Age Quod Agendum (Est): Sentience and Causality

I had known about Sapolsky as a neuroendocrinologist and primatologist but had not (and have not) read his popular works. So I just looked at part of his latest podcast interview about the book he’s writing now about free will. It’s a self-help kind of book, as I suspect many of his books are. He writes about how all the genetic and experiential factors that influence what we do leave no room for free will, but that there’s still some “hope for change” because of the way that thinking, even though it is “determined,” can change brain states in ways that are not possible in other animals. I suspect this is wrong (about other animals) but it might well be another way of trying to counter depression about the feeling of helplessness. This is not the aspect of the question of free will that I (personally) find interesting. It’s the usual self-helpy, me-me obsession that not only such pop books are full of, and cater to, but I think it misses the point about what really matters, and that is not about me. 

But that’s just about me. As to free will, I agree with Sapolsky that there is no “independent” causal force – in the brain, or anywhere else – that influences the causal pattern of events. It’s all unfolding mechanically by cause and effect since the Big Bang. That it seems otherwise is probably just due to two things: 

(1) Uncertainty; there are many causal factors we don’t know and that cannot be known and predicted, so there are many “surprises” that can be interpreted as interlopers, including me and my “decisions”. The physicists say that uncertainty is not just that of statistical uncertainty (we can’t predict the weather or who will win the lottery, but not because it is not all causally determined, but just because we don’t know all the causal details); there’s supposedly also “quantum uncertainty” which is not just that we don’t know all the causal details but that some of the causal details are indeterminate: they somehow come out of nothing. (This could be true — or our understanding of quantum mechanics today may be incomplete. But in any case it has nothing to do with free will. It’s the same in all of the inanimate universe, and would have been the same even if there weren’t living, seemingly autonomous organisms — and especially one species that thinks it’s an exception to the causal picture).

(2) More important and relevant (at least in my understanding of the FW question) is the undeniable fact that FW is a feeling: Just as seeing red, hearing a loud sound, or feeling tired feels like something – and feels like something different from seeing green, hearing a faint sound or feeling peppy —  so stumbling because you lost your balance or because someone pushed you feels like something, and something different from doing it deliberately. And that same feeling (of “volition”) applies to everything you do deliberately, rather than inadvertently. That’s why I think the full-scale FW puzzle is already there in just a lowly Libet-style button press: deciding whether and when to do it, and, when you do, feeling as if “I” am the one who made it happen. It’s not a cosmic question, but a very local question, and, under a microscope, either a trivial one or, more likely, a special case of a much bigger unsolved puzzle, which is why do sentient organisms feel anything at all, whether redness, loudness, fatigue or volition? (In fact volition is the biggest puzzle, because the puzzle is a causal one, and sensations just happen to you, whereas voluntary action feels like something you are yourself causing.

The fact that there exist states that it feels like something to be in, is true, and sentient organisms all know what it feels like to feel. (That’s the only substantive part of Descartes’ “Cogito”.)

It’s also true that what has been lately dubbed the “hard problem” (but used to be called the “mind/body problem) is really just the problem of explaining, causally, why and how organisms feel. Darwinian evolution only requires that they be able to do, and be able to learn to do, whatever is needed to survive and reproduce. What is the causal contribution of feeling to the Darwinian capacities to do? What is the causal value-added of feeling? No one knows (though there are lots of silly hypotheses, most of them simply circular).

Well the FW problem (I think) is just a particular case of the hard problem of the causal role of feeling, probably the most salient case.

And it’s not the metaphysical problem of the causal power of sentient organisms’ “will” or “agency” (a misnomer) in the universe.  Organisms are clearly just causal components of the causal unfolding of the universe, not special ringers in the scheme of things.

But the puzzle remains of why they think (or rather feel) that they are – or, more generally, why they feel at all.

And that question is a causal one.