Saturday, February 21, 2015

An exchange with Daniel Miessler about free will

What follows is an exchange I (BP) had via email with Daniel Miessler, a swell guy whose website is, which is very popular already, especially among people who enjoy philosophy. A long time ago we had discussed the concept of free will on the members forums of Partially Examined Life, a great philosophy website I both subscribe and contribute to. Daniel has written extensively about free will on his website, and what has emerged from our exchange, as far as I can tell, is that Daniel believes there's more conceptual clarification that can be done with the concepts free will and moral responsibility, and I don't; I believe instead that if any new ideas emerge regarding free will (I'm skeptical about moral responsibility as a commonsense concept apart or unique from the concept responsibility) they'll emerge only because new real-life cases (and thought-experiments, too, I suppose) will make us more sensitive about how fragile our capacity is to act on our thoughts, wishes, and principles.

What used to be called democracy is now called crowdsourcing, I'm afraid, but in any case what I'm essentially doing by offering up these letters that Daniel and I exchanged is crowdsourcing, allowing you, Dear Reader, to peruse the exchange and hopefully constructively point out the errors of our ways. It's less important what our hedged conclusions are, Daniel and I, and more important the reasons we have for believing those conclusions. Also, it's an unfortunate circumstance that when people debate ideas philosophical, religious, or political, there is a tendency toward digging in heels and accidentally pushing thoughts as though they were dogma or Gospel Truth, and even worse if the discussion turns ugly. Even though I think we did a pretty good job keeping things civil, I'm sure, for example, that some parts of the exchange that follows, at least on my end, occasionally look more caustic than intended. There's also a tendency in the discussion of ideas toward self-deception. I hope that some loving readers out there could disabuse me of my notions, but being only human, I actually bet I'll be stubborn and recalcitrant with regard change in these areas. To quote biologist Robert Trivers who's studied the phenomenon of self-deception, "Some real fraction of what I write must inevitably be wrong, but I hope that the logic being advanced and facts asserted will easily invite improvements" toward a richer understanding, even if I'm wrong. And I think Daniel feels the same.

Without further ado, here's the exchange between Daniel and me.

Letter # 1: Daniel's proposition

Hi Billie,

We spoke a while back on the PEL forums about free will, and I’d like to revisit that discussion.

Well, start over really.

I am open to, and exploring, the possibility that moral responsibility is possible via other methods than the one I have been talking about (the ability to gain authorship at a physics level).

I’d like to chat about this with someone who gets things, which you clearly do.

I’ll try to be more exploratory and less dogmatic in our discussion this time. But I can only promise to try. I tend to get riled up about such things, but I think that’s mostly a good thing.

Anyway, would love to re-engage. I’ve been reading your site, and it’s quite good. I’ll be sharing some of your articles on Twitter and such in the future.



Letters # 2 & 3 (#2 in block-quotes): BP's response (block-quotes) & Daniel's reply (set off to the left)
Hello, Daniel:
It's nice to hear from you. And thank you for the kind words.
Regarding free will and related concepts, what seems so intractable about much of the discussion, the reason I and other people (perhaps you too) get frustrated, is that there are a number of different enterprises regarding investigation into this concept free will, and they're all based on different interests and purposes, and sometimes definitions at cross-purposes...
What is worse is that (if you believe as I do) commonsense terms aren't or don't 'pick out' natural kinds, therefore there's going to be no folk rendering of what the heck anybody is talking about, so the best you can do if you want to make sense of the buzzing, blooming confusion is just to bite the bullet and define the term.
As soon as you do that, even reference to the concept can be dispensed with, because now we know what we're investigating. Some people are very good at making what they mean clear re free will. Sam Harris is a shining example. I think he puts forward a convincing case that free will as could have done otherwise or as some deep inscrutable ability to author one's thoughts and behaviors is false, and there's no reasonable evidence for the concept, that is, the concept defined in those terms.
Yes, and I define it in a similar way (derivative from Sam):

The ability to have willfully chosen otherwise for any previous decision.
Yet there's another line of investigation, and that's free will as the capacity to act on the basis of some thoughts, principles, or intentions. This is Eddy Nahmias's conception. Note that it's completely consistent with determinism...
Yes, and it’s worth exploring. I call this Practical free will, since it’s…well, practical. And even the most incompatibilist among us still live in this world every day, and behave as if this is the only free will that exists.
And it's a relative capacity, a more-or-less affair, a conception for Beagles and amoebas (and robots) just as much as it is for humans...
Well, except you can add a strong qualifier, as Dennett does, of being able to consider choices for an indefinite amount of time while playing out various projected outcomes, and then choose based on that.

As far as I know that removes most animals, and even most primates. It might even isolate it to just us.
Harris agrees that we have this capacity but thinks that's not what free will really is--but that assumes that there is something that free will really is or could be...
It's a misguided assumption because there's no natural kind that a commonsense concept like free will could ever pick out...
So this is where I disagree with you, and I think I have the way to find agreement. It comes down to moral responsibility (as it always seems to).

