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Episode #182 ... What if free will is an illusion?

2023-07-02 | 🔗

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Hello, everyone, I'm stephen west. This is philosophize. This thank you to everyone who supports the show on Patreon patreon, dot com, slash philosophize, this philosophize, this dot org for everything else. I hope you'll have the show today. So today we're going to be exploring the question of whether or not free will as an illusion and if you're, coming to the podcast here today, with some reservations about the subject matter, you know, maybe it seems overly abstract. Maybe it seems a bit too self indulgent. Maybe your long lost father who he hadn't, seen in thirty years, met up with the eta KFC taco bell and rambled to you about free will for thirty minutes and and maybe it seems
much more interesting to him than had ever seem to you. If that's the kind of stuff you come to the podcast with well, then I hope by the end of the episode I can offer you a slightly different association on all that, let's make some new memories together, because, just like we talked about the nature of consciousness on episode, one of the series, this relationship between free will and determinism- I mean I get it on one level right in deadly- seem like one of these overly philosophical things to be spent in your time. More about, but in reality it we're. Just being honest, I think this topic actually affects everybody around us on a level. That's pretty easy to overlook if you're not paying attention, There are not. You are truly making free decisions when you think you are that affects the rich person just as much as it does the poor person. It affects people at every social, cultural or educational level. It affects the way we see ourselves. It affects all these things, because what is at stake at bottom, whenever people stop and try to have one of these conversations about free choice is the very kind
cept in our lives of moral accountability. Whenever somebody does anything in this world good or bad, the question is always: how much can we hold them accountable for those good or bad decisions that they made and the very structure of human civilization is founded upon the idea that we can hold people accountable. In fact, somebody can make the case that not only is this not an overly philosophical thing to be worrying about, but that if you ever want to be able to call yourself and informed citizen in any real sense of the term again, this isn't a fun wacky conversation know you have a responsibility to understand the different sides of this debate and how it affects people every smart person out there always has to remain careful about falling into the trap of the dunning krueger effect, where you're overestimating or level of understanding about something because you haven't really in the time to hear the full complexity of what's being discussed and then you're smart. So you come up with convincing arguments for bad ideas in the well there's no definitive answer yet
as to the question of whether free will is an illusion. There's undeniable value in knowing the state of the conversation where you fit into it, where other people are coming from with their positions that you may disagree with at some point, you just gotta decide how self aware are you gonna be of the ideas that you're carrying round now, there's a lot to talk about kept, possibly cover on thirty minutes, but I think we can make some real progress. So, let's start with some historical context. If you look back. at the discussions that have gone on in the history of western philosophy. Whether or not free will is an illusion. This conversation, it's a topic that stands out, among others as pretty unique. Its unique, because most conversations in the history of philosophy or the flavour, of whatever time period they happen to be discussed in an all, usually goes the same way. Philosophers will argue about something for a while and then one of about three things eventually happens to come to an agreement about it and move on to something else
argue about. It can't agree, and then realize years later they been argued about all the wrong things entirely or the conversation remained something open, almost like a collaborative google doc where philosophers will come in and keep trying to make contributions of the course of the next few decades. Some of those problems eventually get solved some of them evaporate, but the discussion on whether or not free will is an illusion. That's an example of an open dialogue. That's been going on for the last twenty five hundred years. That's just where the historical record and, by the way, no doubt What's going on a long time before that, now it's very important to state here that the people talking about this stuff back then we're not talking about free will and termism as we'd be talking about them and twenty twenty three both of those terms come highly loaded with thousands of years of discussion behind them
then what they were talking about, probably what a more closely resembled the distinction between free action and fate as pre determined by a god, but that's not what we're talking about here today. We're trying to examine the very specific question of whether free will is an illusion the natural follow up question has to be. What exactly do we mean when we say that a person has free will it may be useful to think of the concepts of free will and determinism as being too opposite directions that exist on a spectrum that explains the level of agency of our actions picture the further left to get on the spectrum? The more you believe that we're making free choices and the further right you get the more you believe our choices are determined by outside proceeding factors. Will there aren't many people out there? days world, who would say they believed that were totally free in a completely unencumbered by anything else in the world around us, I mean almost every
It sort of acknowledges. Clearly there are things about the choices you're making that are determined by prior events. Unless, if you speak german you're not free to speak german, you have very real physical limitations. You're a human being. You can't lift ten million pounds over your head. You can't box jump a skyscraper bro. Your legs are spaghetti and on a totally different level, you clearly are heavily influenced by the experiences you happen to have in your life, the people, you happen to know the ideas that you ve happened to be exposed to the question from most people isn't, whether or not we are influenced by things in our lives. The question is: to what extent do these things dictate our bee? have and to what extent is our free will able to step in and transcend those influences on one end of the spectrum you have proponents of, what's called libertarian free will, where the belief is that, despite these obvious influences, we always have the capacity to freely choose a particular course of action. On the other end of the spectrum, though, we have what's known as hard determinism or causal determinism, and no doubt because
