Objectifish

Integrating Objectivist volition with Hume's compatibilist free will

Recommended Posts

Hi! New poster here. I read ITOE for the first time two months ago, and that was my gateway into the rest of Objectivist philosophy. (I'd read Rand's fiction before then, but hadn't looked at her non-fiction). It's been a fascinating journey.

Last week I worked through Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand and one of my main questions is around the axiomatic concept of volition.

I accept the argument that volition is an essential concept; if there's no free choice then there's no rationality, no agency, no knowledge. But, what is volition?

Causality is a corollary of identity. At the most fundamental level of physics, quarks, fermions and the other elementary particles do what they do. At the everyday level, the objects we perceive also do what they do. If you put ice cubes in water they melt. And the melting of ice is ultimately a very, very complex movement of quarks (i.e., energy is transferred from the water to the ice, breaking down the ice's structure; if we zoom in further the energy transfer consists of vibrating molecules bouncing off each other). We have necessary micro-events which are organised into the necessary macro-events we perceive.

Volition is a more complex form of causality, I get that. People's options are determined; which options they choose, and their choice to think at all, is free (Isaac Newton could have chosen to spend less time working on the Bible code and more time working on physics; he couldn't have chosen to develop quantum mechanics). Through introspection we see that the most basic decision we face is whether to focus, or not.

Most decisions people make can be explained; their decision to focus cannot. But we have to accept that there is a meaningful sense in which this is a free decision; if not, then we're basically automata (and all discussions, including this one, are just meaningless grunts and squeals).

But, as with the ice cube, the actions of our minds must ultimately consist of an extremely complex motion of quarks. At the most basic level, the universe is a deterministic motion of fundamental particles. At the perceptual level we operate at, we see large structures of atoms acting in certain ways - ice cubes melting, people thinking. There's no contradiction here: quarks, ice cubes and people all exist in the same way.

Unlike with the ice cubes melting, how exactly psychological events reduce to physical events is unknown; but we know that they do reduce (if they didn't, that would suggest consciousness had some magical properties that transcended mere matter).

So it looks like we're back at determinism. We perceive someone making a free choice (e.g. a child choosing to focusing on their homework) - but this single event is made up of many unfree micro-events.

(Some say that quantum indeterminism somehow explains consciousness and human free will. But, even if there are random events at the ultimate level of physics, we can't use these to explain volition; human volition is still a complex sum of physical events).

Is the answer to integrate the Objectivist notion of volition with Hume's notion of compatibilist free will? We have to modify Hume's theory to make it fit with Objectivism: as I understand him, Hume basically says that we are determined, but that doesn't mean that we're not free - what we mean by freedom is simply the ability to act in accord with our values (he's a subjectivist in regards to value).

A rough overview of Hume's viewpoint would be: (environmental and genetic causes) -> (the kind of person we are and what we value) -> (our actions). To Hume, the fact that we don't, ultimately, choose what we value doesn't effect our freedom so long as we can act on those values.

Objectivism says that defining our values rationally requires as an act of volition, as does evaluating options with reference to our values. The choice to think about these things is the seemingly irreducible choice. But, I hold that this choice ultimately reduces to neurological events. Whether we focus or not depends on the habits we've ingrained over time, our energy levels, whether we've had coffee that day, etc.

A rough overview: (environmental and genetic causes) -> (our propensity to focus or not) -> (thinking about what kind of person we want to be and what to value) -> (our actions).

Again, the kind of person we are leads to our actions - a brain that's been trained to focus will be more likely to focus; and then the knowledge we are aware of will guide our thoughts (but not determine them - because every thought requires another act of focus). The concept of "volition" is both valid and essential at the level we operate on, in the same way "melting" is a valid concept.

Still, I'm unsatisfied with my reasoning. If whether we focus or not depends simply on patterns of neurons firing - on how well our brains have been trained - it seems like we're back in the classic trap of determinism, i.e. that we can't meaningfully criticise the unthinking and unfocused.

Thoughts?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Welcome to OL, Isaac Lewis.

I wanted to mention that the quarks composing the protons and neutrons that compose the nuclei of atoms are not differently disposed according to whether the molecules containing the nuclei are in a solid or a liquid assembly with other molecules. The quarks are not explanatory factors in the story of phase changes (solid, liquid, gas) of a collection of water molecules.

In the case of free will, you are right to consider not molecular activities, but neuronal activities. We must know the right level of group neuronal activities in the brain at which the various sorts of choices occur. We must know the right circuits and their neuronal inputs from perception, imagination, emotion, and reasoning. Then look at the biological employment of regularity- and chaos-physics (the quantum level will be irrelevant for sure at the time scales of choices) in its whole brain-in-body setting in the world to see what physics determinism and indeterminism (classical, not quantum) is in play for the organism and its choice-making control system.

