Moral Responsibility

Can we be held morally responsible for our actions? Yes, says Daniel Dennett. No, says Gregg Caruso. Reader, you decide

Aeon Article, 4 October 2018

Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?

Gregg Caruso

Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of control from the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.

In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances. 

Daniel Dennett

if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent

Dan Dennett

So commences this debate. The argument unfolds largely on semantic grounds. Even here, one can see the debate over the distinction between control and causation. I understand what Dennett is attempting to parse here, but I object on the grounds of causa sui.

I recommend reading the Aeon article as there is much more than this distinction, but it does remain a semantic issue. I started a post on backwards- and forward-looking perspectives, that better articulate Caruso’s perspective, but I am also working on other things. This was quicker to post and I wanted to keep a bookmark anyway, so it’s a win-win.

How come why? What for?

Video: Why? – “What for?” or “How Come?” — Daniel Dennett

As a rule, I don’t have much faith in humans. It would be apparent if you read some of my posts. I find most people to be akin to vapid sports fans: Hooray for my team—whether that team is political party or persuasion, science, religion, and whatever. Not a lot of critical thinking or reasoning. I believe Geuss mentioned that most people are just trying to make it to the next day and acquire more stuff—at least more stuff than the neighbour. Social media is a turn for the worse. Luckily and thankfully, there are exceptions to this rule.

Engaging in a CS Peirce forum that I was invited to because of some interactions I had in a postmodern forum, I asked for the source of a Peirce claim made by another Lee Smolin.

When you explain a system by referencing the laws, that’s not the end of the explanation; you have to—we must explain how the laws came to be and why there are these laws and not other laws.

Lee Smolin on CS Peirce

At 8:43, Smolin cites Peirce by saying ‘that when you explain a system by referencing the laws, that’s not the end of the explanation; you have to—we must explain how the laws came to be and why there are these laws and not other laws—and he goes on to say this is 1893…’

Video: Are the laws of the universe immutable and unchanging?

Not being a direct quote, I was experiencing difficulty finding the source of the citation, so I asked in the Peirce group. As I am wont to do, I added that I didn’t buy into the assertion, but if I could find the source I could gather more context.

I don’t buy into the assertion that in describing a system one needs to provide an origin story, so I was hoping to discover context to determine whether it’s Smolin or Peirce to have an issue with.

I was given a citation that didn’t happen to be accurate,

A second member chimed in that of course one needs an ‘original state’, so I clarified that it was not the original state that I held issue with. It was the narrative behind it—the story of the origin, not the origin itself.

He responded, ‘That’s Deacon!’ More precisely, the response was as follows:

YES!!!!!!! That’s Deacon!!!!

I’m not even schooled in Peirce, and now I’m getting his classmates.

To my origin clarification, I also added this bit:

I feel that ‘reasons’ or ‘whys’ are less important than ‘how’. In fact, I feel that ‘why’ is often used in English as a synonym to ‘how’ in many contexts.

So when asks ‘Why are you late?’ they are really asking ‘How it is that you’ve arrived late?’ or ‘How come you’re late?’ Why feels like a metaphysical stand-in for how.

…to which he responds with the top clip by Dan Dennett making my same point a decade ago—or I suppose that I am making his same point a decade later.

It seems that I’m late to the party yet again. This is becoming a trend.

Under the Influence

Galen Strawson is my latest male crush. With almost everything I read or hear from him, I say, ‘that’s what I think’, over and over and over again. So I thought I’d share some of my journey to now. I made a post about female influences not too long ago. This is a bit different.

My first obsession, let’s say was the Beatles. I can’t pinpoint precisely when, but when I was a child, it’s been said that I would sing ‘she’s got a chicken to ride’ when it came on to AM radio. I asked for or bought all of their albums, and read everything about them that a kid could get his hands on back in the day. This obsession lasted for years and overlaps some of my next interests. My interests were in John Lennon’s political interests and George Harrison’s spiritual interests. I didn’t really find Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr very interesting beyond their musical abilities. And to be honest, I also got all of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and so on. At my peak, I had over a thousand vinyl records—all lost in a house fire because vinyl and heat are generally incompatible. Paper didn’t fare much better, as I lost hundreds of books, too. A lesson in impermanence.

