Reading Yudkowsky, part 45

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 13, 2011 in Eliezer Yudkowsky,Resources,Reviews

AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky is something of an expert at human rationality, and at teaching it to others. His hundreds of posts at Less Wrong are a treasure trove for those who want to improve their own rationality. As such, I’m reading all of them, chronologically.

I suspect some of my readers want to “level up” their rationality, too. So I’m keeping a diary of my Yudkowsky reading. Feel free to follow along.

His 374th post is Thou Art Physics:

“Compatibilism” is the philosophical position that “free will” can be intuitively and satisfyingly defined in such a way as to be compatible with deterministic physics.  “Incompatibilism” is the position that free will and determinism are incompatible.

My position might perhaps be called “Requiredism.”  When agency, choice, control, and moral responsibility are cashed out in a sensible way, they require determinism – at least some patches of determinism within the universe.  If you choose, and plan, and act, and bring some future into being, in accordance with your desire, then all this requires a lawful sort of reality; you cannot do it amid utter chaos.  There must be order over at least over those parts of reality that are being controlled by you.  You are within physics, and so you/physics have determined the future.  If it were not determined by physics, it could not be determined by you.

Okay, so what’s the answer to the free will question?

But if the laws of physics control us, then how can we be said to control ourselves?

Turn it around:  If the laws of physics did not control us, how could we possibly control ourselves?

How could thoughts judge other thoughts, how could emotions conflict with each other, how could one course of action appear best, how could we pass from uncertainty to certainty about our own plans, in the midst of utter chaos?

If we were not in reality, where could we be?

The future is determined by physics.  What kind of physics?  The kind of physics that includes the actions of human beings.

People’s choices are determined by physics.  What kind of physics? The kind of physics that includes weighing decisions, considering possible outcomes, judging them, being tempted, following morals, rationalizing transgressions, trying to do better…

There is no point where a quark swoops in from Pluto and overrides all this.

Timeless Control explains how to talk about humans controlling certain outcomes without getting confused by the old notion that time “flows.”

The next post is a Bloggingheads between Yudkowsky and John Horgan. Against Devil’s Advocacy is next:

When I was a kid and my father was teaching me about skepticism… he used the example of the hypothesis:  “There is an object one foot across in the asteroid belt composed entirely of chocolate cake.”  You would have to search the whole asteroid belt to disprove this hypothesis.  But though this hypothesis is very hard to disprove, there aren’t good arguments for it.

And the child-Eliezer asked his mind to search for arguments that there was a chocolate cake in the asteroid belt.  Lo, his mind returned the reply:  “Since the asteroid-belt-chocolate-cake is one of the classic examples of a bad hypothesis, if anyone ever invents a time machine, some prankster will toss a chocolate cake back into the 20th-century asteroid belt, making it true all along.”

Thus – at a very young age – I discovered that my mind could, if asked, invent arguments for anything.

…Perhaps I’m misremembering… but it seems to me that, even at that young age, I looked at my mind’s amazing clever argument for a time-traveling chocolate cake, and thought:  I’ve got to avoid doing that.

…Believe me, I understand the Traditional argument behind Devil’s Advocacy.  By arguing the opposing position, you increase your mental flexibility.  You shake yourself out of your old shoes.  You get a chance to gather evidence against your position, instead of arguing for it.  You rotate things around, see them from a different viewpoint.  Turnabout is fair play, so you turn about, to play fair.

You, dear reader, are probably a sophisticated enough reasoner that if you manage to get yourself stuck in an advanced rut, dutifully playing Devil’s Advocate won’t get you out of it.  You’ll just subconsciously avoid any Devil’s arguments that make you genuinely nervous, and then congratulate yourself for doing your duty.  People at this level need stronger medicine.  (So far I’ve only covered medium-strength medicine.)

If you can bring yourself to a state of real doubt and genuine curiosity, there is no need for Devil’s Advocacy.  You can investigate the contrary position because you think it might be really genuinely true, not because you are playing games with time-traveling chocolate cakes.  If you cannot find this trace of true doubt within yourself, can merely playing Devil’s Advocate help you?

