Comments on Bill Meacham's blog post: Workout in the Prefrontal Gym

Intention and voluntary causation are sketchy ideas

The issue of free or voluntary action is being skated over here. Just what do we mean by voluntary? That's perhaps just what we're exploring.

"Sense of agency"... this is a subjective sense, but we ascribe such a sense to others with very questionable basis. "You did that on purpose!" says the 3 yr old. "No it was an accident!" says the 5 yr old brother.

There are more unintended consequences of our intentions as enacted than there are intended. I kicked the rock, but did I freely and voluntarily start the landslide that killed thousands? If I can plausibly deny understanding of complex causation then I can free myself of all blame. The reason this enters into questions of free will is it circumscribes the meaning of "free". It's only free in the scope of our awareness of available options and within those options themselves we have very limited downstream scope.

Causation, agency, free will, all tied up together.

"Orders" of desire is not a good model

"The craving for a cupcake is a first-order desire." First-order is not well defined or definable here... it wouldn't be important except that this desire is contrasted with "second order desires", which suggest having desires about the disposition of our own desires. Contrary to what the post suggests, I would assert that there's no clear hierarchy of "orders" in this regard, esp. as experienced at the conscious level. For example, compliance with social norms are often presented to the consciousness as more fundamental and immovable than basic animal desires like hunger and thirst. So which is actually "first order"? I think it's misleading to suggest that there is such a hierarchy.

Another way of debunking "hierarchy of order": the desire for a cupcake is a derived desire related to learned associations about cupcakes and sensual results that come from eating one. It's easy to identify an even lower order desire, i.e. for caloric intake or sensual pleasure. Consider a nasty fake cupcake I make which tastes like ear wax mixed with mud. You see it, you want it, you act on the desire, you discover that your desire remains unfulfilled. The point here is that no desire is "first order", fundamentally primal, when we're at the level of conscious deliberation. All desires which make it that high in the brain's processing engine are many many steps away from the primal or sensual, and they are colored with a myriad of nuances, extenuations, conventions, and context coming from past experience, social pressures, etc. etc.

"Most of our desires are first-order." Whence this assertion? I find it unsupportable almost to the point of being absurd. If I choose sensual satiation as the definition of "first order", then there might be only 5 such desires. Or as I've done in another post, if we identify a manageable set of common sources for human desire, we could again have only very few worth caring about. Again, my point is mostly that these "orders" asserted in the post are ill founded.

I can use simple grounds to suggest that there are far more higher-order desires, especially if they are defined as options for sequencing or overriding first-order desires. By that view, the set of all sequences (with denials included) would be the second-order domain, and it would obviously have far more elements than the first order domain. In fact, even using the posts own train of thought we can readily recognize that "higher order desires" are really just made of "relations among lower order desires". And of course the number of relations increases geometrically with the number of nodes in the network no matter where in the ladder of orders you might choose to look.

"Second-order thinking [...] is uniquely human." I doubt it strongly. Second-order thinking just means making choices with more than one option in the realm of possible actions. I think most animals process their world at that level.

Self-control of desire: Not necessarily "free will"

I think there's some value in the observation: "Freedom of the will consists in being able to make second-order volitions effective; that is, to have the second-order volition actually govern the first-order volition such that the preferred first-order desire is what results in action." In other words, the ability to decide among conflicting desires first implies second order thinking and second sets up the possibility for free will, limited only by whether those decisions from the second order can be effected. But I would say this better describes "self-discipline" than "free will". The paragraphs that follow in the post are all even more strongly about socially-derived self-discipline than about free will at all. That is, they are really addressing how an individual reduces the freedom of his own will for social reasons.

It's also notable that a description like this (perhaps like any) for free will leaves it strictly subjective. A person can himself feel he possesses free will based on whether he feels he overrode some other desires, but there can be no test for that outside himself since the other desires in play are as private as the decision making process.

