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Presentations

Biosemiotics
Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
 
Paul E. Meehl

Paul Meehl was a psychologist, philosopher, and a philosopher of science who generally followed Karl Popper's theory of falsification.

He was, with Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars, a founder of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science.

Feigl and Meehl wrote a paper in 1974 for Paul Schilpp's festschrift volume on Karl Popper. The paper was entitled "The Determinism-Freedom and Mind-Body Problems." Popper had for many years been a Dualist and Interactionist.

Following Popper usage, they called these problems Compton's problem and Descartes' problem.

They argued that determinism could not be rejected simply because of the practical difficulty carrying out predictions of the future that in principle could be done by a Laplace super-intelligence. They called the accomplishments of such a prediction the "World Formula."

They frame a pseudo-logical argument that the World Formula requires 1) determinism and predictability, specifically 2) measurability and 3) calculability. But because we cannot accomplish a World Formula, we do not invalidate determinism.

Now, as is agreed on all hands, the idea of the World Formula is to be understood as a logical conjunction of three propositions: (1) the doctrine of the deterministic form of all basic natural laws, (2) the precise, complete (and simultaneous) ascertainability of all initial and boundary conditions, (3) the mathematical feasibility of the hopelessly complex computations necessary for precise and complete predictions (or retrodictions). Now, as no one knows better than Popper (though this is really a matter of the most elementary propositional logic), if a conjunction of several independent propositions entails a false or absurd conclusion, not every one of the conjuncts is (necessarily) false... There are excellent reasons for regarding propositions (2) and (3) as false at any rate, thus leaving the hypothesis of determinism at least open for further consideration.
In a second paper some years later, Meehl considered the problem of free will, specifically considering whether quantum indeterminacy might play a role. He assumed that quantum indeterminacy could occur at the neuronal synapses. He imagined a model of 10 "command neurons" that need to be unanimous in their firings. They are like "10 little roulette wheels in the head," By having 10, and requiring unanimity which is extremely improbable, Meehle thinks the has statistically changed chance to "non-chance."
We find further that there is pairwise independence between the local events, that is, the depolarizing inputs from the precommand cells. On those occasions when the command neurons are in the system at all the molar outcome is unpredictable and the sequence of response attributes "steal/not steal" satisfies Mises's criterion. So everything appears to be chance, until we reflect on the astounding fact that the 10 command neurons always act in concert. That is, there are no Freudian parapraxes or abortive actions, so that while we never know what will happen at a particular locus, and we cannot tell from what happens at locus A on command neuron I what will happen on locus B of command neuron X, we do know that if command neuron I spikes, so does command neuron X, and so do all eight of the others. So what we have is a radical indeterminacy (not due to ignorance - I'm talking about an ontological indeterminancy of the kind physicists believe in) at the level of the local synaptic events, as well as a complete indeterminacy at the molar level of action, provided that the actions studied are those in which the command neurons have been in the system at all. So that everything would look like a big random mess of quantum uncertain events, except for the astonishing fact that the command neurons always act configurally. That is, in concert they manifest a kind of joint intentionality with respect to their "necessary cooperation in the integrated outcome," so that the 10 part actions are either all performed (when I steal) or all inhibited (when I resist the temptation). Such a system is clearly not determined, at either the micro or molar level; but it seems equally clear that it is not "pure chance." With 10 command neurons operating, each of which has a random firing probability of 1/2 on any one occasion, when all spike or all fail to spike, we are already past the traditional statistician's .01 significance level (p < 10-3); and for such patterning to happen on 10 occasions over the course of a year has a probability that is minuscule.
For Teachers
For Scholars
Excerpt from Psychological Determinism or Chance
For expository purposes I am going to postulate that a certain action has 10 components (never mind whether some are simultaneous and others serially integrated); and that in an acculturated, morally educated, and prudential human being, an act like stealing money out of the till when your employer isn't looking involves 10 such components; and that each of these components is subject to inhibition by one command neuron. I am going to set aside Freudian parapraxes whereby an abortive act is performed as a result of mental conflict. I'm going to postulate that the remainder of the cerebral system, whose complicated neural networks (both wired genetically and acquired by learning) are the cerebral subsystems for money-lust, fear of jail, recalling your Sunday school lessons, and whatever else enters into the picture, is strictly deterministic, although I think nothing crucial to my discussion hinges upon that simplification. Given a momentary cerebral state produced by perception of the money, hearing the employer slam the door as he leaves for the afternoon, and the like, and the recent memory of one's wife saying this morning she would like a mink coat if we cold,: afford it, and so forth; then if there were no such inhibitor-command neurons, the rest of the system would run off in a certain predictable way in accordance with the nomologicals, leading to either stealing the money or resisting temptation, as the case may be. Note that I am not locating the brain's "prudential (or moral) engrams" in these command neurons. The prudential and ethical memory banks are located elsewhere; and it is only when they are activated in a suitable deterministic way that the command neurons even enter into the system. I will say more about that later.