But, Eliezer concludes:

Brandon argues that Devil’s Advocacy is most importantly a social rather than individual process, which aspect I confess I wasn’t thinking about.

After a news post, Eliezer offers a summary of links for The Quantum Physics Sequence. He takes another shot at a summary with An Intuitive Explanation of Quantum Mechanics. And another with Quantum Physics Revealed as Non-Mysterious! The summary post for showing why Everett’s interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct is And the Winner is… Many-Worlds! He also offers a summary post for Quantum Mechanics and Personal Identity.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Zeb June 13, 2011 at 4:54 am

Hasn’t EY ever played video games? If I asked, “If the laws of [Super Mario Brothers] did not control [Mario], how could [Mario] possibly control [Himself]?”, the answer would be that there is a controlling entity outside the system of SMB that has some epistemic access to the world of SMB and some causal access to the actions of Mario. I don’t see the problem with a world being ordered by a set of rules but manipulated by a causal entity that is outside that set of rules.

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drj June 13, 2011 at 6:27 am

Doesn’t that just push back the problem a level Zeb? If laws were not controlling this [controlling entity], then how could it control itself?

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Garren June 13, 2011 at 8:59 am

drj,

It may push back the problem of determinism, but it does defeat the claim that human will must be fully explicable by the physics of this world.

At any rate, I think it’s pretty silly of Eliezer to declare a new position called ‘Requiredism’ when it’s already a common determinist argument. And he’s still trying to answer ‘the’ question of free will rather than disambiguating the various questions people attach to that mess of a topic.

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zeb June 13, 2011 at 9:33 am

drj, while it does push the problem of determinism back a level, it also shows that we don’t have to choose between seeing choice as “utter chaos” as Yudkowsky says, or total determination. The regularity of a world and the limited ways an outside actor could interact with it would allow for a sensible sort of choice making even if there is a node in the causal chain that is not determined or is not totally causally dependent on the environment in which the choice is bearing out.

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drj June 13, 2011 at 11:31 am

drj, while it does push the problem of determinism back a level, it also shows that we don’t have to choose between seeing choice as “utter chaos” as Yudkowsky says, or total determination. The regularity of a world and the limited ways an outside actor could interact with it would allow for a sensible sort of choice making even if there is a node in the causal chain that is not determined or is not totally causally dependent on the environment in which the choice is bearing out.

Right, but then this other world would essentially have to be explained with determinism, or “utter chaos” as well – so the move doesn’t seem to net you anything.

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JS Allen June 13, 2011 at 4:21 pm

I thought the time-travelling chocolate cake argument was a fairly obvious argument that highlighted some important aspects of the issue. I’m surprised at Eliezer’s reaction to it, and on the insistence on moralizing about a distinction between “devil’s advocacy” and “a state of real doubt and genuine curiosity”. That seems rather simple-minded.

Who am I to trust? A philosopher like Ruse who admits that he sometimes explores counter-arguments simply out of “sheer bloody-mindedness”, or someone who constantly goes to great lengths to signal that he would never do such a thing?

I LOLed at this quote from the Ruse piece that Eliezer linked:

I do wish that he and other science writers would cease assuming that philosophical issues can be solved by talking in a brisk, confident voice.

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woodchuck64 June 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Zeb,

The regularity of a world and the limited ways an outside actor could interact with it would allow for a sensible sort of choice making even if there is a node in the causal chain that is not determined or is not totally causally dependent on the environment in which the choice is bearing out.

But that node’s affects must be, at the very least, consistently determined by its nature, regardless of what rules govern its non-physical realm (this seems true by definition of node/entity rather than true by physical observation). And since an agent can’t choose that node’s nature, he’s stuck with whatever it is, which doesn’t seem any more free than hard determinism.

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soupsayer June 13, 2011 at 11:47 pm

Garren wrote:
I think it’s pretty silly of Eliezer to declare a new position called ‘Requiredism’ when it’s already a common determinist argument. And he’s still trying to answer ‘the’ question of free will rather than disambiguating the various questions people attach to that mess of a topic.

