"What Animals Can Teach Us About Free Will" Why? Radio Episode with Guest Helen Stewerd
3:28AM Oct 16, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
Disclaimer: This transcript has been autogenerated and may contain errors, do not cite without verifying accuracy. To do so, click on the first word of the section you wish to cite and listen to the audio while reading the text. If you find errors, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the episode name and time stamp where the error is found. Thank you.
Why philosophical discussions about everyday life is produced by the Institute for philosophy and public life, a division of the University of North Dakota's College of Arts and Sciences. Visit us online at why Radio show.org
Hi, I'm jack Russel Weinstein host of wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. And today's episode we're asking Helen Stewart what animals can teach us about free will. Someone once told me that about half the people in the city I now live in are on antidepressants. He's being a bit hyperbolic. But he was also in a position to know and his comments are consistent with national trends. One in six Americans take psychiatric drugs, a number that has doubled in less than two decades. In England, the home country of today's guest, users have doubled in just 10 years. Americans are not alone. I can list a whole host of reasons why I would think North Dakotans would need an anti depressants from a brutal sunlight starved six month winter to a culture that encourages emotional stoicism to a highly volatile economy to a state with a deep seated inferiority complex. There's some really wonderful things about living in North Dakota, but they're often overshadowed by the bad. As we all know, it is much easier to focus on the negative than the positive on happiness snowballs. I make these comments, not to criticize, but rather to point out certain aspects of the human experience that we often take for granted. For one, psychiatric drugs tell us that we are brains before we our minds, pleasure and pain, our neurological happiness is a product of serotonin and gratification comes from dopamine. If you doubt the influence of chemicals on one's mood, just compare yourself before and after your morning coffee. But we also recognize that environment affects our mood. I'm sure none of my listeners balked at my mentioning the culture, economic or even light based influences on our outlook. We all accept that in some important sense, our personalities and states of mind our reaction to stimuli, we are profoundly influenced by factors completely out of our control. The philosopher considers this and asks a further question, are we just influenced by these stimuli? Or do they determine how we feel? Did they just nudge us? Or do they set up in advance who we will be? How we will feel? And what we will do? How much control do we have as individuals? Can we simply decide not to be depressed anymore? And if we can't, we have the same lack of control over our addictions? It's commonplace to declare that people don't choose to be gay or straight. Is it equally true that we don't choose whether to be attracted to the fat or the skinny people of a certain race or a certain age group? In short, where, if anywhere to human beings have free will? It's a bit odd that has taken more than 100 episodes for wire radio to get to this question. It is not only central to philosophy at borders on the cliche if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it. Does it make a sound? How do I know my life isn't just a dream? Do people have freewill? These are the bread and butter questions of the most simplistic views of philosophy. These are the questions many people regard as intellectual silliness, and dismiss with the role of an eye. But as the anti depressant example knows, the question of free will is anything but silly. It is essential to our self conception. And every time we swallow a pill, we're taking a position somewhere on the spectrum. But there's another moment we show our commitment. And that is any time we speak to our pets. I talk to my dog Rosie all the time. I asked her if she wants a treat, or is finished at the dog park. I tried her for being a pain in the ass and I say nice things to her when I snuggle with her. And the thing is, I am convinced she speaks back not with words, but with gestures and behaviors. I act as if she also chooses as if she's not only capable of doing what is right and wrong, but of consciously trying to communicate with me to tell me her desires so that I can fulfill them for her. On today's episode of why we're going to combine these two scenarios last about the nature of freewill not just for humans, but for all animals. What happens to this classic debate if we reject the idea that human beings are unique, and instead consider freewill as part of the defining characteristic of what it means to be an animal? How is it that we can be free agents in a world of forces beyond our control? Lots of North Dakotans, lots of people are on antidepressants. I don't begrudge anyone his or her medicine. The question is, are we just committing to a form of therapy? Or are we adopting a metaphysics as well? asking what it means to be happy is always subordinate to asking what it means to be human. We are animals first, whether we are free, are determined. Well, that's a tough one. But it's a cliche for a reason. And now our guest Helen Stewart is the professor of philosophy of mind and action at the University of Leeds in England. She The author of the ontology of mind and the metaphysics for freedom. Helen, thank you so much for joining us on why
you're very welcome, jack. It's very nice to be here.
We've pre recorded the show, so we won't be taking any questions. But if you'd like to send your comments, tweet us at at wire radio show, post a email@example.com, slash wire radio show, or visit our live chat room at y Radio show.org. So, Helen, I've talked to a lot of people on the show, and occasionally someone has a really cool title. Your title is Professor of Philosophy and mind at action. Right? That's that's a very specific slate. Totally cool. You know, I don't know if someone wants to talk to you at a bar because of it. But no, it's it's it's it's pretty excellent. It's this. This question of free will this this this really deep, theoretical focus on what it means to be human beings? Is this how you started thinking about philosophy? Or did you just kind of get to it through other things?
Well, I think it's one of those problems that if you do a philosophy degree as I did, and you come across fairly early, because as you said a little bit earlier in your introduction, it's one of those cliche problems. You know, it's one of the things that philosophers absolutely have to have a look at. And so I did come to it early. And it fascinated me immediately. I was absolutely convinced that it was, you know, a really serious and genuine problem. I was very convinced by at the time, I was very convinced by the arguments that people were putting forward to say, there can be no such thing as free. Well, it's clearly impossible. We don't have it. Those arguments were very convincing to me. And yet, on the other hand, as I think many people feel when they think about what they think they are themselves, it also seems impossible to suppose that you don't have free will, that you don't have control over at least, you know, at least some aspects of your life. So I always found it. Absolutely. incredibly fascinating problem. And so I suppose in, you know, from those very early days, when I was I suppose I was 18, when I first started looking at philosophical questions, right, the way through to today, when I'm actually 52. Now, so that's a lot of years. I have really been pursuing issues that that spin off that particular question.
