Posts tagged ‘compatibilism’

blind alienScott Bakker has given an interesting new approach to his Blind Brain Theory (BBT): in two posts on his blog he considers what kind of consciousness aliens could have, and concludes that the process of evolution would put them into the same hole where, on his view, we find ourselves.

BBT, in sketchy summary, says that we have only a starvation diet of information about the cornucopia that really surrounds us; but the limitations of our sources and cognitive equipment mean we never realise it. To us it looks as if we’re fully informed, and the glitches of the limited heuristics we use to cobble together a picture of the world, when turned on ourselves in particular, look to us like real features. Our mental equipment was never designed for self-examination and attempting metacognition with it generates monsters; our sense of personhood, agency, and much about our consciousness comes from the deficits in our informational resources and processes.

Scott begins his first post by explaining his own journey from belief in intentionalism to eliminativist scepticism about it, and sternly admonishes those of us still labouring in intentionalist error for our failure to produce a positive account of how human minds could have real intentionality.

What about aliens – Scott calls the alien players in his drama ‘Thespians’ – could they be any better off than we are? Evolution would have equipped them with senses designed to identify food items, predators, mates, and so on; there would be no reason for them to have mental or sensory modules designed to understand the motion of planets or stars, and turning their senses on their own planet would surely tell them incorrectly that it was motionless. Scott points out that Aristotle’s argument against the movement of the Earth is rather good: if the Earth were moving, we should see shifts in the relative position of the stars, just as the relative position of objects in a landscape shifts when we we view them from the window of a moving train; yet the stars remain precisely fixed. The reasoning is sound; Aristotle simply did not know and could not imagine the mind-numbingly vast distances that make the effect invisibly small to unaided observation. The unrealised lack of information led Aristotle into misapprehension, and it would surely do the same for the Thespians; a nice warm-up for the main argument.

Now it’s a reasonable assumption that the Thespians would be social animals, and they would need to be able to understand each other. They’d get good at what is often somewhat misleadingly called theory of mind; they’d attribute motives and so on to each other and read each others behaviour in a fair bit of depth. Of course they would have no direct access to other Thespians; actual inner workings. What happens when they turn their capacity for understanding other people on themselves? In Scott’s view, plausibly enough, they end up with quite a good practical understanding whose origins are completely obscure to them; the lashed-up mechanisms that supply the understanding neither available to conscious examination or in fact even visible.

This is likely enough, and in fact doesn’t even require us to think of higher cognitive faculties. How do we track a ball flying through the air so we can catch it? Most people would be hard put to describe what the brain does to achieve that, though in practice we do it quite well. In fact, those who could put down the algorithm most likely get it wrong too, because it turns out the brain doesn’t use the optimal method: it uses a quick and easy one that works OK in practice but doesn’t get your hand to the right place as quickly as it could.

For Scott all this leads to a gloomy conclusion; much of our view about what we are and our mental capacities is really attributable to systematic error, even to  something we could regard as a cognitive deficit or disease. He cogently suggests how dualism and other errors might arise from our situation.

I think the Thespian account is the most accessible and persuasive account Scott has given to date of his view, and it perhaps allows us to situate it better than before. I think the scope of the disaster is a little less than Scott supposes, in two ways. First, he doesn’t deny that routine intentionality actually works at a practical level, and I think he would agree we can even hope to give a working level description of how that goes. My own view is that it’s all a grand extension of our capacity for recognition, (and I was more encouraged than not by my recent friendly disagreement with Marcus Perlman over on Aeon Ideas; I think his use of the term ‘iconic’ is potentially misleading, but in essence I think the views he describes are right and enlightening) but people here have heard all that many times. Whether I’m right or not we probably agree that some practical account of how the human mind gets its work done is possible.

Second, on a higher level, it’s not completely hopeless. We are indeed prone to dreadful errors and to illusions about how our minds work that cannot easily be banished. But we kind of knew that. We weren’t really struggling to understand how dualism could possibly be wrong, or why it seemed so plausible.  We don’t have to resort to those flawed heuristics; we can take our pure basic understanding and try again, either through some higher meta-meta-cognition (careful) or by simply standing aside and looking at the thing from a scientific third-person point of view. Aristotle was wrong, but we got it right in the end, and why shouldn’t Scott’s own view be part of getting it righter about the mind? I don’t think he would disagree on that either (he’ll probably tell us); but he feels his conclusions have disastrous implications for our sense of what we are.

