[KB] Dramatism as Literal via Lyne

HERBERT W. SIMONS hsimons at temple.edu
Mon Aug 2 22:00:23 EDT 2010

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   [image: Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web]
 July 25, 2010, *5:26 pm* The Limits of the Coded World By WILLIAM

 [image: The Stone]The
Stone<http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/the-stone/>is a
forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and


consciousness <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/consciousness/>,
determinism <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/determinism/>, free
will <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/free-will/>,
science <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/science/>

 In an influential article in the Annual Review of Neuroscience, Joshua Gold
of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of
Washington sum up experiments aimed at discovering the neural basis of
decision-making. In one set of experiments, researchers attached sensors to
the parts of monkeys’ brains responsible for visual pattern recognition. The
monkeys were then taught to respond to a cue by choosing to look at one of
two patterns. Computers reading the sensors were able to register the
decision a fraction of a second before the monkeys’ eyes turned to the
pattern. As the monkeys were not deliberating, but rather reacting to visual
stimuli, researchers were able to plausibly claim that the computer could
successfully predict the monkeys’ reaction. In other words, the computer was
reading the monkeys’ minds and knew before they did what their decision
would be.

We have no reason to assume that either predictability or lack of
predictability has anything to say about free will.

The implications are immediate. If researchers can in theory predict what
human beings will decide before they themselves know it, what is left of the
notion of human freedom? How can we say that humans are free in any
meaningful way if others can know what their decisions will be before they
themselves make them?

Research of this sort can seem frightening. An experiment that demonstrated
the illusory nature of human freedom would, in many people’s mind, rob the
test subjects of something essential to their humanity.

If a machine can tell me what I am about to decide before I decide it, this
means that, in some sense, the decision was already made before I became
consciously involved. But if that is the case, how am I, as a moral agent,
to be held accountable for my actions? If, on the cusp of an important moral
decision, I now know that my decision was already taken at the moment I
thought myself to be deciding, does this not undermine my responsibility for
that choice?

Some might conclude that resistance to such findings reveal a religious
bias. After all, the ability to consciously decide is essential in many
religions to the idea of humans as spiritual beings. Without freedom of
choice, a person becomes a cog in the machine of nature; with action and
choice predetermined, morality and ultimately the very meaning of that
person’s existence is left in tatters.

Theologians have spent a great deal of time ruminating on the problem of
determination. The Catholic response to the theological problem of theodicy
— that is, of how to explain the existence of evil in a world ruled by a
benevolent and omnipotent God — was to teach that God created humans with
free will. It is only because evil does exist that humans are free to choose
between good and evil; hence, the choice for good has meaning. As the
theologians at the Council of Trent in the 16th century put it, freedom of
will is essential for Christian faith, and it is anathema to believe
otherwise. Protestant theologians such as Luther and Calvin, to whom the
Trent statement was responding, had disputed this notion on the basis of
God’s omniscience. If God’s ability to know were truly limitless, they
argued, then his knowledge of the future would be as clear and perfect as
his knowledge of the present and of the past. If that were the case, though,
then God would already know what each and every one of us has done, is
doing, and will do at every moment in our lives. And how, then, could we be
truly free?

Even though this particular resistance to a deterministic model of human
behavior is religious, one can easily come to the same sorts of conclusions
from a scientific perspective. In fact, when religion and science square off
around human freedom, they often end up on remarkably similar ground because
both science and religion base their assumptions on an identical
understanding of the world as something intrinsically knowable, either by
God or ourselves.

While our senses can only bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world
appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more.

Let me explain what I mean by way of an example. Imagine we suspend a steel
ball from a magnet directly above a vertical steel plate, such that when I
turn off the magnet, the ball hits the edge of the plate and falls to either
one side or the other.

Very few people, having accepted the premises of this experiment, would
conclude from its outcome that the ball in question was exhibiting free
will. Whether the ball falls on one side or the other of the steel plate, we
can all comfortably agree, is completely determined by the physical forces
acting on the ball, which are simply too complex and minute for us to
monitor. And yet we have no problem assuming the opposite to be true of the
application of the monkey experiment to theoretical humans: namely, that
because their actions are predictable they can be assumed to lack free will.
In other words, we have no reason to assume that either predictability or
lack of predictability has anything to say about free will. The fact that we
do make this association has more to do with the model of the world that we
subtly import into such thought experiments than with the experiments

The model in question holds that the universe exists in space and time as a
kind of ultimate code that can be deciphered. This image of the universe has
a philosophical and religious provenance, and has made its way into secular
beliefs and practices as well. In the case of human freedom, this
presumption of a “code of codes” works by convincing us that a prediction
somehow decodes or deciphers a future that already exists in a coded form.
So, for example, when the computers read the signals coming from the
monkeys’ brains and make a prediction, belief in the code of codes
influences how we interpret that event. Instead of interpreting the
prediction as what it is — a statement about the neural process leading to
the monkeys’ actions — we extrapolate about a supposed future as if it were
already written down, and all we were doing was reading it.

