Free Agents: Some Initial Reflections

To get genuine “free will” or agency, you need to combine quantum physics with cognitive science. Implicitly, Zizek shows us how to do this.

From quantum physics, you need two things. First, you need there to be some minimal “free play” in matter — no saturated mechanical causality. But as everyone knows, the mere existence of non-determined phenomenon is not enough to get us real free agency, because agency is not simply a lack of determination, but implies purposefulness. Thus, the second thing you need (and here I’m “clarifying” some of Zizek’s remarks along lines suggested by Whitehead in Process and Reality) is the causal power of perception. In quantum mechanics, one is constrained to say that phenomena “notice” each other (with certain phenomena appearing “virtually” before anything else “notices”) if one is to “schematize” what is happening; and as is well known, measuring quantum phenomena directly affects those phenomena. (I’m thinking here of the third part of Indivisible Remainder, though the whole book is implied in his argument there.)

From cognitive science, you need Metzinger’s “transparent self-modeling” concept of the self. Consciousness is a “mental map” of the world; true self-consciousness arises when the map grows in complexity to the point where it contains a spot representing the self. The organism can then envision various possible chains of events and choose one (based on emotional inclination, or later, “reason”) — or as Zizek puts it, free agency is a second-order causality that allows us to choose which causal chain will determine us. Once the decision is made, of course, there is no guarantee that the organism’s design will be successful. Thus, brain size, etc., is still important to be able to accurately map the world and predict phenomena; but the shift from consciousness to self-consciousness is necessarily a qualitative, not quantitative one. The addition of this reflexive element is purely formal and virtual, adding what appears to be only a quantitative improvement to the mapping faculty, but once it is introduced, it reorganizes the “same” raw materials into a new kind of structure whereby the organism can consciously make itself do stuff, or at least try to, by means of its ability to “perceive” itself. (This obviously comes from the second part, and especially the fourth chapter, of Parallax View.)

To make this work, you need to be open to the general Schellingian idea that humanity “repeats” the primordial freedom (potentiality) at a “higher [mathematical] power.” But given that our perception is able to directly affect quantum phenomena, there seems to be some prima facie possibility of an affinity there. I would also note that nothing in this scheme requires that humans be the only ones to have made this qualitative shift; only that at least humans have done it.

37 thoughts on “Free Agents: Some Initial Reflections

  1. What is so interesting about Schelling’s development of self-consciousness, and the capacity for freedom involved therein, is the degree to which this reflexivity ultimately implies an inherent and ultimate evil. To apprehend oneself reflexively, and thus to be free, in short, is the ultimate (if necessary) sin. Which is to say, freedom does not simply leave open the possibility of evil, it is rooted in it. Schelling himself fled from this realization, esp. as it relates to the Absolute, as do we all on some level.

  2. That would cohere with Zizek’s view (which makes intuitive sense to me) that humanity is where evolution went horribly wrong.

    This is one place where I wish he would’ve actually done some repetition — instead of spinning his wheels with the art-theory stuff in chapter 3 of Parallax View, he should have been recapitulating the stuff on Schelling and quantum physics. Especially since at the time he wrote Parallax, Indivisible Remainder was out of print.

    In Comic Book Guy’s vault, there’s a manuscript with the title “Parallax View (good version).”

  3. This may be really naive, or perhaps rooted in a misunderstanding of the basics of ‘quantum’ physics, but can I take this opportunity to ask how it is that a scientific theory, which generally work by predicting and then testing hypothetical outcomes, is apparently rooted in the hypothesis that accurate prediction will be/is impossible (assumedly because we lack the technological or even cognitive ability to measure what we’d like to test)?

  4. I have a general policy of not answering extremely basic questions in these comment threads. I encourage you to consult Wikipedia or a similar resource.

  5. How does having a picture of the world (which includes me) give me control over the world? The claim that seems to be doing work here is the notion that various causal chains can be envisioned (and then decided between somehow); I’m not seeing how that’s connected to the map having a “You are here” dot.

    (Is the picture supposed to have a spot for my body, my psychological states, etc.? Or is The Important Spot supposed to be a limit to the world, “like the eye in the visual field” (to steal a metaphor from the Tractatus)? In either case, I can’t see how this map comes carrying pictures of varying causal chains, nor do I see how one spot in the picture of the world (the dot that’s Me) is able to examine those causal chains and decide which one it likes.)

    I’m also not sure how the possible falsity of determinism at the quantum level is supposed to help with the problem of freedom, given that Newton’s laws of motion still hold at the macro level, and those are deterministic. (The state-descriptions are relativized to a reference frame, of course, but the notion of absolute space wasn’t doing important work in that area of physics anyway. It’s not like the laws of motion are taught in physics classes out of historical interest.)

