(Article originally published in 2005 Journal of Consciousness Studies 12(1) 76-95: journal web page: http://www.imprint.co.uk/jcs.html)
I am very grateful to the commentators for their consideration of my target article. I found their comments thought-provoking and challenging, but I am not persuaded that any substantial departure is required from the views I expressed in the article. I will respond to each comment in turn, and then I will briefly review how my nine propositions have fared.
The first commentator, Graham Cairns-Smith, seems sympathetic to my position, and even allows that it is possible; though he himself leans towards a ‘somewhat weaker’ version.
He agrees with me that feelings contribute to our behaviour, but suggests that feelings might be part of a ‘piece of clockwork’, driving each other (and presumably contributing to our actions) like cogwheels. This is a possibility I acknowledge; but I ask, why pain, if the same result could be achieved by unfeeling cogwheels, or computations? And I also ask, if particular gestalt experiences contribute to behaviour, can they engage with other ‘cogwheels’ so as to contribute automatically, or do they require a subject to experience them and respond?
Cairns-Smith’s analogy of evolution is interesting; but unless and until a satisfactory account can be given of the place of conscious feelings in the generation of behaviour, evolutionary explanations of the emergence of consciousness will be deficient; and the use of the analogy of evolution to illuminate the development of an autonomous human personality will likewise be deficient.
In my article, I said that each person is the same in respect of capacity to choose, and Cairns-Smith says this sounds odd. But all I am saying is that every difference between persons is embodied (or at least reflected) in physical differences that affect the alternatives available and their respective probabilities; and although each person has the capacity to select from available alternatives, there are no further differences between persons beyond those embodied or reflected in their physical differences.
I am indebted to Cairns-Smith for the beautiful quotation from Shakespeare’s Iago. My position, however, is that there is no gardener distinct from the garden: the garden must cultivate itself.
I am particularly grateful to Tom Clark for providing a response to my paper that forcefully expresses a version of the mechanistic viewpoint favoured by many, perhaps most, scientists and philosophers.
A central disagreement I have with him concerns his use of the expression ‘black box’ as applying to my account of free will. It suggests that I am proposing that, in the production of choices, there operates a discrete system, as to which no explanation is or can be given of what happens inside it, whereas a complete explanation can be given of the inputs to this system and of what happens to the outputs of the system. I think this misapprehends my account in two important ways.
First, Clark’s black box terminology attributes to my account a separation, into discrete parts, of one element of choice-making that is mechanistic and another distinct element that is not mechanistic, a separation that my account in fact strongly rejects. I say that choice-making can be considered as an exercise of informal rationality, and thereby understood as a process in which a rational agent makes a choice on the basis of reasons that were, prior to the choice, inconclusive. Alternatively, choice-making can be considered as if it were a mechanistic process, either in terms of physical processes evolving in accordance with laws of nature, or in terms of computation-like algorithms. However, if my position is correct, any mechanistic approach to choice-making can at best explain what alternatives are available and give numerical probabilities, and must treat the occurrence of just one of the alternatives as a matter of chance within those probability parameters. I certainly do not suggest a ‘black box’ that determines which alternative occurs, after mechanistic processes run out. Rather, I say that the mechanistic approach gives an incomplete account of a whole process that can best be understood in terms of a choice made for reasons.
Second, Clark’s approach suggests I am proposing something wholly inexplicable and incapable of being understood, whereas I fact I say we are very familiar with and have a reasonable understanding of informal rationality; and I would also contend that this understanding can be further developed and improved. Clark himself suggests that our rational processes are ‘perhaps only fully understood at the representational, not physical, level’; and it is clear that, except in so far as our rational processes are algorithmic at the representational level, at that level those processes are indeterministic because premisses do not wholly constrain conclusions. The difference between his position and mine on this point is not that I propose some mysterious black box that takes over where algorithms run out, but rather that I suggest that our informal rationality, which (as Clark and I agree) we understand pretty well at the representational level, is truly explanatory and causally efficacious; whereas Clark seems to say that it merely supervenes on some underlying mechanistic process that we do not fully understand (Clark’s black box?).
Another important disagreement between us arises from Clark’s suggestion that the conscious self is but one of the contents of consciousness. Now, I accept that many of us may be fundamentally mistaken as to the nature of the subject of experience, for example in so far as we take this subject to be distinct from associated brain processes and/or to have continuity and stability and capacity to be active; and that some of our ideas about these matters may be no more than fallible contents of consciousness. But the idea that experiences are had by a subject (rather than being somehow ‘free-floating’) is so deeply presupposed and embedded in our language and in our ways of thinking that to deny this, without proposing a language concerning experiences that does not have this presupposition, is nonsense. In our language, ‘pain’ means ‘pain as experienced by some feeler of pain’ and cannot be understood in any other way; and the same goes for any other references to and descriptions of conscious experiences.
It could be argued that our language is in this respect not adequate to accurately reflect or describe reality; but Clark makes no suggestion as to why this might be so, much less any plausible proposal for a new language that does a better job. In fact the only faintly plausible strategy that has been proposed for talking and thinking about experiences in a way that does not presuppose a subject that has the experiences, is the suggestion that experiences are useful fictions. (This seems to be Dennett’s position.) This avoids the contradiction of asserting there are experiences but denying there is a subject; but does so at the cost of denying that there really are experiences – that is, denying that there really are contents of consciousness.
Turning to more specific points, I do not suggest that volitional causation is special to human agents. Rather, I say that there is volitional causation wherever there is consciousness; although I also say that free will, as generally understood, requires rationality of the order of that possessed by human agents.
I do not overlook ‘the possibility that (eg) pain has a particular subjective feel because of the functional and representational roles of the neural states that constitute it’; but I do consider it highly implausible. I believe this possibility is the merest speculation, in the absence of any account of how or why algorithmic computations could involve subjective feelings such as pain, or of what would distinguish algorithmic computations that involved such feelings from algorithmic computations that did not involve such feelings. Further, it is close to being disproved by scientific work on such things as phantom limbs and synaesthesia, where feelings occur in the absence of their usual causal roles.