I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist

In grades 5 to 8, National Socialism and World War II were fascinating to me. Not Hitler, per se, though I do recall reading Mein Kampf at the time. There was just something about the sense of unity. Upon reflection, I realised that this meant me conforming to some other trend, and that was no longer interesting, as I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist, so there was that.

At some point, I came across Voltaire’s Candide and it just struck me. This may have commenced me on my path to becoming somewhat of a francophile. I extended my interest into the language and culture. My WWII phase has already primed that pump. I remember reading Dumas, Hugo, and some Descartes.

After I graduated, I was a recording engineer and musician. I remember reading Schoenberg’s Structural Function of Harmony and being enamoured with Dvořák and Stravinsky. I was influenced by many musicians, engineers, and producers, but there was just something about Schoenberg.

I went through a Kafka phase—that eventually included Donald Barthelme. His Absurdism was a nice foundation for my subsequent interest in Camus. It was something that just resonated with me. After Kafka, I discovered Dostoyevsky and consumed everything of his I could get my hands on.

I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor

In the 1990s, I discovered Carl Jung and eventually Joseph Campbell and a few years I spent reading Jung’s Complete Works and peripheral material related to Archetypal and Depth Psychology. I absorbed the material. I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor, but it never really resonnated beyond this.

Somehow, this experience led me to the Existentialism of Sartre (and Camus and Beauvoir). At the same time something clicked with me, I was always put off by the teleological imperative these guys seemed to insist upon—Sartre’s political involvement and Camus’ insistence on Art. These were their paths—and I certainly had an interest in Art and Politics—, but I felt this was too prescriptive.

For a brief time, I really liked Hume (and Spinoza), but then I discovered Nietzche and felt compelled to read his major works. It all made sense to me. It still does. Nietsche set me up for Foucault with his power relationships and the sense that morality, good, and evil are all socially constructed and contextual.

And Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power. These two still resonate with me. I investigated a lot of postmodern thinkers after this.

Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power

Daniel Dennett came next. He seems brilliant, and I tend to agree with most of what he says. I was still absorbing. Where biologist Robert Sapolsky gets philosophical, it’s about the same.

But Galen Strawson is different. And I have a lot of catching up to do in my reading of his direct work. The difference is that with these prior influences, I was absorbing and synthesising—creating my own perspectives and worldview. By the time I am finding Strawson, with every encounter, I am ticking off boxes.

  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think

Only, he started publishing in the 1960s. I could have been reading his work all along. Since I agree with 99.999 per cent of what I get from him and he is such a deep thinker, I am looking for two things:

  1. Something that expands rather than confirms
  2. Some spaces to operate that he has missed or ignored

As I continue on my Anti-Agency project and gather more inputs and perspectives, I’ll be considering a lot of Strawson. Here’s a clip I really enjoyed. I am thinking of doing a sort of reaction piece, but whether or not that happens, here’s the source.

[Video] Galen Strawson — Is Free Will a Necessary Illusion?

Spoiler Alert: I believe that free will is a cognitive bias related to apophenia. It’s a Gestalt heuristic.

Testudineous Agency

In chapter 71, Ultimate Responsibility, in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, author and philosopher, Daniel Dennett presents a counterargument to the notion that an agent, a person, is not absolutely responsible for their actions. He questions some premises in the ‘the way you are’ line of argumentation, but I question some of his questions.

Here is a nice clear version of what some thinkers take to be the decisive argument. It is due in this form to the philosopher Galen Strawson (2010):
1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
2. So in order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental respects.
3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 395). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Dennett continues.

The first premise is undeniable: “the way you are” is meant to include your total state at the time, however you got into it. Whatever state it is, your action flows from it non-miraculously.

Dennett and I are in agreement with Strawson. There is not much to see here. It’s akin to saying the now is the result of all past events until now. This is “the way you are”.

The second premise observes that you couldn’t be “ultimately” responsible for what you do unless you were “ultimately” responsible for getting yourself into that state—at least in some regards.

