Free will is a program guessing what could happen if resources were spent executing code before having to execute it.
I suggest that Free Will is not merely the feeling of predicting effects, but is the power to dictate effects. It gets complicated because when we introspect on our own introspection, our personal awareness unravels into a hall of sub-personal mirrors. When we ask ourselves ‘why did I eat that pizza’, we can trace back a chain of ‘because…I wanted to. Because I was hungry…Because I saw a pizza on TV…’ and we are tempted to conclude that our own involvement was just to passively rubber stamp a course of multiple-choice actions that were already in motion.
If instead, we look at the entire ensemble of our responses to the influences, from TV image, to the body’s hunger, to the preference for pizza, etc as more of a kaleidoscope gestalt of ‘me’, then we can understand will on a personal level rather than a mechanical level. On the sub-personal level, where there is processing of information in the brain and competing drives in the mind, we, as individuals do not exist. This is the mistake of the neuroscientific experiments thus far. They assume a bottom-up production of consciousness from unconscious microphysical processes, rather than seeing a bi-directional relation between many levels of description and multiple kinds of relation between micro and macro, physical and phenomenal.
My big interest is in how intention causes action
I think that intention is already an action, and in a human being that action takes place on the neurochemical level if we look at it from the outside. For the motive effect of the brain to translate into the motor effect of the rest of the body involves the sub-personal imitation of the personal motive, or you could say the diffraction of the personal motive as it is made increasingly impersonal, slower, larger, and more public-facing (mechanical) process.
The key oversight, in my opinion, in the approach taken by neuroscientific research into free will (Libet et al) is in the presumption that all that is not available to us personally is ‘unconscious’ rather than conscious sub-personally. When we read these words, we are not conscious of their translation from pixels to patches of contrasting optical conditions, to loops and lines, to letters and words. From the perspective of our personal awareness, the words are presented as a priori readable and meaningful. We are not reminded of learning to read in kindergarten and have no feeling for what the gibberish that we are decoding would look like to someone who could not read English. The presentation of our world is materially altered at the sub-personal, but not ‘unconscious’ level. If it were unconscious, then we would be shocked to find that words were made of lines and loops or pixels.
In the same way, a robotic task is quickly anticipated, even 10 seconds ahead of time, without our personality getting involved. This does not mean that it is not ‘us’ making the choice, only that there is no need for such an easy and insignificant choice to be recognized by another layer of ‘us’, and reported by a third layer of ‘us’ to the personal layer of us.
When we work on the sub-personal level of neurons, we are addressing a layer of reality in which we, as persons, do not exist. Because we have not yet factored in perceptual relativity as a defining existential influence, we are making the mistake of treating a human being as if they were made of generic Legos instead of a single unique and unrepeatable living cell which has intentionally reproduced itself a trillion times over – each carrying the potential for intention and self-modifying teleology.
JE: My experience from talking to philosophers is that WIttgenstein’s view is certainly contentious. There seem to be two camps. There are those seduced by his writing who accept his account and there are others who, like me, feel that Wittgenstein expressed certain fairly trivial insights about perception and language that most people should have worked out for themselves and then proceeded to draw inappropriate conclusions and screw up the progress of contemporary philosophy for fifty years. This latter would be the standard view amongst philosophers working on biological problems in language as far as I can see.
Wittgenstein is right to say that words have different meanings in different situations – that should be obvious. He is right to say that contemporary philosophers waste their time using words inappropriately – any one from outside sees that straight away. But his solution – to say that the meaning of words is just how they are normally used, is no solution – it turns out to be a smoke screen to allow him to indulge his own prejudices and not engage in productive explanation of how language actually works inside brains.
The problem is a weaseling going on that, as I indicated before, leads to Wittgenstein encouraging the very crime he thought he was clever to identify. The meaning of a word may ‘lie in how it is used’ in the sense that the occurrences of words in talk is functionally connected to the roles words play in internal brain processes and relate to other brain processes but this is trivial. To say that meaning is use is, as I said, clearly a route to the W crime itself. If I ask how do you know meaning means use you will reply that a famous philosopher said so. Maybe he did but he also said that words do not have unique meanings defined by philosophers – they are used in all sorts of ways and there are all sorts of meanings of meaning that are not ‘use’, as anyone who has read Grice or Chomsky will have come to realise. Two meanings of a word may be incompatible yet it may be well nigh impossible to detect this from use – the situation I think we have here. The incompatibility only becomes clear if we rigorously explore what these meanings are. Wittgenstein is about as much help as a label on a packet of pills that says ‘to be taken as directed’.