Is this the kind of philosophical question that stays in a certain debate that doesn't make a lot of progress? Or is this the kind of thing that you honestly think can be answered? And then that you feel that that your work is making a genuine contribution? Not just an exploration of an idea, but really of a solution to a problem?
Well, yeah, I mean, I hope it's not hubris, it probably is hubris. But I do think that at any rate, from my own point of view, I feel as though I have made considerable progress in perhaps not fully answering the questions I want answered, but at least answering some of them and making my way through, you know, the the dark, thick is so full of intellectual issues that the freewill problem throws up, I feel I have got somewhere I feel as though some of the ideas that I put forward in that the book you mentioned a metaphysics for freedom. And in particular, the ideas that stem from a proper recognition of the fact that human beings are, after all, a type of animal, a very special type of animal, but nonetheless a type of animal. And so that we could hope to look for the ground of free will, in the things that are that are special about biology, about life, about the way living things are different from nonliving things. I think there's I think there's hope there for for a solution to the problem.
So let's take a step back, let's do the thing that philosophers love to do and ask him about definitions. What, what do we mean by free will specifically for many people that has a religious connotation and has a notion of well, thinking independently of God or being in control of our own fate? Is this is this what philosophers mean by freewill? Is it a larger question than that? What to just I mean, we're not going to solve the problem the first 30 seconds, the rest of the show to talk about but but what what, what do we talk about when we talk about freewill?
Well, I mean, it's a good question and it's an important question because I think the fact is not everybody means the same thing. When they when they use that term Free Will different people have got different things in mind from the start. But a kind of consensus has emerged, I think, within the sort of philosophical tradition that I mostly work within, that's to say, the broadly speaking Anglo American analytic tradition, most people, I think, would kind of agree to cluster around the following idea, that to have free will, is to be able for any particular action, that you have, in fact, done to have been able to do a different thing. So the idea is being able to do otherwise, you know, we, we like to feel that, you know, our life is one big set of crossroads of, you know, forking paths, as one philosopher has put it, it's a nice metaphor, I think that we go through our lives on forking paths, that we're at these junctions constantly, we made one choice when we could have made another and it's this thought that I could have made another, you know, I could have gone in a different direction. I, you know, I could have gone to university I could have, I could have got a job instead, you know, these life choices that we make all the time. And it's the idea of having power to choose the course of action that in fact, you don't choose. And that I think is at the heart of the idea of freewill.
This idea that we could have done something else this is really intriguing. It's It's It's intriguing, obviously, in the sense that we're concerned about our own agency and the power of choice. But it's also it brings a sense of accountability, doesn't it? That that if we could have done something else, it does mean, we're responsible, in some sense for what we've done. So is freewill a question of existentialism? Is it a question of part of what we're asking is how responsible and how accountable we are for the things that we do.
It's definitely true that many people who are interested in the freewill problem are mainly interested in it because they're interested in the question of moral responsibility. You're quite right, of course, that the idea that we could have done otherwise is it's thought by many people to be a sort of necessary condition of being morally responsible for anything. Because if you think about it, if you couldn't have done other than you, in fact, did if you were in some way determined or constrained to do the thing that you did, while then it seems like it wasn't your fault, then you can't be blamed. You can't be punished, at least not not, not fairly. And if you end up doing things that you were that you just had no alternative to doing. So many people have the water course that that having that capacity to do otherwise, is a necessary condition of moral responsibility. And that's why they're interested in the freewill problem. I actually have mostly neglected the moral issues, the issues which have to do with responsibility. I think largely because my background is my my, my cool title suggests is in philosophy of mind, and in philosophy of action. And the aspects of the freewill problem that have always intrigued me most have been the ones which are to do with what you might think of as the metaphysics, you know, how does it work? How can it be that a creature that's made of flesh and blood and that's actuated, by sort of electrical signals and chemicals? And all these kinds of things in just the way you were describing earlier on when you were talking about, you know, and the influence of things like medications upon us? And how can it be that a creature that's responsive to those sorts of things to chemicals to electrical signals? can actually have control over anything? I mean, isn't it just a matter of there being? lots of lots of reactions, inevitable reactions going on in in the bits and pieces of our bodies? It was, it's that question that I think I first got very fascinated by, you know, how can it be that we are these physical beings made out of made out of cells and so on? And yet also beings that have some control over the way the world goes? And I think that's an amazingly interesting question, a very difficult question, but one that we need to answer, if we're going to really understand the sorts of creatures that we are.
So So I often tell my students and my listeners that philosophy has two different modes that were prescriptive, and that we often tell how things ought to be or what we ought to do, but we're also descriptive, we try to describe how the universe is what human nature is. And so for you, freewill is largely a descriptive process. You're really asking how does it work? How does the human mind and brain work? What does it mean to have free will in the first place? So is this a? Is this a neurological question? Is it a cognitive question? Is it is it? Is it the kind of thing that we can gain insight by looking at CAT scans and watch how the electrical functions of our brain work? Or is it? Is it largely conceptual?
