A Denial of Free Will
A consideration of Sam Harris & friends' definitions.
All I have to do is be black and die. — “Omar”
"In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes." — Benjamin Franklin
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Last month I listened to the podcast of Glenn Loury hosted by Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan asked Loury what, if anything, did he wish he understood more about black Americans. Glenn responded that he and his friend John McWhorter often fictionalize the person of ‘Omar’ who is the one who lives the mythical life of a black ghetto thug, one who creates and suffers legendary amounts of misery and thus animates much discussion and debate among us in the chatting class.
I think I know Omar, but then again everyone thinks so. Everyone knows the mythical Omar and the mythical Ben Franklin. But those people who adopt the stated opinions of those two men generally do not overlap. On the one hand, perhaps Omar is suggesting that he’ll be damned if he pays taxes - he rejects being subject to the social contract which obligates him to accept the government’s monopoly on violence. In this way we might think of Omar as the member of the honor culture of the Proud Boys, a militia that fetishizes and wears black block camouflage. In any way that you consider the certainties of Franklin or Omar, they have decided their orientation to the world. Those being their true beliefs, they are constrained. Their purposeful actions are, more or less according to their situations and their mental discipline, narrowed to something they might call free will. But does anyone truly possess free will?
The choice to contrast these two personas was directed by something I listened to recently between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Dennett is an OG inspirer of my career in computer science and interest in philosophy, ethics and artificial intelligence (along with Hofstadter, Turing, Kidder, Bolter, Lem, Minsky and the author of the cartoon Fortran Man). It has been quite a while since I’ve played around with the foundations of my own beliefs and invite a review. Yet these days I am thinking around the idea of agency and how people are not only unaware of their own, subscribing as they do to degenerate cases of their full humanity, or are actually repressed into belief systems that are essentially agents of social control.
Since I have abandoned hope in bourgeois democratic politics of all sorts as well as the aegis of American middle class morality, it is somewhat strange that I would advocate for agency. Yet there’s something there. So I will take something from Dennett as well as something from Sean Carroll and something else from Edmund Burke.
Let’s start with Burke and satisfy the title of this essay:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
I’m satisfied that piece of text along with what I have said about Omar and Franklin demonstrate adequately what I’m trying to say on the whole. Yes of course the line between good and evil lies within us as per Solzhenitsyn:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
So what I mean by free will is the matter of ethics and social responsibility. There is a proper man who by wisely disciplining himself to the proper sets of principles can produce judgements that are fair and accurate. I certainly aim to produce observational works that are perceptive and articulate and occasionally insightful. But I know it has taken me many years of writing to develop a vocabulary and familiarity with concepts that point in a consistent and integral direction. Indeed I think that’s the only way to wisdom. There is no wisdom of crowds because crowds are mediated by faulty institutions, principal - agent problems and corruption. Still, I say, there are wise men, fully actualized who bear the proper restraints on their freedom and defend such restraints for all. That is moral agency. Is it the only source? I’ll say yes, but it is manifest not all at once, but in a calm and reflective process of action and assessment before further action.
In the complex adaptive system that is the open society, there is not much one can control but the self. To subject that self to discovery and reason expands one to growth.
The Limits Of Wisdom
That brings us to Sean Carroll who injects some physics into the equation. Essentially Carroll says we are bound by the laws of thermodynamics. Yes, I agree. I have spoken about the thermodynamics of information. In order to maintain the integrity of a school of thought, that school requires energy. Somebody has to keep the tales and lessons alive. That takes time, money, attention, security and other forms of social energy or else the lessons are lost, like the currency of Pollack jokes. I learned three of them in middle school, the most salient of which is: Why don’t they make ice in Poland? The old man died with the recipe. I think of this joke all the time when people say that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. For example the plumbing in this neighborhood. I want a house that will last 150 years. Where do they build such things? There may be a market for them, but the majority of housing contractors do not employ such craftsmen as the world used to know. So we live in relatively crappy houses even though these are the best we can choose.
The failure of aggregated agency, of social media for example, owes to faulty institutions, principal - agent problems & corruption. I wasted 45 minutes yesterday watching two insipid videos by MrBeast as he threw money at 100 people selected from his YouTube audience to participate in his version of a reality gameshow: a PG version of Squid Game. There ain’t much wisdom in that huge market. But here’s where Carroll makes perfect sense.
You can decrease entropy somewhere, but it always comes at the cost of increased entropy somewhere else.
This is something I understand inherently but have been unable to articulate, although I’ve made the attempt. I still honestly believe that the consequentialism of Effective Altruism, for example, is not morally superior that of Kantian intent. The good deed of the moment, the bad deed of the moment is but the beat of the butterfly’s wing. One cannot predict the flood of goodness or the hurricane of destruction that might come. The wisdom of the one does not propagate so easily. Your own children don’t listen. You cannot predict their path to success with any accuracy (or without strict control). And this is the problem with bourgeois democracy and middle-class morality. You empower it to reduce entropy one place only to increase it somewhere else. You only save one child down the well to leave ten others at home without parents.
This is something of an argument for the integrity of small, clearly well-defined acts of kind and useful intent as opposed to the saving of nickels for some revolutionary act of transformation. I think it’s rather Christian, as in Christian without Paul. Buddhist.
We can conform ourselves to what’s good and proven by time. We may inherit that 150 year old house, or finance it more likely. But urban renewal will always be fraught. So what can we do for Omar and Franklin? We must ask them to consider whether or not they are an agent for themselves. This demands that they must reconcile themselves with their limits and understand the reasons for the constraints they place upon themselves.
