a quick overview of the free will vs causal determinism debate.  Aside from the two basic positions--causal determinism and libertarian free will, there are two other "meta-positions": compatibilism and incompatibilism which are basically attitudes toward the debate.  

Incompatibilists say that causal determinism and free will are mutually exclusive:  only one can be true.  Compatibilists say that free will and causal determinism are not mutually exclusive:  Free will just means that the agent, rather than some external entity, was the causal origin of an action--For example, a free action can be free even if it was causally determined by the agent's genetics or atomic make-up, or whatever.  In other words, for compatibilists, a free action is one that wasn't caused by constraints or forces external to the agent.

We've also looked at a third position--Strawson's Basic Argument--in which he argues that we are not morally responsible for our actions regardless of whether determinism is true or not.

In this next piece Frankfurt argues for a different compatibilist position from the traditional one.  He says that mere absence of constraints or external causes isn't sufficient for free will.  What is needed for free will is for the agent to have desires about which desire motivates their action--this is what he calls second-order volitions.  

He takes the following approach to formulate his position:  (a) identify what distinguishes a "person" from an animal or non-person, (b) suggest that that quality is free will, (c) show why his conception of free will is superior to others, (d)  explain how his notion of free will relates to moral responsibility.

Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person

What Makes a Person Different from an Animal? 
The first step is to figure out what trait it is that we implicitly refer to when we identify someone as a person.  One way to do this is to compare the qualities we imply by "person" to those we imply by "animal."

Often we use the word "person" to mean the singular form of "people".  On this interpretation we are simply using the terms to distinguish members of  our own species from other species.  However, there is another way to use "person."  By "person" we also mean the quality or cluster of properties that distinguish us from animals.  For Frankfurt, this is, "the structure of a person's will."

What is "the structure of a person's will"? To figure this out, lets look at animals first.  Animals can act on their desires. Maybe they desire some sort of food or even have some higher level desire like the desire to be part of a group.  So, merely having desires can't be what distinguishes persons from animals.   What distinguishes our will from an animal will is the type of desires we can have; specifically, second-order desires.

Having second order desires means we can desire to desire things.  For example, maybe I'm not a very friendly person because I don't desire to be friendly.   On the other hand, I realize that this isn't a very good thing, so, I can want to want to be friendlier.  This type of second order desiring is pretty typical.  It often happens with food...

We can also desire not to desire things.  For example, maybe I like ice cream just a little bit too much.  I wish I didn't.  I can desire that I don't want ice cream so much.   ("I wish I didn't want ice cream so much" or "I wish I wanted salad more that hamburgers").  The bottom line about second-order desires is that we can reflect on our current set of desires, evaluate them, and form second-level desires about those desires.  Animals can't do this.  They only have 1st-level desires.  What makes a person different from an animal, in the sense that Frankfurt is talking about, is that a person can have second-order desires.

To better understand second-order desires about someone else's 1st-order desires, you should listen to this song:

The Will for 1st Order Desires
There are two ways to interpret desire statements (A wants X) as they relate to first-order desires.  In the first case when I say "I want to eat tofu" this can mean that I want to eat tofu but I also have a collection of various other desires about what I want to eat for dinner, and wanting to eat tofu is only one of them (maybe I want to ice cream and cake for dinner as well or instead of tofu) .  Maybe, the ice cream and cake win out.  It doesn't mean I didn't have the desire to eat tofu.  It just wasn't as strong as the other competing desires.  Basically, at any given time we can have a whole bunch of desires about what we want.  Some them may be mutually exclusive or some may be complimentary or some may have nothing to do with the others.

On the other hand, when I say "I want to eat one more dorito" this can mean that my desire to eat the dorito is the motivating force for my consequent action: it is evidence of my "will".  So, on this interpretation of "I desire X," the desire of X is the thing that causes me to act.  When someone asks me "why did you eat the dorito," I answer "because I wanted to."  The will is the first-order desire that "wins" the motivational competition with the other competing desires and causes you to act.  When people talk of the will, this is usually what they mean--but this is not what Frankfurt means by freedom of will.

