I follow a blog by Massimo Pigliucci, Footnotes to Plato. He is a professor of philosophy and an author. But I must admit until a few moments ago I had no idea who he was. It was a random blog I happened to be following. Otherwise, I’ve been completely unfamiliar with him and his work. I haven’t even read his blog closely. As far as that goes, I can’t recall when I started following his blog or why. My point is that I have no grand opinion about him as an academic philosopher or public intellectual. I occasionally read posts by him and that is all.
Massimo (on his blog, he goes only by his first name) posted a piece about the Stoics and neuroscience. I’ve had a casual interest in the Stoics for a long time. They helped shape Western ideas of natural law and liberty, partly by way of Christians leaning heavily on Stoic foundations of thought — early Christians and Stoics were often confused with each other, as they acted and dressed in a similar fashion. Stoics were the originators of martyrdom as a practice and they took it to a level far beyond Christians.
My interest in the Stoics has been more historical, in terms of influences on later thought and social changes. Natural law and inward liberty became central justifications for radicalism and revolution. But Massimo’s focus goes in a different direction, although there is some overlap. He is talking about free will and volition, and obviously this would line up with Stoic thought on natural law and inward liberty. All of this is about how the world operates, specifically in relation to human nature as part of the world. Even as I’ve given much thought to the free will debates over the decades, I can’t say I’ve ever thought about it in terms of Stoic philosophy.
Massimo makes some good points. But I wonder about the issue considered from a different level or from a different angle. There is an almost uncontrollable impulse to want to know more than can actually be known. It’s not only that free will is ultimately a metaphysical concept, akin to theological constructs such as the soul. Even talking of ‘volition’ doesn’t save us from this dilemma. It becomes a secularized equivalent of the search for a god in the gaps. As synred noted: “I don’t see why volition has to be conscious. A good many of our actions are not; some we think about more; others not so much (fast vs. slow?). But even an unconscious decision is a decision we make.” Massimo, in responding to synred, acknowledges the problem: “Right, both conscious and unconscious processes contribute to volition. But there really isn’t a sharp distinction between the two, which are related by continuous feedback loops.” In that case, what exactly is ‘consciousness’ that it is so hard to clearly differentiate from the unconscious? What might be the self, conscious or unconscious, making decisions and imposing volition upon the world?
In the end, science can directly say nothing about consciousness or anything involving consciousness as a cause. Consciousness simply is a non-scientific experience, in that it precedes all intellectual endeavor. And unconsciousness, as normally used, isn’t an experience at all. I love speculating about consciousness and unconsciousness, including the possible relationship to scientific understanding. But I wish more people would be more realistic, self-aware, and humble toward the stark situation of overwhelming human ignorance. I’m not saying that Massimo has fallen into this trap. It’s more about my being doubtful that any useful conclusion can be made, although I’m not sure I’m exactly offering an alternative conclusion in its place.
Massimo distinguishes free will and volition, in expressing what he considers a key point. He writes that: “Once more, to preempt distracting discussions: I do not think we should talk about “free will,” which is a hopelessly metaphysically confused concept. We are talking about what psychologists themselves call volition, i.e., the ability of human beings to make complex decisions informed by conscious thought. Hopefully no one will deny that we do have such ability.”
I don’t deny it. Yet neither would I affirm it, at least not as a scientific claim. Rather, I’d argue that maybe ‘volition’ simply isn’t constructive as a scientific concept, although it could be used as part of scientific interpretation — the point being that, as a scientific hypothesis, it seems to be nonfalsifiable. Libet’s veto power doesn’t avoid this criticism, as proposing a volitional actor is merely one of many possible interpretations for we can’t directly determine what is the causal force behind stopping the action. We can talk about volition from the perspective of human experience, though. There is nothing wrong with that. Consciousness is fascinating. All of us, even the philosophically and scientifically illiterate, are compelled to take a position. It cuts to the heart of identity, the reality we are mired in: personal and social, psychological and biological.
This reality, however, offers little solid ground. There are some things we don’t know and probably never will know. Or to the degree we can know something about consciousness, it might only be from within consciousness itself, not by trying to scientifically or philosophically stand outside of consciousness by studying it as an object or by way of proxies. And it very well might be consciousness all the way down, as far as any of it is relevant to our existence as conscious beings.
