Free will and the Black Box

Yingzhe asked:

I am a master’s student in philosophy from China. After reading your short story “The Black Box” I was deeply shocked and had a few questions that I hope you can help me answer.

First and foremost, does the main character in the story still have Free Will after activating the black box? Does the protagonist simply succumb to his own desires and laziness?

Second, If the box in the story is controlled by an omniscient god, can the holder of the box act freely against god’s prophecy? If he or she succeeds does that indicate that he or she has Free Will?

Last but not least, could you share some of your ideas about Free Will with me? I have a strong interest in it.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

‘The Black Box’ is the second science fiction story in Pathways to Philosophy Program A, The Possible World Machine. On that page you will find unit 2 on free will, which includes a useful classroom discussion, partially fictionalized but based on the classes I’ve given on this topic. (You might have come across my story in a collection edited by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn Doing Philosophy: an Introduction Through Thought Experiments published by McGraw-Hill.)

In the story, the character Joe is given a black box which (allegedly!) is capable of predicting any future event. At first, he and his wife Betty are convinced by its predictions and soon make a fortune betting on horse races. Belatedly, they realize that they have somehow become prisoners of the black box. Whatever it says they will do, they do.

Betty refuses to believe this, while Joe succumbs. As it turns out, the black box is able to answer any question about Joe’s future actions but not Betty’s. What’s going on here?

There is a simple, logical point which is brought out in the classroom discussion. Assuming that the black box is indeed omniscient, as it claims, then it knows that Betty is the kind of person who is capable of refusing to perform an action if it is predicted by a ‘reliable predictor’ that she will do it, while Joe, on the other hand, lacks the ‘will’, or maybe the scepticism. Of course, we are assuming that the black box still knows what Betty or Joe are going to do. But it also knows that it can tell Joe but not Betty.

We are assuming that the universe is deterministic. The omniscience is like that of the ‘supermind’ posited by the mathematician Laplace, rather than the God of monotheistic religion who views creation from a vantage point outside of time. Even in a determinist universe, there is a sense in which one can be ‘free’, which, possibly, is capable of having degrees. In this sense, Betty is more ‘free’ than Joe. One could make a case that this is the kind of freedom Jean-Paul Sartre talks about, an attitude of mind rather than a metaphysical absolute. However, I think Sartre wanted more than this.

Here we get to the nub. When I wrote ‘the Black Box’, originally around 1990-1 for my evening class students, I held the common view that freedom of the will is ‘compatible’ with determinism (sometimes known as ‘combatibilism’). The argument that convinced me is based on a remark by the philosopher David Hume. It takes the form of a dilemma. In a determinist universe, we are all just wound-up clockwork, while in an indeterminist universe we are roulette wheels. Any decision, insofar as it is not determined by our character or brain state, is merely random. The ‘freedom’ of indifference, or mentally tossing a coin, is not a ‘freedom worth wanting’, to quote a phrase philosophers use.

In my post, Free will and creative reverie, I describe a third alternative, that gives strong support to the view that a ‘free will worth wanting’ would be achievable only in an indeterminist universe. In such a universe, there could be no Laplacian supermind, no black box. I won’t go over the details again, but the essential point is that any decision that requires pondering, when after all the relevant facts have been considered you still don’t immediately know what you should do, involves a point where imagination can move in different directions. Here you will find a kind of randomness, as in dreams, but the crucial point is that we then take responsibility for following through on a train of thought and acting upon it.

This is related to a notion Thomas Nagel talks about, ‘moral luck’. A drunk driver narrowly misses knocking down an innocent pedestrian. If the pedestrian had stepped out just a second earlier, they would have been killed and the driver sent to jail. In the possible world where the pedestrian dies, the driver is not a ‘worse’ man, he’s just unlucky. A similar point applies, I claim, to the actual process of decision making. In a possible world identical to the actual world up to a given point in time, I might have not have applied to university to do a degree in Philosophy, but pursued a career in photography instead. Or I might have become a minister of religion, or turned to crime. Bad decisions come to good people and good decisions to bad people, not ‘out of the blue’ but understandable given the trains of thought that led up to them.

