Friday, October 30, 2015

Harris and Free Will: Could versus Would.

P.F. Strawson's famous essay "Freedom and Resentment" influenced many be compatibilists.

I've been reading Sam Harris' Free Will and while I have a lot of issues with many of the things he says, I want to focus on one particular issue: his central idea that free will and moral responsibility are a simple function of whether or not we could have done otherwise at a particular point in time. In the beginning of his book Harris asserts:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have. Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”? No one has ever described a way in which mental and physical processes could arise that would attest to the existence of such freedom. Most illusions are made of sterner stuff than this.
The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that weare the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false.
But this idea that free will is not 'conceptually coherent' seems to be a basic confusion between the logical form of an indicative conditional and a counterfactual conditional and I think this confusion is at the heart of Harris' and other writers' outright rejection of compatibilism. The metaphysical truth of determinism for the actual world has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that there are situations where had a person's intentions and attitudes and values and virtues been different it would have resulted in a different action. Our notion of moral responsibility for individual actions stems from whether or not such counterfactuals are true, not from whether or not our wills are determined by prior causes or if it were possible that the action could not have occurred. Harris is correct in recognizing that indeterminism is not a sufficient condition for moral responsibility, but the crucial mistake he makes is in not recognizing it is not a necessary condition either.

Suppose we have 2 sentences:

1. If Oswald did not kill Kennedy then somebody else killed Kennedy.

2. If Oswald had not killed Kennedy then somebody else would have killed Kennedy.

The first sentence is an example of an indicative conditional: A->B. It simply says if A is true then B must be true. Indicative conditionals are true by virtue of the truth values of the antecedent (A) and consequent (B) parts of the sentence. If Oswald did not fire the fatal shots at Kennedy then this fact seems to entail that somebody else must have, since it is an accepted fact of our actual world that Kennedy was killed by someone. It is not the case in the actual world that that the consequent of the first sentence can be false if the antecedent is true.

The 2nd sentence is an example of a counterfactual conditional A>B. Counterfactual conditionals are true by virtue of the existence of possible worlds where the protasis clause A is true and the apodosis clause B is true, that are closer to our actual world than possible worlds where A is true and B is false. The truth of the 2nd sentence actually depends on the entire state of our actual world at the time of the event and our reasoning about what would have been a likely turn of events had the first part of the sentence occurred. The first key thing to notice here is that while the first sentence is obviously true, then 2nd is not. And the second key thing is that how we evaluate the truth of indicative conditional sentences is completely separate to how we evaluate the truth of counterfactual conditional sentences. In the first instance we look for facts in the actual world that correspond to what is asserted by each part of the sentence. In the 2nd instance we look at the actual world as a whole and possible worlds where both parts of the counterfactual are true, that we think are nearer or more similar to our actual world than other possible worlds where the first part of the counterfactual is true but the second false.

Suppose I am trying to evaluate moral responsibility for some egregious action I took at time t. Maybe I tweeted something rude to Taylor Swift yesterday that caused her to block me. Now consider the following pair of sentences:

3. If all physical events prior to t remained the same then I could not have done otherwise.

4. If I had been a better person then I would have done otherwise.

If we accept Harris' account of the role prior causes and prior neural activity plays in our decision-making and choices, then the first sentence is true. But the second sentence is also true. The truth of the 2nd sentence does not depend in any way on the falsehood of the first. If I accept that my being a better person is simply a function of all the prior causes of our actual world i.e that I could not have been any other way than I was when I made the tweet and thus I could not have done otherwise, that does not change the truth of the counterfactual that a different set of attitudes and beliefs and intentions and values would have resulted in me being not so rude to Ms. Swift yesterday.

