Sorel’s basic char­ac­ter flaws had all cement­ed by the age of fif­teen, a fact which fur­ther elicit­ed my sym­pa­thy.  To have all the build­ing blocks of your life in place by that age was, by any stan­dard, a tragedy.  It was as good as seal­ing your­self into a dun­geon.  Walled in, with nowhere to go but your own doom.”

—Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Hard-Boiled Won­der­land and the End of the World.

freewillSome­where on the bram­ble-choked plan­et where philoso­phers live, Sam Har­ris wrote a lit­tle 66-page book called Free Will.  Har­ris is a fine writer and to the point; also, his min­i­mal title con­sists of the per­fect num­ber of char­ac­ters to hang from a pair of puppeteer’s oper­at­ing cross­es.  As this image sug­gests, he is a hard core deter­min­ist: (a) the brain obeys the laws of physics, and (b) there is no “mind” that isn’t a func­tion of the phys­i­cal process­es of the brain, there­fore, (c) the idea of free will doesn’t even make sense con­cep­tu­al­ly:

The illu­sion of free will is itself an illu­sion.

For those of us who are not dual­ists (that would be every­one “philo­soph­i­cal­ly respectable”, as Har­ris puts it), (a) and (b) are givens.*  Har­ris con­cedes that there is an (also respectable) spec­trum of thought called “com­pat­i­bil­ism” that attempts to rec­on­cile (a) and (b) with some mean­ing­ful def­i­n­i­tion of free will; many thinkers of this school (like Daniel Den­nett) use def­i­n­i­tions based on “free­dom of action”.

But Sam Har­ris is not a com­pat­i­bilist: this book is an extend­ed case against them.  I agree with many of his argu­ments.  To boil it down, in order to work with­in the stan­dard true/false log­i­cal con­structs of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy and still leave room for free will, one is forced to define it in a more or less legal­is­tic sense, as in “of one’s own free will, not coerced at gun­point”.  This “free­dom to act in accor­dance with one’s desires” is a nice thing to have, and it might be rel­e­vant in court, but I agree with Har­ris that it’s irrel­e­vant to the ques­tions about free will that seem prob­lem­at­ic or inter­est­ing in light of deter­min­ism.  What’s inter­est­ing about free will is the idea of agency itself, of hav­ing autonomous desires and moti­va­tions in the first place— whether they’re car­ried out or thwart­ed.  But how could there be a “could”, or a “should”, or a “could have”, or a “should have”, if the future— includ­ing every choice you make— is pre­de­ter­mined?

*There are some aster­isks.  Quan­tum physics has some­times been invoked to try to res­cue the sit­u­a­tion, but this is sil­ly— not because quan­tum effects don’t mat­ter, since ulti­mate­ly, at least over long enough timescales, they must— but rather because being at the mer­cy of coin flip­ping instead of bil­liards doesn’t some­how open a white­space for free­dom of will or action.  It just intro­duces a noise source.  To place the locus of our agency on a ran­dom vari­able is about as mean­ing­ful as claim­ing that a ther­mo­stat is con­scious.  (Oh wait, that’s been done too.)  Any­way we have rea­son­able evi­dence that our moment-to-moment deci­sions and actions rely on neu­ro­phys­i­cal process­es that don’t oper­ate near the quan­tum scale.  If we were to some­how pre­pare an ensem­ble of iden­ti­cal copies of a per­son and do a moral or psy­cho­log­i­cal exper­i­ment on the cohort under iden­ti­cal exper­i­men­tal con­di­tions, we’d be very unlike­ly to get any vari­abil­i­ty in the result.  It there­fore seems to fol­low that there is no “free­dom” in such a behav­ioral choice, any more than we can say a rock has “free­dom” with respect to whether or not to fall if dropped.