I do not say, as Clark suggests, that choice is determined by the self and not by the reasons. I say that neither the self nor the reasons (nor indeed both of them together) pre-determine the choice, but that the subject and the reasons together determine the choice (by the subject making the choice for the reasons). It is a self-refuting fallacy to say that, if reasons are non-conclusive, there is no reason why the self reaches the choice it does – self-refuting because to deny the rationality of all reasoning apart from reasoning in which the reasons are conclusive is to deny the rationality of all informal reasoning, and thus to deny the supportability of most of our beliefs. I accept that it is possible that our informal reasoning is supported by processes that are algorithmic/computational, but we certainly do not know that this is so; and in order to have any confidence in our beliefs, we must accept the rationality of our informal reasoning, whether or not it is supported by algorithmic/computational processes. And of course I do not suggest that the rules of formal reasoning are unimportant – only that they do not account for all human rationality.
I do not deny that very often, perhaps most of the time, people find reasons for acting well (or badly) to be compelling, so that action in accordance with those reasons follows almost inevitably. The circumstance that the likelihood of any different action may be near zero (whether considered in terms of a numerical probability derived from physical laws, or some more generally understood likelihood based on a high-level agent-centred account) does not mean these actions are not freely chosen.
Clark claims that any indeterministic slack between the influence of reasons and behavioural output would decrease the efficacy of goal-directed action. This of course presupposes that our informal rationality depends entirely on computational algorithms – which might be the case, but is not certainly so and is contrary to my contentions. In my paper I give a specific reason why ‘indeterministic slack’ may contribute to efficacy, a reason which Clark does not address – namely, that it leaves room for a conscious organism to respond appropriately to particular gestalt experiences, grasped as a whole, and not merely to general features that can engage with natural laws or computational algorithms.
Clark says that to compete against mainstream evolutionary explanations, I ‘must explain precisely how evolution installed the black box of free will and what indispensable function it serves’. This is a bit rich, when the mainstream explanations have totally failed to explain what installed subjective consciousness or what function it serves, whereas my account does at least propose a function for consciousness.
Clark suggests I say that the totality of the way a person is does not determine the outcome, whereas in fact I say that it does not pre-determine the outcome: as noted above, I say that the outcome is determined by the subject choosing on the basis of reasons. And in focussing on the capacity to select as being the determinant, Clark is again misconstruing my position: I say as plainly as I can that the capacity to select, as to which we are all the same, is not a severable part of the totality of the way we are; and I certainly do not say that the ‘us’ that provides the clincher is unaffected by differences between different persons. The clincher is provided by the totality choosing on the basis of the reasons.
Early in his comment, Ravi Gomatam says this:
This immediately raises a difficulty with Hodgson’s position. His opening stance that his plain-person-view of free will is incompatible with the determinism of classical physics would be true only if he also considers deterministic physics to give the full story about all causation that there is. Hodgson clearly doesn’t believe in this, since he thinks volitional causation is over and beyond physical causation. These two stances appear contradictory.
I find this puzzling. Classical physics is generally seen as purporting to give deterministic laws of universal application, that operate in the real world so as to prescribe a unique path of development for any actual physical situation; and this surely is incompatible with a plain person’s view of free will. So on that basis, my ‘opening stance’ is true; and the fact that I don’t believe classical physics gives the full story about causation does not contradict this stance.
Gomatam supports the view that the scientific law is a short-hand way of representing regularities amidst our experiences, and that the identity between the ‘physical object’ (presumably, any object described by any physical theory) and the corresponding ‘common-sense object’ is not perfect; and he argues that accordingly even the determinism of classical physics is not incompatible with non-deterministic non-random free will. Of course, once one rejects any claim of classical physics that its laws exactly correspond with laws operating in the real world, this is correct. However, I do believe that there are natural laws operating in the real world, to which the laws proposed in physical theories approximate ever more closely as theories are developed and improved; and it is appropriate to consider how ideas about free will can relate to the operation of these real laws in the real world, even though we do not know and may never know these real laws with absolute precision.
I agree with Gomatam that my first three propositions are necessary but not sufficient conditions for conscious free will; but I do not think that quantum theory shows that the second and third of them apply to all physical systems. I believe however that my first five propositions together give conditions that are sufficient as well as necessary for conscious free will.
I take issue with Gilberto Gomes where he says that I believe ‘free will is incompatible with natural causation’. I say rather that natural causation is not limited to the evolution of systems as determined by laws of nature coupled with randomness; that is, I say that choice is part of natural causation, as proposed by my proposition 5.
Gomes also asserts that ‘if conscious processes of free will are another aspect of physical processes of the brain, it is hard to see how they could escape being subject to physical causation.’ But I don’t say that they do escape: I say that physical causation limits the available alternatives, and also the reasons on the basis of which choices are made. Just as the physical aspect of the process imposes constraints not fully explicable in terms of the conscious aspect, the conscious aspect can by choice impose constraints not fully explicable in terms of the physical aspect.
He also says I believe ‘that physical determinism plus randomness cannot account for “the subject’s particular gestalt experiences that are part of the pre-choice state”’. I do not say this. As explained in some detail in Hodgson (2002), I believe that laws plus randomness do account for, in the sense of giving rise to, particular gestalt experiences. What I say is that these particular gestalt experiences cannot themselves then engage with laws, and that accordingly QM statistics cannot take into account such experiences as wholes, and laws and randomness cannot account for all their effects.
I entirely agree with Gomes that conscious judgment may be a naturally caused non-algorithmic process. But if Gomes accepts that this is so, he needs to explain how a process can be wholly determined by rules and randomness, and yet be both rational and non-algorithmic. It may be the case that our informal rationality is based on law-governed processes that we do not understand, selected through millions of years of evolution – but if so, such processes would in my book be algorithmic.