how great science has been predicting things in our lifetime. There a lot of people living in today's world. The think it very well may be the case that if we had an exhaustive, understanding of the laws of the universe and the psychology of the beings living within it that everything about your behavior could be perfectly predicted by referencing a prior cause. This is an extension of the famous thought experiment of laploshka plaza demon, pierre simone laplace, in his work, all the way back in a late, seventeen hundreds says to imagine a hypothetical demon that exists where, if it knew the exact position of every piece of matter in the universe, and it had total knowledge of the laws of physics that govern the universe than that
and could perfectly predict every future physical event that was ever going to happen. I see the idea is that if every piece of matter is subject to the same constant laws of physics, then we can just play the tape out so to speak fast forward, and this is nothing new. This is how astronomers can predict exactly where jupiter is gonna be twenty years from now. While the question you gotta ask yourself here is: if we can predict, were jupiters gonna be twenty years from now? Can scientists can can Neil digress? Thyssen predict where you're gonna be twenty years from now and god I hope not. The question is in theory: if we had a total understanding of the universe and every event proceeding back to the big bang, could we in theory predict exactly what it was that you were going to do next? On that same note, could we predict what everyone is going to do
next hard determinist believe that, with enough knowledge of the facts that underlie these events, everything is predictable based on prior causes, regardless of whatever allusion people may have in their heads about how it feels like they're, making a free choice. This can get pretty heavy heart. Determinist might tell someone who believe and libertarian free will you know, let's that you are making free choices for a second, the thoughts that you're having the you're, ostensibly choosing between those are not things are consciously producing you're, not sitting in a chair. Thinking really hard straining like I'm gonna to to generate some thoughts about? What's going on right now, war, no to a hard determinist! These thoughts are just rising seemingly out of nowhere, and that's because they are generated by every prior experience you ever had filtered through whatever mental architecture you currently have. So, at best, what you're doing is your freely choosing between thoughts that you're not choosing and more than likely
our determinist would argue that very process of seeming to be able to make a choice is also dictated by your prior experience and mental architecture. In fact, this goes even further. Some hard determined in the past have gone so far as to make the claim the hard determinism taken to its logical ends. It is not unreasonable to think that one day, the very idea of chance or ran Miss altogether may become an outdated concept that anything that seems random to us right now is really just a marker is something that we haven't studied enough yet to be able to understand the causal mechanisms at work that determine what's going to happen and that, given enough time, the idea of randomness could eventually be seen as a foreign concept and a hard determinist society. It's interesting to imagine what it would feel like to live in a world like that and we're gonna talk about what a hard deterministic society may look like a little later on in the episode, but now that we ve laid out the polar opposite
of this free will determinism spectrum. I think, is very important for us to talk about all the different shades of gray that lie in the middle of those to see because of your hard determinants, free will cannot exist for your position to remain coherent and, if you're, a libertarian free, what kind of person than hard determinism care be true to what you end up. Getting in the middle are a lot of theories. It try to find ways to reconcile free will and determinism. Is it possible that reality is structured in such a way where we, of course, are affected by outside factors, society, your parents, the media you consume, etc, but that, at the same time, at some other level of your experience, you really our capable of freely choosing between multiple different options. The recent land in this area of the spectrum are gonna, be known as compatible, listen and at the risk of sound and redundant. Remember a campaign well doesn't need to believe in free will in the sense that your freely choosing all of your actions, their job is to figure out. To what extent are you free what specific
portion of our thinking or our minds are actually making these free choices. It doesn't have to be in all or nothing answering. These questions becomes one of the main challenges of the work of a compatible list and what you'll see if you read the story over the centuries of people, making progress in the area of free will is at a low the progress made comes about, because people are being more rigorous about how we define free will they're, getting more more nuanced understanding of what specific parts of our behaviour we're talking about when we claim to be making a free choice, and let me give a very broad strokes overview as to how this is typically gone back thousands of years ago, the conversations people were Having about freedom were more centred around something like freedom of action
his idea was what does it mean to be free? Well, that simply means that you are doing the things that you want to do, but it's not one before people realise that definitions incomplete, for example. If somebody has a gun to your head and is forcing you to do things technically, you don't want to die, so you want to do the things the gunman telling you to do, but at the same time that's not your free choice. That's going on there you're being heavily coerced from the outside. So when it comes to moral accountability and how much we can blame someone further actions, either in a court of law or in our personal lives. Obviously we just don't see someone who has a gun to their head through the same lines of moral judgment, so attempting place to go from there is to say that an act of free will is just once but he does something that they actually want to be doing when there's no a gun to your head, but that definition starts to run into problems, for example, picture somebody who's addicted to smoking. Now nobody has a gun to this person's head.
