Wes's recent post on David Eagleman led to my listening to the Philosophy Bites episode interviewing him.
Eagleman's point here is that the criminal justice system assumes a model of free will that is unsustainable given what we know about neurology, and he gives examples like a normal guy with no apparent deviant impulses suddenly starts exhibiting child molester behavior. He's subsequently diagnosed with a giant brain tumor, which is then removed, and his behavior (and self-reported desires) return to normal... but then they return, and what do you know? The tumor's back.
Overall, I agree with his prescription for criminal justice to be forward-looking and not retributive, and that moral guilt as we normally think of it does assume a metaphysics of free will that doesn't entirely make sense. One point in particular made me think, though, that he doesn't understand the compatibility deliberations that have been a main project for elaboration for philosophers since Kant or before: the interviewer brought up Sartre's notion of freedom, i.e. that to us, our actions always feel free (apart from when we're drugged against our will or whatnot). Even if someone has a gun on me, I choose what to do next. So from a first-person perspective, we can't use the excuse that "my neurological state caused me to do such and such;" that just doesn't reflect how we perceive the situation.
As a counterpoint to Eagleman, here's Dan Dennett giving a whole lecture on this topic. I'm not going to try to characterize Dennett's view here (I have yet to scan his book
Wes Alwan says
Incidentally I read Eagleman’s book after making that post, and it’s very enjoyable — generally because he refrains from the kinds of amateur philosophical speculations that make books by the likes of Damasio harder for me to enjoy. Only the last chapter is on the justice system (and free will) — and yep, he hasn’t heard of compatibilism. So he’s arguing against an incoherent notion of free will that no philosopher accepts (although it is arguably the commonsense version).
So why are most scientists feeling warranted in ignoring the academic field of philosophy?
I was going to say that this shows the dangers of drawing ethical conclusions from scientific research, but I suppose we all draw conclusions from the (narrow) experience we have. In Eagleman’s case, his life is embedded in the field of neuroscience and feels empowered to draw such conclusions in his book. All one can really do is warn the reader to beware of these types of speculations since they might not be telling the full story (which is what you guys have done). Chalk one up for the PEL team.
Wes made a generalization, I am interested in the specific.
Seth Paskin says
I listened to the interview as well and jumping on the issue of free will (which was brought up Nigel) is, I think, putting emphasis on only part of what Eagleman was saying. I was prepared to respond negatively to another ‘naive scientist’, but a big part of what Eagleman seemed to be saying was that, in theory, our punitive justice system assumes all actors are equal with respect to the criminal actions they commit. A does x and B does x – the issue is that x was committed, regardless of who actually performed the act.
In reality, the justice system has all kinds of biases in passing judgment: race plays a huge role, but so does perceived intent. Crimes of passion are treated more leniently than others because of a perception that the actor has a lower chance of recidivism. Eagleman’s point was that now that we have more data about the brain, it’s clear that the brains of the people on this thread are not like the brains of a person who was malnourished in the womb, not nurtured growing up, possibly exposed to toxic environments, etc.
He was arguing that the justice system should take into account neurological factors when deciding whether criminals should be treated punitively or with a course of rehabilitation. Or at least that understanding the neurological factors involved in criminal behavior would help the criminal justice system better address the de facto concern of intent.
Ethan Gach says
I agree with Seth.
Also, compatibilism has never sat right with me. It seems to me to water down what free will is to the point of rendering it nearly meaningless.
At least on the face of it, compatabilism seems like an attempt to preserve something without first defending why it need be preserved. Like doing extra mental gymnastics to make “free will” jive with other facts, simply becauase it is intuitively attractive to us.
Seth Paskin says
“compatabilism seems like an attempt to preserve something without first defending why it need be preserved”
Wes Alwan says
“He was arguing that the justice system should take into account neurological factors when deciding whether criminals should be treated punitively or with a course of rehabilitation.”
Seth — in fact he’s making the broader argument (and I’m responding to the full chapter in the book) that the justice system should always be non-punitive and focused on rehabilitation. The tumor case just gets the ball rolling — we can all in the end attribute our behaviors to the structure of our brain. And I agree with him — I’m a determinist in this sense (leaving aside the extent to which behaviors may be non-deterministic because of quantum mechanics — which won’t make any difference to the argument anyway); and like him, don’t think the naive concept of moral responsibility makes any sense.
But none of this changes the fact that Eagleman is simply naive of the more sophisticated philosophical debate to be had about free will — one that I find tremendously interesting. And it would be nice to see a neuroscientist who is philosophically sophisticated.
