Do we have free will?

C’è qualcosa di profondamente disonesto in un video del genere.

Mancanza di approfondimento, fallacie logiche come se grandinasse, il sorriso compiaciuto del tizio che ammicca qualcosa come “fatevi furbi, credete alla Grande Mente“. C’è qualcosa di profondamente ingiusto e fraudolento nello spiegare le cose in questo modo pseudo-scientifico.

E no, dear YouTube, questo video non rientra tra quelli che “mi potrebbero piacere”. Ma grazie lo stesso per la segnalazione.

Annunci

Una nuova immagine di Homo Sapiens

metzingerMi è capitato di passare alcune ore all’interno della biblioteca centrale di Milano Bicocca, dove ho potuto apprezzare la notevole disponibilità di testi relativi alle neuroscienze, alla filosofia della mente e alle problematiche dell’Io, della coscienza e del libero arbitrio. Tutte storie molto di moda qua dentro, you know. In particolare ho sfogliato alcune pagine de Il tunnel dell’Io di Thomas Metzinger, lavoro che per un motivo o per l’altro non ho mai fatto mio e che, prendendo in esame scoperte scientifiche e nuovi dati sui meccanismi neurali umani, ci mostra (dalla quarta di copertina):

che siamo solo macchine evolute, dotate di un cervello in grado di modellare noi stessi e il mondo, facendoci credere che percepiamo cose fuori di noi e che siamo in contatto diretto con un io dentro di noi. Non si tratta di una semplice illusione, facile da smascherare. È il modello di realtà entro cui da sempre siamo, il tunnel da cui non possiamo uscire, perché di questo è fatta la nostra vita cosciente. Occorre dunque resistere alla “superstizione” dell’io, aprendo la via a una nuova riflessione sul significato della nostra identità e del nostro essere con gli altri.

Nello specifico son rimasto affascinato da alcune delle conclusioni delineate nelle ultime pagine.

Il pezzo Una nuova immagine di Homo Sapiens, per esempio, tira le somme in maniera lucida e allo stesso tempo visionaria (ho rintracciato solo la versione in inglese, sorry: la incollo qua sotto). Ci suggerisce che sta emergendo, o emergerà, una nuova versione di Homo Sapiens. Il primate che, sulla base delle informazioni accumulate da diverse discipline, saprà di non essere che una spettacolare e illusoria macchina dell’Io. Ciò rappresenterà, secondo Metzinger, un ulteriore passo evolutivo. Forte, no?

(no?)

A NEW IMAGE OF HOMO SAPIENS

It is clear that a new image of humankind is emerging in science as well as in philosophy. Increasingly, this emergence is being driven not only by molecular genetics and evolutionary theory but also by the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness and the modern philosophy of mind. At this critical juncture, it is important not to confuse the descriptive and the normative aspects of anthropology. We must carefully distinguish two different questions: What is a human being? And what should a human being become?

Obviously, the evolutionary process that created our bodies, our brains, and our conscious minds was not a goal-directed chain of events. We are gene-copying devices capable of evolving conscious selfmodels and creating large societies. We are also capable of creating fantastically complex cultural environments, which in turn shape and constantly add new layers to our self-models. We created philosophy, science, a history of ideas. But there was no intent behind this process — it was the result of blind, bottom-up self-organization. Yes, we have the conscious experience of will, and whenever we engage in philosophy, science, or other cultural activities, we experience ourselves as acting intentionally. But cognitive neuroscience is now telling us that this very engagement may well be the product of a self-less, bottom-up process generated by our brains.

Meanwhile, however, something new is happening: Conscious Ego Machines are engaging in a rigorous expansion of knowledge by forming scientific communities. Gradually, they are unraveling the secrets of the mind. The life process itself is being mirrored in the conscious selfmodels of millions of the systems it created. Moreover, insight into how this became possible is also expanding. This expansion is changing the content of our self-models — the internal ones as well as their externalized versions in science, philosophy, and culture. Science is invading the Ego Tunnel.