We have to start with scenarios involving the happiness and suffering of conscious creatures (Sam). They are our bedrock. Anything other than those are academic or worse.

In my work I do risk management for information security, and starting with a list of risks is a great starting point. We need to do the same for this.


- A normally highly moral man drinks too much and runs over a kid
- A serial killer murders 37 people over 4 years
- Some family man kills his entire brood due to a brain tumor
- A rich man spits on a homeless person begging for money
- A homeless person kills a rich man because he’s “evil”
- Rich and famous man risks life to save a homeless girl’s kitten

Etc., etc.

Now, we need to model these scenarios from all the various angles. At the physics, chemistry, and biology level, what degree of control did each actor have over the ability to do otherwise? None? Ok, so that’s one answer. Zero blame, zero praise.

How does society function by not rewarding and punishing these individuals? Not well, it would seem. It would seem essential to a functional society to lubricate it with the believe in agency and responsibility.

So I think we need to ask a deeper question:

> What are we trying to accomplish with our questioning, and with our answer?

I feel many compatibilists have already decided that they’re pursuing an outcome they desire, and they’re crafting a theory about free will that allows one to reach that destination.

Sam and I (and many others before us) are saying, “No.” Truth first—then we figure out what to do from there.

Think about Dennett’s main piece of rhetoric: “That kind of freedom isn’t worth wanting.” What?

Does that sound right in any other context? “That kind of truth isn’t worth wanting.” It’s absurd, on my view, and on Sam’s view. We shouldn’t be so willing to discard truth because we don’t like the consequences.

And this is where Camus is instructive. Absurdism is, more than anything else, or at least to me, can be seen as an instruction to never turn away from the bleakness of reality. Never forget that there is no objective meaning. Never pretend.

I warp that into allowing a veneer (because I’m a romantic). A layer of human experience that grants pleasuring and happiness. But I never pretend that the the later fixed the former.

And this is how I both reject and embrace compatibilism. I embrace it because it’s how I live my life day to day. And it’s also how I believe we must, in this 21st century, conduct our human civilization.

But it’s not true. And it’s not real. And it’s ok for us to know that, to remember it, and to train ourselves to never forget it.

It is my belief that this knowledge, instilled at an early age, will not only stave off many types of maliciousness in people, but will also imbue people with a deep sense of compassion and empathy.

That’s an empirical claim, and some think that it’s been debunked by a recent study, but I think there’s a good explanation for its results, which you can read about here:
... Nahmias, just like Harris, is trying to turn it [free will] into a technical notion, and it makes no sense to tell someone that they can't use a technical notion some such way, especially if they make the notion clear.
As for moral responsibility, this really isn't my issue, and there might be something to be said for its relationship to free will, but from what little I've read of the philosophical dialogue, some matters seem very confused...
I think moral responsibility is the main (only?) reason the topic is worth debating. Responsibility permeates and underpins nearly every component of our society, from taxation to criminal justice. That’s why I think it’s so critical an issue.
How are the people who make use of the term 'moral responsibility' using it?...
Great point. I like simplicity:

“Having a solid, truth-based justification for assigning praise or blame to someone based on the fact that they could have done otherwise but chose to do the right or wrong thing.”

That probably sounds like a stacked deck, given the piece in there about “could have done otherwise”, but if you look at the built-in intuition for anyone giving praise or blame, that is PRECISELY what they hinge upon.

Wow, never realized this before. Check this out.

In fact, this is highly instructive for both commonsense free will and commonsense moral responsibility.

Ask any normal person what it means to be free, or to have free will, and they will say it means, “You can choose which option to take. To do the good thing or to do the bad thing.”

Well, unfortunately, that’s PRECISELY the one thing that you can’t have because of determinism (which compatibilists even agree with!).

And now with moral responsibility:

Ask any normal person why someone should be punished or rewarded and it will always reduce to one thing:

If it’s punishment it looks like this: “Because they had the option to do the right thing, and they chose incorrectly.”

If it’s praise it looks like this: “Because they had the option to do the selfish/evil thing, and they chose to do the right thing.”

And in both cases that’s PRECISELY the one thing they didn’t have the option to do.

So the question that compatibilism MUST be dealing with, to make any sense, is not what is true, but what it is best to believe.

And I’m not saying that to demean it. It might well be a great endeavor, or even superior to the truth. These are things I haven’t explored.

But the one thing we seem unable to say about it is that it’s true.

So perhaps the entire debate comes down to a mismatch of goals. Perhaps incompatibilists are pursuing truth, and compatibilists are pursuing the best way to live. This would seem to make sense given the types of people who line up on each side.

Interesting. We should explore this more.

And now for your questions:
Is it supposed to be a technical notion or commonsense notion?...
If we’re dealing with truth, technical.