@Ethan: Yes, philosophers do tell you why they think it needs to be preserved. They think that it is difficult to justify the concept of moral responsibility without it. I really have difficulties with generalizations of this sort, which you should know will a priori fail given the amount of literature on the topic. You really thought no one asked themselves “why is free will necessary anyway?” And in fact, most basic accounts of free will will start out with just this sort of discussion. So statements like these make it appear as if you’ve not done much reading on the subject.
You may not agree that free will is necessary for the concept of morality, but then you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of coping with some very complex arguments. In fact there is a lot of well-motivated, sophisticated thinking on the free will — compatibilist and otherwise. (And this thinking is important to have implications for philosophy of mind — which happens to be my primary interest in it).
Not being interested in the question — or supposing that philosophers as usual are merely wasting their time — will certainly cut down on a lot of reading. Otherwise, this is always a good place to start: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/. And: http://www.amazon.com/Significance-Free-Will-ebook/dp/B001G60VNS/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1307553549&sr=8-2.
«You may not agree that free will is necessary for the concept of morality»
That is the point; I do agree that free will is not necessary for the concept of morality. Ethological research has been ample proof that morality, in an embryonic state, does exist in animals.
Even cognitive neuroscience has shown that the traditional philosophical belief about the mind requires a thorough rethinking:
« Reason is not disembodied, as the tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanisms of neural binding. In summary, reason is not, in any way, a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifies of our everyday functioning in the world ».
« Reason is evolutionary, in that abstract reason builds on and makes use of forms of perceptual and motor inference present in “lower” animals. The result is a Darwinism of reason, a rational Darwinism: Reason, even in its most abstract form, makes use of, rather than transcends, our animal nature. The discovery that reason is evolutionary utterly changes our relation to other animals and changes our conception of human beings as uniquely rational. Reason is thus not an essence that separates us from other animals; rather, it places us on a continuum with them ».
George Lakoff, cognitive linguist and philosopher, Philosophy in the Flesh.
Philosophy is a no longer needed discipline, at least in the way it is taught today.
Ethan Gach says
Oh Wes! I apologize that my sentiments offended you so. I thought the repetition of “seems to me,” and “seems like,” would have made it clear I don’t think I have more insight on the matter than the whole body of literature dealing with this issue, or that compatibilism is purely bunk.
I only meant that I have a hard time understanding its sophisticated appeal. I had hoped someone (perhaps yourself!) would give me a summary of why it is so necessarily compelling and so compellingly necessary.
Now correct me here, but it “seems” to me that the absence of free will is only a problem if we want to assign praise and blame (in a moral sense). But it “seems” reasonable to say, well, we don’t care if people are morally blameworthy, we just care about stopping them from doing bad things to people in the future, which means we either lock them up, start to rehabilitate them, or some combination of the two (unless one is convinced that our impulse to blame is inseparable from our ability to reason morally, a possibility, but not one that appears to be self-evident ). That alternative to assigning moral blame seems to nullify that concern regarding free will. But perhaps there are other concerns that I’m missing. My mind is slow, so it’s more than likely that I am glossing over important nuances.
But, seeing as how the literature on this question is so extensive, including many differing definitions for the terms and various interpretations of the conflicts, perhaps you could respond with a direct and substantive rebuttal, or say nothing at all, rather than make the obvious observation that I am stunningly ignorant when compared with the whole of philosophical writing on the topic.
Wes Alwan says
Ethan, the only thing worth rebutting here is the idea that compatibilism is an attempt to “preserve something without first defending why it need be preserved”; which I did, by pointing out that such defenses are typical in the literature. If you think that the concept of morality can do without the concept of blameworthiness (or that morality is a fiction altogether), then these are arguable positions. But you ought not to pretend that there aren’t formidable arguments against them — as if these issues are just obvious slam dunks. I’m not taking issue with some substantive position you happen to hold (it’s unclear to me what these would be in any detail); I’m taking issue with the sense of incurious, entitled ignorance I generally get from your comments. With the sense that you think the underlying philosophical problems that motivate one position or another are illusory, unimportant, or can be dismissed with a waive of the hand. So I’m encouraging you to do the following: when a position seems unmotivated, or patently absurd, then could be a clue that you haven’t fully comprehended it. So read up. Because again, what’s important here is not whether you agree with one philosophical position or another, but how finely you grasp the difficult philosophical problems that motivate them.
Ethan Gach says
Was I waving my hands dismissively again? Slamming dunks? Feeling entitled by my ignorance rather than humbled by it?
I must be horrible with my words, because I did not mean to convey any of these things.
If someone stumbles, do we help them up or scorn them for their clumsiness? There must be some middle ground between handholding and directing me to read 500 pages on the subject before commenting.
Should I be using more qualitiative language than I already am?
