Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Causation and Self

Intuitively it seems as though two things must be the case for us to have free will: first, that we could choose otherwise than what we do, and second, that we are the cause of our choices. For if the second holds but not the first, then our course is determined and our will is not really free; whereas if the first holds but not the second, then it is not really our own will.

We have already examined the first requirement, concluding that the question is essentially unanswerable. Let us now look closer at the second. We could make this statement in a variety of ways, such as “I am the cause of my actions”, “I am the cause of my decisions,” or stronger, “I am the final or uncaused cause of my decisions and actions.” To determine the truth status of these claims, we must understand better what they mean. We will do this by analyzing the concepts of “I” and “cause.”

We tend to view the world as containing a pattern of causes and effects, where every effect has some distinct and determinate cause that can be assigned, even if we cannot readily identify it. But this is a simplification: the state of affairs in the world at one point in time depends on the entire state of affairs just prior to that point in time. Consider a pair of billiard balls, where one strikes a second that subsequently rolls into a pocket. We would typically take the first ball and its motion to have caused the second ball to roll into the pocket. But we can easily see that the result depends on many factors: that both are supported by the table, that the table is level and immobile during the event, that there are no intervening balls or other objects. The outcome is also dependent on more general circumstances such as the force of gravity and the frictional coefficients of the felt and air against the ball and its elasticity upon being struck. We could even go further and consider everything that was required for those balls to be in just that position at that point in time – what caused the first ball to move, and how did those balls get there? It is not difficult to continue this extrapolation and see that, for example, the relative positions of the stars played some role.

Suppose some further context, that our billiard balls are involved in an experiment where we repeatedly place them in the same locations on the table and start the first ball in motion, each time with the table at a slightly different angle of repose. From this perspective, the initial motion of the first ball is assumed, and upon seeing the second ball roll into a pocket, we would attribute the cause of that to be our most recent adjustment of the table.

All this is to elucidate that our assignment of a cause seems to have a significant epistemic component. We elect to consider the state of the world and its changes in a particular way, in the context of serving some purpose. We do this by selecting one or a few factors that might help us predict, promote, or avoid the effect in the future, and treat all other factors as background assumptions. But, if our purposes or circumstances were different, we might make different assignments of factors. Aside from the state of the world as a whole, there is no verifiable physically privileged cause of an effect.

Let us now take up the concept of self, or “I.” Is it your body, your brain, your history, your influences, your memories, your conscious experience? Perhaps it is all of these; the essential point is that once again there is an epistemic operation, an abstraction, acting to circumscribe it. It is possible to consider one’s self in any or all of these ways, along with others.

However, we must beware the notion of a “transcendent self” that goes beyond any of these known and experienced things. It is difficult – even painful – to view ourselves merely as a physical object, or even just as our qualitative experience. Religions make this notion more explicit with concepts of soul or essence. As natural as this view is, and as difficult as it is to resist mentally, it is easily seen to be an unverifiable metaphysical posit. Consequently, the nature of free will in such a realm is only analyzable in terms of whatever features are subjectively assigned to the transcendent self. The reader may find such an analysis valuable; however, it would not aid in our efforts here to make progress in the general case.

Let us add two more ideas before assembling the account. The brain and the mind are extremely complex, possibly inscrutable, and in any case poorly understood. It is rarely the case that we can usefully isolate some aspect of brain function as a cause of a decision. It is also unusual that we can isolate a single mental cause, such as a desire, from all the other mental states we know are operating during the course of a decision. Consequently, the abstraction of the self is a natural boundary around which we can organize a causal analysis. While there may be a more granular diagnostic component within the brain or mind, even if we cannot identify it specifically, we know that it is somewhere in there.

Imagine that just at the moment of a decision, your brain was temporarily disabled by transcranial magnetic stimulation. The range of possible outcomes of the decision is extremely narrow in comparison to the range of outcomes if your brain is operating. Most likely, you would just sit still or fall over until brain function returned. Any useful action would require almost impossible background circumstances without the function of your brain. The concept of self, if identified at least partially by the brain, simplifies the analysis, because it is highly diagnostic. In our hypothetical, the self was suddenly not there and this meant that most outcomes that might otherwise follow became nearly impossible.

Bringing all this together, we see that the self is epistemically privileged as a locus of cause. If we avoid ascribing transcendent elements to the concept of self, it is straightforward to incorporate a vast number of factors that are difficult or impossible to analyze separately. And for virtually any purpose, isolating the self as the cause of a decision and treating other factors as the background is considerably more parsimonious than other options. In other words, saying that I am the cause of my decisions and actions is the most productive way to organize our thinking about decisions.

If you find this conclusion unsatisfying in the context of the question of free will, it is likely because you are attempting to account for either a transcendent self or a physically privileged cause. It feels uncomfortable to consider that your brain made a decision, because you don’t feel like your brain is the same as your self. It may therefore seem marginally more natural to view your mind as making the decision, but only if that mind is more than just the internal experience of your brain. This is the issue of the transcendent self. If the cause of an outcome could be allocated some other way without error, then it feels uncomfortable because I am not really the cause – that is only one way to think about it. This is the issue of a physically privileged cause.

We should quickly look at one final issue, that of the “final cause” or “uncaused cause.” If taken physically, this is largely incoherent. With the possible exception of the Big Bang, every circumstance has predecessors that either largely or entirely determine it. The self is no exception – there is an entire history including both experience and biological processes. Attempting to treat the self differently ventures into a transcendent view.

Returning to our original statements, to say “I am the cause of my decisions,” or something similar, is most assuredly true, given our deeper understanding of the terms and a purposeful context that includes seeking future outcomes that one finds desirable and avoiding outcomes that are undesirable.

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