If we’re dealing with what’s best to believe, probably commonsense? I don’t know, I’m just thinking here.
If it's a commonsense notion, how is 'moral responsibility' different from 'responsibility’?...
It’s not. It’s a matter of context. You can be responsible for something that doesn’t have any moral implications, and we just call that responsible. And where there are moral implications of an action for which someone was responsible, we talk about moral responsibility.
If it's the same concept, then why call it 'moral responsibility’?...
See above.
If it's a different concept but supposed to be about something commonsensical, why is the phrase 'moral responsibility' not part of the vernacular? ...
It is. Different terms are just used.

“He deserved what he got.” is a statement dripping with commonsense moral responsibility, as is, “This isn’t fair. It wasn’t even his fault!”

Our common dialogue is actually full of moral responsibility; we just don’t use the term.
(I haven't done this, but I imagine that if you did a search through linguistic corpora, like the Corpus of Contemporary American English, say, you probably wouldn't find the phrase moral responsibility outside of philosophical discussion. And if this is right, this ought to tell us something, namely that the concept is esoteric and its usage a bit idiosyncratic, and so clearly in need of explanation.)...
See above.
If it's supposed to be paired with the concept of 'free will,' which conception is it being paired with--Harris's or Nahmias's or neither? And so on. 
I actually think that much of the discussion we had previously, and that I've had in life regarding free will, has mostly been at cross-purposes and not actually incongruous. I've got more reason than not to believe that we are in fact fellow travelers.
I quite agree.

Looking forward to your thoughts on the above.



Letter # 4: BP's comments

Hello, Daniel:

You bring up a lot of points, and to answer them all would get weird and knit-picky and spiral off fractal-like.

At least we know where the main impasse is. For you, a concept like free will has to do with moral responsibility. But in my view, there's no logical entailment because free will doesn't pick out a natural kind. You think it does. Ne'er the twain shall meet on this.

You give a definition of what moral responsibility is, something like justified true belief for assigning praise or blame. You build into the definition that what would count as MR would have to do with whether a person could have done otherwise in a given situation. Fine, but now you have nothing to investigate. If you accept this definition plus the view that nobody could have ever done otherwise, then you already know the answer. In my view, outside of some definition or other (like your definition, e.g.), moral responsibility doesn't pick out a natural kind. You've given it a definition but one that closes down inquiry. You or anybody else is free to define it that way but to what end?

To avoid vagueness, I'll say this... In elementary school, after the Pledge of Allegiance, we had to say my school's pledge, and it began "I'm responsible for my actions..." I take it as a truism that each person is responsible for her actions and the foreseeable consequences of her actions. People are free to disagree with this, so I won't claim universal acceptance of this as a principle. But for someone who finds that compelling as a commonsense principle, and assuming that person also thinks we all have a relative capacity to act on or from thoughts, principles, or desires, then it ought to guide that person's actions. I confess that here there's nothing to investigate here, except for when the capacity to act from thoughts, principles, or desires diminishes. That's when you have problem cases like drunk drivers, people held at gunpoint, or sci-fi cases like evil geniuses. I question the notion that there's further clarification to these sorts of commonsense concepts, that there's some systematic way in which you could deal with them.

The reason I question the possibility for further clarification is because for something to be a natural kind, it seems to me it would have to fit into an explanatory framework and be able to predict behavior or phenomena. It would have to do this beyond common sense because it's quite likely that we already have a number of faculties devoted to understanding the world, for example, understanding our selves and other people, space and motion, and so on. If it doesn't contribute anything beyond what we're hardwired to understand, I don't really see the point. And I should note the more 'mathematizable' the theory the better, although realistically this is far too tall an order for most of the social sciences.

On another note, if Harris's argument has any force for making us feel more compassionate toward criminals and those around us, it's because it reminds us of how fragile a capacity to act from thoughts, principles, desires, etc. really is. For me and likely for others (although I can't speak for everybody), it reminds us of the relative in relative capacity, and the moral force does not come (at least for me) from the fact that the capacity doesn't exist (and Harris admits that it does) but rather from the fact that it can come in greater or lesser degrees. Now that's the sticking point, where the rubber meets the road for me regarding this capacity and how it is we adjudicate reward and punishment. But I don't think that's something you can decide a priori, or that you can deduce. You have to talk it out and come to an understanding about it.

And I should mention that from this sticking point come a lot of my major concerns: poverty and income inequality, democracy, and social and economic freedom. Now, it would be nice for my own sake if I could just show the people who could make a difference with regard these public policy issues some set of axioms or basic principles and some deductions but there aren't any. Often with regard these matters, the empirical facts are in and the frameworks are more or less understood. It's just that some people have a vested interest in not making changes to public policy re these issues.

Best wishes, and Happy Lunar New Year,

Billie Pritchett

1 comment:

  1. HI Billie, thanks for posting this.

    I look forward to continuing the conversation.

    Here's another piece that may help explain my position:

    It's all about how one defines free will and moral responsibility, as we have known for centuries.

    So before anyone starts this discussion they should lay out what they mean by these terms an THEN present why they believe that standard is missed or achieved.