Remember, Eliezer advises against reading mainstream philosophy because he thinks it will “teach very bad habits of thought that will lead people to be unable to do real work.”

Now, you’ll probably be able to find some post(s) by Eliezer on LW which contain some general abstract rule which encourages the congregation to apply the principal of charity and be open to outside sources and objection (ideas that go back to the Greeks). But whenever it comes time to apply that general rule in any particular instance, Eliezer will remind you that he (thinks he) isn’t doing anything like mainstream philosophy or even mainstream science – so it won’t help you to look at those, and why even bother when he is kind enough to serve as the Bastion of Truth. Having understanding of the context of human history is just a tremendous time waster and an enormous impediment to getting anything really worthwhile done.

By the way, Sam Harris has been having a conversation with himself about “free will”, spanning four posts over two weeks. It is mostly just excerpts from his but book, but in the end he does put himself in bed with Einstein and they do make kind of a cute couple. Check out his blog if you haven’t seen it already.

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Zeb June 14, 2011 at 5:38 am

Right, but then this other world would essentially have to be explained with determinism, or “utter chaos” as well – so the move doesn’t seem to net you anything.

EY was trying to use a reductio ad absurdum as an intuition pump against libertarianism.

How could thoughts judge other thoughts, how could emotions conflict with each other, how could one course of action appear best, how could we pass from uncertainty to certainty about our own plans, in the midst of utter chaos?

The idea seems to be that since your decision making doesn’t feel like utter chaos, and you can’t figure out how utter chaos would allow decision making, and since libertarianism equals utter chaos, libertarianism must not be true and therefor determinism must be true. Now, I don’t accept the premise that the only alternative to determinism is randomness or chaos, but I’m not getting into that here. My point was just that having randomness or chaos governing one node of a causal chain that might be outside the rules governing the system in which the affects of the choice are observed would not necessarily look or feel like utter chaos. If you would substitute “randomness” for “utter chaos” in your statement, and your use of quotation marks makes me thing that would not have been your choice of words, then I would agree that it is not dishonest and fallacious as I think EY’s statement was.

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Zeb June 14, 2011 at 5:41 am

woodchuck64

But that node’s affects must be, at the very least, consistently determined by its nature,

Why? Why could it not be just that the scope of its options be determined by its nature, but its choice from among those options be undetermined by pre-existing factors?

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antiplastic June 14, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Remember, Eliezer advises against reading mainstream philosophy because he thinks it will “teach very bad habits of thought that will lead people to be unable to do real work.”

Again, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crank_%28person%29#Common_characteristics_of_cranks :

“Some cranks exhibit a lack of academic achievement, in which case they typically assert that academic training in the subject of their crank belief is not only unnecessary for discovering “the truth”, but actively harmful because they believe it “poisons” the minds by teaching falsehoods. Others greatly exaggerate their personal achievements, and may insist that some achievement (real or alleged) in some entirely unrelated area of human endeavor implies that their cranky opinion should be taken seriously.

Some cranks claim vast knowledge of any relevant literature, while others claim that familiarity with previous work is entirely unnecessary; regardless, cranks inevitably reveal that whether or not they believe themselves to be knowledgeable concerning relevant matters of fact, mainstream opinion, or previous work, they are not in fact well-informed concerning the topic of their belief.”

and

“Cranks who contradict some mainstream opinion in some highly technical field, such as mathematics or physics, almost always:

1. exhibit a marked lack of technical ability,
2. misunderstand or fail to use standard notation and terminology,
3. ignore fine distinctions which are essential to correctly understand mainstream belief.

That is, cranks tend to ignore any previous insights which have been proven by experience to facilitate discussion and analysis of the topic of their cranky claims; indeed, they often assert that these innovations obscure rather than clarify the situation.”

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woodchuck64 June 14, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Zeb,

But that node’s affects must be, at the very least, consistently determined by its nature,

Why? Why could it not be just that the scope of its options be determined by its nature, but its choice from among those options be undetermined by pre-existing factors?

