Free will and dualism

I’ve been planning to write about free will for years but it’s never quite happened. I have, on more than one occasion, planned large scholarly articles….and then failed to write them. The form and content of those potential articles is probably lost forever, oh well. Free will is a huge subject, one of the most written about and argued about subjects in all of philosophy. That’s why every time I start planning to write about it the range of arguments I want to discuss quickly expands, the project becomes bloated, and I slink back to my day job as an evolutionary biologist. Well, maybe it’s because I’m currently between day jobs, but I figure if I don’t start by writing something short and sweet and posting it on my blog (which exists for this very purpose, after all) I might never write anything about it at all. I think that would be a shame (for me, at least), so here goes.

As one of the most popular and controversial subjects in philosophy, and one of those that people have the strongest intuitions about, it’s unsurprising a lot of arguments about free will are somewhat (dare I say it) incoherent. Actually, “incoherent” is a very common word utilised in these arguments themselves, typically directed by proponents of one view towards those of another. I’m going to continue this venerable tradition (mostly because it’s fun)  – there are plenty of incoherent arguments both for and against the existence of free will. If I keep writing about this subject, I might get around to reviewing many of them, but I’m going to start by putting some of my own cards on the table at the outset. I believe that Kant, who probably didn’t believe in free will in the metaphysical sense and who famously considered compatibilism (the claim that free will can exist in a deterministic universe) a “wretched subterfuge”, nonetheless refuted the majority of arguments against the existence of free will. This includes many modern arguments. When a philosopher who died in 1804 can be considered to have refuted arguments still being made in 2016, this is an example of what I like to call “proactive refutation”. How did he accomplish this? Simply by asserting that we “cannot act except under the idea of freedom”. For Kant, all actions (or inactions) result from choosing to act (or not to). This includes making the choice to believe that we have no free will – unless you have been somehow coerced (by another agent) into making this choice, you have made it freely.

There is, of course, a sizeable literature devoted to this claim of Kant’s, and there have been many attempts to refute it, but I think that most of them fail. This is going to be a short piece and I want to get to why I think denying the existence of free will is fundamentally dualistic, but before I do I better try to explain what (I think) Kant is on about. There are complicated arguments about coercion etc – e.g. when one is forced to do something is one free to do otherwise, and if not can one be said to be “acting” in the Kantian sense – but let’s leave those aside for now. I think the most important thing about what Kant is saying is that “freedom” and “autonomy of the will” are part of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the manifest image”. This means that these concepts are part of the level of reality on which humans have evolved to act and on which (in one of Sellars’ examples) we perceive and interact with objects like tables rather than clouds of loosely interacting subatomic particles with a whole lot of empty space between them. Daniel Dennett has developed this line of argument in considerable detail, but the punch line is that arguments from physics (e.g. arguments about determinism) are irrelevant to discussions regarding the existence of free will. Now, most of the arguments from physics against the existence of free will are incoherent (told you!) anyway and wouldn’t demonstrate the non-existence of free will even if they were relevant, but they aren’t. They also aren’t really even arguments from physics, more like arguments from pseudophysics, but that line of argument can wait.

So, a striking majority of arguments against free will are refuted simply by a recognition of the fact that there are many “levels of description” when it comes to reality and that free will is relevant to (and exists on) only some of them. This simple argument takes care of a lot of modern arguments from neuroscience as well as those from physics, but I want to dwell on the former a little longer. To me it seems quite ironic that many people who deny the existence of free will on the basis of evidence from neuroscience accuse those who persist in believing in it of being closet dualists. For me quite the opposite is true  – not that those who deny free will based on neuroscience have a considered belief in dualism that they are hiding, but that their intuitions are guided by (vestigial) dualist notions.

Dan Dennett has caricatured these arguments as “my brain made me do it” and lamented the naïve (in his view) attempts at philosophy perpetrated by certain scientists who have advocated this position. I don’t always agree with Dennett (I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear this), but I do wish that those who consistently lampoon his positions (“Dan doesn’t believe in consciousness!”) would actually take the time to understand them first. Another way of caricaturing the argument from neuroscience is as “the self is an illusion, therefore free will doesn’t exist”. This is incoherent (am I over doing it yet?). Sure, the self isn’t what it might naïvely appear to be (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it is acausal, but I won’t get into that) but acknowledging that simple fact and then using it to justify doing away with free will is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

