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Two Thoughts on Searle at Google

December 9th, 2009 · 31 Comments

John Searle makes a game attempt to give an account—what Nozick would call a “philosophical explanation”—of how there could possibly be free will, of what it would have to look like if there were, in spite of all the familiar problems with the concept. He admits, frankly enough, that it is a loose and sketchy account, and that there is not much good reason to prefer it to the view that we merely seem to have strongly contracausal powers of choice.  The one argument he does tentatively offer, though, is so manifestly bad that either he is not thinking clearly or I am not getting something important.

He proposes the argument that it is unlike evolution to confer upon us complex and extremely resource-expensive capacities that serve no function. Which is true, but has little enough to do with free will, which he appears to conflate with two other distinct properties: Consciousness and rational calculation. It is clearly resource expensive to have a brain capable of planning, making inferences, abstracting, formulating general principles, and so on. But it is not very mysterious what the evolutionary value of such capacities might be—especially in an arms race against your fellow primates once everyone has passed a certain cognitive threshold.

Now, there is an interesting evolutionary point to be made here about consciousness. You can say: Look, if the functional benefit all comes from the “plumbing,” as Searle has it—the neurons firing away to plot the best spear trajectory toward that mammoth, in strict accordance with physical laws—then you might well ask why that has to be conscious. Couldn’t the brain do all that calculating without there being something it’s like, subjectively to perceive, experience, and think about the world? And so you might think that if evolution has given us minds that are conscious on top of all this, then consciousness can’t merely be an epiphenomenon of the plumbing—it has to make a causal difference that yields some selective advantage. And here I’ll just say… we don’t know. Consciousness could well be a spandrel.  That is to say, it may just be that when you have a sufficiently complex information processing system made of the particular kind of physical stuff our brains are composed of, the processes involved will have some kind of subjective character. If conscious mental activity just is brain activity, and not some kind of strange excretion from it, however, then they have precisely the same causal properties, and it’s just a confusion to describe it as “epiphenomenal.” (Aside: Maybe “causal properties” is the wrong way to describe it. The usual picture is that event A has properties in virtue of which it causes event B—but as Hume noted, the “causes” relationship between them here is kind of a black box; all we actually see is the succession. There would be a neat sort of symmetry if consciousness were in the black box.) Whatever the case may be there, we just have no reason to think it “cost” evolution anything to add sentience as some kind of bonus feature on top of the capacities for planning, strategy, and so on. If a brainlike system with these capacities—able to merge input from many sense modalities and abstracting from them for various purposes— is necessarily conscious, for reasons we don’t fully understand, then the cost of consciousness is just the cost of the capacities. Or to put it another way: The alternative picture is that evolutionary selection pressure might have produced these very strategic zombies—like vastly more complex insects, say, all stimulus-response with nobody home— but then some mutation won out that added this further feature, consciousness, to the system, because it yielded some additional improvement. And that just doesn’t sound quite right, does it?

Whatever the case with that is, it’s the only place where there seems to me to be any kind of genuine puzzle. Because once you get through the calculating function and the conscious subjective aspect, what question is left about freedom? Maybe Searle’s thought is along the lines: It wouldn’t be terribly parsimonious for evolution to go about imbuing us with this illusion of free will—as he notes in response to a questioner, there’s a circularity to the sort of obvious stories you might try to tell about the advantage of such an illusion—so it must be that it’s authentic. But of course, the optical illusions to which we’re subject aren’t like extra little easter eggs evolution had to program in; they’re side effects of a certain kind of perceptual system that it was too costly to get rid of. And indeed, the reason you’d end up with this kind of illusion seems much more obvious than in he perceptual case. As Searle himself notes, the subjective sense of freedom is a “gappy feeling” between our premises and our decisions. But of course if you’ve got an information processing system that’s conscious, the part where it’s working to the conclusion will seem “gappy” or “open” because it hasn’t gotten there yet. To feel like the conclusion or the output of your mental process was compelled or inevitable, you’d have to be conscious of its result before the termination of the process that makes you conscious of its result. So there’s just no reason to suppose that the “gappy feeling” is something extraneous evolution had to pay some extra price to inject.

So much for that. The second thought is that, at the end of the Q&A, during which all of the questioners are clearly very smart people who are thinking carefully about what they’ve heard, a woman gets up and asks a question (the details aren’t important) about whether Searle’s own objection to compatibilism didn’t apply just as strongly to his own idea that a macro-level brain system might inherit the indeterminacy of the micro-level quantum processes that constitute it, without inheriting their randomness.  What’s interesting is that I know I instantly thought to myself: “Aha, a serious question!” And Searle instantly came back with: “That’s just a question a professional philosopher would ask!” (Perhaps because they had)  At which point the questioner, somewhat sheepishly, confessed to having studied philosophy.

