Overweening Generalist

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Free Will: The Law, Philosophy, and Microbes

It must have been around age 15 when I first encountered "the problem" of "free will." What a kick that  some Greeks had said that everything reduces to atoms, and every billiard-ball atom in the universe impinges on every other billiard ball - including the ones in my "mind" and muscles - and so there's no free will. For a long time I thought it was sophistry - after I learned what that word meant.

At some point I started reading on "free will" and realized I could continue to read and think on it my entire life; there's quite a lot of ink already spilled on the issue. If it's an issue at all to you, that is. Because almost all Westerners assert their wills are free. Doesn't it just seen like you decided to read Overweening Generalist today, rather than skip it? You WILLED it, and it was so. And now I'm already boring you. I'll try to be amusing to keep you from "willing" your way on to the next of 23 zappazillion other possible Netpages.

I've found that there have been times since I was 15 - a long-assed time ago, friends! - when I thought like William James about the "free will vs. determinism" Big Q: To paraphrase James: Of course the world and everything is determined. And yet our wills are free. A sort of "free-willed determinism" must be the run of things. It was lines like this that won James lots of "man-in-the-street" fans; his academic colleagues? Not so much.

In other words, for James it's a tired subject. We've been debating it for 2500 years and can't come to a consensus, so let's just change the conversation, aye?

But then I'll get into periods when the topic is really hot. For example, I have mostly thought arguments against free will were hilarious, deep-down. Their adherents may have been dead serious. But really? You, Philosopher, did not have a choice but to write this rather dry piece of argumentation just so I could not choose to read it? (And yet I did read it...did I choose to or not? If it was so "dry" why didn't I choose to do something else? Clearly, there are more pleasurable things. Like masturbation...which is a lot like what I've just read from Mr. Philosopher.) Or: what if he's right?

I've spent entire weeks reclining on a divan trying to remind myself there's no "free will." Not even for Rush's drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. Neil was confused when he wrote that, probably under the spell of a ditzy libertarian. When I did or said something I later thought was ignorant I gave myself a break: It's just the way Things are. To borrow from William James again, I found this a delightful way to take a "moral holiday." I found that when I or others did kind things for others, it was probably a nice grace built into the fabric of existence. Others who acted like jerks couldn't help themselves. My stress levels seemed to dip. I'd constantly catch myself thinking in the "free will-ist" mode and remind myself that that was not allowed until next Monday, or whenever.

Being some sort of agnostic hedonist with Buddhistic and Taoist tendencies, I couldn't see this thinking linked to Judeo-Xtian ideas, although clearly: the Free Will v. Determinist worldviews (which I will from here on out refer to as The Main Event) have had huge play in theology and law. In Law, we apparently have a very very strong need for people to be blameworthy, and therefore what's commonly called the compatibilist view holds sway. Things are determined, but there's enough room for moral choices, unless you were coerced, or drugged, or not "of sound mind" and many other very interesting hedges...like maybe you murdered top public officials at point-blank cold blood because you were addicted to Hostess Twinkies, an addiction to which was symptomatic of a non compos mentis-level of depression.

In 1962 Strawson had the audacity to argue for a particularly hardcore compatibilist position: let's say you are a sober, healthy bus driver and a child runs out in front of your bus. You have no time to react. You hit the kid and he dies. Strawson thought - if I read him correctly - that the consequences of your actions are enough to hold you culpable. Forget about any extenuating circumstances. If I have free will of the kind I hope I have, I hold Strawson in contempt for a sort of robotic punitive dickishness all too common among fascist Law and Order types. (Funny: one week I decided to adopt a hardcore No Free Will and I'd read Strawson: he couldn't help it. Poor guy. Oh well, it's part of some larger, Weirder Plan?)