Well, I mean, I wouldn't want to rule out that greater neurological knowledge could help. It may it may do. But my own inclination is to think that, I mean, the question of free will is what Dan Dennett once called a how possibly question, what philosophy deals with I think, very often is how possibly questions that's to say, questions at the forum, how could this possibly be the case? You know, you, you've got some conviction, for example, that you know, something about the external world, let's say, and then along comes the skeptic, and gives you the skeptical argument. And that poses a challenge, how could it possibly be that you know anything about the external world, given the skeptical argument, and it's the same thing with freewill, we've all we all go around with this idea that, you know, we have we have some power over, over our own actions over what goes on with us day to day, perhaps even power to influence other people. And then the freewill skeptic, as it were, comes along and says, look, you know, you're just, you're just a flesh and blood creature, you're responsive to chemical reactions, you're responsible to water basically, the physical kind of laws that govern the universe, you're not free from being determined in your actions by those laws. So how could it possibly be that that you have the you have the freedom you have the agency, you have the control that you do? And I don't think numerology is going to give us the answer to that question. So I think it is. I don't know whether I'd call it conceptual, I would call it philosophical. It is about trying to think about these big pictures that we have of the world, and trying to see whether there are cracks in them, places where they can be challenged, things that we have allowed to take for granted that perhaps are not, are not true. So that that's the kind of question I think it is it I do think it's distinctively philosophical. I think empirical work can feed in I think, sometimes that happens in philosophy in surprising ways. So one should never say, you know, we'll never find anything philosophical out from science, I think actually scientific input into philosophy does does give us does create progress and help us think about what the answers to some of our traditional philosophical problems might be. But at the end of the day, my suspicion is that with respect to this particular problem, it's not going to be enough, we're going to have to do some strictly philosophical thinking to solve the problem.
So I'm going to ask you a question that that I've asked a bunch of different guests that really it flows through the the theme of the entire show over the last nine seasons, which is what what constitutes, what are the criteria for knowing that you have the right answer? when we're looking at a largely philosophical question, we're looking at a metaphysical question. We're looking at questions that are tremendously abstract, but in the in the philosophy of mind and action? What, at what point? Do we know that we're onto something? What are the standards for? Let's say, from your perspective, and when you're when you're writing your own work, when you're reading other people's work? What benchmarks do you use to say, ha, this person is onto something this this is clearly an answer. Because certainly, a lot of our listeners will be familiar with metaphysics and philosophy of mind with more New Age philosophy. And, and these are almost works of art, and they're there. They're really about painting a metaphorical picture. And I don't think that's what you're doing. So, so what, what counts as a good and reliable answer in such an abstract topic?
Well, I mean, I think you, you want to be able to answer the objections that come naturally to you. I mean, most philosophers are very good. Once they've been doing it, you know, as I have and my colleagues have for many years, you become very good at anticipating what the objections will be. And so you can guess the main things that people are going to say and criticism of your view. You want to be able to answer those objections. I mean, this is I think why one of the the methods of philosophy involves showing up to conferences and delivering talks and asking questions from sorry, answering questions from, from the audience, because you need to kind of test your your views against, against the objections that people might have. I mean, in a way, that's the that's the touchstone I think of good philosophy is that you can survive that kind of scrutiny your view, can say what it what it has to say, against the things that people are inclined to think of problems for it. And so that's what I would say is, is my touchdown Can I can can maybe stand up to to, you know, the objections of intelligent people who have thought about it and say, uh huh, but you can't be right about that. Because x y, Zed, you know, have I have I got something to say back at that point is is what I would ask myself.
This is really interesting, because what what you're suggesting is that the community standard is going to establish what's acceptable and what's not, what's forward movement and what's not, but that this is also a social activity, that that, that that answering criticisms, coming up with your own criticisms, engaging in conversation with other folks. That it's it's the exploration and it's the the the intellectual. I don't want to say sparring because I think it's it's more than that. But the the intellectual joint project is itself what's going to, to bring the stuff forward. And so so that leads me to a question that I was gonna ask a little later, but I'll ask now, which is, a lot of people are very focused right now on the idea of subjectivity, that we can't know things objectively, the things are filtered through culture, that they're filtered through our own perceptions that they're filtered through our own experience is something like subjectivity, a threat to free will, is something like the fact that we can only see the world through our own eyes. This is actually for those who are keeping score. All right, this is an extension of the existentialist philosophy. This is borders on an area called phenomenology, which is this notion of the study of human experience. And so is is, is our own subjectivity and the modern commitment to the subjective point of view. Does it make it more difficult to examine freewill? And does it make it harder to say that we are beings of freewill?
Well, I mean, I think one can overdo subjectivity. I mean, it's obviously true that every culture, every society has its own way of thinking about things. It has its own models, its own metaphors, its own vocabulary. And those things do make a big difference to the way in which problems get framed set up. And so all that is all that is obviously true. And but having said that, the idea that it kind of follows from that, but we can't get anywhere, intellectually with dissecting problems, breaking them up into their smaller parts, trying to answer some of those smaller parts. And I think that that's, that's far too. What's the word nihilistic? varty nihilistic, and I do think we make progress. I think I think we make it all the time, when Elsa has only to think of all the views that, you know, litter, philosophical history now having been discarded, but having been found by eventually general agreement of the philosophical community to be false views, there are many of those. And so even if we can't claim, I think, to have, you know, to have the right answers, to all the problems that there are, we've certainly dismissed a lot of wrong ones, I think along the way, and and that's progress, too.
When we come back, we'll continue this conversation and we'll dive into the main question that we've been talking around, which is whether or not human beings have free will and we're going to ask about the nature of being animals and how that changes the question. You're listening to jack Russell Watson and Helen Stewart on why philosophical discussions but everyday life was back right after this.
The Institute for philosophy and public life bridges the gap between academic philosophy and the general public mission is to cultivate discussion between philosophy professionals and others who have an interest in the subject regardless of experience or credentials. visit us on the web at philosophy and public life.org. The Institute for philosophy and public life, because there is no ivory tower.
You're back with why philosophical discussion that everyday life. I'm your host, Jack Weinstein, we're talking with Helen Stewart and Leeds England about freewill and what animals can tell us about that question. Helen, I'm just going to go straight into this question. Because I think that a question like this has a certain kind of urgency, even if it is very abstract, and I know that our listeners are going to be on the edge of their seats. What is your What is your position? Do we have free will?
Um, I think we do. Yes, I have to go through a yes or no answer. I would say yes.
