My Reply to STF’s Second Letter

If we fast-forward to your conclusion, viz. “I think we’ll learn a lot more about how brains work and, perhaps, about how minds work the next 50 years. But it may turn out that the question of free will is an unanswerable question,” we are in fundamental agreement.  This is either completely consistent with what I said or is identical to what I was saying.   However, my fear is that certain members of the scientific tribe will mistake a description of a process for an explanation of a process.

On Eastern spirituality, I think the relaxation that leads to dissolution of the ego and its melding into universal consciousness, or divinity, is motivated by a desire to escape rather than by some fundamental intuition about reality.  What one is escaping is incarnation and the desires which incarnation requires.

Most generally, we are caught in a vicious circle, each of us.  You think that the experience of subjectivity can be analyzed into physical components.  I think that this analysis does violence to the subjective experience itself, that such an “explanation” is a priori impossible.  My contention is that the brain gives us access to something like an idea of subjectivity that constitutes an a priori realm comparable to the realm of the laws of arithmetic, which I take to be independent of human neurophysiology and evolution.  The fact that the base system of numbers can be altered doesn’t change the fact that arithmetic is independent of physical reality, would be true in any possible world, real or imagined.  Stated metaphorically, our subjectivity proves that God counts (the alternative being that there is only one thing and that counting amounts to a violation of reality, or has a provisional truth that belongs to a world of appearance).

Now, the problem is that “your side” will eventually resort to experiments which, it will be asserted, prove that subjectivity is “just” some complex neurological process, and the experiment will consist in isolating the effects of stimuli on the brain, and so on, but the so-called proof is impossible, in principle.  That is, one could have two completely isomorphic geometrical maps, visual maps, or mathematical maps of two brains, or of an actual brain and a virtual brain, but what are these maps going to tell us about the subjective experience in the actual brain?  There is in principle, a priori, no way of getting from the map to the experience.  This is what you are at pains to deny, the difference in kind between the physical-mathematical description of the experience and the experience itself.  This is why I said before that I agree that it will be very difficult to distinguish an act of free will from a determined physical act, but since we know in advance that this will be difficult, we had better take pains to make the distinction now.

My contention is that the experience of willing cannot be an illusion.  What difference does it make if 99.5% of all acts that are experienced by humans as acts of free will are preceded by one nanosecond by a particular physical process?  I’ll grant that this is the case, I assume that it is the case, but so what?  Maybe the process appears to differ from case to case, maybe it doesn’t, maybe we can’t find the level of generality that explains the vast majority of cases according to one simple or complex process, all of that is moot.  We can’t get from the physical to the psychological, in principle, this is my contention.  The whole enterprise consists in what the philosophers call a “metabasis eis allo genos,” a “crossing over into another kind of thing.”  You say that we have no way of distinguishing between the map and the experience, while I say that we can and do know in advance that the two things are not the same.  Nothing I have said is inconsistent with the idea that acts of willing can be altered in their nature or effects by doing something to the brain.  To the contrary, I assume this to be the case.  I just don’t see how this changes the problem.  Perhaps my acts of will are affected by whether a butterfly alights on a particular flower in Brazil, or by what some intelligence in another galaxy is thinking or doing.  Does any of this really alter the fact that, in the end, there is an “I” who chooses to do, or to refrain from doing, this or that?  I can see that one can, and probably will, pile up contributory “causes” in the physical realm ad infinitum, but the actual act of willing will remain there, impervious and impregnable.

What I predict will occur in the realm of scientific psychology are therefore two scientific processes that are themselves at odds with one another and will never be reconciled.  On the one hand, there will be physical analysis at the micro level, and various mental acts will be associated with various predecessor neurophysiological processes.  Simultaneously, at a macro level other scientists will argue that it is incorrect to isolate the subject from this or that influence, influences which might extend to other galaxies and other possible worlds.   But in a parallel world to both of these movements in physical science will be the philosophical investigation of inwardness and the laws of subjectivity that belong to themselves, unless that investigation is destroyed by the hubris of physical science.  Basically, either the mental can be reduced to the physical or it cannot, either there is something called mind that is not merely physical, or there is not.

My contention is that an honest investigation of subjective experience proves that there is a mental realm which can govern the physical, or that mind governs body.  But supposing the contrary, that mind is just a physical process, what scientific experiment can be imagined that would prove that mind is just a physical process and that would not involve simply assuming what was to be demonstrated?