But let’s be Wittgensteinian and play a language game of ordinary use, based on the family resemblance thesis. What does choose mean? One meaning might be to raise in the hearer the thought of having a sense of choosing. So a referent of ‘choose’ is an idea or experience that seems to be real and I think must be. But we were discussing what we think that sense of choosing relates to in terms of physics. We want to use ‘choose’ to indicate some sort of causal relation or an aspect of causation, or if we are a bit worried about physics still having causes we could frame it in terms of dynamics or maybe even just connections in a spacetime manifold. If Wheeler thinks choice is relevant to physics he must think that ‘choose’ can be used to describe something of this sort, as well as the sense of choosing.
So, as I indicated, we need to pin down what that dynamic role might be. And I identified the fact that the common presumption about this is wrong. It is commonly thought that choosing is being in a situation with several possible outcomes. However, we have no reason to think that. The brain may well not be purely deterministic in operation. Quantum indeterminacy may amplify up to the level of significant indeterminacy in such a complex system with so powerful amplification systems at work. However, this is far from established and anyway it would have nothing to do with our idea of choosing if it was just a level of random noise. So I think we should probably work on the basis that the brain is in fact as tightly deterministic as matters here. This implies that in the situation where we feel we are choosing THERE IS ONLY ONE POSSIBLE OUTCOME.
The problem, as I indicated is that there seem to be multiple possible outcomes to us because we do not know how are brain is going to respond. Because this lack of knowledge is a standard feature of our experience our idea of ‘a situation’ is better thought of as ‘an example of an ensemble of situations that are indistinguishable in terms of outcome’. If I say when I get to the main road I can turn right or left I am really saying that I predict an instance of an ensemble of situations which are indistinguishable in terms of whether I go right or left. This ensemble issue of course is central to QM and maybe we should not be so surprised about that – operationally we live in a world of ensembles, not of specific situations.
So this has nothing to do with ‘metaphysical connotations’ which is Wittgenstein’s way of blocking out any arguments that upset him – where did we bring metaphysics in here? We have two meanings of choose. 1. Being in a situation that may be reported as being one of feeling one has choice (to be purely behaviourist) and 2. A dynamic account of that situation that turns out not to agree with what 99.9% of the population assume it is when they feel they are choosing. People use choose in a discussion of dynamics as if it meant what it feels like in 1 but the reality is that this use is useless. It is a bit like making burnt offerings to the Gods. That may be a use for goats but not a very productive one. It turns out that the ‘family resemblance’ is a fake. Cousin Susan who has pitched up to claim her inheritance is an impostor. That is why I say that although to ‘feel I am choosing’ is unproblematic the word ‘choice’ has no useful meaning in physics. It is based on the same sort of error as thinking a wavefunction describes a ‘particle’ rather than an ensemble of particles. The problem with Wittgenstein is that he never thought through where his idea of use takes you if you take a careful scientific approach. Basically I think he was lazy. The common reason why philosophers get tied in knots with words is this one – that a word has several meanings that do not in fact have the ‘family relations’ we assume they have – this is true for knowledge, perceiving, self, mind, consciousness – all the big words in this field. Wittgenstein’s solution of going back to using words the way they are ‘usually’ used is nothing more than an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.
So would you not agree that in Wheeler’s experiments the experimenter does not have a choice in the sense that she probably feels she has? She is not able to perform two alternative manoeuvres on the measuring set up. She will perform a manoeuvre, and she may not yet know which, but there are no alternatives possible in this particular instance of the situation ensemble. She is no different from a computer programmed to set the experiment up a particular way before particle went through the slits, contingent on a meteorite not shaking the apparatus after it went through the slits (causality is just as much an issue of what did not happen as what did). So if we think this sort of choosing tells us something important about physics we have misunderstood physics, I beleive.
Nice response. I agree almost down the line.
