Sunday, March 24, 2019

Character and Freewill

Bioethicist Hazem Zohny argues that “behaviour-changing neurointerventions” (the prospect of controlling someone else’s mind) shouldn’t be so controversial, because we’re never in control of our behaviour in the first place. More precisely, we mistake the reason why we object to the possibility of having our thoughts or actions dictated by someone else, if we assume we’re in control of them. Instead, thoughts arise unconsciously and thus always have a mysterious origin in automated neural events.

“Even a cursory attempt at introspection,” Zohny writes, “will show that thoughts and impulses simply arise in consciousness without will or intent. The source of the contents of our consciousness is always a mystery to us: things just pop into our minds. We can no better predict our next thought than we can predict the next words to come out of a stranger’s mouth.” When we deliberate, focusing our attention on a line of thought, we’re only adding more thoughts that contribute to the automation: “a thought happens to arise at the time and with the weight that it does, which then triggers a cascade of further thoughts. But each of those cascading thoughts itself happens to arise the way that it does without any will, intent or foresight on our part.” To illustrate, Zohny points out that when asked to think of a number between one and 100, you’ll find when attending to the process that the “number simply comes to mind.” So there’s no such thing as freewill in the sense of choosing or even predicting our mental contents.

According to Zohny, a better explanation of our resistance to the notion of neurointervention is that we fear being alienated from our thoughts and behaviour. In alien hand syndrome, for example, when a patient feels that her hand acts of its own volition, the problem with the alien hand isn’t “that it behaves without our intent or knowledge,” says Zohny, “but that it behaves in ways that do not cohere with other wants or wishes—such as our desire to be able to stop such movements when we want to. In other words, there is a difference between directly controlling our actions, and finding ourselves behaving in ways that do not align with how we want to behave at a particular moment.” Zohny concludes, “perhaps the real problem with behaviour-changing neurointerventions isn’t that they might rob us of control, but that they might make us think or act in ways that are alien to what we have so far been, ways that are potentially disturbing both to us and to those who know us well.”

What’s frustrating about Zohny’s argument is that he unwittingly points to the source of freewill and thus undermines his case. Zohny assumes that if we can’t pinpoint something necessarily immaterial and magical, known traditionally as a “soul” or “spirit,” something that chooses what we think at any given moment without itself being merely another mental content following a stream of similar thoughts and feelings, there’s no such thing as freewill or as self-control. But this strawmans the idea of freewill. Of course we’re not omnipotent: we don’t have the capacity to stand outside our brain and all our particular mental states to decide, based on no prior mental state, what we think or do. Who or what would be the self that transcends those mental states? What would distinguish this proper self from anyone else if that chooser of thoughts weren’t distinguished by some set of mental contents that would likewise have to come from somewhere?

So suppose you have an immaterial spirit. What would your spirit be like if we were to strip away all your particular memories, experiences, habits, preferences, instincts, idiosyncrasies, and other mental characteristics that either arise one at a time with no conscious guidance from us or that are ultimately caused or created by something we’re not responsible for, such as a formative environment? The resulting spirit would be a mere abstraction, a generic, miraculous capacity to step outside our brain and mind. So why identify this spirit as yours? Such a spiritual capacity would be impersonal and indeed alien to us. The unconscious brain has replaced the need to appeal to any such ghostly, eternal decider, to explain the causes of human behaviour.

But this is hardly to say there’s no such thing as an autonomous self. We do encompass the thoughts and feelings that pop into conscious awareness, but there’s more to the self than this series of mental states. In fact, Zohny puts his finger on this other factor when he speaks of the background coherence between mental contents as that which we prefer to the notion of foreign thoughts in our head. We’re identical not just to the series of thoughts that capture the spotlight of our attention one at a time, but to the pattern of those mental states that holds across time. In short, thoughts don’t just happen to arise in consciousness; they do so according to the pathways of our settled character. The coherence of our mental states is just our personality or character, the individuality of our self or ego. (Notice that this autonomy can get out of hand, as when we surround ourselves with sycophants or enter a thought bubble or echo chamber, such as on social media, so that we can ignore the parts of the world that don’t appeal to us.)