Here we strike something that came up in our recent discussion of free will and the difference between determinists and compatibilists. It may be more a difference of temperament than belief. People like me say, OK, no, we don’t have the magic abilities we looked to have, so let’s give those terms a more sensible interpretation and go merrily on our way. The determinists, the eliminativists, agree that the magic has gone – in fact they insist – but they sit down by the roadside, throw ashes on their heads, and mourn it. They share with the naive, the libertarians, and the believers in a magic power of intentionality, the idea that something essential and basically human is lost when we move on in this way. Perhaps people like me came in to have the magic explained and are happy to see the conjuring tricks set out; others wanted the magic explained and for it to remain magic?

Picture: Experiment. Shaun Nichols’ recent paper in Science drew new attention to the ancient issue of free will and also to the very modern method known as ‘experimental philosophy’. Experimental philosophy is liable – perhaps intended – to set the teeth of the older generation on edge, for several reasons. One is that it sounds like an attempt to smuggle into philosophy stuff that shouldn’t be there: if your conclusions can be tested experimentally they’re science, not philosophy. We don’t want real philosophy crowded out by half-baked science. It also sounds like excessive, cringing deference to those assertive scientists, as though some bullied geek started wearing football shirts and fawning on the oppressors. We may have to put up with the physicists taking our lunch money, but we don’t have to pretend we want to be like them.

Actually though, there doesn’t seem to be any harm in experimental philosophy. All the philosophy that goes by the name appears to be real philosophy, often very interesting philosophy; the experiments are not used improperly to clinch a solution but to help clarify and dramatise the problems. Often this works pretty well, and by tethering the discussion to the real world it may even help to prevent an excessive drift into abstract hair-splitting. Philosophers have always been happy to draw on the experiments of scientists as a jumping-off point for discussion, and there seems no special reason why they shouldn’t do the same with experiments of their own.

In this particular case, Nichols shows that there is something odd about people’s intuitive grasp of free will. Subjects were told to assume that determinism, the view that all events are dictated by the laws of physics, applied, and then asked whether someone would be responsible for various things. In the vaguest case they all agreed that in general, given determinism, people were not responsible for events. Given a specific example of a morally debatable act they were less sure; and when they were offered the example of a man who takes out a murder contract on his wife and children, most felt sure he was responsible even given determinism.

This is odd because it’s normally assumed that determinism means no-one can be responsible for anything. In order to be responsible, you have to have been able to do something else, and according to determinism the laws of physics say you couldn’t have done anything but what you did. It’s odder because of the distinction drawn between the cases. Where did that come from?

It could be that something in the experiment predisposed subjects to think they were required to make distinctions of this kind, or it could be that ordinary subjects are just not very good at coming up with strictly logical consequences of artificial assumptions; but I don’t think that’s really it. The distinction between the three cases appears to be a matter of who we’d blame – so it looks as if the man in the street doesn’t really grasp the philosophical concept of responsibility and relies instead on some primitive conception of blameworthiness!!!

But,  um – what is the philosophical concept of responsibility? It’s pretty clear when we cite the laws of physics that we’re talking about causal responsibility – but causal responsibility and moral responsibility don’t coincide. It’s clear that you can be causally responsible for an event without being morally responsible: someone pushed you from behind so that you in turn pushed someone under a train. Less clearly, in some cases it is held that you can be morally responsible for events you didn’t deliberately bring about: the legal doctrine strict liability, Oedipus bringing a curse on Thebes, poor Clarissa wondering whether having been raped is in itself a sin.  All of these are debatable; we might be inclined to see strict liability as a case of legal overkill: “we care so much about this that we’re not even going to entertain any discussion of responsibility – you’d better just make damn sure things are OK” . In the other cases we typically think the assignments of blame are just wrong (although Milan Kundera notably reclaimed the moral superiority of Oedipus in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Nevertheless the distinction between moral and causal responsibility is clear enough: does the determinist case equivocate between the two, and were Nichols’ subject actually just too shrewd to be taken in?

It seems it might be so. No-one would suggest to a writer that he was not the author of his novel because it was all the result of the laws of physics, although in one sense it’s so. No-one would accept on similar grounds that I’m not responsible for a debt, however abstract and conventional the notions of debt and money may be compared with the rigorous physical account of events. So why should should the physical story stop us concluding that on another level of description we can be interestingly and coherently blameworthy?  That would be a form of compatibilism, the view that we can have our determinist cake and eat our free will, too. (I’d be a little uncomfortable leaving it there without some fundamental account of agency and morality, just as I’d be a bit unhappy to say that debt is a convention without some underpinning concept of money and economics – but that’s another discussion.) So perhaps Nichols’ subjects were compatibilists.

That would be an interesting discovery but… I hate to say this… an interesting discovery in psychology. The fact that most people are instinctively compatibilists provides no particular reason to think compatibilism is true. For that, we still have to do the philosophy the old-fashioned way. Scientists may be able to gather truth from the world, like bees with nectar: philosophers are still obliged, like spiders, to spin their webs out of their own internal resources.