Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Power of Fiction

Sometimes fiction can make a point more strongly than philosophy. For example, I've always thought (at least for as long as I've considered it) that free will is self-evident and that determinism could not be rationally maintained; but more than that, I think it would be utterly devastating to someone who truly grasped its consequences. I hope this isn't condescending, but it seems to me that determinists simply don't understand the magnitude of what they're saying. They think you can have a "determinism without tears" as J. R. Lucas puts it. But all the philosophical argumentation I've read still doesn't express this devastation.

However, a short story by Ted Chiang does. Chiang has only written a handful of stories (you can read some of them here), but they're all pretty much incredible. He addresses determinism and free will in "Story of Your Life", but the story I'm thinking of is only a page long: "What's Expected of Us". Click on that link and read it now.


Ron said...

Hello. I really like the blog.

This is an interesting short story. My best friend and I have a long-standing debate on the issue of free will. Basically, he thinks that free will is compatible with determinism while I do not. I think this story is overall sympathetic to the incompatibilist position here. I think the issue really breaks down to the nature of causation and what causation we'd take to be 'free.' Am I correct in thinking that you take the libertarian position on free will?

I admit that I've only looked at the subject briefly in terms of research.

Timothy Mills said...

That's a very clever vignette. I've always enjoyed this particular subgenre of science fiction, and this is an excellent example of it. (Larry Niven has a similar one that addresses one problem with a branching multiverse - I can't remember its title at the moment.)

Having said that, I want to say that I find it completely unpersuasive. I don't think the story is psychologically realistic, and it doesn't reflect my experience of believing in free will and accepting the possibility of determinism, nor my philosophical understanding of the different flavours of free will (specifically, the distinction between libertarian and compatibilist free will).

Psychologically, I simply don't think that a device like the Predictor would have such a profound effect on people's subjective experience of freedom. The sensation of free will - whether real or illusory - is too persistent and persuasive. Sure, people might be disheartened in the way described. And some might fail to recover from this disappointment. But a third of all people becoming effectively comatose? No.

Philosophically, I find the compatibilist approach to free will to be not only personally persuasive, but consistent with most of the important characteristics people point to with regard to free will. Put very briefly, if I have the capacity to act in the way I wish to act, then I have free will in every important sense, regardless of whether my wishes are predetermined. (In other words, free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive.)

And finally, I recoil in horror at the conclusion of the story's narrator: "The reality isn't important: what's important is your belief." Reality is always important. Even when it's disheartening (which I don't think determinism is).

Anyway, it is a well-written story, and a good illustration of a common attitude to free will. But it's completely unpersuasive to me.

You're right, Jim, that fiction is a powerful medium of persuasion. But only if the author can get the audience to buy into the psychological plausibility of the characters' actions.

Naturally, I don't expect to persuade anyone by this response, until I can cast it in narrative form. Maybe with a band of people emerging who are immune to the depressing effects of the Predictor (they would probably be mainly philosophers), and helping to cure the catatonics of their condition by helping them to see free will from a compatibilist rather than a libertarian perspective. ;)

Jim S. said...

Hi guys. I do lean towards libertarianism. It seems to me that while I may be predisposed to certain types of behavior, this is not the same as being predetermined. I can still refrain from acting in accordance with these predispositions. For example, at the end of this sentence I will type a letter within parentheses, and what letter I choose to type is not determined by anything other than my free choice (k).

This puts me at odds with many people. Atheists tend to be compatibilists, because it's difficult to explain how free will could occur in a universe composed entirely of physical objects and processes. But a large number of Christians also tend to be compatibilist in order to account for God's foreordination. I just don't see how compatibilism doesn't fall victim to the problem of causal exclusion (which I address in a post going up in a few hours).

Timothy Mills said...

I should offer a caveat to my position: I'm not defending determinism (I don't see that we have evidence to judge one way or the other). I just happen to accept a compatibilist definition of free will, and so the question of determinism is immaterial to that of free will. (Compatibilism doesn't require determinism in the way that libertarianism requires non-determinism.)

You are right, Jim, that a predisposition is not the same thing as predetermination. Your example is intriguing. However, your assertion that "what letter I choose to type is not determined by anything other than my free choice" is unsupportible, short of making a much more thorough accounting of all the possible subtle causal influences surrounding the decision. Your act may feel uncaused, but it is precisely that feeling whose accuracy we are trying to establish.

And of course, from a compatibilist standpoint, your statement could be true - the physical state that you identify as your will could be the only immediate cause for the action - even if the universe is completely physical and deterministic.

For me, so long as I feel like I have the freedom to execute my will (I can press the "j" key when I feel like it), it does not matter whether my willing the action was itself causally predetermined. (Did I pick 'j' because it's different from the 'k' that you picked? Did I pick it because it's close to 'k' on the keyboard? Hmm...)

I'm working on a response to your post about physicalism. The short response is that causal exclusion is only a problem if you already reject physicalism. Similarly, compatibilism may only be a problem if you're already committed to a libertarian position.