Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Biochemical Puppets?

According to Sam Harris, noted neuroscientist and atheist, we are all “biochemical puppets.”

Obviously,  this precludes our having free will. It precludes our being capable of making rational  decisions. It absolves us of responsibility for our actions.

We are left with what, exactly? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Harris sees human beings as mindless, amoral monsters.

To my knowledge, he does not ask a salient question: if we are all puppets, who is the puppeteer? Surely, we are more than a bunch of biochemical processes responding to stimuli. If there isn't a puppeteer, what makes your actions yours? What does it mean to say that actions are yours if you are a biochemical puppet?

These are complicated, difficult and important questions. That being the case, addressing them seriously is an achievement.

So, our compliments to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom for an excellent article where he shows that  neuroscience need not make us into “biochemical puppets,” devoid of free will, reason and responsibility.

Of course, Bloom is obliged to go beyond neuroscience. He argues that even if we suffer biochemical influences, that in itself does not preclude our making a free and rational choice and being responsible for it.

Bloom explains:

The deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions, including moral consequences. These processes are at the core of what it means to say that people make choices, and in this regard, the notion that we are responsible for our fates remains intact.

The universe might be deterministic, but if, for example, you are playing chess, the outcome is not predetermined. When playing chess, as Bloom notes, we analyze options, construct argument, reason through different alternatives and make our moves. We may develop a winning strategy. We may not. In neither case can we say that we are merely biochemical puppets.

Some neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, argue their points by referring to tests that show how the mind can be influenced by external stimuli.. If you see someone wearing a hat or strumming a guitar, you are more likely to react in a certain way.

Yet, the fact that we are subject to influence does not mean that our decisions are irrational. If you are exposed to two ads for detergent they are both attempting to influence your decision, but when making a decision you will normally weigh them along with other considerations, like past experience and recommendations. Even if you decided to go along with the ad that has the fashion model or the one that has the pile of clean clothes, you have still chosen to follow one set of influences, and not another.

Bloom explains the point well:

Just because something has an effect in a controlled situation doesn’t mean that it’s important in real life. Your impression of a résumé might be subtly affected by its being presented to you on a heavy clipboard, and this tells us something about how we draw inferences from physical experience when making social evaluations. Very interesting stuff. But this doesn’t imply that your real-world judgments of job candidates have much to do with what you’re holding when you make those judgments. 

It’s relevant that people whose polling places are schools are more likely to vote for sales taxes that will fund education. Or that judges become more likely to deny parole the longer they go without a break. Or that people serve themselves more food when using a large plate. Such effects, even when they’re small, can make a practical difference, especially when they influence votes and justice and health. But their existence doesn’t undermine the idea of a rational and deliberative self. To think otherwise would be like concluding that because salt adds flavor to food, nothing else does.

He also adds this point:

Yes, we are physical beings, and yes, we are continually swayed by factors beyond our control. But as Aristotle recognized long ago, what’s so interesting about us is our capacity for reason, which reigns over all. If you miss this, you miss almost everything that matters.

Obviously, this is not merely a theoretical exercise. It aims at defining a notion of moral responsibility. Are we inclined to do the right thing? Will rational deliberation be more likely to lead us to do the right thing? At what point are we no longer responsible for our actions?

If we are biochemical puppets, how do we know right from wrong? How do we, Bloom argues, learn to improve our moral principles? We might say that we do it by trial-and-error, but still, what gives us the first principles and why do we believe that trial-and-error is better, say, than inspiration?

It ought to be well enough known, thanks to David Hume, that science does not tell us what we should do. It tells us what is.

When people take action in the world, Bloom continues, they make plans and implement those plans. These plans are purposive.

Our capacity for rational thought emerges in the most-fundamental aspects of life. When you’re thirsty, you don’t just squirm in your seat at the mercy of unconscious impulses and environmental inputs. You make a plan and execute it. You get up, find a glass, walk to the sink, turn on the tap. … Making it through a single day requires the formulation and initiation of complex multistage plans, in a world that’s unforgiving of mistakes (try driving your car on an empty tank, or going to work without pants). The broader project of holding together relationships and managing a job or career requires extraordinary cognitive skills.

It is worth mentioning that when you feel thirsty and get up to get a drink of water your behavior is more likely to feel automatic than planned. This does not make it less rational. It makes it less directed. The fact that we can analyze the act of getting a glass of water into a series of cognitions and gestures does not necessarily mean that we performed all of them in our minds before turning on the faucet.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps,Stuart ,the phrase

'Taking responsibility for that which you cannot control'
covers some of what you're discussing in your post.

I'm going to be a new father in June of this year, so , along with added responsibilities at my workplace, the phrase occurs to me somewhat frequently.

I suppose we might admire people who, at minimum, take responsibility for what they CAN control. It would be a constructive beginning.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Congratulations to you and Mrs. Shoe... I'm sure that all other readers join me in wishing you the best.

n.n said...

The biochemical puppet hypothesis is an article of faith. Biochemical, absolutely. Puppet, perhaps. We are incapable of discerning origin and expression.

n.n said...

Yes, congratulations to the Shoe family. Well wishes for a healthy evolution of Mr. and Mrs. Shoe and the soon to emerge little Shoe.

Not only are you productive members of society and humanity, but accepting responsibility for yourself is the prerequisite to enjoy optimal liberty. Hopefully, more adults will distinguish themselves from their immature predecessors, and younger members of society will not succumb to the spoiled child syndrome.

Anyway, lead by example. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Thank you both for the well wishes.

The little guy says thank you as well.


