Thursday, December 29, 2011

Free Will without Counterfactuals?

This brief post is an afterthought to the just-previous post about the nature of reality.

As a side point in that post, I observed that one can often replace counterfactuals with analogies, thus making things a bit clearer.

It occurred to me this morning as I lay in bed waking up, that one can apply this method to the feeling of free will.

I've previously written about the limitations of the "free will" concept, and made agreeable noises about the alternate concept of "natural autonomy." Here, however, my point is a slightly different (though related) one.

One of the key aspects of the feeling of free will is the notion "In situation S, if I had done X differently, then the consequences would have been different." This is one of the criteria that makes us feel like we've exercised free will in doing X.

Natural autonomy replaces this with, roughly speaking "If someone slightly different than me had done something slightly different than X, in a situation slightly different from X, then the result would likely have been different than when I did X in S." This is no longer a counterfactual, it's a probabilistic statement about actions and consequences drawn from an ensemble of actions and consequences done by various actors.

But perhaps that rephrasing doesn't quite get at the essence. It may be more to the point to say: "In future situations similar to S, if I do something that's not analogous to X, then something not analogous to what happened after S in situation X is likely to happen."

Or in cases of binary choice: "In future situations similar to S, if I do something analogous to Y instead of something analogous to X, then a consequence analogous to CY instead of a consequence analogous to CX is likely to occur."

This is really the crux of the matter, isn't it? Not hypothesizing about alternate pasts, nor choices from an ensemble of similar beings -- but rather, resolutions about what to do in the future.

In this view, an "act of will" is something like "an action in a situation, corresponding to specific predictions about which of one's actions will predictively imply which consequences in analogous future situations."

That's boring-sounding, but avoids confusing talk of possible worlds.

Mathematically, this is equivalent to a formulation in terms of counterfactuals ... but, counterfactuals seem to lead human minds in confusing directions, so using them as sparingly as possible seems like a good idea...


hifastius said...

My own characterization of 'free will' is similar to this, we're basically robots with the ability to modify our future actions.

btw can you please change the background color? it's sort of difficult to see -read- the links and so on

Bob Mottram said...

I think it gets weirder than this, because the heuristic "in situation S do X" is largely originating from observed others, and the probabilities assigned are going to depend upon a multitude of factors such as how friendly (or not) you are with the observed other or whether you rate them to be high status (eg a celebrity).

Observations of others can also include fictional characters, or historical characters no longer living.

So you could say that choices about actions, and the sensation of free will which accompanies them, can have very curious origins.

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