Archive for September, 2011

Picture: qualintentionality. I see that this piece on nature.com has drawn quite a bit of attention. It provides a round-up of views on the question of whether free will can survive in a post-Libet world, though it highlights more recent findings along similar lines by John-Dylan Haynes and others. The piece seems to be prompted in part by Big Questions in Free Will a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which  is probably best known for the Templeton Prize, a very large amount of cash which gets given to respectable scientists who are willing to say that the universe has a spiritual dimension, or at any rate that materialism is not enough. BQFW itself is offering funding for theology as well as science: “science of free will ($2.8 million); theoretical underpinnings of free will, round 1 ($165,000); and theology of free will, round 1 ($132,000)”. I suppose ‘theoretical underpinnings’, if it’s not science and not theology, must be philosophy; perhaps they called it that because they want some philosophy done but would prefer it not to be done by a philosopher. In certain lights that would be understandable. The presence of theology in the research programme may not be to everyone’s taste, although what strikes me most is that it seems to have got the raw end of the deal in funding terms. I suppose the scientists need lots of expensive kit, but on this showing it seems the theologians don’t even get such comfortable armchairs as the theorists, which is rough luck.

We have of course discussed the Haynes results and Libet, and other related pieces of research many times in the past. I couldn’t help wondering whether, having all this background, I could come up with something on the subject that might appeal to the Templeton Foundation and perhaps secure me a modest emolument? Unfortunately most of the lines one could take are pretty well-trodden already, so it’s difficult to come up with an appealing new presentation, let alone a new argument. I’m not sure I have anything new to say. So I’ve invited a couple of colleagues to see what they can do.

Bitbucket Free will is nonsense; I’m not helping you come up with further ‘compatibilist’ fudging if that’s what you’re after. What I can offer you is this: it’s not just that Libertarians have the wrong answer, the question doesn’t even make sense. The way the naturenews piece sets up the discussion is to ask: how can you have free will if the decision was made before you were even aware of it? The question I’m asking is: what the hell is ‘you’?

Both Libet’s original and the later experiments are cleverly designed to allow subjects to report the moment at which they became aware of the decision: but ‘they’ are thereby implicitly defined as whatever it is that is doing the reporting. We assume without question that the reporting thing is the person, and then we’re alarmed by the fact that some other entity made the decision first. But we could equally well take the view that the silent deciding entity is the person and be unsurprised that a different entity reports it later.

You will say in your typically hand-waving style, I expect, that that can’t be right because introspection or your ineffable sense of self or something tells you otherwise. You just feel like you are the thing that does the reporting. Otherwise when words come out of your mouth it wouldn’t be you talking, and gosh, that can’t be right, can it?

Well, let me ask you this. Suppose you were the decision-making entity, how would it seem to you? I submit it wouldn’t seem any way, because as that entity you don’t do seeming-to: you just do decisions. You only seem to yourself to have made the decision when it gets seemed back to you by a seeming entity – in fact, by that same reporting entity.  In short, because all reports of your mental activity come via the reporting entity, you mistake it for the source of all your mental activity. In fact all sorts of mental processes are going on all over and the impression of a unified consistent centre is a delusion. At this level, there is no fixed ‘you’ to have or lack free will. Libet’s experiments merely tell us something interesting but quite unworrying about the relationship of two current mental modules.

So libertarians ask: do we have free will? I reply that they have to show me the ‘we’ that they’re talking about before they even get to ask that question – and they can’t.

BlandulaNot much of a challenge to come up with something more appealing than that! I’ve got an idea the Templeton people might like, I think: Dennettian theology.

You know, of course, Dennett’s idea of stances. When we’re looking to understand something we can take various views. If we take the physical stance, we just look at the thing’s physical properties and characteristics. Sometimes it pays to move on to the design stance: then we ask ourselves, what is this for, how does it work? This stance is productive when considering artefacts and living things, in the main. Then in some cases it’s useful to move on to the intentional stance, where we treat the thing under consideration as if it had plans and intentions and work out its likely behaviour on that basis. Obviously people and some animals are suitable for this, but we also tend to apply the same approach to various machines and natural phenomena, and that’s OK so long as we keep a grip.