Massimo goes onto say that, “Interestingly, studies have found very good experimental evidence for the veto power Libet is talking about. But that is “interesting” from within the language game of neuroscience. It makes no difference at all in terms of the language game in which the Stoics — and most of us — are engaged, that of improving ourselves as individuals and of making society a better place for everyone to live.” I’m already familiar with that position. Almost a couple of decades ago, Tor Norretranders wrote about Libet’s veto power in his book The User Illusion.
This ‘volition’ is severely constrained as I presume Massimo would agree, but an argument can be made that it is nonetheless real. The difficulty then is who supposedly is wielding this volition. All that asserting ‘volition’ accomplishes is to bring the problem back a slight step. Maybe consciousness can never be a cause since it is the very ground of our being. We don’t control consciousness, either through free will or volition. The problem goes deeper to the level of identity itself, which as Eastern philosophers and bundle theorists have noted tends to fall apart when observed closely and experienced directly. Pull apart the strands of the psyche and nothing else can be found hidden in the gaps, the space in between — no soul or free will, not even a volition. Words can never capture the experience itself. Consciousness simply is what it is and can be nothing else nor be understood on any other terms.
In a post from another blog, Massimo concludes that, “Finally, not only there is no contradiction between modern cognitive science and the Stoic idea that some things (namely, our judgments) are “up to us.”” That is fine, as far as it goes. But who are we? Identity remains a confused morass, tangled up in the hard problem of consciousness itself. Our strong intuitive sense of self doesn’t hold up to introspective inquiry. It’s not clear exactly what we are, that we have a self or that a self has us. This involves the distinction that some make between persons and selves, the topic having come up in my recent reading of Richard S. Hallam’s Virtual Selves, Real Persons. And this involves self-consciousness as a perceived actor, such as related to Julian Jayne’s theory of bicameralism.
In a comment, Patrice Ayme added that: ““Free will” or more exactly, volition, is not free: it is a prisoner of our own brain, its neural networks, its experiences, associations, theories and emotions. All those, in turn, were built progressively, over years and even decades, nonlinearly feeding on themselves, and back to the environment they evolved from and modified in turn (in that environment, typically, one’s family). Volition is a house we helped built, and also a robot we inhabit.” It goes further than that.
Events and responses from generations prior can epigenetically influence present experience and behavior (consider the mice that several generations on were still responding to the conditions neither they nor their parents had experienced because the response had become built into the genetic expression of behavior; or consider the mice that expressed different behavior based on unknown and undetectable differences in controlled laboratory conditions). This should be understood by Massimo, considering how his Wikipedia page describes his educational background: “Pigliucci was formerly a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. He explored phenotypic plasticity, genotype-environment interactions, natural selection, and the constraints imposed on natural selection by the genetic and developmental makeup of organisms.” So, why doesn’t Massimo bring any of this up in his discussion? This leaves me unclear about where he fully stands.
Anyway, take epigenetics and such and then combine it with extended self, embodied mind, and linguistic relativity; social construction, habitus, and hyperobjects; intergenerational trauma, historical legacies, and institutionalized systems; et cetera. Our sense of self is powerfully contained and shaped by all that we inherit, both within and beyond our bodies. There is no place and position by which to act separately from what has created the very conditions of perceived self-identity as an acting agent.
None of that, of course, can say anything specific about either free will or volition. Such philosophical debates are simply outside the bounds of what we can personally know. All we can speak of is what we experience. And from that we can make assertions that lead to disagreements. But no genuine debate can be had beyond the clash of interpreted experience. It’s not so much that one position on free will and volition is exactly right for no position can ever absolutely prove all other positions wrong. The seeming conflict between worldviews is more of a conflict occurring within the splintered human mind — consciousness as an experience of identity doesn’t require careful distinctions and consistency. Our words fail us. And stumbling over our own minds, we throw ourselves into mental contortions.