And they absolutely do want to smoke a cigarette whenever they get a craving. But if we're talking about the kind of freedom to be able to the choices that you want to make in life. It's hard to ignore the fact that this person the very real physical dependency on the substance? That's impacting the way their thinking about it. In other words, there places are again being heavily coerced by this totally outside factor. That's why most of the time as people we see someone who's addicted to something through a different, means of moral accountability than someone making that same decision who was not addicted and how different? That is we come down to your own individual views on it. Maybe it's not that different to you, I'm a philosophy podcast or by the way I'm not gonna, make claims about addiction. Here. The point is to illustrate how this conversation about freewill has evolved over the years and for going to examine and try to get to the bottom of exactly where our free choice exists. These are things we have to consider. So philosophers take a look at this and they say: well, maybe our whole understanding of the free choices we're making is way off. Maybe we don't have four
item over what we want like when we want to cigarette. In fact, when you think about it, you can want a million different things in your life. You can want mutually exclusive things. At the same time, philosophers thought maybe what we have control over, isn't what we want, but what we can we allow ourselves to do. the thinking as you can only really have one? Will that you're willing yourself to do when any one moment? Maybe that's what we have control over, but freedom of the we'll just runs into a lot of the same problems that the wants ran into, for example, how Can you ever really know with the things you're willing yourself to do? Are things that your freely choosing, how you know if you're will isn't being hijacked by social pressure, were culture media? Can we say that your truly free, if you're, making a decision in the face of all that- and at this point I feel like I've- bring up a thought, that's no doubt arising in some of your brains right now, the thought is. Oh, I see what you're doing here.
You're just gonna keep zooming out to less and less aggressive methods of influencing people's behaviors and then continue asking the question. Well I'll, be truly free. If this Other thing is impacting your behavior. How can you say that were free, but on another level? Isn't that just what life is? Don't things just impact your behavior? That's what happens under that one? thinking taken far enough, can we ever hold anyone accountable for anything they do to which summit gauging in this discussion might say back yeah exactly look. Almost no but he out there once a world where we can't hold people accountable for the things that they do. So the question where chow judging and try to get to the bottom of is wind specifically? Can we hold people accountable? What sort of choices do people have control over because as Established we don't hold. Someone is accountable when they have a gun to their head. We don't hold a grizzly bear account, people on the same level. We do. A human philosophers have tried to answer these questions in recent years. Let's give a couple examples: first,
does a classic from the work of a guy named Harry Frankfurt and if you can be able to hang in one of these modern conversations about free willing, determinism you're gonna have to be familiar with the part of his work that talks about first and second order desires people are going to use that terminology. In these conversations, it's good to know what it means to explain it. You can start with a basic question: what is the difference between a dog's level of freedom and a human's level of why do we hold people more morally accountable than we do animals both? Let's think about it? What is it like when a dog makes a decision? A dog can do a lot of things. A dog can feel hungry. A dog can want to eat the food in sight of its bull it can we itself to eat the food and side of its bull. All of these things and more, you could think of as a sort of first
rob desires that a dog experiences and people obviously experiences too, but this is where we diverge something we can do that it doesn't seem like a dogs. Able to do is that we have the ability to wish we had other desires than what we have. We have a second order ability. Frankfurt says to reflect on the desires that we have in a moment and then either wish that we didn't, have a desire that we do order, which we had a desire that we don't actually have think of the smoker that's addicted to cigarettes. and then lives their life tortured, wishing that they want the kind of person that wants to smoke so bad or the person wish, as they were, the kind of person that wanted to read books. More often, that seems to be a level of reflection about our experience that a dog is just not participating in. It say what you want to buy. The similarities with when people and dogs, but there is no dog out their say into itself, with what I would give to not be the kind of dog loves bacon. So much somebody help me over here. It's no, maybe the person, that's it
dick to smoking, who sees no problem with their behaviour is free because their behaviour corresponds with both their first and second order desires. They don't wish they were anything different than what they are, but maybe the person whose addicted to smoking that doesn't want to see anymore and yet still does it every single day. Hating themselves tortured inside wishing they could stop, but they can't, maybe that's the person who isn't free now, it needs to be said in the work of Harry Frankfurt these first and second order desires, sometimes need to line up in ways that are pretty complicated, given the circumstances you're talking about there's a lot more would highly recommend reading his work. If your interested, but again, the point of this here today is to give an example of how a compatible list might try to offer an explanation for how free will and determinism can coexist. How, even if the car tens of every potential decision, you're making, are ultimately generated outside of your conscious control. Could it be that the second order level of reflection is,
