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Tastes of Freedom • Animal Autonomy Arguments • In The Light of History • Absurd Disagreements? • Godly Causes and Effects • Killer Logic

Tastes of Freedom

Dear Editor: In the Editorial in Issue 112, you say that “It is entirely consistent to say that we do choose, [even if] God knows what we’re going to choose” (and presumably if we were to have chosen differently, He would have known that too). You say that this question is ‘utterly different’ from the scientific question of free will. I’m not so sure. Substitute ‘Laws of Nature’ for ‘God’: “It is entirely consistent to say that we do choose, but the Laws of Nature can explain what we choose.” But are we free if the Laws of Nature can explain everything we do?

Note that I have used the word ‘explain’ rather than ‘determine’. I suspect that quantum indeterminacy allows explanations of our choices consistent with scientific laws. I’m suggesting that in our brains quantum effects may not be entirely random. I mean, although observation yields random results, choice may produce non-random quantum effects that, taken together, explain the brain state correlated with a choice. Perhaps this is what you had in mind when you stated “I personally think that the power of will operates through our choices being indirect observations of our brain states in a quantum manner.”

Ian Lang, London

Dear Editor: Whether or not we have free will is the most important question in philosophy. If we do, then philosophers can continue to devise meaningful new philosophies. If we don’t, then their only useful role can be to explain why we can’t. So it is hard to think of any question of greater consequence. Thus it was very welcome to see the last theme of Philosophy Now devoted to this topic.

Readers may be interested in some recent, and controversial, work on this topic by the well-known mathematician (and prankster) John Conway. He has argued – and supplied mathematical proof based on a simple set of axioms – that the absence of ‘hidden variables’ in the generally-accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics is related to an absence of similar considerations that would undermine free will. Conway claims that the exercise of free will by an experimenter is a necessary condition for the success of experiments showing particle indeterminacy. His work is described in Siobhan Roberts’ entertaining book Genius at Play (2015).

Conway makes no claim to have proved that we have free will, and his result deals only with a vastly simplified situation, and, if accepted, would be no more than a straw in the wind. But, for those hoping for reasons to believe in free will, it shows that the wind could be blowing in the right direction. Any link between quantum indeterminacy and free will is, at the least, of very great interest.

Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory, kept a horseshoe hanging over the front door of his house in the country. A visiting scientist taunted him for this overt endorsement of superstition. Bohr retorted that it worked whether you believed in it or not. The concept of free will is a horseshoe hanging over the door of the philosophical academy. Long may it remain there.

Alistair MacFarlane, Barmouth, North Wales

Dear Editor: In response to PN’s five essays on Free Will (Issue 112), I would like to highlight some key points that appear to have been overlooked. To wit, your mind/brain cannot be manipulating you the whole time if (as seems to be the case) you ‘are’ your mind/brain; human beings are not robots made of meat, slavishly following their programming; the suggestion that both determinism and indeterminism can disprove free will is a ‘Heads I win and tails you lose’ argument; and the self cannot be tricked into falling for the "illusion" of free will if (as alleged) the self does not exist. Denial of free will makes even less sense if we reflect that it can be lost (drugs, alcohol), taken (hypnotism) and even abdicated (turning all decisions over to coin flips). We may also wish to compare dreams in which we have no free will (most of them) with lucid dreams in which we take control. And whilst we cannot wind back time to see if we could have chosen differently, we do all have that experience in the moment of decision and so have no more reason to dismiss this as an ‘illusion’ than we would have to dismiss all conscious thoughts and experiences as illusory.