The thing that interests me is that without even having thought about the question in enough detail to have a sense of whether it was really any good—before, in other words, I’d had time to recall precisely what he’d said about compatibilism and how it related to his argument about possible differences in micro- and macro-properties—there was something about the shape of the question that hinted at formal training, apparently to both of us. It wasn’t, I think, that she used any jargon or was adapting some hoary argument that would be familiar to a philosophy student.  It wasn’t the presence of anything you really learn explicitly at all; it was just a very philosopher-y strategy of probing the view for flaws.

The thing is, I don’t know that it was really a better question substantively than some of the others that were posed. There was just something about the thought pattern it betrayed that said “member of the club.” As a sort of heuristic, that’s probably not a bad predictor of whether the question will turn out to be a smart one, but it’s clearly not itself a feature that makes the question smart. (That depends on how easy the reply turns out to be in the instance: A “dumb question” is one you really should’ve been able to answer for yourself with a few moment’s thought. An interesting second-order signifier of intelligence: The ability to quickly search the space of potential questions for the ones that require significant processing. Presumably that means discarding questions whose answers aren’t immediately obvious, but for which an answer-generating set of strategies is.)   It makes me wonder how often we collapse these levels—that is, confuse “That was a smart question” with “That question was produced by a reliable strategy for generating smart questions.”  The best questions, it seems likely, won’t actually be so immediately recognizable in this way, because they’re the tough ones that can’t be easily reached by familiar question-generation procedures.

Tags: General Philosophy



31 responses so far ↓

  • 1 RickRussellTX // Dec 9, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    “Couldn’t the brain do all that calculating without there being something it’s like, subjectively to perceive, experience, and think about the world?”

    I’m going to say no, because the whole process of killing a mammoth with a spear requires planning for multiple events through time, with branching based on probabilistic contingencies at each step. In short, problem solving.

    Packing your supplies, cutting your spearheads, planning the route, deciding what to do at each step of the route, deciding what to do in inclement weather…

    While each decision is based in part on immediate sensory perceptions of Right Now, they also must be based in part on events and decisions in the past, and on events in the future with some sort of projected estimates of probability for each future branch. Did the herd go north or south? If it went south, we can spend a day foraging for berries that will stretch us for another couple days. If it went north, we’ll have ample fresh water but no food to continue.

    All of this has to be integrated into a functioning model of the world that helps me figure out what to do Right Now. The components necessary for decision-making are cleanly divisible into things I remember, things happening now and things that could happen, all of which inform my spear throw. Even the spear throw itself requires these things — does the earth in front of the mammoth grade up or down? Will the mammoth break left or right? Did I tell Ogg to hide behind that bush, or that tree?

    When and how to throw the spear is far more complicated than a ballistic trajectory. Interestingly, this seems much different than say a deepwater angler fish. When something tickles their glowing bait organ, there is no integration of past information or forecasting of future possibilities. The strike is instinctual and probably requires no more than a couple of neurons to initiate it.

    It could be argued, I think, that this process of forecasting, observing and storing information *is consciousness*, and that “qualia” (as we imagine them) are simply artifacts of the process of anticipation, experience, and subsequent recall. Indeed, perhaps qualia are a synthesis of the many factors that make up our decisions. We say now that we made a decision because it “felt right”, but in fact, we made a decision based on a range of past observations and future predictions that our brains have since discarded. So we just sort of synthesize the highlights into a feeling.

    Perhaps it is our ability to forecast future events and make choices NOW that affect our path along these probabilistic timelines that we perceive to be free will. It’s not merely “a ‘gappy feeling’ between our premises and our decisions”, but the fact that we make choices now based on a model for future events that we have constructed, speculate as to what choices we will make in the future, speculate what the consequences of those decisions will be, and speculate even more about future choices beyond those, and… in a non-discrete continuum of constant building of alternate futures that feels an awful lot like it’s not made up of easily explicable algorithmic steps.

  • 2 southpaw // Dec 10, 2009 at 3:35 am

    Free will, like God, is one of those concepts that recedes before the explanatory power of science, but I still haven’t heard anything to suggest that the existence or non-existence of either can be firmly established.

  • 3 sam // Dec 10, 2009 at 8:03 am

    Was it Spinoza that said (something like) : “Everyone says they have free will without ever taking cognizance of the chain of circumstances over which they have absolutely no control that brings them to the point where they exercise ‘free will’ “?