STF’s Second Letter

I agree with your point that Eastern practices recognize an ego-based consciousness as the usual human state. It could be that it’s an act of will to deny the ego, as you seem to describe. But it could also be that it’s more a matter of relaxing and allowing one to see the illusory nature of the ego. Well, I suppose that is still a choice, but one less guided and compelled than what you seemed to have described. Or the subjective experience may vary from person to person. One question I have is whether Eastern thinkers subjective experiences were guided by their beliefs or if their beliefs were shaped by their subjective experiences. I think the latter, but I don’t know.

Your comments on second-order willing are less convincing to me than to you. I think that’s because I’m so impressed by the enormity of the concept of first-order free will being an illusion that, if I accept that view as possible, I’m prepared to swallow further elaborations.  But I’m not sure that your paraphrase of what I said means what I thought I meant.

Paraphrase: what we can experience as an act of “free will” is “a description of attitudes about free will and of how brains work.”

What I meant was this: the assertion that everyone has the subjective sensation of experiencing free will is a comment on how our brains evaluate our experiences but is not evidence that free will exists. Your paraphrase, to me, looks as if it means that the experience itself, not the assertion about the experience, is a “description of” etc.

It is true that thinking itself feels like a continuous manifestation of free will. That is, free will is not just about external actions such as choosing blueberry jam over honey or the  honorable course over the expedient one. Thinking seems to consist of innumerable choices—I’ll think about this, that’s how I’ll phrase something, I’ll put off thinking about that for a while. It’s hard to think of this process not coming from one’s ego.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of ants. I heard an interview of E.O. Wilson talking about his early lab work with ants. An individual ant appears to be an automaton. It produces scents when encountering certain stimuli, and it reacts to scents in particular ways. I think he found the ant capable of producing over two dozen scents. Here’s one example. If an ant dies, it eventually produces one particular odor. Live ants ignore the dead ant until the odor manifests, then they remove the ant and dump in the hive garbage heap. Wilson then smeared a bit of the odor on the live ant. Despite is wiggling legs, etc., the live ant got removed and dumped. The ant would then return to the hive. Ants clean themselves, and if the ant had cleaned itself enough, it was accepted. If not, it was hustled out again. The point is that the individual ant has a limited, deterministic repertoire. Yet the hive as whole can exhibit complex behavior – farming, raiding, harvesting, repelling invaders, engineering, and so on.  The question, not answered in the interview, is, where does the knowledge reside?  Do the simple rules governing individual ants somehow contain more complex information expressed when the ants interact with one another?

I’m not sure if we will ever fully understand the mind, although I’m more optimistic than you.  I’m pretty sure that we will find out much, much more about how brains work than we now know and that some of what we find will be unexpected. For example, when we experience an occasion, the visual aspect is stored in one part of the brain, sounds in another, words in a third, etc. I don’t think the mechanism by which these various parts are brought together when we actively remember the occasion is understood.  Another memory result:  recent research suggests than when we remember something, the act of recovering the memory destroys the memory, but we then form a new memory of what we’ve just remembered – that is, we remember, not the original occasion, but our memory of recalling the occasion.  This is one reason why memories can be so easily modified by suggestion.

I think computers will play a role in understanding brain function, but not the traditional AI approach. Instead, I think as neuroscientists learn more about brains, they will be able to build computers – possibly non-digital, that work more like brains. That is, they will have several layers of functionality, they will have several networks running simultaneously, there will be ways for the networks to interact that model what’s discovered about brain networks, etc.  I don’t think the top-down programming approach used in older AI will ever lead to true artificial intelligence. Making an artificial brain that mimics the structure and functionality of a real brain may not succeed either, but it most likely would provide insights on the boundaries of the mind-body relationship, if such exists.

I’m not sure that there’s much more new to be said on the dualism debate from the philosophical side. I am pretty sure that there’s a lot more to be learned about how the brain works. Whether that adds to what can be said on dualism, I don’t know, but I think it might sharpen the focus on what’s relevant. Of course, many things are less conclusive than they might appear. For example, you probably have heard about research finding neurological bases for various forms of religious experience. Some think that this reduces spiritual experiences, such as the dissolution of time, the sense of oneness, a sense of awe, a sense of certainty to no more than brain functions, functions that, perhaps, evolved because they contributed to social coherence or some other social benefit. It seems to me that this is not the only possible interpretation.  Consider sight or sound. On one level, these are brain functions. Stimulate certain parts of the brain, and you may invoke experiences of sight and sound. By dreaming, you can invoke these sensations with no external stimuli. Yet these brain functions evolved in response to physical elements in the external environment, to the presence of light and sound waves. So one could imagine, particularly if one believed in dualism, that the brain functions involved in spiritual experiences evolved in response to the presence of spiritual stimuli.