As a conceptual possibility, I think it’s fine. As a source of free will from which moral responsibility follows, I don’t see it at all, since it seems trivial to avoid responsibility if I don’t determine my own decisions. Self-determination seems necessary to hold anyone responsible for anything.

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Silas June 14, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Why? Why could it not be just that the scope of its options be determined by its nature, but its choice from among those options be undetermined by pre-existing factors?

So that is like a random number generator that generates numbers between 1 and 10. Logically possible, of course, but it hardly fits with the notion of “free will”.

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Zeb June 15, 2011 at 11:30 am

Zeb,

Why? Why could it not be just that the scope of its options be determined by its nature, but its choice from among those options be undetermined by pre-existing factors?

As a conceptual possibility, I think it’s fine.As a source of free will from which moral responsibility follows, I don’t see it at all, since it seems trivial to avoid responsibility if I don’t determine my own decisions.Self-determination seems necessary to hold anyone responsible for anything.

Leaving aside moral responsibility for the moment, does choice bounded by a set of parameters but otherwise undetermined by pre-existing factors sensibly true choices that are truly free?

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woodchuck64 June 15, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Zeb,

Leaving aside moral responsibility for the moment, does choice bounded by a set of parameters but otherwise undetermined by pre-existing factors sensibly true choices that are truly free?

I don’t think so. Imagine if we could give a robot the ability to nondeterministically choose. It does not seem correct that a nondeterministic decision by a robot is therefore free of our design decision or free in any grander sense. We made the decision to introduce non-determinism in its actions, therefore its choices follow our plan. Further, it’s behavior will be interpreted by a third party as defective, unless we conceal the non-determinism by invoking it only when two or more equally valid but mutually exclusive decisions are possible. But in that case, there is no freedom needed or required to choose between perceived identical options, deterministically choosing the first or last option should work just as well for all practical purposes.

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Zeb June 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm

So that is like a random number generator that generates numbers between 1 and 10. Logically possible, of course, but it hardly fits with the notion of “free will”.

For the purposes of the argument I was making, a random number generator is a fine example. What’s the problem with it? It’s “free” in the sense that it is independent outside and pre-existing determinants, and it is “will” in that the resulting choice is determined by the entity itself in accordance with its nature. I think the random number generator solution does a fine job of splitting EY’s false dilemma of total determinism or utter chaos.

But I don’t think a random number generator is an actual alternative, or at least not the only one. First, no known random number generator is random in the sense you mean. They are all deterministic, and the numbers they generate are predetermined. They are just random in the sense of being independent of our knowledge and of each other. There is a world of difference between this, what you might call epistemic randomness, and what you might call ontological randomness, which is what I think you are talking about – a magical random number generator, where the numbers are not determined by any sort of pre-exisiting algorithm working on pre-existing conditions. It just magically pops out a number, for no reason and with no cause. I can’t say that that is logically impossible, but I have reasons to believe it is much less plausible than libertarian free will.

First, we have no knowledge or experience of that kind of randomness. The only “randomness” we know is the epistemic kind. It seems strange to me that we would even use the same word for those two very different cases. But I guess it makes sense because they would be indistinguishable to us. By definition, epistemic randomness looks like what ontological randomness would look like if it existed, and necessarily no one could ever know that they’ve encountered a case of ontological randomness rather than mere epistemic randomness. But the fact is that except for the case of quantum collapse, we know for sure that all the randomness we ever encounter is mere epistemic randomness. On the other hand we encounter at least the semblance of libertarian free will constantly. In fact it is determinism that we almost never experience directly. In any moment, if you can say “I have these three options to choose from, which one am I determined to choose?”, there is no answer. You experience being able to choose any of them, or to reverse your choice, or whatever. It is only after the fact, on reflection, that we are able to come up with a deterministic narrative to explain which you actually chose. Now I admit that such a narrative fits pretty well, even for explaining the feeling of being able to choose. I’m just saying that free choice something we seem to experience, is not so foreign to our sense of the world, as ontological randomness is.