Before unpick­ing his argu­ment, let me state for the record that I think I real­ly like this Sam Har­ris per­son.  He takes a hard line about being non­re­li­gious in a way that few decent-mind­ed peo­ple will admit to in pub­lic these days— at least in the US, giv­en a dis­course that has polar­ized around, on one hand, the hard nuggets of mutu­al­ly exclu­sive reli­gious views, and on the oth­er hand, a dif­fuse well-mean­ing lib­er­al­ism with­in which we must pre­tend to be non­judg­men­tal.  Obvi­ous­ly if forced to choose camps I’ll glad­ly live in the lat­ter and wear a forced smile, but Har­ris is refresh­ing when he

[…] advo­cates a benign, non­co­er­cive, cor­rec­tive form of intol­er­ance, dis­tin­guish­ing it from his­toric reli­gious per­se­cu­tion.  He pro­motes a con­ver­sa­tion­al intol­er­ance, in which per­son­al con­vic­tions are scaled against evi­dence, and where intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty is demand­ed equal­ly in reli­gious views and non-reli­gious views.  He sug­gests that, just as a per­son declar­ing a belief that Elvis is still alive would imme­di­ate­ly make his every state­ment sus­pect in the eyes of those he was con­vers­ing with, assert­ing a sim­i­lar­ly non-evi­den­tiary point on a reli­gious doc­trine ought to be met with sim­i­lar dis­re­spect.  He also believes there is a need to counter inhi­bi­tions that pre­vent the open cri­tique of reli­gious ideas, beliefs, and prac­tices under the aus­pices of “tol­er­ance”.”

Yay!  OK, but the gospel is not all good.  The over­ar­ch­ing prob­lem with Har­ris is that in his mer­ci­less reduc­tion to the evi­den­tiary, he leaves no space for a lot of use­ful ideas.  First among these is the idea of paths not tak­en in our behav­ior— of pos­si­bil­i­ty.  In attack­ing this, he invokes clas­sic fMRI and mask­ing exper­i­ments that reveal how ten­u­ous the rela­tion­ship can be between our aware­ness and our brain process­es.  In the mask­ing exper­i­ments, stim­uli can be deliv­ered and then “can­celled out” by a sec­ond stim­u­lus, although the uncon­scious brain can be left in a “primed” state.  There are also deci­sion­mak­ing exper­i­ments, old and new, in which pop­u­la­tions of neu­rons in the brain appear to “know” what you’re going to decide before “you” do.  These exper­i­ments are cer­tain­ly intrigu­ing and vio­late our intu­itions about causal­i­ty and agency— if we think like philoso­phers or legal the­o­rists, and insist that agency can only be some­how locat­ed in the “text” of our con­scious nar­ra­tive.  If we think more like neu­ro­sci­en­tists instead, we real­ize that what­ev­er this spe­cial stuff is that we call aware­ness, atten­tion, or con­scious­ness, it’s sup­port­ed by a lot of neur­al machin­ery, and this machin­ery doesn’t oper­ate instan­ta­neous­ly or above board.  Of course we can’t be “aware” of every aspect of its oper­a­tion— that we are aware at all is the mir­a­cle.  Lots of cor­ners are cut— thank­ful­ly— in our self-aware­ness.

The mir­a­cle of self-aware­ness seems to be a prod­uct of our abil­i­ty to mod­el rel­e­vant aspects of the world around us, and peo­ple around us.  (And since the self is a per­son too, it should be unsur­pris­ing that we can expe­ri­ence the spe­cial ellip­ti­cal thrill of mod­el­ing our­selves.)  It’s not hard to see why these would be use­ful fac­ul­ties.  A good argu­ment can be made that the whole point of a brain is to pre­dict the future, and espe­cial­ly the futures of oth­ers and of our­selves, per­haps under hypo­thet­i­cal cir­cum­stances.  In a troupe of apes, the abil­i­ty to empathize— to under­stand what that oth­er ape is about to do, and why— allows one to behave in ways that fur­ther one’s own goals, or the goals of the com­mu­ni­ty.  Brains are good at pre­dict­ing the behav­iors of brains, and they do it by form­ing mod­els.  When we try to for­mal­ize such mod­els, and maybe even test them with exper­i­ment, we call the result “psy­chol­o­gy”.  It may not be par­ti­cle physics, but it sure is use­ful.