In short, I think we’ll learn a lot more about how brains work and, perhaps, about how minds work the next 50 years. But it may turn out that the question of free will is an unanswerable question.

My Reply to STF’s First Letter

Hi, STF:

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments.  I can only hope that eventually I will receive equally thoughtful comments from strangers.

So, I’ll try to respond in brief compass to your various points….

Your syllogistic summary of my argument is generally acceptable to me, except that we would probably have to emend #2 in some ways, eventually.  It’s not just that everyone has the experience of observing himself exercising will.  Everyone can have the experience of exercising second-order will:  “I am now going to decide to decide something.”  I think that’s very important.  So, there could be an analogue to Eastern practices of withdrawing from the hurly-burly of ego-determined behavior, and that analogue would be to attempt to do nothing that did not result from a very conscious decision of the ego.  In other words, one withdraws to a state of hyper-attentiveness to acts of will and attempts to will to do nothing that is determined by “external” forces and circumstances.  This would include delaying gratifications of all desires and involuntary impulses, such as eating, excreting, sleeping, having sex, and even breathing.  It’s worth noting also that Eastern practices of ego denial begin with the assumption that there is something like an ego that needs to be denied.   An act of will is required in order to reach the higher plane.

My view about all such practices is that they are likely to be motivated by practical desires and considerations.  That is, one sees a world of ego-determined conflict and attempts to resolve the conflict by withdrawing from the ego.  It’s not that there is an immediate perception of another ego-less world.  By way of contrast, there is an immediate perception of ego-driven and willed behavior in everyday life.

For me, the immediate experience of second-order willing constitutes a refutation of your assertion, or hypothesis, whatever it is, that what we can experience as an act of “free will” is “a description of attitudes about free will and of how brains work.”  It is true that whatever we experience in our subjective life must be consistent with how human brains work.  My guess is that we will never understand how human brains work.  My guess is that there is a feedback loop between material processes and what is called mind or consciousness, that the material gives rise to a something else that is not material and that cannot be explained materially, stochastically, statistically, mathematically, or, in short, scientifically.  And this something else can somehow cause the brain to do certain things.  The something else causes physical events in the neurological system.  That is the incredible, mysterious thing about the dualistic hypothesis, that causation can actually go from the immaterial, or not merely material, to the material.

The hubris of science pertains to lots of scientists and to people like Searle, it is not an essential feature of science.  And the hubris consists precisely in asserting that the dualism I have posited is either not possible, physically or metaphysically, or is so abhorrent to reason that it is not possible.

Your Topic 2 amounts to saying that in a very complex system such as the brain likely is it will be very difficult to distinguish between events that have material explanations that are complete explanations and those that do not.  I think that’s true, but I don’t see how it tells one way or the other as between “monistic” materialism and dualism.  This gets back to the hubris of science.  “There must be a material explanation for the observed phenomena.”  My guess, which often veers into being an assertion, is that consciousness cannot be explained in material terms.  Searle, for example, asserts that it will be explained in material terms.  That’s hubris.  But Searle is emblematic in this regard of a huge class of scientifically inclined brains.  Now, if you ask me the simple question, is it possible that what we call free will is illusory, my answer is, “Yes, of course, that is possible.”  It is very easy for me to conceive of the possibility that my conscious life, as I perceive it, is in some sense illusory, that what is really going on there is a combination of determined and undetermined “elementary” physical events that somehow combine to produce my subjective life.  I don’t have any trouble understanding the theory here, at least in its general outline.  My problem is that the theory appears to be inconsistent with my experience, such as second-order willing.  It really takes a strong act of will on the part of the scientifically inclined brain to want to make this leap.  The abhorrence of dualism is that strong.

Now, it must also be admitted that I don’t like what I take to be the practical consequences of denying free will, but my main difficulty is the dissonance between the theory and not just my experience, but the experience of the people who offer the theory.  To conclude, I think there will be material correlates for subjective experience, prominently including acts of willing, but those correlates will fail to explain the experience.  The very real danger is that the scientific mind will not see the difference between a material correlate, the material precondition for something, and the thing itself.  It’s not as though a dualist doubts that his subjective life will be altered if a lobotomy is performed on his brain.  The hypothesis is that there are two realms that interact with one another, the realm of consciousness and the neurological system.

STF’s first letter

After seeing the Ledocs World blog on Searle, I thought I would continue our discussion on free will but with the luxury of not having to hear contrary ideas. It’s not my intent to convince you that you are wrong, for I don’t even know that you are wrong. I’m an agnostic on the topic. But I do hope to show how one (if not you) might not regard it inconceivable that you are wrong.