Second, and this is just one of my metaphysical commitments, but free choice abides by the Principle of Sufficient Reason whereas ontological randomness contradicts it. If you ask, “Whe did the ontologically-random number generator spit out a 5 just there?” there can be no answer. But if you ask “Why did the free agent do option 5 just there?” there is an answer; she chose to obtain state of affairs X, fulfilling desire Y, or whatever. Since I don’t know how to maintain a commitment to rational thought without a commitment to the PSR, I find in favor of free choice as a viable alternative to determinism, rather than ontological randomness.

And that brings me to a question – Can anyone tell me why so often in these conversations people, especially determinists, present randomness and determinism as the only two options? Like, everything that is not determined is there for random? Is there any argument for that?

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Silas June 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Zeb,

Could you please explain what the alternative to determined/not determined is? At first, my impression was that you believed that free will arose from a system of determined and not determined parts, like the (true) random number generator example. Now, you say that you don’t believe true randomness exists (neither do I, really). That makes you a hard determinist in my book. I really cannot imagine what the alternative would be. If an event is neither determined, not determined, nor a combination of the two, then what is it?

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woodchuck64 June 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Zeb,

In any moment, if you can say “I have these three options to choose from, which one am I determined to choose?”, there is no answer. You experience being able to choose any of them, or to reverse your choice, or whatever.

But isn’t saying “I have these three options to choose from, which one do I WANT to choose?” exactly the same as assuming determinism? My wants come from my nature and I want my nature to determine my choice, I want my choices to come from me.

The correct statement for determinism is more like “I have these three options to choose from, I will choose the one I want. But how has my nature been created and modified over time by forces beyond my control? Well… who cares. As long as I can choose what I want I’m happy and free.”

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JS Allen June 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm

I’m a compatibilist, but I believe I can present a charitable explanation of the point about quantum random number generator.

First, John Searle starts by arguing that compatibilism makes no sense in deterministic biological terms. He thinks it’s fine that there would be agents who track other agents, but he thinks that we could accomplish this without having conscious awareness. The conscious awareness seems like an extravagantly biologically expensive apparatus with no obvious benefit. This motivates him to look for a naturalistic explanation of libertarian free will. He points out that physics is *not* deterministic, but is instead “indeterministic all the way through”, due to quantum mechanics. He argues convincingly that any explanation of libertarian free will must include some events that are wholly undetermined but suitably non-random. This seems crazy at first glance, since in a purely mechanistic universe, true randomness is synonymous with undetermined. However, since we live in a universe that is indeterministic “all the way through”, he has an opening.

Philosopher Mark Balaguer steps up to the challenge, he describes an account of libertarian free will based on quantum indeterminacy. On his account, an action can only be said to be free if it is A) wholly undetermined and B) wholly yours. He argues that “torn decisions” fit the bill.

http://gfp.typepad.com/the_garden_of_forking_pat/2010/01/mark-balaguer-free-will-as-an-open-scientific-problem.html

I’m not convinced by Balaguer’s current formulation, but I think that he and Searle are on to something very important. I’ve become convinced that I might be wrong about compatibilism, and that’s a big deal, since I always assumed that compatibilism is a proof point for Christianity. Balaguer insists that his theory is an empirical matter, and I have to think about what I would do if empirical evidence one day lends support to the theory of libertarian free will? Would I jettison Christianity? Dump Calvinism and freak out over having rejected Pelagianism? I don’t know…

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Silas June 16, 2011 at 4:43 am

Really interesting stuff, even though I can’t really say I understand what they mean.

Here is my current position:
Events are either determined or not determined. As an ontological possibility, undetermined events could happen, but the idea is so bizzare to me that I cannot accept it. Even if I could, it doesn’t rhyme well with the notion of “choice” or “will”. If something is not determined, then literally anything could happen. Even if randomness is confined to a parameter, the outcome is totally nonsensical. Determinism doesn’t do much better, either. Everything happens as defined by a rule or a set of rules and cannot happen any other way. But I think that with determinism, at least, we can make the observation (a determined observation, of course) that a particular configuration of matter exhibits a certain behavior, which to some degree fits our talk about morality.

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Zeb June 16, 2011 at 5:05 am

Silas

Could you please explain what the alternative to determined/not determined is?