  6. Daniel — I’m thinking out loud here, so take it in that spirit. What matters is that the spot for “the self” indicates the self. It can indicate the body or whatever, as long as it indicates my body. The level of reflexivity is what introduces something new — something within nature that is able to perceive itself as itself. It’s this opening up of a new qualitative level that opens up fresh possibilities above the local stability of Newtonian mechanics. Not in contradiction to Newtonian mechanics — obviously we are limited bodily beings, not God — but a kind of reflexive meta-causality.

  7. Hmm. I think I can see something of the train of thought now — the important shift is that a spot on the map isn’t seen as just another spot, but as being a spot which is me. I’m not sure how this is supposed to be brought about; presumably the map could contain my body in more detail than I am actually aware of it having (I could have a more fine-grained knowledge of the anatomy of this ape), but without marking this ape as “Me.” And presumably the map could only have the haziest of information concerning my body, but still have it labelled as “Me.” So I’m not seeing how increasing complexity is supposed to do the job, unless increasing complexity is supposed to just issue in things that are new for new’s sake, and it happened to bring about a sense of self in this case.

    (That it’s a body that’s labeled “Me” does not seem very important. Psychological states that aren’t connected with a body could be so labeled just as well, I would think. Anything on the map would do.)

    Even if there does come to be some conglomeration in the world that my map labels as “Me” I’m not seeing how this allows me to perceive causal chains, nor how it lets me choose between them, if it is granted that I can see them. Given the map with the world on it, with part of it labeled “Me”, how does one read off causal chains, in a strong enough sense to be able to chose between contrary ones? (Is it a problem for this line of thought that we ordinarily aren’t aware of various causal chains which might determine our actions, or at least are not aware of them at the microscopic level where one presumes true contrariness would show itself? Or is the “Me” that can choose supposed to be something that’s not something I (as a person) could recognize as myself?)

    The bit about observation determining quantum states seems tangential to me, since even my perceiving the quantum flux does cause it to “solidify” (so to speak), it doesn’t follow that I chose for it to solidify in this way. Which is what it seems would be needed if a “causal power of perception” is to arbitrate among various causal chains. Even if observing a state of affairs causes it to solidify, then it doesn’t follow that observing it with an intent to (say) get myself a glass of tea will cause what I observed to solidify in such a way that a glass of tea comes to be held in my hand. Wave-functions collapse randomly, regardless of my wishes. This seems to me to be a bigger problem than the fact that I can intend to do something, but fail to accomplish it; I’m not seeing where the connection is between my intended result (whether determined by emotional inclination or by “reason”) and the result which obtains when my perception causes some event to fall into place. (To steal another line from Wittgenstein: “Even if everything we wished were to happen, this would only be, so to speak, a favour of fate, for there is no logical connexion between will and world, which would guarantee this, and the assumed physical connexion itself we could not again will.”)

    I’m inclined to think that defending freedom by trying to find a way for agents to change various physical laws (or at least alter which ones they are subject to) is a philosophical dead end; I’m reminded of Rorty’s quip about “freedom as being a way to make the atoms swerve” and how much nicer it was to instead take up something like Sellars’ distinction between the “Space of Reasons” and the “Space of Natural Law.” But Whitehead & Zizek certainly sound like a novel way to try to solve the problem the old-fashioned way.

    Apologies if I’ve failed to take your thinking aloud in the proper spirit; I’m just trying to feel my way around the notion that (somehow) what the ol’ “Free Will and Determinism” problem was missing was an advance in natural science, and that now we can dissolve the tension without the weird acrobatics of a Kant or a Hegel.

  8. The whole point of Zizek’s argument is that the natural sciences are finally catching up with Kant and Hegel. If you are genuinely interested in this topic, I encourage you to read the Zizek texts I mention in the post.

    But anyway, based on my (non-exhaustive) understanding, we can choose which way a quantum particle will solidify — either with a determined mass or a determined velocity, for instance. That’s not where the real leap is — the leap is to say that this openness that exists “below” the Newtonian level repeats itself (albeit differently) “above” the Newtonian level.

    Working out the fine details of the mental mapping and self-representation is beyond the scope of this comment thread, in my opinion, and in any case beyond the scope of my competence.

  9. What makes you think that there is a causal power of perception in quantum physics?

    Suppose we have a measuring apparatus that consists of a photon emitter and a photon detector, with some quantum phenomenon taking place between the emitter and the detector in such a way as to potentially modify the destiny of each emitted photon. The photons arriving at the detector may for our purposes be regarded as carrying some information about both themselves and the phenomenon they interacted with. However, it isn’t possible to derive from this information a definitive reading of what the phenomenon minus the photons would have been like.