And I'm gonna, I'm gonna, I'm gonna stop you right there. Because you just said something. And it's just the kind of thing I like to pick on my guests for. I said, do we have free will? And then you said, If I have to pick a yes or no answer. To what, to what extent to the rules of the game, established what counts as necessity? I mean, you know, you certainly could have avoided the question or you could have talked around it, you could have done a political move and give given a non answer, answer. But our, our language everyday is full of this language of necessity. So as you answer the question, and you just started to that we have free will, I'm curious what, what Free Will does to the concept of necessity? How does the notion of necessity change as you talk about free will?
So by necessity, john, I just need to clarify with you, you're talking about the kind of necessity that philosophers opposed to free will. So the idea that I have to do a particular kind of thing and the kind of necessity that's involved in that idea, is that right?
That's right. And then and then and then perhaps further on the kind of necessary things we impose on ourselves. But that's a that's a, even a tertiary question. Yes. What what philosophers mean, by necessity and whether or not Once you accept free will, whether there is anything such as necessity?
Well, I think there is such a thing as necessity, I think there are circumstances such that once things are in that circumstance, only one thing can happen. And so for example, if you've got a very, you know, tightly setup, experimental setup, and you put, I don't know, I'm trying to remember my a level chemistry now, if you put you know, an acid and an alkali together, they are going to react to an assault and a water is going to be produced. And you know, those kinds of situations or situations where a result follows of necessity from some, some set of prior circumstances. But I think where the debate about free will goes badly wrong, is that people just have kind of assumed that because that way of thinking about the universe has been very fruitful for us, you know, if you think about the foundations of chemistry, and so on, where it became very fruitful to think about the world in terms of inevitable interactions between small parts of things. That people people sort of went overboard and thought, Well, you know, the whole universe is probably like that. The whole universe is probably a vast deterministic machine, such that everything that happens in it is fully determined fully necessitated to use your word by what went before. Okay, so that's, that's the idea that people have thought to be problematically intention with free will. And of course, it is problematically intention with free will. So I think, but the quote, The big question is, why do we think the universe is like that? Why do we think it? And actually, I think we have become obsessed with models of the universe that stem from Newtonian models of science. So Newtonian mechanics is deterministic, the sort of mechanics that you do, for example, in what we in the UK call a day level, so you know, you're doing, you're doing maths, you're 17, you're 18 years of age, the kind of maths that you'll be doing, you probably doing simple stuff about projectiles, the speed of objects, when you drop them from certain heights and so on. That that's some mechanics that said that's deterministic but involves this idea that, you know, the outcome isn't necessitated It must be a certain way. But actually that kind of mechanics, and is only approximately good even for for, for the science of things like projectiles. And it's absolutely hopeless for huge swathes of the world, huge swathes of the world, including, in particular, the biological bits of the world, the bits that are made up of, you know, of, for example, flesh and blood. And those parts of the world, it seems to be there is absolutely no reason to suppose are governed by the same sorts of deterministic laws as govern the the inanimate universe. And even the inanimate universe, I might add is, is not governed by deterministic laws. So it turns out, so I think, I think there's a there's a outdated, outmoded conception of what science tells us that is perpetuating the idea. That necessity as it were permeates the whole of the world, I don't think it's true. And I think that's the big move, that will help to solve the freewill problem in determinism. That's to say, lack of necessity throughout the universe, is a fact. And we should embrace and accept that fact. And then try to explore how it might help us to understand free, Will.
You you've said something in passing, that is, that's tremendously important and really powerful. You mentioned Newton and Newton's project, one way of summarizing the project is to say that he was, he was showing that the laws of the heavens are the same as the laws of the earth, what you're saying is, that may be true, but the laws of the biological are different than the laws of the non biological. And I wonder if you would talk a little bit about that, even more so than you did, because that's fascinating that the idea that the animate universe are subject to different different laws or different expectations, then even the model that we learned in schools?
Well, it's not so much that the biological is subject to different laws, it's not quite like that. It's rather that that the laws are only ever ideal approximations to the way reality is even where it concerns the the inanimate. And the as it were, the capacity for error, the degree of error in the predictions that are made by the laws, and just gets greater and greater and greater the further you move away from the sort of ideal experimental setups that are envisaged by, you know, Newtonian physics examples. And where you've got a, you know, a biological creature in an environment reacting to multiple stimuli, and having to, you know, move through that environment in ways which maximize its chances of survival react to this react to that very quickly, in in time, in real time, and you've got a system that really isn't functioning at all, like a simple projectile, or, you know, an atom as conceived off, for example, by, you know, 17th century physicists, you've got a very, very different kind of system where there is an enormous amount of complexity. And where there are top down effects. And those sorts of systems, I think one can understand in the same sort of way, as one can try to understand simple inanimate setups. Yeah, so I think that's, that's, that's the point that needs to be made.
What do you mean by top down systems and how does that contrast to an animal that is much more complex?