This second premise asserts that one cannot be responsible for any action that one had no part in performing. Two scenarios come immediately to mind.

First, you are not responsible for being born. As Heidegger notes, we are all thrown into this world. We have no say in when or where—what country or family—or what circumstances.

Second, if one is hypnotised or otherwise incapacitated, and then involved in a crime, one is merely a cog and not an agent, so not responsible in any material sense.

But according to step (3) this is impossible.

Whilst Dennett fixates on the absolute aspect of the assertion, I’d like to be more charitable and suggest that we still end up with a sorites paradox. Dennett will return to this one, and so shall I.

So step (4), the conclusion, does seem to follow logically. Several thinkers have found this argument decisive and important. But is it really?

As Dennett invalidates step (3), he insists that the conclusion is also invalid. He asserts that the notion of absolute responsibility is a red herring, and I argue that Dennett doesn’t get us much further, perhaps redirecting us with a pink herring.

I’ve created an image with tortoises to make my point. There are actually two points I wish to make. The first point is to determine where the responsibility is inherited. This point is meant to articulate that the world can not be strictly deterministic and yet one can still not have significant agency. The second point is that culpability is asserted as a need, and acceptance of this assertion is the problem.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-14.png
Testuditude

The image depicts an evolution of an agent, with time progressing from left to right. The tortoise on the right is a product of each of the recursive tortoises to its left. The image means to convey that each subsequent tortoise is a genetic and social and social product of each tortoise prior. Of course, this is obviously simplified, because tortoises require pairs, so feel free to imagine each precedent tortoise to represent a pair or feel free to add that level of diagrammatic complexity.

This is not meant to distinguish between nature and nurture. Instead, the claim is that one is a product of both of these. Moreover, as genetic, epigenetic, and mimetic influences are transmitted in family units, they also occur through social interaction and the environment, as represented by the orange and green tortoises.

…if one is a product of genetic and mimetic forces, how much agency remains for culpability?

The point here is that if one is a product of genetic and mimetic forces, how much agency remains for culpability? Each person is an emergent unit—autonomous, yes, and yet highly programmed.

If I programme a boobytrap to kill or maim any intruder, the boobytrap has no agency. I assert further, that the maker of that boobytrap has no more responsibility than the killing device.

The old hand grenade wired to a doorknob boobytrap trick

But who do we blame? you ask, and that’s precisely the problem. Asking questions doesn’t presume answers. This is a logical fallacy and cognitive bias. This heuristic leaves us with faulty jurisprudence systems. Humans seem hardwired, as it were, to blame. Humans need to believe in the notion of free will because they need to blame because they need to punish because vengeance is part of human nature to the extent there is human nature. There seems to be a propensity to frame everything as a causal relationship. Dennett calls this the Intentional stance. To borrow a from Dennett…

This instinctual response is the source in evolution of the invention of all the invisible elves, goblins, leprechauns, fairies, ogres, and gods that eventually evolve into God, the ultimate invisible intentional system.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 374). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Fire Trap in Home Alone

Sins of the Fathers (and Mothers)

Let’s wrap this up with a sorites paradox. As I’ve already said, I agree with Dennett that the absolute aspect is unnecessary and undesired. The question remains how much agency™ does a person have once we account for the other factors? Is it closer to 90 per cent or 10 per cent? Apart from this, what is the threshold for culpability? Legal systems already have arbitrary (if not capricious) thresholds for this, whether mental capacity or age, which basically distils back to the realm of capacity.

I have no basis to even venture a guess, but that’s never stopped me before. I’d argue that the agency is closer to zero than to one hundred per cent of the total, and I’d propose that 70 per cent feels like a reasonable threshold.

I could have sworn I’d posted a position on this after I read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. Perhaps it’s never made it out of drafts.

In closing, I don’t think we need to settle the question of determinism versus free will to recognise that even without strict determinism, personal agency is still severely limited, and yet as our political systems presume a level of rationality that is not apparent, so do legal systems presume a level of agency not present.