If you are a monist, you are committed to the idea that everything is, at some deep level, made of the same stuff. This stuff might be vibrations, subatomic particles, atoms, whatever you want. To me, that’s all physicalism. It’s not “materialism”, because matter is not fundamental, but no matter (ha!) how far “down” you go it’s still physicalism (vibrations in fields are physical). Anyway, unless you are absurdly reductionist, you agree that there are entities at some range of levels above your chosen fundamental level. If you have any respect for biology, you acknowledge that at some number of levels above the fundamental you find entities like proteins, cells, and ultimately organisms. Which level is the “causal level”? The position people take on free will often hinges on their answer to this question. A very influential position of the past (famously illustrated by Laplace’s Demon, an intuition pump so potent it is still guiding people’s thoughts today) is that, since the only really real stuff is atoms moving in a void, the atom is the important level for causal analysis. Many neuroscientists seem to think that the cell (specifically the neuron, or perhaps the neuronal network) is the relevant level. The problem isn’t the preferred answer though, it’s the question. It’s meaningless (incoherent?). There is no level of causal primacy. There is no prime mover. This is taking the worst of theological thinking and the worst of reductionist thinking and mashing them together to create a Frankenstein’s Monster of an intuition pump that refuses to die. Forget that question forever if you want to be able to think clearly about the evolution of the universe, including the organisms present within it, all the way “up” to the level of the consciousness that at least some of those organisms possess.

If you don’t believe in free will, you are not just committed to a hard form of epiphenomenalism (the incoherent notion that consciousness is entirely acausal), you are also a (vestigial) dualist. Why? Because you are suggesting that the “you” which is your “self” is causally disconnected from the “you” that is your neurons (and all the rest of your physiology). What would that mean? If you are a physical monist, you must believe that the experience you are having, your sentience, awareness, meta-consciousness and self, is realised due to activity in your brain. You also can’t be an idealist (in the Berkeleyan sense) – you must believe there is an actual reality out there that your brain evolved to allow you to interact with. So, you believe that signals are coming in via your sense organs and ultimately are “transduced” into your awareness. All this is happening in your brain. Consciousness is just an (integrated) form of awareness (actually it’s an affordance-seeking predictive engine of awareness, but anyway). The “self” is something you are (or can be) aware of. So, do signals come in, get integrated and go into your awareness, but then find the neuronal blind alley in which meta-consciousness hides? Can signals go in to this blind alley but not come out? Is the neuronal substrate of your consciousness somehow causally isolated from the rest of your brain? Hmmmm, sounds a lot like vestigial dualism to me  – it’s a recasting of the “problem of interaction” that has long been used as an argument against dualism (how does the soul/consciousness “stuff” interact with the physical stuff?).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. I know I haven’t addressed a lot of arguments that people use to try and refute free will (e.g. some of those glossed over above, as well as arguments from phenomenology and more), but this is enough for now. Ultimately, a lot of the arguing about free will is arguing about the definition of the term itself. There are plenty of people, who I have a great deal of respect for, who are basically compatibilists but who nonetheless claim that there is no such thing as “free will”. I prefer to concentrate on the common ground in such cases, in so far as the real goal of discussion and debate is inching slightly closer to whatever truth of the matter might be accessible. However, arguing semantics can sometimes be very productive too, as long as all parties involved in the debate understand the level on which the debate is taking place. I myself am essentially a fallibilist and this means that I’m not all that attached to any particular way of saying things because ultimately they are all wrong. I’m not a relativist though, which means that some ways of saying things are more right than others, so now that I’ve made a start in my writings about free will you can expect to hear more from me on this subject in the future.

P.S. That’s Kant at the top. He’s on my side, really he is.


Are sunsets “real”? Reducing reductionism


(Sunset over Yellow Waters Billabong, NT, Australia)

Before embarking upon what will be a discussion of the semantics of reductionism, I suppose I had better define one of the “basic” words in the title of this article: “real”. So, for the benefit of any philosophers or semanticians that might be reading: “real”, in the title and elsewhere in the article, should be taken to mean “actual” (a discussion of the “categories of the real” might be the topic of a later post).

Now that we’ve got that nonsense over with, why am I questioning the reality of sunsets anyway? The inspiration for this post is John Searle’s discussion of reductionism in his book Mind: a brief introduction, in which he elucidates the ways in which the phenomenon of consciousness can and can’t be reduced.

There are many types of reductionism (reductionism itself is reducible): theoretical, methodological (two types), conceptual, causal, ontological, eliminative, etc. Searle focuses his discussion on the latter three types – causal, ontological and eliminative. The definitions are as follows:

Causal reduction: reducing a phenomenon to its causes. An example (one used by Searle and Dennett and others, following Eddington) is the “solidity” of objects, which is caused by “a certain sort of molecular behaviour” (Searle’s words), such that we perceive them to be solid despite the fact that they are largely composed of empty space.

Ontological reduction: an item’s ontology is basically what it “is” (what it can be said to be), thus, when we causally reduce solidity to the behaviour of “molecules” (more properly the behaviour of electrons), we also ontologically reduce it – solidity “just is” the behaviour of electrons (i.e. it is nothing “beyond” this).