Stephen

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Speaking of humans as "organisms" puts me in mind of the unconscious, autonomic, involuntary, genetic, metabolic, environmental, and ancestral characteristics that limit how much we get to choose voluntarily. Men do not eat bread instead of stones as a matter of convenience, infants lack the enzymes to digest honey, etc. One might survive without food for several days, perhaps a week or two, depending on an individual's health and stamina -- but not without water. Sleep deprivation or emotional stress can render us incompetent. The cure for life-threatening bacterial infection or bodily injury is not a matter of arbitrary choice. No one chooses to produce insulin or urine. Unlike birds and bats, we can't flap our arms and lift ourselves into the air.

Beyond physically determined requirements and characteristics, few men can escape the time, place, economy, and social constraints of family, childhood, native language, political currency and prevailing customs. I'm in favor of reckless disobedience and independent thinking, yet there's a terrible price to pay for living outside the sticky web of consensus. In many parts of the world it's a capital crime.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You can survive without food for months, but it's advisable to take a potassium supplement to avoid heart failure.

I always consider issues of free will in the context of what's any alternative? They all seem to essentially vacate moral agency.

--Brant

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Speaking of humans as "organisms" puts me in mind of the unconscious, autonomic, involuntary, genetic, metabolic, environmental, and ancestral characteristics that limit how much we get to choose voluntarily.

If all these could be possibly calculated to be, say, 99% of his total, determined, human function, Wolf - one would have to still exclaim what a marvel is man, with his remaining, volitional one per cent.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Speaking of humans as "organisms" puts me in mind of the unconscious, autonomic, involuntary, genetic, metabolic, environmental, and ancestral characteristics that limit how much we get to choose voluntarily.

If all these could be possibly calculated to be, say, 99% of his total, determined, human function, Wolf - one would have to still exclaim what a marvel is man, with his remaining, volitional one per cent.

And that's where religion inserts a crowbar and tells man to bend at the knee, beg for forgiveness.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Wolf writes:

And that's where religion inserts a crowbar and tells man to bend at the knee, beg for forgiveness.

Even that is completely volitional.

We Are Forgiven = We Forgive Others

It's a moral equation.

In the original Hebrew it's not even the Ten Commandments. It's actually translated the Ten Statements, because they are statements of moral fact.

Just being told it's not good to do something has no power to stop anyone from freely choosing to do it.

Greg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Welcome to OL, Isaac Lewis.

Thanks, Stephen!

I wanted to mention that the quarks composing the protons and neutrons that compose the nuclei of atoms are not differently disposed according to whether the molecules containing the nuclei are in a solid or a liquid assembly with other molecules. The quarks are not explanatory factors in the story of phase changes (solid, liquid, gas) of a collection of water molecules.

Sure. The quarks don't "know" that they're part of a solid or liquid assembly - they act in the same way regardless. Likewise, the H2O molecules only "know" about their bonds (or lack of bonds) with neighbouring molecules, not whether they make up a drop of water or block of ice.

From reading further, though, it seems my problem is that I've assumed reductionism is true. If we don't assume reductionism, the Objectivist view of volition makes much more sense.

In the case of free will, you are right to consider not molecular activities, but neuronal activities. We must know the right level of group neuronal activities in the brain at which the various sorts of choices occur. We must know the right circuits and their neuronal inputs from perception, imagination, emotion, and reasoning. Then look at the biological employment of regularity- and chaos-physics (the quantum level will be irrelevant for sure at the time scales of choices) in its whole brain-in-body setting in the world to see what physics determinism and indeterminism (classical, not quantum) is in play for the organism and its choice-making control system.

Isn't classical indeterminism just unpredictability? And my understanding of chaotic systems is that they're determined, but sensitive to very small changes and so unpredictable ("the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future").

What do you think of reductionism? (broad question, but I want to know where you're coming from).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi Michael! Yes, seems like it'll be a fun place to hang around.



I was reading the archives and saw many posts from you. How are your attempts to promote Objectivism going?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

.

Isaac, I’m with you in rejecting that sort of reductionism. To reduce the mass of a macroscopic body to nothing but the sum of the masses of its parts is fine (and it does not eliminate or undermine the reality of the mass of the macroscopic body). But to suppose every property of the macroscopic object to be in principle reducible to properties of its finest parts is an error. There is one modest difference I have with some Objectivists concerning reductionism. They will say scientific reductions are only epistemological. That’s not quite right. The reduction of visible light to electromagnetic waves was a physical reduction by way of total identification of two distinct things. And although all the former reality of light remained, there is a physical asymmetry in the reduction, for electromagnetic fields are more basic than their undulation-forms.