Harris’ Optimistic Science Fiction
What is surprising me is that as I look at matters of free will, as I am guided by the points raised in Sam Harris ep. five I may be on the way to inventing an organic conservatism. That is not my goal, heh, but I may not have a choice in the matter. It is what it will be. Still, I find it incontrovertible that people do indeed have mental models of themselves and do attempt to consistently be themselves. We make promises to ourselves and we make promises to society by which we attempt to be regarded and judged.
Where I think Sam leans a bit too far over his skis is not exactly with scientism per se, but he overuses the thought experiments of the scientific process towards deus ex machina. In several of his discussions he posits that we must accept that we call people evil who are actually products of their environment who are yet plagued with a socially dysfunction neurological wiring. He asserts that they don’t have enough free will to take the high road as a citizen. He is willing to forgive Omar’s drive-by shooting because Omar is inevitable. But he will not call Omar evil, rather Omar is typical of our present inability to produce the drug that will rewire his head and pacify his deterministic hunger to be sociopathic. He is ill. Therefor he be illin’. But someday we will have the advanced methodology to fix every Omar. To which I fall back to the Reaver origin story of Firefly. The entropy reduction in one place is balanced by an increase somewhere else.
Again, the faintest touch of scientism in Sam reminds me uncomfortably enough with the desire I actually retain of centering America back on Enlightenment Liberalism. As the philosopher at Cambridge said last month, we need to keep in mind that in the whole of human history, the Enlightenment was but a brief period. What are we to make of Kensington now? Isn’t the Opioid Crisis exactly like the Reaver origin? Aren’t the cartels of Mexico exactly the entropy that is the consequence of our libertarian addictions? Isn’t the authoritarianism of China exacerbated by our convenient offshoring trade agreements?
Maybe my initial attraction to science came from reading the wrong sort of science fiction for too long. I flipped from that utopian optimism to Lovecraftian (thanks Jim Butcher & Charles Stross) over a decade ago. But I too still suffer from belief in an altruistic society. My faith in humanity is far from broken, but I’m keeping it real. Or as I said in response to a tweet, I am satisfied in appreciating humanity’s diamonds for their shine, but I don’t pretend that every lump of coal is a diamond in the rough. I won’t jump on the bandwagon for the design of a machine that will press all of humanity’s coal into its perfected form. One has to treat coal like coal and recognize its likelihood to burn out of control.
On the whole I am inclined to assert that ‘free will’ is a poor term for what it is we humans employ. We make selections.
You have to go to New York on a business trip On train, a plane, a car, or ocean ship Or you become a rock star and your mind will flip A choice of psychedelic drugs or groovy chicks
A Model of Self
So let’s come full circle to the self. If I feel like I have free will, and I don’t have this magical political thing Harris and others call ‘libertarian free will’, what is it that I actually have? I have selections. I have choices. But my choices are constrained by a few things:
How much I am willing to think outside of the box.
How much energy I have to expend in getting outside of the box.
How much energy I am willing to spend accurately learning about the world outside of the box. (Third order epistemic skills)
How well I can negotiate my choices with other people who live in the world outside the box. (Second order epistemic skills)
How well I can accept that I will be someone else by doing something else. (First order epistemic skills)
In other words we need to understand the limits of our liberty by understanding not so much the meaning of our choices, but the dimensions of the box (or rat maze, if you will) inside of which our choices are made. Do so with the understanding that nobody knows precisely how the brain is shaped into a mind. There is no drug to fix Omar and nobody will come up with one in our lifetimes.
It’s obvious that our choices are constrained by the laws of the universe. But we are really far from exploiting any such laws in ways substantially different than Einstein’s understanding. As it stands we have far more nuclear weapons than nuclear power plants. Whose free will selected that?
The Stoic view, as I see it, is that we are to spend the energy on items 3 to 5 and the energy and will to do 1 and 2 are almost automatic. To get out of your box is valuable if you’re not comfortable. But you’ll end up in a larger one anyhow.
Morally, I am leaning towards the Eastern religions, which center on perfection of the self. This is opposed to the Western philosophy which seeks to master the rules of the universe and develop the equivalent of magic drugs for every Omar. It is the imposition that offends me. It is the attitude that all salvation comes from the proper execution of urban renewal. It is this idea that the perfect box can be crafted and that we can all be happy rats. No.
I’ll be Sgt Schultz on that plan.
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It’s a scary, scary world we’d be living in if people truly felt that no person truly possess personal agency. The woke line of thinking seems to go: Whites are evil and racist and always have/will be; blacks are victims and oppressed (always have been/always will be) therefore...everyone’s screwed for eternity. Whites can’t not be evil, and blacks can’t help but be oppressed victims. Where does that get us? Answer: Nowhere good. It’s profoundly degrading, in my view, to see any ‘group’ or ‘population’ as inherently X or Y or Z. Groups are compiled by individuals, who are all as unique and different as you can imagine. Every human being has ‘privilege’ and weakness. Intelligence, ambition, empathy, self-awareness, depression, alcoholism, etc: These are not choices. Every individual lives a life of choices every single day. No: life isn’t fair. Many grow up in tragic circumstances. Yet we can’t take away personal agency because that makes people robots with The Mind (genetics/environment) pulling the strings. Unlike all other sentient creatures, we have more highly developed brains. This is both a blessing and a curse. One of the blessings is that we can CHOOSE. I would know. I’m 12 years sober from alcoholism. My life then versus now is night and day. I made a lot of bad choices before finally making a good choice.
Love Sam Harris btw. Long time fan.
‘Sincere American Writing’
free will and agency are two different notions. Free will is an illusion of philosopher elites who simply have vastly more lifestyle choices than ever and this sheer over abundance of choice appears like a superpower. In reality, most people march forward with the inertia of old social patterns and are very selective about what they see as choosable. Choice relies on perceiving its possibility and social forces work to conceal possibilities of choice. I wrote about this recently. Might be interesting to some - America as a choice multiplier-