Here is my understanding of your argument:

  1. The mind has free-will.
  2. Free will cannot arise from a deterministic, or even stochastic, system.
  3. Therefore the reductionist approach of science cannot, in principle, explain the mind.

I have several comments, probably philosophically naïve, which I won’t try organize.

Topic I:  My recollection is that you asserted that free will is an empirical fact because everyone has the personal experience of “I am making a decision freely.”

1. This is not an argument for free will. Rather, it is a description of attitudes about free will and of how brains work. Perhaps this attitude about free will is hard-wired into the brain. If this is the case, then the belief that one has free will might be the result of determinism at work, and only a person who has achieved a degree of free will is free to doubt the existence of free will.

2. Your assertion, as I remember it, is not entirely true. Many Eastern belief systems hold that the concept of “I” is illusory. Here, for example, is one statement of that view:

Sri Ramana Maharshi taught that every conscious activity of the mind or body, for example ‘I think’, ‘I remember’, ‘I feel’ ‘I am acting’, etc., revolves around the tacit assumption that there is an individual ‘I’ who is doing something, a common factor and mental fiction termed the ‘I’-thought (a translation of Aham-Vritti, which literally means ‘mental modification of ‘I’). He equated individuality with the mind and the mind with the ‘I’-thought which is dependent on identification with an object, and said that after Self-realisation there is no thinker of thoughts, no performer of actions and no awareness of individual existence. When the thoughts arise, he said, the ‘I’-thought claims ownership of them- ‘I think’, ‘I believe’, ‘I want’, ‘I am acting’, but there really is no separate ‘I’ that exists independently of the objects that it is identifying with, only an incessant flow of misidentifications, based on an initial assumption that the ‘I’ is individual and associated with the bodily form.

I confess that I don’t follow this completely, but I’ve also seen Buddhist writings of a similar ilk. My point is that this view of “I-thought” as an illusion seems to stem from personal introspection and meditation. That is, there are people who think “I deciding” is an illusion on the basis of their own personal experience.

Well, this Eastern view about the illusory nature of an I-making-decisions nor more disproves free will than the convincing experience of making a decision proves free will.

Modern neuroscience also suggests that our conscious and controlling I is an illusion of sorts. This view is not based on unscientific Freudian or Jungian concepts but upon observing various brain regions and networks. But neuroscience goes in a different direction from there than does Eastern thought. There is, for example, a subsystem that maintains one’s sense of uniqueness and separateness. Suppress the activity of that system, and the subject begins feeling a sense of oneness with all. Other parts of the brain can be manipulated to produce a sense of complete conviction or of intense religiosity. Brains scans show different networks within the brain coping with a situation or decision, then coming to a resolution, then the conscious mind becoming aware of the decision.

So both western experimental science and eastern mental disciplines support the idea of the conscious controlling I as an illusion. I’m not saying that the concept of the conscious mind as a story-telling observer negates the concept of free will. But I do think that free will, if it does exist, is going to prove to be something more deeply layered and complex than it is commonly viewed. For example, it may prove a mistake to associate free will with the conscious mind.

Topic 2: Free will cannot arise from a deterministic or stochastic system. This sounds obviously true. Yet it seems possible that a deterministic system could produce behavior that would be very difficult to distinguish from free will. For instance, it is possible to know the laws governing a deterministic system, yet have the future behavior of that system to be, in principle and fact, unknowable.

Before going further with that thought, I’d like to provide some really interesting (to me) background. You probably know that most of the fundamental laws in physics are expressed in terms of second-order (i.e., involving second derivatives) differential equations. For example, Newton’s 2nd law is F = ma.  Here F is force, m is mass, a is acceleration, which is the second derivative of acceleration. The force, in turn, can be a function of position. For some problems, such as two bodies orbiting about their center of mass, the differential equation has a general solution in the form of equations with constants used to fit the general solution to a particular case. For the orbiting bodies the general solution is that a body follows an elliptical path, a parabolic path, or a hyperbolic path. The precise initial conditions (masses, positions, and velocities) determine which sort of path and the particular values for constants of integration. For example, if the conditions produce an ellipse, the particular initial conditions then lead to particular values for the semi-major axis, the eccentricity, and the orientation of the ellipse. Another part of the solution allows one to calculate where in its orbit each body is as a function of time. So you get a continuous description of the system as a function of time.

