Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Merry Christmas

How are we to make sense of the fact that we are deterministic automatons?  Merry Christmas!

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                                                                Merry Christmas


                                The Gift You Can’t Exchange – It’s an Absolutely Perfect Fit!

                                                 W.J. Holly, Ph.D.


                Your present was too large to put under the tree last year.  You were given a full-sized tractor-lawnmower.  They led you outside to see your gift, and of course you were excited.  “Where do I sit?” you asked.  How do I start it, and where are the controls?  Where are the pedals, and how do I make it turn right and left, stop and go? 

                This year, however, you are given a different sort of gift.  It comes from a metaphysician.  He tells you that he is making you a gift of a different kind – a compleat robot – a conscious, fully automated, deterministic automaton.  Of course you are excited.  “Where is it?” you ask.  “Is it outside?”

                “My gift,” replies the metaphysician “is the knowledge that you yourself are a deterministic, purely physical, organic automaton.”

                And what is your next question?  “Where do I sit?  Where are the controls?  How do I make it stop and go, turn right and left, this automaton that is my very self?”


                If I were a frog, there should be no such problem.  I would know how to make myself jump, if I were a frog.  For, I once owned a frog that I entered in races.  Of course!  If I were a frog, I should need only to reach around and touch myself on the rump to make myself jump.

                But, now, I stare into the abyss of that regress, vicious and infinite:  With what hand … and at what spot … do I touch myself to make my hand reach around behind, to touch me on the rump that I might jump?

                How, indeed, am I to operate this automaton that I find that I myself am?  But, the metaphysician tells me not to worry, that the automaton is fully automated and running.  Its course is already set and locked.  It’s every sound and motion down to the last sigh and whisper has been unalterably determined from the very beginning of time.

                “What then is there left for me to do?” I exclaim in tones bordering on panic.  “Am I simply to sit and watch myself to see what I might do?”

                “Be calm,” says the metaphysician.  “There is everything for you to do, just as before.  You are not the outside observer of an automated robot that is separate from yourself.  You yourself are that very automation.”

                “But, if I am fully automated, then already I have been set to mow the lawn or not.  If I have been set to mow the lawn, then I will mow the lawn.  If I have been set not to mow the lawn, then I will not mow it.  So, again, I ask, what is there left for me to do?  Why can’t I simply sit down and wait to see what it is that I have been set to do?”

                “You seem not to understand,” replies the metaphysician.  “If you sit down and wait to see what you have been set to do, then the lawn will not get mowed.  The automaton that is your very self will do exactly as you do, just as you will do exactly as it does.  If you sit and wait, it too will sit and wait.  For, you are not an outside observer of this automation, separate from it.  You yourself are that very automaton.

                “Of course I understand that much,” I object.  “It is clear that I am the automaton in question, so that of course I will do everything that the automaton has been set to do.  If it has been set to sit down, then I will sit.  If it has been set to mow the lawn, then I will mow.  And, if it has been set to ponder, weigh, and finally to decide to mow the lawn, then I will be the one to ponder, weigh, and decide.”

                “But you, Sir, are the one who fails to grasp my problem.   If even my decisions have been set for me, what is there left for me to do but to wait passively to see what it is that I have been set to decide?”  

                The metaphysician’s smile grows thin.  “You are a very special kind of automaton, not passive at all.  You have motivating needs, values, and desires of your own.  For example, when you have gone too long without food, you automatically begin to prowl, searching for food.  You also have an active intelligence, and knowledge, skills, habits, and the ability to acquire and assess information as you need it.  And, you have the ability to use that intelligence and information in deciding best how to achieve what you desire.” 

                “You are not a passive automaton like a tractor-lawnmower that is controlled by an outside operator.  Your decisions and other actions – you yourself – are part of the causal chain, not something outside it.   Again, you are not an outside observer of the decisions and actions made by the deterministic automaton.  You yourself are the very automaton making those decisions and performing those actions.”

                I can see that the metaphysician’s patience is strained, and I struggle to put my finger on the source of my discontent.   “But if I am not controlled as a tractor-lawnmower is, by someone outside operating external controls, stopping and starting me, steering me, and so forth, then I must be operating myself!  But, it does not seem that I am an inside operator of myself.  There are no internal controls.  There is not any internal panel of which I am aware that has knobs, levers, pedals, brakes, or buttons to push.  So, how can you say that I am automatic, that I am operating myself?”

                “I never did say that you do operate yourself,” the metaphysician corrects me.  A fully automated being cannot operate itself, as it is not separate from itself.  It simply functions as the information-gathering, goal-pursuing automaton that it is.  Again, you are neither an outside operator nor an inside operator of the automaton that you are.   You yourself are that very automaton, actively performing your various functions.

                I am becoming quite exasperated.  “But that brings me back to my same old problem,” I say.  “If I am just a deterministic automaton running on automatic – if I am not operating myself – then how can I be anything more than an observer of myself and my behavior?  How can I actively initiate anything?  How can any of my thoughts, decisions, or actions be anything but automatic reflexes, automaticisms, reactions to prior physical or psychological events?  Granting that I and the workings of my mind, brain, and body are just part of the deterministic causal chain, where is there room for me to actively insert and assert myself to make a difference in what happens?”