The emerging image of Homo sapiens is of a species whose members once longed to have immortal souls but are slowly recognizing they are self-less Ego Machines. The biological imperative to live — indeed, live forever — was burned into our brains, into our emotional self-model, over the course of millennia. But our brand-new cognitive self-models tell us that all attempts to realize this imperative will ultimately be futile. Mortality, for us, is not only an objective fact but a subjective chasm, an open wound in our phenomenal self-model. We have a deep, inbuilt existential conflict, and we seem to be the first creatures on this planet to experience it consciously. Many of us, in fact, spend our lives trying to avoid experiencing it. Maybe this feature of our self-model is what makes us inherently religious: We are this process of trying to become whole again, to somehow reconcile what we know with what we feel should not be so. In this sense, the Ego is the longing for immortality. The Ego results in part from the constant attempt to sustain its own coherence and that of the organism harboring it; thereby arises the constant temptation to sacrifice intellectual honesty in favor of emotional well-being.

The Ego evolved as an instrument in social cognition, and one of its greatest functional advantages was that it allowed us to read the minds of other animals or conspecifics — and then to deceive them. Or deceive ourselves. Since our inbuilt existential need for full emotional and physical security can never be fulfilled, we have a strong drive toward delusion and bizarre belief systems. Psychological evolution endowed us with the irresistible urge to satisfy our emotional need for stability and emotional meaningfulness by creating metaphysical worlds and invisible persons.1 Whereas spirituality might be defined as seeing what is — as letting go of the search for emotional security — religious faith can be seen as an attempt to cling to that search by redesigning the Ego Tunnel. Religious belief is an attempt to endow your life with deeper meaning and embed it in a positive metacontext — it is the deeply human attempt to finally feel at home. It is a strategy to outsmart the hedonic treadmill. On an individual level, it seems to be one of the most successful ways to achieve a stable state — as good as or better than any drug so far discovered. Now science seems to be taking all this away from us. The emerging emptiness may be one reason for the current rise of religious fundamentalism, even in secular societies.

Yes, the self-model made us intelligent, but it certainly is not an example of intelligent design. It is the seed of subjective suffering. If the process that created the biological Ego Machine had been initiated by a person, that person would have to be described as cruel, maybe even diabolic. We were never asked if we wanted to exist, and we will never be asked whether we want to die or whether we are ready to do so. In particular, we were never asked if we wanted to live with this combination of genes and this type of body. Finally, we were certainly never asked if we wanted to live with this kind of a brain including this specific type of conscious experience. It should be high time for rebellion. But everything we know points to a conclusion that is simple but hard to come to terms with: Evolution simply happened — foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against — not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth.

One of the most important philosophical tasks ahead will be to develop a new and comprehensive anthropology — one that synthesizes the knowledge we have gained about ourselves. Such a synthesis should satisfy several conditions. It should be conceptually coherent and free of logical contradictions. It should be motivated by an honest intent to face the facts. It should remain open to correction and able to accommodate new insights from cognitive neuroscience and related disciplines. It must lay a foundation, creating a rational basis for normative decisions — decisions about how we want to be in the future. I predict that philosophically motivated neuroanthropology will become one of the most important new fields of research in the course of this century.

 

Psicopatologia e corde cosmiche

Com’è noto, l’analisi delle anomalie, delle lesioni e dei disturbi che allontanano gli individui dai percorsi percettivi e cognitivi considerati “normali” (strategie e sistemi che evidentemente aumentavano la fitness ai nostri antenati) aiuta a far luce su alcuni dei misteri della mente umana e sul rapporto mente-cervello. Quando ho letto questo passaggio tratto da Sims – Introduzione alla psicopatologia descrittiva di Femi Oyebode, infatti, non ho potuto non ripensare alla teoria emergentista la quale considera l’Io una mera illusione, un epifenomeno, e la volontà il coerente risultato di una miriade di incalcolabili microcause materiali, o corde cosmiche:

Una stenografa (una paziente, ndG) di 26 anni descriveva le sue azioni in questo modo: “Quando allungo la mano per prendere il pettine sono la mia mano e il braccio a muoversi e sono le mie dita a stringere la penna, ma non sono io a controllarle… Io sto seduta lì desiderando che si muovano, ed essi sono indipendenti, quel che fanno non ha niente a che fare con me… Io sono un pupazzo manipolato da corde cosmiche… Quando le corde vengono tese il mio corpo si muove e io non posso impedirlo.”

Libero arbitrio e responsabilità morale

Tratto dal capitolo Moral responsability incluso in Free Will di Sam Harris (vedi post precedente).

The belief in free will has given us both the religious conception of “sin” and our commitment to retributive justice. The U.S. Supreme Court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for our system of law, distinct from “a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system” (United States v. Grayson, 1978). Any intellectual developments that threatened free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behavior in question.

The great worry, of course, is that an honest discussion of the underlying causes of human behavior appears to leave no room for moral responsibility. If we view people as neuronal weather patterns, how can we coherently speak about right and wrong or good and evil? […]

Happily, we can. What does it mean to take responsibility for an action? […]

Consider the following examples of human violence:

1. A four-year-old boy was playing with his father’s gun and killed a young woman. The gun had been kept loaded and unsecured in a dresser drawer.

2. A 12-year-old boy who had been the victim of continual physical and emotional abuse took his father’s gun and intentionally shot and killed a young woman because she was teasing him.

3. A 25-year-old man who had been the victim of continual abuse as a child intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend because she left him for another man.

4. A 25-year-old man who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.”

5. A 25-year-old man who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.” An MRI of the man’s brain revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex (a region responsible for the control of emotion and behavioral impulses).

In each case a young woman died, and in each case her death was the result of events arising in the brain of another human being. But the degree of moral outrage we feel depends on the background conditions described in each case. We suspect that a four-year-old child cannot truly kill someone on purpose and that the intentions of a 12-year-old do not run as deep as those of an adult. In cases 1 and 2, we know that the brain of the killer has not fully matured and that not all the responsibilities of personhood have yet been conferred. The history of abuse and the precipitating circumstance in case 3 seem to mitigate the man’s guilt: This was a crime of passion committed by a person who had himself suffered at the hands of others. In 4 there has been no abuse, and the motive brands the perpetrator a psychopath. Case 5 involves the same psychopathic behavior and motive, but a brain tumor somehow changes the moral calculus entirely: Given its location, it seems to divest the killer of all responsibility for his crime. And it works this miracle even if the man’s subjective experience was identical to that of the psychopath in case 4—for the moment we understand that his feelings had a physical cause, a brain tumor, we cannot help seeing him as a victim of his own biology.

How can we make sense of these gradations of moral responsibility when brains and their background influences are in every case, and to exactly the same degree, the real cause of a woman’s death?

We need not have any illusions that a causal agent lives within the human mind to recognize that certain people are dangerous. What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm. Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person’s actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.

Why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy? Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.

Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: Everyone else will be better off this way. Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter—assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc. However, certain moral intuitions begin to relax the moment we take a wider picture of causality into account. Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel. Once again, even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the picture does not change: Anyone born with the soul of a psychopath has been profoundly unlucky.

Why does the brain tumor in case 5 change our view of the situation so dramatically? One reason is that its influence has been visited upon a person who (we must assume) would not otherwise behave in this way. Both the tumor and its effects seem adventitious, and this makes the perpetrator appear to be purely a victim of biology. Of course, if we couldn’t cure his condition, we would still need to lock him up to prevent him from committing further crimes, but we would not hate him or condemn him as evil. Here is one front on which I believe our moral intuitions must change: The more we understand the human mind in causal terms, the harder it becomes to draw a distinction between cases like 4 and 5.