To my mind the philosopher who gave the most complete answer to this
question was Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s view, the main mistake philosophers
before him had made when considering how humans could have accurate
knowledge of the world was to forget the necessary difference between our
knowledge and the actual subject of that knowledge. At first glance, this
may not seem like a very easy thing to forget; for example, what our eyes
tell us about a rainbow and what that rainbow actually is are quite
different things. Kant argued that our failure to grasp this difference was
further reaching and had greater consequences than anyone could have

The belief that our empirical exploration of the world and of the human
brain could ever eradicate human freedom is an error.

Taking again the example of the rainbow, Kant would argue that while most
people would grant the difference between the range of colors our eyes
perceive and the refraction of light that causes this optical phenomenon,
they would still maintain that more careful observation could indeed bring
one to know the rainbow as it is in itself, apart from its sensible
manifestation. This commonplace understanding, he argued, was at the root of
our tendency to fall profoundly into error, not only about the nature of the
world, but about what we were justified in believing about ourselves, God,
and our duty to others.

The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable
knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always
strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason
to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always
curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and
accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an
understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into
error and fanaticism.

Let’s return to the example of the experiment predicting the monkeys’
decisions. What the experiment tells us is nothing other than that the
monkeys’ decision making process moves through the brain, and that our
technology allows us to get a reading of that activity faster than the
monkeys’ brain can put it into action. From that relatively simple outcome,
we can now see what an unjustified series of rather major conundrums we had
drawn. And the reason we drew them was because we unquestioningly translated
something unknowable — the stretch of time including the future of the
monkeys’ as of yet undecided and unperformed actions — into a neat scene
that just needed to be decoded in order to be experienced. We treated the
future as if it had already happened and hence as a series of events that
could be read and narrated.

>From a Kantian perspective, with this simple act we allowed reason to
override its boundaries, and as a result we fell into error. The error we
fell into was, specifically, to believe that our empirical exploration of
the world and of the human brain could ever eradicate human freedom.

This, then, is why, as “irresistible” as their logic might appear, none of
the versions of Galen Strawson’s “Basic
determinism, which he outlined in The Stone last week, have any
relevance for human freedom or responsibility. According to this logic,
responsibility must be illusory, because in order to be responsible at any
given time an agent must also be responsible for how he or she became how he
or she is at that time, which initiates an infinite regress, because at no
point can an individual be responsible for all the genetic and cultural
forces that have produced him or her as he or she is. But this logic is
nothing other than a philosophical version of the code of codes; it assumes
that the sum history of forces determining an individual exist as a kind of
potentially legible catalog.
 Related More From The

Read previous contributions to this series.

   - Go to All Posts »<http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/the-stone/>

 The point to stress, however, is that this catalog is not even legible in
theory, for to be known it assumes a kind of knower unconstrained by time
and space, a knower who could be present from every possible perspective at
every possible deciding moment in an agent’s history and prehistory. Such a
knower, of course, could only be something along the lines of what the
monotheistic traditions call God. But as Kant made clear, it makes no sense
to think in terms of ethics, or responsibility, or freedom when talking
about God; to make ethical choices, to be responsible for them, to be free
to choose poorly, all of these require precisely the kind of being who is
constrained by the minimal opacity that defines our kind of knowing.

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary
forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the
chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of
this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion
can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should
do about it. The dictum from Sartre that Strawson quoted thus gets it
exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I *can* make
choices, but because I *must* make them, all the time, even when I think I
have no choice to make.
[image: William Egginton]

*William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the
Johns Hopkins University. His next book, “An Uncertain Faith: Atheism,
Fundamentalism, and Religious Moderation,” will be published by Columbia
University Press in 2011. *

   Herbert W. Simons, Ph.D.
   Emeritus Professor of Communication
   Dep't of STOC, Weiss Hall 215
   Temple University, Philadelphia 19122
   Home phone: 215 844 5969
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