I also agree with Gomes that ‘our control’ may be included in antecedent natural causes. What I say is that there are powerful reasons for thinking that the way our control is exercised is not itself simply a function of our pre-choice state plus laws of nature and randomness.
Liberty Jaswal argues that I fail to address the challenge arising from the ‘constraint within QM … that the character in which an event occurs must be random’; and that because I stipulate that choice is non-random, my account of free will violates QM by definition.
It is true that standard interpretations of QM assert that events occur at random within probability parameters; but there are other ‘hidden variable’ interpretations, notably that of David Bohm, that assert that randomness is only apparent, the appearance being caused by limitations on what we can know. My approach would challenge standard interpretations in so far as they suggest that QM requires randomness; and also ‘hidden variable’ interpretations, in so far as they suggest that the underlying reality is deterministic.
What I say is that, if one accepts that QM can do no more than give the best available account of how systems develop over time, based on the application of rules to physical features, then no violation of QM is involved in an account that says that what is chosen will be possible according to QM, and will tend to conform to QM statistics, with any deviation from those statistics being explained by the ability of the choosing system to take account of gestalts with which no rules (QM or otherwise) can engage.
As Robert Kane says, there is much that he and I agree on. However, there may be an important difference between us concerning my proposition 5, and its relationship to randomness and to conformity to physical laws. This may in turn give rise to somewhat different approaches to the question of agent causation, although I don’t have any significant disagreement with what Kane says on this topic in his response.
In my article, I suggest that it is an important and positive feature of our rationality that it is indeterministic; and that outcomes that are chosen could be more advantageous than outcomes that occur randomly in accordance with QM statistics. Kane says this would mean that choices must fail to conform to the statistical laws of QM. I said much the same in my target article, but I now think this is incorrect. Statistics only give a high probability that results (say, ‘yes’ or ‘no’) will conform to certain proportions, and say nothing about which occasions will have one result (‘yes’) and which will have the other (‘no’). Non-random selection could give a higher likelihood that the result ‘yes’ will occur on those occasions when ‘yes’ would be advantageous, and that the result ‘no’ will occur on those occasions when ‘no’ would be advantageous, without necessarily altering their proportions. Certainly, I contend, a demonstrated departure from QM statistics is unlikely in the extreme, because the felt strength of reasons is likely to reflect QM probabilities, and because of the complexity and uniqueness of pre-choice states (see Hodgson 1999).
However, I accept that my position makes a choice-caused deviation from QM statistics possible; and I argue that this would not be a violation of physical laws but a limitation on their applicability. Against this, Kane argues that, if there were such a limitation, there must then be further physical laws that do apply, which will themselves be either deterministic or statistical.
In relation to this, what I suggest is that there may be different types of physical laws – that there may be not only laws that constrain outcomes (laws of constraint), but also laws that determine in what circumstances physical systems can select outcomes from those left available by the laws of constraint (laws of empowerment). There may also be laws that assist or guide systems in making their selections (laws of guidance). My suggestion is that consciousness and capacity to select are two sides of the same coin, emerging in evolution and in the development of individual systems just as determined by laws of empowerment. Laws of guidance would be at best dimly grasped by primitive conscious systems, but grasped progressively more completely as the rationality of conscious systems increases.
No doubt some would call this panicky metaphysics; but before they do so, I would ask that they carefully read the two articles (Hodgson 2001, 2002) in which I introduce and develop these ideas. I suggest that these ideas are plausible and have considerable explanatory power, although of course they themselves raise further questions.
So, when I talk about a limitation on the applicability of the laws of QM, what I am saying is that the those laws may give the best possible explanation of outcomes based on all features with which laws of constraint can engage, by way of determining what outcomes are possible, and giving an indication of their numerical probabilities that is the best possible on the basis of those features. However, I argue that no laws can engage with gestalt features of particular experiences: and that if, as seems to me highly plausible, such features enter into the making of conscious choices, their contribution cannot be determined by any rules. This contribution can only be understood as one element (and not a severable element) in the plausible reasoning of a conscious subject.
There is also much about which Nicholas Maxwell and I agree, but there are areas of fundamental disagreement.
One such area concerns the formulation of problems. I am extremely wary of saying categorically what are the fundamental problems in various areas of philosophy, including free will. There are many problems and many issues, and I think it is often a mistake to say that some are fundamental and others are not. It may be that investigation does show that some problems are more fundamental than others; but I am doubtful whether we can yet make that judgment about the various problems and issues concerning free will discussed by Maxwell.
I certainly do not assume that the central philosophical issue about free will is whether or not it is compatible with determinism, although I do believe this is one important issue. I believe that another important issue is what if any versions of free will are compatible with what modern science tells us about the world. However, I do not agree with Maxwell that this is the proper way to formulate the problem. It is one issue alongside and related to the free will / determinism issue, and both issues are important.
I believe that the possibility that the universe is physically comprehensible, in the sense that everything that we experience, think and do has a complete physical explanation, requiring no mention of our intentions, desires and decisions, is a threat to free will; but I do not agree with Maxwell that it is the real threat. There are other important threats, including I believe threats associated with acceptance of determinism (or the combination of determinism and randomness) and with dilemmas about responsibility such as those powerfully put by Galen Strawson.
Maxwell’s first suggested characterization of free will (FW1) is as the capacity to realize (that is, to apprehend or make real) what is of value in a range of circumstances. He says this capacity can be misused; and indeed I would contend that in fact any plausibility of identifying this capacity with free will depends on a tacit assumption that a person having this capacity can exercise it so as to realize what is of value to a greater or lesser extent, or not at all. It is this assumed flexibility, or availability of choice, in the exercise of this capacity, not the realizing of what is of value as such, that links this capacity to free will. What identifying free will with this capacity does is essentially to limit the concept to areas where its exercise may be of moral (or perhaps aesthetic) significance. It does not contribute to the resolution of issues such as whether free will is compatible with determinism or with what science tells us, or how to draw the line between what if anything we are truly responsible for and what we are not responsible for.