This is why Zohny’s contention that we can’t predict what we think is dubious. We may not be able to predict the neural or other fine-grained characteristics of our mental states, but if we know ourselves we can predict on any given day that we’ll generally be entertaining the same sorts of thoughts and attitudes we’ve been having for years. And if we know ourselves we’ll know our plans for that day (running errands, going to work, spending time with the family, and so on), so that we can predict we’ll be thinking in ways that are appropriate to those scheduled situations.

Moreover, this is why Zohny’s example of thinking of a number between one and 100 is misleading, since the thought of that number would likely be random and thus the exception that proves the rule. Normally, we think more or less what we like because our self—in the form of our character or the coherence that holds in the network of our mental states that unfolds over time—does exercise at least some control over our mind. When asked to do something we don’t care about, of course we’re not going to show much of ourselves in the act, as it were, by exerting the force of our personal attention; indeed, when asked, in effect, to entertain a random thought, such as picking any number less than a hundred, we’re being asked implicitly to let a thought pop absentmindedly into our head from outside our personal network of concerns. Rather than falling from out of the blue sky in that fashion, the thoughts that help form our inner self arise within that established, coherent home territory of thoughts and interests. These are thoughts, in short, that flow from our character and experience; they’re our characteristic moods and conceptions and goals, the ones that define us as individuals.

So suppose you’re interested in sushi or movies or horror novels, and you’re asked to think about that favourite topic of yours. Do you choose to have those thoughts that enter your head or do they, too, manifest seemingly from nowhere, merely from the unconscious machinations of your brain? There’s likely a neurological explanation of how the thoughts occur as they do, but there will also be a psychological one: you think those thoughts because of who you are and because of how you’ve formed that personal identity by pondering such matters and experiencing those parts of the world so much in the past. Even if you don’t consciously will yourself to have every aspect of the thoughts that interest you, you indirectly choose them by having contributed to the character you form which acts as a buffer between you and the world. Thus, even when considering matters that don’t fascinate you, you’ll grapple with them from the perspective sustained by your background interests and assumptions and goals. You’ll grapple with them as you, of course, not as someone else, and when that perspective guides the formation of the mental states that pop into your head, that’s you indirectly choosing them by having volunteered for certain formative experiences that shaped your character and your personal identity.

For example, you’ll likely have put yourself in the situation that increases the probability of someone asking you about your hobby. You’ll gravitate to certain social circles because of your interests. Your character will compel you to peruse one section of a bookstore rather than another—or to avoid bookstores altogether to go hiking or dancing or baking. But suppose you’re interested in horror novels, so you bring yourself to a part of the world where such novels are sold. Should you at that point in the bookstore’s horror section begin to think of horror novels, those thoughts wouldn’t just pop into your head from nowhere. Contrary to Zohny who says, “The source of the contents of our consciousness is always a mystery to us,” we tend to think in familiar patterns precisely because we exert some degree of personality-based control (that is, self-control) over our mental contents. You think of horror novels because your interests and personality are at least partial causes of you’re in that situation, and we can say that you put yourself there in that section of the bookstore because you identify with the attitudes and background thoughts that comprise your personality.

Why, then, do you like horror novels (or puppies or computer games or gardening or whatever else)? What caused you to identify with that interest in the first place? The interest likely accrues as you build a rapport with the subject matter so that the more you familiarize yourself with it, the more you demonstrate your approval of it (assuming you’ve voluntarily engaged with it over a long period). In a sense, though, as the interest becomes habitual, over time you exhibit less direct intent to think of your passion as you do, because your expertise will automate your engagement with that familiar part of the world. The more you master this type of experience, the more the experience will have shaped your character or added a program to your mental capacities (as in the Pixar movie Inside Out), in which case in certain situations your particular mental contents will flow from that expertise. But despite that lack of direct choice, you’ll have indirectly selected those contents simply by being yourself, by having chosen over time to form the type of self that you have with its preoccupations.