    A common reading of this scenario is to say that the act of taking a reading changed the phenomenon; in other words, that the phenomenon was in some state α prior to our trying to measure it, and our attempt to measure it altered it in some way, shifting it into a different state α’ which is the one we ended up measuring. But I don’t think this is quite right.

    The problem with quantum phenomena is that their only observable state is the state that they have in interaction with other phenomena. Furthermore, they behave in every respect as if they had no other consistent state (no “hidden variables”) – as if their real state were the peculiar double shadow retroactively cast by our attempts to make inferences about their real state based on our observations of the observable state of their interactions with other phenomena.

    It therefore seems natural to speak as if our observation itself had the effect of “collapsing” this double shadow into a single consistent image, and of this collapse as a state change caused by our observation (something was in an ambivalent state; we observed it; it dutifully resolved itself into a monovalent state).

    But maybe this should be reverse, e.g.: it is not the consistent state captured by our measuring apparatus that should be regarded as an effect of the observation, but the inconsistent state that we posit as the prior condition of the observation. In taking a measurement, we obtain a consistent image of a part of reality confused with another part; the price we pay for trying to separate the measured part from the measuring part is an inconsistent image.

  10. This might illustrate our different mindsets. You apparently read the more mainstream presentation of quantum physics and thought, “Wow, that can’t be right,” and then went out of your way &c. I read it and had no particular objection.

  11. Yes, something like that: a fairly powerful anathema against anything to do with physics that introduces things like consciousness or perception (be it local or panpsychic) into the picture. I tend to immediately react against such presentations as anthropomorphising; they introduce a kind of short circuit between high-level phenomena like perceiving things and having ideas, and low-level phenomena like, well, quantum stuff. I can see how from a certain point of view that’s an advantage; but for me it feels very strongly like cheating.

  12. The hard problem I think is coming up with an account of how things like consciousness, perception, free will etc. can have appeared within a cosmos that went on for aeons without ever containing any of those things in any form whatsoever.

  13. It seems to me like stacking the deck to rule out a priori that something analogous to perception, free will, etc., is inherent to matter as such. I don’t know if I’m embracing “panpsychism,” mainly because I don’t generally run in the philosophical circles where that term is used — I do think that self-consciousness introduces something new, but it’s a formal shift that “redeploys” potentialities that were already there.

    That is to say, I’m taking a Hegelian approach here — just as I take the Hegelian approach that the apparent necessity of “schematizing” quantum phenomena according to the model of perception, etc., is not just an epistemological obstacle, but an ontological fact.

    [By the way, I readily admit that I need to do a lot more research before I can say things like this in forums other than little-read blogs. Well, in my own name, at least — I think I’m presently “allowed” to present what Zizek is doing with this stuff.]

  14. [Also by the way, if everyone could choose an avatar, that would make the “recent comments” field on the sidebar much more attractive. So far, all we’re really getting is Cobra Commander, Wittgenstein, a stylized Anthony Smith, and a weird statue, talking with a bunch of interchangable pawns. We can do better.]

  15. Adam, I think I was trying to say that Quantum mechanics has not given you a logical proof of non-determinism to use as a premise. I am not a physicist, given, but I don’t think even the majority of physicists who side against a hidden variable explanation would try to “apply” the insights of quantum mechanics to the problem of free will. Is that what you are presenting Zizek as doing? Because if so I’d be interested in reading the relevant text.

  16. Of course scientists wouldn’t do that. That’s not the kind of thing scientists do. It’s philosophy.

    I’m combining two aspects of Zizek’s work. He does not explicitly make this combination himself, but it seems like a natural connection to make in my reading. The relevant passages are noted in the text of the post.

  17. The two sides here are the “nothing without a cause” side and the “somethings without a cause” side. So it becomes a match between the rationalists, who have no empirical evidence on their side, and the irrationalists (ie, non-causalists) with the massive weight of empirical evidence (of freedom) on their side. Of course, the rationalists are still looking into the matter. They’ll get back to you.

  18. A couple of perhaps-obvious points:

    you need there to be some minimal “free play” in matter — no saturated mechanical causality.