                                                    Dr. Samuel Johnson

You've all heard/read the bit about Boswell relating to Dr. Johnson about Bishop Berkeley's views about "reality": we can only have experiences of things, we cannot know, do not experience Abstract Nouns. According to Berkeley, you're having an experience reading this rather prolix blogger write about The Main Event on a "computer." That's about all you can say about it. You see the computer, the words. You can feel the computer. You cannot infer about anything else "out there" that's causing you to have further abstracted notions about what might be going on; "God" put all those interesting ideas in your head. The sense data came from Him too. Anyway: Johnson hears this and it pisses him off and he kicks a rock and says to Boswell, "I refute him thus!" Supposedly Johnson hurt his foot, took the pain to illustrate that things really are "out there" and he chose to demonstrate and feel it. Guerrilla ontologist Berkeley never meant to rouse ire in a dude like Johnson, but Johnson seems to have taken it as a challenge to his own free will, and the will to believe other stuff is really "out there." Like things to kick by the side of the road. I see merit in both writers' ideas. Johnson's "I refute him thus!" and the kick has been referred to by wiseacres of much reading as argumentum ad lapidem. I hear this fallacy in bars all the time.

These folks see The Main Event as skewed toward determinism and so are reluctant to blame. However, libertarian incompatibilists see free will as far more important than whatever there is that determines us (genes, history, our upbringing, environment, etc), so they pretty much reject determinism and do find others blameworthy. A few incompatibilists who do not find people blameworthy are pre-determinists of the olde fashioned kind: atoms and billiard balls and all that: we cannot possibly trace the contours of causation. Do you know why you have a headache? How memories are formed? How vision is processed? Do you have access to how a suite of genes are turning on right now, coding for proteins, turning other genes off, modulating others like a rheostat?

Far more incompatibilists are "skeptical" ones: a shorthand for them: we don't have enough free will to find others blameworthy. As a general reader, it seems more biologist-types are going this way. My favorite thinker who's an incompatibilist is the eminent neurophysiologist and baboonologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford. The eminent philosopher Daniel Dennett claims 59% of philosophers in 2009 were compatibilists, according to a Philpapers survery. He says only 12% of philosophers were determinists.

                                         Barbara Fried of Stanford law; she's a 
                                         strong proponent of skeptical incompatibility

Isaac Bashevis Singer, 20th c. novelist, was asked about whether he believed in free will. He replied yes, he had no choice. Which reminds me of an old joke. Think about the eagle, frog and truck driver as thinking they were executing their actions freely:

Moses, Jesus, and a bearded old man are playing golf. Moses drives a long one, which lands on the fairway but rolls directly toward the pond. Moses raises his club, parts the water, and the ball rolls safely to the other side. 

Jesus also hits a long one toward the same pond, but just as it's about to land in the center, it hovers above the surface. Jesus casually walks out on the pond and chips one onto the green.

The bearded man's drive hits a fence and bounces out onto the street, where it caroms off an oncoming truck and back onto the fairway. It's headed directly for the pond, but it lands on a lily-pad, where a frog sees it and snatches it into his mouth. And then an eagle swoops down, grabs the frog, and flies away. As the eagle and frog pass over the green the frog drops the ball out of its mouth and the ball lands in the cup for a hole-in-one. 

Moses turns to Jesus and says, "I hate playing with your dad."

Why I'm Once Again On a Kick Over The Main Event
It has to do with the literally hundreds of articles I've been reading over the past year on how bacteria in our gut has been strongly linked to debilitating dis-ease and how those microbes can influence our thinking. Our microbiome in general (bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes) outnumber "our" own cells 10-1. Peer-reviewed, well-designed studies have linked our microbiome to obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, asthma, colon cancer, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, lymphoma, malnutrition, hypertension, liver cancer, psoriasis, even ear wax. Whether we were born vaginally or by Caesarian seems to have an enormous influence on our microbiome, and therefore immune system and therefore general health. All of this makes me think 1.) In scientific endeavors, we as a species, hardly know anything so far. 2.) This stuff is very exciting and offers real hope for the cure or alleviation of lots of human suffering, but the complexity is staggering. 3.) If all of this stuff is true, it has bewilderingly fascinating implications for Qs surrounding The Main Event, no? One thing most of us can say: "Boy, my gut bacteria have really done a number on me!...I just don't know to what extent, to what part of 'me'...and why. I don't even know all that much about how bacteria work."

