Books to read: Freedom’s gap

The term “philosopher” sounds old-fashioned. What does a philosopher do, in the age of Youtube and Second Life — not to mention Prozac and Viagra? The question answers itself. Human life is massively incomplete, a series of moments in search of a theme.

Our ability to attain any sort of integrity is ever in doubt. Are we consumers of, or consumed by, our modern toys and drugs? Is happiness an eternal buzz, available via chemical concoctions, or is it the objective consequence of a particular way of living? Does morality matter — and if so, which? Are even free to find out?

Too many questions. A philosopher is a grand strategist: he identifies the most important existential problems for his age, and makes an attempt to resolve them. Only a generation as intellectually null as that of the Baby Boomers could maintain that the answers can be found in Google.

As it happens, the greatest living philosopher, by my lights at least, is an American: John Searle. From the false parallel between the human brain and computers to the objective reality of a social arrangement like marriage, Searle has contributed contributed deep and lasting insights to the strategic questions of the day. Since I have posted on Searle and his work before, I’d like to concentrate here on his latest book: Freedom and Neurobiology.

Every person alive today lives and acts inside a contradiction. On the one hand, we believe, universally, that every event has a cause. The triumphs of science and technology rest on this belief, and give it enormous authority. But it informs everyday behavior, too. If I threw a ball and it stopped in mid-air, my entire understanding of the world would collapse, and I’d be left in a state of utter confusion and doubt. Events in the world are predictably determined. We take that for granted.

On the other hand, we have the conscious experience that many of our actions are not determined. Interestingly, we don’t have this experience of our sensory perceptions, which is why, Searle observes, there is no “freedom of perception” problem. He goes on:

If you consider ordinary conscious activities such as ordering beer in a pub, watching a movie, or trying to do your income tax, you discover that there is a striking difference between the passive character of perceptual consciousness and the active character of what we might call “volitional consciousness.” For example, if I am standing in a park looking at a tree, there is a sense in which it is not up to me what I experience. It is up to how the world is and how my perceptual apparatus is. But if I decide to walk away or raise my arm, then I find a feature of my experiences of free, voluntary actions that was not present in my perceptions. The feature is that I do not sense the antecedent cause of my action . . . as setting causally sufficient conditions for the action; and, which is another way of saying the same thing, I sense alternative courses of action open to me.

We must always explain our actions — give reasons for them — precisely because these reasons are never seen to be “causally sufficient” to force the action. The human body is no different than a planet or a baseball in its composition. Our neurobiological equipment, which manufactures our reasons and propels our actions, is equally of the same stuff as the determined world.

Yet we share a powerful and persuasive experience that, unlike planets and baseballs, we might have chosen different reasons and behaved differently in most circumstances. Determinists, of course, would claim this experience is an illusion — but, Searle makes clear, even determinists must “act on the presupposition of freedom.” If you go to a restaurant and are given a choice between veal and pork, for example, even the refusal to choose is an exercise in free will.

So if you say to the waiter, “Look, I am a determinist — che sara sara. I’ll just wait and see what I order,” that refusal to exercise free will is only intelligible to you as one of your actions if you take it to be an exercise of your free will. Kant pointed this out a long time ago. We cannot think away our free will.

In cases of deliberation and action, Searle posits a necessary “gap” between perception and action — a sort of existential fuse-breaker which somehow separates the determined world from the causally insufficient world of human experience. Searle avoids all talk of morality, but it is of course in this gap where moral conflicts and judgments are born, and where morality itself comes to life. A belief in right and wrong, a feeling of conflict about possible actions, are only possible in a world in which very different choices, with different consequences, can be made.

The question of free will is whether Searle’s gap can be shown to be more than a rationalization of our wish to be free: whether, in some sense or model, the determined material world and the human experience of choices can coexist.

We don’t have enough information for even a tentative answer. Instead, in Freedom and Neurobiology Searle articulates some of the logical requirements that would condition any possible affirmation of free will. Interestingly, one such requirement is that old friend of moralists: the self.

Since David Hume famously defined each person as “a bundle of perceptions,” the self has been out of favor in both philosophy and psychology. Yet Searle specifically mandates a “non-Humean self” with a unified field of consciousness, deliberative capacities, and the power to act, as a prerequisite to an intelligible explanation of free will. For Searle, this self would be an emergent feature of the brain rather than some quality or spirit superimposed on human flesh.

Searle also makes another interesting connection: between human freedom and quantum indeterminism. The logic that leads him to this connection (one he resisted in earlier works) strikes me as pretty crude, but who knows — the fabric of reality may turn out to grind away at a level of explanation that is less than Platonic in complexity. Searle does admit that his line of reasoning converts one tough problem into three: that of free will, that of consciousness, and that of quantum mechanics.

Yet that’s where the question stands at the moment. Searle confronts it with his usual clarity, courage, and dazzlingly brilliant logic.

We live in an intellectually lazy age. Previous periods attempted to pound their philosophical doubts into submission, with various degrees of success: recall the Victorians wrestling with natural selection, or Enlightenment thinkers seeking a “science of man.” We, on the contrary, just whistle past the graveyard. We dwell with our contradictions by pretending they aren’t there.

The age of neurobiology has burst upon us, and (if I may be forgiven a pun) we are hardly conscious of it. The existential problems posed by our growing knowledge of the determined, material side of mind — of which the reality of human freedom is but one — will intrigue and perplex most wide-awake thinkers of the next generation. I’m certain they will turn gratefully to Searle for their starting-point.


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