This post revisits arguments related to free will and complexity theory. I’ve recently been focused on newer arguments for self-determinism (a compatibilist form of free will) but an interview of Daniel Dennett, by the Center for Inquiry, has prompted me to revisit “emergent properties”. If you’re not familiar with my explanation for self-determinism, please consult Hard Determinism: A False Dichotomy.
The basic premise of hard determinism is a false dichotomy. It asserts that you can’t have causality and make choices too. Too many hard determinists are stuck on this false dichotomy and won’t acknowledge that it’s not either/or. They won’t acknowledge that there are alternative possibilities. Self-determinism is one such alternative in which human intelligence, via reciprocal causation, interacts with with, instead of merely reacts to, causality.
Daniel Dennett, in an interview for the Center For Inquiry, uses an argument derived from complexity theory. Complexity theory, by the way, is better suited to mind/brain questions than the reductionist approaches favored by hard determinists. For your convenience, I’m including this link to an .MP3 file containing just the section of the interview dealing with free will. The following block quote comes from near the end of the .MP3 file . . .
Most people are quite happy with the idea that things can be colored even though their finest parts aren’t colored. Atoms aren’t colored but things can be red, blue and green — they can really be red, blue and green — it’s not just an illusion that they’re red, blue and green even though the atoms that they’re made of are not any color at all. Things can be alive, like a cell, even though they’re made of parts that aren’t alive. In fact, if it doesn’t work out that way, we’re in deep trouble. So you can make something living out of parts that are not living. You can make something colored out of parts that aren’t colored. You can make something conscious out of parts that are not conscious. Neurons aren’t conscious . . . [and] you can make something free out of parts that aren’t free.
Nature is riddled with emergent properties: especially where there is life. Life itself is an emergent property of organic molecules. Self-aware consciousness, intelligence and, yes, self-determinism, are emergent properties of mental feedback (which is, itself, an emergent property of the brain). Because the emergent property of mental feedback must exist before the emergent properties of (1) self-aware consciousness, (2) intelligence and (3) self-determinism can exist, these 3 higher-level phenomena are at least twice abstracted from the brain. They are emergent properties of an emergent property (mental feedback). You can also take the view that human intelligence includes self-aware consciousness and self-determinism but you’d still have a phenomenon twice abstracted from the brain: an emergent property from an emergent property. This feedback loop, in which we think about what we think, is a form of reciprocal causation and, I suspect, is where choice arises from. The theory of reciprocal determinism, developed by renowned psychologist, Albert Bandura, emphasizes the interdependence of person and environment. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it . . .
Reciprocal determinism is the idea that behavior is controlled or determined by the individual, through cognitive processes, and by the environment, through external social stimulus events. The basis of reciprocal determinism should transform individual behavior by allowing subjective thought processes transparency when contrasted with cognitive, environmental, and external social stimulus events.
Actions do not go one way or the other, as it is affected by repercussions, meaning one’s behavior is complicated and can’t be thought of as individual and environmental means. Behavior consist of environmental and individual parts that interlink together to function.
. . . I believe, as I’ve already stated here and elsewhere, that self-aware and time-aware mental feedback is transformative: that’s where the complementary properties of causality (predictability and repeatability) and human intelligence interact — where multiple feedback streams between person and environment merge to produce a homogeneous perception of reality. Reciprocal causation results from the merger of these feedback streams and, in the mix, cause and effect lose their meaning. In physics, causality is linear because it deals with inanimate objects: particles, atoms, molecules, meteors, planets and stars. But animate beings are much more complex than inanimate objects. Thanks to motility, even the simplest lifeforms have a different mode of response to causality. Intelligent human beings possess the most advanced mode of response to causality because we’re evolved to understand and anticipate it and plan for the future accordingly. Whereas inanimate objects react to causality in the moment, intelligent human beings interact — at many levels — with causality in a way that is self-aware and time-aware. We instantly and routinely incorporate the past (experience), present (multiple feedback streams) and future (anticipation) into our analysis of events in order to arrive at decisions. Reciprocal causation is a nonlinear process distinguishing brains from rocks. At the root of the objections from hard determinists is a false dichotomy based on the assumption that the linear nature of causality in the inanimate realm applies equally to the animate beings. It does not!
Human intelligence evolved to interact with causality: it recognizes and anticipates causality. If you consider the properties of causality and of human intelligence, you’ll see how they’re complementary. Causality, in the inanimate world around us, is highly predictable because it unfolds with time and produces repeatable results. It is persistent and consistent: unidirectional and repeatable. Science depends on this fact to formalize empirical observations and experiments. People depend on this fact to interact with the world around them. We influence the external environment as the external environment influences us. Cause and effect, in certain ways, become indistinguishable. This is interaction, not reaction. Human intelligence produces an entirely different mode of response to causality: interaction. Contrast this to the strictly reactive mode of response for inanimate objects.
Free will, as most of us think of it, doesn’t exist. Our intelligent interaction with causality produces a more subtle, nuanced, phenomenon: self-determinism. I think of it, more or less, as “direction” or “purpose”. Because of feedback, we can (with varying degrees of efficacy) distinguish between a good idea and a bad idea or something in between and pursue the one we want. These are options — yes, options dictated by causality (reciprocal causation) but options nonetheless — we choose as self-aware, intelligent, human beings. The brain deliberates. That what it does. It couldn’t without feedback. If you insist on a reductionist philosophy that equates brains to rocks, you will never acknowledge the distinctly different modes of response to causality exhibited by inanimate objects versus animate beings. With reciprocal causation, cause can become effect and vice versa: cause and effect lose their meaning and reaction becomes interaction.
We suspect that abiogenesis somehow transformed inanimate matter into living cells. We haven’t proved it yet. But it’s the best theory we have and most of us are willing to accept it because we know life must have started somehow.
Of course . . . you could say “God did it” and leave it at that. But that’s a cop-out.
In the same way, we know that we are self-aware, time-aware, intelligent human beings who bring purpose and direction to a universe that otherwise has none. Self-determinism provides a theory that uses what we all know to be true to explain how this direction and purpose is compatible with causality. By interacting with causality, human intelligence blurs the difference between cause and effect in a way not possible with inanimate objects.
Of course . . . you could say “The Big Bang did it” and leave it at that. But that’s a cop-out. You might as well say “May the force be with you.”
The philosophical challenge will remain unsolved if we keep trying to explain the impossible notion of the ill-named “free will”. Instead, turn your attention to what we know and can actually point to as real. The true challenge, in light of causality and reality, is to explain the goal-seeking direction and purpose of human endeavor . . . NOT to fatalistically deny it.
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