                                                Toxoplasmosis cycle

Briefly: A Few Other Mitigators
Enforced miseducation. Public Relations and advertising. Kahneman and Tversky's uncovering of a litany of unconscious biases in human minds, even the best of those minds, including these two last named, one of who won a Nobel Prize. Side effects, TV, social media, memes, possibly quantum indeterminism.

Sounds Like Science Fiction: Toxoplasmosis gondii
A Czech biologist named Jaroslav Flegr, sitting in then-Soviet-controlled Czechoslvakia, was reading a Richard Dawkins book. Dawkins wrote how a flatworm gets into an ant and hijacks its nervous system by altering a protein. When the temperature drops, ants normally go underground. But a zombified ant instead heads to the top of a blade of grass, where its mandibles clamp hard onto the tip of the blade of grass, until it's eaten by a cow or a sheep. In the ungulate's stomach, the flatworm is in the perfect environment to reproduce. Flegr started thinking about his own behavior and the ant's around 1990. He knew some things about Toxoplasmosis gondii, a single-celled protozoa that cats carry in their bodies. Flegr remembered walking out into heavy traffic and didn't jump out of the way if cars honked. He had openly criticized the communists running Czechoslovakia, which could have led him to be imprisoned, but he was lucky. When studying in Turkey, there was sectarian violence and gunshots, but he stayed calm, to the surprise of his colleagues and even himself.

Flegr wondered if he had been infected by Toxo and if it caused this odd behavior. Luckily the Charles University at Prague, where he'd recently gotten hired, had just developed a superior test for Toxo: he had it.

It turns out around 10-20% of Unistatians are infected with Toxo. 30-40% of Czechs are infected. In France: up to 55%, probably due to eating undercooked meat. Billions worldwide are infected with it. It gets into your brain - I know this sounds like a Lovecrafty psychedelic horror story, but it's true! - and hibernates there, causing cysts. Now: take a guy like Flegr: he's not all that worked up about it, and he has it and knows as much about it as anyone. So it's not that horrible. But it is pretty effing weird...

Here's what Toxo does in your brain, according to the latest research: it forms little cysts inside certain neurons, quietly altering connections. If you watched the Sapolsky video I linked to above, you've heard a lot of this already. Toxo alters those parts of the brain that respond to dopamine and it just so happens its primary actions on human behavior have to do with the basics, the primal circuits: sexual arousal, fear, and anxiety. The protozoan Toxo knows exactly what to do to ramp up production of dopamine, causing pleasure-seeking: sex, drugs, rock and roll.

Toxo alters trust in others and how outgoing we are, and this is sex-specific: men become more introverted and suspicious while women become more extroverted and trusting. Isn't this the WEIRDEST stuff? Toxo alters our response to scents. In lab rats infected with Toxo, they loved the smell of cat urine, which is supposed to scare the hell out of them. Toxo-infected rats become easy prey for cats...which is just what Toxo wants! Be aware of the kitty litter box! Wash your vegetables very well, cook your meat well-done, try not to drink water that might be contaminated with cat feces. (Difficult in much of the Third World, but they have other problems.) Toxo is linked to car crashes, suicides, and schizophrenia.

Car crashes? Yea: people just aren't as vigilant on the road with Toxo on the brain. Toxo-infected folks are 2 1/2 times more likely to be in a car accident. People don't mean to be bad drivers; they just sorta don't care all that much behind the wheel. Lapses of concentration, possibly an increased propensity to go into bizarre daydreams? Sapolsky thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg: there are probably all sorts of "puppetmaster" microbes we haven't identified yet. Sapolsky also says the damage done by Toxo to drivers is not as bad as drunk or texting drivers. To make the roads safer, deal with drunks and texters first. Just the fact that a protozoa can get into your brain and influence us in such intimate ways: ain't life grand?

How does all this alter your ideas about The Main Event?

The world of biology is thronged with stories about insects, fish and crustaceans becoming "zombified" by some other organism with its own plans.