It's important to note that sentences like 4. are not always true. It might be the case than I was secretly subverted by a Beyonce music video that sent subliminal messages ordering me to send rude tweets to Ms. Swift. In this case 4. would not be true. And this is where the compatibilist account of free will begins. As long as we think that counterfactuals like 4. are true we believe individuals are morally responsible for their actions. If counterfactuals like these are not true, as in the case where a person's mental ability or judgement is impaired to the point that he would not be able to make a actual decision,  then we do not think individuals are responsible for their actions. The truth of counterfactuals like these is quite independent of determinism being false...indeed it is not hard to see that the truth of these counterfactuals might require determinism to be true. For how can it be the case that we know a person would have acted differently because of different intentions if we were not sure that a sequence of prior causes necessitates some action? This is where Harris and I think many contemporary writers on free will become entangled in conceptual confusion, but they do not see that there is an alternative way out.

Suppose I'm sitting in a train and a fellow passenger tries to get into the seat next to mine but ends up kicking me on my shin. My first reaction is to feel a certain resentment towards him, and his first reaction, assuming he has the same inclinations towards empathy or courtesy as the average civilized adult does, would likely be to apologize to me for his careless actions. We both feel that if he had been more careful then he would not have kicked me.

The use of would here is critical. It is not true to say if the passenger was more careful he could not have kicked me. We can imagine very easily the passenger being extremely careful and cautious getting into his seat, but due to the train hitting a particular bump he ends up kicking me anyway. Rather it is the truth of the counterfactual:

If the passenger had been more careful then he would not have kicked me.

that is the origin of both of our reactive attitudes to his action. 

I've been trying for the past day to figure out why it is that Harris in his book carries out essentially the same thought experiment P.F Strawson does in his famous essay Freedom and Resentment but arrives at essentially the opposite conclusion. Harris asks us to consider cases like the following:

4.A 25-year-old man who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.”

5.A 25-year-old man who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun
of it.” An MRI of the man’s brain revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex (a region responsible for the control of emotion and
behavioral impulses).

and concludes:

Why does the brain tumor in case 5 change our view of the situation so dramatically? One reason is that its influence has been visited upon a person who (we must assume) would not otherwise behave in this way. Both the tumor and its effects seem adventitious, and this makes the perpetrator appear to be purely a victim of biology. Of course, if we couldn’t cure his condition, we would still need to lock him up to prevent him from committing further crimes, but we would not hate
him or condemn him as evil. Here is one front on which I believe our moral intuitions must change: *The more we understand the human mind in causal terms, the harder it becomes to draw a distinction between cases like 4 and 5.*

Harris thinks that the closer we come to establishing determinism as true, the resentment we feel towards the man for his actions in 4. will collapse into something like what we feel towards the man in 5. But where Harris goes wrong is that he assumes we condemn the man in 4. because we think the man must have had some kind of freedom the man in 5 did not. But the actual reason we condemn the man in case 4 is not simply because we think he could have done otherwise. This is trivially true: there's an infinite number of events that could have caused him not to shoot the young woman that have nothing to do with his intentions. Perhaps the gun could have jammed as he pulled the trigger.

The reason we condemn the young man without the brain tumor is because we know men just like him would have done otherwise because they had the right intentions or virtues or higher-order desires. That is, in a set of possible worlds close to our actual world a man just like the shooter would not shoot the woman because, for instance, he believes he has some duty to fulfill towards others. The truth of this counterfactual is the reason we hold the man in this case responsible for his actions. In the case of the man with the brain tumor this counterfactual is false. There are no possible worlds that resemble our own where the man would not have shot the woman because of different intentions, since his judgement was irreparably compromised by a physical condition. (Just as mine was because I was being mind-controlled by Beyonce).

We can see the truth of this analysis if we add the following 6th case:

6. The man in case 5 had been urged by his doctor to get a MRI as he had been experiencing mood swings and blackouts for months, but kept putting it off.

Why is it in case 6 our sense of moral responsibility switches back to holding the man responsible for his actions? It is not the case the man had any more control of his decision to shoot the girl than he did in 5. But we see that by considering the entire state of the actual world at the time of the shooting, it is certainly likely that he would have avoided shooting the girl had he listened to his doctor and been more responsible.

