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Wednesday, October 18, 2023

"Freedom?" (per "Volition?") "Culpability?" "Merit?” “Morality?" "Destiny?"

Are those delusions?
Timely topical upshot of reading a Science Magazine book review, especially in light of the latest Hamas vs Israel tragedy.
Freedom from free will
A scientist presents a case for a predetermined future

We all sometimes behave in ways that seem to conflict with our goals and intentions. One person might struggle to resist a favorite comfort food despite knowing that a different option will be more nutritious. Another may repeatedly snooze their alarm and miss their morning workout. Still others may wish to spend more time with family but instead find themselves mindlessly browsing social media. If we only had more willpower, the conventional wisdom goes, we could eat healthier, exercise regularly, and spend more time with loved ones. In Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky argues that we have no free will and that such choices are thus actually determined by factors beyond our control.

Our genetic and epigenetic makeup, together with environmental and cultural factors, make us who we are and determine how we behave, Sapolsky claims. Whether a person makes it to the gym or opts for a decadent dessert is little more than a function of the architecture of their prefrontal cortex and the neurotransmitters and hormones circulating in their body, all of which in turn are physical manifestations of a person’s genetic inheritance and the environment in which they spent their formative years.

This claim is not new. It is a version of the “consequence argument,” popularized by philosopher Peter van Inwagen in 1983, which states that in a deterministic universe—one where all events are completely determined by an initial state and the laws of nature—all human actions are a consequence of the laws of nature and events in the remote past and are therefore not under our control. Nevertheless, Sapolsky’s coverage of the relevant science is first-rate and very much worth reading...

Sapolsky’s decades of experience studying the effects of the interplay of genes and the environment on behavior shine brightly in these discussions. In particular, he argues against the claim that “luck” evens out over time, with fortune and misfortune striking most people in equal measure over the years, an idea favored by philosopher Daniel Dennett and others. Instead, he provides compelling examples that bad luck compounds, meaning that many who are born “unlucky” have little chance of getting ahead. In later chapters, he convincingly argues against claims that chaos theory, emergent phenomena, or the indeterminism offered by quantum mechanics provide the gap required for free will to exist.

...If we accept that humans are not responsible for their misdeeds, will some of us feel emboldened to behave badly? He thinks not, citing epilepsy as a case in point. Once thought to be the result of demonic possession, it is now understood as a neurological disorder. In addition to leading to the development of effective treatments, this framework helped us to rethink to what degree an individual undergoing an epileptic seizure is responsible for any potential negative outcomes.

Although he is careful not to conflate determinism with the inability to affect change in the world, Sapolsky’s dismissive attitude toward how determinism might be compatible with free will is one of the book’s weak points. Indeed, he sets the bar very high for free will (“Show me a neuron being a causeless cause”). This well-written book is nonetheless worth reading. Better yet, pair it with Kevin Mitchell’s book Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will, also publishing in October 2023, which makes the opposite argument, and then decide for yourself whether you had a choice to do so or it was all predetermined.

Eyeball deep in both books. Had not planned on this. I can see right off the bat myriad definitional problems. Not being anywhere close to being the sharpest knife in the drawer, I have way more questions than answers at the moment.

1. A Technology of Behavior

IN TRYING TO SOLVE the terrifying problems that face us in the world today, we naturally turn to the things we do best. We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology. To contain a population explosion we look for better methods of birth control. Threatened by a nuclear holocaust, we build bigger deterrent forces and anti-ballistic-missile systems. We try to stave off world famine with new foods and better ways of growing them. Improved sanitation and medicine will, we hope, control disease, better housing and transportation will solve the problems of the ghettos, and new ways of reducing or disposing of waste will stop the pollution of the environment. We can point to remarkable achievements in all these fields, and it is not surprising that we should try to extend them. But things grow steadily worse, and it is disheartening to find that technology itself is increasingly at fault. Sanitation and medicine have made the problems of population more acute, war has acquired a new horror with the invention of nuclear weapons, and the affluent pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution. As Darlington has said, “Every new source from which man has increased his power on the earth has been used to diminish the prospects of his successors. All his progress has been made at the expense of damage to his environment which he cannot repair and could not foresee.”