Maxwell’s second characterization of free will (FW2) is as control by our authentic self of our inner and outer actions; so that those actions are free which are correctly explained as being produced and guided by this authentic self. I think the idea of control carries with it the idea of being able to direct actions as we choose, and that again any plausibility of this characterization depends heavily upon the tacit assumption of the availability of choice. Further, I think that the notion of an authentic self is unsatisfactory in that it is either circular and vacuous or else excludes important cases from being exercises of free will. Take for example a decision to reform. A person’s long history of wrongdoing may be such that his or her ‘authentic self’ must be considered one that overvalues the fruits of wrongdoing and undervalues the worth of a good life. If that person decides to reform, there may be nothing in the person’s history prior to this choice that would justify describing the decision as an exercise of control by the person’s authentic self. If it be contended that the person’s authentic self is that which is manifested by the decision to reform, this would make circular and vacuous the identification of authentic selves for the purpose of determining whether free action is occurring.
Maxwell says it is ‘wildly implausible’ to suggest that physical events occur that cannot be fully explained physically. I do indeed suggest this: I say that the physical explanations of conscious choices can only go so far as to give the available alternatives and the probability parameters for each of them, while explanations in terms of a choice made for reasons by a conscious agent an give an understanding why one of the alternatives occurred rather than any of the others. Indeed, I say that the choice does actually do what physical processes considered as such cannot do, namely determine which of the alternatives actually does occur. Maxwell says this is wildly implausible because it would mean that evolutionary processes (being presumably, until the appearance of conscious agents, processes in which there can be no incompleteness of physical explanations) lead (with the appearance of conscious agents) to the occurrence of physical events that do not have a full physical explanation.
This is an aspect of the problem of emergence, which is indeed a difficult one; but its difficulties are not peculiar to incompatibilist versions of free will. There is the parallel problem of how physical processes, fully describable in an objective and third-person way, give rise through evolution to conscious processes, which are adequately describable only by reference to a subjective first-person point of view. And Maxwell’s own version of compatibilism faces a similar problem (albeit perhaps in a milder form), namely how it is that physical processes give rise to physical events that constitute or correspond with human actions, which actions themselves can be adequately explained only by way of what Maxwell calls personalistic explanations – that is, explanations in terms of experiences, beliefs and so on, which according to Maxwell can be intelligible, true, and irreducible to physical explanations. Maxwell addresses this problem at some length in Maxwell (2001).
I think that, if there are such personalistic explanations of human actions, as Maxwell contends, it is by no means implausible to suggest that they may add something to the explanation of the physical events to which the human actions correspond or correlate, and indeed that what the personalistic explanations describe may actually contribute to the causation of these events. In my target article and in other articles referred to in it, I give substantial positive reasons for believing that this is the case. Maxwell does not address these reasons, so his assertion of implausibility is given little support.
Maxwell concludes with a remark to the effect that I have not shown that my incompatibilist version of free will is more worth having than compatibilist versions of FW1 or FW2.
My purpose in my article was not to show that my version of free will is more worth having than other versions. Rather, it was to give an elaboration of what I took to be a plain person’s idea of free will, so as to make it philosophically and scientifically respectable – and to consider whether it was plausible as compared with other views. Maxwell has said that my version is implausible, and his last remark may be taken as suggesting that plausible compatibilist versions of free will (either FW1 or FW2) adequately reflect the plain person’s view, or at least capture what is worthwhile in the plain person’s view. Now I have already identified what I see as particular shortcomings with FW1 and FW2, notably that both gain plausibility because of an unstated assumption that choice is involved, that FW1 does no more than restrict the concept to areas of moral significance, and that the notion of authentic self in FW2 is unsatisfactory.
In addition, there is in my opinion a general problem with all theories that make free will compatible with acceptance of the view that all physical occurrences have complete physical explanations, to which personalistic explanations add nothing; namely, that this precludes any reasonable attributions of responsibility to persons, and in particular allocations of responsibility as between things that are in no sense up to us (our genes, our early upbringing, other environmental factors) and things that are in some sense at least up to us (our choices).
Galen Strawson argues forcefully that the way we act at any time is the result of the way we are at that time; that we cannot be truly responsible for the way we act at any time unless we are, to some extent at least, responsible for the way we are at that time; and that we cannot be to any extent responsible for the way we are unless we have been responsible for the way we have acted in the past – so we can never become responsible for the way we are or the way we act. In my opinion, if the physical events of the way we act are either determined uniquely by prior physical events and laws of nature, or else occur randomly within probability parameters that are so determined, there is no plausible answer to this argument. No distinction could be drawn between the hand of cards we are dealt by our genes and environment, and the way this hand is played. Life’s game would be like clock patience. Now I do not say that life’s game is like bridge, because that would suggest a dualism of players being distinct from the cards: I say rather that the cards, or some of them, play themselves, though not automatically or mechanistically.
I think it is only if choice contributes to what is determined by the existing hand of cards that Strawson’s dilemma can be overcome; so that it becomes possible to say that, yes, this person’s actions were influenced by and partly caused by genes and environment, but they were also partly the person’s choice, which itself was not fully pre-determined by genes and environment. It then becomes possible to say that the person is responsible, but the degree of responsibility (for good or ill) may be more or less, because of the influence of genes and environment. This is, I believe, part of a plain person’s view of free will, and an important part that is not captured by any compatibilist view.
In his comments, J. J. C. Smart raises questions about the definitions of determinism and chance, and also about the intelligibility of a positive characterization of free will that is neither determinism nor chance.
I fully agree with him that it would be wrong to equate determinism with predictability. I adopt a conception of determinism as involving the unique determination of what happens by prior conditions and laws of nature, and I think this conception is clear enough for the purposes of the free will debate. There can be disagreement about details, and no doubt there are technical issues I am skating over, but I believe this is similar in substance to the model theoretic approach that Smart endorses.