Is this free will? Is it a free will worth wanting? I’m not making any big claims here. However, I do think that this is a view that would satisfy Jean-Paul Sartre, and until someone comes up with a better alternative, it is good enough for me.

Why should I care about saving the planet?

Marion asked:

“I signed no contract to save the earth.” — Is there really an ethical argument against this viewpoint? We all have different values and responsibilities. Can we really insist it is our “ethical responsibility” as humans to put into place measures which will help ensure a safe and healthy planet for generations to come?

Why is it our responsibility to do this? It was never a condition of our birth onto this planet.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I would love to own a Jensen Interceptor, but it would be wrong. Why? Apart from the fact that it takes up a rather large amount of kerb space and our neighbours all have small cars, the Jensen’s 7 litre engine does around 8 miles per gallon. Compared with smaller cars or cars that are smaller engined, it’s carbon footprint is huge. Why should I care, if I can afford the petrol? What should I care about?

Questions like this are not usually meant as foundational challenges to the very existence of ethics or ethical commands. The questioner would (probably) not challenge the widely held ethical belief that it is wrong to cook and eat human infants — regardless of the satirical suggestion by the young Jonathan Swift, that it would be a reasonable ‘solution’ to the Irish potato famine.

Some ethical considerations relate to a ‘contract’, either real or imaginary, but not all. The prohibition against infant cannibalism is not based on any contract (the ‘social contract’ as it is called). That’s just one example. So the statement that ‘I signed no contract to save the Earth’ does not entail that I have no ethical responsibility towards the planet. But we can leave that aside.

What the question is really about is the consistency of our ethical beliefs. The notion that it is our ‘ethical responsibility… to ensure a safe and healthy planet’ is less widely held than the ethical command against eating babies. Is it possible that at least some persons who are sceptical about saving the earth could be persuaded to change their view by demonstrating its inconsistency with other things they believe?

Let’s play a game of ‘suppose’, a familiar trope in philosophical debate. Suppose that we had strong evidence that human life would be completely destroyed in five thousand years time if we failed to do something now to prevent this. Fill this sketch out with whatever details you like. Action now has a cost. The benefit will only be appreciated five thousand years from now. I don’t have a certain answer to this. Surely, there are other matters that have higher priority than that hypothetical possibility? Questions of priority loom large in decisions about what we ‘ought’ to do.

Then again, it would be easy to construct a ‘slippery slope’ argument that if we needn’t worry about human life five thousand years from now, then it makes no difference ‘give or take’ a hundred years. And yet, if you go on subtracting a hundred years you will eventually reach the year 2121. Your grandchildren, or great grandchildren will die when human life comes to an end. — The problem with this is a justified scepticism of slippery slope arguments, which can very easily degenerate into mere casuistry.

Here’s a different angle. Start by asking the questioner whether they care about anything that happens after their death. If not, then it is difficult to see how then can claim to hold any real ethical beliefs. It’s all about ‘me’, and the things I will experience, enjoy or suffer during my life time. On the other hand, if they do care — for example, by taking the time to draw up a will — then surely the fate of the planet is also something they should care about, isn’t it? — I’m not convinced that that’s a conclusive argument, but it could be a start.

You can see from the above that the process of making ethical beliefs consistent presents a different challenge to each individual person. A given argument will persuade some but not others. However, it is surely not an unreasonable question to ask, and we can make a start by asking ourselves why we care.

Why should I bother?

Henry asked:

Why bother?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

At first glance this looks like one of those silly questions we get from time to time, like, ‘Why?’ or ‘Is this a question?’. Well, not silly, because one can always (as we have on more than one occasion) find a meaningful take on the question which gives us something to write about. But this time, you and I know that the question is deadly serious. Literally.

You will die if you don’t bother to eat. Your bladder will burst if you don’t bother to get out of bed to have a pee. But you could say, ‘Apart from those examples, where less pain is involved in acting rather than not acting.’ Assuming, of course, that you care whether you are in pain or not. Remember this? — ‘The trick, Henry Potter, is not minding that it hurts’ (Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence in the movie ‘Lawrence of Arabia’).

But let’s get serious. One needs a reason. The implication of the question is that the effort of bothering has a cost. It’s easier to not bother than to bother. Lately, I’ve been trying my hand at songwriting (see my previous answer). Let’s say it relieves the boredom. I’m also getting some encouragement from those whose opinion I respect. But why should I bother about that? The only answer to that is that I do care. It’s a fact.