Whether or not he could have foreseen the damage, man must repair it or all is lost. And he can do so if he will recognize the nature of the difficulty. The application of the physical and biological sciences alone will not solve our problems because the solutions lie in another field. Better contraceptives will control population only if people use them. New weapons may offset new defenses and vice versa, but a nuclear holocaust can be prevented only if the conditions under which nations make war can be changed. New methods of agriculture and medicine will not help if they are not practiced, and housing is a matter not only of buildings and cities but of how people live. Overcrowding can be corrected only by inducing people not to crowd, and the environment will continue to deteriorate until polluting practices are abandoned.

In short, we need to make vast changes in human behavior, and we cannot make them with the help of nothing more than physics or biology, no matter how hard we try. (And there are other problems, such as the breakdown of our educational system and the disaffection and revolt of the young, to which physical and biological technologies are so obviously irrelevant that they have never been applied.) It is not enough to “use technology with a deeper understanding of human issues,” or to “dedicate technology to man’s spiritual needs,” or to “encourage technologists to look at human problems.” Such expressions imply that where human behavior begins, technology stops, and that we must carry on, as we have in the past, with what we have learned from personal experience or from those collections of personal experiences called history, or with the distillations of experience to be found in folk wisdom and practical rules of thumb. These have been available for centuries, and all we have to show for them is the state of the world today.

What we need is a technology of behavior. We could solve our problems quickly enough if we could adjust the growth of the world’s population as precisely as we adjust the course of a spaceship, or improve agriculture and industry with some of the confidence with which we accelerate high-energy particles, or move toward a peaceful world with something like the steady progress with which physics has approached absolute zero (even though both remain presumably out of reach). But a behavioral technology comparable in power and precision to physical and biological technology is lacking, and those who do not find the very possibility ridiculous are more likely to be frightened by it than reassured. That is how far we are from “understanding human issues” in the sense in which physics and biology understand their fields, and how far we are from preventing the catastrophe toward which the world seems to be inexorably moving…

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity Hackett Publishing
Ahhh... And we'd thought Ol' Mr. Operant Conditioning Skinner had been safely remanded to a musty basement at Harvard.
"What we need is a technology of behavior."
Yeah. Nita Farahany's nightmare.


Burrowed down into both books at the moment, alternating back & forth in fairly lengthy chunks. My Kindle app tells me the Sapolsky book will take me 15 hours, and Mitchell's will consume 9. I can already see a lot of dueling definitional "No True Scotsman" stuff going on. "Depends on what you mean by ____________."
Inevitable, one supposes. ;) arf.

The writing styles are both quite engaging. Sapolsky is by far the funnier of the two. While I'm sure I will find these to have been fully enjoyable and worthy in their own respective rights, I have to wonder to what degrees these will settle much in terms of ethical policy utility.

Inevitable, one supposes? ;) arf.
I must admit to being a bit Pavlovian when it comes to rather reflexively delving into books I encounter via Science Magazine reviews.
Inevitable, one supposes? ;) arf.

Giving this section this ridiculous heading reflects how unenthused I am about having to write this next stretch. I don’t understand what consciousness is, can’t define it. I can’t understand philosophers’ writing about it. Or neuroscientists’, for that matter, unless it’s “consciousness” in the boring neurological sense, like not experiencing consciousness because you’re in a coma.

Nevertheless, consciousness is central to Libet debates, sometimes, in a fairly heavy-handed way. For example, take Mele, in a book whose title trumpets that he’s not pulling any punches—Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. In its first paragraph, he writes, “There are two main scientific arguments today against the existence of free will.” One arises from social psychologists showing that behavior can be manipulated by factors that we’re not aware of—we’ve seen examples of these. The other is neuroscientists whose “basic claim is that all our decisions are made unconsciously and therefore not freely” (my italics). In other words, that consciousness is just an epiphenomenon, an illusory, reconstructive sense of control irrelevant to our actual behavior. This strikes me as an overly dogmatic way of representing just one of many styles of neuroscientific thought on the subject.