The issue of "culpability" remains unaddressed, even though it is closely related to "self discipline" style views of free will AND is a central issue for discussion being an important matter of social policy. I'd like to explore the idea of culpability, crime, and punishment in the group.

Free will applies to only a tiny subset of real decisions made

I think there is such a thing as "free will", but I don't think it's as magical or free as we like to believe. The person I wish to be might never make a choice against any desire except in the sense of sequencing the pursuit of those desires in order to maximize the positive benefit of all recognized desires' achievement.

To me, to exercise free will is simply this: Making conscious choices. To have free will is to feel that I have choices which are in my power to pursue or not. The phenomenon is entirely subjective and conventionally only meaningful in the realm of conscious (as opposed to unconscious) choice. The choosable options are not well defined in any objective sense, the implementation is seldom adequate to ensure success in the real world, the possible results are rarely well understood, the consequential feedback from the world which then becomes part of the model to make the next choice is sketchy, and the cycle continues. But choices are indeed made by us sentient beings. And that to me is the only sense in which "freedom" can be known.

I assess whether I am free based on whether I feel I have choices to make. That feeling is subject to all kinds of overriding constraints, so freedom of personal choice is not something that can be quantified or measured. It is a whim, a disposition, a mood. Today, being tired and grumpy, I feel very much a slave to my fatigue and base passions. Tomorrow I feel on top of the world with all possibilities open to me, very free indeed. Free will is but a mood. This is not to say it is an illusion or strictly unreal. It's just deeply subjective and also rather common.

"Degrees of freedom" is a more useful approach

Fact is that choices are being made by a person all the time, most of them unconscious choices, and esp in their being mostly unconscious, they are somewhat difficult to distinguish from trained responses. It's not clear that "free will" is to be valued when
More on this below under "Evaluating free will in others".
considered juxtaposed with "well-conditioned actions informed by long experience", because in that contrast, free will suggests "indecision" or a lack of confidence or a lack of experience or wisdom. Is being sure and quick to make the myriad of decisions required for any particular interaction with the world to be frowned upon or is that considered praiseworthy and to be valued? In such cases, a person's experience leads him quickly to the most appropriate actions, but do we say of those actions that they were conscious choices chosen freely? I think rather that we say that person is "world-wise" or "well-trained" or "highly skilled" because they have succeeded in moving many of their most effective decisions out the expensive realm of free conscious choice, having narrowed their options in a variety of useful contexts to only those which are the most functionally appropriate.

So now we might consider "degrees of freedom". On the one hand we have a toddler, on the other an especially accomplished politician in a position of great power. If the human system is doing its job at all, then conscious choices are being made by both these agents in a roughly similar quantity. The real difference is the domains in which those conscious choices apply. The toddler's domain includes choices like "try to do a forward roll or spin around until I fall down" or "eat my cookie first or eat my fruit first", whereas the politician addresses choices like "present a supportive or a resistive stance to this competing politician" or "back the free trade bill or argue against it", etc. The politician's conscious choices are of a much much higher order as a rule, while a myriad of his choices about physical actions and food selections, while they could still be addressed if he wanted to, are instead duly relegated to habits and conventions and thoughtless decisions which take no cycles away from his consciousness. Who is more free? The toddler feels very free, because he recently learned to walk and that he could exert his own will over food choices. The politician is operating in a space where his choices affect millions of people.

I would assert that both these agents will feel in turns both free and constrained depending on their mood and "where" they choose to look. When the toddler runs into resistance to his parents' will he feels frustrated and powerless. When the politician finds his hands are tied by the likely consequences of public reaction to this choices, or if he even laments that he can no longer do a forward roll or spin around and fall down like a toddler without feeling or appearing to be foolish, he feels constrained.

Free will is primarily a socio-political idea

And yet there's a sense that what we really want for people to believe is that they have choices and can employ more modes of thought to those choices than they might realize. We want people to feel free to choose, because we hope they thereby choose "good" options. But then, what does "good" mean here?

