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Rationality + Consciousness = Free Will by David Hodgson

Brian D. Earp finds that Rationality + Consciousness = Free Will doesn’t add up.

“By this it appears how necessary it is for any man that aspires to true Knowledge, to examine the Definitions of former Authors; and either to correct them, where they are negligently set down; or to make them himselfe.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Do we have free will or don’t we? Or do we have it in degrees? Is free will compatible with determinism or is it not? What about indeterminism? Following the advice of Hobbes, the first step in any attempt to answer such questions should be to pose another set of questions: What do you mean by ‘free’? By ‘have’ and ‘will’? What is your notion of ‘compatible’? How do you define ‘determinism’? And so on through the list of terms.

David Hodgson is not the first to explore this thicket, but in this book he works less to “examine the Definitions of former Authors” than to “make them himselfe.” Though he does give some broad gestures at foundational texts on free will in the opening chapters of this work, and while he sprinkles references to contemporaries throughout, Hodgson spends the bulk of his time developing his own distinctive account.

Let us try to make some sense, then, of what that account is saying.

What Free Will Is, Then

Starting with just the notion of ‘free will’ – which Hodgson thinks we do have; that’s the whole point of his tome – and setting aside for now the rest, we can see that Hodgson’s definition is laid out in the simple equation he uses for a book title: Rationality + Consciousness = Free Will.

Alright then, on Hodgson’s theory, free will is ‘rationality plus consciousness’. So in good Hobbesean form, we ask, What does he mean by ‘rationality’? and, What does he mean by ‘consciousness’? (Let’s assume that we know what ‘plus’ means well enough for now.)

First, rationality. Somewhat problematically, Hodgson does not quite spell out just what is meant by this term. That is, he doesn’t say what, for the purposes of his argument, rationality is, although he does say a number of things about rationality as he understands it – including that it “extends” to “all those capabilities that contribute to reasonable human decision-making” (p.26). The most important such capability in terms of the work it does for Hodgson’s free will thesis is something he calls “instinctive informal rationality” – by which he means our ability to engage in “plausible reasoning”. Plausible reasoning, too, is not really defined; but it appears to be a type of reasoning “in which” (a troublingly vague connector) “premises or data do not entail conclusions by virtue of applicable rules but rather support them as a matter of reasonable albeit fallible judgment” (p.55). Hodgson contends that we use reasoning of this ‘reasonable albeit fallible’ variety all the time: it’s how we judge whether a painting is good, for example. That is not an assessment that can be considered the mechanical output of formal logic operating on the available data (which in this case would be the painting, or various features of the painting), but one that is arrived at by us human beings some way, some how nevertheless. The crux of Hodgson’s argument for equating free will with rationality plus consciousness is that in order to cross the bridge from (on the one side) inconclusive evidence and other prior factors relevant to a given decision-making process, to (on the other side) an actual decision based upon those factors, we need, at least on some occasions, a little help from our conscious experience. What exactly the nature of this help is is a little hard to make out, but we’ll get to that concern in a moment.

As with rationality, ‘consciousness’ is also not strictly defined; but an awful lot of things are said about it. Its main feature in terms of the work it does for Hodgson’s argument is that it is something experienced by a subject in such a way that the subject is able to ‘grasp’ various features of the experienced world ‘all-at-once’ – that is, in what is often called a gestalt fashion. This is important because – Hodgson would have us believe – a conscious experience consisting of or containing a “feature-rich gestalt” is able to (1) influence the judgments or decisions made by the subject, and (2) do so in a way that is neither determined by any rule or law of any kind, nor by any random or indeterminate process. Hence, gestalt conscious experiences “make a positive contribution to our decision-making” (p.72), but are not wholly constrained by any fact or set of facts, nor by any process or series of processes operating prior to the moment of gestalt contribution. And that’s what free will is: the non-obligatory contribution of gestalt consciousness to an episode of plausible reasoning.

Responses Without Rules

Many questions arise. The biggest one, perhaps, is: What’s so special about a “feature-rich gestalt” that it can be said not to “engage” with any “applicable laws or rules” (p.81), but not be random?

Hodgson asks us to consider the melody of George Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’. He points out that “the way that this particular melody sounds” is, on a subject’s first encounter with it, a unique and unprecedented subjective experience (p.82). But since laws or rules can only govern ‘types’ (sets) of occurrences, they can have no force over such unique experiences as hearing a bit of a song for the first time. Hence a gestalt conscious response to this experience gives the subject a piece of information that’s neither determined by nor available to any system or set of laws, whilst opening the door for an “apposite response” (p.83) by the subject in the form of a judgment or decision (in this case, an aesthetic one).

More questions arise. What is an “apposite response”? ‘Apposite’ means something like ‘suitable’ or ‘appropriate’; but surely there is a range of suitable instant judgments one could make on the basis of an encounter with a Gershwin tune? Since it is Gershwin we’re talking about, most (civilized) listeners would judge it to be pleasing. But what then exactly is the contribution of the gestalt judgment of the melody to the listener’s decision-making process that results in their explicit conclusion that ‘The Man I Love’ is indeed lovely, and a composition fit to be praised?