The “ooh, you neuroscientists not only eat your dead but also believe all our decisions are unconscious” nyah-nyah matters, because we shouldn’t be held morally responsible for our unconscious behaviors (although neuroscientist Michael Shadlen of Columbia University, whose excellent research has informed free-will debates, makes a spirited argument along with Roskies that we should be held morally responsible for even our unconscious acts).

Compatibilists trying to fend off the Libetians often make a last stand with consciousness: Okay, okay, suppose that Libet, Haynes, Fried, and so on really have shown that the brain decides something before we have a sense of having consciously and freely done so. Let’s grant the incompatibilists that. But does turning that preconscious decision into actual behavior require that conscious sense of agency? Because if it does, rather than bypassing consciousness as an irrelevancy, free will can’t be ruled out.

As we saw, knowing what a brain’s preconscious decision was moderately predicts whether the behavior will actually occur. But what about the relationship between the preconscious brain’s decision and the sense of conscious agency—is there ever a readiness potential followed by a behavior without a conscious sense of agency coming in between? One cool study done by Dartmouth neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley and collaborators shows precisely this—subjects were hypnotized and implanted with a posthypnotic suggestibility that they make a spontaneous Libet-like movement. In this case, when triggered by the cued suggestion, there’d be a readiness potential and the subsequent movement, without conscious awareness in between. Consciousness is an irrelevant hiccup.

Sure, retort compatibilists, this doesn’t mean that intentional behavior always bypasses consciousness—rejecting free will based on what happens in the posthypnotic brain is kind of flimsy. And there is a higher-order level to this issue, something emphasized by incompatibilist philosopher Gregg Caruso of the State University of New York—you’re playing soccer, you have the ball, and you consciously decide that you are going to try to get past this defender, rather than pass the ball off. In the process of then trying to do this, you make a variety of procedural movements that you’re not consciously choosing; what does it mean that you have made the explicit choice to let a particular implicit process take over? The debate continues, not just over whether the preconscious requires consciousness as a mediating factor but also over whether both can simultaneously cause a behavior.

Amid these arcana, it’s hugely important if the preconscious decision requires consciousness as a mediator. Why? Because during that moment of conscious mediation we should then be expected to be able to veto a decision, prevent it from happening. And you can hang moral responsibility on that…

Sapolsky, Robert M.. Determined (pp. 31-33). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

…the sequence of the genome in a lineage comes to reflect information about the environment and the past experiences of the population of organisms in that lineage, both good and bad. For example, imagine a mutation that alters the function of an enzyme, such that the organism can now metabolize a new source of food (say, a different type of sugar). If that type of sugar is available in the environment, then that mutation may be beneficial and selected for. This sequence of DNA persists because it carries information about the environment; namely, that this type of sugar can be found in it.

That same process of adaptation happens across the whole genome, reflecting all kinds of aspects of the life histories of individual organisms in the lineage. And the unsuccessful mutations—the ones that don’t make it through—convey a kind of information too, by their absence. I described the genome as a reference template that carries information about the configuration of all the cell’s biochemical components and processes. In a sense, an abstract model of the cell is encoded in the genome. And by virtue of the optimizing actions of natural selection, the genome also embodies a model of the environment or, more precisely, of the fittedness of the organism to the environment.

This model allows living organisms to use information about the past to predict and anticipate the future—to adapt to the regularities of their environment by embodying useful functions or responses in their own structure. If we want to understand what happens in a biological system at any given instant, this historicity is a key part of the explanation. The sequence of the genome and the resultant structure of the organism right now reflect the configurations of its ancestors and whether those configurations promoted persistence or hastened death. In addition to whatever factors are impinging on an organism at any given instant, there are thus causes at work from the distant past, captured in the sequence of the DNA. In a very important sense, there are also causes from the future.