Besides Toxo, Sapolsky the incompatibilist thinks we can't come to grips with not having free will, and we suffer for it. For him, every move we make is part of an intricate cascade of genetic, cellular, cultural and personal factors. Toxo is just one more Damned Thing.

                                    Public intellectual and philosopher Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett
I'll give a compatibilist the last word here. I find his arguments nuanced but I also find him arrogant. He thinks neurobiology is no place to think about The Main Event. He rejects quantum indeterminism because we must look for explanations for a "free will worth wanting" at a higher level of complexity, a more human-leveled explanatory scheme. For Dennett, we are indeed enmeshed in causality and yet we are autonomous free willists. One narrative he goes for comes from John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern's Theory of Games: when we take an intentional stance we have a theory of mind: we know what others know and know they know we know X, Q, Z, etc. On this level, we are free agents who can plan for possible exigencies, make rational decisions and be held accountable. He's used animals and plants as examples of living things that cannot possibly have the intentional stance. But some of the stuff I've read about plant  and animal behavior lately? I wonder if Dennett is guilty of not reading enough outside his own world of Expertise. I do like this passage from him, from an article in Prospect magazine, on our topic:

What people seem to want - though articulating this idea causes them to backtrack in embarrassment - is to be a sort of god, perched somehow on the edge of the physical universe, neither a part of it or remote from it, able to interfere "at will" with its ongoing streams of causation, without at the same time being caused by these very streams to choose which of the options to favor.

Thanks for reading this bloated rant...but maybe you had no choice?

just a few sources that were used here:
Dennett's review of Sam Harris's book Free Will, (2012):

Dennett's article from Prospect, in which he champions fellow philosopher Alfred Mele:

In case you missed the link: Sapolsky's 25 min video-talk on Toxo:

Kathleen McAuliffe's 2012 article on Flegr from Atlantic:

Discussion about UC Davis study about how random fluctuations in the brain may allow for free will:

Barbara Fried's "Beyond Blame," makes a case for abandoning blame:

Sci-Am: "Is Free Will An Illusion?":

"The Body's Ecosystem," The Scientist, Aug 2014:

microbiome superstar Rob Knight's TED talk:

"Turd transplant leads to rapid weight gain and obesity" Boing Boing:

"The E. Coli Made Me Do It": gut microbes and human behavior, New Yorker:
"Do Gut Bacteria Rule Our Minds?":
"Can Microbes in the Gut Influence the Brain?":

"The Super-Abundant Virus Controlling Your Gut Bacteria":

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar..., by Cathcart and Klein

The Epigenetics Revolution, by Nessa Carey


Anonymous said...

Eric Wagner away from my computer: Great piece. It makes me think about a line in either Wilson or Leary that we seem 99% robotic and struggle for more freedom, which makes me think about the bit at the end of the Trick Top Hat that many of us think of evolution as a Beethoven like struggle, but that we just need to cooperate with the DNA currents. That makes me think of the line in Quantum Psychology that prefers the notion of morphogenetic fields to DNA intelligence. We need to cooperate with the morphogenetic fields to utilizie the little free will we have.

michael said...

@Eric: AYE! I was thinking about working in Leary and/or RAW's ideas about free will - which seem never stated in classic philosophical form and yet the issue is all over their work - but then the piece would've far longer than it already seems.

Your astute comment here makes up for that. And the idea about Sheldrake should make some of us think more about his extension of the possibility of Will in die welt.

Anonymous said...

Eric again. For some reason this makes me wonder about why antisemites have had such a profound influence on my life, from Richard Wagner to Ezra Pound. Does this have something to do with destiny, free will, a fault in my self or in my stars?

michael said...

My first answer would be: Yes!

When I'd come down off the acid: I'd meditate and then begin to develop a hierarchy of 7 (seven) models about you and antisemite geniuses.

My main model for my own resonances with antisemites: the Jews have always been "outsiders" and antisemitism has been profoundly common since, oh, around 500 CE? Some - maybe most -geniuses are "weird" and a percentage of them will make their lamentable hate public. So: let's pay attention to all the geniuses that have influenced us who were (apparently?) NOT antisemites, and realize that, until the Holocaust, the idea of the very badness of antisemitism is relatively a "new" thing. Far more non-antisemites have been profound influences on me than confirmed jew-haters.