As for chance, my conception is that chance obtains where (1) prior conditions and laws of nature do not uniquely determine what happens, but determine only alternatives and probability parameters, and (2) what actually happens is the occurrence of one of these alternatives, with nothing else contributing to the determination of which alternative it is. As I understand it, this is broadly the conception of chance or randomness adopted in the standard approach to quantum mechanics (QM).
My positive conception of free will is that, as with chance, prior conditions and laws of nature determine alternatives and probability parameters, but (unlike chance) something else does contribute to the determination of what actually happens. This something else is not a separate or severable something just added on to the determination of alternatives and probability parameters, but rather an integral part of a whole process of conscious decision-making or acting, to which the determination of alternatives and probability parameters contributes, and by which one of the alternatives is selected. In this process, the person or other agent exercising free will may resolve inconclusive and incommensurable reasons supporting different alternatives. This positive conception is elaborated throughout my target article, particularly in relation to proposition 5.
Smart very quickly dismisses my contention that the non-locality of QM is required for the perception of gestalts, apparently because the span of the specious present is sufficient to accommodate communication between all parts of the brain involved in such perceptions. In Hodgson (1996) I said this about this argument:
In TMM at p384, I dealt with this by pointing out that our awareness of different aspects of viewed objects is not sequential: for example, if we see something even as simple as a red circle, the circleness and the redness are inextricably together, not successive, even though it seems clear that circle-detecting neurons are spatially separated from red-detecting neurons. So unless one supposes that it is all brought together in some red-circle-detecting neuron - which seems just about as unlikely as the once-postulated ‘grandmother neuron’, which was supposed to fire whenever one recognised one’s grandmother - one needs nonlocality to explain the all-at-once awareness of the red circle.
I still think this is a good argument, but the approach of this section permits another and broader argument. Granted that the psychological present has duration, it is still grasped as a whole, with co-consciousness of many elements: for example, a stable visual scene with both co-present properties and sequential changes, and slabs of auditory sequences such as spoken words or melodies. All these elements, corresponding to many events in different parts of the brain occurring during the relevant slab of time, are bracketed or chunked in the conscious experience. If our brains were systems which, for all practical purposes, operated on the basis of local causes obeying the requirements of relativity theory, then this bracketing or chunking by the brain itself would at best be superfluous and epiphenomenal - and an outside observer’s suggestion that this bracketing or chunking was performed in or by the system itself would be gratuitous, and eliminable by Occam’s razor.
I remain of this view. Of course, if one takes the position that the experience of gestalts is epiphenomenal (or, as Dennett would have it, fictional), then non-locality is not required. Otherwise, I believe, it is required.
Smart then focuses on my suggested classification of laws of nature. I do not agree that, in my classification, only C-laws express regularities. I say that all three classes express regularities of different kinds. In the case of C-laws, the regularities are those of constraint; in the case of E-laws, the regularities are those of empowerment; in the case of G-laws, the regularities are those of guidance. Thus, I would argue, E-laws are such that, whenever certain conditions are satisfied, there is a subject with the capacity to experience and act. Smart suggests that to postulate laws that are, like G-laws, in effect in the imperative mood, is to appeal to the supernatural or at least to retreat to a pre-scientific view of what laws of nature are. Plainly I have a wider conception of what is or may be natural than does Smart. And I believe that the wrongness of some things (such as torturing children for amusement) is more than a reflection of an evolutionary artefact and that there must, accordingly, be some kind of natural imperatives existing alongside the scientific laws of nature.
I disagree strongly with Smart’s suggestion that consciousness is awareness of awareness, with mere awareness being when we are on ‘automatic pilot’. I believe that consciousness involves the interdependent existence of a subject and contents of consciousness (that is, in general terms, a combination of subject-and-experiences), and that the qualitative ‘feel’ of the experiences to the subject is an important feature of consciousness. Whenever I actually feel pain, I contend, I am neither on automatic pilot nor just monitoring some other first-order ‘awareness’: I am feeling something having a distinctive quality, and I am conscious of this experience, whether or not I enter into any second-order monitoring of what I am feeling.
I also disagree strongly with Smart’s suspicion of ‘psychocentrism’. There is of course a sense in which conscious systems like human beings may be ‘small beer in the cosmic scheme of things’, namely in terms of physical quantities like size, mass, energy, distance, and so on. Yet even in purely physical terms, size isn’t everything; and it is widely accepted that the human brain is the most complex physical system known in the universe. More importantly, I think there is a vast difference between a universe without observers and a universe with observers. Although I don’t agree with those idealist thinkers who say that we can only conceive of a universe as observed, so that an unobserved universe is inconceivable, I do say that a universe without observers would be pointless in a way that our universe is not. In addition, there is the possibility suggested by QM that participation of observers is an essential feature of our universe; and there is also the view of many thinkers that the universe happens to be fined-tuned in just such a way as to permit the emergence of conscious intelligence. I think it is reasonable to believe that consciousness is very important in the scheme of things.
As regards the evolutionary selection of consciousness, Smart agrees that we have heightened consciousness when in a crisis, such as being approached by a man-eating tiger; but he suggests this is because there are advantages in monitoring one’s awareness. I disagree: I think the heightened consciousness is of what is going on around us, and of possibilities for action in the world that may avoid or minimise the danger, rather than any monitoring of our own awareness, which would seem to be of little direct benefit in the circumstances.
I’m not sure what part of my article Smart is referring to when he says I elucidate free will as being guided by reasons as opposed to causes. In fact, I believe reasons, or at least reasons-as-apprehended-by-a-subject, are causes of a kind; but that they are different from physical causes particularly because they are inconclusive and often incommensurable, and have causal efficacy only in so far as they are given effect to through the decisions or actions of conscious subjects. Physical causes, on the other hand, operate automatically, and in their totality conclusively, so as to bring about either a unique result or (where chance or free will is relevant) a situation where there are alternatives with determined probabilities, just one of which occurs.