In sup­port of his belief that the mind is noth­ing but a pup­pet or help­less wit­ness to unknow­able phys­i­cal process­es, Har­ris claims, rather fatu­ous­ly, that our behav­ior is all mys­te­ri­ous:

For instance, in my teens and ear­ly twen­ties I was a devot­ed stu­dent of the mar­tial arts.  I prac­ticed inces­sant­ly and taught class­es in col­lege.  Recent­ly, I began train­ing again, after a hia­tus of more than 20 years.  Both the ces­sa­tion and the renew­al of my inter­est in mar­tial arts seem to be pure expres­sions of the free­dom that Nah­mias attrib­ut­es to me.  I have been under no “unrea­son­able exter­nal or inter­nal pres­sure.”  I have done exact­ly what I want­ed to do.  I want­ed to stop train­ing, and I stopped.  I want­ed to start again, and now I train sev­er­al times a week.  All this has been asso­ci­at­ed with con­scious thought and acts of appar­ent self-con­trol.

How­ev­er, when I look for the psy­cho­log­i­cal cause of my behav­ior, I find it utter­ly mys­te­ri­ous.  Why did I stop train­ing 20 years ago?  Well, cer­tain things just became more impor­tant to me.  But why did they become more impor­tant to me— and why pre­cise­ly then and to that degree?  And why did my inter­est in mar­tial arts sud­den­ly reemerge after decades of hiber­na­tion?”  (p. 42)

This is the strange cor­ner Har­ris finds him­self backed into by his insis­tence on an all-eclips­ing deter­min­ism.  Because if every­thing is deter­mined, then how could any­thing have a “why”— since a “why” implies a “why not”, and deter­min­ism implies that there can­not be a not.

You will do what­ev­er it is you do, and it is mean­ing­less to assert that you could have done oth­er­wise.” (p. 44)

More­over, deter­min­ism stip­u­lates exac­ti­tude, which for him, owing to a con­fla­tion between lev­els of descrip­tion, means that no approx­i­mate or prob­a­bilis­tic con­cept can enter into the dis­course.  Final­ly, by not acknowl­edg­ing the dif­fer­ence in lev­el of descrip­tion between physics and psy­chol­o­gy, Har­ris seems to inval­i­date the very idea of a sat­is­fac­to­ry “why” under any cir­cum­stance by insist­ing that it be sup­port­ed by— what?— maybe an infi­nite regress of sat­is­fac­to­ry and pre­cise “whys” under­neath it, going back to the Big Bang?

Thank­ful­ly Har­ris does not actu­al­ly suf­fer from the nar­ra­tive deficit he claims; he goes right on to answer his own unan­swer­able ques­tion, reas­sur­ing us that he’s not actu­al­ly that dense, before beat­ing a hasty retreat:

I can con­scious­ly weigh the effects of cer­tain influ­ences— for instance, I recent­ly read Rory Miller’s excel­lent book Med­i­ta­tions on Vio­lence.  But why did I read this book?  I have no idea.  And why did I find it com­pelling?  [...]  Of course, I could tell a sto­ry about why I’m doing what I’m doing— which would amount to my telling you why I think such train­ing is a good idea, why I enjoy it, etc.— but the actu­al expla­na­tion for my behav­ior is hid­den from me.  And it is per­fect­ly obvi­ous that I, as the con­scious wit­ness of my expe­ri­ence, am not the deep cause of it.”  (p. 43)

Ulti­mate or “deep” caus­es aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly so rel­e­vant.  Whys them­selves have a why, which is to mod­el.  And we are mod­el-mak­ers to a fault.  We can eas­i­ly be tricked into reveal­ing how often we can make false assump­tions or ratio­nal­ize our own behav­ior, mak­ing up sto­ries that can bear lit­tle rela­tion to the empir­i­cal “truth”.  But often, that sto­ry-mak­ing capa­bil­i­ty is pow­er­ful and pre­dic­tive.  We use it con­stant­ly— in every con­ver­sa­tion, every con­sid­ered deci­sion.

