Saturday, 19 January 2008

Are we free or is it all a deterministic illusion?

The issue of whether we are we accountable for our own behaviour or if (and when) we are held firm in the clutch of biological factors and influences beyond our control is one that has dogged both science and philosophy for millennia. This captivating subject today is the province of behavioural biology and cognitive psychology. This discipline investigates the exchanges that occur within the mind, brain, body, and environment. Simply put, it entails the search into what factors of our brains compile to make our individual outlook.

Over two thousand years ago, Socrates taught us to, "know thyself". Today, neither behavioural biology nor cognitive psychology has mitigated the complexities surrounding our understanding of human behaviour. The debate over free will rages within psychology, theology and philosophy. Defined by Sartre (1939) as our ability to choose and behave as we wish without our choices being determined by outside sources, free will is a concept has been pondered by figures such as, Richard Hanley, Robert Kane, B.F. Skinner, William Lycan and Noam Chomsky and others.

B. F. Skinner and Robert Kane require the introduction of the conception of determinism. Determinism is the idea that all events are caused, occurring only as effects of causes before them. Determinism presupposes that a prior event will necessarily or inevitably result in the consequential occurrence. In strong determinism, this leads to only one potential consequence for every subsequent occurrence in a conception that is closely linked to the conception of predestination in theology. At its most extreme, the thought is that God has decided our destinies leaving nothing to be done to alter the predetermined and indomitable conclusion to events. This can seem to lead to fatalism as if our destinies are already decided, we seem to lack the free will to control our future (Huxley, 1931).

Indeterminism conversely argues events are not necessarily caused through a past occurrence. This idea proposes the contradictory argument concerning the cause of human action to determinism. It can in this be said to come to the equivalent conclusion regarding free will. An arbitrary action that is not a consequence of control is thus stated to not be measured an act of free will (Kane, 1996). The result is that neither indeterminism nor determinism is akin to free will. As in his view “Individuals seek to explain behaviour by looking inward” (Skinner, 1971).

Skinner (1955) argues that free will does not exist. To Skinner, choice and behaviour are a consequence of outside influence derived from the environment not free will. In Skinner’s world, societal control is unavoidable. Similar to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1939), "We are all controlled by the world in which we live, and part of that world has been and will be constructed by men" (Skinner, 1956). The paradox in Skinner’s thinking is a realisation that free will is an illusion where "we cannot make wise decisions if we continue to pretend that human behaviour is not controlled".

Kane (1996) posed the question of free will differently by distinguishing amid “surface freedoms” and free will. Being conditioned "We would be free to act or choose as we will, but would not have the ultimate say about what it is that we will," (Kane, 1996). He admits that although an incomplete explanation, "parenting and society, genetic make-up and upbringing have an influence on what we become and what we are". Influences in our lives add factors that do not fix our behaviour, rather he argues they persuade it. In this way, an individual can not shirk all responsibility for ones actions and behaviour. Kane’s paradox is that "undetermined events in the brain or body it seems would inhibit or interfere with our freedom, occurring spontaneously and not under our control" leaving behaviour both undetermined and within the individual’s control. Kane’s paradox may be more succinctly stated in that free will requires control. He attempts to alleviate some of the difficulties invoked through this paradox in proposing that the decision to conduct ourselves in a desired manner is contingent on an indeterminate process of resolutions. In selecting a desired behaviour we create determinate realities for ourself as, “one set of competing reasons or motives prevail over the others".

Skinner stated that "We cannot use good sense in human affairs unless someone engages in the design and construction of environmental conditions which affect the behaviour of men" believing that as individuals, each of us ought to direct ourself, instead of existing under the control of another. Kane in comparison would dispute this proposing that even when behaviour is conditioned or controlled, we retain something of ourself for which we are obliged to take personal responsibility. As Skinner’s determinism requires actions to be caused by external events, we couldn't have free will leaving us in an illusion and removing responsibility for our actions.

Lycan (1987) addressed free will using the philosophical argument that an artificial intelligence can be regarded to be human when "freedom of choice is acting in (roughly) for one's action to proceed out of one's own desires, deliberation, will and intention, rather than being compelled or coerced by external forces..." Proposing a solution in functionalism, Lycan considers behaviour to be derived from external influences differing from Skinner in stating that they are not the result of external forces. In this point of view, "what matters to mentality is not the stuff of which one is made, but the complex way in which that stuff is organized" (Lycan, 1987). In this, human behaviour derives from psychological states that are functionally defined instead of being deriving through a material composition. That is, behaviour is initiated through internal processes and not external factors.