Smart endorses a weak kind of fatalism, based on the four-dimensional world of relativity in which the future exists tenselessly, just as real as the past. I think the jury is out on that one: although it seems that quantum non-locality cannot be used to support faster-than-light communications, quantum non-locality does suggest that there may be simultaneity of space-like separated events according to some preferred frame of reference (see Davies and Brown 1986 at 48-50, Bell 1987); and thus it suggests that, although the four-dimensional world of relativity may remain a useful model, it does not fully capture the true relationship between space and time.
Finally, Smart suggests that compatibilist theories of punishment may be more humane than retributive theories, and in any event we are concerned with truth not morality. I have discussed in Hodgson (1998) and (2000) what I see as problems for wholly utilitarian theories of punishment; and although I agree that this does not directly impact on questions of the truth of the plain person’s conception of free will and responsibility, I do think it does bear on questions of the onus and standard of proof. I think this plain person’s conception is important in the defence of human rights, and that it should not be dismissed without convincing proof – which is not yet forthcoming.
I agree with Sean A. Spence that, if philosophers wish to address the basis of will, they will increasingly need to understand neurobiology. However, I contend that, if neurobiologists wish to draw conclusions from neurobiology as to the efficacy, or non-efficacy, of what feel to be conscious choices, they should attend carefully to the reasoning by which they draw those conclusions, and to philosophical considerations that may bear on that reasoning.
In his response to my paper, Spence seems to suggest that demonstration that brain function imposes ‘constraints’ on our choices, or that choices are not ‘independent’ of brain function or of genes, would be contrary to my position – whereas in fact my position fully accepts those propositions. Spence seems to concede this at one point, but then elsewhere seems to disregard it.
I do not, as Spence suggests, equate an experience with its own causation. Our feeling of making a choice is an aspect of physical-and-mental processes that have causal antecedents in prior processes – although I suggest that these prior processes only pre-determine the available alternatives and their probabilities. The progress of the choice and its outcome are contributed to by the choice-making itself; and to that extent (only), the choice-making (though not the feeling of choice-making) can be considered as causing itself. However, as I have said a number of times in these responses, I certainly do not propose that there is ‘something special which sits at the end of the causal chain, which makes the decision’; rather, I say that the choosing subject is a totality, having features with which causal laws can engage, but also (and inseverably) having a capacity to choose.
I did not undertake in my paper to give a critique of opposing views, but rather to give a clear statement of the plain person’s view (which is essentially my view); so it is perhaps understandable that my critique of opposing views might be seen as cursory. To my mind, Spence’s critique of my position is cursory in that it does not squarely address the main support for my position and the main shortcoming in mechanistic views such as his own, namely the problem of explaining consciousness and its function(s). Spence’s main argument against my position is to the effect that the feeling of conscious choice is merely a feeling that accompanies the mechanistic working out of physical processes that preceded it. But if this is right, then what function does consciousness have? All Spence can suggest is that ‘its role may be to acquaint us with what has just occurred, and thereby to influence (through feedback mechanisms) what is next to be done’. Let us look a little more closely at this.
The words ‘acquaint us’ suggest that the ‘feedback mechanisms’ may involve some contribution from ‘us’; but if so, why and how could this contribution be any different from the contribution ‘we’ make at the time of action, that is, in Spence’s opinion, no more than an illusory feeling, accompanying the mechanistic working out of physical processes. To put this another way, if ‘we’ can make a contribution, by way of some kind of choice or decision, to the operation of feedback mechanisms, this means there must be something about conscious processes that makes them more than a reflection of the working out of physical processes; and there is then no reason why that ‘something’ cannot be active, as it feels to be, at the time of actual decisions and actions.
So it would seem that, despite the words ‘acquaint us’, Spence is really talking about some automatic process that involves no element of choice or decision. But if so, what role does consciousness have in such an automatic process? Does it operate by engaging with laws other than the ordinary laws of physics, and if so what laws? And if they are laws additional to physical laws, what room do the physical laws leave for their operation? Does consciousness operate otherwise than through computational algorithms that are carried out in accordance with the operation of physical laws on the system carrying out those algorithms? If so, why and how? If not, what contribution does consciousness make to the performance of algorithms?
I believe that, to be coherent, Spence has to deny a role for consciousness, even in feedback mechanisms; and his views, like most mechanistic views, ultimately collapse into epiphenomenalism. Like many neuroscientists, Spence is strong and persuasive when giving an account of neural mechanisms, but to my mind wholly unconvincing when trying to explain consciousness and its role in our behaviour.
Turning to Libet, I do not suggest that a choice between doing something and doing nothing is trivial. However, it is different from cases where two or more alternative actions are being actively considered. And although Spence says the ‘same effect’ can be seen in such cases, I do not understand him to be saying that physical changes observed prior to the feeling of making the choice indicate which alternative will be chosen. That could be damaging to my position. But I understand Spence to be saying merely that, prior to the choice, physical processes can be observed that correlate to choosing when to act and other physical processes can be observed that correlate to choosing which way to act; and that does no harm to my position.
Even in the case where the choice is between doing something and doing nothing, the role of consciousness is not excluded. A conscious decision is made to press a button at some time in the future. Pursuant to that decision, brain activity later occurs, that makes immediately available the alternatives of pressing the button or not doing so. Since a decision to press was made earlier, it is very unlikely that the alternative of not pressing will be chosen. The conscious process in effect confirms that the pressing is to go ahead. One does not look for some separate brain process that might explain a veto, if it occurred – in the unlikely case that a choice is made not to go ahead with the pressing, it is one of the alternatives made available by the same brain activity that made available the alternative of immediately pressing the button.
Henry Stapp makes two main points in his comment on my article: first, he argues that choice should be located squarely in the particular QM process that von Neumann called Process 1; and second, he challenges my suggestion that choices cannot be accounted for by strict rules of any kind. I will consider these in turn.
