In a comment on kairosfocus’ latest excellent post, Does ID ASSUME “contra-causal free will” and “intelligence” (and so injects questionable “assumptions”)?, Mark Frank proposes a thought experiment in support of his view that determinism is fully compatible with free will. It goes as follows:
Start with a dog. Dogs make choices in the sense that they may accept or reject a treat, may obey or disobey an order, may chase a rabbit or not. Suppose we advance our understanding of dogs’ brains and thought processes so that a genius vet can predict with 100% accuracy how a dog will choose in any given situation given its past history and current circumstances. Surely this is conceivable? If we manage this do we now say that dogs are making real choices? If it they are real choices then this is compatibilism in action. So I guess, in these circumstances, you would say that we have shown they do not really have free will.
Now extend it to infants – say two year olds. They make choices – eat or don’t eat, cry or don’t cry, hug or don’t hug. So let’s imagine we repeat the process with them. A genius paediatrician in this case (maybe you one day!). Are the infants also lacking free will? Either compatabilism is true or they haven’t got free will.
OK. Now apply it to an adult human. If it is conceivable for a dog and an infant then surely it is conceivable for an adult. A genius psychologist observes an adult and is able to predict all their decisions and explain why – exactly how each decision is determined by their genetics, personal history and current environment (it doesn’t have to be a materialist explanation). Has that adult got free will? Either compatabilism is true or they haven’t got free will.
And finally apply to yourself. Suppose it turns out a genius psychologist has been monitoring you all your life and has been able to correctly predict all your decisions and also how the decision making process worked in detail – how your different motivations were balanced and interacted with your perceptions and memories resulting in each decision (including any dithering and worrying about whether you got it right). Would that mean you thought you had free will but actually didn’t? Either compatabilism is true or you haven’t got free will.
As my computer is currently kaput, this will be a very short post. I’d like to suggest that what Mark Frank has left out of the equation is language, the capacity for which is what differentiates us from other animals. (Human infants possess this capacity but do not yet exercise it, partly because their brains, when they are newborn, are still too immature for language production, and also because they have yet to build up a linguistic databank that would enable them to express what they want to get across.)
Language is central to human rationality because rationality is not just a matter of selecting the appropriate means to realize a desired end: it is also a critical activity, in which agents are expected to be able to justify their choices and respond to questions like “Why did you do that?” People don’t just act rationally; they give reasons for their actions. In order to do that, you need a language in which you can generate an indefinitely large number of sentences, as the range of possible situations in which you might find yourself is potentially infinite – particularly when we factor in the little complicating circumstances that may arise.
What is distinctive about human language, as opposed to animal “language,” is precisely this ability to generate an infinite number of sentences. This uniquely human ability was the subject of a recent article in the Washington Post titled, Chirps, whistles, clicks: Do any animals have a true ‘language’?, which was discussed in a recent post by News (emphases are mine – VJT):
A new study on animal calls has found that the patterns of barks, whistles, and clicks from seven different species appear to be more complex than previously thought. The researchers used mathematical tests to see how well the sequences of sounds fit to models ranging in complexity…
“We’re still a very, very long way from understanding this transition from animal communication to human language, and it’s a huge mystery at the moment,” said study author and zoologist Arik Kershenbaum, who did the work at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis…
“What makes human language special is that there’s no finite limit as to what comes next,” he said….
But what separates language from communication? Why can’t we assume that whales, with their elaborate songs, are simply speaking “whale-ese”?
To be considered a true language, there are a few elements that are usually considered to be essential, says Kershenbaum. For one, it must be learned rather than instinctive — both whales and birds have this piece covered. For instance, killer whale calves learn a repertoire of calls from their mothers, and the sounds gradually evolve from erratic screams to adult-like pulsed calls and whistles.
What holds whales and other animals back from language is that there is a limit to what they can express. There are only so many calls that each may convey different emotions, but only we have an unlimited ability to express abstract ideas.
The problem for scientists is that no one knows how language evolved. Oddly enough, there don’t seem to be any transitional proto-languages between whale and bird songs — said to be the most sophisticated animal calls — and our own speech.
There are two conflicting theories of how language evolved in humans. The first is that human language evolved slowly and gradually, just as most traits evolved in the animal world. So perhaps it started with gestures, and then words and sentences. Or language may have started out more like bird song — with complex but meaningless sounds — and the last stage was attaching meaning to these sounds.
Reading the last paragraph in the passage quoted above brings to mind Nobel Laureate John Eccles’ derisive remarks about “promissory materialism.” The fact is that scientists haven’t got a clue how language evolved – and for a very good reason. The gap between the law-governed deterministic processes we observe in Nature and the infinite flexibility of human language is an unbridgeable one.
That is why no psychologist could ever, even in principle, predict everything that a rational adult human being will think, say and do. Language, which is fundamentally unpredictable, is part of the warp-and-woof of human life. Hence the antecedent in Mark Frank’s thought experiment – “What if a psychologist could predict every decision that you make?” – is impossible, by definition.
Back in 1957, behaviorist B. F. Skinner wrote a best-selling book with the amusing title, Verbal Behavior. I hope readers can see now why language is much more than mere behavior.