Second, I'm going to conjecture the existence of genuine quantum indeterminacy of some, although not all, brain events. The presynaptic cells that synapse on the command neurons may be the locus of that quantum indeterminacy; or it may be that at the individual synaptic knobs which stimulate a command neuron there is a sort of "local outcome" uncertainty in the synaptic space events.

Now imagine a series of temptations of, say, 10 occasions over the course of the year when the individual is tempted to steal out of the till. Let us impose some indeterministic restrictions (that sounds funny but it's what I mean) on the events involved. Considering an individual command neuron on 10 successive occasions, assume it fires or not at random, although a run this short wouldn't suffice to show that it satisfies Miser's criterion of randomness. It has probability each time p = 1/2 of spiking, and that probability does not depend on any place selection. Further, the Utopian biophysicist, after studying the local circumstances at the terminal button, tells us that the distances, energies, and times involved are of such an order of magnitude as to be possibly quantum uncertain, so he would not be surprised to find they are statistically indeterminate. The question whether quantum indeterminacy at the synapse plays a significant role in molar behavior remains unanswered, although Hecht's half-century-old conjecture (Hecht, 1934) that it could do so at the retinal receptor element seems generally accepted. For discussion pro and con of its "behavioral" relevance see Eccles (1951), Eccles (1953, pp. 271-86), Eddington (1929, pp. 310-15), Eddington (1935, pp. 86-91), Eddington (1939, pp. 179-84), Jordan (1955, pp. 108-13), London (1952), Pirenne and Marriott (1959), and Ratliff (1962). For criticism of the notion that quantum-indeterminacy at the single-unit micro-level could be relevant to psychological determinism at the level of molar behavior and experience see Grunbaum (1953), Popper (1966, pp. 13-14), Schroedinger (1951, pp. 58-64), and Stebbing (1937, pp. 141-242). Unfortunately, the terms 'quantum' and even `quantum hypothesis' have been used by neurophysiologists to denote certain conjectures concerning the amounts and step-functional effects of transmitter substance released at the synaptic interface, which would seem only remotely related, if at all, to the indeterminacy question. Since the present essay concerns conceptual analysis (as bearing on certain metaphysical arguments), I permit myself the assumption arguendo that genuine Heisenbergian quantum indeterminacy obtains for some, we need not say all, or even most, synaptic events. That is, of course, an empirical question, not settled on present evidence.

We find further that there is pairwise independence between the local events, that is, the depolarizing inputs from the precommand cells. On those occasions when the command neurons are in the system at all the molar outcome is unpredictable and the sequence of response attributes "steal/not steal" satisfies Mises's criterion. So everything appears to be chance, until we reflect on the astounding fact that the 10 command neurons always act in concert. That is, there are no Freudian parapraxes or abortive actions, so that while we never know what will happen at a particular locus, and we cannot tell from what happens at locus A on command neuron I what will happen on locus B of command neuron X, we do know that if command neuron I spikes, so does command neuron X, and so do all eight of the others. So what we have is a radical indeterminacy (not due to ignorance - I'm talking about an ontological indeterminancy of the kind physicists believe in) at the level of the local synaptic events, as well as a complete indeterminacy at the molar level of action, provided that the actions studied are those in which the command neurons have been in the system at all. So that everything would look like a big random mess of quantum uncertain events, except for the astonishing fact that the command neurons always act configurally. That is, in concert they manifest a kind of joint intentionality with respect to their "necessary cooperation in the integrated outcome," so that the 10 part actions are either all performed (when I steal) or all inhibited (when I resist the temptation). Such a system is clearly not determined, at either the micro or molar level; but it seems equally clear that it is not "pure chance." With 10 command neurons operating, each of which has a random firing probability of 1/2 on any one occasion, when all spike or all fail to spike, we are already past the traditional statistician's .01 significance level (p < 10-3); and for such patterning to happen on 10 occasions over the course of a year has a probability that is minuscule.