In my article, I say that, according to QM, any indeterminism is mere randomness. Stapp rightly points out that, in the von Neumann formulation of QM, there is at least the potential for indeterminism that is not mere randomness. This is because, in that formulation, QM has three processes: the deterministic development of a system in accordance with the Schroedinger equation, the Process 1 probing of the system, and the random occurrence of one of the possible outcomes. And as Stapp points out, there are no presently known laws that govern choices concerning what Process 1 probing is to be undertaken; and such choices can strongly influence the course of physical events. A good example of this is the quantum Zeno (or ‘watched pot never boils’) effect: frequent measurements of a quantum system can reduce to near-zero the chances of a change occurring within a certain time, which otherwise would have significant probability if the system were measured only at the end of that time. Stapp postulates that experiential qualities enter in a non-redundant and non-eliminable way into Process 1 choices, and in that way significantly affect what happens.
This is an approach that is generally consistent with my position, although my understanding of QM and of the brain is insufficient for me either to reject it or to wholly embrace it.
One difficulty I have with Stapp’s approach is that it may require some lack of correlation between Process 1 choices and physical processes in the brain. To be consistent, Stapp should I think accept that physical processes in the brain are themselves subject to QM, in its three aspects. If the transition from the pre-choice state to the post-choice state in Process 1 choices did correlate wholly with such processes, it would seem that these choices themselves must be caused by some combination of deterministic development, prior Process 1 choices and random outcomes – and those Process 1 choices would be similarly caused, and so on. Any ‘non-redundant and non-eliminable’ role for experiential qualities would then seem to be pushed indefinitely into the past and thus effectively excluded. On the other hand, if the transition process in Process 1 choices does not correlate with physical processes themselves subject to QM, in its three aspects, then a question arises as to why only Process 1 choices, and not other elements of the subject’s volitional decision or action, have this lack of correlation with physical processes subject to QM.
Accordingly, at present I prefer to take a broader view, and not to commit to associating choice with von Neumann’s Process 1, rather than any other process not required by QM to be deterministic.
Stapp suggests that it is inconsistent with QM to treat as non-random any process that according to QM is random. However, I would argue that it is inconsistent only with certain interpretations of QM; and I see my position rather as accepting that QM (and subsequent developments of quantum theory) tells us everything that can be gleaned from physical quantities, but cannot tell us about the impact of non-physical properties. It can tells us what alternatives are available, and give probabilities for them; but those probabilities are themselves based solely on physical quantities and conceivably could be affected by experiential qualities that QM can say nothing about. In particular, since QM can only apply to general physical quantities, it cannot say anything about what if any effect unique experiential gestalts may have. Thus, I see my position not as being inconsistent with QM, but rather as saying it cannot tell us everything.
Stapp’s second point has two aspects. First, he suggests that, unless the selection process is governed by strict rules, it could not produce pertinent determinate actions and beliefs. And second, he argues that personal responsibility is rooted in the immediate causes of an agent’s actions, and in particular that ‘it stems from the capacity of the agent to grasp and understand the consequences of its actions, and from its physical capacity to act in accordance with the freedom accorded to it by its inner nature, and in particular by the qualitative process that allows its actions to be controlled by sufficient willful effort’.
My initial reaction to this was to think that Stapp was arguing for a form of compatibilism of responsibility with determinism. However, on further reflection, I now do not think this is so. Rather, I suspect that any difference between us relates to our understanding of what it is for a selection process to be governed by strict rules.
I see my position as consistent with extensive philosophical literature that tends to support the view that human rationality transcends conformity with rules, including the work on induction by Hume, Popper, Hempel, Goodman and others; critiques of attempts such as those by Carnap to formalise plausible reasoning; Goedel’s theorem and Penrose’s development of it; Quine on indeterminacy of translation and Wittgenstein on rule-following; and Putnam’s arguments to the conclusion that human rationality cannot be formalised without formalising complete human psychology, and possibly not even then. This literature is not conclusive, and there remains the possibility that human rationality depends on evolution-selected computation-like processes; but the alternative view that I adopt does not deserve to be summarily dismissed.
In addition, in my arguments concerning proposition 5, which Stapp does not address, I have put forward positive reasons for thinking that this (that is, rationality that does not depend on conformity with rules) is just what consciousness is for; and also some suggestions as to how this is achieved. As I put it in Hodgson (2002):
If rationality is partly explained by our ability to grasp particular whole experiences, then our beliefs may be justified by many factors going beyond consistency with other data according to rules of logic, probability, and mathematics. Properties of experiences such as immediacy, clarity, vividness and consistency can support belief as to the reality of the apparent objects of experience. Beliefs can also be supported by properties such as coherence, profuseness of support, and proximity and similarity to accepted beliefs. We can reason by analogy on the basis of unanalysable similarities and differences between some gestalts and others. Theories underlying beliefs can be supported by properties such as coherence (again), simplicity and beauty.
Stapp criticises my position on the basis that rules are necessary if selection is to produce pertinent actions and beliefs; but in a private communication he has said that he is not thinking about rules that are implementable in mechanistic ways.
This may mean that the rules which Stapp suggests must support rational choices are not dissimilar from what I call laws of guidance, these being laws that do not operate automatically to constrain outcomes but rather guide conscious systems in selecting outcomes. Stapp’s communication continued:
I am writing a paper with Kathy Laskey on plausible reasoning by quantum agents, based on the propagation of beliefs by Baysian inference. The rules are nonmechanically and nonlocally implemented. I suspect that when it is worked out it will evade traditional philosophical arguments: various normal ideas about determinism will not hold, but there will be rules of a more general kind. I do not think that possibility deserves to be summarily dismissed.
This paper may clarify whether there is or is not any fundamental disagreement between us. Bayesian inference does follow rules that can be mechanically applied, but it depends on estimates of prior probabilities that cannot be mechanically arrived at. I have argued (Hodgson 1995) that such inference is best regarded as a useful check on the consistency of our estimates of probabilities, rather than as fully explaining or justifying informal reasoning. I remain of the view that informal reasoning may be guided by rules, but is not wholly determined by them.