Perhaps next time I shall say, “I have sometimes felt that compatibilism appears to be an attempt at the possibility of reconciling two things which, potentially, might not need to be reconciled afterall, without sort of providing a strong case for why this reconciliation might be considered a somewhat important thing to potentitally obtain.”
So in the most humble and genuine tone that you could charitably attribute to me, I just wanted to note that in various moral frameworks, consequentialism/utilitarianism for instance, intent would be secondary to outcome, and so as a result establishing moral blameworthiness would not be important(maybe/possibly). In such a framework, room could be made to make ethical judgements without requring that the person under inspection was morally accountable for the consequences of his/her/its actions. In such a framework the question of free will would stil be an interesting one, but not one that raise the stakes so high as to require we go back into the void searching for a way to retain it (maybe/potentially).
Truly, I am not tryint to troll. I love the site, the podcasts, and everything you guys do. In this section I merely meant to express a sentiment of skepticism that comes to the surface when confronted with compatibilism…not that that is grounds upon which to dismiss it, or that smarter, harder thinking, better read people than I have not already addressed all of these points in a much more thorough and interesting a manner than I have or could ever hope to.
Wes Alwan says
Alright Ethan, if I misinterpreted your tone then I apologize.
Wes said: “But none of this changes the fact that Eagleman is simply naive of the more sophisticated philosophical debate to be had about free will — one that I find tremendously interesting. And it would be nice to see a neuroscientist who is philosophically sophisticated.”
Wes, Patricia Churchland comes to mind here. While she got her PhD in analistic philosophy inder Quine, Quine let his students know they needed to get behind science if they wanted to contribute anything meaningful. So, she got her medical degree focusing on neuroscience and now focuses on the ‘science’ of neuroethics.
Wes, I’ll repeat my Comment 2 following your Comment 1: “So why are most scientists feeling warranted in ignoring the academic field of philosophy?”
Wes Alwan says
I’m not sure. We can speculate that some scientists are interested in focusing on science rather than philosophy. For those scientists who make philosophical claims despite an obvious lack of familiarity with the area in which they make such claims: assuming they’re not unaware of the existence of relevant philosophical work, we can assume they don’t think it’s important. Critically, they believe that science has the tools to answer the kinds of questions that philosophers have languished over for millenia. So while they would like to make philosophical speculations, they believe that related philosophical work is a waste of their time; or worse, nonsense. Of course, some familiarity with such work would save them from the embarrassing, inane sorts of philosophical proclamations they feel compelled to make. And the fact that their scientific expertise wasn’t enough to save them from such embarrassment ought o be telling.
I’m not dissing Eagleman here, who generally knows his limitations. His book provides lots of food for philosophical thought, and I simply couldn’t put it down (or I put it down once — I read it in two sittings).
I agree with your answer, Wes. Where I think there is a problem is in relativity – from whose perspective will the answer be givem.
According to the physicist Feynman.the nature of mind/perception is quite evident:
Ethan Gach says
I think most scientists aren’t well read in philosophy (as oppose to being unphilosophical themselves) for the same reason that most philosophers aren’t well read in science (though they may approach topics somewhat scientifically)…there’s just not enough time or funding.
Some areas seem to benefit greatly from a cross disciplinary approach though, like, for instance, theoretical physics, which often involves more mathematics and philosophy that it does experimentation and measurement.
Just a WAG, but I’ll bet that scientists who pepper their work w/ philosobytes know more phil than philosophers who do the same with bits of science know about the science.
Ethan Gach says
Imagine what philosophers would say if scientists tried to creat a “Science of Philosophy” department…the end would be near for sure.
Isn’t that what the analytic school tried to do?
Ethan Gach says
But they were still philosophers, no? In house threats are one thing, but to have an outside department starting forming settlements on the otherside of the border is quite another.
As a scientist who has an academic and professional relationship David Eagleman, I thought I would share my opinion on the question in comment 2.
I think many scientist avoid questions that cannot be rigidly experimentally tested. We are very highly trained to avoid speculating more than we absolutely have to. Large multi-step philosophical arguments are I think interesting to scientists, but it goes against our training to engage in them. We tend to say only the things we can back up with rigid scientific evidence.
But I appreciate philosophy the same way I enjoy science fiction. Both are fertile grounds for creative ideas and new insights into the problems of today and tomorrow. Also, sometimes the mind simply yearns to be free.
I also understand philosophers’ nervousness about neuroscience. Neuroscience and the medical field of neurology are steadily eroding the domain of psychology, rendering entire branches of the subject largely irrelevant, and making some branches seem downright foolish in retrospect.
This is likely to happen to some extent in philosophy, although some of the really hard philosophical questions may remain beyond scientific reach for a long time.