  • 4 sam // Dec 10, 2009 at 8:16 am

    “I’m going to say no, because the whole process of killing a mammoth with a spear requires planning for multiple events through time, with branching based on probabilistic contingencies at each step. In short, problem solving.”

    Actually, what I think you’re describing, really, is just “planning to kill a mammoth” — actually killing something, the killing act itself, doesn’t take any planning at all.

  • 5 Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e96v4 // Dec 10, 2009 at 10:17 am

    […] Consciousness considered. […]

  • 6 Steve // Dec 10, 2009 at 10:36 am

    OK … so I guess there was some stuff that wasn’t covered in the 9 week philosophy course I took many years ago … can someone direct me to a primer on the argument that there is no free will? ’cause I just don’t get it.

    BTW the Sam/Spinoza argument doesn’t seem to wash … the argument is about free will (the ability to make a decision that is in fact independent) … not the ability to control the outcome of the situation … so the fact that events conspired to give you a poor set of choices doesn’t seem germain to whether or not you exercise free will in the choice you do make … or at least so it seems to me.

  • 7 Brian Moore // Dec 10, 2009 at 11:52 am

    “But it is not very mysterious what the evolutionary value of such capacities might be—especially in an arms race against your fellow primates once everyone has passed a certain cognitive threshold.”

    I just finished up The Red Queen, which covered exactly this topic — that we have big smart brains to compete sexually with other humans. I highly recommend it, in light of this post. If you’ve already read it, which I guess it seems increasingly likely you have, as I read this, please ignore my long-overdue recommendation.

  • 8 sam // Dec 10, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    “BTW the Sam/Spinoza argument doesn’t seem to wash … the argument is about free will (the ability to make a decision that is in fact independent) ”

    That’s just where the investigation goes off the rails. Why should we think that acting freely, “exercising free will”, requires a decision? In fact, requires any mental antecedents at all?

  • 9 Steve // Dec 10, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    OK a make that a BASIC primer.

    What is the meaning of ‘free will’ if there is not a will (mental process) ‘excercising’ it?

    What is the meaning of ‘exercising’ if it does not mean some action (or non-action) which implies a decision to act … or not.

    Or is the argument that there is no free will because there is nothing there to ‘exercise’ it?

  • 10 sam // Dec 10, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    “What is the meaning of ‘exercising’ if it does not mean some action (or non-action) which implies a decision to act … or not.”

    Well, if we go down that path, then I think we’d have to say that deciding to do something is an action, a mental action if you want. And if every action requires a decision to act, then the act of deciding requires a decision to…

    Or no?

  • 11 LP // Dec 10, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Your final paragraph is strongly reminiscent of the Kuhn view of scientific inquiry being largely an exercise in answering questions that are both interesting and answerable under the current paradigm, punctuated by periods of total upheaval, wherein new, previously unacceptable paths of questioning become the basis for the new paradigm. Thus, the most revolutionary scientists ask what seem to be foolish questions and are widely reviled, right up until their questions turn out to be the next important ones. Most scientists err on the side of favoring ‘smart but boring’ questions (i.e., questions produced using a reliable strategy for generating smart questions) over ‘dumb and/or disruptively intelligent’ ones.

  • 12 RickRussellTX // Dec 10, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    “Actually, what I think you’re describing, really, is just “planning to kill a mammoth” — actually killing something, the killing act itself, doesn’t take any planning at all.”

    Of course it does. You have to position yourself for a clear shot at the soft spots on the target, you have to lead the target’s movement, you have to make educated guesses at what the target will do when you release the weapon…

    Throwing a spear at a *static* target, with no wind, firm ground, etc. — that is, intentionally extracting all the potential complications that are unknown and undetermined — requires not much planning.

    But then the grounds crew at a track & field event would probably disagree. Removing those random elements takes a tremendous amount of planning.

  • 13 RickRussellTX // Dec 10, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    I’ll be the anti-Spinoza:

    “Everyone says their fate is beyond their control without ever taking cognizance of the chain of decisions over which they have tremendous control that brings them to the point where they curse fate.”

  • 14 sam // Dec 11, 2009 at 5:17 am

    “Of course it does. You have to position yourself for a clear shot at the soft spots on the target, you have to lead the target’s movement, you have to make educated guesses at what the target will do when you release the weapon…”

    Fortunate for Fred Clovis that he didn’t subscribe to this when he was jumped by that smilidon.