Okay, so what what I, one of the one of the ideas that I try to promulgate really in my book, because I think it's it's important for an understanding of freewill is the idea of what philosophers called top down causation. So just to just to explain what it contrasts with. I mean, there is this idea, I think it's a very powerful idea in modern philosophy, certainly, in my kind of parts of modern philosophy, it's very much taken for granted that causation is bottom up. That's to say that the way Large and complicated thing behaves is entirely determined by the way its small parts behave. So to take a simple example, take something like a washing machine. Okay, so a washing machine goes through its program, you know, the it spins, It empties, it does various things at different points in time. And we normally take it that the large actions of the washing machine, you know, the spinning of the drum and the emptying of the water and so on, are determined by small things going on in its small parts, you know, specifically in the electrical parts in the program of the machine. We think about, you know, computers, TVs, all these sorts of mechanical items that form part of our everyday life. In this way, we're used to the idea that the small determines the large, but I think we forget that there are ways, particularly in the biological realm, in which the large can also feed back and determine the small. And that's an idea, I think, is absolutely essential, if we're going to make sense of free will. Because if you think about it, you know, one of one of the main challenges to, to the coherence of the idea of free will, is that a thought that look, I'm a big thing, just like the washing machine is a big thing. And if I'm like the washing machine, what, what I choose to do, the big actions that I undertake, the movements that I make, the things that I say all these things which have effects in the external world, if they're just determined by kind of things like, you know, neural firings in my brain. While I'm just like the washing machine, I'm determined by small interactions between, you know, parts of my body, and that doesn't seem like freedom, you know, that doesn't seem like freedom at all. That seems like bottom up determination, of offers at work the whole of me by my small parts. And that seems to me very problematic to make consistent with the idea of free will. And that's why I think the idea of causation which is top down that's to say, causation, which is by a big thing, on its small parts, is an idea that we need to try to make some sense of,
I want to explain a metaphor that, I know that when I start talking about it, my wife and daughter, when they listen to the podcast are gonna roll their eyes, because it's one of my facts, okay, but tell me if I'm onto something here. When you listen to someone play the guitar, or a flute or something, you can tell where they're coming from, you can you can figure out the directionality because of the way that the sound waves work. When you listen to a bass, bass guitar in a in a in a with an amp, or even just a stand up double bass, the waves are bigger than your head, the wavelengths are bigger than your head, and therefore you can't tell what direction they come from. There's absolutely no it's very interesting. Yeah, it's, well, I'm glad you appreciate it, because everyone. But it's, it's because the I guess the height of the waves are so big, you can't tell where it's coming from. And so what that makes me think of is, it feels it feels random, or it's in determined what the direction is. And so would it makes sense to think of what you're saying in terms of, since you have the big thing, whatever is bigger the head, if the head is bigger than the wave, you know, where it's coming from, if the wave is bigger than the head, you don't know where it's coming from. And that helps sort of describe at least as an analogy, this notion that when the big is controlling the small, the same rules and expectations and predictive powers don't apply? Am I
really interesting I hadn't? Well, it's, you know, it's a new, it's a new idea for me. So I'd have to probably go away and think about that. But I suppose I mean, my, the, the intuitive idea is really simple. It's that, look, if I really do have free will, or what I call agency, I basically got to be in control of my small parts, you know, I've got to be in charge of them the whole that's to say, meet the whole animal, the whole thing, the big thing, the thing that is made up of the little things has got to be calling the shots. The one thing that is me has got to be calling the shots. And and what that requires is dominion of the large over the small if you like, that's so that's in a way. It's just a simple idea that I have to be in charge. If I've got free will, my parts can't be in charge, the big has to be in charge, the small can't be in charge. That's, that's, you know, very crudely thought that's, that's that's the idea. And and it you know, it may it may be that you're you're nice, you're nice facts about their bass sound might might be a nice analogy in some way for that.
I want to ask you about the word agency, because you used it. And I think it's a key idea that we have to explore. But before I do that, you use the word dominion. And again, Dominion has these religious connotations, and free will is essential to several theologies, if not all the Abrahamic theologies is but your approaches explicitly, and as secular and atheistic. You say so in some of your work. So does that. Does the different context change the debate? Or is it just different reasons for having the debate?
Yeah, I think it I think it changes the debate. And obviously, if you're in a theological context, or a context in which you know, you're prepared to, you're prepared to sort of think about the possibility that there might be somewhat supernatural powers that human beings have, you know, granted them specially by God. Or if you're prepared to think at least, that human beings are awfully unlike anything else in the universe, kind of metaphysically speaking, then it makes a difference to the kind of answers to the problem of free will, that you're prepared to contemplate? I mean, from from a point of view, like mine, I, I think human beings are parts of nature, we have to understand them as parts of nature. We are animals, and our workings cannot be alternately different from the workings of any other animal. I mean, it's obviously true that we have that we are, we are incredibly distinctive animals, I wouldn't want to deny that for a minute, we have all kinds of capacities that no other animal does. And that makes a massive difference, a massive difference to all sorts of things. But I don't think it makes a difference to, you know, these nuts and bolts questions about how it is possible to transcend the workings of our parts, those sorts of questions. And the answer that's right, for human beings, I think, you know, similar answers have to be in the offing for at least some of the other higher complex social animals. And so that's kind of where I'm coming from human beings are parts of nature, which makes the it makes the array of potential answers that one might want to give to the free world question different from what they'd be, if you were, you know, theologically inclined, and if you thought that what we are, as, you know, creatures made in the image of God, and put here to have dominion over the animals. So that's, that's a very different view.
So let's then go back to the question that I promised I'd ask you use this term agency, what does it mean? And why is it so important? In this context?
Okay, so the reason I introduced it really is because the term free will is very loaded, as if in effect, or better just just noticed, when you said, Look, it doesn't come with religious connotations. And of course, for many people, it does come with religious connotations. And that's why I wanted to avoid it. It also comes with kind of connotations of massive significance, if you like, you know, the questions where we, where our free will is operatively, these big, existential deep questions, you know, to deal with the, the ways we're going to lead our life, you know, the big choices and so on. I wanted to get away from all that, because, obviously, I was trying to situate our freewill as an element in the natural order. And so I wanted a term that was more easily readily extendable to the rest of the animal kingdom. And that's why I alighted upon agency. Because I think it's a bit it is a bit weird to say that animals have freewill. I mean, I have set it, but whenever I say it, so it always has to come with loads of qualifications and cautions, because, you know, you don't want it to you don't want to suggest that animals are kind of going around having novel dilemmas and things and existential crises. Of course, that's not what I mean. But I do think that they aren't determined in what they do, but at least at least I'm talking about higher animals, things like primates, horses, dogs, these sorts of animals, dolphins, and that they have certain certain freedoms, certain choices, certain decisions that they have to make about which things to do in what order whether to go this way or that way, you know, those sorts of everyday small choices, and that that we have many of to make as well. The agency extends widely within the animal kingdom. So I wanted a term that was less loaded. And that's why I chose it.