Harris' account of free will suffers from a lot of problems but I hope this analysis can eliminate the conceptual confusion he alleges that free will suffers from and show that compatibilism is a perfectly valid account of free will that Harris simply ignores.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Philosophy of (Non-)Belief: Part A


Imagine you have lived in a small village on a remote island in Micronesia all your life, with absolutely no contact with Western culture or media. You move to the U.S and at the airport a reporter asks you through a translator to take a poll:

1. Do you believe: 'Other minds and other subjects of experience besides yourself exist in the Universe.'
2. Do you believe: 'Santa Claus exists.'
3. Do you believe: 'California is to the west of New York.'
4. Do you believe: 'The total number of jelly-beans in the airport candy-store is even.'
5. Do you believe: 'Biological life exists on the moon.'
6. Do you believe: 'If you do good to others you will be rewarded.'

The answers to the poll questions are

A) Yes

B) No

C) I don't know

D) No because I have seen no evidence it is true.

E) Yes because I have seen no evidence it is false.

What would be the most accurate description of your mental attitude towards propositions 1-6?

Most likely you would say you believe 1, though you may have never considered the question consciously or thought of yourself as giving conscious assent to it. The way you behave or the way you react to your sense experience is in accordance with 1 being true. And unless you study philosophy or a related field it is highly unlikely you would ever be acquainted with the arguments and evidence that could be utilized for supporting the truth or falsity of this proposition. Only the insane and philosophers have ever posited good reasons for humans to doubt 1 (I will assume for the rest of this essay that one can unambiguously distinguish between these two classes.) In this case A would be reasonable, but perhaps E would be a more accurate response. But the hypothesis 1 is true would require considerable evidence for you to consider rejecting it, though you may not have any actual evidence to support it being true.

It could be said you lack a belief or don't believe in the truth of propositions 2-4. It could be said you don't think they are true as you have never in fact seen any evidence or reason to think they are true.

But it could also be said you do not believe that propositions 2-4 are false. And similarly, that you have never seen any reason to think they are false.

In these cases it seems reasonable that an actual lack of knowledge about the state-of-affairs described by propositions would express an attitude of neutrality, not rejection, to these propositions. It seems unusual that only a lack of knowledge regarding the truth-value of a proposition would entail one truth-value for a proposition should be privileged over another. If we imagine that there are two possible worlds where a proposition is true in one and false in the other, then it seems unlikely we would be able to say which possible world more closely resembles the one we believe we inhabit currently, unless we had some knowledge that would be relevant to this judgement.

In a case like this you might have considered the matter and formed an attitude and might reasonably answer B) or D). But would D) be an accurate description of your attitude to life on the moon?

Surely if you have knowledge of biology or physics then you might think such a scenario unlikely, without having to review every alleged discovery of life on the moon. You attitude towards life on the  moon is not incorrigible, surely anything is possible, but your knowledge of the necessary conditions under which this proposition would be true might lead you to privilege it being false over being true. Perhaps you think that 'There is no biological life on the moon.' should be considered the null hypothesis that must be rejected but can also fail to be rejected.

But it seems only your knowledge of the relevant conditions under which 5 would be likely or unlikely could justify you privileging one hypothesis over another. Which means a response of D) would not be accurate. Assigning the truth value 'false' to 5 need not be a conscious decision, indeed your mental representation of the world as you understand it would in fact reflect this judgement and this representation would be used whenever you read things like 'Michael Jackson found living on the moon.' to determine your attitude towards these findings. Just as the case in 1 you would in fact privilege one hypothesis over another but in this case it is the denial of a proposition that is to be rejected.
With proposition 6 you might in fact have considered this question consciously. You perhaps can recall an abundance of cases where it did not hold vs. a tiny number of cases where it did. Yet your answer to this question might still be A). Even if in your map of the world you think that it is unlikely a good deed will merit some reward, you still think that it is in some sense desirable or even necessary to assent to the proposition that it would. You might believe that our current world is much closer to a possible world where it is not true doing good will be rewarded, yet you still feel some prudential or pragmatic desire to assent to this proposition, in the face of (possibly overwhelming) evidence to the contrary.


