An (Embellished) Anecdote – Free Will, Autonomy, Selfhood, and Hot Dogs

May 7, 2011 at 21:33 (Great Quotes, Neuroethics, Philosophy, Psychology)

Not long ago, I was walking across campus to the office, slightly behind schedule and thus going briskly so as not to be late. As I passed by the Student Union Building, the most pleasing aroma came to my nose, and I looked to notice that Japadog had set up shop just a few hundred paces out of my way. (Japadog is a hot dog cart that is something of a Vancouver legend, and it is life-changingly delicious.) I felt my feet veering me off to my left as I began to imagine securing some of this delectable fare for myself.

Almost immediately, the fact that I was going to be late if I went even a few yards astray came rushing back to me. Bummer though it was to give up my Japadog, I corrected my course and fastwalked onward. As the smell of kurobuta sausage and wasabi mayo faded into the distance, my philosophically reckless inner monologue exulted: “see, I wasn’t going to just let that happen! Way to exercise free will.

Of course, I caught myself, and posing as my own internal interlocutor, self-responded “hey now, exactly what about that decision makes it look like free will? Given the set of things you care about, the relative value you place on those things, and some basic rules of reasoning, it was literally impossible for you to have chosen in any way but the way you chose, even if it felt like you could have done otherwise. Or do I have to remind you about how what just now played out looked from a brain’s-eye view?

Unable to really argue with myself on that, I eventually came up with: “okay then, genius, but you still have to explain the feeling of satisfaction that comes from looking back on what happened. Are you just gonna say that in fact there was nothing to take credit for and it’s silly to be pleased?

Already, the rejoinder was clear: “No, of course it’s not silly; the mistake here is simply in chalking the outcome up to free will rather than to autonomy. Look, you want to identify with your project of being a certain admirable sort of person – among other things, a person who shows up to work on time – whereas you don’t really want to identify with your basic instinctual tendency to automatically pursue the source of tantalizing food-smells. The feelings and reasons that steered you back away from the Japadog cart, you feel that they’re internal to you, they’re part of who you feel you want to be. The feelings and reasons that steered you towards it in the first place, those were things that – once you got around to considering them – you took to be self-external, or out of step with the person you see yourself as. For the split second before you noticed them at work, those self-external factors were degrading your autonomy. When you took stock of them and saw them for what they were and modified your action accordingly, you were acting more autonomously and with less akrasia – even if the taking stock and the modifying were all inevitable consequences of how you are constituted. It’s still something to be glad about.

After mulling that over: “Hmm, that gloss on autonomy sounds a lot like a typical compatibilist’s account of free will. I guess it’s all semantics, but I can see the usefulness in having one word for the thing you’re incompatibilist about, and another for the thing you are compatibilist about, since it does seem like both exist. But there’s one thing that’s still bugging me. How can we be sure that we’re actually getting it right when we make judgments about what’s self-external and what’s not? Like, what if I had gone along with the Japadog instinct because it suddenly seemed to me that I wanted to become the kind of person who’s late to work for the sake of that irresistible teriyaki sauce? Would that be free will and not just autonomy?”

That was easy enough: “Of course it’s possible that the experience might have impacted you in such a way as to re-formulate your conception of who you are trying to be. But that wouldn’t be free will; that too would be a mechanistic process. It would have changed the grounds for what counted as acting more autonomously, though. As for whether you can be mistaken when you make internality / externality judgments, yes and no. In one sense, your decision is necessarily a reflection of your best judgment in the situation and therefore it’s impossible to be wrong about the conception of your ideals expressed by your decision; if you suddenly want to become a late-to-work Japadog fanatic, then you can’t be wrong about that, because you’ve changed what counts as being right. Sure, you might come to regret adopting that model for your life, but then your ideal has by definition changed again and you were only wrong relative to a new set of standards, which isn’t the same thing as being wrong in some enduring or objective or extrapersonally true way. It’s possible to make an akratic choice (for instance, in a case where are you coerced), but only against the backdrop of a particular self-conception, relative to a particular constellation of goals, desires, values, and preferences; it’s fundamentally impossible to set up that backdrop or constellation in any way that would make sense to describe as ‘wrong.’ It might be quickly superseded by a new setup, from the perspective of which the old one will seem immature, but you still get to decide whether you want to be the sort of person who doesn’t have to frequently revise his setup, and there’s no wrong choice about that. In another sense, though, you are always mistaken when judging something as internal, because there’s no “deep self” for influences to be internal to. There’s only what strikes your conscious self-awareness as being closer to or farther from this peculiar self-conception it has ginned up. What’s really going on is exactly what all your favorite neuroscientists have explained better than I can – there’s no unified “you” in there, just a bunch of partly-cooperating, partly-competing brain modules, many of them operating largely on the basis of influences completely inaccessible to your introspection. Now, the more such influences you can identify by supplementing your introspection with information from the sciences, the more autonomous you’ll feel, but the whole thing is nonetheless still a sham. Earlier I mentioned that you’re not acting very autonomously when you’re coerced, but of course in the sense we’re talking about now, your decision is always the product of extensive ‘coercion’ from so many factors that you can’t even register. Don’t let it get to you, though; just like with the free will thing, there’s no way to turn off the phenomenology, so the best thing you can do is just go with the flow of the illusion and just be ready to make use of the knowledge that it is an illusion when it suits your purposes. And no more often than that, or else you’ll probably go crazy pretty quick.”

It seemed that splitting my inner monologue into a dialogue had been pretty useful indeed. “So I guess, in the end, I do get to stick with that favorite quote of mine from W. E. Henley – ‘I am the captain of my fate / I am the master of my soul.’ As long as I’m willing to hold it at arm’s length when need be. Well, that’s a lot to chew on, but one more thing for now. Just what sort of person is even tempted to get a hot dog a mere 30 minutes after eating breakfast?
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