Where does that leave us? Well, none of the debaters involved are doubting that most modern people intuitively sense something akin to individualistic and autonomous agency. But there is evidence strongly indicating that this isn’t always the case, evidence not only from abnormal psychology but also from anthropology and ancient texts. And so we can’t fall back on claims of common sense. We are stranger than we can comprehend, whatever we may ultimately be.
One possible response is to choose existentialism instead of Stoicism. Ronnie de Sousa confidently states: “What biology teaches us about human nature is that, in a very real sense, there is no such thing as human nature. The only coherent attitude to that fact is that of the existentialist: if there is any guidance to be found in nature, it is that there is nothing there to follow. Instead, we should aspire to create it.”
I don’t know if that is any more satisfying, but from the perspective of some people’s experience it is a reasonable attitude. In the end, one person’s experience is as valid as another’s, at least on the level of experience itself (and what other level is there for humans to exist?), which I suppose is somewhat of an existentialist conclusion. Personally, I’ve felt committed to the idea that human nature does exist in some sense or another, as that intuitively resonates in my personal experience, although I can’t prove that is the case —- I can’t even ultimately prove it in my own experience when I delve deeply into my own psyche, causing me to argue with myself.
It is a conundrum.
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I have some thoughts to add, but let me leave this as a placeholder for the moment. I learned from Lewis Hyde that the moral order as part of social norms always is told through a story that plays out upon the embodied self. As such, what story is being etched into the human body by way of this debate? It stands out to my mind that the Stoic’s libertas, maybe in relation to Massimo’s volition, is about the slave asserting inner liberty in opposition to outer oppression. Just a thought I wanted to note. With this in mind, here are some parts from the initial post that led me to thinking about all of this:
“Ethics is another language game, or, rather, a multiplicity of language games, since there are a number of ways to conceive, talk about, and actually do, ethics. Within the human community, we talk about “good,” “bad,” “moral,” “immoral,” “ought,” and so forth, and any competent language user understands what others mean by those words. Moreover, .just like the words of the builder’s language actually help building things, so the words of ethical language actually help regulate our actions within a given community. The fact that science comes in and, say, tells us that “bricks” are really mostly empty space is interesting from within the science language game, but it is utterly useless, and indeed a distraction, to the builder. Analogously, that a neuroscientist may be able to tell us which parts of the human brain are involved in the production of ethical judgments, and by which cellular means, is interesting within the language game of neuroscience, but it is a useless distraction if we are concerned with improving social justice, or becoming a better person.”
“Because, according to Sellars, the manifest, but not the scientific, image deals with things like reasons and values. This is not a call to reject science. On the contrary. Sellars was quite clear that whenever the scientific and the manifest images of the world are in conflict (as in “the Sun rises” vs “the Earth rotates” case), then the sensible thing is for us to yield to science. But science simply isn’t in the business of doing a number of other things for which we have developed different tools: philosophy, literature, history, and so forth. These tools are complementary with, not opposed to, scientific ones. Ideally, says Sellars, we want to develop a conceptual stereoscopic vision, whereby we are capable of integrating the manifest and scientific images.”
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It occurs to me that this goes back to symbolic conflation. It’s a theory I’ve been developing for years. About this theory, here are some recent posts that are particularly relevant to the problems of ideologically constrained and culturally biased debate: Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation, Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams, and Symbolic Dissociation of Nature/Nurture Debate.
There is always a debate that is being framed in a particular way in order to control what is debated and how. By doing this, public opinion is manipulated as the public is kept divided —- hence, social control is enforced and the social order maintained. The debate is a distraction. The framing is false, deceptive, superficial, constrained. And the real issue(s) is hidden or obscured. The point is that agonistic conflicts are designed to be endless, never to be won or resolved.
I get the feeling that this debate is maybe an example of symbolic conflation. That makes me wonder what might be underlying it. My sense isn’t that Massimo is an ideologue seeking to manipulate and deceive. But we all get caught up in ideologies as worldviews, somewhat in the sense used by Louis Althusser. We are the first casualties of our own rhetoric, as the successful con man has to first con himself. It’s the fate of being human, getting trapped in our own ideas and words — that are in turn reinforced by the social structure, the stage upon which ideological spectacle is played out.
There are numerous examples of symbolic conflation within public debate. The original example that helped shape the theory was abortion in terms of pro-choice vs pro-life, which demonstrated that the apparent positions held (at least by one side) had nothing to do with the actual positions being promoted. Two other examples are nature vs nurture and the related race realism vs social construction.
There is yet another example that has been on my mind lately. It is relevant to this post. The Stoics inherited the Roman idea of libertas, meaning that one wasn’t a slave within that slave society. Libertas didn’t indicate anything other than a lack of direct and active oppression, but it didn’t require a free society or even the freedom to act within society. Many other forms of oppression besides slavery existed in Roman society.
What the Stoics inspired was to make libertas into a philosophical and spiritual ideal. As such, libertas symbolized an inward freedom of the self that everyone possessed by birthright, an expression of natural law. Yet it still maintained the quality of negative freedom, at least in this world for it didn’t imply any outward freedom on any level: personal, social, political, or economic. Christians took up this Stoic libertas, eventually becoming liberty in English thought, and later revolutionaries used it as a rallying cry.
There was another term the English incorporated. The Germanic root was Freiheit. We know it now in its form as freedom, etymologically related to friend. It means being a free member of a free people in a free society. This is the source of positive freedom. But the real kicker is that, etymologically speaking, there can only be positive freedom. Latin liberty with its negative connotations has nothing to do with Germanic freedom. To speak of negative and positive freedom is to entirely miss the point. The confusion comes because the two words have to some degree become conflated, in the attempt to seal the ideological cracks at the foundation of our society.
This creates the ground for much confusion and endless antagonism. And where there is divisive and combative debate, one will likely find symbolic conflation at its root. The frame distracts from the reality of there only being one freedom. Either you are free or you are not. That radical and revolutionary understanding is not allowed within public debate and political discourse, not to be portrayed in establishment media. This is part of what underlies the arguments about free will, even in shifting the terminology to volition instead. Using ‘volition’ as the preferred term doesn’t fundamentally alter anything, as the ideological baggage remains along with the framed confusion.
Massimo is looking for the more detached and intellectual Stoic libertas, not the blood and bone kinship of Anglo-Saxon freedom. Maybe he intuitively, if not clearly, realizes this in discarding free will with its etymological roots. This doesn’t help since it doesn’t change the context and the conflict, much less the confusion. It’s unclear what ‘volition’ could possibly mean in carrying all this millennia of baggage and how asserting it could help shift thinking in a new direction. That is where we find ourselves now. There doesn’t appear to be any way for this debate to move forward on these terms and in this context. We need an entirely different debate with some other frame.
With this in mind, I noticed Massimo agreed with the following comment by ejwinner: “Responsibility is not – and, despite arguments on all sides, never has been – a matter of free will or determinism. It is a matter of social obligation, which takes the debate outside of the realm of science or metaphysics, and into the province of social discussion, expectation, and the institutions formed out of these. No one lives free; and no one lives as automaton. We are always embedded in a social web, and maneuver within as response to the maneuvering of others. Lose the sense of volition, and you became a helpless pawn; assume total freedom and you become a monster.” Massimo doesn’t seem to realize that this undermines his own defense of Stoicism.
Libertas is the source of modern hyper-individualism. It pits the individual against social bonds and it can do nothing else, as the earliest Stoic martyrs understood when they confronted the oppressive state, the oppressive social order and social norms. A society of individuals is no society at all and that was a price the most radical of Stoics were willing to pay in exchange for the inner liberty of their soul. As for the other tradition of thought, there is no freedom separate from healthy and supportive relationship with others. Massimo likely would agree with this, but his commitment to Stoicism has muddied the water and weakened his argument, that in turn has led to a conclusion of uncertain value and validity.
This isn’t a mere theoretical issue. The social problems we are dealing with go straight to libertas, having become the dominant ideology despite all the talk of ‘freedom’. We respond to the failings of liberty with demands of more liberty or else simply ever greater declarations of liberty rhetoric: “More cowbell!” Maybe we should look at the social, rather than the political, foundations of the successful social democracies in Northern Europe. Liberty is about civil rights, but civil rights is less central in Northern Europe than in the United States. The tradition of freedom there is primarily social, that is to say preceding the political. Our American obsession with politics puts the cart before the horse. This has led to great failures such as the war on drugs and mass incarceration, among so much else. We need to create a happy and healthy commons (i.e., a rat park) expressed through common bond and common vision so as to support the common good.