However, second order differential equations do not necessarily have general solutions. In gravitational problems, once you have three or more bodies, there is no general solution that you can write in the form of a formula. Instead, for each set of initial conditions, you have to use numerical computational techniques to produce essentially a table of values representing the state of the system at particular times. That is, you would get values for the positions and velocities of the bodies at one particular moment of time, then at another moment of time, and so on. Instead of a continuous description, you get a discontinuous, discrete description. Another limitation is that the accuracy of the result is limited by the precision of the calculations. Also, if you wish to change the initial velocity of one of the bodies, you can’t just adjust the values of some integration constants. Instead, you have to go through the entire computation routine again.

Ok, perhaps that wasn’t all that interesting. But let’s go a step further. Suppose you do go back and change one initial condition, a location, say, by a small amount. You probably would expect that the new numerical solution you calculate would be different from the original solution by a small amount, probably a difference that grows with time. In fact, that often is the case, but not always.  For instance, a couple of French astronomers recently calculated planetary positions in the solar system for the next 5 billion years. They did 2501 trials, each time changing the initial size of Mercury’s orbit by about 1/64th of an inch. The vast majority of the trials produced future orbits not much different from the present. But a few produced wildly different results, such as Mercury falling into the Sun or crashing into Venus or Mars colliding with Earth.

This is an example of chaotic behavior, as the term is used in physics. This means that the behavior is extremely sensitive to initial conditions. How extreme? I don’t know if what I’m about to say applies to this particular case, but here’s how extreme. Consider a point on, say, the x-axis representing the numerical value of a particular initial condition. Imagine marking off a range that includes that point. In a truly chaotic system, no matter how small you make that range, it will include values that lead to solutions that are wildly different from one another.

So the only way to correctly predict the future of a chaotic system would be to measure every initial condition exactly. Even without invoking the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle, this impossible. If you have a technique to measure a position to a million decimal places, your are still clueless about the 1,000,002nd decimal place. And you would have to do the numerical calculations to infinite precision. Thus the future behavior of the deterministic, yet chaotic, system is unknowable.

Let’s apply this to brain theory. Suppose there is no free will and, even a stronger supposition, that the brain is deterministic. Suppose, unlikely as it may seem, that we develop a way to very precisely measure every relevant physical parameter of the brain—the location of every ion, the location and activity of every neuron, and so on. And suppose we have a mathematical theory capable of extracting the brain state from this information and calculating the subsequent physical parameters and brain states. It’s extremely likely that such a complex system has elements of mathematical chaos, hence, even with all this information, the information is not infinitely precise, and it will be impossible to predict the future behavior of the brain. Most likely the predictions would work pretty well for a while, but eventually a chaotic situation would mess things up.

Now assume the brain has free will and we go through the same exercise. It’s likely that most of the time our behavior is pretty automatic, so the behavior prediction will work pretty well for a while, but eventually a major free-will event will occur and mess things up.

So my expectation is that the behavior one would see in a deterministic yet chaotic brain would be sufficiently complex and unpredictable that it would be very difficult to distinguish it from a free-will brain.

Topic 3: Science is overreaching itself

My recollection is that you expressed the third point (in my summation of what I think your argument was) by saying you thought science is overreaching itself in its attempts to explain the mind. I don’t know if intended so, but the phrasing suggests that science has an element of hubris. I’d make the following points. First, while some scientists may have an agenda of demonstrating a materialistic explanation, others think of themselves as trying to solve a puzzle and think that some aspects are difficult even to think about now, let alone explain. Second, the argument that science cannot explain the mind in principle relies on a principle that has not yet been demonstrated by science. Science would need to learn much more about the workings of the brain and mind before recognizing that principle. Third, even things said to be impossible in principle in physics, such as perpetual motion machines, refer to principles that have, so far, been verified (but not proven) experimentally. Your “in principle” is not of that sort. For science, identifying what is impossible in principle is something to be determined empirically, not by pronouncement. Is philosophy overreaching itself if attempts to impose non-scientific constraints upon what science can accomplish?

Conversation with a scientifically trained friend (STF), introduction

In August of 2009, I corresponded with a scientifically trained friend (STF) about the mind-body problem and free will.  The correspondence was occasioned by my first post on this blog, the one about John Searle’s interview on “Conversations with History.”  With STF’s permission, I am reproducing the correspondence here, with a few minor editorial changes that do not affect the content.   I will post each long email from the correspondence separately.

I hope and expect to post intermittently about the mind-body problem, and the related question of free will.  Given the vast array of projects I have at present, I can only make small forays into the huge literature surrounding these subjects.