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Daniel Dennett – Edinburg Series Enlightenment Lecture: "Free Will"

Physicalism  — the concept that all things are physical, including consciousness —  frequently becomes a target of derision almost as fast as someone can bring up the topic of free will. Our experiments show us that nature seems to have a set of governing “animate forces” that persist regardless of the orientation, position, or velocity or any other trait that doesn’t change the basic nature of an object or an observer; these forces don’t go away and don’t appear to particularly care about people or feelings or anything.

This makes some people nervous; If every bit of matter in the universe follows some set rule, and the brain bio-mechanical action creates the mind, how can we actually be responsible for our decisions? What makes our brain more than just another random set of matter percolating in the seemingly endless computations and contents of the universe?

Don’t fret: The fear is unfounded. Daniel Dennett describes why in an Edinburg Series Enlightenment Lecture, ‘Free Will‘.

The idea is pretty old, going back to the days of Descartes and the formulation of what Dennett calls ‘Cartesian dualism’ — The first major formulation of the idea that the brain must have some basis in reality, but free will must connect to it in a different way. Pierre Simon Laplace seems to form the basis of the deterministic position, bringing forth the conclusion that if a perfect set of laws were available and complete knowledge of every cog and sprocket were available to an entity, that entity could work out the state of the universe at any given time, past or present. This theoretical entity is menacingly known as ‘Laplace’s Demon’.

Daniel Dennett brilliantly explains the reasons for our misguided intuition, trying to rephrase the understanding on the basic questions about free will. Restructuring the way you think about decision making, determinism, and inevitability allows us to reconcile our understanding of the universe with the way our brains seem to work for us, saving us from the dangerous judgments on crime and punishment made by the researchers mentioned near the beginning of the video.

@ 24:30

“In a deterministic world, are there any real options? At first it looks, no, that’s the one thing, there aren’t. There are no real opportunities. So what is an opportunity? This is not an easy question to answer. If, there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future (that’s the thesis of determinism), then at no instant are there two or more possible futures, which is just what an opportunity requires (or seems to require). Two or more possible futures. So it looks like we have a proof of the thesis that if determinism is true, there are no real opportunities, there are no real options, so we can’t have free will; because there is only one option at any instant. So is this a good argument? I say no, no it’s not. It’s very puzzling how this can be, so let me describe why this doesn’t apply.”

Simplifying the problem into real numbers, he immediately moves into:

@ 25:42

“Here’s something that people often say: “You can’t change the past, but you can change the future!”. Oh, really? From what to what? The future is what is going to happen. You can’t change that. “If determinism is true, I can’t change the future!”, well, “If determinism is false, I can’t change the future either!” So you can’t change the future, so that has nothing to do with determinism. It’s just as true in an indeterministic world; The future is just what will happen, you can’t change that. The very idea of changing it is a mistake. What you can change is make something that was anticipated to be in the future not happen.”

Dennett makes the important distinction between the future as “the set of things that are going to happen” (in the same manner that the past is “the set things that have happened”) and the way that relates to our only interface with that future; our capability of prediction and personal oversight. He segregates the understanding of decision making from the physical understanding of the framework of future and past states. From here, he moves into his definitions of an ‘agent’ as an element within the universe.

This is the root of  “avoiders”:  Brains; Machines for mining the past to predict the future. These models the brain references are very rough simulations, of what will happen in the future, unless the entity enacts some action to prevent it. Notably, at no point does this model actually reflect ‘the future’ as it will happen.

@ 36:21

“Yes, we have a soul– but it’s made of lots of tiny robots. And that is my view. Yes, we have a soul: We have the wherewithal for moral responsibility. The thing we’ve got, its what justifies our being praised and blamed, its what gives us moral responsibility and free will, AND its made of tiny robots.”

The tiny robots he infers are from the motor proteins within each cell and also the trillions of cells in each person; Each protein within each cell has no free will and each cell among trillions has no free will, yet somehow the system as a whole seems to make decisions in a world defined by physical laws. Dennett is not afraid to claim that physicalism is correct or at least appears to be so; He argues why the concept of free will is not abolished by it. Human brains can both obey the laws of the universe and still contain us, operating on imperfect information and attempting to act in beneficial ways in a world where we’re constantly at risk.

This ties into some of his central themes in many of his books, most recognizably the role natural selection plays in the development of consciousness. To get much better then this, you’ll have to dig into the lecture, or even start hitting his books.

Ultimately the questions comes about from cognitive dissonance between a (more or less) ordered universe and our tenuous grasps of our own identities and the way they fit in that universe. Dennett clarifies throughout the video and provides myriad examples of the central concepts as he defines them. Notice he tackles the point of the quantum indeterminancy crowd  almost immediately into the video: Indeterminacy gives no wiggle room to shove the mechanism for people to make ‘real’ decisions — no point in which the mind can decide, “I want this wave function to collapse out of the potential ones I’m looking at here because this wave function results in the decision I would like to actually decide.”. Indeterminacy without restructuring the view of determinism as making all actions inevitable leaves the advocates with the untenable position of everyone having free will because our decisions are at least partially random. (Hardly very much of a free will.)

Think back to Laplace’s demon: The only way the theoretical, impossible entity could determine exactly what you are going to do is by running every computation of the universe up to you, and then executing every process in the universe to determine your actions. Only by performing the action of you existing can your actions be prevented — Your actions, however dependent or independent on others, rely entirely on the agent (you) operating (as you do).

Let’s finish on an example: You witness someone walking across the street, and wave to them, moments before they step forward and fall down a sewer access hole you did not notice. Your first thought is, “Oh no! If I would have noticed that, I would have warned him!”. This is absolutely true; Had you noticed the impending drop, you would actually have shouted something. This is not how it worked out. That was not what would happen in your future. Given different and more complete information, you as an agent would have acted differently. If an agent acting to adjust its perceived outcomes within its present-time estimation of the future is not free will, I’m not sure what mythical ideal people are searching for.

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