Bishop Berkeley

In Our Time this week (Thursday 20th March) was on the subject of George (Bishop) Berkeley. He was, of course, one of the great British empiricists of the 17th and 18th centuries – Locke and Hume being the other two giants of the era. Berkeley’s big idea was, literally, idealism, that is that the world consists of ideas formed in the mind rather than material objects. Locke felt that these ideas must be based on something rooted in reality but Berkeley’s view that this could not be proven and therefore remained a belief. He sought, through this logic, to prove – what Descartes had failed to do 100 years previously – the existence of God. Idealism far from being a dead end, however, is still very much with us (although God is invoked less than hitherto) and formed a fundamental plank of Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’

Dr Johnson’s famous act of kicking a rock and saying, ‘I refute it thus,’ when Boswell said that it (idealism) was difficult to refute, is not really a refutation. I am with Boswell on this. Everything we experience comes to us through the brain – we cannot stand outside our nature and view the world objectively, so how can we possibly know whether our thoughts and feelings relate to a ‘Real’ world or not?

Berkeley, incidentally, visited the USA and was the inspiration for the naming of Berkeley college, now part of the University of California.

Dennett on free will – a summary of ‘Elbow Room’

Dennett approaches the subject from a deterministic stance, and his thesis is to convince the reader that determinism provides ‘The Varieties of Free Will Worth Having’, (which is the book’s subtitle). In fact, he attempts to convince us that under determinism one can have an almost perfect simulation of absolute free will, and to demonstrate that the last step between that simulation and the absolute thing is, in fact, meaningless. He has little time for absolutist philosophers or philosophies.

His is a purely materialistic determinism. He dismisses dualism in one phrase, as ‘a desperate vision which richly deserves its current disfavour’. He makes no mention at all of non-dualistic idealism in the Eastern tradition, that of spirit subtending matter. I rather feel his thoughts on that would scorch the paper. However he quotes lengthily Paul Jennings’ ‘Resistentialism’ in a footnote, and charmingly refers to Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’, so he must be a Good Thing.

He is something of a compatibilist, with the limitation that the free will he proposes as compatible with determinism is not absolute.

In style he likens his approach to that of the sculptor he once thought to be : circling his material, chipping here and there, roughing out the overall shape from all sides, rather than going in a straight line from A to B. This can make him a bit repetitive, and a second reading is sometimes necessary to see where he was going in any particular passage. For Dennett the role of philosophy is to enlarge our vision of the possible, and to break bad habits of thought. A last general comment : throughout this book Dennett dances round the question of what determinism means in a world having quantum indeterminacy, without realy facing it, IMO. He does however, make use of the concept of determined chaotic pseudo-randomness to get him out of tight determined corners once or twice. ‘With one bound, Dan was free !’.

He starts with an entertaining section on all the bugbears and bogeymen that have been created by philosophical thought experiments or metaphors, all intending to illustrate our plight in having the illusion of free will if the world is deterministic ‘and so we don’t in fact have any free will at all’, but by their construction and orientation all tending to frighten us into wanting absolute free will or nothing. These include such terrors as :

  • The Invisible Jailor (the illusion of free will, when in fact we don’t have any, likened to being in a prison which prevents our freedom, only we can’t see the bars. Shudder and beat your heads against the wall)
  • The Nefarious Neurosurgeon (we think we have free will, but imagine an entity which seizes control of your physical, and perhaps mental, activities without you knowing it, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.. Wouldn’t that be awful ?)
  • The Cosmic Child whose Toy We Are (if we don’t have free will we’re the playthings of the Universe. How diminished and undignified, how cruel a fate would that be..)
  • ‘Sphexishness’ : Sphex ichneumoneus is a wasp which seems to behave very intelligently in some respects, until you alter its surroundings, when all its thoughtfulness is shown up as mere non-adapting mechanical behaviour. How would we feel if at some superior level it were as laughably evident that all our efforts are mere automatisms ?
  • The Dread Secret : OK, so we don’t have free will. Wouldn’t it be terrible if people found out ? Moral responsibility goes down the drain and life reverts to being Hobbesian, nasty, British, and short. (PS, the typo is dredged up from my memory of a perhaps apocryphal journalistic howler).