But those three stances are clearly an incomplete set. We could also take up the Stance of Destiny: when we do that we look at things and ask ourselves: was this always going to happen? Is this inevitable in some cosmic sense? Was that always meant to be like that? I think you’ll agree that this stance sometimes has a certain predictive power: I knew that was going to happen, you say: it was, as it were, SoD’s Law.

Now this principle gives us by extrapolation an undeniable God – the God who is the intending, the destining entity. Does this God really exist? Well, we can take our cue from Dennett: like the core of our personhood in his eyes, it doesn’t exist as a simple physical thing you can lay your hands on: but it’s a useful predictive tool and you’d be a fool to overlook it, so in a sense it’s real enough: it’s a kind of  explanatory centre of gravity, a way of summarising the impact of millions of separate events.

So what about free will? Well of course, one thing you can say about a free decision is that it wasn’t destined. How does that come about? I suggest that the RPs Libet measured are a sign of de-destination, they are, as it were, the autopilot being switched off for a moment. Libet himself demonstrated that the impending action could be vetoed after the RP, after all. Most of the time we run on destined automatic, but we have a choice. The human brain, in short, has a unique mechanism which, by means we don’t fully understand, can take charge of destiny.

I think my destiny is to hang on to the day job for the time being.

Picture: qualintentionality. Sometimes mistakes can be more interesting than getting it right. Last week I was thinking about Pauen’s claim, reasonable enough, that belief in qualia is ultimately based on the intuitive sense that experience and physics are two separate realms. The idea that subjective stuff, the redness of red and so on, could be nothing but certain jigs danced by elementary particles, provokes a special incredulity. What’s the famous quote that sums that up, I thought? Something about…

This phenomenal quality is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it.

That captures the incredulity quite nicely. However, it dawned on me that it was Brentano, and he didn’t say ‘phenomenal quality’, he said ‘intentional inexistence’.

So it turns out we have two incredulitites, one about qualia – subjectivity or ‘what it is like’, one about intentionality – ‘aboutness’ or meaningfulness. To me, they have a very similar feel. So what do we say about that? I can see four reasonable possibilities.

  1. The resemblance is superficial: just because your mind boggles at two different things, it doesn’t mean the two things are identical.
  2. The incredulity is the same because it’s not specifically attached to qualia or intentionality, it’s just characteristic of mental phenomena of all kinds.
  3. The incredulity arises from intentionality, and qualia have it because they are intentional in nature.
  4. The incredulity arises from qualia, and intentionality has it because it arises out of qualia.

Although 1. is a very rational line to take, I can’t help feeling there is at least a little more to it than that. I don’t detect in myself a third incredulity – I don’t feel that nothing in subjectivity could possibly account for intentionality, or vice versa: that remains to be examined. And to put it no higher, it would be nice if we could tidy things up by linking the two problems, or even perhaps reducing one to the other. One inexplicable realm is bad enough.

I suppose 2. is what Brentano himself might have said. I don’t know whether we’d now be quite so quick to bestow the mystery on all mental phenomena: it doesn’t seem so implausible now that calculation or choosing a chess move might be nothing more than a special kind of physical activity. Moreover, if the problem doesn’t come from intentionality or qualia, we seem to have a third problem distinct from either, which is unwelcome, and a slight difficulty over the relationships. It doesn’t seem much of an answer to say that qualia seem strange and non-physical because they’re mental, unless we can go on to say a lot more about the spookiness of the mental and why it attaches to subjective experience the way it does.

I suppose we could go dualist here, and say that mental things exist in a separate domain in which both qualia and meanings participate. Isn’t something like that the main reason dualists are dualists, in fact? Taking that route involves the usual problems of explaining the interaction between worlds and indeed, giving some explanation of how the second world works. If we don’t give that latter explanation we seem only to have deferred the issues.