Revolutionary Reformer

A social connection posted a piece on Humberto Maturana’s idea of “aesthetic seduction”. I found it interesting, so I wanted to understand more. Performing a Google search, I landed on The Edge, where I found an interesting comment by Dan Dennett. I share it in its entirety.

Daniel C. Dennett

Philosopher; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, From Bacteria to Bach and Back

Post hoc ergo propter hoc! “After this, therefore because of this.” Francisco Varela is a very smart man who, out of a certain generosity of spirit, thinks he gets his ideas from Buddhism. I’d like him to delete the references to Buddhist epistemology in his writings. His scientific work is very important, and so are the conclusions we can draw from the work. Buddhist thinking has nothing to do with it, and bringing it in only clouds the real issues.

There are striking parallels between Francisco’s “Emergent Mind” and my “Joycean Machines.” Francisco and I have a lot in common. In fact, I spent three months at CREA, in Paris, with him in 1990, and during that time I wrote much of Consciousness Explained. Yet though Francisco and I are friends and colleagues, I’m in one sense his worst enemy, because he’s a revolutionary and I’m a reformer. He has the standard problem of any revolutionary: the establishment is — must be — nonreformable. All its thinking has to be discarded, and everything has to start from scratch.

We’re talking about the same issues, but I want to hold on to a great deal of what’s gone before and Francisco wants to discard it. He strains at making the traditional ways of looking at things too wrong.

Dennett’s response is a critique of Francisco Varela, which is not the part that interests me. What caught my eye is his distinction between revolutionary and reformer. And it dawned on me—perhaps re-dawned might be a better verb, or to illuminate or intensify, to shine a light.

I consider myself to be introspective, and times like these allow me to be self-critical. I view myself as a revolutionary as far as expectations go. This makes me impatient with little tolerance for the marginal changes that attendant with reformism.

Being a revolutionary doesn’t make one a Utopian—a common critique—, that one is seeking perfection. From my perspective, when things are so far off course or misaligned, incremental changes don’t seem to be enough.

Moreover, reform is a political misdirection tactic I am leery of. So, irrespective of core beliefs, I feel even a reformist should be wary of the tactic. In politics, sometimes new ideas arise that are not in concert with the prevailing orthodoxy but are building mass. The idea is to retain the status quo as much as possible. The tactic is to find the smallest least disruptive sliver and find a way to integrate it in a manner for the mass to diminish and to be able to claim concordance.

The first example that pops into my mind is the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) in the United States, which is not exactly affordable not all that caring, though it is a reformist act. Even the main alternative of Universal Single-Payer insurance wasn’t that revolutionary, making the delusion of the solution and the adopted approach all that much more disappointing.

Industrial and post-industrial countries have solved this problem, so it’s not revolutionary unless one considers being over a hundred years late to the party to be particularly impressive. Moreover, there are programmes in the United States, i.e. Medicare, that are ostensibly single-payer programmes. In fact, one approach suggested was to expand Medicare to include everyone. This was dubbed Medicare Part E.

What this exposes is that the Reform-Revolution debate is a sorites challenge. The reformers consider the Medicare Part E proposal to be radical or revolutionary whilst I viewed it as a couple more millimetres away from the original Obamacare promises. Since the status quo started from such a limited position, when they ended up with is a milquetoast implementation.

To me, the debate is about paradigm shift versus glacial change. As for me, when I regard the battle between the Democrats and Republicans in the United States, I am not satisfied with any solution that sees these parties still standing post-solution. As a revolutionary thinker, I don’t need to toss out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, but let’s lose the bathwater and at least the sieve of a tab. Of course, I argue that the direction the so-called Enlightenment has taken the Western world, which is different to the argument made by prior traditionalists, so I can see a lot of room for change—revolutionary change. In the case of implementing Enlightenment beliefs, they took the idea of revolution a bit more literally than was perhaps necessary, but since it was more about a power grab than some broader promise of freedom, I suppose it was necessary. Meet the new bosses, same as the old boss.

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The United States doesn’t constitutionally protect women. This is where reformism gets you. Per Wikipedia,

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Proponents assert it would end legal distinctions between men and women in matters of divorce, property, employment, and other matters. The first version of an ERA was written by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman and introduced in Congress in December 1923.