All these bugbears are highly emotional, and a constant concern of the book is to dedramatise.

The real question for Dennett is :

Free will is usually defined in terms of ‘might have done otherwise’. Why should anyone care about the ‘might have’ ?

His next section looks at reason and meaning.

In the beginning, there were only ’causes’. The first ‘reasons’ were created with the first self replicationg proto-organisms, which came to respond to stimuli to preserve their entropy-decreasing replicative behaviour. These were genetically controlled reasons. Now read on.

Reason, it is said, is not a physical property of the world. Therefore a rational will must be exempt from physical causality (the major currents of thinking on free will suppose it to be rational). A decision moved by reason cannot be a decision moved by causes.

A related argument concerns meaning. Meaning is not a physical property of the world. Therefore a physical mind can only be a syntactic engine (concerned with the structure of information) and not a semantic engine (concerned with meaning).

Dennett proposes to bridge the gap between the syntactic engine and the semantic engine by introducing the first of his proposed ‘very good approximations’ The brain only approximates the behaviour of a semantic engine, in fact, we are super-sphexish. He then proceeds to soften the blow and sugar the pill. Most of the descriptions of our state under determinism suffer from drastic oversimplification. They ignore our sophisticated sensory array and our ability to notice things. This is what distinguishes our ’caused’ behaviour from the simpler kind. Having a ‘reason’ presented to your understanding is, however, no different in kind from any other cause, just different in level.

He gives a lengthy review of his ideas on consciousness, including a convincing ‘just so story’ of how consciousness can arise deterministically. For him consciousness is ‘at the reachable top of the pyramid of natural, physical, processes’. No ‘Chalmers Hard Problem’ for Dennett.

He subscribes to a form of Hobbes ‘social contract’ theory of morality.

Finally, self-reflective consciousness plus a Hobbesian, deterministic morality permit the acquiring of non-genetically determined reasons (including e.g. altruism, or the desire to do something crazy just because you can, or any other test case you can come up with to demonstrate your absolute existential freedom).

His third section is on control and self-control. If we don’t have free will, we’re not in control. We’re not free agents or unmoved movers. That could mean (shock horror) that we are, in fact controlled (he notes the semantic slide from ‘determined’ to ‘controlled’).

He discusses different types of control, from the rigid control of a thermostat over a heater, through the limited autonomy of a robot space probe, where the external controlling agent just sets the overall goals and parameters, but is precluded by communication lags from having total hands-on control, to the example of the pilot of an airplane and the control he exercises. The pilot is warned of a thunderstorm ahead. He decides to change course to avoid it. Why ? Because in doing so he recognises the limitations of those aspects of the plane’s behaviour he actually can control, and the limitations of his skill to control them. The two elements, forewarning of a random event coming up, and self-knowledge, combine to lead him to conclude that to maintain his margin for manouevre, his ‘elbow room’, he’d do better to steer round. None of that is incompatible with the behaviour of a multi-level , self reflecting, deliberation engine. And who could ask for more ? As for the emotional content, the pilot’s emotions at hearing of the storm are a real and important part of the causal chain.

Dennett also rather cheekily reviews the gradation between (a) brute force control of one’s actions by an external agent, through (b) influence by sweet reason causing a change in one’s actions, to (c) influence by pure provision of correct forecasting data affecting one’s actions. Hey, it’s all an external agent modifying one’s behaviour.

He concludes that under determinism we are not controlled by the past, as there is no feedback loop to the past reporting on our behaviour. Determination is not control.

My first reaction was indignation : this is just sleight of hand, begging the question of in what way is it better to be determined than to be controlled ? However, more thought failed to come up with an answer to the question : who could ask for more ?

Dennett’s fourth section is on the Self, and its relationship to moral responsibility. For me the latter element, on moral responsibility, is the least convincing part of the book..

First he notes the extreme position that the self is absolute agent, and unmoved mover. Its actions are not caused by anything external. He counters with the suggestion that this is an illusion, caused by :

  • the amplifying effect of minute neural triggers causing massive action effects
  • the inscrutability of neural causal paths
  • preoccupations with responsibility, moral, artistic, and intellectual.

