• Bob Doyle’s ‘two-stage’ model of free will

    The Information Philosopher, Bob Doyle, who has also written a book called The Scandal of Free Will, has proposed a two-stage model of free will based on the thinking of William James. I bring this up because previous and infamous ATP commenter, JohnM (John Muze) has been commenting on the Unbelievable forum on facebook about it. It is his knight in shining armour which supposedly gives him the free will for which he argued so vociferously and badly when he commented here.

    This irked me on facebook because he was proclaiming Danth’s Law, ridiculing me for ‘not understanding’ what the model was, claiming he was ‘educating’ me, and generally being an utter arse. He is one of the most infuriating people to argue with, as is the case for Young Earth Creationists. I should have learnt my lesson by now. What particularly irked me was that he only discovered Doyle’s work halfway through a conversation we were having, after I had quoted Doyle on free will myself, and then he presumed to think that Doyle’s work was new to me, and he could ‘educate’ me on it!

    So what is this model? Well, as Tom Clark summarises:

    On the first question, Doyle’s view is that human decision-making involves selecting among alternatives that are irreducibly indeterministic by virtue of being generated by quantum noise in the brain. This should satisfy incompatibilists, he says, since the deterministic causal chain is broken. Whether Doyle’s quantum noise hypothesis holds up is of course a matter for the evidence to decide; the neural mechanisms which generate the options that occur to me (consciously or unconsciously) are not yet mapped out, so the claim that quantum noise makes them irreducibly indeterministic is speculative at this point. But research is underway.

    Related to the second question, Doyle argues that causal responsibility (as distinct frommoral responsibility, see below) only accrues if behavior is controlled by the agent, and indeterminism doesn’t help with that, rather it hurts. The selection among alternatives has to be determined by the agent’s character, motives and rational capacities; only then does it make sense to hold him responsible as a causal factor that perhaps needs restraint or rehabilitation. Anything which breaks the deterministic causal chain of the agent’s selection process among the alternatives would make him less, not more, responsible, since it wouldn’t be the agent’s doing, but rather attributable to chance. This view of responsibility should satisfy the compatibilists, Doyle says, since after all it’s compatible with, indeed depends on, what we might call agent determinism. We can and must hold people responsible as identifiable causes of socially and morally consequential effects.

    The Harvard Magazine adds:

    James identified chance as the source of “ambiguous possibilities” and “alternative futures.” “Chance is not the direct cause of actions,” writes Doyle. “James makes it clear that it is his choice that ‘grants consent’ to one of them [alternatives].” In an 1884 lecture, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” James challenged some Harvard divinity students to ponder his choice of a route home after the talk. “What is meant by saying that my choice of which way to walk home after the lecture is ambiguous and a matter of chance?….It means that both Divinity Avenue and Oxford Street are called but only one, and that one either one, shall be chosen. The notion of alternative possibility…is, after all, only a roundabout name for chance.”

    Which is to say that, under the model that Doyle proposes, we have:

    Stage 1: Quantum indeterminism in the brain allows for a set of options to indertermnistically appear to the agent.

    Stage 2: the agent adequately determines which of the choices be ‘chosen’ or decided on.

    This means that the universe is not pre-determined. The quantum noise events mean that the agent authors the future, but that it is sufficiently indeterministic as to not have been ‘pre-determined’ or ‘pre-determinable’.

    JohnM seemed to think this got him and gets him the libertarian free will upon which his worldview and belief system as a YEC is predicated.

    But it don’t work like that, matey.

    You see, the character, will and intentions of the agent are adequately determined on a macro level, taking into account micro indeterminism, and this allows Doyle to make sense of the agent being causally responsible for their actions. But there could have been alternate possibilities, since if we rewound, the agent’s brain could have produced a different set of possibilities from which to choose. Doyle has circumvented the Principle of Alternate Possibilities and the problems which it causes in the free will / determinism debate.

    There are 3 problems for the likes of JohnM here:

    1) Quantum indeterminism is far from being a fact. I for one deny it and hold to a deterministic framework of QM.

    2) Quantum theories of the brain are highly controversial and yet to be established in any remotely robust way.

    3) Even if both of the above can be overcome, the intention and will part of the equation is ‘adequately determined’. Qua determined.

    I am not really sure how it can be called properly free will in the way that most would understand it, which is why Doyle goes to some length to claim that the question of free will is often wrong in the first place.

    To me, it is a model which seeks to do one thing, but for people like JohnM, there is expectation that it does something else. It doesn’t. It seeks to locate authorship of the future firmly in the agent. If points 1) and 2) above succeed, then yes that sort of makes sense. But that says little about the most important part, the Stage 2 of the model, which is about the agent, and admitting that she is adequately determined. If the will, or volition, will always act in a certain way on any given selection of choices (even if they are indeterministically selected), then free will does not have the libertarian capabilities that people like JohnM think it has.

    In short, this is not the sort of conscious will that he thinks it is. As I said on facebook:

    that God would still punish you based on the idea that a quantum fluctuation caused your brains’ microtubules to vibrate in such a way that certain selections appeared to your consciousness for your determined will to act on is, er, LUDICROUS.

    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce