20 March 2012

Thinking, Fast and Slow - by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

Daniel Kahneman's life work goes into Thinking, Fast and Slow - the title sums up a good portion of what the book explains, our two main modes of thinking.  He terms the modes System 1 (our essentially instant, intuitive mode of coming up with a quick answer to many questions and decisions) and System 2 (the more deliberative, conscious thinking that we do when we have to - he calls it a lazy system).  System 1 seems to basically be unconscious, and in many situations does a very creditable job of keeping us out of trouble.

But what Kahneman (and his former colleague Amos Tversky) were interested in was the situations in which System 1 goes wrong - systematic biases which steer us away from what economists think of as the rational choice.  And there are many!  Their researches looked at anchoring and framing effects, and the way we tend to fear a small chance of loss as compared with the value we put on small chances of gain.

Note that System 2 is not always perfect either. Especially when it comes to statistical and probability-based questions, even professionals often go astray in their thinking unless they are very careful.  And some of our errors may in fact be helpful in certain ways - for example a bias toward optimism very likely helps make people attempt much more than they would otherwise, and sometimes they succeed!

This book is a readable summary of years of interesting work, and sheds much light on how we all tend to think.  The point is not that we can avoid error, but some awareness of systematic bias can help to trigger System 2 when it can help!

Here's a good review from the NYT by Jim Holt.

10 March 2012

'Free Will' by Sam Harris

The question of free will has been bouncing around for a long time, and recent neuroscience is leading some to conclusions that I find needlessly restrictive in their outlook.  I decided to read Sam Harris's latest short piece on "Free Will" to test my thinking.  Here are some thoughts, driven by my reactions to various lines from the eBook.

Harris doesn't do a good job, to my taste, of defining what he means by 'free will' or 'freedom'.  Early on he writes: "Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making." (p 5).  The closest thing I saw to a common definition is this:  "The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present." (p. 6).  I'm going to ignore part 1, since it's impossible to experimentally test whether one could 'repeat' a choice situation and choose something different.  So I'll focus on #2.

My take on freedom is that there is no such thing as 'complete freedom' - this would seem to me to indicate that there are absolutely no constraints in any way, and I don't see such a situation ever existing.  So freedom is always a relative concept.  One is more free when there are fewer constraints on one's actions, and less free when there are more constraints.

Harris does a great job in pointing out that there are many constraints on our choices.  He writes:  "Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware." p.16.  I think this is largely true - though in a way it's simply a tautology to say we aren't conscious of that which goes on unconsciously.  But I think the focus should be on that which we are consciously aware: situations where we consider alternatives, think about possibilities, and finally decide upon a course of action.  Even if our preferences aren't consciously created, and we don't understand the basis of our decision-making, we still subjectively face decisions and make choices.  Decisions are sometimes difficult, and over time our decision-making may change, notably because we have learned something from past decisions and behaviors.

Frequently Harris poses the question "Where is the freedom?" if so much is constrained by the past, and we can't account for where our desires and preferences come from.  I would say that if freedom is about movement with constraints, then it doesn't necessarily matter that we don't know why we want what we want.  We also don't know why there is gravity, but there is, and we are constrained by it.  So too we are constrained by certain preferences, some of which we could probably alter if we choose to, and some of which seem to alter over time without any conscious effort.

Harris dwells on the fact that we did not choose much of our past experience.  "Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain." (p. 40).  As you would expect from this blog, I dispute the last point, on the development of your brain.  I believe that choices and behaviors we choose today will impact our brain and our unconscious processing in the future.  When we attempt to learn something, we have to concentrate consciously, and think about each new choice.  As we master a subject or learn how to do a physical task, we don't have to try so hard consciously - we've absorbed it in our brains, we can take action unconsciously.  This adds some weight to the compatabilist position that Harris rejects, in which the individual must be considered as more than just the conscious awareness.

So my sense is that Harris does describe many of the true constraints on our will, but I don't agree with his take that you must understand and control every underlying process to achieve 'freedom'.

03 March 2012

On Free Will

The piece 'Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will' by Eddy Nahmias (NYT Opinionator, Nov 13, 2011) sums up my take on this matter pretty well.

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities. They need not belong to immaterial souls outside the realm of scientific understanding (indeed, since we don’t know how souls are supposed to work, souls would not help to explain these capacities). Rather, these are the sorts of cognitive capacities that psychologists and neuroscientists are well positioned to study.
The range of comments are also interesting.  Many folks seem very opposed to the idea of free will - but then again, have they any choice?

Also liked this aside from Robert Anton Wilson (found here):
"Incidentally, you can get a quick estimate of a person's intelligence by asking them how much of themselves is robotic. Those who say "not at all" or "less than 50%" are hopeless imbeciles, always. The few who say "about 99%" are worth talking to; they are quite intelligent."