As far as the meaning of words go, I think that no word can have only one meaning because meaning, like all sense, is not assembled from fragments in isolation, but rather isolated temporarily from the totality of experience. Every word is a metaphor, and metaphor can be dialed in and out of context as dictated by the preference of the interpreter. Even when we are looking at something which has been written, we can argue over whether a chapter means this or that, whether or not the author intended to mean it. We accept that some meanings arise unintentionally within metaphor, and when creating art or writing a book, it is not uncommon to glimpse and develop meanings which were not planned.
To choose has a lower limit, between the personal and the sub-personal which deals with the difference between accidents and ‘on purpose’ where accidents are assumed to demand correction, and there is an upper limit on choice between the personal and the super-personal in which we can calibrate our tolerance toward accidents, possibly choosing to let them be defined as artistic or intuitive and even pursuing them to be developed.
I think that this lensing of choice into upper and lower limits, is, like red and blue shift, a property of physics – of private physics. All experiences, feelings, words, etc can explode into associations if examined closely. All matter can appear as fluctuations of energy, and all energy can appear as changes in the behavior of matter. Reversing the figure-ground relation is a subjective preference. So too is reversing the figure-ground relation of choice and determinism a subjective preference. If we say that our choices are determined, then we must explain why there is a such thing as having a feeling that we choose. Why would there be a difference, for example, in the way that we breathe and the way that we intentionally control our breathing? Why would different areas of the brain be involved in voluntary control, and why would voluntary muscle tissue be different from smooth muscle tissue if there were no role for choice in physics? We have misunderstood physics in that we have misinterpreted the role of our involvement in that understanding.
We see physics as a collection of rules from which experiences follow, but I think that it can only be the other way around. Rules follow from experiences. Physics lags behind awareness. In the case of humans, our personal awareness lags behind our sub-personal awareness (as shown by Libet, etc) but that does not mean that our sub-personal awareness follows microphysical measurables. If you are going to look at the personal level of physics, you only have to recognize that you can intend to stand up before you stand up, or that you can create an opinion intentionally which is a compromise between select personal preferences and the expectations of a social group.
Previous Wittgenstein post here.
Me butting into a language based argument about free will:
> I don’t see anything particularly contentious about Wittgenstein’s claim that the meaning of a word lies in how it is used.
Can something (a sound or a spelling) be used as a word if it has no meaning in the first place though?
>After all, language is just an activity in which humans engage in order to influence (and to be influenced by) the behaviour of other humans.
Not necessarily. I imagine that the origin of language has more to do with imitation of natural sounds and gestures. Onomatopoeia, for example. Clang, crunch, crash… these are not arbitrary signs which derive their meaning from usage alone. C. S. Pierce was on the right track with discerning between symbols (arbitrary signs whose meaning is attached by use alone), icons (signs which are isomorphic to their referent), and index (signs which refer by inevitable association as smoke is an index of fire). Words would not develop out of what they feel like to say and to hear, and the relation of that feeling to what is meant.
>I’m inclined to regard his analysis of language in the same light as I regard Hume’s analysis of the philosophical notion of ‘substance’ (and you will be aware that I side with process over substance) – i.e. there is no essential essence to a word. Any particular word plays a role in a variety of different language games, and those various roles are not related by some kind of underlying essence but by what Wittgenstein referred to as a family resemblance. The only pertinent question becomes that of what role a word can be seen to play in a particular language game (i.e. what behavioural influences it has), and this is an empirical question – i.e. it does not necessarily have any metaphysical connotations.
While Wittgenstein’s view is justifiably influential, I think that it belongs to the perspective of modernism’s transition to postmodernity. As such, it is bound by the tenets of existentialism, in which isolation, rather than totality is assumed. I question the validity of isolation when it comes to subjectivity (what I call private physics) since I think that subjectivity makes more sense as a temporary partition, or diffraction within the totality of experience rather than a product of isolated mechanisms. Just as a prism does not produce the visible spectrum by reinventing it mechanically – colors are instead revealed through the diffraction of white light. Much of what goes on in communication is indeed language games, and I agree that words do not have an isolated essence, but that does not mean that the meaning of words is not rooted in a multiplicity of sensible contexts. The pieces that are used to play the language game are not tokens, they are more like colored lights that change colors when they are put together next to each other. Lights which can be used to infer meaning on many levels simultaneously, because all meaning is multivalent/holographic.