Plain Second Order Desires Vs Second-Order Volitions
Frankfurt makes a distinction between two types of 2nd-order desires:  one that illustrates freedom of the will and one that doesn't.  In the first case we have a desire about which of our 1st-order desires will cause us to act.  In the second, we want to have the experience of having a particular 1st-order desire, but we don't want to actually act on that first order desire.  If you're confused like me the first time I read this, lets look at some examples to help make sense of this:

Lets look at the latter first.  To illustrate what Frankfurt means by a 2nd-order desire that doesn't identify what he means by free will, he uses the following example:  Suppose a doctor that works with heroin addicts believes that he'd be better able to help his patients if he knew what it was like to desire heroin.  Presumable, he'll be better able to help his patients if he understands what their addiction feels like.  He has a desire to have a first-order desire.

Now, just because he desires to know what it's like to want to take the drug, it doesn't follow that he actually wants (1st order) to take the drug.  He just wants to know what it's like to want heroin!   Taking heroin wouldn't satisfy the desire he has because his is only a 2nd order desire, not a first order desire (confused yet?).  He has no firs- order desire to take the illicit drug.  If you put heroin in front of him, he'd decline because he doesn't want heroin, he only wants to know what it's like to want heroin (to have the 1st-order desire).   He has no desire to actually be motivated to action by the 1st-order desire.

The previous account isn't the type of second-order desire that Frankfurt has in mind when he talks about the will.  Second-order desires that describes the will are ones where an agent desires to have a first order motivating desire that they either don't currently have or that isn't presently sufficiently strong to motivate action.  Consider a tofu example.  "I want to eat tofu" is in my (1st-order) set of desires concerning what I want to eat for dinner--but it's not the only one.  I also want to eat cake and ice cream.  The different desires don't all have the same strength.  Only the one that eventually moves me to act is my first-order motivating desire (i.e., my first-order will).

I can have a second-order desire about which of my dinner desires is the one that will eventually win (i.e., motivate me to act).  If it were up to me to program what 1st-order dinner desires I have and the relative strength of each, I'd make it so I really really want to eat tofu--much more than ice cream and cake.  I want for my desire to eat tofu for dinner to be the one that wins the motivating battle with the other desires.  

This is what Frankfurt refers to as a second-order volition (as opposed to a plain 2nd-order desire).  A second-order volition is a second-order desire that a particular first-order desire motivate you to act. A second-order volition is saying "I want this first-order desire to be the one that causes me to act rather than some other one."  Frankfurt also equates second-order volitions with the type of will that persons have (not to be confused with undeliberated 1st-order wills that animals also have).

Wanton vs Person:  The Essence of Person Isn't Reason but Will
Beginning with (and possibly earlier) the classic demarkation between persons and non-persons (i.e., animals) has been rationality.  Frankfurt wants to show that this criterion falls short.  To illustrate his point he distinguishes between wantons (someone with no 2nd-order volitions) and persons (someone with 2nd-order volitions).

A wanton is a type of dumpling commonly found in a number of Chinese cuisines.  They can be filled with different types of meat and can be steamed or cooked in soup.  They are often confused for persons which are also filled with meat but should not be steamed or cooked in soup.  Don't confuse the two.

Frankfurt makes a further distinction.  A wonton is someone who is controlled by their 1st-order desires.  They make no attempt to exercise their (second-order) will.  They may have second-order desires about their first-order desires but they have no second-order volitions.   They make no attempt to change what their first-order desires are or their relative strengths.  They don't take into account whether the 1st order desires are "desirable" or whether their relative motivating strengths are desirable.  

However, this is not to say that wantons are irrational agents.  They can reason about how they will carry out their desires and what will be the best way to do it; i.e., they have "practical reason".  They can also have competing 1st-order desires (I want to eat the chocolate bar vs I don't want to eat the chocolate bar) but they have no second-order desire about which of the two 1st order desires they want to win.  They do not reflect or deliberate on which 1st-order desire might be preferable.

Wantons can be distinguished from persons not by the capacity to reason but by the (lack of) exercise of second-order volition.  A person might have the same set of competing 1st-order desires as a wonton. The person both wants and doesn't want to eat the chocolate bar.  The difference between the person and the wanton is that the person wants the "don't-eat-the-chocolate-bar" desire to win (i.e., to motivate action).  She can and does reflect and deliberate on which 1st-order desire might be best to have.  The preferred 1st-order desire might not win in the end, but the fact that the person has the second order desire about which one wins is all that matters for being a person--not rationality which the wonton also posses.