The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas (and the innocent, of course, have supremely bad luck). Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character. Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.

[…]

Despite our attachment to the notion of free will, most of us know that disorders of the brain can trump the best intentions of the mind. This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity—and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics. Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin—which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next. And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us.

Viewing human beings as natural phenomena need not damage our system of criminal justice. If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. We fight emerging epidemics—and even the occasional wild animal—without attributing free will to them. Clearly, we can respond intelligently to the threat posed by dangerous people without lying to ourselves about the ultimate origins of human behavior. We will still need a criminal justice system that attempts to accurately assess guilt and innocence along with the future risks that the guilty pose to society. But the logic of punishing people will come undone—unless we find that punishment is an essential component of deterrence or rehabilitation.

It must be admitted, however, that the issue of retribution is a tricky one. In a fascinating article in The New Yorker, Jared Diamond writes of the high price we sometimes pay when our desire for vengeance goes unfulfilled. He compares the experiences of two people: his friend Daniel, a New Guinea highlander who avenged the death of a paternal uncle; and his late father-in-law, who had the opportunity to kill the man who murdered his entire family during the Holocaust but opted instead to turn him over to the police. (After spending only a year in jail, the killer was released.) The consequences of taking revenge in the first case and for-going it in the second could not have been starker. While there is much to be said against the vendetta culture of the New Guinea highlands, Daniel’s revenge brought him exquisite relief. Whereas Diamond’s father-in-law spent the last 60 years of his life “tormented by regret and guilt.” Clearly, vengeance answers to a powerful psychological need in many of us.

We are deeply disposed to perceive people as the authors of their actions, to hold them responsible for the wrongs they do us, and to feel that these transgressions must be punished. Often, the only punishment that seems appropriate is for the perpetrator of a crime to suffer or forfeit his life. It remains to be seen how a scientifically informed system of justice might steward these impulses. Clearly, a full account of the causes of human behavior should attenuate our natural response to injustice, at least to some degree. I doubt, for instance, that Diamond’s father-in-law would have suffered the same anguish if his family had been trampled by an elephant or laid low by cholera. Similarly, we can assume that his regret would have been significantly eased if he had learned that his family’s killer had lived a flawlessly moral life until a virus began ravaging his medial pre-frontal cortex.

However, it may be that a sham form of retribution would still be moral—even necessary—if it led people to behave better than they otherwise would. Whether it is useful to emphasize the punishment of certain criminals—rather than their containment or rehabilitation—is a question for social and psychological science. But it seems clear that a desire for retribution, arising from the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion—and perpetuates a moral one.

You’re not controlling the storm. You are the storm

Free Will, di Sam Harris

Segnalazione veloce veloce, ché sto affogando tra analisi multivariate e deviazioni standard.

Su questo blog ho parlato spesso di libero arbitrio, mente, coscienza e volontà (tutto concetti collegati). Bene. Se vi interessa l’argomento – così come interessa a me – e volete leggere UN libro che lo riguardi, fiondatevi subito su Free will di Sam Harris. Se invece non sapete di cosa stia parlando ma siete lo stesso curiosi, credo che Free Will possa fungere per voi da introduzione all’intera questione. Poi deciderete se approfondire o meno.

Nel saggio l’autore porta avanti, con scioltezza stilistica e notevoli capacità divulgative, il concetto che il libero arbitrio sia un’illusione, sfornando vivide metafore e affrontando di volta in volta ognuna delle obiezioni – anche quelle dell’amico Dennett – che pretendono di smentire tale modello. Stiamo parlando di un’idea, mica noccioline, che una volta radicata e compresa appieno potrebbe provocare, e provocherà, sconquassi anche superiori a quelli creati dall’evoluzionismo darwiniano.

Consigliatissimo, anche per il suo essere sintetico – la versione in lingua originale su ebook non supera le cento pagine – e particolarmente vivace. Come sottolinea il maestro Oliver Sacks:

Brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive—Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000.