Now we begin to arrive at the dark side of the entire topic of free will. It could be well argued that free will is not only a social construct, but that the whole concept is just a means to political power.

I recall the dialogue in Die Zäuberflöte as Monostatos pleads for clemency from Sarastro, but the ruler says "Nicht dank, es ist ja meiner pflicht," meaning "No one needs to thank me, it is indeed my constrained duty [to so punish this slave]."
Consider that someone who is "in power" will tend to disclaim "free will" in their own choices. They will assert that they were "constrained" in their choices as they passed judgment or waged war or whatever else they were "required to do" by circumstances or public will. Claiming authority they will assert that "God called me to lead you" (monarchical) or "I couldn't refuse your insistence that I fulfill this role" (democratic).

Meanwhile when anyone wants to influence others' decisions in some way, ie. to attempt to achieve a different result than one would predict without such influence, they try to help those others see that they have options which they had not theretofore duly considered. We try to introduce new choices (ie. of our own choosing) into their consciousness, because we can far more easily influence their consciousness than their lower order desires. In fact, this is really just a cheap trick in the realm of social politics in that we think we can influence others without addressing their desires at all. We appeal to rational thought, higher ideals, the will of God, altruism, and all kinds of other "socially engineered desires" by addressing others through their conscious attention and attempt to see if we can get that consciousness to exert top-down influence on those desires. This is how and why we so strongly desire others to be self-disciplined, because then they'll be practiced at turning their desire hierarchy upside down and nulling out desires which we believe would lead to our own detriment.

Consider that the powerless are the ones who say "I have rights" or "I assert my freedoms". Those in power would never assert such things. Meanwhile the person who is hiding something or wishing to avoid accountability will say "I had no choice" or "If you had been in my position you would have done the same thing." Of the powerless and those we wish to punish we say "You had free will and chose poorly." And of anyone we wish to influence, it is always because we believe their powers might negatively impact us, and so we assert "You have a choice," with the ever-present subtext: "You should choose my way."

Which leads me toward the idea of crime and punishment and how behind we are in terms of evolving our social systems. We've come quite a ways in respecting individuals as sentient beings. We no longer use punishment as an act of social theater taken out on the bodies of wrongdoers whom we always presumed to be freely willing agents. Nowadays some worry we've gone too far the other way and we discount accountability for many reasons that wouldn't even be remotely considered in courts of even 200 years ago. What's going on there?

Evaluating free will in others

I think what's changing is we're becoming more aware of just what makes up a person, being some preset biases based on our biological makeup, then taken through a complex series of experiences, with many of the most intense of those experiences pertaining to higher order functions and social in nature. We recognize too that it's often the case that the people who actually end up contributing the most to society are those who figured out how to push back the social constraints in order to reestablish internal integrity; these people become less accountable to express societal pressures and more in tune with a well-founded complex of desires which are internally consistent instead.

These are the people we say "have character" or "just seem to know what to do naturally". They are the non-neurotic, the self-actualized. Others who observe them usually become frustrated that the will of those people cannot be bent to outside influence. They might say "That person is free and exercises greater free will than I." And yet those are exactly the same people who apparently act with less conscious deliberation and more unfettered confidence, in a sense beyond choosing and instead merely knowing the "correct" answer. These "great" people as they are viewed in history do not appear to be especially "self-disciplined" as a rule. Rather they tend to pursue their desires, of lower and higher orders, without hesitation as if they are in some way "unruly" and "indomitable". Churchill had a thing for booze and cigars. ML King liked his women. Were they models of self discipline or rather particularly good at navigating around and through social pressures to pursue their own desires? I think the latter is far more obviously the case. The "freedom" of their will does not have much meaning, really, does it?

It's worth noting that there is one way in which "free will" matters very much and has a real impact both internally and externally for a sentient being. But it is almost entirely about "choosing one's own disposition" to things. See this post for more on that.

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