Wikipedia — Equal Rights Amendment

If you read 1923 and wonder if that’s a typo, it’s not. It’s been almost 100 years and women still have no guarantee of equal rights. Women had only been granted voting rights with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on August 18, 1920.

For a country founded on the principle that all people are created equal, this feels like it should be considered to be a redundant act…

My bad, the US Declaration of Independence reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. This is just men. And when this was written BIPOC did not fully qualify as men. Reformists have almost got that sorted out by now right? 1776 seems like almost yesterday. Change comes slowly.

By now, I’m rambling semi-coherently, so I’ll close this down. Keep in mind the foundation of your interlocutor. Is s/he a reformist or a revolutionary? Determine where on the scale s/he falls. You might save yourself a lot of time. Time Is on My Side is only a song not a recipe for living.

If a lion could speak

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

As much as I love Wittgenstein’s quote on language, I find it vastly more amusing aside the lion of Gripsholm Castle in Sweden. Because as talking lions come, this one is certainly more unintelligible than most.

If a lion could speak (Gripsholm Remix)

I also appreciate Daniel Dennett’s retort that if we could manage to communicate with this one talking lion—not, of course, this lion in particular—that it could not speak for the rest of lionity. (Just what is the equivalent of humanity for lions?)

If a lion could speak (traditional)

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” ( [Philosophical Investigations] 1958, p. 223) That’s one possibility, no doubt, but it diverts our attention from another possibility: if a lion could talk, we could understand him just fine—with the usual sorts of effort required for translation between different languages—but our conversations with him would tell us next to nothing about the minds of ordinary lions, since his language-equipped mind would be so different. It might be that adding language to a lion’s “mind” would be giving him a mind for the first time! Or it might not. In either case, we should investigate the prospect and not just assume, with tradition, that the minds of nonspeaking animals are really rather like ours.

Daniel Dennet — Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness (p.18)

The self as a centre of narrative gravity

As with ‘identity’, ‘self’ is a fiction. I’ve commented on this time and again. To be fair, I haven’t done much direct research on the topic. It just always felt a bit specious to me. Yet again, I feel that hubris and apophenia get the best of humans.

And then I am reading Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained—published in 1991 no less. Skimming further, I find he published an article from which I lifted the title of this post.

I’ve long adopted his position on consciousness—well before reading this book some 30-odd-years after it was published—, but to find this was a pleasant surprise.

In a nutshell, the self is a confluence of events. His centre of gravity approach is borrowed from physics. In this television interview, he does the topic better justice than I would.

This is a well-behaved concept in Newtonian physics. But a center of gravity is not an atom or a subatomic particle or any other physical item in the world. It has no mass; it has no color; it has no physical properties at all, except for spatio-temporal location. It is a fine example of what Hans Reichenbach would call an abstractum. It is a purely abstract object. It is, if you like , a theorist’s fiction. It is not one of the real things in the universe in addition to the atoms. But it is a fiction that has nicely defined, well delineated and well behaved role within physics.

Daniel Dennett

Plus, why not hear it from the source?

Before this, I viewed it more as individual frames from a film—appearing to have motion and contiguity but in fact, is an illusion that takes advantage of human sense perception deficits and cognitive gap-filling functions.

Perception Is Not Reality

Nothing to add to what I’ve already said here. I just wanted to share another example of how our senses fill in what they expect rather than what is.

This photo is in black and white. It uses coloured grid lines to trick your brain into perceiving colour.

In other news, I just started reading Daniel Dennett’s classic Consciousness Explained. It starts with Brain in a Vat. Given that it was written in the late ’80s and published in the early ’90s, so it’s a bit behind the curve on the technology front. Artificial Intelligence—at least Machine Learning—wasn’t nearly as developed, and he didn’t quite grasp how fast and fast hardware and chip technology would advance in some 30 years. But this doesn’t alter the frame—just some peripheral details.

I’m not really even interested in consciousness. I favour Dennett’s take that consciousness is to the brain as wet is to water, so there’s not really any there there to find.