Keith Gilmour, Glasgow

Dear Editor: I’m grateful to Steve Taylor for his ‘Reclaiming Freedom’ in Issue 112. He reminds us of various explanations offered over recent decades to account for the nature of our being, from behaviourist through to Freudian, existentialist, and humanistic psychology, then on to sociology and linguistic theory, gene theory and neuroscience. Some of these explanations can be seen to support the idea of our autonomy and some to undermine it, if not reject its existence altogether. It is especially with the latter that Taylor is concerned. I would like to add that such explanations themselves deeply affect the way we think about ourselves, especially if they become persuasive, for then we may become too confident in them and conclude that that’s how we must be. Our growing sophistication in research methods and their related tools, for instance increasingly high resolution digital imaging, can carry with it a spurious verisimilitude that makes us think that we are looking directly at reality as it really is, or ourselves as we really are. Instead, we are looking at representations of reality, with their attendant mechanistic emphases. It may be tempting to think that the most recent explanations (currently gene theory and neuroscience) have it right and this is how it is; but over the decades the pattern seems to be that as soon as we think we have the ‘right’ explanation, another more persuasive one follows. It needs emphasizing: all are but explanations of reality. If we conflate the map with the territory, we muddle ourselves and impose unwarranted limitations upon our autonomy and freedom. As neuroscientist Gerald Edelman pointed out in Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992), “the conscious life [that science] describes will always remain richer than its description” (p.209).

Colin Brookes, Leicestershire

Dear Editor: Ching-Hung Woo’s article ‘Free Will is an Illusion but Freedom Isn’t’ and Natasha Gilbert’s ‘The New Argument about Freedom’ in Issue 112 both show the impossibility of finding the reality of our freedom in the deterministic laws of physics. Our will is indeed determined, but not by abstract physical laws – by our desire to enjoy a good life and death, and freedom lies in our ability to choose actions most likely to achieve this goal. The delusion is thinking that the soulless abstractions of physics are more real than the passionate wilful beings who created them. Physics is a powerful tool. It is, however, a purely theoretical system derived from abstractions based on observations. This process of abstraction means the wilful passions of its creators are removed. Thus physics has nothing to say on the issue of its creators’ freedoms or the moral consequences of their actions. I think this simple conclusion provides another example of physicalism’s total failure to explain the reality of our being.

Steve Brewer, St Ives, Cornwall

Dear Editor: I have to say that I was underwhelmed by your free will issue. Five articles on the subject, three of them arguing that the free will we seem so obviously to have is all or mostly illusion. Singleton’s article is good on akrasia, but says little about its bearing on free will. One paper (Taylor), correctly noting that human achievement and personal fulfilment are dependent on the genuineness of libertarian free will is written by a psychologist!

Lack of coercion (Woo) is not enough to establish responsibility (speaking metaphysically and not legally). ‘Coercion’ means nothing if it doesn’t restrict some pre-existing freedom. If my un-coerced choice was determined at the Big Bang then I cannot be responsible for it now anyway! Determinism is prior-coercion!

Gilbert relies much on Galen Strawson, but Strawson was just plain wrong: libertarian freedom does not require that every influence on a choice (Gilbert’s values, principles, and reasons) was freely elected by the subject in the past. Only a single aspect of the choosing need be open (in the present) for a choice to be freely willed.

Raymond Tallis gets in on the act as well, though he points out, correctly, that all of the proposed solutions are problematic. The fundamental problem is that if physics is causally closed and all there is is physics, then free will is impossible (and for that matter so is consciousness). That flatly contradicts our experience, but no amount of fiddling will restore genuine metaphysical responsibility. If on the other hand free will is genuine, then either physics is not causally closed as we believe it to be, or there is something else in the universe capable of adding freedom, being an uncaused cause in the physical that isn’t itself physical! Philosophers cannot have it both ways.

Matthew Rapaport, California

Dear Editor: I much appreciated the seasonal reference in Professor Kamber’s article on Ebenezer Scrooge and his dire destiny in the absence of changing it in PN 111. I was however left uncertain as to how Scrooge may avoid his doom. On the one hand, Professor Kamber says – as did Gilbert Ryle many years ago – that choices made in a truly random way are not an attractive proposition: we would think that they were the product of madness. He also rightly says that determinism implies we have no meaningful way of saying that we could have decided otherwise. In an attempt to get around this, Kamber points to the fact that we cannot actually prove that our actions are completely determined. But we are still missing the necessary third way, of describing how our decisions can meaningfully be described as free. Kamber himself suggests that our ‘will’ is engaged when, as one of the links in a deterministic chain, we cause the next event to happen. He then says that the ‘free’ part is because there may have been an undetermined event at some time before we played our part in the drama. Left at that, I don’t find this idea of free will convincing.