Yes, concerning classical indeterminism. However, there are degrees of the profundity of unpredictability of these deterministic processes. The unpredictability in classical chaotic regimes can be so profound that there are simply not enough information bits in the universe by which the development of the system could be computed a significant way into the future. Chaos has been implicated in neuronal system activities, including in perception, but I don’t know if it has (yet) been implicated in deliberations and choices. Even the classical unpredictability of confluent causal streams (say you toss a first die onto the table, and I toss the second) is not easily dismissed as a part of the mechanism of free choice. I mean that if such mechanism parts are found in the applicable neuronal system process, one could not rule out in advance of empirical dissection of the whole mechanism that its result is not a profoundly originative sort of freedom.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Tony writes:

If all these could be possibly calculated to be, say, 99% of his total, determined, human function, Wolf - one would have to still exclaim what a marvel is man, with his remaining, volitional one per cent.

The principle you just described is the reason why the behavior of large groups of people is so easy to predict...

c86805edf2cf2b39ce8548b34c1e343f.jpg

stones-crowds.jpg

17157meccapilgrim.jpg

image597129x.jpg

...while it is impossible to predict the behavior of one person.

Flowers-9795.jpg

Personally, I tend to avoid mobs because the "karma" created by large groups of people can become strong enough to overpower the consequences of individual volition if the mob cannot be escaped. I also live in a sparsely populated area should the thin veneer of civilization get torn off.

And it's amazing the convoluted intellectual contortions employed to deny the objective reality of human free will upon which rests the personal moral accountability that makes civilization possible.

Greg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That last image for you perhaps connotes man meeting his Maker, alone and unafraid? Agreed in principle, Greg, only I'd call it confronting reality in an identical way.

The mob mentality demands you drop your free will and individuality to its force and numbers, and to its character, which is the lowest moral common denominator of the people in it. A mob is the simplest collectivism. I would get caught in some riots in my Press days, and found to survive them not turning on you, you have to put up a relaxed, fearless pretence like to a savage dog, and appear sympathetic and uncritical.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Rather than meeting my Maker directly... I more regard it as the freedom to enjoy the objective reality of His creation.

Your approach to dealing with a mob reminds of some advice in the Bible:

"Be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove."

Sounds like you found that delicate balance necessary to navigate the situation unscathed. :smile:

Greg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
...while it is impossible to predict the behavior of one person.

Flowers-9795.jpg

Personally, I tend to avoid mobs because the "karma" created by large groups of people can become strong enough to overpower the consequences of individual volition if the mob cannot be escaped. I also live in a sparsely populated area should the thin veneer of civilization get torn off.

And it's amazing the convoluted intellectual contortions employed to deny the objective reality of human free will upon which rests the personal moral accountability that makes civilization possible.

Greg

JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!

--anon

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If I do...

... then I can angrily blame gravity for my being a helpless innocent victim of it's destructive force.

Bartender! Another round of government disability checks for everyone! :laugh:

Greg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Isaac Lewis - are you suggesting that (1) we are determined to do that which we (most) value - but also that (2) we are free to do something else if we (most) value that instead? Why that would amount to conditional volition and value determinism! Sounds kind of wacky to me. ;-)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Roger continues to muddle the meaning of "determinism." There is (hard) determinism as meant here. Of course, Roger's "value determinism" is something quite different. Anyway, "determine" is also a synonym of "decide" and "choose." Roger also exploits Peikoff's rendering of "free will" as "he could have chosen otherwise" in his Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy. A less confusing rendering is "there were other alternatives". Roger holds that "he could not have chosen otherwise" simply because he rejected the other alternatives.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That's a rather interesting rendering of my views on free will and determinism, but it hardly shows how they are muddled. (It's more of a declarative version of: "Mr. Bissell, have you stopped muddling the meaning of determinism yet?")

Nor am I able to make much (other than a muddle) out of the comments couched in Merlin's "less confusing rendering" and "simply because" language.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That's a rather interesting rendering of my views on free will and determinism, but it hardly shows how they are muddled. (It's more of a declarative version of: "Mr. Bissell, have you stopped muddling the meaning of determinism yet?")

All indications are that you have not.

Nor am I able to make much (other than a muddle) out of the comments couched in Merlin's "less confusing rendering" and "simply because" language.

I'm not surprised that you can make a muddle out of Peikoff's rendering, which is a counterfactual, and my rendering, which is not a counterfactual.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...