> So if I wish to know the meaning of a word, e.g. ‘choice’, I have to LOOK at how the word is USED rather than THINK about what kind of metaphysical scheme might lie behind the word (Philosophical Investigations section 66 and again in section 340).
That’s a good method for learning about some aspects of words, but not others. In some case, as in onomatopoeia, that is the worst way of learning anything about it and you will wind up thinking that Pow! is some kind of commentary about humorous violence and has nothing to do with the *sound* of bodies colliding and it’s emotional impact. It’s like the anthropologist who gets the completely wrong idea about what people are doing because they are reverse engineering what they observe back to other ethnographers interpretations rather than to the people’s experienced history together.
> So, for instance, when Jane asks me “How should I choose my next car?” I understand her perfectly well to be asking about the criteria she should be employing in making her decision. Similarly with the word ‘free’ – I understand perfectly well what it means for a convict to be set free. And so to the term ‘free will’; As Hume pointed out, there is a perfectly sensible way to use the term – i.e. when I say “I did it of my own free will”, all I mean is that I was not coerced into doing it, and I’m conferring no metaphysical significance upon my actions (the compatibilist notion of free will in contrast to the metaphysical notion of free will).
Why would that phrase ‘free will’ be used at all though? Why not just say “I was not coerced” or nothing at all, since without metaphysical (or private physical) free will, there would be no important difference between being coerced by causes within your body or beyond your body. Under determinism, there is no such thing as not being coerced.
> The word ‘will’ is again used in a variety of language games, and the family resemblance would appear to imply something about the future (e.g. “I will get that paper finished today”). When used in the free will language game, it shares a significant overlap with the choice language game. But when we lift a word out of its common speech uses and confer metaphysical connotations upon it, Wittgenstein tells us that language has ceased doing useful work (as he puts it in the PI section 38, “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday”).
We should not presume that work is useful without first assuming free will. Useful, like will, is a quality of attention, an aesthetic experience of participation which may be far more important than all of the work in the universe put together. It is not will that must find a useful function, it is function that acquires use only through the feeling of will.
> And, of course, the word ‘meaning’ is itself employed in a variety of different language games – I can say that I had a “meaningful experience” without coming into conflict with Wittgenstein’s claim that the meaning of a word lies in its use.
Use is only one part of meaning. Wittgenstein was looking at a toy model of language that ties only to verbal intellect itself, not to the sensory-motor foundations of pre-communicated experience. It was a brilliant abstraction, important for understanding a lot about language, but ultimately I think that it takes the wrong things too seriously. All that is important about awareness and language would, under the Private Language argument, be passed over in silence.
> Regarding Wheeler’s delayed choice experiment, the experimenter clearly has a choice as to whether she will deploy a detector that ignores the paths by which the light reaches it, or a detector that takes the paths into account. In Wheeler’s scenario that choice is delayed until the light has already passed through (one or both of) the slits. I really can’t take issue with the word ‘choice’ as it is being used here.
I think that QM also will eventually be explained by dropping the assumption of isolation. Light is visual sense. It is how matter sees and looks. Different levels of description present themselves differently from different perspectives, so that if you put matter in the tiniest box you can get, you give it no choice but to reflect back the nature of the limitation of that specific measurement, and measurement in general.
The objection that the terms ‘consciousness’ or ‘free will’ are used in too many different ways to be understandable is one of the most common arguments that I run into. I agree that it is a superficially valid objection, but on deeper consideration, it should be clear that it is a specious and ideologically driven detour.
The term free will is not as precise as a more scientific term might be (I tend to use motive, efferent participation, or private intention), but it isn’t nearly the problem that it is made to be in a debate. Any eight year old knows well enough what free will refers to. Nobody on Earth can fail to understand the difference between doing something by accident and intentionally, or between enslavement and freedom. The claim that these concepts are somehow esoteric doesn’t wash, unless you already have an expectation of a kind of verbal-logical supremacy in which nothing is allowed to exist until we can agree on a precise set of terms which give it existence. I think that this expectation is not a neutral or innocuous position, but actually contaminates the debate over free will, stacking the deck unintentionally in favor of the determinism.
