16 November 2011

The Problem of Free Will I: Is anybody there?

"Every human thought is in principle a pre-determined consequence of biochemical processes that are themselves determined by evolution, the course of which is pre-determined by chemistry and physics. Therefore, there is no such thing as free will. In fact, there is no such thing as consciousness. What appear to be sentient beings are just automata that give the illusion of consciousness."

I feel frustrated, even enraged when I hear or read statements like this, whether from scientists and non-scientists. Such a statement is equivalent to saying that the Universe and everything in it is dead — even ourselves. It implicitly permits the most outrageous disregard of everything and everyone, even one's one children. After all, what harm is there in neglecting or even killing that which never was, and never could be really alive?

I'm outraged when people make such statements, because it is that easy and that quick to show that such statements would have grossly immoral consequences, were people to take them seriously. I'm frustrated when people make such statements, because they are wrong. For the rest of this thread, I would like to show you why.

Let's start with basic philosophy. To whom do automata give the illusion of consciousness? This is not just a semantic game. An illusion cannot have itself, nor can an automaton have one. The very idea of an illusion pre-supposes the idea of consciousness on the part of someone. That is, you must be conscious in order to have the illusion (the false awareness) that you are conscious. You might be semi-comatose and in a dream-like state, but that is still a state of consciousness. In fact, consciousness is the prime datum of philosophy, both Western (self-awareness as in Descartes' "I think, therefore I am") and Eastern (a generalized oceanic awareness).

Consciousness is also the prime datum of science. The discipline of science is to get ever more precise and accurate data into one's consciousness, so that one can discover and then test relationships among the data. If you reject the datum of your own self-awareness, then you can claim that anything I do to demonstrate the contrary is unreal, an illusion (which you must be conscious to experience, but since I must be wrong, logic must not apply). That is to say, rejecting the datum of your own consciousness is unfalsifiable, and therefore unscientific. Because science accepts only statements that are falsifiable (capable of being proved wrong), in principle, by some sort of observation (a means of getting data into consciousness) or experiment (a controlled means of getting data into consciousness). Science is thus a way to get to know by successive approximations (trial and error) those aspects of reality amenable to its methods.

In short, claiming that we are unconscious is unscientific, unphilosophic and leads to logical contradictions. And that is, as mathematicians say, "what was to be proven," Quod Erat Demonstrandum, QED.

Of course, it is possible that my friend mis-spoke. Perhaps what he really wanted to deny is the reality of the self. Here he might be on firmer ground, because Buddhism claims that an individual's sense of self is illusory. That is to say, that your own little sense of self is an illusion entertained by part of the Universal Self.

I think what the Buddhists are trying to say, however imprecisely, is that you are not your personality. Indeed, you build your personality on the foundation of your temperament in order to have an interface with the people and the world around you. You use your personality to relate to yourself, as well. The Buddhist koan, "Show me the face you had before your parents were born," is a demand to experience and relate to reality directly, without the intermediary of your personality.

But that doesn't mean that your personality is unreal. If you build a bicycle, the bicycle is no less real for your having built it. If you write a piece of software, the software is no less real for your having written it, or for it being the expression of your ideas. Similarly, your personality is your real creation, more intricate and grander than any art or literature ever created. It isn't an illusion. It just isn't all there is to you. And if your personality changes over time in response to your circumstances, so what? You might want to make changes to the bicycle you built as you grow, or as you age. So too, you may change your personality, albeit with some difficulty, and sometimes with the aid of a psychotherapist.

Having dealt with consciousness, we now turn to the thornier problem of free will. What my friend above should have been trying to establish was not the solipsistic ideas that we are unconscious or have no personalities, but rather the idea that although we are conscious, we only have the illusion of free will. We may be self-aware, but all our thoughts and actions are pre-determined reactions to preceding stimuli. We only think that we actually decide anything. This will be the topic of the next post in this thread.


The Underground Pewster said...

Is your friend someone who is working on "artificial intelligence?"

Scooper said...

Would you believe the friend is a sociologist?