    Quantum physics produces probabilistic rather than certain predictions. But that doesn’t make matter any less mechanical, and I don’t see how randomness gets us acausal free will. That our actions have a random component doesn’t make them any more free than if they’re fully determined by prior conditions (and maybe makes them less so: a person who acts randomly is mad, not free).

    agency is not simply a lack of determination

    I suggest that agency isn’t a lack of determination at all – it’s being determined one way rather than another. A free agent is (roughly) one whose actions are determined by a causal chain going through her dispositions and intentions; an unfree agent is determined by other causal chains, e.g. chains involving some other, controlling agent’s dispositions and intentions.

    Both of these points are straight out of David Hume, of course. But I don’t see how Zizek or quantum physics answers them. (Incidentally, you might find Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind interesting on this topic.)

  19. Sam C., I don’t see how you’ve said anything I don’t address in my post already. Both you and Floyd seem to be hearing me say, “Quantum physics, therefore free will.” But I’m not saying that. I’m saying that for there to be free agency, one of the initial conditions is that the universe can’t be strictly determined (i.e., “saturated mechanical causation” — the point of a “machine” is that it is supposed to do the same thing every time). Later in the post I explicitly call free agency a different kind of causation (from Newtonian mechanics). Did you just read the first paragraph and get annoyed or something?

  20. Adam – no, I read the whole post, and I’m not annoyed, I’m interested; but I was responding, exactly, to your claim that ‘for there to be free agency, one of the initial conditions is that the universe can’t be strictly determined’, not to the post as a whole.

    I deny this claim (at least I do when I’m wearing my David Hume mask, for the sake of argument). Free agency can exist in a deterministic universe (whether Newtonian or probabilistic), because being free is a matter of one’s actions having the right kind of causal history: a causal history which involves one’s dispositions, desires, and intentions in the right way. It’s not a matter of being or possessing a wholly mysterious ‘different kind of causation’ (different in what way?).

    the point of a “machine” is that it is supposed to do the same thing every time

    A dice is a machine, and its whole point is that it doesn’t do the same thing every time. An agent is a much more complex machine, and much harder to make even probabilistic predictions about. But we do make such predictions, and are often right, otherwise social life would be impossible.

  21. Sam,

    Aren’t you confusing absolute indeterminacy with free choice though? There are always environments to be navigated, much like dice do their own, and these are free actions in their own right. I don’t know, I still feel like Bergson’s arguments are very persuasive in Time and Free Will and more so in Matter and Memory.

  22. I don’t think so, at least if I understand what that confusion would involve. I’m suggesting that Adam is confusing freedom with indeterminacy, and that a wholly deterministic universe raises no problem at all for freedom. I’m almost completely ignorant about Bergson, sorry.

  23. I’m saying that indeterminacy is one aspect of freedom. It seems obvious on its face that strict determinism and freedom are opposed — hence the endless debates about how to reconcile them. And this “probabilistic determinacy” thing is not convincing to me — for any given electron, there’s no way to predict what it will individually do, even if patterns emerge in aggregate. The electron “chooses” what to do; which is only to say that it causes itself to do it.

    I’m not satisfied with Hume’s solution, because seems to give us “agency” (as in, being able to say coherently, “I did that”) without anything really recognizable as free will.

  24. Also, the meta-causality of free agency isn’t “wholly mysterious.” I provided indications of how it worked. I’m seriously not proposing some kind of spiritual force — my goal is to do this from within materialist premises. Of course, I assume that freedom exists and thus ask what it is about matter that allowed something like human freedom to arise.

    And there is potentially a misunderstanding going on — for me, determinism means everything goes in lock-step. The fact that an electron or a roll of the die has a limited number of possible outcomes does not count as “determinism” in my mind (although in real life, the die does work in accordance with Newtonian mechanics; it’s not random in the same sense as the electron is). Parallel to that, I recognize that human beings are limited in all kinds of ways. The fact that I can’t choose to fly like Superman doesn’t make me “less free.”

  25. “It seems obvious on its face that strict determinism and freedom are opposed — hence the endless debates about how to reconcile them.”

    Should this not lead us to be suspicious that they are not opposed? I am reminded of the obvious distinction between mind and body, and the consequent endless debates over how they interact. (Perhaps I am being too clever for my own good, here.)

    Does Zizek actually hold that Hegel was an incompatabilist about free will and determinism (“spirit/freedom” and “nature” would be the terms Hegel prefers here)? That strikes me as an odd way to read him. I’d’ve thought the more natural way to read Hegel’s pronouncements on the relation between nature (which is unfree, as it is always determined by its other) and spirit (which is “at home with itself in the other” and hence self-determined) was that the dualism of spirit and nature was a conceptual matter, and not a metaphysical one. (The opposition was a problem for the Understanding, but Reason could know their unity. So to speak.) Or does Zizek mean to be parting from Hegel (and perhaps Kant, at least in the third Critique) here with his incompatabilism?

