Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Reconciling conflicting manifest and scientific images

By Mathew Goldstein

I enjoyed reading Bill Creasy's description of Daniel Dennett's useful distinction between manifest image and scientific image in the January issue of WASHline, the monthly publication of WASH. Color, sound, touch, and smell, are all manifest images, they allow us to keep track of our environment so we can react appropriately. All these phenomena can be studied by measuring the stuff formed by the bosons and fermions, which are the corresponding scientific images. We don't currently have a complete mapping between the manifest image and the scientific image. The biological processes are complex and we incompletely understand our perceptions. But even if we were to succeed in completely mapping one image to the other in the future, these two images will each retain their special significance.

Yet I disagree with the conclusion that Sam Harris is making a mistake by focusing on the scientific image instead of the manifest image when he argues against free will. The manifest and scientific images of our sense perceptions are compatible, they coexist without any conflict. A scientific image of biology and our universe is in direct conflict with the manifest image of free will as that concept is traditionally understood. Therefore, it logically follows that this free will manifest image is wrong, and Sam Harris is correct to argue accordingly from a scientific image perspective. When the two images conflict, it is the manifest image that should be abandoned, regardless of how counterintuitive this result feels to us.

The real problem here is this: If we insist on retaining the free will phrase to characterize our decision making then we must redefine free will to convey a concept that is substantially different from the concept this phrase was originally intended, and is usually utilized, to convey. Such a redefinition interferes with our ability to clearly communicate the fact that our decisions are probably finalized before we are consciously aware of what decisions we made, as is the case with the rest of the animal kingdom. The concept that human decisions are consciously willed, that the cause and origin of human decisions is our will, which has the unique and magical property of being freely under our absolute control, free from cause and effect materialistic constraints, is the concept captured by the phrase free will. Only humans are commonly thought to have free will. As such, free will represents one of those many "ideologies about manifest image" that Daniel Dennett himself says "are bonkers".

As tempting as it may be to try to reshape this dearly held and well known, but obsolete, concept to mean something new, it would arguably be less confusing to substitute another phrase, such as free choice, when referring to our expression of decisions that reflect our desires. All animals have such free choices. Humans are probably somewhat unique in the sense of our having more capacity for self-recognition of various moral responsibilities associated with these choices. People then tend to conflate our animal free choice with free will. Referring to incompatibilist versus compatibilist free will contributes further to obscuring this distinction. Secularists who prefer this obscurity (because they are more conservative) tend to say we have compatibilist free will. Secularists who prefer more clarity (because they are less conservative) tend to say free will is a myth. Yet both sides appear to be mostly on the same page when it comes to the substance of describing our decision making process, we all follow and respect the empirical evidences and their implications.


Bill Creasy said...

In my WASHline article on Dennett's lecture, there are a few things that I think he should have covered further (or else my notes on his lecture aren't very thorough, which is possible). With regard to Harris's book "Free Will", since Harris is a Ph.D. neurologist, I don't think anyone has a problem with his studying the way people think in deterministic terms as firing neurons. There is also probably not a problem with studying morality as the interactions of two or more agents who have to make decisions, as in Prisoner's Dilemma studies. The problem with his book, and what Dennett calls "evil," is uncritically transferring scientific studies into the manifest image to make statements like, "The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environment, and bad ideas. Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for?" (p. 54) That kind of transfer doesn't work and is misleading. They are still responsible for making bad choices that they should not have made.

Dennett didn't do a good job of saying what he means by "free will", beyond saying it is moral competence. He talked about punishment and threat of punishment as ways of modifying people's behavior. By his argument (as I understood it), if you punish or torture someone, their behavior is coerced and forced, so they aren't free or responsible. But if you only threaten to punish them, they are still free. Their behavior may be modified as much by a threat as by actual punishment, on a neural level. That means that the only real difference between "free" and "not free" is whether someone else can see if they are being forced.

So if agent #1 can look at agent #2 and see that agent #2 is being forced to do something, then agent #2 isn't free. Otherwise, agent #1 must assume that agent #2 is free and can perform unpredictable actions. This definition doesn't go any deeper than that. It has nothing to do with determinism on a neural level. It is only whether agent #2 is predictable on a manifest image level. Since agent #1 can't see how the neurons of agent #2 are arranged, those deeper causes aren't relevant to a moral decision between the two agents.