Let’s take an exam­ple.  A gift­ed ana­lyst and sto­ry­teller like Dan Sav­age can read a short let­ter from one of his fans, or lis­ten to a quick phone mes­sage, and by draw­ing on his “train­ing set”— that is, his empa­thy and the pat­tern match­ing afford­ed by hun­dreds of thou­sands of such inter­ac­tions over the years— he can rapid­ly form insights that have mate­ri­al­ly helped many peo­ple: he is a mas­ter of the “why” in his domain.  Con­sid­er this recent post, cho­sen more or less at ran­dom:

I’m 19 and clos­et­ed.  I’ve been chat­ting with a guy on the Inter­net for six months and now he wants to meet.  I’m con­vinced that he’s too good for me.  Aside from looks, he’s out and old­er and I don’t know why he’d want to be with some­one like me.  My oth­er online friends— they’re the only peo­ple I’m out to— think we should meet.  I’m eff­ing scared.  I’m not going to ask you to com­pare our pics, but is there a con­crete check­list to ver­i­fy if some­one is out of your league? –Inse­cure In Inter­net­land


The good news: If you meet this boy and he’s into you, III, then you’re in his league.  That’s because each and every one of us gets to decide who plays in our own per­son­al league.  If he invites you to play, you’re in.

Now the bad news: There’s lots of scum float­ing around on the Inter­net [...] and you have to be care­ful.  While this may sim­ply be a case of your own inse­cu­ri­ties pre­vent­ing you from rec­og­niz­ing what­ev­er it is about you that this oth­er guy finds attrac­tive, some­thing more sin­is­ter could be going on.  You say you don’t know why some­one bet­ter look­ing, old­er, and more expe­ri­enced would want to meet you.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly in some cas­es it’s because younger, clos­et­ed, and inse­cure guys are eas­i­er to manip­u­late.  So this guy is either hon­est­ly into you or he’s an ass­hole look­ing to take advan­tage of your youth and inex­pe­ri­ence.  If you decide to meet him, III, meet in a pub­lic place, tell some­one where you’re going, and watch out for red flags.  Does he pres­sure you?  Does he try to get you to do things, sex­u­al or oth­er­wise, that make you uncom­fort­able?  If so, run like eff­ing hell.

There’s much to take in here.  Dan rec­og­nizes salient ele­ments in the sit­u­a­tion from sparse data.  He pat­tern match­es.  He turns a set of pri­ors into a pre­dic­tive nar­ra­tive.  He explores more than one sto­ry­line.  He con­sid­ers the roles of pos­si­bly unre­li­able nar­ra­tors— both III and his Inter­net crush.  He artic­u­lates impor­tant uncer­tain­ties (while neglect­ing unim­por­tant ones) and frames behav­ioral tests designed to resolve them.  He con­sid­ers motive, mod­els best and worst out­comes for every par­ty, aligns his own inter­ests rel­a­tive to these, and sug­gests spe­cif­ic actions appro­pri­ate to opti­miz­ing for the desired out­come while con­trol­ling for risk.  Whew!  Let me know when an AI can do all of that!  When the robots put Dan out of a job, human­i­ty will have ceased to be rel­e­vant.

All of this is implic­it in what I sup­pose we call “wis­dom”.

So how does Dan do it?  We don’t quite know the details, of course, but there’s a good deal we can posit.

Dan deals in infor­ma­tion.  His mod­el is nec­es­sar­i­ly much sim­pler than every­thing it mod­els.  He’s not run­ning phys­i­cal sim­u­la­tions in his head of all of the mol­e­cules in some­one else’s brain, hop­ing to be able to run the code faster than real­i­ty on his poor slow wet­ware.  He’s clus­ter­ing, con­dens­ing, sim­pli­fy­ing, using nar­ra­tive and metaphor, rea­son­ing, telling him­self sto­ries, using his gut, asso­ci­at­ing, anneal­ing, remem­ber­ing, gen­er­al­iz­ing, mir­ror­ing, and so on.  By using these tricks he— we— can extract mean­ing from raw expe­ri­ence over mul­ti­ple timescales, and use the mean­ing to inform our behav­ior.

