Tuesday, January 26, 2016

OK, so you do/not have free will. So what?

We previously proved that you (do or do not) have free will. What are the consequences of that fact?

Before we answer, let's review the conclusion. There are many definitions of free will. It is worth asking (and I have been asked) whether we would reach the same conclusion based on other definitions.

One definition asks the question: if there were an infinitely powerful being who knew all facts about the present, would it be capable of predicting the outcome of your future decision? I cannot tell if this question has a counterfactual premise, like the question we previously answered, or if it is a theological question. If it is the former, the same proof form would apply to demonstrate the same result. If it is a theological question the answer probably depends on which holy book you consult. A related question asks: if we could build a sufficiently powerful computer and feed it the complete state of the universe, would it be capable of computing our future choices? Again, the proof form we used before can be applied. A team of rogue scientists (rogue because they used "borrowed" equipment) claim to have constructed such a computer, and they claim that its prediction rate is 100% so far. I am suspicious of this claim, as their computer appears not to be capable of predicting a decision until after it has been made. The computer is called World Of Real Life Determinator, with the nice-sounding acronym WORLD.

A different definition asks the perhaps more sensible question regarding your future decisions, rather than your past decisions: for your future decision, is more than one option a possible future? In other words, can you do "otherwise" for a future decision? This question can be answered scientifically! There are three scientific approaches to the question, but unfortunately the result is somewhat ambiguous. The first approach is simple: from experience it is obvious that every decision we made previously was not made "otherwise", but was instead made in precisely the way we made it. If we assume the future to be similar to the past - that is a basic assumption of science, after all - then we should expect that future decisions to similarly not be "otherwise". We can test this theory too and we observe, as we expect, that any further decision we make is not made "otherwise". This approach to the scientific question clearly points out that we do not have free will. This is a well-respected proof form called retrospective determinism.

The second approach is to consult the physicists. The most widely accepted interpretations of quantum physics teach us that the results of quantum interactions are not determined by the previous state of the universe. That leaves room for small random fluctuations at the quantum and microscopic levels to affect our behavior over time as differences are amplified by chaotic processes in nature. In other words, the future is not determined. The incompatibilists have shown that this does not allow for free will, as we are not fundamentally in control of the random processes that affect our decisions; this is the well-respected proof form moving the goalposts. On the other hand, there are interpretations of quantum mechanics that, though not widely accepted, say the opposite.

The final scientific approach to this question gets to the root of the issue. The point of the question regarding free will is really about moral judgments of others. If nobody has free will, the argument goes, it would be absurd to blame or praise other people, for they were unable to freely choose how to behave. This is a well-respected argument form called argumentum ad lapidem. Can we scientifically test whether blame and praise are absurd or useful?

It turns out such an experiment had already been performed. In 1954 a team of scientists put together one of the largest controlled scientific experiments involving people that had ever been conducted. Eight hundred thousand people were selected for participation in the experiment, and randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was assigned to live in the newly constructed city Dexter, which was operated under the assumption that blame and praise are proper to the conduct of a society. The other group was assigned to the new city Sinister, which was operated under the assumption that blame and praise are useless. Most people were not told which group they were assigned to; though they knew the name of their city, they did not know under which set of assumptions it was operated. Of course it became apparent after a time. The experiment ran for a full year. It led to a large number of PhD theses, research results, conferences, and scholoarly scientific debates. As we'll see, the results of the experiment were somewhat ambiguous.

The differences between Dexter and Sinister were as follows. In Dexter, police detectives were given the duty of assigning blame for crimes to individuals living in the city based on the individual's presence late in the causal chain leading to the criminal act. In other words, in the usual way. These people, called "criminals", were then subjected to what we would consider a typical criminal justice system. Rather than eliminating the criminal justice system in Sinister entirely, scientists eliminated only the assignment of blame based on the person associated with the criminal act. Instead, the police detectives of Sinister were responsible for conducting a kind of lottery for each crime committed. In this way blame would be assigned to a random citizen, or nobody at all (at a rate comparable to the conviction rate in Dexter). The conduct of the criminal justice systems in Dexter and Sinister mirrored each other, with the exception that blame in Sinister was assigned randomly.

Similarly, praise and reward in Dexter would be assigned to individuals on the basis of their presence late in the causal chain of events leading to outcomes considered useful or desirable. Productive employees would receive a raise and perhaps a promotion. In Sinister, however, praise and reward would be assigned randomly, in a way unrelated to the behavior of the individual. Parents in Sinister were taught to love and praise their children unconditionally, no matter the child's behavior.

The experiment was originally intended to run longer than a year, but had to be cut short due to funding issues. By the end of the year there were severe problems in Sinister that led many of its citizens to want to quit the project. There was, however, sufficient funding to analyze the results. It was clear to all that there were deeply disturbing differences between the two cities. Dexter, on the one hand, evolved in the way one would expect of a civilized society. Sinister, on the other hand, experienced rampant crime, surprisingly low worker productivity, and many competing gangs and militia. A significantly larger number of people survived the experiment in Dexter rather than in Sinister. But what to make of these results?

There emerged two camps of scientists who differed in their interpretation of the experiment's results. They called themselves the conflationists and the inconflationists.

The inconflationists believed that the experiment had improperly conflated "fundamental, moral" blame with blame in the usual sense, and therefore was not useful for answering any question about whether or not blame and praise are appropriate. While the experiment had demonstrated differences between the two cities, the inconflationists argued that all such differences were easily explained by virtue of the usual mechanisms of the laws of physics, psychology, economics, and other sciences. Many of the inconflationist researchers went on to take prestigious and influential positions as Philosophy professors.

The conflationists believed that the experiment had solidly demonstrated the role of blame and praise in the conduct of a civilized society, and that the results on their face were a clear demonstration of their utility. Many of the conflationist researchers went on to take prestigious and influential positions as researchers in the Social Sciences.

Despite their differences, the conflationists and the inconflationists agreed, for the most part, on appropriate conduct for individuals.

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peterhartward said...

I think the analogy of a dog tied to a cart pretty much settles the free will debate, as much as it can be settled. Though, my own analytic leaning leads me to suspect the whole question is without meaning.

Barry Kelly said...

Are you talking about blame as a moral judgement or blame as a social punishment (i.e. input to a biologogical process)?

Two frames for looking at the same thing.

The Dexter / Sinister thing doesn't seem very relevant to anything.

Neal Gafter said...

In case it was not clear my point was that the moral sense of blame is meaningless

carmel Ka said...

Hi Neal,
regarding determinism or randomness dilemma and a scientific concept of free will, you might find the studies of Björn Brembs "Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates" compelling like this part:
"Biologists need not resort to quantum mechanics to understand that deterministic behaviour can never be evolutionarily stable. Evolution is a competitive business and predictability is one thing that will make sure that a competitor will be out of business soon. There are many illuminating examples of selection pressures favouring unpredictability, but three recently published reports dealing with one of the most repeatable and hence best-studied class of behaviours are especially telling. These examples concern escape behaviors." and basically all the article is interesting.
Author takes the QM premises that particles/quanta behaves indeterministic aka nonlinear (non Unitarian like Stochastic partial differential equation representations in maths)...but enjoy the reading and let us know your thoughts on his blog(http://bjoern.brembs.net/2013/09/video-free-will-as-an-evolved-brain-function/) or here.
A nice rebuttal of determinism by physics is done by Marko Vojinovic at:
and I noticed your article about "carrying dices" and how important is indeterminism in decision choices as you exemplified.

Neal Gafter said...

@carmel FYI, I've posted a new entry you might be interested in.