Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Reconciling conflicting manifest and scientific images

Daniel Dennett makes a useful distinction between manifest image and scientific image when discussing free will. Color, sound, touch, and smell, are all manifest images, they allow us to keep track of our environment so we can react appropriately. All these phenomena can be studied by measuring the stuff formed by the bosons and fermions, which are the corresponding scientific images. We don't currently have a complete mapping between the manifest image and the scientific image. The biological processes are complex and we incompletely understand our perceptions. But even if we were to succeed in completely mapping one image to the other in the future, these two images will each retain their special significance.

Yet I disagree with his conclusion that Sam Harris is making a mistake by focusing on the scientific image instead of the manifest image when he argues against free will. The manifest and scientific images of our sense perceptions are compatible, they coexist without any conflict. A scientific image of biology and our universe is in direct conflict with the manifest image of free will as that concept is traditionally understood. Therefore, it logically follows that this free will manifest image is wrong, and Sam Harris is correct to argue accordingly from a scientific image perspective. When the two images conflict, it is the manifest image that should be abandoned, regardless of how counterintuitive this result feels to us.

The real problem here is this: If we insist on retaining the free will phrase to characterize our decision making then we must redefine free will to convey a concept that is substantially different from the concept this phrase was originally intended, and is usually utilized, to convey. Such a redefinition interferes with our ability to clearly communicate the fact that our decisions are probably finalized before we are consciously aware of what decisions we made, as is the case with the rest of the animal kingdom. The concept that human decisions are consciously willed, that the cause and origin of human decisions is our will, which has the unique and magical property of being freely under our absolute control, free from cause and effect materialistic constraints, is the concept captured by the phrase free will. Only humans are commonly thought to have free will. As such, free will represents one of those many "ideologies about manifest image" that Daniel Dennett himself says "are bonkers".

As tempting as it may be to try to reshape this dearly held and well known, but obsolete, concept to mean something new, it would arguably be less confusing to substitute another phrase, such as free choice, when referring to our expression of decisions that reflect our desires. All animals have such free choices. Humans are probably somewhat unique in the sense of our having more capacity for self-recognition of various moral responsibilities associated with these choices. People then tend to conflate our animal free choice with free will. Referring to incompatibilist versus compatibilist free will contributes further to obscuring this distinction. Secularists who prefer this obscurity (because they are more conservative) tend to say we have compatibilist free will. Secularists who prefer more clarity (because they are less conservative) tend to say free will is a myth. Yet both sides appear to be mostly on the same page when it comes to the substance of describing our decision making process, we all follow and respect the empirical evidences and their implications.

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