If we accept this analysis of our likely attitudes towards these propositions then it would seem to illustrate some interesting properties of beliefs (and non-beliefs.)

For in the case of 1 we believe things without consciously assenting to them. It is not necessary for anyone to introduce or ask us to consider something in order for us to believe it. And it seems when such a question is asked or a skeptical challenge made, it is also rational to believe a proposition though we may not have any propositional evidence for it. And even though some powerful skeptical arguments exist that we may not have the capacity to rebut, we would still think it rational and necessary to believe a proposition like 1, as the alternative seems unacceptable to us. Skepticism or a lack of propositional evidence on its own is not sufficient for us to reject believing in a proposition, though we may not actually have propositional evidence to privilege supporting it. Some beliefs appear to play a foundational role in a superstructure of mental representation of the world.

In the case of 2-4 it seems we should be neutral about the truth and falsity of propositions if we truly lack knowledge to evaluate or make judgements about them. To assign a truth-value of T or F to a proposition or to privilege a positive or negative hypothesis over its negation based solely on our lack of knowledge about the state-of-affairs described by the proposition does not seem possible.

In the case of 5 it seems we can be non-neutral about the truth or falsity of a proposition though we do not in fact claim that a judgement of 'false' is incorrigible. But this non-neutrality is not due to a lack of relevant knowledge, rather it is the presence of relevant knowledge that justifies our non-neutrality and diverging from the neutrality of cases 2-4. Our skepticism of the existence of biological life on the moon occurs in the context of propositions we are not skeptical about

It is also true that our relevant knowledge actually affects our attitudes towards propositions that we may consider as evidence for 5. This is another feature of (non)beliefs: we cannot be neutral in evaluating evidence for a proposition that contradicts our present attitude towards a proposition.

In the case of 6 considerable evidence may exist against a proposition being true, our own evidence could be seen as selective or biased towards our presumption, yet it would still be rational to make a positive judgement or assent to a proposition. We can simultaneously believe ~A while consciously assenting to A. There is nothing irrational about this. A scientist will accept a theory and use it in their own work while still privately believing such a theory to be false.  

Does it matter?

There's a lot of discussion these days about definitions and what labels like agnostic or atheist mean or what attitudes like 'lack-of-belief' entail and how concepts like 'burden-of-proof' should be used.  A lot of people might think, justifiably, that these discussions are pointless or distractions from the issue of theists defending their beliefs. But I don't think this criticism is sound.

There is nothing wrong or pointless in analyzing the epistemology of others or how others define words or the reasoning they use to arrive at their conclusion. Consider Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit.
In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.
Atheists criticize the epistemology of theists all the time and how they incorrectly use words like faith when debating ('You have faith in science.' or 'You have faith the sun will rise tomorrow.' or 'You need faith to be an atheist.') They criticize how we incorrectly use skepticism such as 'Were you there?' as a rejoinder to scientific theories about the history of the physical Earth or the origin of life. Atheists have always asserted that the epistemology of theism is flawed in innumerable ways and the arguments and strategies theists use in debate to be severely detrimental towards rational discourse. Most atheists would agree 'You can't prove God doesn't exist.' is not a rational employment of a skeptical attitude. Bertrand Russell famously argued that 'You can't prove I'm wrong.' is not a rational employment of the concept of burden-of-proof to make an argument against naturalism.

So if atheists think that contradictory propositions, illogical definitions, fallacious reasoning and incorrect use of skepticism is harmful to a discussion, then atheists of all people should be willing to have their use of words like 'lack-of-belief' and 'burden-of-poof' and 'agnostic' analyzed, and their employment of skepticism to justify their position scrutinized. It is not possible that only theists can be vulnerable to 'common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric.'

In Part B of this series I'll talk about what the philosophical constructions of belief are and the consequences of such constructions for positions like 'agnostic atheism.'