What’s the Point?
The sequence of events described in this chapter might suggest to some a purposive process—as if the point of all that was to generate life. But there’s no reason to assume a purpose. Life reflects an unlikely arrangement of matter, but its emergence and the resultant trajectories of its evolution are merely statistical outcomes of the application of the mindless algorithm of natural selection. There is a set of circumstances that led to its emergence but there’s no reason for it. If, rather than asking “What is life?,” we ask “Why is life?,” the answer lies in the question: life is why. It exists because it can. There is no cosmic purpose at play—merely thermodynamic tendencies played out in the particular conditions of our young planet (and of who knows how many others).

But once life does exist, everything changes. The universe doesn’t have purpose, but life does. Natural selection ensures it. Living organisms are adapted to their environment—retrospectively designed to function in specific ways that further their persistence. Before life emerged, nothing in the universe was for anything. But the functionalities and arrangements of components in living organisms are for something: variations that improve persistence are selected for on that basis, and ones that decrease persistence are eliminated.

Nothing in this whole arrangement—not the organism, nor any of its components, nor natural selection—is aware of this purpose. Indeed, you might argue that this is not real purpose: it’s only the system behaving as if it had purpose. And its components don’t actually have functions; they only have physical and chemical properties and tendencies that fit well together to form a whole system that tends to persist over time.

But we can approach the question from the other end and ask, “What would be the difference in the consequences between a system with ‘real’ purpose and one that only behaves as if it has purpose?” If we put aside the fact that all this apparent design was actually imparted by the blind actions of natural selection, we can see that the result is a fittedness of the organism to its niche and a fittedness of each component to the whole system.

Just as importantly, there is a fittedness of the activities of the system to the future outcome of its persistence. Organisms are doing work in order to maintain themselves: all those activities are goal directed (and thus qualify as functions). At least that is the effect, and the pragmatic consequences are no different than if the organism was explicitly designed to have that goal. Things happen because of that goal. The system behaves in ways that advance it. The components of the organism and its internal processes have functions, with respect to the goal of persistence. Once you have those properties, what else is needed for something to qualify as a goal or for us to say the whole system has purpose?

And unlike the designed machines and gadgets that surround us in our daily lives, which also have a purpose or at least serve a purpose, living organisms are adapted for the sake of only one thing—their selves. This brings something new to the universe: a frame of reference, a subject. The existence of a goal imbues things with properties that previously never existed relative to that goal: function, meaning, and value.

In a lifeless universe, things have consequences, but nothing matters. There’s nothing with respect to which they could matter. Things just happen, with nobody or no thing trying to make them one way or another. Nothing has meaning or value; nothing is good or bad. But living things do try (to stay alive), and because of that, things matter to them. As we will see in later chapters, meaning and value are the internal currency that drives the mechanisms of decision making and action selection that emerged as life continued to evolve.

From the rocks and sea of our early world, life emerged—organisms that actively maintain their internal states and sustain a degree of causal autonomy from the world around them. The next step in the evolution of agency is the ability of these autonomous organisms to act on the world, to become causes in their own right…

Mitchell, Kevin J.. Free Agents (pp. 40-43). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Lots to ponder. Below, I'll just drop this snippet in for now:
14.5 Living With Uncertainty
Without uncertainty, there would be no hope, no ethics, and no freedom of choice. It is only because we do not know what the future holds for us (e.g., the exact time and manner of our own deaths) that we can have hope. It is only because we do not know exactly the future results of our choices that our choice can be free, and can pose a true ethical dilemma. Moreover, there is much uncertainty in the world, and one of our most basic choices is whether we will accept that uncertainty as a fact or try to run away from it. Those who choose to deny uncertainty invent a stable world of their own. Such people’s natural desire to reduce uncertainty, which may be basic to the whole cognitive enterprise of understanding the world, is taken to the extreme point where they believe uncertainty does not exist…

Hastie, Reid; Dawes, Robyn M.. Rational Choice in an Uncertain World (p. 333). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.
Actually, you'd really like the entirety of Chapter 14 (and the Stats appendix).

