Monday, December 13, 2004

Matryoshka Homunculus of Infinite Regress

This article reminds me of the movie, The Matrix. It's amusing if nothing else :)

This article is the outgrowth of a debate on objective morality between Ed Hudgins of the Objectivist Center and me, which took place at George Mason University Law School. During our debate, we touched on the question of Free Will. Followers of Ayn Rand -- indeed most folks -- believe we have Free Will. I, however, am not so sure.
"Am I free?" you may ask. First, the bad news: no, you're not.

What you call making choices or exercising your Free Will is an illusion. I realize this seems highly counterintuitive, even absurd to suggest. But the following considerations may convince you that you are not, indeed, free.

First, we must agree that your body (and brain) is made up entirely of physical atoms and molecules. In other words, there is no supernatural essence like a "spirit" that animates your physical body. If we cannot agree on this, the rest of this article is moot.

Another way of talking about all of this is the familiar language of "cause and effect."

There are no causeless effects, it seems -- at least at the macro-level we live in from day to day. Chairs don't fly up into the air and coffee cups don't move across desktops unless some force acts upon them -- "causing" them to move.

So, our bodies and brains are subject to causal laws, as well. Even though the myriad cause-and-effect chains happening in the human body are extremely complex, it is not possible for us to break these causal laws just because we're human. The same can be said for apes, cats, chickens, bugs and bacteria, as all are creatures that belong to the causal-physical world.

Here's the problem. In our everyday language, we say we "choose" tea over coffee, or we "make a decision" to turn left or right. But since all of our so-called decisions take place in our physical brains, we are confronted with a very deep problem. When we say we make a choice, aren't we committing ourselves to what I call "self-starter theory?"

"Ah ha, Max!" you might be thinking. "I don't have to commit to a self-starter universe, because I have read my Heisenberg (particle physics). I know that at the micro-level, things exhibit very strange properties. In fact, the particles' behaviors aren't deterministic, but probabilistic. For example, there may be a 60 percent chance that a photon will curve to the left, and a 40 percent chance it will curve to the right -- if, say, fired from a particle accelerator."

The idea behind this tale of micro-probabilities is that the universe may have a different set of causal laws at the level of the very small. Let us, for the moment, set aside the idea that this may be an issue of our observational limitations and not differing causal-physical laws. Even if the universe were probabilistic at the subatomic level (and that very same subatomic universe were able to exert itself all the way up to the level of people making their so-called "choices"), it would still be very strange to claim that people have Free Will.

This approach forces us between the horns of a very strange dilemma: commitment to supernatural spirits on one hand, or to what I call a "matryoshka homunculus of infinite regress" on the other. In the first instance, subjectivity of experience is
conceived of as a soul or non-physical essence, which somehow causally exerts
itself in the physical world. This is rife with problems of Cartesian Dualism in the
philosophy of mind, which we will dismiss here as mere metaphysical spookies.

On the second horn, however, we have to take seriously the notion that mind and body are intimately connected, and that our experience isn't something spooky. More specifically, in order to be materialists, we have to believe that human subjectivity depends for its existence on the causal-physical goings on in the brain (e.g. why depressed people feel better when they take Prozac). Enter the matryoshka homunculus of infinite regress.

If observation breaks the probability limbo between two "choices," whatever it is that is doing the observing must be a physical thing -- like a homunculus sitting above our brains and breaking probabilities limbos for our choices. But since that homunculus is also a physical thing subject to causal laws, it too must "choose" whether to observe one option or the other in order to break the probability. Since that probability limbo needs to be broken, we must postulate another observer, i.e. a
homunculus, to break the probability. Each homunculus is nested within the next
(like a matryoshka) ad infinitum. Now you can see the regress. And of course, this is an absurd result.

It seems our subjective states force us into the illusion that we are making choices. The unitary nature of consciousness is set up so that, whatever causal track we're
riding on, it darn well seems like we're actually in control. But what if we really aren't? If we really aren't in control, how are we to be considered responsible for anything we do?

I'd say we simply have to live in the illusion. We get on with life as if we had Free Will. Many political forms don't depend too much on a presumption of Free Will for their power. But even if they do, we do a pretty good job of living without the idea that everything is somehow predetermined. Political freedom is still good for us. Maybe it was even preordained that I fight for it. And since there is no way to function outside of the illusion, I may as well get on with life. Besides, it's fun to pick on Ayn Rand for her "axioms." (Sorry. I had no choice, Ayn.)

The author is Program Director, The Institute for Humane Studies.



Unfortunately this really refutes nothing in Objectivism in the least. But I like the gaity in his word play. I'll pull some more information on free will as I am not eloquent enough in my studies at the moment to state everything that appears wrong with this article.


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