Thursday, October 6, 2011

Free Will, the Law, and other Meanderings.

I do get carried away. The below arose from a FB discussion. Normally I stay away from these debates but thought Sergio was worthy of a considered reply. No time to proof. Sorry about that.

6/10/2011 12:19AM

You're a good chap Sergio and worthy of a considered reply. I've done my best but it is well past midnight and work beckons ...

Warning! I have an unusual approach to these questions, my thinking very much informed by online discussions long ago with Frank Lefever and a few others. I am an iconoclast. One of my key epistemological heuristics is this: if many brilliant people have been trying to resolve issues over many decades, let alone centuries, then, in the absence of new information, I have no chance of developing any further insights and so will direct my attention elsewhere.

No time to proof this. Sorry.

1. I don't entertain free will, I am to blame for my actions.

I don't entertain free will because it provides no explanatory power. The great power of human cognition arises when we ask the questions that provide us with further insight into the relevant matter. Mathematicians refer to this as "fertility". So even an abstract idea can be useful but it must have fertility. This is why in science there is the insistence that ideas should be falsifiable. If we cannot prove or disprove idea how can we ever know if it is true? We still cannot say with certainty that free will is existent yet we continue on our way. Most people who don't believe in free will do not fall into antinomianism, the belief that they cannot be responsible for their actions. This was a big issue with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, many christians arguing that to believe God elects us "before the beginning of time"(Eph chapter 1 I think) is to invite moral anarchy. It doesn't. We far too often think about behavior being driven by thoughts. Now without venturing into radical behaviorism and its view that even thinking is behavior, a view I find favourable but wonder if it is just semantics, it is perfectly clear to me that my thoughts are but one aspect of how my behavior is formed. In fact I would argue that our thoughts about how other people perceive our behavior and our anticipation of the potential consequences of that perception is a far more powerful modulator of our behavior than our preferred philosophical position.

2. Neuroscience and Cognition.

The great fuss about how neuroscience is deepening our understanding of behavior is a fancy. Modern neuroscience is like a hunter gatherer looking for the first time at a car and seeing the wheels turn, thinks, the wheels make the car go forward. He sees the wheels, but the wheels do not move the car, the engine does. He cannot see the engine. Modern neuro-imaging is only seeing the wheels. It may even be worse than that, it may only be seeing the dust kicked up by the wheels. Even in recent months some long held assumptions about the classic model of neural function have been very much demolished. If you read enough of the literature, if you keep reading, you soon come across experiments that make a mockery of textbook explanations of neural function. There are deep and very difficult philosophical questions here, many of which revolve around Information Theory. That is a long and difficult road, I went down the road on a fast motorcycle, turned out the first corner was a decreasing radius turn and I'm still licking my wounds ... .

3. Blame is a reinforcer

If I am speeding down the road and without intention, quite unconsciously, I will still receive a speeding ticket and no amount of pleading will prevent that. If I unintentionally kill someone I will still be charged with manslaughter. That we know that breaking the law can have serious personal repercussions reinforces lawful behavior. Whether I break the law intentionally or unintentionally does not alter the fact that I broke the law. Unintentional breaking of the law may mitigate liability but it does not get me off the hook. So the linkage between "freely choosing" and "blaming" is not consistent. We blame people as a way of modulating their behavior and the behavior of others. Irrespective of my willing I am culpable for my actions. Even in cases of known psychopathology the pathology is at best a mitigating factor, it does get people off the hook and nor should it. The law is about much more than personal responsibility, it is very much about establishing reinforcement contingencies to maintain social order. The Law can never be a conceptually and philosophically consistent system. The Law is very much a response to the problem arising from the vagaries of human behavior and the environment. It is primarily driven by the need to maintain social order, not be a neat and tidy system of thought. In short, the world is messy so the Law will always be messy.

Obviously, the concept of free will is not a critical determinant of the legitimacy of our legal system.

4. Childrens' behavior is not guided by their belief in free will.

In fact children rarely if ever consider themselves to be free willing agents. Children are not engaging into those types of cognitive behaviors, that type of operational function only really emerges, at best, post puberty. Often never! Children are amongst the first to proclaim, "Johnny made me do it!" Adults abandon that habit because it becomes socially unacceptable. Not because they delve into the philosophical arguments surrounding Free Will but because it is in their best interests not to blame others. Blaming ourselves, as much if not moreso than blame from others, is a strong contingency that modulates our behavior. Blaming is not about free will, it is about behavior modification. Arminianism, the theological school of thought in opposition to Calvinism, can eat my shorts. I have no interest in free will,  that I consciously decide to do something provides me with absolutely no insight into the causes of my behavior. As the experiments of Sperry and Gazzaniga make worryingly clear, we have this habit of rationalising the causes of our behavior. We provides reasons after the event but the work of those two great neuroscientists indicate that we appear to make up stories to explain our behavior. As that wonderful line made by Geoff Goldbloom in the movie "The Big Chill" goes: You can go for a week without sex but can you go for a week without a rationalisation? (Same meaning, closely to that, and dreadfully true.)

5. The history of Free Will

My understanding is that the prominence of this concept in our culture primarily derives from the post Reformation great theological debates. I actually like the Calvinist approach because John Calvin himself was very much about setting up Geneva through laws, education, democracy, and social control. With regard to the latter he was sometimes unforgivingly ruthless and cruel. Eastern cultures, with Buddhism being a prominent example, don't seem as preoccupied with this question. Mayahana and Zen Buddhism will even assert that "self" and "free will" are illusions. Said conclusions arose from extensive exercises in enhancing "self awareness", which as the previously mentioned neuroscientists and many others have indicated, is hopelessly insufficient for understanding the true causes of our behavior. This again comes back to the theme of radical behaviorism that thought is behavior. The thoughts we acquire from our culture, not from our cognition, may be closer to the primary causes of our interest in this question than any "rational" deliberation of the legitimacy of that mode of analysis.

6. Self Awareness.

Who was that Greek chap, Aristotle? Was he the one who carried on about the need for self awareness. What are we observing when we observe "the self"? Look closely, you are not looking at some whole or some entity within yourself, you are thinking about individual instances of your behavior and attempting to coalesce these individual fragments into some coherent whole. The most successful areas of psychology are not in the "Big Ideas" but rather in the attempts to modify specific behaviors. For decades the psychologists peddled self-esteem as the cure all for so many human problems. Bollocks, the research of Ray Baumeister, circa 2002, pretty much put that fancy to rest. There is not so much talk about self esteem these days. Why? The studies don't support the claim that changing one's view of one's self makes any significant difference. Nonetheless I do believe our self perception does have implications for our behavior but that brings us back to the radical behaviorist idea of thinking being behavior.

I prefer the advice of Baumeister. Want to change your behavior? Then focus on those behaviors you wish to change. Establish in your life the appropriate environmental contingencies, and by environment I include the people around you, and your behavior will change. That is why religious bodies are so successful at behavior modification: the creation of a social environment that establishes multiple reinforcers modify behavior to be in accordance with the group. As the studies of Milgram and Zimbardo illustrate, or for that matter the SS of the Nazis, or even just plain being in a war zone, our environment, and especially the people in that environment, are vastly more determinative of our behavior than our philosophy. I grant you there are rare exceptions but as numerous historical examples illustrate, even the most religious of people can become murderous assholes. Only last night I heard a philosopher state how during the rise of Japanese militarism the Buddhists were often fully on board with justifying the incredible cruelty that Japanese military government managed to engender during that period. And contrary to the popular view, the Japanese at that time were far more brutal than the Germans. But that's another story.

Self awareness is also important but it can also be crippling. I prefer the attitude of Albert Camus, "Forever shall I be a stranger to myself."(The Myth of Sisyphus). Or this wonderful line from the great American street writer Henry Miller ....

Even the psychic invalid throws away his crutches, in such moments [large external threat]. For him the greatest joy is to realise that there is something more important than himself. All his life he has turned on the spit of his own roasted ego. He made the fire with his own hands.

Sexus, page 337.