Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Analogue jitter in motivations and the randomness objection to libertarianism

All analogue devices jitter on a small time-scale. The jitter is for all practical purposes random, even if the system is deterministic.

Suppose now that compatibilism is true and we have a free agent who is determined to always choose what she is most strongly motivated towards. Now suppose a Buridan’s ass situation, where the motivations for two alternatives are balanced, but where the motivations were acquired in the normal way human motivations are, where there is an absence of constraint, etc.

Because of analogue jitter in the brain, sometimes one motivation will be slightly stronger and sometimes the other will be. Thus which way the agent will choose will be determined by the state of the jitter at the time of the choice. And that’s for all practical purposes random.

Either in such cases there is freedom or there is not. If there is no freedom in such cases, then the compatibilist has to say that people whose choices are sufficient torn are not responsible for their choices. That is highly counterintuitive.

The compatibilist’s better option is to say that there can still be freedom in such cases. It’s a bit inaccurate to say that the choice is determined by the jitter. For it’s only because the rough values of the strengths of the motivations are as they are that the jitter in their exact strength is relevant. The rough values of the strengths of the motivations are explanatorily relevant, regardless of which way the choice goes. The compatibilist should say that this kind of explanatory relevance is sufficient for freedom.

But if she says this, then she must abandon the randomness objection against libertarianism.


Michael Gonzalez said...

I'm not a compatibilist, nor do I understand the randomness objection.... However, I'm not sure that it really is so counter-intuitive to say "when the scales are perfectly balanced, I am not responsible for my choices". At least, if one views choices as isolated events (which I think is the root of much of the confusion on this topic)....

Imagine that a person comes into existence suddenly from nothing, but has a fully-formed personality (I'm not sure this is metaphysically possible, but permit it for the sake of argument). If that person is faced with a choice, and the reasons are exactly equally strong for that person, they will likely flip a coin (metaphorically or literally), in which case how can they be responsible for the outcome?

Kenny said...

Why shouldn't the compatibilist (and also the libertarian!) say that insofar as analogue jitter amounts to random factors influencing our action it makes us less free than we would be if we weren't subject to it? After all, most compatibilists and most libertarians hold that we are only imperfectly free.

In my view, the strongest version of the randomness objection says that, since indeterminism would just be randomness, indeterminism can't make us any more free than we could be in the right kind of deterministic scenario. Certainly analogue jitter provides no objection to this: it certainly doesn't make us more free.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The "Nous Argument", as PvI calls it, has the conclusion that if there is randomness, there *cannot* be free will. That's the strong form of the randomness objection. Maybe it's not as persuasive as weaker forms, though.

Kenny said...

Right. Also, though, if you think freedom comes in degrees, then it makes sense to translate the Nous Argument into the claim that randomness is, wherever it exists, an impediment to freedom. For the reasons you give (and others!) it is not at all plausible to suppose that any amount of randomness, however, small, eliminates freedom. (Some philosophers, including those PvI cites, have indeed made this implausible claim, though!) But the general principle the more random the less free seems pretty plausible to me. Further, together with the principle all indeterminism is just randomness, it entails the falsity of libertarianism. (In my view, the debate about that second principle is where the action is.)

Michael Gonzalez said...

Kenny: I think the "action" is one or two conceptual steps up from there, where we ask what exactly we are talking about when we say "determinism" and "indeterminism". Most philosophers for the past century+ have been talking about it in terms of the fundamental particles of which we're made, which seems ludicrous to me. A gazelle's recruitment of it's legs and core muscles to outrun a tiger cannot be described in the vocabulary of subatomic particles (where things like "spin", "charge", etc are the main descriptors... even trajectory and position are insufficient to describe what's going on, let alone EXPLAIN why it's going on). Truths about particles, at most, constrain the gazelle's capacities, but they do not entirely describe or explain them.

Our capacities are built on top of the basic ones a gazelle has, and the ability to deliberate, consider ethical principles, weigh possible outcomes, etc (all of which are heavily dependent on being a language-using creature) elevate our capacities to the point of morally significant freedom. And it has nothing to do with particle determinism/indeterminism.

I honestly don't see why everyone is so concerned with whether particles are determined or not, or even with whether "the Universe" is determined or not (whatever that means), when what we should be considering is whether certain animals are doing what they choose to do and could have done otherwise.