Eliminative reduction: this is really a subtype of reduction whereby we eliminate something by reducing it causally and/or ontologically. It is often believed that all (or most) reduction is eliminative, but this is certainly not the case. For example, although we causally and ontologically reduce solidity, we do not thereby eliminate it. This is easy enough to discover by conducting the simple experiment of running headlong at an apparently solid wall. Despite the fact that we can causally and ontologically reduce solidity to the behaviour of electrons, thereby showing that the wall is mostly composed of empty space, the aforementioned experiment is still likely to result in some unpleasant bruises. An example of a phenomenon on that can be eliminated through reduction might be ghosts – when we causally and ontologically reduce the perception of ghosts to an illusion caused by apophenia (seeing patterns where there are no patterns) or sleep paralysis, we also eliminate the existence of the ghosts themselves.

Searle utilises these definitions to argue that consciousness is causally reducible (to the “firing of neurons”), but not ontologically reducible (i.e. it is something “beyond” the firing of neurons – it is our experience of subjectivity). So far so good*. Where Searle goes wrong is in his choice of examples: he uses the aforementioned example of solidity as something that is ontologically but not eliminatively reducible; then uses sunsets as an example of a phenomenon which is eliminated through reduction.

To determine whether or not this example is apt, we need to question what is actually meant by “sunset”. Searle’s comment that “the sun appears to set over Mount Tamalpais though it does not really do so” is instructive. It suggests that Searle thinks that within the meaning of the word “sunset” is the literal assertion that the sun is spatially proximal to the edge of the world behind which it appears to disappear. I contend that this is not the case….at least since Copernicus.

This discussion has parallels with Eddington’s “paradox of the two tables”, to which Searle makes indirect reference in his discussion. According to Eddington, when we look at a table we are in fact seeing two different tables. One, the table of the “scientific image”, is mostly composed of empty space, appearing solid because of the activity of electrons in the atoms from which it is constructed. The other, the table of the “manifest image”, is “merely” solid, constructed from solid pieces of wood and not composed of (rather surrounded by) empty space at all. Of course there is only one table, with two perspectives from which to consider it. Viewed from either perspective, the table is solid (i.e. the solidity of the table is not eliminatively reducible).

So what about sunsets? Since Copernicus, we have known that the sunset is a matter of perspective, caused by the rotation of the Earth on its axis. So, the sunset is causally reducible – this is our “scientific image” of the sunset. Our “manifest image” of the sunset contains things like the warm orange and red glow suffusing the evening sky and the sun itself slowly slipping from view behind whatever feature of the horizon is situated to the west of us at the time; it is the gradual change from day to night. So, does our causal reduction of the sunset (for the purposes of the present discussion let’s forget whether what we mean by “sunset” is ontologically reducible) eliminate the phenomenon in the same way that our causal reduction of ghost sightings to apophenia might do? Of course not. The sunset is a real (actual) phenomenon. Lovers standing hand-in-hand both see it, voyeurs watching the lovers see it, the voyeurs’ cameras see it; it is objectively real. The fact that it is causally reducible to the Earth’s rotation does not make it eliminatively reducible: one may as well say that the day-night cycle is eliminatively reducible, because it has the same cause.

Bad example, Searle, bad!

The accusation could be made that, although I’ve hinted at it, I’m yet to actually provide a proper definition of the sunset myself. Well, here goes – the “sunset” is that thing that happens at dusk just before day becomes night, often characterised (cloud cover permitting) by the sky changing colour and the sun disappearing from view. It is a “matter of perspective”, and varies spatio-temporally according to longitude and latitude. The word “sunset” contains no astronomical information, i.e. it does not have a position on whether the sun literally “disappears” (actually this is what it literally does, just not in the “magical” sense) or literally goes behind certain features of the westernmost horizon (and then teleports to a position behind certain features of the easternmost horizon just before dawn). Most of us are well aware that it’s the Earth’s rotation on its axis that causes this phenomenon, just as the same rotation causes the phenomena of night and day. The sunset is a manifest, objectively real, romantic, actual phenomenon that cannot be eliminated through reductionism. Good enough?

Why did I write this article dissecting the semantic arguments of an eminent philosopher? Firstly, because it was fun! Secondly, because I think it highlights a core issue in the way Searle (along with many other “thinkers”, both philosophers and scientists) structures arguments: by deriving the arguments from the conclusions and not the conclusions from the arguments. For other classic examples of this see Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment, or his claim that he is neither a “property dualist” or a “materialist” (I think the claim can be made that he is both) – it often seems to be the case with Searle that the position he is attacking (e.g., some sort of literalist interpretation of “sunsets” or his particular definitions of property dualism and materialism) exists nowhere other than in his polemic itself. This sort of “intentional definitional error” – the creation of a fictitious position in order to take it down – is known as a “straw man argument”. Perhaps it’s inconsequential with regard to “sunsets” (although it muddies the waters of his otherwise clear discussion of reductionism), but his application of it here is symptomatic of the widespread usage of the tactic elsewhere in his writings on consciousness (a tactic that has generated considerable head scratching amongst other thinkers on the subject).

P.S. Searle lovers – let it be known that I understand and agree with his assertions regarding the reducibility and non-reducibility of consciousness. That is not the point of this article.


*Except where he tries to use this line of reasoning to attack both “property dualism” and “materialism”.