Persons, Second-Order Volitions, and Freedom of Will
Consider the person (not the wonton) who has two conflicting first-order desires:  to eat the chocolate bar and go to the gym.  He has the second order-volition to have the go-to-the-gym desire.  If this desire motivates his behavior; that is, if he goes to the gym, then we can say that he was exercising his will and acting according to his will.

If he ends up eating the chocolate bar, then we say he acted against his own will.  What he really wanted was to be motivated to go to the gym.  However, for whatever reason--brain chemistry, conditioning--it didn't work out that way.  We can say, when he eats the chocolate bar that, "the force moving [the person] is a force other than his own, and it is not of his own free will but rather against his will that this force moves him to eat."

Freedom of Will Vs Absence of Constraints (Classical Compatibilism) 
Classical compatibilism defines free action as any agent's actions that were not coerced or constrained or caused by elements external to the agent.  Frankfurt says there's a distinction between freedom of will and acting free from constraints.  Consider that animals are free to do as they please.  Shoot, my dog still pees in my house if it's rainy or too cold outside--even though I'm sure he knows he's not supposed to.  But just because animals can pee wherever they please and not being coerced into where they pee, we don't typically say they have freedom of will.

To further bring out the distinction we observe that it's possible to prevent someone from doing whatever they please without undermining their freedom of will.  A prisoner may not be able to act in certain ways but they can still control which desires they do or do not want to have and which ones they do and do not want to try to act on.  

Freedom of will is when there is alignment of our second-order desire about our first-order desires with the first order desire that actually ends up motivating our actions.  In short, it's when the desire that we want to motivate our action ends up being the one that motivates our action.  A person can be free from external constraints to do what they want yet not have freedom of will if they fail to have any desires regarding which 1st-order desires motivate their action.  Conversely, someone could have freedom of will but not be free from external constraints.

"Complexities" that Can Lead to the Destruction of Persons 
If the whole desiring desires thing wasn't complex enough for you, here are a couple of possible extra-complex problems:

A.  Conflict of Second-Order Desires:  It could happen that I'm conflicted over which of my first order desires I want to motivate me to action.  In such a case, I'd have a conflict between second-order desires about my first-order desires.  If this happens, you cease to become a person because you have no clear second-order desire with which your first-order desires can conform.  You've lost your freedom of will.

B.  Infinite Regress Problem:  Suppose your second-order desires conflict, then you may have volitions or desires about which second-order desires you'd like to win.  But what if your tertiary-order desires also conflict about which second-order desires you'd have?  This could, in theory, go on infinitely. If this is the case, then your personhood is also destroyed because your freedom of will is lost.  There's no correspondence between the higher-order desires ('cuz you haven't decided on one yet) and the first-order desire that motivates action.

Partial Solution to B:  Just because the regress is possible doesn't mean it will necessarily happen.  It may happen.  But it may not.  Anytime a decision is made between competing higher-order desires about lower-order desires, the regress stops.

For example, suppose I am asked if I want to want to eat the chocolate bar.  If I indeed do want to want to eat it, then the regress stops.  The question "do you want to want to want to eat the chocolate bar?" has already been answered the moment I make a decision concerning the 2nd-order desire to want to eat the chocolate bar.  The regress only begins in cases where I don't or can't make a decision either way.

What Frankfurt's Theory Explains:  
Why Freedom of Will is Desirable:  Unlike many other theories of free will, Frankfurt's theory explains why freedom of the will is desirable.  Freedom of the will allows for the satisfaction of 2nd-order desires.   Its absence means those desires are frustrated.

Why We Don't Typically Ascribe Free Will to Animals:  Another thing Frankfurt's theory explains is why we don't typically ascribe free will to animals.  Other theories of free will describe as miraculous the fact that, even though we are physical systems, we are able to break the causal chain.  We can seemingly move our limbs at will.  But so can animals!  We don't consider the fact that animals can move their limbs at their leisure evidence of free will.

The Relationship between Free Will and Moral Responsibility
As we've seen, contra classical compatibilists, it doesn't seem to follow from the mere absence of external constraints that an agent has freedom of the will.  And if we say that freedom of the will is required for moral responsibility, it follows that absence of physical constraints on a agent isn't sufficient for moral responsibility.