                I struggle for a way to make my problem concrete.   “Look at it this way.  Suppose that I am sitting on the couch in the evening and notice that the light is becoming too dim for comfortable reading.  I know that I need to reach over and switch on the lamp.  But, how can I intervene in the determined course of events to make my hand go over and turn the switch?  There is no internal switch for me to turn to make my hand reach out.  But, if there is no switch for me to turn to make my hand reach out, how on earth can I make it reach out to turn on the light?  Do I do this by forming some volitional act of willing to turn on the light that somehow makes my hand reach out?”

                A look of serene patience settles on the metaphysicians’ face.  “In the first place, you must admit that you have no introspective access to or awareness of any volitions, willings, or intentions.  Sometimes when you are being lazy, of course, you prompt yourself by saying such things as ‘I have to get up, I have to get up, I’ll be late and lose my job if I don’t get up.’  You might even puff and blow to get your steam up.  And, when extreme physical effort is needed to push a car for a roll start, you experience your physical effort and say that you are trying to make it move.  Or, when you decide, for example, to quit smoking (come hell or high water, as they say) you may experience what you call a feeling of resolve.”

                “But, what do these feelings really amount to?   Does the feeling of resolve that you have when you decide to quit smoking feel any different from the resolve to finish grading the papers that are overdue?  Can you describe the phenomenology of these feelings with sufficient precision to enable another person to identify them in himself and differentiate between them?  How many volitions does it take to get a tire changed?  Does it take one to get the trunk open, and other one to get the jack out, or does it take a separate volition for the contraction and relaxation of each of the muscles involved in grasping the tools, in looking to see where the jack is, or what?   Do you have any experience of these intentions or volitions, and can you describe them for us?”

                “You know how to teach your son to change a tire.  There are well-known steps here.  But, is the first step in changing a tire the formation of an intention or volition to change the tire?   And, if your son had never had such an intention, could you tell him how to manufacture one?  Could you tell him how it might differ from the intention to change his underwear, so that he might be saved from the embarrassment of initiating the wrong action while on the shoulder of the freeway?  Can you tell him how to pump up an intention that is underinflated?   Is it possible to mistake one of your intentions for another and get the wrong one in the firing chamber, so to speak?   And, how did you yourself identify your intention to change a tire the first time your ever had one, without waiting to see what kind of action followed it?   No, you cannot tell me anything about these internal mental causes of your actions precisely for the reason that you have no consciousness of them even in yourself.”

                “Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, even if it were the case that you operated yourself, made yourself stop and go and raised your arm, by manipulating these internal volitions and intentions, you still would need to do something else in order to manufacture or bring about these internal mental causes.  Volitions and intentions are essentially no different from internal knobs, buttons, and levers on an internal control panel.  If you can’t simply raise your hand, if you need to raise an intention to raise your hand, then it would seem that you also would need to do something to raise the intention to raise your hand.  And, in turn, you would have to raise a prior intention to raise the intention to raise the intention to raise your hand, and so on indefinitely, so that you never could get started.  So, you see that this line of thinking simply leads you down the path of a vicious and infinite regress.”

                I am flabbergasted.  I don’t know what to say.  “Well, then, I am just back where I started.  If I don’t form intentions or volitions to get myself to do the things I do, then it seems that I am simply moved by external stimuli as the behaviorists say.  External conditions, reinforcement schedules, and so on are what operate me.  I am no different from a train being guided by the tracks, needing no steering at all.  So, again, why can’t I simply sit down and wait to see which way my environment will guide me?”

                “You oversimplify,” says the metaphysician.   “But, in a sense what you say is true.  If you sit down and wait to see what you shall do, discouraged by your philosophical reflections, eventually you will experience what I call the Humean-human effect – so called after the skeptical Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who discovered that he could not keep his skeptical doubts in place during the course of busy human affairs.  After sitting awhile, you will become restless or hungry, or be reminded of pressing affairs that need your attention.  And so you will get up and do something, get a bite to eat, and get on with your life.  And, you will do this without needing to form any intentions or perform any acts of willing.  Your environment (reality, as some people call it) will make its demands and prod you into action.”

                “You oversimplify, however, in comparing yourself to a locomotive being passively guided by the rails. When you get up for a bite to eat, it will be because you are hungry, or because you smell something delicious that you had been cooking in the oven.  But, the things that your environment prompts you to do will be your actions because they will be in accord with your needs, desires, likes and dislikes, values, thoughts, hopes, fears, character traits, habits, reflections, decisions, and so on.  You will be doing what you want to do, what you think is good and sensible, and so on.”