In my book Philosophizer — the first book in the Philosophizer Trilogy — I write about those times when you ‘blink and wake up’. Let’s say, you’re on a good writing streak and then, suddenly, for no reason, from one moment to the next, you wake up from your ‘dream’. What on Earth am I doing? What could I possibly achieve by this? And why should I care? In an instant, the motivation you relied on has evaporated without a trace.

The philosophical point to make here is that is this is one of those occasions when we wrongly assume that a reason is called for. I mean, reason as logic. The problem with that assumption — which I have already illustrated — is that any statement of the form, ‘The reason for doing X is so that Y’, assumes that you care about whether Y happens or not. In recent philosophy, there has been argument over whether all reasons for action are ‘hypothetical imperatives’ to use Kant’s term (you can look up the debate between Phillippa Foot and John McDowell). I’m not taking a stand either way. ‘The reason for telling the lost tourist where to go is that it would be mean to refuse.’ The only individuals who never care whether they are being mean or not are psychopaths. One of the things about being a psychopath is that no amount of ‘reasoning’ will get you out of that state. You need medication.

Which brings us to psychology. It is a fallacy to think that bothering requires a foundational reason, not based on something we care about, but hypothetically might not care about. The fact that you or I do, in fact, care is the answer. But there are circumstances where one doesn’t care. In deep depression, for example. Then you need help. No amount of philosophical argument will get you out of your miserable state. But even if you are not deeply depressed, you can be lazy. I know what that is like! You battle with your lazy impulses by reminding yourself of what things would, or will, be like for you if you bother, or, alternatively, if you don’t bother. And sometimes, that’s enough. If you care.

I didn’t have to answer your question, Henry. It’s taken an effort, not a very great effort in this case. But I’m glad I did. Next time, when I am faced with a similar choice, I might remind myself of ‘how glad I felt’ and that will be enough. Or not. Not all things we can, or could, achieve by our efforts are worth the bother.

Who knows where the time goes?

Sandy asked:

Who knows where the time goes?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The late Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention was just a teenager when she wrote this amazing song. (You’ll find the lyrics on Google.) I would bet anything that she had seen, and maybe studied, the metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) and his poem, ‘Song’:

    Go and catch a falling star
    Get with child a mandrake root
    Tell me where all past years are
    Or who cleft the devil’s foot
    Teach me to hear mermaids singing
    Or to keep off envy’s stinging
    And find
    What wind
    Serves to advance an honest mind
    If thou be’st born to strange sights
    Things invisible to see
    Ride ten thousand days and nights
    Till age snow white hairs on thee
    Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me
    All strange wonders that befell thee
    And swear
    No where
    Lives a woman true, and fair
    If thou find’st one, let me know
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet
    Yet do not, I would not go
    Though at next door we might meet
    Though she were true, when you met her
    And last, till you write your letter
    Yet she
    Will be
    False, ere I come, to two, or three

There’s a beautiful rendition of this on guitarist John Renbourne’s first album.

The main difference in theme is that John Donne is writing about his bewildered feelings after (one assumes) he has been deserted by a woman he loved, while Sandy vows, ‘I am not alone while my love is near me.’

The key line for me in Donne’s Song is, ‘Tell me where all past years are’, which for him is one of many ‘metaphysical’ perplexities, while for Sandy it is the main theme. Where does the time go? There are of course two ways of hearing this, ‘How come the time has passed so quickly?’, or, ‘Where is the past now? What has happened to it? Does it only exist in memory, or is it somehow a fact that exists for all time, whether we remember it or not?’

It’s the later question that perplexes and bewilders me. The philosophy of time travel is an interest of mine I wrote an Afterword to David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself where I described one of the several ways of avoiding the time travel (‘Grandfather’) paradoxes, which Gerrold applies — and takes to extreme — in his novel. Every time you time travel to the past or to the future you literally create a new world, a new universe. As I wrote in my Postscript, you cannot travel back in time to save the Twin Towers, you can only create a world where the Twin Towers were saved.

