If Free-Will were a Heuristic…
Ecological eliminativism provides, I think, an elegant way to understand the free-will debate as a socio-cognitive ‘crash space,’ a circumstance where ecological variance causes the systematic breakdown of some heuristic cognitive system. What follows is a diagnostic account, and as such will seem to beg the question to pretty much everyone it diagnoses. The challenge it sets, however, is abductive. In matters this abstruse, it will be the power to explain and synthesize that will carry the theoretical morning if not the empirical day.
As hairy as it is, the free-will debate, at least in its academic incarnation, has a trinary structure: you have libertarians arguing the reality of how decision feels, you have compatibilists arguing endless ways of resolving otherwise manifest conceptual and intuitive incompatibilities, and you have determinists arguing the illusory nature of how decision feels.
All three legs of this triumvirate can be explained, I think, given an understanding of heuristics and the kinds of neglect that fall out of them. Why does the feeling of free will feel so convincing? Why are the conceptualities of causality and choice incompatible? Why do our attempts to overcome this incompatibility devolve into endless disputation?
In other words, why is there a free-will debate at all? As of 10:33 AM December 17th, 2019, Googling “free will debate” returned 575,000,000 hits. Looking at the landscape of human cognition, the problem of free will looms large, a place where our intuitions, despite functioning so well in countless other contexts, systematically frustrate any chance of consensus.
This is itself scientifically significant. So far as pathology is the royal road to function, we should expect that spectacular breakdowns such as these will hold deep lessons regarding the nature of human cognition.
As indeed they do.
So, let’s begin with a simple question: If free-will were a heuristic, a tool humans used to solve otherwise intractable problems, what would it’s breakdown look like?
But let’s take a step back for a second, and bite a very important, naturalistic bullet. Rather than consider ‘free-will’ as a heuristic, let’s consider something less overdetermined: ‘choice-talk.’ Choice-talk constitutes one of at least two ways for us humans to report selections between behaviours. The second, ‘source-talk,’ we generally use to report the cognition of high-dimensional (natural) precursors, whereas we generally use choice-talk to report cognition absent high-dimensional precursors.
As a cognitive mechanism, choice-talk is heuristic insofar as it turns a liability into an asset, allowing us to solve social problems low-dimensionally—which is to say, on the cheap. That liability is source insensitivity, our congenital neglect of our biological/ecological precursors. Human cognition is fundamentally structured by what might be called the ‘biocomplexity barrier,’ the brute fact that biology is too complicated to cognize itself high-dimensionally. The choice-talk toolset manages astronomically complicated biological systems—ourselves and other people—via an interactional system reliably correlated to the high-dimensional fact of those systems given certain socio-cognitive contexts. Choice-talk works given the cognitive ecological conditions required to maintain the felicitous correlation between the cues consumed and the systems linked to them. Undo that correlation and choice-talk, like any other heuristic mechanism, begins to break down.
Ancestrally, we had no means of discriminating our own cognitive constitution. The division of cognitive labour between source-sensitive and source-insensitive cognition is one that humans constitutively neglect: we have to be trained to discriminate it. Absent such discrimination, the efficacy of our applications turn on the continuity of our cognitive ecologies. Given biocomplexity, the application of source-sensitive cognition to intractable systems—and biological systems in particular—is not something evolution could have foreseen. Why should we possess the capacity to intuitively reconcile the joint application of two cognitive systems that, as far as evolution was concerned, would never meet?
As a source-insensitivity workaround, a way to cognize behaviour absent the ability to source that behaviour, we should expect choice-talk cognition to misfire when applied to behaviour that can be sourced. We should expect that discovering the natural causes of decisions will scuttle the intuition that those decisions were freely chosen. The manifest incompatibility between high-dimensional source-talk and low-dimensional choice-talk arises because the latter has been biologically filtered to function in contexts precluding the former. Intrusions of source-talk applicability, when someone suffers a head injury, say, could usefully trump choice-talk applicability.
Choice-talk, in fact, possesses numerous useful limits, circumstances where we suspend its application to better solve social problems via other tools. As radically heuristic, choice-talk requires a vast amount of environmental stage-setting in order to function felicitously, an ecological ‘sweet spot’ that’s bound to be interrupted by any number of environmental contingencies. Some capacity to suspend its application was required. Intuitively, then, source-talk trumps choice-talk when applied to the same behaviour. Since the biocomplexity barrier assured that each mode would be cued the way it had always been cued since time immemorial, we could, ancestrally speaking, ignore our ignorance and generally trust our intuitions.
The problem is that source-talk is omni-applicable. With the rise of science, we realized that everything biological can be high-dimensionally sourced. We discovered that the once-useful incompatibility between source-talk and choice-talk can be scotched with a single question: If everything can be sourced, and if sources negate choices, then how could we be free? Incompatibility that was once-useful now powerfully suggests choice-talk has no genuinely cognitive applicability anywhere. If choice-talk were heuristic, in other words, you might expect the argument that ‘choices’ are illusions.
The dialectical problem, however, is that human deliberative metacognition, reflection, also suffers source-insensitivity and so also consists of low-dimensional heuristics. Deliberative metacognition, the same as choice-talk, systematically neglects the machinery of decision making: reflection consistently reports choices absent sources as a result. Lacking sensitivity to the fact of insensitivity, reflection also reports the sufficiency of this reporting. No machinery is required. The absence of proximal, high-dimensional sources is taken for something real, ontologized, becoming a property belonging to choices. Given metacognitive neglect, in other words, reflection reports choice-talk as expressing some kind of separate, low dimensional ontological order.