It’s subtle, but ontologically, it is a bit like letting a burglar talk you into opening up the door to the house for them since breaking a window would only make a mess for you to clean up. Because the argument for hard determinism begins with an assumption that impartiality and objectivity are inherently desirable in all things, it asks that you put your king in check from the start. The argument doubles down on this leverage with the implication that subjective intuition is notoriously naive and flawed, so that not putting your king in check from the start is framed as a weak position. This is the James Randi kind of double-bind. If you don’t submit to his rules, then you are already guilty of fraud, and part of his rules is that you have no say in what his rules will be.
This is the sleight of hand which is also used by Daniel Dennett as well. What poses as a fair consideration of hard determinism is actually a stealth maneuver to create determinism – to demand that the subject submit to the forced disbelief system and become complicit in undermining their own authority. The irony is that it is only through a personal/social, political attack on subjectivity that the false perspective of objectivity can be introduced. It is accepted only by presentation pf an argument of personal insignificance so that the subject is shamed and bullied into imagining itself an object. Without knowing it, one person’s will has been voluntarily overpowered and confounded by another person’s free will into accepting that this state of affairs is not really happening. In presenting free will and consciousness as a kind of stage magic, the materialist magician performs a meta-magic trick on the audience.
Some questions for determinist thinkers:
- Can we effectively doubt that we have free will?
Or is the doubt a mental abstraction which denies the very capacity for intentional reasoning upon which the doubt itself is based?
- How would an illusion of doubt be justified, either randomly or deterministically? What function would an illusion of doubt serve, even in the most blue-sky hypothetical way?
- Why wouldn’t determinism itself be just as much of an illusion as free will or doubt under determinism?
Another common derailment is to conflate the position of recognizing the phenomenon of subjectivity as authentic with religious faith, naive realism, or soft-headed sentimentality. This also is ironic, as it is an attack on the ego of the subject, not on the legitimacy of the issue. There is no reason to presume any theistic belief is implied just because determinism can be challenged at its root rather than on technicalities.
I think that just as free will spans the entire continuum from profound mystery to ordinary fact to most-convincing illusion to least convincing reality, so too does consciousness as a whole.
Will seems to be a self-contained, primordial feature of nature – intentional force. The projection of a single motive sequence from a multiplicity of private motives into a thermodynamically irreversible public consequence. The power to participate in public realism; from motive to motor, emotion to intention to extension as a unified gestalt at the personal level, but smeared across smaller spaces and times at the sub-personal levels (cellular, neurochemical). Will is consciousness oscillating from being to feeling to doing to knowing, an Ouroboran double-binary knot of sensory-motor qualities, pushing and pulling between private times and public spaces.
The ‘free’ part of free will seems more conceptual. Free compared to what? Nevertheless, it too has an aesthetic subtext which is compelling. Freedom is somehow the epitome of will. It suggests self seeking to amplify itself by transcending itself. When people use the expression ‘willful’ there is a sense of being unpredictable or ‘wild’. This connection comes up again and again in philosophy and science and is rejected again and again as well. Vital force. Kundalini. Qi. Animal Magnetism. We are ambivalent about physicalizing this most direct of all experiences – perhaps the only truly direct experience there is.
What I propose is sort of a ‘if you can’t beat em, join em’ strategy. Put the phenomena which we can’t explain in the center of the model. Neither sensory perception nor motive participation can, in my view, be reduced in any way. They are primordial, such that any conceivable physical force or field, any mathematical principle or information process would by definition supervene on some form of aesthetic presentation – some detection-participation capacity. Without such a capacity, nothing which has sense, or is itself defined by sense could possibly contact this non-sensed existence in any way. In this way, we can begin to see that being and sensory-motive participation are ultimately the same thing.
The effects of free will are cumulative, and as we free ourselves again and again from our own collective inertial consequences, initiating novel sequences out of personal preference, we also cut ourselves off from many experiences. We de-cide; kill off possibilities…we make a difference not only by what we choose but what our choice makes us indifferent to. The wild personal impulse gradually pivots to its opposite, and Homo sapiens raw nomadic drive to explore becomes the impersonal impulse of self-domestication. Now that the pendulum has perhaps reached the apogee of its swing, we seek to define the impulse in terms of its absence. This is an opportunity to step out of the system and look at the phenomenon as a whole – as we modulate with it through history. The unexpected truth – that free will and mechanism are two sides of the same oscillating coin is hard to consider, but like free will itself, we should place this enigma in the center of the model rather than try to flatten it into either mechanism or spirituality. Let it be what it is. Let us be who we are.)