So what exactly does agency mean,
the way I tried to characterize it in the book, because you're right, it is a very important notion for me. And I try to connect it with this idea that we talked about a little bit earlier on about having been able to do otherwise. So you've got the power of agency, I say, if you've got the power to have done otherwise than you did, in some respect, or other. And I, a word that I find helpful when I'm thinking about this for myself, and that I introduce in the book is the word settle. So what I what I say is that agents can settle things they can have that were decide the way the world is going to be in some respect, perhaps quite a limited respect. But still, they can settle the way the world's going to be in some respect. And that's to say, they can make it be one way, when it could have been another way. That's what settling is, it's got this, it's got this could have been otherwise component, if you can settle something, you can make something be a certain way when it didn't have to be that way. So So think about something like I don't know, a rock, a rock doesn't ever settle anything. Of course, you know, by its movements, and other other effects can happen, you know, if the rock happens to roll down a hill, and it can crush some plants or something. But it wasn't the rock that settled whether it was going to roll down the hill. I mean, it's whatever, whatever started it rolling, maybe somebody kicking it might have settled that the plant was going to be crushed. The Rock in and of itself never settles anything. And I want you to say that there are things in the universe, which are not a bit like rocks in that respect. And we are amongst them, we can settle things, we can make things go a certain way when they could have gone another way. And so can you know, quite a lot of animals. I mean, it's a very interesting question, which animals and how far down the scale of evolutionary and phylogenetic complexity, you can go with this idea of settling, you know, Deadwood, the worm settle things, the wasp settled things, you know, birds. These are very, very interesting and difficult questions, which I try to address a little bit in the book. And but I think it's a very important notion, this notion of being able to settle something. It's distinctive, I think of living things in the universe, at least as we know it at the moment. It's living things that can that can settle things and only living things.
So I want to pose to you a question slash objection that I'm sure you've heard 1000 times and all of our listeners have to, in one form or another, because we've had all these conversations about computers trying to mimic brain functions and artificial intelligence and all this sort of stuff, especially since you're talking about the more complex animals and the primates and the dolphins and the dogs versus the wasps and where that line is. And the question is, how do you tell the difference? Or what's the difference between just a complex system that is so complex that we can't predict it because we don't have the information, and the agent who has freewill, that it really isn't just a quantitative difference, but it's a qualitative difference that it isn't just I was listening on the way to the studio, I was listening to a podcast, talking about how random num number generators and computers aren't really random. They're just so incredibly complex that they can't be predicted. And so isn't one of the arguments against free will, that look, animals, the influences on on the human mind, or even a dog's mind are so numerous and so complex Li interactive, that we can't predict it. But that doesn't mean that we're not determined. So So since we're talking about this, this sort of the order of nature and the levels of complexity of animals. What How does one respond to this notion that what we think of as free will, is really just a complex system that is so unpredictable, that we think it's freedom.
Yeah. So the first thing to say is that of course, it's absolutely true. And that it doesn't follow from predictability, and that a system isn't determined. That's that's just right. So I would totally concede that point immediately. And one can't argue from unpredictability to, to determinism. Sorry, lack of determinism. And so that's just completely right. But one needs a reason for supposing in the first place, I think that everything is determined. And that's what I think we have not been given a good enough reason to believe. And when you ask people why they think the universe is deterministic, they're often at a bit of a loss, What to say? It's, it's a kind of, I think it's a it's a bit of a myth, that we have any reason to suppose that the universe is deterministic. I mean, at the end of the day, of course, it's it's not a matter that one can settle. empirically, it seems to me, you know, it's, it's a, one can't prove whether or not a particular thing had to happen, or could have been otherwise, it's not the sort of thing that one can bring, you know, tests to bear upon how could one ever find that out? It's, it's a matter of what one's big picture is, I suppose. And whether one thinks the universe is a deterministic place or an indeterministic place. And I have to say, it seems to me that the the conceptual scheme of agency that we are all very adapted operating in our everyday lives presupposes a form of indeterminism agency is in determinism because it involves the idea, this idea of settling or so it seems to me. So while I would concede the point absolutely, that it doesn't follow from unpredictability, and that the world's in deterministic, I would never seek to rest my argument on unpredictability, it has nothing to do with that, I would seek to rest my argument on the vast usefulness and indeed, sort of impossibilities impossibility of getting without, by without the concept of agency and everything that it entails.
You know, this this is, this is super interesting. And of course, it ties into our earlier discussion about Newtonian physics, in that, if I understand you correctly, what you're saying is, yes, if you, if you assume that everything is is all the small things are deterministic, and, and the system is so complex, you can't get to unpredictability. But why make that assumption in the first place?
Indeed, why make it? Yeah,
yeah. And that's, and I guess I'm gonna ask you that question. Even though it's not the position you hold? Why would people make that assumption? Why would people look at the world and say, it works the same way as as billiard balls, is, it just, we can understand that is that the education that we receive
as a sociological reason, here's what I think is the sociological reason we leave our scientific education, most of us at the point before we reach the science, where indeterminacy complexity systems theory, you know, might have been introduced to us. So what's the what's the maths? What's the physics? What's the chemistry we do at school? It's basically kind of 17th century physics and chemistry that we do, you know, we do a very simplified version of chemistry that's based on roughly speaking, you know, the atomic theory that people like boil. Back in the 17th century, where we're thinking about we, we don't give to our, you know, school students, a really real sense of what real proper science is saying about what the world is like. We give them because it's easier to kind of work with toy models, toy examples, where the maths is easy, where it all works out nicely, you know, where you can get a nice answer, m equals 25 grams, or whatever it may be. And I really think that has a quite pernicious effect on our, our conception of what the universe is like, the universe is weirder than you would ever have dreamt from your from your kind of school level science lessons. And sadly, most of us never get any further in science than school level science. So the deep wondrous pneus of the universe, the strangeness of it, you know, the strangeness that things like relativity theory, quantum theory, introduce and the strangeness of life You know, the strangeness that we have to come to accommodate once we think about living systems and how they work, none of that is really is really part of our education. So that's my inclination is that that's why we are inclined to be determinist is because we were stuck with school science and that was deterministic. And I think it's a, it's a bit of a problem, we ought to try harder than we do, I think in schools, to to help people at least to get a glimpse of what you know, exciting cutting edge science is really saying, in some of these more abstruse areas of science, like quantum mechanics say,
we've talked on the show quite a few times about the education systems and ways to improve it and what's wrong. What, what what strikes me more than then the Curiosity question, which is what often comes up in discussion of education is this notion of strangeness. And this, this joy that you clearly have, and the pleasure that you clearly have, in this idea of strangeness is one of the problems in free will, like with quantum theory, that when the world becomes strange, it becomes less comfortable for us. Is there? Is there a sense that free will makes us more insecure, and makes us more subject to? I'll even call it arbitrariness of other people, although it may not seem arbitrary to them. is is is the is the universe is a free will based universe scarier, or more foreign to an individual than a deterministic one.