But is there an indelible ‘fact of the matter’ whether or not we remember, or ‘know’ in some other way, say, from indubitable historical evidence? I just smoked a cigar, and there, in the ashtray, is the still warm stub. Even if I suffered a sudden attack of amnesia, I would surely know for certain why the stub was there.

There is no Recording Angel. And even if there were (or recording angels, plural) their testimony would only be more or less reliable evidence. They could be lying (a possibility which I explore in my short story, The Good Witness.) Does the past exist at all?.

I don’t know.

Academic philosophers love theories. There are two theories going around at the present time, ‘Presentism’ and ‘Indexicalism’ (you can look these up) which take a ‘position’ (how academic philosophers love positions!) on this question. How do they know? Of course they don’t, it’s only a theory!

But there is a fact of the matter. Regardless of theories. Regardless of what we are tempted, or feel compelled, to believe or disbelieve.

I will not listen to thinkers who declare (more ‘theory’) that this is a question that cannot be coherently stated, or which is somehow ‘disguised nonsense’. I understand exactly what Sandy Denny and John Donne are asking. The question is clear, precise. And we, you and I, don’t know the answer, and — and, I believe, although one can never be sure or rule out every possibility — we never will.

Are we just sacks of meat?

Shirley asked:

Is “free will” just a comfort for those who want to believe, or are we electrified sacks of meat tenderized with hormones, memory, and survival instincts?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’ll start with a picky point. The question you posed isn’t an alternative, as it first appears to be. What you are asking is whether we are just ‘sacks of meat’, in which case what we term ‘free will’ is merely a ‘comforting belief’.

My answer is, No.

You could start by reading my answer, Free will and creative reverie where I explain why a free will worth having requires that determinism be false. This is a point on which I have changed my mind, as I once held that it made no difference whether determinism holds or not. My bad!

This time, rather than going through the same argument, I will illustrate my answer with an actual example, which explains what I mean by ‘creative reverie’.

Recently, I started writing songs. This is something no-one who knew me could have predicted, and indeed if I’d been given a glimpse into the future just two months ago, I would have been astonished. However, as a self-termed ‘philosophizer’, it now seems to me perfectly reasonable to express and communicate my philosophizing using the medium of songwriting.

This is how it came about. One of the things I do when I am bored is browse the listings on eBay. One day, around two months ago, the idea came into my head (from I don’t know where, although I’m sure there is an explanation) to look at the listings for electric guitars. Suddenly I knew that I wanted one. I already have steel string and nylon string acoustic guitars, and even went so far as to buy an electric pickup and amplifier for one of my acoustics. But now I knew, absolutely and without a shadow of a doubt, that I wouldn’t be happy until I had an electric guitar to add to my collection.

I found one, a Washburn modelled the much more expensive Gibson Les Paul. It was a nice price, looked good. I made an offer which was accepted. And that was it.

As I experimented with the different luscious sounds from the twin humbucker pickups, I found myself playing a chord progression, and I thought, ‘This could be a song.’ A short while later, the song was composed, recorded, and posted on YouTube. Three more followed. And now I’m working on a fifth.

And my question: Is it really credible that these songs have existed for all time, that they were ‘determined’ by the way the BIg Bang banged? Or are they genuine novelties, new additions to the universe, that it took a chain of seemingly unlikely circumstances to bring into being?

I think the latter. But now, an extra finesse. My song, the one I can’t quite finish, is about zombies. And your question gave me the prefect chorus, for which I am extremely grateful. All I need now is a melody with a ‘hook’. So here goes:

    Zombie Dream

    You cannot kill me
    The creature said
    Because I am
    Already dead
    I aimed my gun
    At the creature’s head
    I pulled the trigger
    The monster bled

    It aint so sweet
    We’re only bags of meat
    It’s a bitter pill
    To have no will
    As we shuffle
    Down the street

    I rose this morning
    From a dream
    Fighting zombies
    With axe and gun
    Outside were bodies
    Crashed cars and fires
    The zombie apocalypse
    Had begun

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    The plane took off
    In the nick of time
    But there was something
    No-one knew
    A bitten hostess
    Hiding in the john
    Her hands and face
    Are turning blue