Also: there seems to be degrees of this morbid meme. Pound did see individual jews as friends and colleagues and championed a few.

But yea: "destiny" and "free will" and unconscious motives and even the stars should be on the table when you develop your models.

Bobby Campbell said...

OUTSTANDING! What a a wonderfully constructed contemplative journey :)

The idea of a multiplicity of unknown causal factors influencing our behavior reminds me of my favorite Sanskrit word: Pratityasamutpada! Simultaneous creation on the basis of causes and conditions. The idea being that everything participates in a multitudinous non-linear cause & effect relationship with everything else, to the point that defining where one thing ends and another begins becomes an arbitrary task.

Circumstance determines behavior and behavior modifies circumstance. (To various degrees)
“Process models feedback”

“Open System Self” is the best way I’ve found to succinctly describe my experience of individuality.

I experience a self, but recognize the innumerable mitigating factors which help determine my behavior, and the impermanence of this particular arrangement of causes and conditions.

“I seem to be a verb” – Bucky Fuller

Here’s a relevant bit of RAW from the Quantum Psychology MLA class:

“Maybe the whole isomorphism wd go something like particle/wave :: Leary/Sheldrake :: sociobiology/ethnomethodology :: determinism/chance” - RAW

Franklin Merrell-Wolff has a great bit about determinism functioning as a physical phenomenon, and free will functioning as a psychical phenomenon. Maybe it is determined that your glass of milk will spill, and it may even be determined that you cry about it, but you have the potential to interpret that experience according to a free will. (Which may or may not then influence emerging deterministic probabilities)

(I got to FMW through the John Lilly book “Simulations of God”. His books “Philosophy of Consciousness Without Object” & “Transformations in Consciousness: The Metaphysics and Epistemology” blew me out of the water. I’d lament his lack of popularity, but he never seemed to want a huge movement, and thought his ideas should creep along like a contagion, from one person to the next. So here’s passing it along!)

Eric Wagner said...

Michael, I think Pound and Wagner seem exceptionally ant-Semitic, even in our very anti-Semitic culture. Imagine if Schubert and Whitman had played as big a role in my life as Wagner and Pound - I don't recall anything particularly anti-Semitic about Schubert and Whitman.

I do find myself coming back to Wagner's music more and more in recent years. I listened to a bunch in 2012-2013 for his centennial, and reading Musil led me back to him. I just read Adorno's book on Wagner and reread the New Grove Wagner.

michael said...

@ Bobby:
Love all these ideas, but esp: thanks for turning me on to Franklin Merrell-Wolff. He sounds RILLY innaresting!

I discussed your issue with a very dear friend today. It was not boring: we ended up talking about the times when we catch ourselves thinking "Was I being a tad racist in thinking that just now?" It was sorta hilarious. There was general agreement that your education in liberal arts - an education to be a free man in society - was a smashing success. Why? You've become sensitized to other people's suffering, for one thing. So much so that you wonder if maybe some hidden variable swayed you to enjoy Pound and Wagner, the antisemites. You just seem like really decent folk.

We also wondered: have you indeed delved into Whitman and Schubert?

Let us not even mention Heidegger.

Oh yea: congrats on getting through a book by Adorno on ANYTHING. (Have you ever read Adorno on Jazz?)

Eric Wagner said...

I have delved into Whitman and Schubert. I have taught Whitman's "When I heard the learned astronomer" dozens of times in high school and college classes. I first heard Schubert's "Erlkoenig" in college, and that has become a favorite in my music history classes. Nine years ago I got Casal's CD of Schubert's quintet with two cellos, and that has become one of my favorite CD's. I find it interesting that Goethe didn't like Schubert's settings of his poetry. He preferred more pedestrian settings. One of these years I want to study his Lieder deeply. It seems they provide a world of word/music synergy undreamt of by Pound or Zukofsky.

I haven't read Heidegger, nor have I read anything by Adorno except his Wagner book.