You are right about everything in your last comment. What I disagree with is the assumption that not-determined = random. And by determined, I should make it clear, I think we’re talking about determined by outside factors. A free agent’s choices are determined, by the agent at the moment of choice. Likewise I guess you could say that a true random number generator’s numbers are determined by the generator at the moment, not by factors outside the generator either in space or in time (ei not by the generator’s makers or evolutionary ancestors or whatever).

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Zeb June 16, 2011 at 7:12 am

woodchuck64

It does not seem correct that a nondeterministic decision by a robot is therefore free of our design decision or free in any grander sense. We made the decision to introduce non-determinism in its actions, therefore its choices follow our plan.

Wouldn’t that mean that we failed to design nondeterminism into it? What do you mean by nondeterminism, if not free from determination by prior factors? I guess it is following our plan for it to act freely, but still its particular choices are free from our determination.

Further, it’s behavior will be interpreted by a third party as defective, unless we conceal the non-determinism by invoking it only when two or more equally valid but mutually exclusive decisions are possible.

By “equally valid” do you mean equally valued by the robot? Are you assuming that all choices must be able to be weighed on a universal mathematical scale so that there is always a best choice, or a number of exactly equally good choices? I don’t start with any such assumption, and see no reason to. Do you?

But in that case, there is no freedom needed or required to choose between perceived identical options, deterministically choosing the first or last option should work just as well for all practical purposes.

What do you mean by “needed” “work well” and “practical purposes”? If you’re talking about how to design a robot that can always try to take the best course, then I agree, but that seems like a non sequitur.

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Zeb June 16, 2011 at 7:47 am

woodchuck64

But isn’t saying “I have these three options to choose from, which one do I WANT to choose?” exactly the same as assuming determinism? My wants come from my nature and I want my nature to determine my choice, I want my choices to come from me.

Possibly, yes, which is why I did not write it that way. I agree that one’s wants come from one’s nature. But if libertarianism is true, then it is possible in some cases to choose which desire to fulfill, or perhaps to choose independent of one’s desires. You may want your nature to determine your choices, but if your nature is to be free, that desire will go unfulfilled. You may always be able to make choices that are in line with your nature in that they correspond to your desires – even on libertarianism you may ONLY be able to make choices in line with your nature, if the only possible choices are ones that correspond to desires but you can choose freely from among them – or you may be able to transcend your predetermined nature by making choices that are independent of it.

The correct statement for determinism is more like “I have these three options to choose from, I will choose the one I want. But how has my nature been created and modified over time by forces beyond my control? Well… who cares. As long as I can choose what I want I’m happy and free.”

I would modify that to “I appear to have three options to choose from, but if I knew the working of my body better I would know which course I inevitably will take and how I would narrate that ‘choice’ afterwards.” I agree that a person (or a robot) would have reason to feel happy about always following a course determined by her strongest desires, and even feel free. But if she is not determining what her desires are, which ones to fulfill, or whether to choose to fulfill them, or anything else, then she is not actually free. I’d like to know what it means to not be free in your deterministic sense. Of course I know what it would feel like to not feel free – it would be the sense that something not identified with the self is overly influencing one’s course. But even if you someone had a gun to your head commanding you to do something you didn’t want to while an alien was controlling your body with remotely to do other things you don’t want to, you’d still necessarily be choosing the most desirable option you believed to be available, right? Even if that was to silently scream “quit controlling my body!” while attempting to save your life by obeying the gunman. To me you “free” sounds like total slavery to one’s own desires and beliefs, which as you say are pieced together by outside forces beyond one’s control. That might be how the world is, but I wouldn’t call it freedom, except in maybe a social and legal sense.

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woodchuck64 June 17, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Zeb,

I’ve condensed the comments into a couple of more basic questions/issues.

But if she is not determining what her desires are, which ones to fulfill, or whether to choose to fulfill them, or anything else, then she is not actually free.

I can understand choosing which desires to fulfill based on other desires/nature, but I can not understand creating desires/nature out of thin air. I see no way for a person to be the ultimate origin of their desires/wants/nature. Do you see it differently? (This is premise 1 of Strawson’s basic argument against free will and ultimate moral responsibility: one can not be causa sui.)