However, I think that we can in fact combine determinism and randomness to give us the third way we need. Professor Kamber asserts that random decisions would be “more like an uncontrolled spasm than a voluntary choice” and in his essay ‘Of Clouds and Clocks’, Karl Popper refers to random brain events as producing what he disparagingly calls ‘snap decisions’. But those are wholly unwarranted evaluations. Random events at the atomic level in the brain need not emerge as fully-formed decisions: they could present themselves in a variety of ways – as ideas, doubts, desires, connections, or insights – in other words, as precursors to decisions. And because our thoughts, however they arise, are ultimately the subject of our (relatively) rational checking processes, then even randomly generated thoughts need be no more dangerous to our sanity than a suggestion randomly read in a book or arising from a discussion with a friend; and they could be just as productive of rational change. This may be a significant way of making us look at things differently. And we can go one step further: what if some random event deep in Scrooge’s cortex ultimately set off a series of hallucinations which, in turn, made him reflect on whether he wanted to continue on his miserly path? His decision to ‘mend his ways’ would be both rational and unpredictable.

Do we need to ask for anything more as a description of how free will may work? Is that not the missing third way?

Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France

Animal Autonomy Arguments

Dear Editor: I’m sure it was just coincidence that Shawn Thompson’s article about the pursuit of rights for chimpanzees was in the Humour edition of Philosophy Now (111); but the arguments for chimps to be legally persons and so the subject of Habeas Corpus seem to me, as a lawyer, to be, shall we say, a bit thin.

The chimpanzees’ self-appointed legal representative, Mr Wise, first argues that the definition of a legal person has changed over the years: “At different times in Western Culture, certain classes of humans – such as women, children, slaves or natives – were not legally full persons… in contemporary law, corporations have the status of ‘person’ even though they’re not intelligent beings like apes…” This is a non-argument. Slaves were conveniently regarded as less than human precisely in order to deny them the rights common to human beings. Women in Britain did not have the same voting rights as men until 1928, but no British court suggested that women were therefore not ‘full persons’ and hence unable to rely on Habeas Corpus. All we see from these examples are classes of humans finally being recognised as members of the same species, and so entitled to the same treatment under the law as all other humans. And ‘corporations’ are simply a legal fiction created by Statute to give limited liability to the very real ‘persons’ running or putting their money into them. So then, that’s hardly an argument for the Courts, independently of the Legislature, to decide to confer personhood on other great apes.

Wise’s wider argument is that Habeas Corpus should be used to protect the autonomy of all “autonomous and self-determining beings.” In his opinion apes have these qualities and are sufficiently like us to warrant the protection we give ourselves. As highlighted in the same article, some specialists in chimpanzee behaviour disagree. With our fellow human beings we are at least members of the same species, and that makes it very difficult to say that a right to liberty for one should not be the same for everyone else. But apes? Clearly the Courts could decide to cross the line based on the divided opinions of experts, but this would be a major shift in jurisprudence. Judges mostly leave major changes in the law to the Legislature, that is, the democratic will of the people, rather than taking decisions about obviously contentious propositions into their own hands. I suggest that that is the right course here, too.

Thomas Jeffreys, Warwickshire

Dear Editor: I have been a volunteer with the Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project off of Los Angeles for thirty years, and often witness harassment of whales by boaters, kayakers, and news agencies out to get a good picture. The problem here is not autonomy, but respect. Just last spring, I witnessed three boats harass a mother humpback whale and her calf for three hours. In these situations, the whales often dive and move to another location nearby; but all the boaters have to do is wait for the whale to resurface, and then they go over and start the harassment all over again. Calling NOAA and other agencies has little effect regarding this kind of ‘on the spot’ harassment. This fact only reemphasizes the importance of respect. Being autonomous is one thing, but how one uses that autonomy to engage in harassment or to remove oneself from harassment, is another. With such an uphill battle for the legal treatment of animals as Wise is encountering, I can tell you from hands-on experience that the first step is respect. Without respect, no one will listen. Such is proven by women getting equal rights to men but still earning lesser pay; and black people gaining their civil rights but still suffering the majority of arrests. Respect is key. Without respect, equal civil rights may be legal, but not respected.