one location in our minds that we are capable of choosing between different desires? Alternatively, could it be that the freedom. We have had a conscious level is simply the ability to veto decisions that are formulated at the unconscious level, free won't as the narrow scientists. Benjamin obey called it, regardless of whether any of these proved to be true or not, hopefully, its clear by now that there's a considerable amount of work left to be done in this area. We can't pay, Move that free will exists. We can't prove that free will is an illusion, but let's say that we could prove it for a second, let's say: tomorrow, neuroscientist and philosophers gathered together. They all road, their horses up to the top of a mountain sam Harris, gets up on top of a bolder he's wearing the pelts of several small rodents that he slain in the woods around him and its upon the boulder any says the aid free will is officially over the age of car? determine determinism shall now begin? How would our society have to be restructured. If we could see,
how verify that, even though it may look like people are making free decisions, even though it may feel like it to them that everything there doing is ultimately determined by a prior cause. How would that change the way that we see people in a hard determinist society? now. The obvious first thing that everybody talks about when the imagine the sort of society is, that would probably have to make considerable changes to the way that we view criminal justice. The thinking there is at the entire foundation of our criminal justice strategy hinges on the fact that, when someone commits a crime, they had a choice in some other course of events that could have occurred to not commit that crime. But if we found out the when some commits a crime that they actually could not have chosen other than the way that they did? Can we in that world, in good conscience, really lock people in prison for twenty years of their life, for carrying out a causal chain of of
instead, they didn't choose to be born into and they had no real control over. Maybe in a society based on hard determinism, criminal justice would be less about giving out punishments designed to deter bad decision. making, and maybe the strategy would be more about realisation or education. Maybe people would focus more on the causal mechanisms that they think led to criminal behaviour in childhood in under sir communities in the school system. Maybe that society would try even harder than we you now because he'd be forced to acknowledge that sitting around blaming people accomplishes nothing in a hard deterministic society and criminal justice again is a really interesting example. The people offer when talking about a society like this, but to me the more interesting things are the broad social implications of what we're talking about here. In other words, is not just about criminal justice. How do you create incentives for anything in a hard determinants? Society, because this does not just apply to bad behaviour, how do you reward people for good behaviour? How do you justify
paying someone three times as much as someone else, even if their working three times as hard, if both people literally could not have chosen to do. Otherwise, how do you award scholarships to certain students over others? Think of how different the outcomes of peace lives, turn out, think of the varying levels of health and fulfilment political representation and think about how under hard determinism those outcomes. Ultimately come down to being born into the right or wrong causal chain of events? How do you justify people being rewarded with such different? lives when no one really made a choice either way the only you can and our current set up is to say the people always have the free will to choose to work harder. Think of another incentive structured that exists in the world. Now that would be called into question. How about the very basic idea of when we say that someone is a good person or not. Can you even make the claim that someone is good or bad in this world? I mean that whole
value, you judgment is based on the fact that people can choose to make good or bad decisions. Would people in a hard, deterministic society see the act of sitting around blaming people labeling them as good or bad when they see that as just a waste of time with, Be more compassion in a society like that, because there be a perspective shift from blaming people to just trying harder to understand, what's causing a particular behaviour, and that, of course, would mean that there's never gonna be times. You don't want a particular person in the orbit of your life for their behaviour negatively affect you. You might do that all the time, but that ritual a blaming the person that we currently do without all seem pretty nostalgic from a hard deterministic point of view. Another example of something that might change how about certain business practices or marketing practices? How about those teams of people on something like youtube that sit around trying to come up with ways to keep people on their app for longer? How would we see
Then I mean these people are transparently using tendencies not only in human psychology and macro sense, but through algorithms. Their catering things to take advantage of your personal tendencies to keep you see, Rolling keep you spending your time, looking at the spectacle on your phone. All of this for think of generating the most profit now people are okay with this, and the current set up of our society story is that if there is anyone out there whose wasting thousands of ours of their life on an app and other, things in their life that they really want to get done, but then they get sucked into this abyss every day that feels in credibly hard to get out of the story. Currently. Is that that's ok? because I'm person can always just stop watching. They always have the freedom to delete the app be responsible and get their life together and for the record. That would still be true in a deterministic society, but if every