It might be easier if we said something along the lines of the mental being essentially a different level of explanation within a monist universe. For me, that looks at least a starter so far as intentionality goes, but not for qualia. They’re not really a level of explanation – they’re not explanatory at all, quite the reverse. This brings out some interesting differences. In the case of qualia we already have a pretty full scientific account of how the senses work. We pretty much know what we’d reduce qualia to, if we’re in the market for a reduction. In a sense, the way is clear: there’s no work in the ordinary world that we need qualia to do, we just need an extra ineffable zing from somewhere, something we could arguably dispense with. For intentionality, things are much worse. There is no scientific account of meaning, we don’t really know how the brain deals with it, yet it is an essential part of our lives which can’t be dismissed as airy-fairy obscurantism.  Curiously, of course, it’s qualia which are seen as the Hard Problem, while intentionality is part of the easy one. I suppose this is because when we contemplate intentionality, it doesn’t seem intractable. We may not know how it works, but it looks like the kind of thing we could get a grip on given a couple of insights; whereas there seems no way of scaling the smooth glassy wall presented by qualia.

Here’s a thought: if we’re saying that the two issues are different facets of the same problem, we ought to be able to apply the established qualia arguments to intentionality and still make sense, shouldn’t we?  We can’t do it the other way because I don’ t think there are any arguments for the existence of intentionality – nobody denies it.

So: the zombies go quite well, at first sight, anyway: we’d say that intentionality zombies (another kind – sorry) look and behave like us, but never actually mean what they say or understand the words they read.  By some process they come out with appropriate responses, but in the same sort of sense as the original zombies, the lights are all out.

Then instead of inverted spectra, we’d have inverted meanings. This is trickier, because there’s no tidy realm of meaning equivalent to the spectrum we can use – unless we co-opt the spectrum itself and say that when you mean red, you say blue… That doesn’t seem to work. Could we say that you actually mean the negation of everything you say, but for some reason act otherwise…? Maybe not.

Alright, let’s try Mary: Intentionality Mary was brought up without ever grasping the meaning of anything, but she understands everything there is to know about cognition… That doesn’t seem to make sense.

The problem is always that qualia have no causal effects, whereas meanings and intentions absolutely do: in fact if anything the problem with them is explaining their efficacy. Noting this, we can see that actually even the zombies didn’t really work: we can believe in people who behave like us without having real experience, but it’s surely nonsensical to say that our counterparts without desires or intentions would behave the same way as us, unless we’re really only talking about some kind of quale of desire or intention.

So if qualia and intentionality are radically different in some respects, the differences might provide at least a hint that ‘both mental’ is not a good enough explanation for the two incredulities.

What about option 3? Could it be that the incredulity we’re concerned with is basically attached to intentionality, and qualia only have it because they are intentional in nature? On the face of it it seems quite reasonable to think that the redness we experience is about the rose, and that it’s the special magic aboutness that adds the extra ineffable quality. With other qualia, though, it’s not so clear. If you take happiness to be qualic, what is it about? We can of course be happy about particular things, but that’s distinct from just being happy. Moreover, there’s plenty of intentionality without qualia: an account book is suffused with intentionality. In fairness, that’s only the derived kind – accounts only mean what we make them mean – perhaps it’s only the original intentionality of our thoughts that bestows qualicity?  But with intentionality, we expect content. We believe and desire and think that x or y, with x or y being capable of expression in words: but it’s the whole point of qualia that there’s nothing like that available.

Option 4 says qualia are fundamental and intentionality springs from them. John Searle has actually put this view forward (in addition to his view that intentionality is the business of of imposing directions of fit on directions of fit). The suggestion here is that, for example, the feeling of hunger is about food in some basic, primitive sense, and that it’s on similar qualia that all our meaningfulness is built. The example has a definite appeal, and there’s something attractive about rooting intentionality in the ‘three Fs’ of survival: making it not some celestial mystery but a particular slant that arises out our nature as competitive and social biological creatures. But there are problems. We must remember that the quale of hunger has no causal effects: it’s only the functional counterpart that actually causes us to speak or seek food, so the connection between the quale and the expression of beliefs or desires is broken. We may suspect for other reasons that it’s not really the quale at work here: the sense in which hunger means food looks very like H.P.Grice’s natural meanings (those spots mean measles). We may suspect that this is really what makes the example seem to work, yet completely inanimate and non-qualic things can have this kind of meaning (those clouds mean rain), so although it is an excellent place to start looking for an analysis of intentionality, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of qualia.

Personally, I would reaffirm the view I’ve often set out before: I haven’t a clue what’s going on.