Hodgson is decent enough to show his cards here: he really can’t say. He talks poetically about Picasso and Wagner for a bit (aesthetic judgments seem to be paradigmatic of the “consciously-influenced” sort), but winds up admitting that his “account of how conscious processes contribute to reasonable decision-making is far from complete” (p.111). Very far, one regrets to have to add. And so it is that, after more than a hundred pages of sometimes excruciating metaphysical step-by-stepping, the reader is left with little more than a sort of ‘free-will-of-the-gaps’. One is reminded of a famous New Yorker cartoon by Sidney Harris. A young mathematician has written an equation on a board whose beginning and end are staggeringly complex. The middle part, however, reads simply, “Then a miracle occurs.” Surveying the work, an older mathematician remarks, “I think you need to be more explicit in step two.”

Responsibility & Justice

But we’re only halfway through the book. What could be going on in the rest of it?

It would prudent here, actually, to skip to the end of Hodgson’s argument, because by the time one gets to it, one begins to expect that it should have been given at the beginning, as a sort of premise.

This will take a moment to explain. But first, some background.

According to the biography on the back flap, Hodgson recently retired as a Judge of Appeal of the New South Wales Supreme Court. In that capacity, he was daily faced with the task of meting out punishment to other human beings on the basis of actions that ran afoul of legal (and presumably moral) norms. But in order to punish someone justly, it must be the case that the action she took was somehow ‘up to her’; that is to say, was in some meaningful way freely chosen by her. If, by contrast, the action were completely determined by factors outside her control, it would seem that punishment – retributive punishment, at least – would be grossly unfair, or even absurd.

There are a number of ways to deal with this issue. For people who deny free will (the determinists), retributive punishment must either be abolished because it is unfair and/or absurd; or despite not being ‘deserved’ in any metaphysical sense it must be considered a regrettable but necessary instrument used to produce good overall outcomes for society. But this is an outcome Hodgson rejects. Here I think he makes his most compelling argument. Retributive justice, he writes, is “a foundation of human rights”:

“In short I say that if we do not punish people because they are guilty, there is less reason to refrain from punishing people if and because they are innocent. If it is regarded as acceptable that government officials treat citizens in any such manner as appears to be most [socially] beneficial, irrespective of whether persons so treated have done anything to deserve that treatment, the way is left open for practices like putting political dissidents into prisons or mental asylums. Respect for human rights requires that, with limited exceptions, governments refrain from interfering with the freedom of citizens unless the citizens have acted in breach of a publicly stated law, in circumstances where they are responsible for the breach and can fairly be regarded as deserving punishment.”

(These words actually come from the book’s Introduction, but as a preview of his argument’s conclusion, not as the first steps in a long chain of reasoning. They just happen to constitute the best précis of the relevant ideas.)

For reasons similar to these, some free will deniers have gone so far as to say that the idea of (what they see as the illusion of) free will must be kept up and promulgated in order for society to function. But chicanery does not suit Hodgson: he is plainly an honourable man. Accordingly, for him, human beings must be free in some sense adequate to ground personal responsibility, and it becomes the work of his book to demonstrate how.

gestalt illusion
Judge this! A gestalt illusion of old age

Premises & Conclusions

Unfortunately, the premises Hodgson starts with simply do not lead to the conclusion he would like us to draw. He opens with a chapter on foundational beliefs, and engages in a Descartes-like ‘first meditation’. In this he asks whether he can be sure that he exists, and draws a conclusion even more conservative than Descartes’ famously basic “I think, therefore I am.” Hodgson concludes only that thinking occurs, and not even that there is a thinker to do it. But just as one finds with Descartes on his journey to prove the existence of God and a range of other goodies, it soon becomes clear that Hodgson actually assumes all sorts of things: that meaningful language exists; that it exists in a community of users; that these users are humans (of which Hodgson himself is one); that humans are a species of animal life; and so on. As laborious as the exercise is, very few of these ‘hard won’ intermediary propositions are actually demonstrated by plain logical reasoning from previous steps. Many just pop in, one after another – until, soon enough, we find ourselves in a world with conscious, rational human subjects, an external environment, the theory of evolution, and all manner of wonderful things that Hodgson might just as well have taken for granted in his quest to establish freedom of the will.

In any case, these are not the real premises on which Hodgson’s conclusion about free will seems to be based. Rather, as I suggested before, the starting point for Hodgson is his belief that punishment is necessary, and that it must be rooted in genuine desert. Ergo (with the help of some ‘then a miracle occurs’-type reasoning) we are metaphysically free. At least that’s how the book reads to me. This is not something I can logically demonstrate using Hodgson’s text as my data; rather, it’s a judgment I make through a process of plausible reasoning.

Hodgson’s breadth of learning is apparent throughout each page of this admirable effort. From his detailed explanations of quantum puzzles, through an extended discussion of Bayes’ Theorem, to rapt operatic allusions, Rationality + Consciousness = Free Will offers much to tantalize any student of philosophy. His overall argument, however, is unlikely to sway anyone who is not already disposed to his conclusion: too many steps do not follow, and too much poetic content is too thinly robed in legalese. Nevertheless, there are a number of specific arguments that are quite convincing, and much more that is simply a pleasure to think about with the guidance of so potent a mind. Finally, Hodgson must be commended for bringing an unmistakable freshness and originality to a topic that has been hashed and rehashed for centuries without end. Whatever its shortcomings, the book is worth the reading.

© Brian D. Earp 2014

Brian D. Earp is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford.

Rationality + Consciousness = Free Will, David Hodgson. OUP USA, 2012, 288pps, $69 hb, ISBN: 9780199845309

• A different version of this review was originally published in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 20, no. 1-2.

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