On our antecedent knowledge that the spike-probability for each neuron, given a concurrent brain state sufficient to throw the command neurons "into the system," is and remains at p = 1/2, an occurrence of 10 firing in concert shows that something nonrandom, something patterned, orderly, "configural", is taking place. Even a single such coherent occasion might legitimate such an inference of nonrandomness at a statistical significance level customary in the life sciences, the probability of coordinated firing on the chance model being 2-10. In this extreme case, we need not know anything about the effector events controlled (in this case inhibitorily) by the neuron to make a "nonchance" inference. A fortiori, we need not know how the achievement response class (MacCorquodale and Meehl, 1954, pp, 218-31) - the instrumental molar act - corresponding to that disjunction of effector movements is socially, legally, or ethically categorized. A totally nonethical cognizer from Saturn would be able to recognize the statistical evidence for a nonrandom, configural, "patterned" process. However, it is also true in this simple, clear case that having made the identification of the 10-spike event as highly unlikely on a chance basis, one can then go on, if he has the available action semantics, to characterize the molar outcome that is closely correlated with the (neurally necessitated) effector activities. The conjoint event is in itself "nonchance," but is also "nonchance such that . . . [achievement-characterized R-class] . . . "

A more interesting case: There are 10 command neurons, 6 of which activate certain components (whether simultaneous or sequential) of a complex molar action, and 4 of which inhibit effector-patterns that would interfere, perhaps the 4 components of an "alternative action" at the molar level. On a particular occasion, the Utopian neurophysiologist observes a 6:4 split as to spiking, a split very close to the chance expected value. Neither expected value nor mode is appreciably larger than this one. So there would be no basis to infer anything "systematic" (nonchance) if we consider only the firing pattern of the command neurons on this occasion. However, if we supplement our microphysiological knowledge with information about the effectors thus controlled, and can also characterize the effector pattern in terms of an achievement class (e.g., stealing, speaking French, apologizing) we can discern the configurality at the command neuron level, but only by reference to the molar action outcome, intentionally characterized. So this is an interesting case philosophically. The Utopian physiologist takes note that if any of those that fired, or refrained from firing, on the particular occasion of a 6:4 split under study, had performed the other way, a "nonsense" action, like a fumbling or an asphasic outburst or a parapraxis, would have occurred. The reasoning here is very like the geneticist's in recognizing a "nonsense coding" that takes place when even a single base in the codon triplet (say, thymine) is replaced by adenine, out of a string of 200 or 300 triplets, each designating an amino acid, coded to control the synthesis of a particular polypeptide chain. A nonsense code makes a nonsense protein; which means, in turn, one that doesn't "do its job" in the metabolism of the cell.

It is worth noting that the kind of conceptual equipment the Utopian physiologist must possess to discern this, if he comes from Alpha Centauri, varies with the action-domain under scrutiny. It is possible to recognize some effector sequences as instrumental nonsense acts without employing ethical or social categories. For instance, a rat does something with some of his muscles that leads to the lever not being pressed, although the rest of the musculature does what it usually does, effector sequences that would get the lever down except for this one aberrant subsequence. In other cases, the "nonsense" would be discernible only by reference to higher level social concepts, such as the economic, legal, or moral significance of the instrumental action.

Consider an introspective account where one says, "I chose freely, after reflecting on the pros and cons, being influenced one way by my desire for the money and, opposing this, by moral and prudential reasons against stealing it." The corresponding brain state should presumably involve a causal dependency of the command neurons' functioning, or their being in the system at all, on activation of prudential and ethical memory banks. Let us suppose there is a "scanning" cerebral subsystem that plays a critical role in putting and keeping the command neurons "in the system." It is not Utopian (merely improving existing single-unit stimulation and recording techniques) to ascertain what happens if artificial means are employed to suppress activity in the ethical and prudential memory banks, or to interfere with the scanning subsystem's operations. Suppose we find that on the subset of occasions when such artificial interference prevents the counter-considerations from even being available - cerebral tokenings of the argument sentences cannot neurophysiologically occur - the money motive always wins out, because the command neurons do not show their "normal" activity of inhibiting on half the occasions. I suggest that this is a plausible account of what, at the molar behavior and phenomenological level, we mean when we say that radical, existential freedom of choice in nontrivial situations involves the weighing of alternatives, the evaluating of reasons, the computing of utilities, the counterbalancing of motives, and the like. It would be incorrect to make the too-easy inference, found in Hobart and Jonathan Edwards, that if these counter-considerations play a significant "influencing" role, therefore they must determine the outcome. It is true that these considerations (I prefer to say, "The cerebral events that are tokenings of sentences expressing the considerations") must play a significant influencing role if we have a kind of indeterminism that is affirmatively meaningful as a form of personal freedom, a real choosing. What they determine is that the outcome is indeterminate. That is shown by showing that preventing their usual activity, while leaving the rest of the cerebral system to run off as it normally would, yields a molar choice stealing probability no longer 1/2 but p = 1. On such occasions, the behavior is consistently "controlled by the strongest motive," the money drive, no countermotive being available.