That's a very interesting question. I mean, you've raised the question that I've asked myself many times, really of whether, as it were individual psychological differences amongst people predispose them to favor some particular philosophical views over others, I think it's quite likely, in fact that something like that may be true that some people feel maybe safer in a universe that's thought to be properly and thoroughly governed by the laws of causality or something like that. And others feel hedged in and constrained by that thought and need to feel that they somehow escaped that that kind of causality, you know, that those those sorts of effects on our desire to believe one theory or another can't be rolled out? I don't think. But I would hope that I mean, it's part of what philosophical education hopes to do. I think that we're trying, I think, to get students to get past that. And to get past those first, oh, I don't like that view, kind of kind of ideas to say, Okay, well, maybe you don't like it. But do you think it might be right? Maybe it's not as scary as you thought it was? Perhaps if you think about it harder, and unpack it a little bit, you'll find that, in fact, there's some other good things packaged in there. You know, that kind of thing, I think is important. I think you're probably right, that there are what I would regard I suppose is probably quite irrational emotional responses that people have to certain views, but mainly because they haven't thought them through yet. And once one, once one sits down and starts, starts to think through of you, I think those kinds of initial reactions often melt away very quickly.
Again, something that just came to me as you're talking this notion of irrationality. Many people know that philosophers epistemology is very concerned with what can we know and that there are all these theories of knowledge, what they what what many people don't know is that they're also theories of error. Right? Why do people make mistakes? And that this is a very, very difficult question is, is freewill dependent on the possibility of irrationality? Would a perfectly logical perfectly rational creature always be deterministic? is or how much is how much of the system? Or is this just a category mistake? Am I talking about two different things how much of the system is just again, irrational, arbitrary that part of what this freedom means is that we are going to do things for reasons or based on influences that would not have the same effect on someone else, and therefore might even be considered illogical, random, arbitrary this that it makes no sense to someone else.
Yeah, I mean, you've raised The kind of version of determinism there, I think, which is a bit different from the one that I've mostly been concerned with. I, I've been concerned with what sometimes called causal determinism. So with the idea that everything that happens in the world is is determined by causes by necessitating causes, what you're raising there is what we might call rational determinism. So that's to say, the idea that the things people do are determined by their reasons. And so you can see, one might think, look, in a perfectly logical world where everybody was perfectly rational, they'd all do the rational thing. And so it would be deterministic. But actually, that only follows if you think that there actually is just one rational thing to do. In every situation you would ever confront. I don't think that's true. I don't think that's true at all. I mean, I think most of the time, there are many equally rational things that one might do at any given moment. And it's, it's a it's a fallacy to think that there's a there's a unique rational answer to absolutely every choice one might, one might confront. And of course, you have to remember that most of the time, I mean, philosophy, and this is a this is a bugbear, this gets this gets me annoyed in the freewill debate. We're always given these examples where the choice is between two things. And life is just not like that. In life, the choice is between usually an extremely large number of things at every, every moment of your existence, there are many things you could be doing. And so in a sense, the choices between almost an infinity of things. So I think that way of thinking about freewill is, is it is it a or is it be it real, it's another toy example. You know, it's not like that in life. Life is is full of multiplicity and infinite choice. And many of those choices that one might make at any minute seem to me to be equally, equally reasonable, equally rational, nothing to choose between.
The very first time my my best friend of my wife met, they, we all went to grocery store to get some stuff for dinner, and I went over to get some cheese and those big cheese display and, and my wife, Kim knew that she loved my best friend, Gail, because when I went to look at the cheese, Gail muttered under her breath, well, this is gonna take a long time. It's that and I looked at, I said, I don't have criteria to choose, right. And this is exactly, this is exactly what you're talking about, in the sense that that we don't just don't just choose between, you know, American cheese and Swiss cheese, there's Stilton, right there split cheese. There's, there's there's all of these different choices. And there is this bias in philosophy. And I actually, I think I in my my doctoral dissertation talking about this, this bias in philosophy, that we are looking for the one answer, that the problem isn't solved until we find the single thing that everyone has to agree on. Right, the truth in the long run and the pragmatist tradition. But that's not. That's not how things work. And so in a certain sense, if I understand you correctly, part of what the argument for free will is, is not just about the problem itself, but just the way that we describe the world that we live in, and the way that we describe the questions that we're going to answer that if you set up things in binary, you're going to get an artificial answer, even if your reasoning is flawless.