  26. Neither Zizek nor I am espousing incompatibilism. You seem to be presupposing that “matter” is strictly deterministic. Both Zizek and I understand quantum physics to be saying that that’s not the case.

  27. Part of the point of Z’s account seems to be that in the future anterior, my actions will have been links in an established causal chain – indeed, they need to be inserted into such a chain in order to have any causal efficacy. The “causal agency of perception” in this case is not a moment in such a causal chain, but an agency supervening over causation itself, selecting between alternatives in an overdetermined causal environment.

    I actually have no problems with this as a psychological account of the role of will in human agency; I think it works pretty well, without in fact needing to be pushed down all the way into the material substrate of consciousness in order to work. There is something appealing about the ethical injunction to choose between inevitabilities (and therefore to assume responsibility for whichever manner of not being able to do otherwise one has plumped for).

    The question it raises in my mind is, how do the causal interactions of objects without free will work in this scenario? How do their overdetermined causal environments get to result in distinct causal chains? Presumably billiard balls do not have to assume responsibility for the outcomes of their collisions; but in Zizek’s account, the causal agency of perception seems to be posited as necessary for any causal outcome to eventuate…

  28. So for the sake of clarity, let us re-understand what everyone is saying here. Apologies to people on this thread who know the ins and outs of this debate far better than I do. Its interesting to ask, how much this debate counts as “first philosophy” for ethical or other accounts – do you have to have an answer of some sort to this question to begin talking ethically, for example.

    In classic debates regarding this subject, it is often taken that the universe is deterministic, in some manner. Yet there is such a thing called freedom, and compatiablist accounts try and reconcile the two: determinism but freedom.

    Adam seems to be coming from another direction, in saying that there isn’t strict determinism, and hence there is freedom in some way. He seems to be trying to construct an account of freedom first, what would be an acceptable account of this that seems to include all the aspects of freedom that are philosophically or even common sensibly apparent and see how that fits in. A kind of qualified libertarianism?

    I myself have always sought, when I have considered this debate which is not often, in the manner of Wittgenstein the solution is linguistic. I also think that in the end, the feeling of freedom, as evidenced by the existentialists is one that seems to be very much part of the human condition. Whether this has any bearing on the debate, is completely another matter.

  29. You’re right – if your understanding of determinism is such that it doesn’t apply to a random dice-roll, then we’re not using the term in the same way. I mean explicable in cause-and-effect terms. Isn’t that the root worry about considering ourselves as part of nature? ‘Because my actions can all, in principle, be explained in the same terms as interactions between billiard balls, I’m the puppet of material forces, not free’ (a parallel worry is, ‘Because God can, in principle, know everything I’m going to do in advance, I’m the puppet of fate, not free’).

    I think that worry is understandable but misplaced. Predicting human action via cause-and-effect explanations is a vital part of human life. And, obvious on its face or not, it’s just not true that determinism and freedom are incompatible.

    Matter isn’t strictly deterministic in your sense, because individual quantum-level events aren’t predictable with certainty (although they are in statistical terms). I still don’t see how that’s relevant to free agency of the kind which matters to us. A random factor in my action doesn’t make it any more ‘really mine’ and ‘really free’ than a strictly determined one.

    What I’m getting at is that the kind of freedom which is important in human life doesn’t have anything to do with being a cause but not an effect. It has to do with my desires (etc.) being the proximate causes of my actions, rather than their being caused, for instance, by someone else’s desires.

    I’m sympathetic to the thought in the second part of your post, that freedom also has something to do with reflexivity (Harry Frankfurt holds a similar position). But I don’t think that insight is illuminated or supported by claiming an incompatibility between freedom and determinism.

  30. While I’m dredging up old stuff of mine on this, there’s this post, which presents a Dennettian argument for complete arbitrariness in decision making as a way of circumventing the aporia of overdetermination. Here, a coin toss performs the function of “free will” in selecting between alternative causes, but without expressing any kind of agency or intention; its purpose is simply to enable agency to proceed in a situation where it would otherwise get tied up in knots.

  31. Dominic, As I’ve said before in this comment thread, Zizek does not explicitly make the connection I’m making between quantum physics and his model of self-consciousness.

  32. The “will have been” is more of an early-Zizek type of claim. By the time of PV, I think he’s really saying: the subject can interrupt the causal chain and start a new one. For real, not just on a formal-conceptual level. The subject can’t contradict the laws of nature, but it can introduce a pause.

  33. (So I was trying to supply a connection from earlier in his work that makes sense of that claim, which taken alone feels incomplete to me.)

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