Corine Sutherland, Los Angeles

In The Light of History

Royal Society of Chemistry
Detail of Lawrence Lee’s design for the Royal Society of Chemistry

Dear Editor: Your readers may like to know that the picture of William of Occam that illustrates your article on him in Issue 111 is taken from a stained glass window in the parish church at Ockham which was designed and made by my father, Lawrence Lee, in 1985. I visited this church in 2010 with my friend Paula Bailey, who took the photographs, which now seem to pop up all over the place whenever William of Occam is mentioned!

Like many artists, my father had a philosophical turn of mind. After all, art is another way of exploring the mysteries of existence. Of course, most of his windows explore that aspect of philosophy which is defined as ‘theology’, but there are plenty of examples of wider themes. Many of his windows depict earth, air, water and fire, the ancient foundation of scientific knowledge which still holds good today. He also followed Plato and Kepler in believing geometry to be the governing factor of life, and this is evident in his magnificent ‘abstract’ windows in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s building in Burlington House, Piccadilly. He made another window concerning someone of potential interest to your readers. In St Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury, is his memorial window to Thomas More, the author of Utopia (1516), who is shown surrounded by his family and friends, and events of his life.

Stephen Lee

Absurd Disagreements?

Dear Editor: I’m pleased that my article ‘Dancing with Absurdity’ in Issue 110 stimulated discussion. I appreciate the many thoughtful comments and respond to them below.

1. Russell Berg wrote that when I park my car and later return to it I expect to see it rather than a pumpkin. So, contrary to what I say, I do assess probabilities.

In the opening paragraphs of the article I acknowledge the disjunction between my belief in radical skepticism and the way I conduct my daily life. But my expectations do not rebut radical skepticism.

2. Jon Cape disagrees with my assertion that without some certainty to rest on, probability cannot be meaningfully assessed. Probabilities can be figured mathematically, as when we assess the likelihood that a coin will turn up heads ten times in a row. But that requires at a minimum that we be certain of the laws of probability; certain that the coin is not smudged or otherwise biased to one side; and certain that no chicanery is involved. Or we can assess probabilities by evaluating our own experiences. As Cape wrote, “If I run for a bus, I improve the probability that I will catch it…”

Not necessarily. You’d have to be certain that the ground wasn’t very slippery, that the bus driver wasn’t having fun with you, that a hungry tiger wasn’t lying in wait for the runner, and so forth. Such examples may be dismissed as silly, but we have no way of knowing how likely they are. Someone somewhere is surprised almost daily to find out that their lovable friend and neighbor is a serial killer or spy or terrorist or…

3. John Comer wrote that, though individuals cannot be certain of anything, knowledge is a collective endeavor.

Maybe so, but the collective might be wrong. At one time people collectively believed that the Earth was flat and that it was the center of the universe.

4. D.N. Dimmitt argued that an argument that leads to an absurd or unreasonable conclusion is fallacious.

It would be a serious impediment to progress if an apparently valid argument is rejected only because the conclusion makes people uncomfortable. If an argument is fallacious, find the fallacy. The history of science is full of seemingly absurd conclusions that turned out to be correct.

5. Tracey Braverman argued that, if it is impossible to know anything, then I have no right to claim that radical skepticism is true. And, since I claim that reasoning is an unreliable tool, it is hypocritical of me to use reasoning to try to prove my case.

It is not self-contradictory to say that we can know nothing other than that we can know nothing. And, if there are no fallacies in my reasoning, then either radical skepticism is correct or we must reject reasoning as a way to the truth. Either of those conclusions requires a profound change in worldview, at least for most people including myself. That’s scary, because I’m convinced that there are no fallacies in my reasoning.

Fred Leavitt, Oakland, CA, fredleavitt.wordpress.com

Godly Causes and Effects

Dear Editor: Roger Jennings argues (Letters, Issue 112) that the word ‘God’ is conceptually incoherent. He seems to be saying that the concept itself cannot be made coherent. Yet there seems no obvious sense in which he can be correct. Even taking a minimal definition of God – say, something like ‘First Cause’ – the concept is very coherent: as coherent, in fact, as the concept of a causal chain, which everyone will recognize as quite an ordinary scientific one. To fill out the Theistic claim to say ‘the First Cause is intelligent’ would create no more difficulty, since ‘intelligent’ is also a very commonly-used adjective, that a great many of us find quite coherent, especially when we use it in reference to other humans.