suddenly became a hard determinist, and people were aware of how the aggressive influences around us often lead people down roads where their life and are being a mess with the public view, the people that are making in perfecting these algorithms differently, but they start to see them as people that are manufacturing addiction almost like it. There was a chemist that created a drug in a lab that specifically designed to be addicted to people like the chemist makes it so that it targets parts of the brain that makes it way harder for people to ever. Stop that personal be considered evil and our current setup, but how about people aggressively influencing behaviour in other ways? Would the people making the algorithms be prosecuted in a hard determinist world, but without prosecution? Even look like given how the criminal justice system might have changed but anyway, hopefully its evident at this point that if society underwent a massive shift where everything was structured around the precepts of hard determinism, lotta stuff would have to change and Some of these changes don't sound that bad at all, but at the very least, what I think anybody having this conversation has to concede
is that if we ever went in that direction, we only be running some brand new experiments that really haven't we tried at the largest scales of society, there's no guarantee that anything like this actually works in practice. In fact, another interesting angled all this is that there are real people out there. argue that, if we were somehow ever able to conclude that the universe was causally deterministic, these people argue that the best thing we could do in that situation would be to not tell anybody They say it's almost like. If nasa found out there's an asteroid headed towards earth and there's nothing, anybody could ever do to stop it. Should we tell the public about it? Similarly, these people argue that every piece of the way we organise our society It is founded upon the idea of moral accountability. What, if this whole experiment just doesn't work without that ingredient? One of the best thing we could, who would be to let people keep on believing that they have free will, even if they dont, regardless of what you think the social policy should be
regardless of what you think may be going on at the level of the universe, we're all ultimately responsible for a totally separate endeavor, which is coming up with a personal policy about how we're going to view this stuff in our own lives. A passage from William James comes to mind when I think about this. He has a great essay. It's called the dilemma determinism, eighteen, eighty four, and in it he talks about how you can view the entire history of the world. Everything that's ever happened through the lens of both determinism or free will he says you can see history as the intersection of millions of free acting moral agents, all making decisions working together those decisions colliding with each other some an extremely random and violent ways over the years. You can see it that way or you can see history as chain of causally related events all unfolding based on a predictable order, that's written into the structure of the universe and into human psychology, but he says
Are of how you view history, there's only one rational way to be looking at the future of your life, and that is under the pragmatic assumption that you do have free. Will he famously says my first active will shall be to believe in free will, and I think, no matter what you do. When you're deciding where you're gonna land on the stuff when it comes to your personal life, I think it's important to remember that there is definitely downsides to being too extreme into one camper another. If you leave too far in the direction of We will, then you run the risk of becoming someone that sits around blaming yourself all the time hating decisions he issued or shouldn't a made in moments in the past. But if you to find the direction of determinism. You run the risk of extra. Eliza everything, never taking accountability for yourself and really just becoming a victim. Maybe there's a case to be made even if you're a hard determinist when it comes to the universe, maybe there's a case to be made for being a compatible list when it comes to your relationship to yours
That said, I want to close today by giving one more example of something that may change if we were living in a hard determine a society, I waited until the end here, because it has to do with conversations about a high which the next to us of the show we're gonna be going into pretty heavily. What I want to say is that artificial intelligence, when you think about it, gives us a pretty unique perspective on free will and its perspective that I dont think humanity has had directly available until very recently, when you look at something like a self driving car, for example, that car and the artificial intelligence at navigates it from an ignorant total outsiders perspective that car appears to be making free choices. It is stopping it stop signs merging. It is parking. It is altering the route home because her less traffic on the back roads to a total outsider. This ay, I appears to have free will but of
horse. We know because we are the ones that programmed it that it doesn't have free will. It is entirely deterministic based on complex algorithms and programming. Well, it's interesting to consider can artificial intelligence appear from the outside be doing things that seemed borderline magical that it's not actually even close to doing. If you understood the internal architecture of how the thing is programmed next episode, we're going to be talking about John searle and, among other things, his now infamous thought, experiment widely known as the chinese room argument hope you enjoy the episode here today. I want to keep it up releasing on this more frequent schedule. I just ask you to please tell a friend about the show at some point, if you feel like I've, given you somethin were sharing to them. Thanks to everyone on patron shouts this week in tongue, Chin Kyle's Mauling see J brand meyer, fabian share newski and a very special birthday shot out to LUCA Alberto rates. apparently he's been a fan of the show for a really long time. I appreciate you so
I can give you something in your life. You look forward to everyday men. Thank you to everyone out there. Thank you for listening, talk to you next time
Transcript generated on 2023-07-04.