  • 15 DivisionByZero // Dec 11, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    It’s always funny to me how much baggage is brought to the topic of free will. It’s actually really simple. Until science can provide us with a scientific reason why free will is an illusion in a manner analogous to the way in which it explains why a spoon in a glass of water appears bent because of refraction we must provisionally accept that free will is real. To do otherwise would be unscientific. The supposed determinacy of physical laws offers no evidence (zero) that free will does not exist.

  • 16 DivisionByZero // Dec 11, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    I’ll add that those of you who do think that all physical laws are determinate and thus that any physical explanation of free will must be determinate should join us in the 21st century. I’m not even talking about quantum mechanics. Consider non-equilibrium thermodynamics.

  • 17 josh // Dec 11, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    It might be a good idea for everyone to agree on what we mean by free will before arguing that it does or does not exist. Is it freedom from coercion/constraint? Or freedom from causation/physics?

    Let’s say I am now deciding whether to have chicken or fish for dinner, and I choose fish. All my life’s past experiences until that point are fixed. Given that the environmental factors remain unchanged, could I choose chicken instead, if the scenario were re-played again? If yes, then what has changed that causes me to choose differently? And is my “free will” then free from that cause?

    My opinion is that I would always choose fish for dinner, given the same past experiences and the same environmental factors. There is no homunculus inside my mind that operates outside the laws of physics.

    But what about DivisionByZero’s point of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics? Every action has a cause, even if its effect cannot always be predicted in advance. The same cause ought to always produce the same effect, assuming other factors remain unchanged. If “free will” is truly random, then there should be no logic at all to our actions, and we would be creatures of chaos.

  • 18 DivisionByZero // Dec 11, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    The same cause has the same probability distribution but that does not mean that the same effect occurs every time. In fact, that’s part of the reason time is irreversible. If you were to “reverse time” from any given outcome it’s highly unlikely (though possible) that you would end up where you started given a sufficient period of time.

  • 19 DivisionByZero // Dec 12, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Also, to your point about the meaning of free will, I’m not suggesting we have some acausal, arbitrary free will. It’s certainly finite and for the most part unexercised.

  • 20 Julian Sanchez // Dec 15, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    I’ve written about this before at some length, but I think the “illusion of free will” is itself an illusion. To say that we experience the illusion of a bent spoon is to say that we have this idea of what a really bent spoon looks like, and that under certain conditions our perception will match that even when the spoon isn’t bent. Whereas it’s just talking nonsense to say that there’s no free will, but our experience of choice “feels like” this nonexistent thing. If we don’t have free will, we don’t have the illusion of it either. Nothing about our internal experience or practice of decisionmaking requires us to accept, even tentatively, ambitious metaphysical theses.

  • 21 Drew // Dec 16, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Julian: that last sentence is a great summation!

    I’d still like people who claim that “Free Will” is a coherent concept to simply explain the mechanistic difference it plays in the process of making a decision. What’s that process like with FW, and what’s it like without it? What changes?

    I indeed feel like _I_ am making choices when they are presented to me.

    But I don’t see where in the previous sentence there is any hint that I am somehow also necessarily divorced from and free from myself in order to do so. I don’t really even understand how that, mechanistically, would work. If I was, how would they be “my” choices anyway? How would I be responsible for MY choices if who I was, as opposed to who some random person was, wasn’t the sole or at least primary determinant?

  • 22 Andy Smith // Dec 16, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    “Nothing about our internal experience or practice of decisionmaking requires us to accept, even tentatively, ambitious metaphysical theses.”

    What is ambitious about accepting that we have no free will? We must do everything we do either for some reason(s), or for no reason. If for no reason (which never is actually the case, but I’m trying to cover all bases), it’s simply a random act, and no evidence for free will. If for reasons, the reasons are the cause of the act.

    There is no need to postulate free will. It explains nothing except a feeling that some people have–those individuals, apparently, who are very much unaware of themselves, who haven’t really observed themselves very persistently or thoroughly. I am very much aware that I don’t act freely, certainly not in responding in this forum, nor in anything else I do in my everyday life. When I’m hungry, I eat; when I’m thirsty, I drink; when in certain social situations, I act quite predictably. I’m driven by desires, in even the tiniest acts. If I try to struggle against those desires, to alter my behavior, it’s because of some other desire that compels me to do so. Everywhere I look, I find some desire driving me to do whatever I do.

    Far from being a source of depression or apathy, awareness that we are slaves to our desires drives us to transcend them. Even this process does not occur by our free choice, but it can lead to freedom from desire. Don’t ask me to explain it further, because it takes us well beyond philosophy–for those who dare to challenge its limits.

  • 23 Drew // Dec 17, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Again, I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about being free from your desires. They’re you. Sorting out which ones are most important is a process… and that process is also you.