After Hobart's powerful "If my action is not determined by my character, it is not my actions, and I am not responsible, capable of blame or regret," I think the next strongest (but, as I hope to show, rebuttable) objection to radical free will, as I used to hear it from Professor Feigl and other positivist colleagues, goes like this:

"Look, the action is either determined, or it is a matter of chance. You either behave as you do because of a combination of internal and external causes (including your acquired cognitive and motivational dispositions, considered as causal), or you respond at random. You can't have it any other way, because there is no other way." When this plausible molar dichotomy is reduced to conjectural brain models, it still seems seductive to most philosophers and psychologists. When I talk about command neurons and indeterminacy they reply with, "Well. you still are trying to have it both ways. If the local micro-event is truly quantum indeterminate - that is, it's a chance happening - then no matter how you wire things up and no matter how many such local synaptic outcomes you consider, you still get a big random mess; you are trying to have your cake and eat it too, by alleging that the microevents are, both epistemologically and ontologically, indeterminate. Yet somehow you want to claim the macro-event is not merely a big random cascade effect, like the final distribution of marbles at the bottom of a Galton Board. That's inconsistent of you. If the component events are random, then the whole thing is random, however cleverly you fiddle with ways of describing that make it appear otherwise."

Now this, plausible as it sounds, is mistaken. It is presented as analyticóas a conceptual dichotomy, not requiring empirical data. As a conceptual dichotomy, it must rely on formal or semantic implications of the concepts "random" and "independent."

To the preceding conjectural brain models (presupposing the general philosophical points made at the beginning about counternomological impossibility and ordinary language analysis), a critic advances the following: "This is all very interesting, and especially illuminating as to the dichotomist position, which I am prepared to grant you've shown to be false by constructing an internally consistent and plausible alternative to either determinism or pure chance. But I am unpersuaded that it will reassure the freewillite, or, a fortiori, the incompatibilist. Their original objection to determinism was that I 'cannot' refrain from stealing because for me to refrain would involve counternomological events in my brain, and counternomological events are impossible, in the strong strict literal meaning of that term. Your analysis disposes of the ordinary language gloss on 'could have done otherwise' and related expressions. As you say, it is difficult to attach any meaning to the sentence, 'Jones could have done otherwise, although the brain events involved in his actual doings and decidings, being necessarily determined in accordance with the nomologicals, were the only ones physiologically possible.' So I agree with your criticism that when the ordinary-language gloss on 'He could have done otherwise' combines with a proper analysis of possibility in terms of nomologicals, the conclusory statement is that 'Sometimes people can do things that are impossible,' and I don't countenance that statement, which, like you, I consider absurd. The incompatibilist who wants us to hold a thief nonaccountable or nonblameworthy appeals in the determinist frame to the impossibility of his having done otherwise, because he is, so to speak, merely the victim of what his neurons were (deterministically) doing. Now on your analysis he cannot say he was the victim of the deterministic action of his neurons, but surely he can still say he is the victim of his command neurons, which are firing randomly. That is, we are holding him accountable for something that is the molar outcome of a sequence of random cerebral micro-events. The thief can say to us, 'Look, we were originally troubled by your considering me a free moral agent - hence an accountable and blameworthy individual - for doing something that ordinary language says I could have refrained from doing. We rejected that ordinary-language claim on the grounds that, according to determinism, for my brain cells to have have fired otherwise than they did would have been nomologically impossible. You have substituted the notion that for my brain cells to have fired otherwise would have been nomologically possible, but that they fired the way they did was a chance affair. It's as if the molar action I finally perform - despite my performing it following reflection on the arguments of my fellow clerk, whether prudential or ethical - still, at that last critical stage, depends upon the outcome of the spinning of 10 little organic roulette wheels in my head. I fail to see why that should give any reassurance to an advocate of free will. Why should it leave me any less exculpable than if, instead of being little roulette wheels, they were little preset clocks? For the final choice - I repeat, following upon my deliberations, considering the arguments delicately balanced on the existential knife edge - to be a matter of chance doesn't seem preferable over the original case where we had the deterministic stomach ache about freedom.' "