He casts doubt on the reality of willed choice, citing the difficulty of pinning down the ‘moment of decision’ by introspection, and instances when we will one thing and do another.

Dennett notes that the self develops, it is not inborn. It develops through social interactions, from genetic dispositions. There is no ‘tabula rasa’, which for us is obvious, but which for the absolutist philosophers was unthinkable. The absolutist position is roughly « unless one is absolutely responsible for oneself, one is not responsible at all ». On the other extreme, hard determinists negate responsibility.

Dennett claims a middle ground. He claims a responsible self can develop for the individual, deterministically, from non-responsible beginnings « like mammals can evolve from non-mammals ». He notes that it is silly to claim that one is not responsible for something unless one is completely responsible for it, as no-one is ever completely responsible for anything.

Reverting to self-creation, he believes it to be largely heuristic. The essence of heuristic processing is to involve ‘leaps in the dark’, and arbitrary cut-off of deliberation, in situations where rational processing of all the data would be impractical. Such an approach is required for a sophisticated self-controlling agent faced with meta-level questions to which there are no obvious answers. Heuristic processing is time efficient but imperfect.

The shortcuts our minds take to arrive at solutions faced with time pressure will be a central theme for the rest of the book.

Finally, the complex and multi-layered process by which we arrive at self-formation, while being caused and determined, is just an awful lot grander than your simple formation process, such as crystal formation. Isn’t it ?

Dennett here goes through a lengthy, and IMO odd and flawed, development on the concept of luck as it relates to moral responsibility. He points out the difference between the concept of luck as in : I just flipped a coin 30 times and it came down heads all 30 (luck-a), and as in : I’m lucky to be here typing on this computer, ‘cos it means that none of my forebears died before the relevant reproductive act, and the transmitted intelligence level cumulated in my ability to handle Windows XP(tm) (luck-b). Coin tosses don’t have a memory, genes do. He refers to the argument that it’s ‘just luck’ if Yer Honour the Judge had the predispositions to be on one side of the bench and Crestfallen Criminal had the predisposition to be on the other side, which, if it were true, would be an argument against moral responsibility. Having very succinctly outlined it, he doesn’t refute it, deferring that to later chapters, just calling it ‘a petulant little argument’. He continues by claiming that we are all genetically endowed with such a high skill level in the cognitive areas enabling the deliberative processes relating to moral responsibility, compared to say a cat, that we all reach the same plateau of awareness of moral responsibility sooner or later. (purely false, IMO, and the only reference he quotes is another philosopher, not an evolutionary or genetic psychologist). Finally he concludes that the ‘just luck’ evens out, so we’re left with skill, and so we can be held responsible for our acts, citing the example of the NBA player who is held responsible for missing an easy shot, whereas for an amateur we’d have said that make it or miss it, it was just luck. My reaction : having created the distinction between luck-a and luck-b (my terms), he’s then completely failed to use them consistently, and in fact our ‘moral responsibility’ depends on luck-b, which only evens out after we’re all dead. Case for moral responsibility under determinism not proven, m’lud.

Chapter 5 is on action under the idea of freedom, and the idea of ‘opportunity’.

Dennett makes what for him is a vital distinction between determinism and fatalism. Fatalism supposes you go through foreseeably predetermined hoops. Determinism, given the chaotic pseudo-randomness around us, gives us hoops that are not foreseeable. See bottom of the discussion of Chap.5 for an example. Dennett has a beautiful phrase for the believer in absolute free will, speaking of ‘the now, zipping up the spreading future into the thin line of the past’. Well, no, he says. From the god’s eye view, the timeline is singular. The singular timeline the hypothetical god would see is exactly that which we determine by our actions in the present. There is no ‘meta-time’ (my words) in which to say with Freddie Mercury ‘it’s all (already) decided for us’.

Coming back to the comparison between a conscious human being and a designed deliberation engine, he points out that the deliberation engine would have some pseudo-random process for cutting short to deliberation, to be able to act in useful time. In starting its deliberations, it would have whole classes of possible outcomes not foreseeable to it. This is what gives us the illusion that things are ‘up to us’.

