Sunday, 9 August 2015

An Incompatibilist Theory of Free Will

So, following-up on our previous post, let's try an Incompatibilist(Libertarian) argument that argues against absolute Determinism. This post assumes you read the previous posts, so we won't re-explain Self-Awareness or Dasein.


You know what I first noticed about George Ainslie's aforementioned paper on Free Will? It mentions Recursion right there in the title: "Free Will' as Recursive Self-Prediction: Does a Deterministic Mechanism Reduce Responsibility?" Not only that, but, he's hardly the only one to describe Consciousness in general and Free Will in particular as resulting from a recursive process:

Existentialism and Recursion

Why the focus on recursion when discussing Human consciousness? At the most basic level, our cognition subjectively feels recursive and self-referential. Soren Keirkegaard talks about this process of relating to oneself as being inherent to the Human spirit and his very language in describing this relationship falls into a recursive pattern:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self.... In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self (p. 13). (Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death)

Heidegger also, in describing what a Human is, an Existing entity(Dasein), also falls into this sort of self-referential language.

"[Dasein is] that entity which in its Being has this very Being as an issue…" (Heidegger, Being and Time).

Free Will and Recursion

That said, there are particular types of Recursive thought associated with Free Will. Let's look at how a person goes over their instincts and emotions while trying to make a difficult decision:

  1. The Subject contemplates what instincts/biases influence it's decisions and how
  2. This new awareness changes it's relationship to those influences and perhaps it's decision
  3. The Subject contemplates how it's awareness of the inputs changes their effect on it's decision
  4. This new awareness changes it's relationship to those influences and perhaps it's decision
  5. The Subject contemplates how this new awareness effects it's decision making 
  6. etc..

This sounds a lot like the Existentialists or, one might argue, the Battle of Wits from the Princess Bride.

Breaking with Determinism

What results is a recursively self-conscious decision-making process that can potentially go on forever. The deeper this self-awareness goes, the further we stray from pure mechanical response and the more the recursive process becomes a dominant factor in it's own right.

What if this recursion were to extend infinitely? We hit a singularity, a point of anomaly where the outputs are infinitely distant from the inputs and the recursive process becomes the dominant factor. At this point, when the inputs no longer can predict the outputs, one breaks with Determinism.

Infinite recursion and Dasein

Now, you may argue that this infinite recursion of self-conscious decision making doesn't, in practice, take place. At some point we stop second guessing ourselves and make a decision.

That's where we come back to Heidegger's concept of Dasein. As Dasein, our minds are able to attain absolute knowledge of things in the world to a high degree, even things we haven't directly experienced. The same applies to self-knowledge. Through our limited experience of this potentially-infinite decision-making process, we internalize this feedback loop of self-awareness and use it to make free decisions unbound by physical determinism.

Cheresh, Shoteh, Vekatan

That said, as with all of the Dasein's knowledge, this Self-Awareness is not inborn, rather, it is learned from our interactions with the world.

A baby has no self-awareness. As a result, it has no free will. It encounters various stimuli within the world, engages them, and learns from the results. As the child grows, it learns to conceptualize the external and relate to it logically, but still the subtle knowledge of the Self remains obscure. As the child approaches maturity, however, he begins expanding his cognitive reach to this inner world as well. Soon he knows his own inner-workings enough to make self-aware decisions.

This is arguably why the חרש, שוטה, וקטן are not legally culpable. The דעת they are lacking is the source of Free Will, and the Torah does not penalize one who has no control of their actions.


But this process of growing self-awareness hopefully does not end with the bar mitzva ceremony! The Rambam's discussion of Free Will is contained within Hilchot Tshuva--why is this? It is, as the Rambam himself explains, because Free Will is a prerequisite to tshuva(הל' תשובה ז:א):

הואיל ורשות כל אדם נתונה לו כמו שבארנו ישתדל אדם לעשות תשובה

That seems true enough, but I would argue that the relationship is bi-directional: by doing tshuva, by examining our actions, identifying our sins, and resolving to act differently in the future, we further develop the self-awareness that is itself the root of our Free Will. What emerges is not a simple causal relationship, but an iterative process of increasing Self-Awareness and Free Will.

Taking Stock

So I told a certain Incompatibilist story here about Free Will and Determinism. It was similar to our previous Compatibilist story in that it relied on Heidegger and the concept of Self-Awareness. That said, here I made the bold claim that our own Self-Knowledge can actually become a cause in and of itself and overcome the physical world and it's inherent Physical Determinism. I find this a priori story plausible, but I admit it got a bit hand-wavy there at the most critical point.

I think we'll wrap-up this series on Free Will here. This is admittedly one of the difficult questions Philosophy and Psychology are grappling with today. As Torah Jews, it's important that we grapple with it too, on our own terms, even if a definitive answer remains remote.

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