I do I think that's absolutely right. I think that's often true in philosophy, actually, is that the way to solve some of the deep problems of philosophy is to as it were dismantled, and they can't be answered in the form that they are asked, I think that's often the case, because there's something that's gone wrong in the asking, either, you know, there's a mistaken assumption, a bad premise, a concept that isn't clear. You know, it, that's often been the way I've approached philosophical questions, you know, to think, Well, the reason the reason this question is stubborn, and that nobody has really got to grips with it is because there's something wrong with the question. And that I think, is the key to philosophical progress, trying to get the questions, right. And once you've got the questions, right, then you might have a chance that the answers
are, let me ask as the last question. I mean, what you just said, If I were a better host, I would, I would end the show right after what you just said, because it was a beautiful summation, but but I want to ask a question that I know some people are asking and it is It's gonna sound like I'm asking why does this matter? But But everyone knows on the show that I would never ask that sort of question is our is our perception of the world any different? If we don't have free will? I mean, many people will suggest that, well, we don't have free will. But we think we have free will. And that's part of the human experience. And so we're kidding ourselves. And and so the epistemological question, as opposed to the metaphysical question, is there a difference in human experience? If we have free will? Or if we don't have free will? Or do we just act as if we do and that's just the nature of the machine? And so it's a it's a question about how the world works, but but it has no epistemological or no real behavioral consequences.
I think it probably is true that we can't for more than, you know, F, a few minutes, bring ourselves even if we are kind of convinced of the unreality of free will, no real human being can can believe it. For more than a few seconds, really? I mean, it's morning, I think it's, it's like, it's like skepticism in other areas, you know, you can you can be a skeptic in your study, as Hume, as Hume said, but, you know, you go back out into the world playing backgammon, doing politics, whatever. And, you know, your, your abstract reasonings just sort of melt away. So I do I do very firmly believe that human beings do believe in free will, even the ones that think that they think that they don't, or claim that they don't. And so in a way, yes, you're right, that it doesn't make a difference, because I think we all believe in it, practically. Anyway. But that's not to say I'm also It seems to me that it's something that there's no point there's no point thinking about, when these how possibly questions of which as I said earlier, I think the freewill question is one. And we have intellectual needs as human beings. You know, we need to answer these how possibly questions. One, one sign that we need to answer them is how perennial they are, they come up again, and again and again, across cultures across, you know, the aeons. And we we want answers to these things. We are we are curious animals, we want to know the answers. We want to know how things are possible. We don't like the appearance of inconsistency in our ground beliefs, you know, and there is an appearance of inconsistency. If your belief is in the bottom up. Everything microscopically determined to universe and yet you want to believe that the that humans have free will there's there's an inconsistency there at least prima facie. And so, you know, how do we sort it? No, that's, that's a real pressure in our intellectual lives. And so I think, I think, I think intellectual needs need taking seriously as well, perhaps not as seriously as practical survival needs. But you know, somewhat seriously, we need to we need to do intellectual work on behalf of humanity, and to to make some progress with these issues that that causes perennial intellectual discomfort, if I can put it that way.
I think that's a I think that that that also is a wonderful place to end because part of the purpose of this show is to bring that perennial discomfort into public sphere and and to show that it's that it's something that's just as enjoyable as the perennial discomfort of watching a close football game, right that that says there's there's just there's just a joy and a pleasure in the task of philosophy. And and I'm thrilled to say that it's international and that and that we've had the chance to cross the big pond. So Helen Stewart, thank you so much for taking the time and joining us from Leeds. Thank you so much for being on ya.
JACK. Thank you very much.
You've been listening to Helen Stewart and jack Russel Weinstein on why philosophical discussions but everyday life I'll be back with a few more thoughts right after this.
Visit IPP ELLs blog pq Ed, philosophical questions every day. For more philosophical discussions of everyday life. Comment on the entries and share your points of view with an ever growing community of professional and amateur philosophers. You can access the blog and view more information on our schedule our broadcasts and the y radio store at www dot philosophy and public life.org
There are people who are going to say that no question is less important than free will. Because however we experience the world, it is as if we are free beings. And there are no consequences to not being free. I think this conversation has shown quite the opposite, that there are tremendous consequences. Because how we describe the world, how we describe the universe is all intertwined with what we think about that freedom. It's not that we are the product of 1000 little causes that come together to make an unpredictable machine. It is instead that we are this animal, this free thing that influences all of our influences, and that we don't have to do the things that we do. That statement alone is tremendously powerful. We don't have to do the things that we do. It has moral consequences, but it also has scientific consequences. Think about climate change, think about politics, think about what food we eat, all of these things. All these decisions that we make are based on the idea that we can choose. And that our choice has ramifications for other people who can also choose the very end of the episode. Helen said something about glimpsing freewill. She said that most human beings can only glimpse Free Will for a few seconds. And they have to go on with their life. Not to impose too much of a religious filter on what was largely a secular discussion. But this sounds a lot about like enlightenment. The thing about enlightenment is whether you're the Buddha or whether you're Sally down the street, you only get enlightenment for a second, you only get a glimpse of the universe of what it is. And the rest of your life is living day to day with that memory with that influence. And I think if I don't want to take the analogy too far. glimpsing free will is a bit like glimpsing enlightenment. It's getting a sense of how we really exist in the world. And the rest of the day is the consequence of that brief glimpse. No one expects us to live our day to day life as if we are absolutely free. No one expects us to live our life aware of every single option in every single thing we do. Should I have a spoon? Should I before should have a knife Should I drink should I eat this is would be ridiculous. That's not the human experience. But the fact that we narrow our decisions down and the fact that we act out of habit doesn't change the reality, which is we are agents like our pets, like our dolphins, like primates, we do things that we don't have to do. And that fact alone makes us not only special, but important because we influence the world. You've been listening to Jack Russel Weinstein on wide philosophical discussion but everyday life Thank you for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
Why is funded by the Institute for philosophy and public life Prairie Public Broadcasting in the University of North Dakota's College of Arts and Sciences and division of Research and Economic Development. skipwith is our studio engineer. The music is written and performed by Mark Weinstein and can be found on his album Louis Sol. For more of his music, visit jazz flute weinstein.com or myspace.com slash Mark Weinstein. Philosophy is everywhere you make it and we hope we've inspired you with our discussion today. Remember, as we say at the Institute, there is no ivory tower.