    Talking about being free from yourself is not wrong or right, true or untrue, it’s just incoherent.

  • 24 Andy Smith // Dec 17, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Yes, “we” are our desires. And to transcend desires means to identify with another “we”.

  • 25 George Copeland // Dec 18, 2009 at 3:57 am

    Great article and many great comments. I believe the real answer to this discussion is too complex to be comprehended, perhaps infinitely complex. I find value in trying to imagine that free will exists and also does not exist at the exact same time–that seems to be the closest I can get my mind to actually approaching an understanding of the complexity of the issue.

  • 26 Gaute // Dec 26, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Humans as a group behave better if we treat them as if they have a free will. So we should keep it as a truth even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. When it comes to hunting mammoth, my experience is that most of my friends do it the same way as they fathers did it.

  • 27 Jerry Kaltenhauser // Dec 26, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    We have many laws of nature stated in deterministic form, but no one has ever been able to exhibit a system which is deterministic. In other words, no system follows our predictions. Until we see such a thing, why would we think our actions or thoughts are determined? Our laws and explanations are at best nature simplified, not nature as she is.

  • 28 Jed Harris // Dec 27, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Current theories of the evolutionary benefit of consciousness claim it is a means for resolving conflicts so you can carry out unified action — see the work of Ezequiel Morsella for details and references. For example in mammoth hunting you might experience a rather severe conflict between flight (“I’ll be trampled!”) and fight (“I’ll be a victorious mammoth hunter!”). But half fighting and half fleeing is likely to produce the worst of both. Consciousness exists to produce unified action in face of these conflicts.

    Of course in the moment the mammoth charges you shouldn’t be pondering choices, that would interfere. But in the preparation you may have butterflies in your stomach and “fear faced with resolution” — you may not know yourself whether in the moment you will fight or flee. You can be truly ignorant of your own future actions.

    That ignorance produces the “gappy feeling” that Searle and Sanchez mention. The gap is real and is the root of our folk intuitions about free will. We truly do not know (cannot predict) our own choice in the moment, but we also will often need to commit ourselves to that choice to succeed. So we will have to “jump the gap” and wholeheartedly either flee or fight when the time comes.

    Naturalistically, then, free will exists — it is the process by which we jump the gap to a commitment. This is not a spandrel but a key function of consciousness. The mouse cowering behind thin cover, waiting to bolt for safety the moment the cat’s gaze is averted, lives or dies by how it resolves that conflict. We need the ability to jump that gap in the right way at the right moment, just as we need other functions of our brain.

    Metaphysically, the argument from determinism seems to me a red herring. Free will is real because the subject’s ignorance, need to commit, and neurological effects of the resulting gap are real. Whether the outcome is determined (in, as Jerry Kaltenhauser points out, an entirely hypothetical sense) has nothing to do with the situation.

    But this analysis does suggest that free will cannot usefully be considered a property of the world independent of us. It probably should be seen as a relational property between subjects and situations. The subjects need not be human or even mammalian, but they must have functionally similar ways of jumping the gap between ignorance and commitment. Color is similarly subjective — it is entirely real, functionally important, but it exists only in the relationship between a color-capable visual system and a physical scene.

  • 29 hexag1 // Jan 5, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    I think that this whole discussion of free will is confused and misguided.
    Daniel Dennett provides a far more satisfying answer than Searle: Consciousness exists, it just isn’t quit what we thought it was. Likewise, free will exists, it just isn’t what we thought it was.
    Think about a rainbow.
    Do rainbows exist? Yes.
    Are they translucent multicolored rings floating in the atmosphere? No: They are an optical illusion, created by sunlight refracting through water droplets, with different colors reaching your retina from different positions in the atmosphere, arranged in concentric rings directly opposite the sun. Rainbows exist on your retina, and nowhere else.
    Do mirages exist? Yes.
    Are they shimmering puddles of water, strangely surviving evaporation from a road surface on a hot, sunny day? No: they too are an optical illusion.
    Does consciousness exist? Yes.
    Is it a magical shine of subjectivity, conferred on human brains by quantum strangeness or some other mysterious phenomena? No: Consciousness is a very useful fiction, created by the hardware and software of the brain to give us a ‘center of narrative gravity’ around which our brain can arrange its various contents and faculties, this giving it a coherent picture for decision making (awareness of one’s social status and history etc…)
    Does Free Will exist? Yes.
    Is it an ‘gappy’ feature of cognition, caused by a break from deterministic physical processes, which thereby confers moral responsibility for one’s actions? No: it is simply the ability to know and justify one’s reasons for a given action. No special physics required.


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