…the Libetian Wars don’t ask the most fundamental question: Why did you form the intent that you did?

This chapter shows how you don’t ultimately control the intent you form. You wish to do something, intend to do it, and then successfully do so. But no matter how fervent, even desperate, you are, you can’t successfully wish to wish for a different intent. And you can’t meta your way out—you can’t successfully wish for the tools (say, more self-discipline) that will make you better at successfully wishing what you wish for. None of us can.

Which is why it would tell us nothing to stick electrodes in your head to monitor what neurons are doing in the milliseconds when you form your intent. To understand where your intent came from, all that needs to be known is what happened to you in the seconds to minutes before you formed the intention to push whichever button you choose. As well as what happened to you in the hours to days before. And years to decades before. And during your adolescence, childhood, and fetal life. And what happened when the sperm and egg destined to become you merged, forming your genome. And what happened to your ancestors centuries ago when they were forming the culture you were raised in, and to your species millions of years ago. Yeah, all that.

Understanding this turtleism shows how the intent you form, the person you are, is the result of all the interactions between biology and environment that came before. All things out of your control. Each prior influence flows without a break from the effects of the influences before. As such, there’s no point in the sequence where you can insert a freedom of will that will be in that biological world but not of it.

Thus, we’ll now see how who we are is the outcome of the prior seconds, minutes, decades, geological periods before, over which we had no control. And how bad and good luck sure as hell don’t balance out in the end. 
Determined [p. 46].
Although their behaviors appear simple from the outside, these single-celled creatures are thus far from being passive stimulus–response machines. Their response to a given signal depends on what other signals are around and on the cell’s internal state at the time. These organisms infer what is out in the world, where it is, and how it is changing. They process this information in the context of their own internal state and recent experience, and they actively make holistic decisions to adapt their internal dynamics and select appropriate actions.

This represents a wholly different type of causation from anything seen before in the universe. The behavior of the organism is not purely driven or determined by the playing out of physical forces acting on it or in it. Clearly, a physical mechanism underpins the behavior, which explains how the system works. But thinking of what it is doing—and why it is doing it—in terms of the resolution of instantaneous physical forces is simply the wrong framing. The causation is not physical in that sense—it is informational.

Information and Meaning
Before we go on, let me discuss what I mean by information, why it is useful for organisms to have it, and how it can have causal power in a physical system. First of all, information is physical; that is, it has to be carried in the physical arrangement of some kind of matter. It doesn’t just float around in the ether but has to be instantiated in some physical medium. That is literally what the phrase to in-form means. As a result, the idea that information can have causal power in a physical system should not be so outlandish: it is the same as saying that the way a system is organized constrains how it evolves over time.

The word “information,” however, has multiple meanings, both colloquially and technically, which can create confusion. The most commonly used technical sense of the word was developed by Claude Shannon working at Bell Labs in New Jersey and published in 1948 in an article titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Shannon was working on a classic engineering problem of signal transmission: how best to encode a signal, send it via some noisy medium, and decode it at a receiver. He conceived a way of calculating the amount of information in any given message and derived a formula to calculate the optimal rate of information transfer relative to the noise.

Shannon’s deep insight—one that let him develop a theory of information in the abstract, independent of the message or medium—was to think of information in terms of uncertainty or probability. He reasoned that the way to calculate how much information it would take to send a message—a sequence or “string” of elements—is to ask how many other arrangements a string of the same length could be in.

If the string is just a single digit, say, then from the receiver’s point of view, there are ten possibilities for which one it could be. If it were a single letter, then there would be twenty-six possibilities. The receiver has greater uncertainty about which letter it would be than which number it would be, because there are more possibilities. Conversely, the message with a particular letter contains more information than the one with a particular number, because it resolves a greater degree of uncertainty. Obviously, longer strings carry more information than shorter ones.