Given this blinkered report, everything depends on how one interprets that ontology and its relation to the high-dimensional order. Creativity is required to somehow rationalize these confounds, which, qua confounds, offer nothing decisive to adjudicate between rationalizations. If choice-talk were a heuristic, one could see individuals arguing, not simply that choices are ‘real,’ but the kind of reality they possess. Some would argue that choice possesses a reality distinct from biological reality, that choices are somehow made outside causal closure. Others would argue that choices belong to biological reality, but in a special way that explains their peculiarity.
If choice-talk were heuristic, in other words, you would expect that it would crash given the application of source-cognition to behaviours it attempts to explain. You would expect this crash to generate the intuition that choice-talk is an illusion (determinism). You would expect attempts to rescue choice would either take the form of insisting on its independent reality (libertarianism), or its secondary reality (compatibilism).
Two heuristic confounds are at work, the first a product of the naïve application of source-talk to human decision-making, cuing us to report the inapplicability of choice-talk tout court, the second the product of the naïve application of deliberative metacognition to human decision-making, cuing us to report the substantive and/or functional reality of ‘choice.’
If choice-talk were heuristic, in other words, you would expect something that closely resembles the contemporary free-will debate. You could even imagine philosophers cooking up cases to test, even spoof, the ways in which choice-talk and source-talk are cued. Since choices involve options, for instance, what happens when we apply source-talk to only one option, leaving the others to neglect?
If choice-talk were heuristic, in other words, you could imagine philosophers coming up things like ‘Frankfurt-style counterexamples.’ Say I want to buy a pet, but I can’t make up my mind whether to buy a cat or a dog. So, I decide to decide when I go the pet store on Friday. My wife is a neuroscientist who hates cats almost as much as she hates healthy communication. While I’m sleeping, she inserts a device at a strategic point in my brain that prevents me from choosing a cat and nothing else. None the wiser, I go to the pet store on Friday and decide to get a dog, but entirely of my own accord.
Did I choose freely?
These examples evidence the mischief falling out of heuristic neglect in a stark way. My wife’s device only interferes with decision-making processes to prevent one undesirable output. If the output is desirable, it plays no role, suggesting that the hacked subject chose that output ‘freely,’ despite the inability to do otherwise. On the one hand, surgical intervention prevents the application of choice-talk to cat buying. Source-talk, after all, trumps choice-talk. But since surgical intervention only pertains to cat buying, dog buying seems, to some at least, to remain a valid subject of choice-talk. Source neglect remains unproblematic. The machinery of decision-making, in other words, can be ignored the way it’s always ignored in decision-making contexts. It remains irrelevant. Choice-talk machinery seems to remain applicable to this one fork, despite crashing when both forks are taken together.
For some philosophers, this suggests that choice isn’t a matter of being able to do otherwise, but of arising out of the proper process—a question of appropriate ‘sourcing.’ They presume that choice-talk and the corresponding intuitions still apply. If the capacity to do otherwise isn’t definitive of choice, then provenance must be: choice is entirely compatible with precursors, they argue, so long as those precursors are the proper ones. Crash. Down another interpretative rabbit-hole they go. Short any inkling of the limits imposed by the heuristic tools at their disposal—blind to their own cognitive capacities—all they can do is pursue the intuitions falling out of the misapplications of those tools. They remain trapped, in effect, downstream the heuristic confounds described above.
Here we can see the way philosophical parsing lets us map the boundaries of reliable choice-talk application. Frankfurt-style counterexamples, on this account, are best seen as cognitive versions of visual illusions, instances where we trip over the ecological limits of our cognitive capacities.
As with visual illusions, they reveal the fractionate, heuristic nature of the capacities employed. Unlike visual illusions, however, they are too low-dimensional to be readily identified as such. To make matters worse, the breakdown is socio-cognitive: perpetual disputation between individuals is the breakdown. This means that its status as a crash space is only visible by taking an ecological perspective. For interpretative partisans, however, the breakdown always belongs to the ‘other guy.’ Understanding the ecology of the breakdown becomes impossible.
The stark lesson here is that ‘free-will’ is a deliberative confound, what you get when you ponder the nature of choice-talk without accounting for heuristic neglect. Choice-talk itself is very real. With the interactional system it belongs to—intentional cognition more generally—it facilitates cooperative miracles on the communicative back of less than fifteen bit-per-second. Impressive. Gobsmacking, actually. We would be fools not to trust our socio-cognitive reflexes where they are applicable, which is to say, where neglecting sources solves more problems than it causes.
So, yah, sure, we make choices all the bloody time. At the same time, though, ‘What is the nature of choice?’ is a question that can only be answered ecologically, which is to say, via source-sensitive cognition. The nature of choice involves the systematic neglect of systems that must be manipulated nevertheless. Cues and correlations are compulsory. The nature of choice, in other words, obliterates our intellectual and phenomenological intuitions regarding choice. There’s just no such thing.
And this, I think it’s fair to say, is as disastrous as a natural fact can be. But should we be surprised? The thing to appreciate, I think, is the degree to which we should expect to find ourselves in precisely such a dilemma. The hard fact is that biocomplexity forced us to evolve source-insensitive ways to troubleshoot all organisms, ourselves included. The progressive nature of science, however, insures that biocomplexity will eventually succumb to source-sensitive cognition. So, what are the chances that two drastically different, evolutionarily segregated cognitive modes would be easily harmonized?
Perhaps this is a growing pain every intelligent, interstellar species suffers, the point where their ancestral socio-cognitive toolset begins to fail them. Maybe science strips exceptionalism from every advanced civilization in roughly the same way: first our exceptional position, then our exceptional origin, and lastly, our exceptional being.
Perhaps choice dies with the same inevitability as suns, choking on knowledge instead of iron.