It also doesn't seem to make sense to talk about free will and moral responsibility from the point of view of 1st-order desires.  We don't choose our own original set of 1st-order desires.  Some of us like eating ho-hos and sitting on the couch, some of us don't.  Some of us like to exercise, some of us don't.  It doesn't make sense to praise the person who goes to the gym because their pre-existing 1st-order desire to go to the gym is pre-set to be stronger than their first-order desire to sit on the couch eat ho-hos.  This person just happened to have lucked out.  

Moral praise or blame comes into the picture because as persons we are able to have second-order desires about which of our first-order desires "win".  Maybe my disposition is to sit on the couch and eat ho-hos rather than go to the gym.  But I have the capacity to deliberate on this fact and will that, despite this, my desire to go to the gym be the one that motivates me.  This capacity to reflect on, deliberate, and desire that our pre-existing 1st-order desires be otherwise or be ordered otherwise is what gives rise to moral responsibility. 

It might be causally determined that we desire what we desire;  that is, we might be causally determined to have the 2nd-order desires we have.  Frankfurt doesn't think this is a problem.  Freedom of the will is simply the exercise of 2nd-order desires.  Their causal origins don't matter.  If you have freedom of the will, you are also morally responsible for your actions.  

Can we really want to want things?   The wants you are able generate has a lot to do with your psychology.   Maybe you can have second-order desires about 1st-order desires that you already have, but maybe you can't have second-order desires about 1st-order desires you don't have.  Can you "will" a 1st-order desire into existence?  Maybe you can only shuffle what you have.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility by Strawson

Introduction and Context
There is something very important at stake in the free will vs determinism debate:  is moral responsibility possible?  Strawson's answer is "no" but this follows whether determinism is true or false! If Strawson is right, and we can't be morally responsible for our actions, why the heck do most people think that we can be morally responsible for our actions?  Because free will is an illusion.

In formulating his position, Strawson proceeds as follows:  (a)  overview of the Basic Argument and why we must accept it; (b) account of what moral responsibility means; (c)  why people think there is such a thing as moral responsibility; and (d) why, if we accept the Basic Argument (which we must), moral responsibility is impossible.

The Basic Argument:  Simplest Form
The Basic Argument goes like this:
(P1)  Nothing can be the cause of itself.
(P2)  In order to be morally responsible for one's actions, one would have to have caused one's self--at least the mental qualities and dispositions.
(C)   But since (P1), one cannot be morally responsible for one's actions.

If this seems a bit confusing, lets go through the expanded version, using an example.

Little Ami, Fries, and Mustard
When I was an elementary school student, it was a special treat to get french fries--especially for me.  I was the kid who had the lunch that all the other kids laughed at.  Usually my sandwich was something like cream cheese and alfalfa sprouts or tuna.  Instead of chocolate milk, I got plain milk.   Instead of store-bought chocolate-chip cookies I got homemade oatmeal raisin cookies.  In retrospect, I'm glad this is what I ate, but at the time it was pretty traumatic.

Anyhow, all this to say that to eat french fries at lunch was a huge deal for me.  The problem was, however, that if you got french fries at lunch, all the other kids would want some of your fries.  I'm a ten year-old kid that has to eat alfalfa sprout sandwiches and never gets fries.  I don't want to share!  At the same time, my parents raised a good boy and I was aware of the social "wrong" of being greedy and that I should share. So, what's a kid to do?

Here's what I did:  At that age, most kids hated mustard--including myself.  But in order to navigate the problem of wanting to keep all the fries to myself and conforming with social expectations I decided I would teach myself to like mustard!  Now, whenever it was a rare fortuitous fries day, I'd cover my fries in mustard and the other kids wouldn't ask me for any! (Incidentally, I did the same thing with black licorice).

Writing this, I'm starting to think I was a pretty strange kid.  And at this point you're wondering, how the f**k does this fit in with determinism and moral responsibility? Let me try to explain by taking one or two steps back:

Step 1:   Our actions are a direct consequence of who we are
Whatever we do is a consequence of a collection of our mental properties such as desires, beliefs, and psychological dispositions. This is why we can usually anticipate the action of people we know really well. We know something about their desires, beliefs, character, and dispositions. This is also how we explain why different people react differently to similar situations--they have different psychologies.

