Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My Gut Says, "Meh..."

This post is part of my series on free will.

Last time, we saw how Laura Ekstrom gives a libertarian account of free will.There are a lot of things I like about Ekstrom's account. As an indeterminist myself from the point of view of physics, I am partial to an indeterministic account of free will.I also like Ekstrom's clear definition of a "self"  - something lacking in other accounts I've read. And I like how Ekstrom doesn't shy away from the consequences of her approach. If her account conflicts with how we view moral responsibility, well, then maybe our view of moral responsibility is wrong.

But I have some problems with her approach. I'll start out with a couple of general complaints. In contrast to Daniel Dennett, she seems unaware of current research in psychology and neuroscience. I think her account of the decision-making process, for example, could have benefited from a more science-based approach. And I wish she had made some attempt to deal with the level problem: how a description at the level of reasons and preferences interacts with a description at the level of neurons and electrons. Her account takes only the higher-level processes into consideration. But determinism, if there is such a thing, would occur at some lower level.

To expand on the last point, consider this (Free Will, p.111):

Why did the free agent decide in that way? Because of reasons x,y, z, and so on. Why did those reasons lead him to decide as he did? The determinist would answer: Because of a deterministic causal law linking such reasons to such a decision. But the proposed account answers: Because the agent exercised his evaluative faculty in a particular way. Why? For reasons that inclined but did not necessitate a particular outcome to his deliberation process.

But a deterministic account need not link reasons to particular decisions. A deterministic account could operate entirely at the level of (say) individual neurons: If neuron A fires when neuron B is in state X, then neuron B will fire.... This account doesn't deal with the level of reasons and decisions at all.

It seems it might be possible for indeterminism to reign at the level of reasons and decisions, even if determinism reigns at some lower level of description. This is what a compatibilist would argue, and Ekstrom doesn't seem to recognize even the possibility of such an account.

(Contrast Robert Kane's libertarian account of free will: he traces the indeterminacy down to the level of individual quantum events occurring in the brain.)

Another problem arises from the idea that an act is only free to the extent that it is undetermined by the reasons that occur in the deliberation process. (Free Will, p.125):

We sometimes speak of a range of freedom of action, some acts being fully free and others less so. The probabilistic model gives one way of making sense of degrees of freedom. Perhaps the most free acts derive from preferences whose probability of occurring was raised by the occurrence of certain previous considerations to values within a range of, say, 0.2-0.8, whereas the act would be less free when resulting from a preference at either end of the spectrum, that is, in cases where the considerations made the probability of the preference's occurence near 0.9 or 0.1.
So, it seems that if I really, really, really, really wanted to kill someone, then my action wasn't a free act - and I shouldn't be held morally responsible for it. This seems odd. It also brings to mind Dennett's comment on Martin Luther: "Whatever Luther was doing, he was not trying to duck responsibility." (Elbow Room, p.133)

When we have very strong feelings about something, we identify with the feeling - it seems to be a part of us, to express something about our innermost self. Ekstrom's account has it the other way around - our innermost self is expressed only in those decisions where we don't feel strongly either way, where our gut says, "Meh...."

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