Now this is a powerful objection, and it remains pretty impressive even when we correct the objector by pointing out that he is not quite entitled to say that what happened in the command neurons is literally a matter of "chance." In our conjectural brain model, while individually the command cells act as if by chance, and a subsequence of the molar sequence of temptation occasions satisfies Mises's criterion, yet the 'total cerebral event' involved in the choosing is seen not to be a matter of chance, because of the clearly "nonchance" patterned coherence of the several (local) outcomes. This is especially clear when what the nonchance pattern of that configural outcome at 10 loci has to be (teleolonomically) is inferred by considering significant social or moral properties of the final effector event defined as a molar achievement class. Before meeting the objection head on, we may inquire what is the meaning of `chance' that we think the consistent incompatibilist freewillite, given his original objections to determinism, ought to find equally objectionable here? The overinterpretation of 'chance' in this setting - and we don't know whether the critic is overinterpreting unless we press him to expand it further, but the passage above sounds suspiciously as though he is - is the connotation we dislike in such verbal correlatives as 'capricious,' 'meaningless,' 'blind,' 'unreasoning,' 'unmotivated,' 'without regard for such things as reasons or anticipated consequences,' and, perhaps the best word here, 'unintentional.' Now to think properly about this we must parse the concept labeled 'chance' or 'random,' and ask which of the different (and, in most ordinary contexts, closely correlated) meanings apply.

The first "chancey" condition in the model is local unpredictability at the individual synapse, which we are postulating as present for quantum physics reasons. So the individual elements of the cerebral event are, by that definition, a matter of chance. Second, for the subset of all stealing temptation occasions in which the remainder of the cerebral system is in such a state as to put the command neurons effectively into the system at all (regardless of what they finally do jointly), there is sequential randomness; that is, the series of molar outcomes in the subset that are nondeterministic satisfies Mises's criterion, so the system is chance in that second respect also. But consider the strong, total system requirement that the 10 local events that jointly "decide" the final outcome (the firing or nonfiring of the 10 command neurons) should be totally random, i.e., satisfying the mathematician's condition of total independence. That requirement we have seen does not obtain in the present case; and the possibility of that total event being "nonchance" despite local indeterminacy and the Mises's criterion for the subsequence, arises from Bernstein's Theorem. Finally, a meaning of "chance" not expressed above, would be a "mentalistic" molar characterization of the events immediately preceding the final act of stealing or inhibiting, namely, that reasons, motives, values, the weighing of considerations and so on would play no genuine (efficacious, significant) role in the internal process terminated by the final action. Part of what is objectionable about the language "10 little roulette wheels in my head" is that such a locution makes it appear that the reasons offered by the fellow clerk, and one's reflection on them in the light of his prudential memory-bank activations, only seem subjectively to be relevant in what finally comes out but in actuality are not so. This is related to a point made by C. A. Campbell in his distinction between the "inner" and "outer" aspect of a free choosing (1951 in Berofsky, 1966, pp. 131-33).

I fear that the basic question involved in the objection, and the possibility of answering it, is that perennial problem of philosophy about persons, "What is the 'I'?" Here a preliminary terminological observation, from which I don't intend to get much mileage but simply to alert the reader and myself to a tempting semantic danger: The language of the objector, "I am a victim of my command neurons, which are acting like 10 little roulette wheels," makes it sound rather as if the 'I' in that sentence is an entity wholly distinct from the command neurons. And on most (I'm going to argue below, on all) plausible solutions to the mind/ body problem, this is misleading. That is, it is not as if there are command neurons and then, in addition, there is a psychophysical 'I' separate from them, whereby they do something first and then, as a consequence of that doing as an efficient cause, a something else befalls the 'I' of the sentence. The command neurons are part of the 'I,' insofar as it is a continuant (albeit a composite one); and ditto for the rest of the cerebral system that provides input to the command neurons and that responds to their commands. The 'I' is my total psychophysical system, the activities of which (when we move to a molecular level of analysis from the molar level of behavior and experience) consist of the firing of the neurons, command and otherwise, deterministic and indeterministic. Therefore one must speak with care to avoid falling into a subtle form of category mistake we would make if we said one of Mr. Reagan's neurons is Republican. I don't mean to adduce this warning as more than a warning. It is not, just as it stands, a cure for the stomach ache of our critic. If the determinist had a stomach ache that persisted after reading Hobart (or Bradley's letter to James [Perry, 1935, pp. 238-401) where the 'I,' once in being and however composed at another level of analysis, is now acting, choosing, etc., the mere fact that this 'I' is a physical composite, and the command neurons are part of that composite, doesn't answer the objection, if the properties of the elements of that composite (under the deterministic scheme) make it impossible to choose otherwise than one did. I will say more on this below.

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