Sure, liberty maybe is a necessary first step when one finds oneself in an oppressive society such as the Roman Empire of the past or the American Empire of the present. But it can’t end there. There is no debate between liberty and freedom for, from an Anglo-American perspective, the latter would be a step beyond into an entirely different kind of society. So, Massimo is correct in stating that there is no free will. Where he goes astray is in not realizing that freedom never was about individuality. The debate of free will was always mired in the ideology of individualistic liberty, having originated from Stoic libertas. Freedom isn’t the problem, rather its lack — or so one could reasonably argue.
What could ‘volition’ possibly mean as an expression and embodiment of our shared humanity within our shared society? What does Massimo think it means? After all of this analysis, I remain confused about what is being proposed under the terminology of volition. Either the discussion itself is confused or it’s just me.
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As a side note, it only now occurred to me that the seeming disagreement or divergence here maybe is more cultural than I realized. I didn’t initially make the connection between Massimo’s philosophical views and his personal background, specifically his upbringing from childhood to adulthood. He was raised in Rome, Italy. And he was educated in Italy where he received his PhD.
It makes sense that he might not grasp the ideological confusion and conflict that gets evoked in such a debate within Anglo-American society. He is speaking as an Italian, not an Anglo-American. He came to the United States long after the early basis of his intellect and philosophy had formed.
Germanic freedom is maybe irrelevant or simply not central to his Italian cultural worldview. Maybe even his later on moving to and working in the United States hasn’t altered that. It would be interesting to hear his perspective on cultural influences and ideological traditions. Other than in relation to Stoic libertas, what might ‘volition’ mean within the context of Italian culture or American culture? Who is the presumed volitional self and where did he come from?
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In the end, skepticism about free will seems to me to be akin to radical skepticism about reality in general (the idea that all of reality is an illusion, or a computer simulation, or something along those lines): it denies what we all think is self-evident, it cannot be defeated logically (though it is not based on empirical evidence), and it is completely irrelevant to our lives…we should then proceed by ignoring the radical skeptic in order to get back to the business of navigating reality, making willful decisions about our lives…and assign moral responsibility to our and other people’s actions.
So is, Pigliucci nearing dualism? Only time will tell but here, may be, a clue. His statement, that the denial of free will “denies what we all think is self-evident” mirrors what this Examiner wrote as a guest author on the statistician William Briggs’ website in an article titled, To Be, Or Not To Be…Free: Sam Harris & Jerry Coyne On Free Will, the relevant portion of which is:
What reason, really, is there to deny our common knowledge, our common experience and well, our common sense conclusion that we have free will? In this case, it is that some Atheists are interpreting lights flashing on a screen [this is referring to neuroscience]. Moreover, their interpretations are based upon materialism, mechanism, reductionism in short: based upon their particular, and peculiar, Atheistic world-views. But why should we believe that their world-view is accurate? After all, they claim that it cannot be proven and since they are making extraordinary claims they must provide evidence that is more extraordinary than expecting us to believe their personal interpretations of “data.”
The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time
by Jonathan Bricklin
Another possible objection to James’s paradigm is that it has a design flaw: if you are trying to witness an act of will, “ you ” are occupied by the “trying to witness,” and thus miss the role of “you” in the act of will. Such objection, however, begs the question that any meditation on will ultimately poses—namely, whether an active, agent “I” exists in the first place. The only proof of an agent “I” is what can be inferred from the experience of agency. But what if, as Nietzsche says, “will” is not an afterbirth of “I,” an autonomous agent; “I” is an afterbirth of will, the experience of autonomy? 14 “Trying to witness” is, itself, ostensibly, an act of will. Thus, referring the action of “trying to witness” to an “I” assumes what needs to be proven. The experience of will, as we said, is not in question; the question is: What does this experience entail? To answer this question it matters not whether the experience be of trying to do something (such as getting out of bed on a cold morning) or trying to witness the trying. What matters is that some moment of trying be revealed for what it is, stripped of assumptions.