If I were to list neuroscientists that I thought were friendly or receptive to Philosophical arguments, David Eaglemen would probably top that list. Most neuroscientists are probably worse.
Wes Alwan says
Aarron: I enjoyed Eagleman’s book immensely; but he, like many scientists writing in this area, does not shy away from philosophical arguments (although you’re right, Eaglemen is better than most in not pretending to know more than he knows). The comparison of philosophy to science fiction is an indication that you have under the spell of a popular misconception of philosophy is. Likewise, the idea that physiological concepts can simply replace psychological or philosophical concepts is a misunderstanding; although of course, these concepts are interrelated in important ways. The concept of anxiety, for instance, is a psychological concept; the functioning of the amygdala is physiological. The two are related. But to say that we could ever replace anxiety-talk completely with amygdala talk (or talk about other relevant areas of the brain) is nonsense. That’s like saying that people will stop talking about walking and running because we know the physiology of legs. The psychological concept doesn’t simply disappear when it is correlated to a physiological one — and you would lose the ability to say a lot of informative things about the relationship between the brain and psychology if you simply tried to get rid of the latter domain. (And ironically, even if such a complete reduction were possible, neuroscience is nowhere near the level of maturity that would be required — so talk about encroachment on other fields is incredibly premature). There’s a lot of good philosophy of science and mind — by people well versed in both philosophy and science — that discuss these issues in more detail; I recommend looking at it before drawing these very facile conclusions about the relationship between these fields.
To say that “a model of free will that is unsustainable given what we know about neurology” shows an inability for this man to reason objectively and consider other valid theories as possible besides his own. First of all, there is an assumption that such neurologists make that all our awareness and thought is a result of biochemical reactions within the brain. It is not even considered that we may have a soul that is beyond our ability to test that interacts with the brain. David pointed out that the brain is damaged and then a man has desires for children as some sort of proof that choice is an illusion. But nothing is considered that the man may experience such desires as a result of this damage to his brain and then the soul which experiences this makes choices on how to react to these desires. There is this experiment where a person is asked to push a button on the left or right and it has been found that they can predict some 3 seconds ahead of time what choice you make by observing effects on the brain. First, we make instantaneous choices all the time like when we drive for instance so this experiment does not even touch this. Second what goes on with the many choices we make at any time that it may be impossibly to isolate factors so we can test whether all choice is from free will or the brains automation. Third, try to this on yourself sometime. You will find how little thought is made on this choice to push a button so it would also make sense that we make this type of choice with that part of us that makes choices without even thinking about it, like when we walk and “choose” how fast to walk when we are not even thinking about it. I could go on and on and on about other valid possible explanations other than what these closed minded brilliant secular thinkers fanatically believe. If you are going to use true empirical thinking you must distinguish likelihood of a theory by considering all possibilities one can think of and then from there choose what you want to believe through logical deduction and faith, whether through deluding yourself that a theory is a fact or accept that such choice of belief like the computer before you is real is through faith in what seems to be a high probability of reality or so low probability that it is little more than what I call philosophical masturbation. Feels good and is entertaining but all you are really doing is getting off, by all probability. For instance, there is something like a one in a zillion possibility that tomorrow I will meet the queen of England and she will bow down and lick my feet. But really by my value of worth, it is not worth seriously considering that it will happen. Your brain people are doing a lot of good work but because of what I choose to believe is false assumptions through faith, logical deduction, and experience you are not finding what you could if you would consider that the soul may be a factor as well as the brain. There is no reasonable doubt that the brain influences us and makes choices for us at times but it is just delusional to assert that it is unsustainable that our soul also makes choices out of free will. Like “God”, we may be making something out of nothing with our free will.
Bill McEnaney says
Say hard determinism is true. Then stimuli, responses, environmental conditions, and/or other factors will always force me to believe whatever I do believe under the conditions I’m in, and what I do believe or don’t believe will depend on them. They may guarantee that I’ll believe I have free will, even if I don’t have it. If hard determinism is true, why should I trust my or anyone else’s judgment? Scientists insist that each scientific theory needs to be falsifiable at least in principle. But if hard determinism is true, there may be no way to falsify any theory in practice.
Prof, Eagleton and other scientists know scientism, the belief that all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, know that any scientistic argument for scientism would be circular. Believers in scientism run into the kind of problem the logical positivist’s verification principle has. The VP tells you that for any statement to mean anything, it needs to be a tautology or empirically testable. Since the VP is neither, by its own standard, it’s meaningless. Scientism isn’t a scientific theory. It’s a metaphysical one.
By the way, it’s one thing to say that no one has free will and another to say that, although we have it, brain tumors can prevent us from using it.