Ares Olympus said...

On freewill, I'm aided by E.F. Schumacher's quote "Human beings are highly predictable as physico-chemical systems, less predictable as living bodies, much less so as conscious beings and hardly at all as self-aware persons."

He makes these assertions by identifying a "hierarchical levels of being" that progress from mineral, plant, animal, and man, and says each new level of awareness expands a new dimension of our potential, while the confusion arises since we're also from all the lower levels too, so Skinner's behaviorism can influence our pain avoidance and pleasure seeking and manipulate living beings to "behave" against long term self-interest.


Schumacher points out that there are a number of progressions that take place between the levels. The most striking he believes is the movement from passivity to activity, there is a change in the origination of movement between each level:
* Cause (Mineral kingdom)
* Stimulus (Plant kingdom)
* Motive (Animal kingdom)
* Will (Man)

One consequence of this progression is that each level of being becomes increasingly unpredictable, and it is in this sense that man can be said to have free will.

He notes increasing integration is a consequence of levels of being. A mineral can be subdivided and it remains of the same composition. Plants are more integrated; but sometimes parts of a plant can survive independently of the original plant. Animals are physically integrated; and so an appendage of an animal does not make another animal. However, while animals are highly integrated physically, they are not integrated in their consciousness. Humans, meanwhile are not only physically integrated but have an integrated consciousness; however they are poorly integrated in terms of self-consciousness.

Lastango said...

Biochemical puppets, devoid of free will and rationality, need larger thought systems like Cultural Marxism to keep them acting in the communal interest of society. Funny how it works out that way, eh -- that dispensing with the agency of the individual removes standing for making personal choices and setting one's own direction, or for raising moral objections to the overarching collectivist agenda.

Anonymous said...

Psychologist Jordan Peterson gives a good xTED talk last year about consciousness and the need to recognize the limitations of objective understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Myself, I don't like to simply dismiss atheists like Sam Harris for their conclusions. Scientific reductionism can tear down illusions, but once you start to doubt what you think you know, you have to start paying close attention and question your participation in a world that has to constantly grow to survive.

Sam L. said...

He HAD to say that, having no control over the chemicals in his system (of belief),

JP said...

"Schumacher points out that there are a number of progressions that take place between the levels. The most striking he believes is the movement from passivity to activity, there is a change in the origination of movement between each level:

* Cause (Mineral kingdom)
* Stimulus (Plant kingdom)
* Motive (Animal kingdom)
* Will (Man)"

He needs to put God at the end of the list.

Maybe he could have added:

* Purpose (God)

I prefer the idea of:


Only because I got that from Bob before the one you pointed out.

Granted, you need to add the Wilfred Bion-ic twist that you always have something PS<--->D-ish at all the levels.

As Bob noted yesterday:

"Bion symbolized the fragmentation PS, the synthesis D. Thus, one of the ground floor operations of the mind is PS↔D. Note the bi-directionality of the arrow, as things are always falling apart and reconstituting."

Ares Olympus said...

JP, Schumacher would consider the sequence moving towards God, although its dangerous to make assumptions about what God is or isn't. Last week I re-read C.S. Lewis' Four Loves, and he talks about a difference between being "near to god" and trying to "God-like", which is the modern drive for progress, pretending we can erase all the lower levels as we climb in power.

Anyway, the Wikipedia article has a section on implications to the levels of being:

For Schumacher, recognising these different levels of being is vital, because the governing rules of each level are different, which has clear implications for the practise of science and the acquisition of knowledge. Schumacher denies the democratic principles of science. He argues that all humans can practise the study of the inanimate matter, because they are a higher level of being; but only the spiritually aware can know about self-consciousness and possibly higher levels. Schumacher states that "while the higher comprises and therefore in a sense understands the lower, no being can understand anything higher than themselves."[2]

Schumacher argues that by removing the vertical dimension from the universe and the qualitative distinctions of 'higher' and 'lower' qualities which go with it, materialistic scientism can in the societal sphere only lead to moral relativism and utilitarianism. While in the personal sphere, answering the question 'What do I do with my life?' leaves us with only two answers: selfishness and utilitarianism.

In contrast, he argues that appreciating the different levels of being provides a simple, but clear morality. The traditional view, as Schumacher says, has always been that the proper goal of man is "...to move higher, to develop his highest faculties, to gain knowledge of the higher and highest things, and, if possible, to 'see God'. If he moves lower, develops only his lower faculties, which he shares with the animals, then he makes himself deeply unhappy, even to the point of despair."[2] This is a view, Schumacher says, which is shared by all the major religions. Many things, Schumacher says, while true at a lower level, become absurd at a higher level, and vice versa.

Schumacher does not claim there is any scientific evidence for a level of being above self-consciousness, contenting himself with the observation that this has been the universal conviction of all major religions.

Anonymous said...

But the sex differences are still biochemical, and are not a question of free will ;)

Asaf said...

Both you and Bloom seem to completely miss the implications of a deterministic universe.

For example you write "but if, for example, you are playing chess, the outcome is not predetermined.". This is completely wrong (w.r.t to physical determinism) because even when you "analyze options", "construct argument", "reason through different alternatives" and "make your moves" - these are all predetermined. The analysis, its success or failure to construct a winning strategy, your ability to reason, the decision you are about to make and indeed the progress of the game and its outcome are a product of the causality web that started with the Big Bang or whatever. Our ability to reason does not violate this (for all we know).

So, even if you don't agree with determinism you need to understand its implications: that life (journey of the universe through time) as we know it is (just) a scripted play unfolding before our consciousness.