Chomsky (1980, p39) changed many of the ways in which we perceived both learning and behaviour. In stating that “Innate factors permit the organism to transcend experience, reaching a high level of complexity that does not reflect the limited and degenerate environment” free will and hence the mind are developed through a process of continual learning and reassessment where we can “usefully think of the language faculty, the number faculty, and others, as 'mental organs'". Oakhill (1988, p.178) likewise regards “cognitive development as a continuous process”.
“Darwinian algorithms” (Gigerenzer, 1995) suggest the notion of a “modular mind” derived through complexity. Fodor (1985, pp. 3-4; Fodor & Phylyshyn, 1988) expanded on this idea taking the theories of Chomsky to propose a limited modularity where “hard-wired” genetic instructions are divided into discrete sub-systems or modules. Fodor (1985) defines these modules as “an informationally encapsulated computational system … innately specified … and characteristically associated with specific neuroanatomical mechanisms”. These modules afford a perceptual input system that allows us to interact within the external world. Each of these modules are both inherent domain-specific, involuntary and neurologically distinct. These are to an extent also determined genetically.

In this approach, it could be argued that we start with a predetermined set of physiological features that develop through a combination of both external factors beyond our control and a series of choices. Rene Dubos (1998, p8) takes this idea and encourages us to consider our actions and not to allow ourselves to behave “independent of natural forces … ” least we “become a robot” as “the humanness of life depends above all on the quality of man’s relationships”.

We have seen already that Skinner would have us believe that all behaviour is a consequence of external forces and events. The problem with such a radically empiricist stance is that there are too many ways to topple what is in effect a house of cards. Chomsky (1959, Pp 26-58) rejected the entire notion of Behaviourism in his review of Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” (1957). This paper changed the notions of deterministic thought and definitively put to rest the concept of behaviour being solely a result of external forces. It further set out the beginning of a new age in cognitive science.

Skinner sought a scientific taxonomy that could be definitively defined. In rejecting the use of terms such as “hunger” in the formulation of his methods, he attempted to define a quantitative methodology to describe mentals states and conditions based on their external influences. Thus, rather then stating an animal is hungry; Skinner would advocate quantitatively stating the level of deprivation. For instance, the animal was deprived of food for 30 hours. This he believed would allow for an accurate empirical analysis of the condition in what was stated to be a more scientific classification then the animal being made to be hungry. While there is some truth in a need for providing more accurate data, Chomsky (1959) established how Skinner’s language of “stimulus control merely add to the general mystification”.

Pinker (1994), whilst accepting Chomsky's current principles and parameters approach, rejects Chomsky’s scepticism. Pinker (1994) advocates that language ought to be considered to be an evolutionary adaptation in a similar idea as the eye in that the chief components of each are intended to provide essential functions (Marr, 1982). Chomsky (1959) proposed a “language organ” with language supposed to be a discrete module in the brain. Pinker (1994, p112) notes "the mystery of how children's grammar explodes into adultlike complexity in so short a time" leading to the question of whether " grammar genes really exist or is the whole idea just loopy?" (Pinker, 1994, P332). The rapid acquisition of syntax at childhood is only achievable due to a set of “super-rules” “hard-wired” into the brains. The result being that the developing mind will associate the precise values to the parameters determining an individual’s local language structure through a process of listening to the dialogue of their parents (Pinker, 1994, p22).

Language defines who we are. In Chomsky’s perspective the “paradox of language acquisition” comes from the fact that “In a given linguistic community, children with very different grammar arrive at comparable grammars” (1983). So whilst “each child has a different experience, each child is confronted by different data – but in the end the experience is essentially the same. As a consequence, we have to suppose that all children share the same internal constraints which characterize narrowly the grammar they are going to construct”. In this dilemma also lies the issue of free-will. If we are defined as Chomsky would have it through language, then our actions and behaviours are also a function of language making free-will a paradox as well in that an initial “starting condition” sets the initial state which is influenced both through our internalised choices and the external environment. Like the development of language, both the internalised framework or modules and also the interaction with external influences lead to our choices.

Consequently, it is not a determined pattern that leads to the human psychology or pure freedom in choice, but a series of complex interactions derived from both genetics and our environment or nature and nurture. The answer to the question of whether behaviour is deterministic or a consequence free will can not be answered simply. It would appear that the best answer is both. In this, we are determined and react in accordance with a predefined set of instructions that provide for our perceptions and consequently skew our reality. On the other hand, external forces are interpreted through interactions with social groups and the consequential effect is necessarily complex. Coupled with internal reflection, we manage to derive some sway on our cognition through choice even when moulded through genetics.

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Chomsky, N. (1968) “Language and Mind”. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World
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Chomsky, N., (1983) “Interview with Noam Chomsky”, OMNI, November 1983
Dubos, R. J. (1998) “So Human an Animal: How We Are Shaped by Surroundings and Events” Amazon co.
Fodor, J.D. (1985) "Deterministic Parsing and Subjacency", Language and Cognitive Processes 1.1, 3-42.
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Sartre, Jean-Paul (1939) “Esquisse d'une théorie des emotions” (Outline of a Theory of the Emotions), Free Press
Skinner, B.F. (1956) ”Freedom and the control of man” Amer. Scholar, 1955-56, 25, 47-65.
Skinner, B. F. (1957) “Verbal Behavior” New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B.F. (1953) “Science and human behaviour”. New York: The Macmillan Co

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