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    An empty mens room
    On the motorway
    A cracked mirror
    Your bloodied face
    You stare into
    A deep abyss
    It’s all over
    For the human race

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    You true believers
    You’re all safe
    And all you
    AI boffins too
    Why? because
    You’re dead already
    There’s nothing they
    Can do to you

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    Now hungry zombies
    Are everywhere
    In the basement
    In the hall
    Play target practice
    For a while
    You know you can’t
    Destroy them all

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    Woke on the sidewalk
    Feeling strange
    Something was missing
    Deep inside
    I couldn’t recall
    Just what it was
    Then I realized
    I had died

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

You notice that I substituted ‘bags of meat’ for ‘sacks of meat’. It’s only a small change but ‘bags’ just sounds better to me than ‘sacks’. In the process of songwriting you make myriad decisions like this, and each decision is an ‘act of will’. It’s a creative process.

Of course, all sorts of ‘influences’ come into play. There’s a pop song from the 50s which goes, ‘Aint that sweet, see her walking down the street…’. The cracked mirror wasn’t just my invention, it’s a familiar movie trope. That was kind-of the point. And so on.

To sum up: It is extraordinarily difficult to explain, in theory, what we want in wanting ‘free will’. But when you look at actual examples of human decision making, it’s simply obvious. Every moment of every day I am adding something new to the universe, to reality. How that is possible may seem a mystery, but then so is the fact that anything exists at all.

On the very idea of a ‘senseless’ question

Claude asked:

Have there been any persons in the history of philosophy who believed that there was no such thing as a “senseless question”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Do colourless green ideas sleep furiously? Or not? — I am quoting the famous example of a sentence (or question) that obeys the rules of English grammar but which we cannot make sense of, at least in a literal way. Of course (as one writer, John Hollander, demonstrated successfully in his poem ‘Coiled Alizarine’) you can compose a poem where the statement, ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously,’ does appear to make a kind of sense — ‘poetic sense’ — and in the context of the poem, one might tend to agree:

    Curiously deep
    The slumber of crimson thoughts
    While breathless
    In stodgy viridian
    Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

After all, a poem can be seen as a condensed argument (I’ve said the same about song lyrics in chapter 1 of my book ‘Philosophizer’) but I doubt whether anyone would seriously claim that the question concerning colourless green ideas has an answer which we are unable to discover owing to our limited cognitive abilities.

So far as I am aware, no philosopher has claimed that there is ‘no such thing as a senseless question,’ and that would be a difficult claim to defend, given the above example. However, one must bear in mind that this only became a live issue after philosophers like Wittgenstein or Carnap in the 20th century argued that many of the traditional ‘questions’ in the history of philosophy are, in fact, senseless. My view is that they were wrong. I don’t feel the least temptation to dismiss questions like, ‘Does God exist?’, ‘Is time real or unreal?’, ‘Is the universe composed of matter or ideas?’ as senseless, even though I would find it difficult to defend my position with anything resembling a ‘theory of meaning’ or a ‘criterion of meaningfulness’.

The point is that we don’t, in fact, have anything resembling a comprehensive theory of the way language works, or the way words succeed (or don’t succeed) in conveying ideas. Language is flexible, constantly in the process of being expanded, modified, sharpened. If you were to ask me how I know what I mean by some of the questions I have asked — like the question, ‘Could there be a universe exactly like the actual universe differing only in the fact that I am not GK?’ — my answer is no. I don’t know. And I say that without a hint of embarrassment. I have a strong feeling, or intuition, that I somehow ‘know’ what the question is getting at, but I would be at a loss to explain exactly how I know.

Frankly, I am tired (and bored) of professional philosophers making confident claims about the limits of meaning with nothing to back them up apart from a flimsy ‘theory’ — a hypothetical claim of the form, ‘If things were thus and so then other things would be such and such.’ One of the most blatant examples is the theory of materialism, but that’s a topic for another post.

So, no, the question, or possibility whether there are no ‘senseless’ questions (apart from contrived examples that do not even appear to make sense) hasn’t appeared in the history of Western philosophy, so far as I am aware, and really gets its point in response to claims by 20th philosophers like Wittgenstein et. al. I am happy to be nominated as ‘the’ philosopher who takes this view. If you know of any others, do let me know!