But if libertarianism is true, then it is possible in some cases to choose which desire to fulfill, or perhaps to choose independent of one’s desires.

Does libertarianism really say that one can choose independently of one’s nature? My understanding is you are suggesting there may be a “black-box” at the essence of every person that introduces some non-determinism into the decision-making. But if this is true, the black-box is still a part of my nature and my nature is therefore consistent with my choices. To choose against one’s nature is, I think, a contradiction in terms. One IS a nature, whether that nature is all physical or part something else.

So, saying ““I have these three options to choose from, which one do I WANT to choose?” is actually consistent both with determinism and with non-determinism since it simply expresses the first and most important relationship we all value in a choice, having the choice express our intention/volition, not anyone else’s.

To me you “free” sounds like total slavery to one’s own desires and beliefs, which as you say are pieced together by outside forces beyond one’s control.

But how is that different from non-determinism, if, as noted above, a non-deterministic aspect of our basic nature has come into being without our design or decision? By definition we are slaves to our natures, even if our nature is to be non-deterministic.

If I must be who I am, there seems to be no way to be free of that unless I reach back in time and recreate who I was created as. But causa sui is impossible/paradoxical, so it seems to me that that kind of “free” is logically impossible.

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Zeb July 2, 2011 at 7:50 am

Finally, some time to respond! I hope you’re still following this, because as always it’s been a very interesting conversation for me.

I can understand choosing which desires to fulfill based on other desires/nature, but I can not understand creating desires/nature out of thin air.I see no way for a person to be the ultimate origin of their desires/wants/nature.Do you see it differently?

I do see it somewhat differently. While I don’t imagine that a person can create desires from nothing, I do believe it is logically possible at least for a being to define its nature as it goes. It is common in narrative for a character to come to a choice where the ultimate question is, “What kind of person do I want to be?” I know personally I have had some moments like that, and I’d be surprised if any introspective person didn’t report the same. An admittedly distant analogy would be a stem cell, which has the potential within it, the “nature”, to become a lot of different cells. Of course non-agents with multiple potentials like stem cells have their end natures determined by outside forces. But I don’t see any problem with the proposal that there exist agents with a faculty, “will”, that allows them to spontaneously incline toward an available course of potential. The available courses may be restricted to a set of naturalistically determined desires, or not. I’m just putting forward the idea that the choice from among the available courses could be self directed and undetermined, and that may indeed result in the self-definition of a being’s nature.

To choose against one’s nature is, I think, a contradiction in terms. One IS a nature, whether that nature is all physical or part something else.

I agree. I was imprecise in my wording before. If it is possible for an agent to have a predetermined nature, but also have the ability to transcend, violate, remake, or further define its nature, then acting independently of the aspects of its nature that would tend to determine its actions does not actually violate its nature, which includes that very freedom.

So, saying ““I have these three options to choose from, which one do I WANT to choose?” is actually consistent both with determinism and with non-determinism since it simply expresses the first and most important relationship we all value in a choice, having the choice express our intention/volition, not anyone else’s.

Here I think you are equivocating. Desire, in the sense of wanting, is not the same as intention/volition. Asking, “Which do I want?” is basically a way of taking a measurement of preexisting facts, like asking “Which is heavier?” It is only the same as “Which will I do?” if you presume (or discover!) that we are indeed machines programmed to take measurements and act according to algorithms that process the results of those measurements. And while I agree with the importance of our desires when it comes to decisions, I don’t necessarily agree with your “first and most important” designations. Also important, maybe more so, are “Which WILL I do?” and “What will I become?”

By definition we are slaves to our natures, even if our nature is to be non-deterministic.

By that logic, I can take away your “only freedom that matters” by commanding you to “Do what you want!”. For the rest of your life you will be my slave, perfectly obeying my command. No, being a slave to freedom is a logical contradiction. You are a slave to your nature if your nature dictates the particulars of every choice you make, as a human master does to a human slave. If your nature is to be free, your nature allows you to dictate at least some particulars of some choices.

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