                “Well,” I say.  “You might think me greedy and unreasonable to want more than that – that my actions flow from or be in accord with my beliefs, desires, values, and character, and that they be appropriate to the environment.   But, I think that your analysis still leaves me passive, not active.  It still remains the case that everything I do is caused, on your analysis.  The only difference now is that my environment and heredity shape and form my character, habits, desires, values, beliefs and so on that become the proximate causes of my behavior. “

                “I understand that this seems an unreasonable complaint, since of course I do want my actions to flow from my character and from what I want, believe, and value.  The things I do would not even seem to be my actions if they were not in accord with what I personally want and think.  And, of course, I surely would not want my actions to be uncaused, accidental, chance, random.  No, I want them to flow from (be caused by?) my most accurate beliefs and my most noble desires.”

                “But, it seems patently false that my beliefs and desires cause me to do the things I do.  Recall the example of my needing to turn on the light in order to read better.  It does not seem that my desire for better lighting and my belief that it can be obtained by reaching over are sufficient to cause me to turn on the light.  Sometimes I just don’t do it.  Of course you may be right that if I sit in the growing dark long enough, eventually the environmental stimulus will cause me to turn it on, given the beliefs and desires I have.  But, it still seems to me that there remains something for me to do.  I still need to reach over and turn on the light.”

                “It just is not the case that beliefs, desires, and environmental stimuli are causes of my actions.   I myself am the cause of my actions.  I myself must initiate my actions.  And, I can’t do that by forming beliefs and desires that might goad or prompt me into action.  Even if I already desire the light to be on and know that it can be turned on by flipping the switch, that doesn’t make the switch get flipped.  My knowledge and belief don’t make my hand go out and flip it.  There still remains something for me to do. I still need to reach out and do it.”

                “And isn’t that exactly how it is?” responds the metaphysician.   “Given your knowledge and desire, and given the fading light, you will just reach out and flip the switch, unless there is some countervailing reason not to.  You just do it.”

                “Stop,”   I cry.  “Don’t tell me that I just do it.  That is completely unhelpful and mystifying, and you know it.  How do I initiate this action?  If my knowledge and belief aren’t enough to make my hand reach out and flip the switch, then there must be something in between that I must do to get my hand to reach out.  How do I do it?  Do not tell me that I just do it!”

                “But, there isn’t any how to it,” replies the metaphysician.  “The very point of saying that you just do it is that there isn’t any how to it.   You simply do it without needing to do anything else to bring it about.   And, isn’t that exactly how it happens?  Sometimes you take longer than other times to respond to the stimuli, but eventually you do.  It just happens.   You just respond, act, reach out, and perform the appropriate action, functioning naturally as the well-designed, functional automaton that you are.”

                “When your alarm rings in the morning, you open your eyes, see the time, and reach out to touch the snoozer button.  You do all this without forming any intentions or volitions or anything else.  You simply function naturally as the intelligent, knowledgeable, goal-seeking automaton that you are, naturally perceiving, analyzing, and doing the things you need to do in order to satisfy your needs and desires.” 

                When you see footprints in the mud, you just naturally and automatically conclude that a person has passed that way before you.  There is nothing you need to do in order to form that conclusion.  It simply comes to you naturally.  When a person asks you for your phone number, the answer is naturally evoked, prompted from you.  Why should you imagine that actions that involve physically reaching out should require prior intentions to bring them about, any more than do the thoughts and answers that just come to you and pass your lips?”

                “No.  When you step outside and see the wind blowing dark clouds before it, the thought that it is going to rain is naturally evoked from you if you are functioning normally as the information-processing automaton that you are.  You do not need to form an intention to draw that conclusion in order to draw it.   You just do it.  And, if a mosquito lands on your face, you simply swat it, without needing to form an intention to get your hand to move.  When the bread pops up in the toaster in the morning, you simply reach over, pick it up, and proceed to butter it, without needing to do anything to get yourself to pick up the knife.  And, if I ask you who discovered the Pacific, you simply answer, “Balboa.”  You don’t need to do anything to get your lips to move when you answer my questions.  Speaking is just another of your natural functions.  Why should you think that you need to pull internal levers, mental or physical, to make your hand go to the butter knife, any more than you should need to pull such levers – do something in between – to get a conclusion to come or to get your lips and tongue to move when you have something to say?”

                “No,” says the metaphysician.  “There is nothing that you need to do in order to operate your mind, your brain, your lips, your legs and hands, and eyes.  You are not a being separate and apart, needing to operate the deterministic, natural, organic automaton that you find that you yourself are.  You simply are that automaton, and simply function naturally as the living, breathing, seeing, feeling, thinking, talking, acting automaton that you are.”

                “Well,” I stammered, at a loss for reply.

                “Well,” said the metaphysician.  “The night is getting late, and I really must be on my way.  Merry Christmas!”

                “Merry Christmas to you too,” I said.  And then I realized that he was right.  The words had indeed come naturally to my lips, without my needing to do anything at all to get them out.  I had simply functioned naturally as the polite being that I am, responding naturally to a polite goodnight with a polite goodnight in return.  And, I could not help myself from shouting into that night air, “A merry Christmas to all, and to all metaphysicians,

                                                                           Good Night!”




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