It would be really weird if our action weren't a consequence of our psychology. Our actions would seem totally random. Our actions are a direct consequence of who we are (psychologically).  This much is fairly uncontroversial.

Step 2A:  We don't cause our own psychological make-up
We don't choose our own psychological make-up.  Did you choose to like chocolate?  Did you choose to want to go to college?  Did you choose to like the people you like?  Did you choose to want the things from life that you want?  Did you choose to get sad, angry, or happy in response to various situations?  The answer, is no:  We don't choose or create our own psychological make up.

Consider little Ami.  Did he choose to like french fries so much?  Did he choose to be mindful of social conventions? The answer is no.  

Step 2B:  If we can't cause our own psychological make-up then we can't be responsible for our actions
So, here's the thing:  If we accept that our actions are a direct consequence of who we are psychologically and we don't choose or create our own psychological qualities, then how can we be morally responsible for the consequences of the actions that arise out of that psychology?  In order for us to be morally responsible for our actions we have to have created our own psychology, but this is impossible.

Step 3:   Objection:  I deny step 2A--We can cause our own psychological make-up
Suppose we deny that it's impossible to create your own psychology: you can create your own psychology and so now you are responsible for you actions.

Consider little Ami.  This seems to be what he's doing:  Ah! Ha! he says!  I know a way out of this dilemma.  I'm going to make myself like mustard!  So, there, Strawson and determinists!  Ami just created his own psychological make-up.  Basic argument falsified!

Step 4: Doh!  Stupid Infinite Regress! 
Free at last! I'm free! Free! I tell you!  Um...  Oh....  There is one small problem.  Wasn't little Ami's decision to like mustard a consequence of prior psychological properties? Isn't this the case anytime we resolve to "be" a certain way now?  Consider anytime you've resolved to change something about yourself.   You might have said something like, "I'm going to be a nicer person from now on, gosh darn it!"

It seems like we are self-creating some aspect of our psychology but is this really the case?  Doesn't there have to be an already existent psychological self that wants to change?  The desire to change exists in the prior self. Without it, no change would occur.  

Where did the self that has the desire to change come from?  Did you create that self?  Maybe you did, but then where did the psychological make-up that led to the psychological make-up that wanted to change come from?  Did you create that set of psychological properties?

Lets return to little Ami.  We might say little Ami self-created a new version of himself that likes mustard.  So there! Ami's psychology is self-created.  But again, the pre-mustard-liking Ami had a pre-existing set of psychological properties and dispositions that caused Ami to become mustard-liking-Ami--it had the pre-existing desire to want to like mustard. But Ami never chose to be pre-mustard-liking Ami.  He "just was" pre-mustard-liking Ami.

We might reply that there was a pre-pre-mustard liking Ami who chose to be pre-mustard liking Ami. But, did Ami choose to be the pre-pre-mustard-liking Ami that would eventually make possible pre-mustard-liking Ami which in turn would make possible mustard-liking Ami?  For Ami to be responsible for being pre-mustard-liking Ami, he has to have been responsible for being pre-pre-mustard-liking Ami.  At some point we have to concede that the initial psychological make up that bring about later incarnations of Ami are not self-caused.

We have, on our hands, an infinite regress problem.  The long and short of it is that every decision "you" make for being a certain way implies that there was a prior "you" that made that decision to take on a new psychological identity/property.  

Step 5:  You didn't create your prior psychology so you are not responsible for the actions caused by consequent psychological make-ups 
Did you choose to create the prior "you" that had the desire to change or be different?  If you didn't, then you can't be morally responsible for the actions that are a later consequence of that psychology.  If you did, then that decision to create a psychological make-up was a consequence of a decision made by a prior "you".   But did you intentionally create that prior "you"?  At some point we have to say "no" and since all present incarnations of your psychological dispositions are a consequence of your prior dispositions, "you" cannot be held morally responsible for the actions that emerge from those psychological dispositions.

Possible Objection:
People can change the way the are.

Reply:  True, but as has been shown, they can't do it in a way that attaches moral responsibility to their actions.