You demonstrate more direct intent and willpower at the initial point when some matter begins to pique your interest. Rather like having to decide what you think about a certain number between one and a hundred, when you’re first presented with some problem or going concern, there may be no underlying reason why you’re either interested in or bored by it, including no psychological reason, assuming you’re young and still haven’t formed much of your character. That’s when it’s up to the childhood version of you to decide what sort of person he or she wants to be. You take a leap of faith that this interest is worthwhile or you immerse yourself in the experience to test whether it’s for you, and perhaps you slowly build up a taste for it as you come to prefer to reengage with it. To be sure, you’re not the only causal factor, but the coherent network of thoughts (that is, the mind) with which you identify does influence your direction in life, even if only little by little over time until you build up a formidable, personalized buffer between you and the rest of the world, a cognitive routine for navigating your environment.

For example, I can recall my first encounter with comic books when I was a child. My dad took me to the local Hobby Hut (as it was called), encouraging me, in effect, to pick a hobby. In that shop there were model cars and robots and train sets and comic books and lots of other things to choose from. I chose comic books based on the impression that the cover of X-Factor #1 had on me. My dad bought the comic for me and I bought lots of others over the next decade or so. Did I choose to like comic books at the moment of that initial encounter? Well, my interest in action likely derived from my childhood instinct to play, and my interest in art derived from a talent for drawing I inherited from one of my grandfathers. My genes, then, contributed to my early interests, but they did so by building a fledgling personality that exhibited some autonomy over that child self’s actions by acting as a mental filter. I was attracted to comic books, not to train sets because of whom I was at that early stage. I didn’t choose to have those genes, because I didn’t exist prior to their partial formation of the earliest version of myself. But once a child begins to establish its array of likes and dislikes, in part by being willing to try different experiences, the child forms character traits that begin to exert control over what the child will think or do— sometimes to the detriment of the genes. For some, an interest in comic books and other nerdy matters can become an obsession, at the cost of socializing with the opposite sex.

In any case, Zohny evidently puts forward a false dichotomy when he contrasts self-control with the coherence of our background mental states, since the former comes from the latter. The buffer produced by our interests (by our established ways of thinking) directs our attention, guiding us to our preferred types of contacts, and does so as our personal self. So the victim of alien hand syndrome may indeed be repulsed by her estrangement from her hand that acts without reference to her interests. But because those interests are just the psychological filters that contribute to her limited autonomy, to the existence of an independent self that has some say over its mental states and bodily actions, the hand’s foreignness from the established cognitive network and narrative is simultaneously its violation of the victim’s freewill. A neurointervention would bypass the mind’s filters, that is, its character traits and interests, and so the puppeteer would be in conflict with the local self.

Notice, though, the difference between the automation of foreign, intervening mental states and that of the self’s normal operations. The former might suppress the mind’s preferences, as in the case of a bad psychedelic trip from which the victim wishes to escape. And as I said, when the mind works as it normally does, pursuing its interests without much internal or external resistance, such efficiency may likewise amount to autopilot. But that latter kind of automation would involve the lack only of direct conscious control. That is, when an activity such as driving a car or engaging in a favourite pastime such as painting or rock climbing becomes second nature, the mind goes with the flow, but can do so with that expertise only because of some degree of mastery accumulated from many previous exertions of effort and expressions of intent. For example, learning how to paint requires many hours of practice as well as the purchase of expensive materials, while rock climbing may require overcoming a fear of heights. Except in the special case in which we’re coerced into becoming an expert, such as when we’re kidnapped and have to learn how to pick a lock, we typically learn to automate our techniques only after having dedicated our time and resources to the learning process. By so helping to build our character, though, we indirectly choose those automated thoughts that become hardwired into that product of our voluntary efforts. Ironically, then, Zohny’s explanation of the alternative to freewill spells out a source of our autonomy.  