Dr S. Anderson, London, Ontario

Dear Editor: Audrey Borowski’s article ‘Al Qaeda and ISIS’ in Issue 111 presents the reader with a dilemma. Whilst some might sympathise with the complaints about Western “hypocrisy and double standards” in Osama Bin Laden’s Messages to the World or perhaps even with ISIS’s relentless efforts to usher in an anticipated apocalypse, the sceptical observer also sees an authoritarian God demanding obedience at any cost, and requiring the committing of atrocities in his name. The adoption of any fundamentalist belief – a belief based on unchallengeable authority – absolves followers from personal responsibility. Whatever misgivings one may have about the theological suppositions of Christianity, the very idea that God is love, and that all men are equal in his sight, presents a contrasting theistic argument to unquestioning fanaticism. With terror threats unpredictable and indiscriminate, and carried out by individuals or cells rather than armies, retaliation can too easily prove indiscriminate too. Western humanism is based on a broad respect for life in all its diversity, its fragility and its uniqueness, and overcoming the brutal darkness of terrorism may ultimately depend on the communal sharing of such a vision; a revaluation of belief in the promotion of individual achievement and purpose for the benefit of all, and exposure of indoctrination as a form of abuse.

John Greenbank, Mosterton

Killer Logic

Dear Editor: I was perplexed by Robert Newman’s unsatisfying critique of autonomous killing machines (‘Can Robots Be Ethical?’, Issue 110). The origin of my complaint is his final argument, that humans can assess factors machines can’t. I find it to be quite the opposite. Humans can calculate, of course; but not very well. Where we excel, at least compared to machines, is in making and then justifying under-determined decisions: when the information we have and the logic we follow are insufficient to clearly identify the best course of action, we can still act. We rule out the preposterous, the outlandish, and the impossible in order to arbitrarily pick one among the remaining possibilities. We don’t ‘fly in the face of logic’ here; our logics are simply insufficient. Then – and this could be the greatest of human geniuses – we justify ourselves using an elaborate poetry of reasons that make our action seem to be the one and only possible choice, and usually a desirable one. (We often call our ability to act in spite of uncertainty, ‘judgement’.) Again, this isn’t to say that we can never calculate a best course of action, only that when we can’t we still act, and then adorn ourselves with reasons. The whole point of a computer, by contrast, is to avoid arbitrary picking. While we need to rationalize because we’re so bad at following logics, computers are learning to follow logics so quickly there’s no point in teaching them to rationalize. In short, if we still need judgement, then we should let humans do what they do best.

While Newman’s examples suggest that empathy helps us understand others in some special way, we would do well to remember three things. Firstly, the literature of social psychology amply demonstrates how poorly we empathize with those we see as different – a problem computers are unlikely to face. Secondly, empathy amounts to putting ourselves in others’ shoes – that is, understanding the logic they followed. Thirdly, empathy is perhaps the primary reason we don’t think critically about the bullshit we and others use to make our logics palatable. Obviously, computers are still far from understanding most of our logics; but to me at least, teaching them to think like us looks like teaching them empathy. Ideally, however, coding empathy won’t also require coding credulity.

The problem is our faith in our judgement. It buttresses our confidence in ourselves when we play sovereign, legislator, judge, and executive – the roles that regularly require under-determined, ‘executive’ decisions. We who make important decisions must be endowed with nigh divine judgement, or so the story goes… We don’t, in fact, need judgement to the extent we play these roles, however, because in them we just make the rules and precedents. The capacity to judge with which the rest of us are endowed then amounts to the ability to follow the arbitrary decrees of authority. In other words, falling for rationalizations can only help our leaders’ efforts to develop autonomous killing machines and pretexts for their use. Paradoxically, the only hope of clearing the air of such nonsense might be nuanced, intricate, and digital logics that reduce uncertainty to the point where rationalization becomes obsolete.

Peter Braun, Ottawa, Ontario

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