Dennett didn't really talk about this in his talk. In fact, I may have put some words in his mouth in my article by saying that the threat of punishment is "internalized." The key distinction for free will seems to be that the behavior isn't predictable to someone else. As a matter of semantics, I agree that "free will" may not be the best term, because at this level it doesn't look that free. But that's the term that ethicists use.

Bill Creasy.

Explicit Atheist said...

Did you read his book? Here is a quote from his chapter "Moral Reponsibility": "We need not have any illusions that a causal agent lives within the human mind to recognize that certain people are dangerous. What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm. Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of the case." He then goes on to explain how and why this is true, pointing out that "Certain people must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: Everyone else will be better off this way."

I agree with Sam Harris here about the lack of a strong connection between free will and morality/justice. In particular, the latter does not depend on the former. When I hear someone characterize as "evil" a description of behavior as being deterministic I get the impression that that person has a perspective that the relationship between free will and morality/justice is a substantial one. Since I disagree with that unspoken but implied premise of a strong relationship between free will and morality/justice that appears to be behind the "evil" characterization, I do not share that reaction. I think that characterization of what Sam Harris said is mistaken.

Bill Creasy said...

Bill Creasy said...

The quote in my first paragraph above is from Harris's book. I probably shouldn't have used the word 'evil' to describe his book, taken out of context, because it is too easy to misinterpret. I just used the word because Dennett used it to describe Harris and other people who deny free will exists.

However, Harris seems to want it both ways. He argues that free will doesn't exist, but then he says "conscious intent to do harm" can exist. What is the difference?

I have to say that I find Dennett's argument to be more effective than Harris's. Dennett tries to put the idea of free will in naturalistic terms, in ways that people can understand in a non-religious context. Harris denies that free will exists, but then he comes up with a different, more obscure term for basically the same thing.

I think the goal of this type of argument should be to avoid justifying a culture of victimhood. People make choices, and they should be responsible for the consequences of the choices. They shouldn't make a bad choice and then argue that they "had no free will" and shouldn't be responsible for the choice.

How can you say that free will and morality are not connected? The choices that people make determie whether they are moral or not. Free will (as Dennett defines it) or conscious intent (as Harris says) determines what the choices are. They are definitely strongly connected.

Explicit Atheist said...

I think you are confused about the difference between intention and free will. "We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself itself arises. To understand this is to understand that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose." So we have conscious intentions, regardless of whether or not we have free will. "And what a person consciously intends to do says a lot about him." This is true, regardless of whether or not we have free will. To quote Sam Harris again: "There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, of course, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will (nor des it depend on it). A voluntary action is accompanied by a felt desire to carry it out, whereas an involuntary action isn't." So this is an important practical distinction for morality and the moral significance of this difference remains the same regardless of whether or not we have free will.

I stand by what I said, and what I continue to say. Morality is about harm and danger, which is related to intention, while free will is in addition to morality and intent, so the latter two are not dependent on the former.

Explicit Atheist said...

We are fully justified in holding people accountable for their actions because we are all better off when we do that. Prevention and deterrence are unchallenged. What is challenged is the notion of retributive justice. Retributive justice, that goes beyond deterrence, is more difficult to justify when people recognize that we do not have free will.

Explicit Atheist said...

Here is Sam Harris discussing these areas of disagreement with Daniel Dennett: <a href='http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/free-will-and-free-will>free will and "free will"</a>

Explicit Atheist said...

Missing quote, trying again: Here is Sam Harris discussing these areas of disagreement with Daniel Dennett: free will and "free will"

Don Wharton said...

I am in general a fan of Daniel Dennett. I put together a presentation on his book Freedom Evolves and presented it to two WASH chapters and the Washington Ethical Society. However, in that presentation I made it clear that I did not think Dennett made a decent case for redefining free will. We still make choices and those choices are important. That is different than any redefined notion of free will. Harris is right. We need to know what is real.

Explicit Atheist said...

I like Daniel Dennett also. I am surprised to hear that he characterized some of Sam Harris argument as "evil". If he did that then that is a mistake on his part. My understanding is that the two are friends. I have also heard that DD is very eager to defend his ideas against the criticisms. This shouldn't be about the people, I don't want to argue about the people.

Bill Creasy said...

I'm going to take one more try at this topic in the next WASHline. But I was just listening to the Obama inaugural speeches, and there is a lot of talk about "freedom." I think there should be a good humanistic explanation of what freedom is.

There are aspects of both Harris and Dennett that I'm not happy with. They both have a tendency to treat morality as if it can be understood with an introspective examination of one individual. Morality has to be considered in terms of people interacting with each other.