  1. Ben, I think the distinction between intelligible and empirical character is very useful in this discussion (particularly the way in which Schopenhauer understood them). The former is free while the latter is determined. Operari sequitur esse i.e. acts follow being.
    In other words, our empirical character is determined by our intelligible character, which isn't determined by anything.

    1. That distinction isn't quite consistent with my account of freewill. I like part of what the IEP article (linked below) says on Schopenhauer's view of character: "our characters are fundamentally what we are. This is why we assign praise or blame not to acts but to the agents who commit them. And this is why we hold ourselves responsible: not because we could have acted differently given who we are, but that we could have been different from who we are. Although there is not freedom in our action, there is freedom in our essence, our intelligible character."

      But the empirical/intelligible character distinction is similar to Kant's between phenomena and noumena, which means Schopenhauer might as well be appealing to an immaterial spirit, which I rule out. As the article puts it, "the key to accounting for human agency lies in the distinction between one’s intelligible and empirical character. Our intelligible character is our character outside of space and time, and is the original force of the will. We cannot have access to our intelligible character, as it exists outside our forms of knowing. Like all forces in nature, it is original, inalterable and inexplicable. Our empirical character is our character insofar as it manifests itself in individual acts of will: it is, in short, the phenomenon of the intelligible character. The empirical character is an object of experience and thus tied to the forms of experience, namely space, time and causality."

      This seems to make the "intelligible" character a misnomer, since "intelligible" means precisely that which can be understood. Anyway, if you've got an immaterial essence, you've got the makings of a miracle, which isn't philosophically satisfying. As I say in the above article, no such essence outside of space or time would be personally distinguishable or even countable, so I don't see how it explains the kind of freedom we think we want.

      But yes, I think there's some such need to appeal to foreground and background. The neuroscientific questions are about how a mental state arises as it does at a particular time, and the neuroscientist will want to appeal to what Aristotle called efficient causes. There are unconscious mechanisms at work and so each of our mental states--taken in isolation as the objective, analytical scientist would want it--seems to pop into our head without any conscious control. But this loses sight of the bigger picture, which involves the background of our character and interests that range across time and that guide and filter our experience. As long as we exert some conscious effort in building up that filter, that personal identity that consists roughly of a story we tell about ourselves to make sense of our experience and to give our life meaning, and as long as that personality influences our particular thoughts and actions in turn, we do have some degree of autonomy, which falsifies Zohny's key assertions.

  2. Yes, I don’t interpret intelligible character as immaterial either, but rather as the total encompassement of our empirical character. And, as such, it can’t be completely explained by any aetiological science or discipline. And in that sense, it’s free.
    But I agree, the term is vague and inconsistently used throughout the history of philosophy. For me, the term plays essentially the same role as “Ideas” in Schopenhauer’s philosophy i.e a material entity not subjected to the principle of sufficient reason, or at least not subjected in the same way as any other material object.

    1. Yeah, the total personality might be an emergent property, a hybrid that arises over a period of years from the genes and a life's worth of interactions and interpretations. As long as we contribute to forming our character, by making conscious, intentional efforts to pursue certain goals, we're at least partly responsible for all the automated actions taken by our personality or by the background thoughts, attitudes, and goals which Zohny talks about in terms of coherence.

  3. You say you inherited the talent of drawing from your grandmother. Which makes me curious, is it evident that talents are inherited like that?

    Also, is drawing a hobby for you and if so do you share it anywhere online?

    1. I inherited it from one of my grandfathers. I haven't really shared my drawings online, but I plan to adapt some of my philosophical ideas to a graphic novel. I have Clip Art Studio and I'm just looking to carve out some time...

      Some talents seem genetic just like physical traits, but practice may be just as important as talent. What's inherited when it comes to visual art seems to be a way of seeing the world, of reducing perceptions to underlying shapes and shades. There's that and then there's the hand-eye coordination.