Because mean­ing is inher­ent­ly a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, it nec­es­sar­i­ly admits a thick­ness of pos­si­bil­i­ty.  When we say “chair” we’re not spec­i­fy­ing all of the par­ti­cles in the chair.  Prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, that would be both impos­si­ble and point­less, because in that over­ly spe­cif­ic descrip­tion we’d have no con­cept of chair, and we couldn’t gen­er­al­ize or rea­son about chairs— in fact we could nev­er even rec­og­nize anoth­er one.  So do chairs have a basis in physics?  Yes and no.  There’s no chair-soul; every instance of a chair is indeed made out of noth­ing but par­ti­cles, and its behav­ior is entire­ly deter­mined by the par­ti­cles’ behav­ior.  On the oth­er hand the idea of a chair is some­thing quite abstract, and quite use­ful.  To call it “not real” would be sil­ly.  Yet its real­i­ty depends on a dif­fer­ent lev­el of descrip­tion— the lev­el of talk­ing and think­ing and rea­son­ing, not solv­ing for wave­func­tions.

Also, this kind of thick real­i­ty has inher­ent fuzzi­ness and sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.  Per­spec­tive mat­ters.  A ques­tion like “is this a chair?” could be legit­i­mate­ly answered not only with a “yes” or a “no”, but also “maybe”, “it sure is a fun­ny one”, or “it’s a doll­house chair, so the answer depends on why you’re ask­ing”.

(This is why for­mal log­ic is so eas­i­ly abused at the lev­el of descrip­tion where we live most of the time.  It seems that philoso­phers tend— per­haps will­ful­ly— to pre­tend to live else­where.  Maybe on their plan­et coun­ter­fac­tu­als like “if I knew the posi­tions and momen­ta of all of the par­ti­cles in your brain” some­how make sense, while oth­er coun­ter­fac­tu­als like “if I had decid­ed to make it to the gym today” or “if I were you” don’t.  Nor­mal­ly I’d be all into space trav­el, but no need to send me the brochure for this plan­et.)

Caus­es, as we under­stand them, are like chairs.  “Per­son”, “mind”, and “motive” are like chairs.  Moral­i­ty, empa­thy and agency are like chairs.  They aren’t super­nat­ur­al, they’re very much ground­ed in the phys­i­cal world, but they are con­cepts, and as such they have their own coarse-grained real­i­ty.  Use­ful con­cepts and cat­e­gories have prob­a­bil­i­ty and uncer­tain­ty quite dis­tinct from the much more lit­er­al sta­tis­ti­cal or quan­tum uncer­tain­ties of the phys­i­cal world.  With­out the uncer­tain­ty, the blur­ring, con­cepts could not be applied, gen­er­al­ized or oper­at­ed with.  The uncer­tain­ty is inher­ent.  If one is skilled at the art of con­scious­ness like Dan Sav­age, one can both exploit and mod­el that uncer­tain­ty, weav­ing inten­tion, agency, pre­dic­tion, empa­thy and pos­si­bil­i­ty into that won­der­ful­ly dense sparse­ness that defines what it means to be a mind­ful per­son.

Is the mind beyond you?”

I don’t know,” I say.  “There are times when the under­stand­ing does not come until lat­er, when it no longer mat­ters.  Oth­er times I do what I must do, not know­ing my own mind, and I am led astray.”

How can the mind be so imper­fect?” she says with a smile.

I look at my hands.  Bathed in the moon­light, they seem like stat­ues, pro­por­tioned to no pur­pose.

It may well be imper­fect,” I say, “but it leaves traces.  And we can fol­low those traces, like foot­steps in the snow.”

Where do they lead?”

To one­self,” I answer.  “That’s what the mind is.  With­out the mind, noth­ing leads any­where.”

I look up.  The win­ter moon is bril­liant, over the Town, above the Wall.

Not one thing is your fault,” I com­fort her.

Hard-Boiled Won­der­land and the End of the World


This entry was posted in books, thoughts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.