The amount of information can be measured in bits—roughly, how many yes/no questions you would have to ask to know what the message says. The amount of information in the signal thus relates to how improbable it is, which is a function of how many other forms it could have taken. If this sounds similar to the discussion in chapter two about the probability of particular arrangements of matter, it should—there is a mathematical equivalence between these ideas.

There is something very fundamental about this framing that is crucial for understanding the role of information in living systems. For something to count as information and for it to have causal power in a system as information, the possibility must exist that it could have been different. We will talk about this concept more in later chapters, but it’s worth noting here that in a truly deterministic universe, such possibilities would not exist nor would information in this sense…
Free Agents [pp. 62-64].
Y'see where we might be headed?
A recent president of the American Psychological Association gave as his presidential address a talk on “torque and schizophrenic viability.” In it, he presented some absolutely striking data. Of 52 children who had seen him 10 years earlier who drew circles clockwise, 11 were later diagnosed as schizophrenic; of the 54 who drew circles counterclockwise, only 1 had been diagnosed schizophrenic. This relationship reached the “.01 level of statistical significance.” He related his finding to the fact that “the world turns in a counterclockwise direction with respect to the north–south axis” and that “with some exceptions, this ‘left-turning’ is characteristic of living cells.”

Certainly, a finding of this magnitude—particularly when it is related to fundamental properties of the earth and of the very unit of life—should have set the psychological world on its ear. At the least, it might have contributed to our understanding of schizophrenia, which is one of the two most prevalent mental health problems in the United States (along with depression). The average citations by other scientists to that article hovered around three per year in the subsequent 8 years, until it vanished from the charts. Why so few citations? Perhaps the researcher will be neglected for 50 years, only to be rediscovered as the founder of a modern theory of schizophrenia. A more likely explanation is found in part of his talk: “Subjects for this study were 155 children first seen for psychological evaluation at my private psychological clinic.” Children seen for such evaluations are given many tests, each of which can be evaluated on a multiplicity of variables. The researcher reported his findings on only one of these tests in his presidential address. Our educated guess is that it was 1 out of approximately 200 that he could have easily related to later diagnoses of schizophrenia. (It is important to what follows to note that this guess is based on the authors’ knowledge of clinical practice, not on the plausibility that he looked at many tests. But imagine a scenario in which a child enters a psychologist’s office, is asked to draw a circle, and is then told to go away.)

How does one evaluate whether one of these very unusual findings might be important? The best answer, of course, is to determine whether it can be repeated. Attempts to replicate such “psychic power” findings have had a dismal history. Absent the possibility of prediction, control, and replication, the best approach is to precisely specify the hypothesis of interest in advance, to specify the conceptual sample space of possible relevant events, and then to systematically collect data—even anecdotes—to describe the entire space of possible outcomes. Persi Diaconis and Fred Mosteller (1989) have outlined such a strategy and illustrate it with an application to the common experience of encountering coincidental “clusters” of newly learned words in everyday life.

If we look hard enough, we’re bound to find something. After all, the probability that exactly nothing will happen is indeed exactly zero. And, as Diaconis and Mosteller (1989) note, “When enormous numbers of events and people and their interactions cumulate over time, almost any outrageous event is bound to occur” (p. 853). Both classical and Bayesian analyses of statistical significance and informativeness are addressed to questions asked beforehand. In evaluating research findings in order to reach rational decisions, it is crucial to determine whether they were hypothesized in advance or simply picked out post hoc— from the imagination of the person purporting to have discovered them.
  Rational Choice in an Uncertain World [pp. 357-359]
".01 level of statistical significance." Don't get me started.

Minimally, I'm now having some wafts of "Black Swan" misgivings. Also rummaging around on the Internets today to see what, if anything, the Buddhists might have to say on the topic. They are generally the only peeps who ever made any sense to me.

More to come...

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