THE GAP BETWEEN THOUGHTS
Many years ago, I was working with Nisargadatta Maharaj, an Indian teacher. He asked a woman who was audio taping for a new book, “What will be the name of my next book?” She replied, “Beyond Consciousness.” He said, “No, Prior to Consciousness. Find out who you are prior to your last thought and stay there.”
—Stephen Wolinsky, Quantum Consciousness
At the turn of the last century, Karl Marbe, of the University of Würzburg, devised an experiment in which subjects attempted to “catch themselves” in the act of choosing between two impressions. The experiment was concerned with judgment not will, but, like James’s meditation, it was, at bottom, an attempt to detect the onset of a decision between two options. The subjects were asked to lift two small weights, which had been placed on a table in front of them, and decide which one was heavier. They indicated their choice by placing the heavier object down. The results startled both Marbe and his subjects, all of whom were trained in introspective psychology. For, contrary to their own expectation, they discovered that while the feeling of the two weights was conscious, as well as placing the heavier one down, the moment of decision was not . Julian Jaynes, in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind , offers a home-kit version of this experiment:
Take any two unequal objects, such as a pen and pencil or two unequally filled glasses of water, and place them on the desk in front of you. Then, partly closing your eyes to increase your attention to the task, pick up each one with the thumb and forefinger and judge which is heavier. Now introspect on everything you are doing. You will find yourself conscious of the feel of the objects against the skin of your fingers, conscious of the slight downward pressure as you feel the weight of each, conscious of any protuberances on the sides of the objects, and so forth. And now the actual judging of which is heavier. Where is that? Lo! the very act of judgement that one object is heavier than the other is not conscious. It is somehow given to you by your nervous system . 15
Marbe’s experiment thus corroborated James’s meditation on will. The gap before the “deciding” thought exists.
This gap, which both Marbe and James discovered before the “deciding” thought, meditation reveals to exist before all thoughts. Indeed, “the leading idea of Buddhism,” a religion based on meditation, “is that there is no other ultimate reality than separate, instantaneous bits of existence.” 16 James had introspected experience into “small enough pulses” to realize that the discontinuity between passing thoughts is mediated by the passing thoughts themselves ( PU , 129). The “minimal fact” of experience, for James, was a “passing” moment experienced as difference (ibid., 128). But had his introspection deepened into even smaller pulses, he might have realized one more minimal fact about passing, differing moments: they do not go “indissolubly” into each other, in a continuous stream or “sheet,” (ibid., 130) but, rather, they are separated by a space of non-thought, a space he himself had called the “darkness” “out of” which “the rush of our thought” comes (ibid., 128, 130). In ordinary experience, the space between departing and arriving thoughts is so fleeting as to be an “apparition.” 17 In meditation, however, the apparition is real: “If you watch very carefully,” says Krishnamurti, “you will see that, though the response, the movement of thought, seems so swift, there are gaps, there are intervals between thoughts. Between two thoughts there is a period of silence which is not related to the thought process.” 18 According to Eckhart Tolle such a “gap in the stream of the mind” is the key to enlightenment, insofar as it allows you to “disidentify” from the “voice in your head.” 19 In Tibetan Buddhism, where meditation is a widespread daily practice, this gap has a special name: “bardo,” literally “in between.” 20 Some formal practitioners of meditation have even tried to quantify the frequency of the movements/moments of thought (the word “moment” is derived from the Latin word for “movement,” momentum ): 6,460,000 such moments in twenty-four hours (an average of one arising moment per 13.3 milliseconds), according to the Buddhist Sarvaastivaadins; a sect of Chinese Buddhists puts it at one thought per twenty milliseconds. 21
James, as we shall see, found other reasons to question the seamless continuity of the stream of thought. But in his meditation on will, the gap he discovered between “deciding” thoughts corroborated his “minimum of assumption” for all thoughts: “it thinks” is more accurate than “I think.” Even “deciding” thoughts, thoughts of apparent “I” assertion, do not emerge from an “I,” but from a gap.