He notes, however, that as self reflecting deliberators, we can perceive our heuristics, and if required modify the cut off points, giving another dimension to the illusion.

He considers : Is it rational to maintain the illusion that the future contains real ‘opportunities’ ? It depends what you mean by opportunity.

Here Dennett goes off into the continuation of his unsatisfactory development on chance, introducing the notions of real randomness (quantum indeterminacy) and determined pseudo-randomness (chaotic processes) as determinants of the outcome of a heuristic process. Does the one mean it ‘had a chance’ and the other, being deterministic, mean it never did ? He posits that ‘opportunity’ under determinism is comparable to a lottery, for which the winning stub had been drawn and kept in a sealed envelope before the tickets were sold, which most people think is just fine. He seems to slide from the idea that it is determined that someone will win such a lottery, to the idea that it is determined that a particular individual will win it. Then, Dennett indulges in some heavy moralising about the socio-political necessity for believing in opportunity, and the importance of keeping one’s options open. Great language for talking to one’s teenage children, but moralising is something of an admission of defeat for a philosopher.

Finally, he tackles ‘avoidance’, as the opposite of ‘opportunity’, noting that in the god’s eye view nothing is avoidable. The ideas of ‘making a difference’, or ‘changing the course of history’ are illusions coming from false expectations. He uses the question ‘Why do you put a lock on your door, if whether or not someone will break in is already determined ?’ as an illustration of the absurdity of using fatalistic arguments instead of deterministic ones. ‘Unavoidable’, or ‘inevitable’, correctly understood, mean ‘outside the influence of our deliberations’.

Chapter 6 finally addresses the central question of ‘could have done otherwise’, or in technical language, the ‘counterfactuals’. Moral responsibility depends on ‘could I have done otherwise ?’, which is also the touchstone of free will.

Dennett distinguishes between ‘could have done otherwise’ in ‘exactly the same circumstances’ and in ‘slightly different circumstances’. He points out that ‘could have done otherwise in exactly the same circumstances’ has no useful meaning : the same set of micro-states, ignoring quantum fluctuations, will always give the same outcome. Including for arbitrary or mad acts. Further, given quantum indeterminacy, ‘exactly the same circumstances’ can never hold, so if moral responsibility rests on our asking could we have done differently, the question is unanswerable, so no-one would be able to determine moral responsibility. Thus, what we mean when we talk about ‘could have done otherwise’ is typically : « if the same general set of circumstances arose in the future, would my experience of the past situation prompt me to behave differently ? »

Finally he discusses the words ‘I can’. He concludes that ‘I can’ refers to the combination of two elements : my general potentials, skills, abilities, and possible states on the one hand, and epistemic possibility (i.e. what is possible as far as I know, given the limits of my knowledge in a chaotic pseudo-random environment) on the other. It does not refer to my hypothetical absolute freedom of action in a particular situation, nor to absolute logical or physical possibility.

Bottom line, the perceived importance of the question ‘Could I have done otherwise ?’ results from mistaking a practical question about my future behaviour for a metaphysical one about my past. The interface with moral responsibility is where you learn from the past to influence your future behaviour or you don’t (can the programming of the deliberation engine be improved or can’t it ?).

Dennett concludes his book by considering why it seems so important for (some of) us to have free will. He centres his thinking around the notion of moral responsibility, and asks, with false naiveté, why on Earth would we want all that responsibility ? He answers that the only useful notion of morality is social usefulness. The complex, sophisticated, multi-layered, reflexive, deliberating engine Mark III that we are takes in as one of its inputs that act (A) will have a probability (P) of consequence (C), and takes its heuristic, sub-optimised decisions appropriately. Acting morally becomes a bet on the consequences, whether they be the satisfaction of love or the expectation of punishment. Finally, to have free will, you must believe in it. The alternative is your (freely chosen) nihilism, apathy, and inaction, always assuming that our genetic makeup would ever let us get that far.

The book is dense, and the above does desperately little justice to it. My hope would be that I’ve made you curious to read Dennett. Despite my disappointment at some aspects of the book, I’m much the richer for having read it. All I have to do now is reconcile the aspects of his thinking which do convince me with the set of beliefs I brought to the party, those of non-dualistic Idealism !