What is Do Most People Mean by Moral Responsibility and Why Do People Believe there is such a Thing?
The notion of moral responsibility that is typically implied by most people has to do with justification of punishment and reward in accordance with a principle of proportionality.   In other words, moral responsibility carries with it the idea that you should be punished (in part) in proportion with the amount of moral responsibility you bear for an action.

People believe there is moral responsibility because this is fundamentally how we experience the world. It feels like we make decisions that have moral consequences.  For example, you're going to walk into 7-11 to get you a cold pop (you smell something and you think someone is BBQ-ing).  On the way in, a homeless person asks you for a dollar.  It feels like you've got a moral choice to make.  You can give him the dollar or not.  And this is true even if you accept the Basic Argument.  Regardless, it still feels like we have freedom of choice and moral responsibility for our eventual action.  This is why we believe there is moral responsibility for actions.  It's the feels.  But it's not what is actually happening.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Overview of Freewill Vs Determinism

Introduction and Context
The debate over the degree to which we have control (if any at all) over our actions is one of the longest debated topics in philosophy and there isn't much reason to think it will end any time soon. The debate is known as the freewill-determinism debate.

Before proceeding lets quickly define some of the main positions (this in itself is a big issue in the debate):
1.  Libertarian (not political Libertarianism) freewill: In all circumstances, we are able to act otherwise (unless it entails a logical contradiction).  In other words, if I went to Roberto's and ordered the bean and cheese burrito with guacamole, I could have order something else.  Or if I was starving and stole a loaf of bread, I could have acted otherwise.  This is the strongest freewill position (not in terms of defensibility but in terms of the size of the scope of freewill).

2.  Hard determinism: The universe is physical.  The laws of physics tell us that every state is an effect of a prior state.  Freewill implies the suspension of the laws of physics because it requires that (a) an agent do something that isn't the result of prior causes and (b) the physical chain of cause and effect be broken.  (a) and (b) can't be true, therefore, all actions are determined.  

Even if someone wants to counter with "but the universe has mental properties too!" the hard determinist can rely "ok, but surely mental behaviors are also governed by causal laws.  You acted because you had a desire.  Cause and effect.  And what's more, you didn't choose to have that desire.  Did you choose to like chocolate? Or ice cream? Or philosophy 101?  No.  You just do. 

3.  Freewill Skepticism is closely related to hard determinism except it adds a dilemma for the freewill supporter.  At the quantum level of physics, events aren't determined but random.  So, either events are causally determined (by the environment and the physical make-up of the agent) or they are random.  If it is the former, they are not free.  If it is the latter, they are not free because randomness isn't freewill either.   Therefore, since all events are either determined or random, there is no freewill.

Positions 1-3 subscribe to incompatibilism which is the idea that freewill and causal determinism are incompatible.  You can only have one or the other, but not both. 

In contrast to incompatibilism there is also compatibilism, the idea that freewill and causal determinism are not mutually exclusive.  The classical defense of this position redefines freedom as a decision being free from compulsion or coercion.  So, suppose someone puts a gun to your head and says "write an essay about freewill and determinism," the classical compatibilist would say your decision to write the paper isn't free.  So, now "free actions" applies to those actions where there was no coercion or compulsion even though they are causally determined

The more modern compatibilist position is that there is a distinction between acting freely and having freedom of will.  I might be suggested that freedom of will is a matter of acting on our desires.  But Frankfurt replies that this isn't enough.  Freedom of will requires that we have some control over what we desire and that those desires motivate us to action.  This is as opposed to us being some entity that is pre-programmed with desires but has no say in what those desires are.  Note that this position still agrees that causal determinism is true.

Why the Crap Does the Freewill Determinism Debate Matter?
The main reason people think it matters is because the notion of moral responsibility implies that people have some control over whether or not they do something.  Do we hold our computers morally responsible for their actions?  Except for that one time I had a paper due in 15 minutes and the printer decided at that moment not to work, the answer is usually no.  Most of us think that justice, in part, requires that a punishment have some sort of proportional relationship to moral responsibility, but if my actions were all causally determined, it seems to follow that I'm not morally responsible for them. 

Related to the question of proportionality, we also think people deserve praise, reward, or condemnation based on their actions.  Again, if there is no freewill, it doesn't seem to make sense to praise them.  But maybe we're causally determined to praise/punish them anyway!  And maybe we are causally determined to puzzle over this problem...This can get very confusing very fast.