Review of my Propositions
There was little direct attack on proposition 1, the alternatives requirement. However, plainly Clark, Maxwell, Smart and Spence would contend that any indeterminism that may be suggested by QM has nothing to do with voluntary action; and Jaswal contended that QM requires any departure from determinism be random, not chosen. My view that the existence of alternatives is relevant to free will was supported by Gomatam, Gomes (I think), Kane and Stapp.
Proposition 2, the consciousness requirement, was attacked most strongly by Spence, who suggested that neuroscience showed that the real decisions occur prior to any conscious awareness that a decision is being made. I think this grossly overstates what is shown by experiments such as those by Libet, and also inevitably leads to epiphenomenalism, which in my opinion is highly implausible. Gomatam, Kane and Stapp supported the view that it is essential to free voluntary actions and choices that they be made consciously. This appears also to be supported by the compatibilism of Gomes and Maxwell.
Proposition 3, the grasping requirement, attracted little direct comment. I remain of the view that, unless a person grasps, at least to some minimum extent, the availability of an alternative, there is no exercise of free will (although there may still be responsibility, because the action is the result of prior exercises of free will); and also that when we are conscious, we generally do in fact grasp the availability of alternatives, if only the alternative of doing nothing.
To my mind, it is an important and striking feature of our reasoning that we are conscious of reasons, and that generally these reasons are inconclusive. This seems to me particularly obvious when there are competing reasons that are incommensurable, as is often the case with plausible reasoning about what to believe. This view, expressed in proposition 4, was supported by Kane, but hardly noticed by anyone else. To me, this was disappointing, but not altogether surprising. The existence of a gap between reasons and decision is I believe a major problem for deterministic or mechanistic views. If epiphenomenalism is to be avoided, reasons must be efficacious; but it is difficult, indeed I believe impossible, to ascribe an efficacious role for inconclusive reasons in a mechanistic or deterministic account of human conduct.
Clark attempted to turn this around by suggesting that my position is falsified because people find reasons compelling, and act in accordance with compelling reasons; and he also suggested that what is unformalizable at the phenomenal level may be formalizable at the machine or design levels. But compelling is not conclusive, and it is part of rationality that even compelling reasons can sometimes be ignored or defeated. And Clark does not explain how what is formalizable at the machine or design level can be both unformalizable and also efficacious at the phenomenal level.
Proposition 5, the selection requirement, was opposed particularly by Clark and Smart, with Clark focussing on what he called the ’black box’ of decision-making, and Smart focussing on my suggested extension of the notion of a laws of nature, as well as on his difficulty in grasping a libertarian notion of free will. I need not add here to my comments on these objections, which in my opinion do not outweigh considerations in favour of proposition 5, particularly those numbered (1), (2), and (5) in my target article.
I was hoping for some direct consideration of the argument numbered (5), which as I mentioned in a footnote was introduced and developed in Hodgson (2001) and (2002). I find it compelling that there cannot be rules or laws that engage with whole gestalts, as distinct from their constituent features or parameters; so that if we can respond to whole gestalts, our response cannot be as pre-determined by rules or laws. For those who, like me, think that we probably can grasp and do respond to whole gestalts (such as a Schubert melody), this would both support indeterministic rationality and explain why such rationality could have advantages over procedures that depend entirely on computational algorithms. I would welcome debate on this.
Stapp seems sympathetic to my overall position, but suggests I go too far when I say that the selection process cannot be accounted for by strict rules of any kind. He suggests that rationality requires that decisions be determined by rules, albeit rules that are different from the local and mechanistic rules of classical mechanics; and that this does not preclude personal responsibility. At present, I do not see how rules that uniquely pre-determine the transition from one state of the world (S1) to another (S2) can be other than mechanistic, even if those rules engage with conscious mental features of S1; but it may be that further dialogue between us could bring our views closer together.
Kane agrees with proposition 5, though I’m unclear how this stands with his insistence that choices must conform to QM statistics. But again, I suspect that further dialogue may bring our views closer together.
Consistently with their views on other propositions, Clark, Smart and Spence suggest that indeterministic free will would require something supernatural, contrary to proposition 6. Jaswal and Kane suggest that my version conflicts with QM, although Kane, along with Gomatam and Stapp, consider that at least some version of indeterministic free will is consistent with physical science.
If proposition 5 is accepted, then it must be accepted that subjects have the capacity to make selections. My suggestion in proposition 7 that we are all alike in our capacity to select drew particular attack from Clark, and scepticism from Cairns-Smith. However, as noted earlier, the essence of my position is that each totality that chooses is distinguished from other totalities only by features that engage with laws and thus affect the available alternatives and their respective probabilities.
Proposition 8, concerning moral principles, ventures into the question of whether moral requirements constitute or reflect some objective feature of the universe, or are merely evolution-generated human artefacts, or are some combination of the two. I have barely touched on this topic, and do not pretend to have done anything like justice to it; but I think that perhaps the plain person’s theory of free will, coupled with my suggested classification of laws of nature, could provide a framework within which moral requirements could be seen as being objectively based, while having substantial flexibility in their detailed content and application. Although such a view is opposed by many philosophers, including Smart, I believe that the wrongness of some conduct is more than a reflection of an opinion which, for evolutionary reasons, is widely held but is otherwise baseless.
So lastly, do we have a measure of ultimate responsibility, as proposed by proposition 9? Not according to Clark, Smart and Spence, consistently with their comments on the other propositions. However, Kane and Stapp think we do; and Gomes contends his compatibilism leaves voluntary conduct ‘under our control’. I am unpersuaded by this, but remain of the view we do have some ultimate responsibility for what we do.
To my mind, the most interesting area for further consideration is that involving proposition 5. It may be that ongoing work on self-organization and non-linearity has some bearing on it; and certainly I would like to explore the possibility of rapprochement between my views and those of Kane and Stapp, and possibly also Gomes.
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