Monday, January 28, 2013

Free will, determinism and the two levels of description.

Here is a podcast produced by Philosophy Now magazine over in the UK. It is a discussion of the free will / determinism issue, interspersed with musical interludes.

Worth a listen. DOWNLOAD HERE

So, what is this free will / determinism business anyway? The free will / determinism dilemma arises because we can describe one and the same phenomenon from two different perspectives. A simple example:

It’s around 0645 on a typical Monday morning. I have a cup of coffee that I could refill. If I do this I am taking my third dose of caffeine for the day. Given that I try to avoid three doses a day, I think about it; concerned that I might have a heart fluttering episode like the last time I overdid the java. Remembering how unpleasant that was, I weigh that prospect against the mental stimulation that the third cup would give. I eventually decide to take the risk, but promise to give myself a higher amount of cream and lesser amount of coffee. I get up, and make my way to the java. Now, that is a description of what I have done/undergone at one level; at the level of subjective consciousness. This is a level of description we all come at the world with every day. We cannot avoid it.

At the same time, there is a much more complicated description of that process at the neurological level. That description involves a whole host of neuronal firings, travelling down axons, triggering various neurotransmitters that bridge the gaps between neurons, making their ways to receptors of other neurons, either causing them to fire or suppressing their activities. All of this goes on during the decision making process I just described at the ‘subjective consciousness’ level. Most of us are not familiar with this level of description, and certainly no one is directly acquainted with it as we are with the subjective level.

What is very curious is that, if you were to just concentrate on this physical level description, you will see that at every step in the process, the events that go on at any one instant are, in all their particulars, caused by antecedent neurological states. Neuron A causes neuron B to fire because it secretes a neurotransmitter, that, given the nature of the receptor of B, is bound to cause B to fire. B fires, secretes, and C is bound to react by either firing or being inhibited from firing, which causes D to.., & etc.

The story, if you were to trace it out in all its complexity, is essentially one of causally determinate events following one upon the other, in parallel. It’s a bit analogous to the state of affairs in an air conditioning unit. Every event in that machine is explainable via causally sufficient conditions drawn from the physical states of the machine and its environment. We can see, given some initial conditions of the machine that all of the particulars of its future behaviors are determined.

So, we have one level of description (the first person subjective) that has subjective uncertainty, and gaps, where I have to haul off and make a decision. I don’t “find myself” going for that coffee, pulled along by forces over which I have no control. No. I deliberate, argue with myself and have to decide whether to get up and go. It’s up to me.

On the other level of description, that entire decision procedure is a complex but causally determinate series of neural events going on in parallel. Both of these are happening at the same time. At one level I am deliberating and determining what my free being will do. At another level, every stage of the neural events that I am undergoing is strictly determined by earlier stages. So, it seems as if I am free and not free at the same time, hence the dilemma.

Now, where's that Java?