Daniel Dennett’s Two-Stage Model of Free Will

Daniel Dennett proposed a two-stage model of free will in 1978 that is better than most libertarians, but he denies that it needs quantum  indeterminism in the first stage.

While he himself is a confirmed compatibilist, even a determinist, in “On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want,” Chapter 15 of his 1978 book Brainstorms, Daniel Dennett articulated the case for a two-stage model of free will better than any libertarian.His “Valerian” model of decision making, named after the poet Paul Valéry, combines indeterminism to generate alternative possibilities, with (in our view, adequatedeterminism to choose among the possibilities.

“The model of decision making I am proposing, has the following feature: when we are faced with an important decision, a consideration-generator whose output is to some degree undetermined produces a series of considerations, some of which may of course be immediately rejected as irrelevant by the agent (consciously or unconsciously). Those considerations that are selected by the agent as having a more than negligible bearing on the decision then figure in a reasoning process, and if the agent is in the main reasonable, those considerations ultimately serve as predictors and explicators of the agent’s final decision.” (Brainstorms, p.295)

Dennett gives six excellent reasons why this is the kind of free will that libertarians say they want. He says,

  1. “First…The intelligent selection, rejection, and weighing of the considerations that do occur to the subject is a matter of intelligence making the difference.”
  2. “Second, I think it installs indeterminism in the right place for the libertarian, if there is a right place at all.”
  3. “Third…from the point of view of biological engineering, it is just more efficient and in the end more rational that decision making should occur in this way.”
  4. “A fourth observation in favor of the model is that it permits moral education to make a difference, without making all of the difference.”
  5. “Fifth – and I think this is perhaps the most important thing to be said in favor of this model – it provides some account of our important intuition that we are the authors of our moral decisions.”
  6. “Finally, the model I propose points to the multiplicity of decisions that encircle our moral decisions and suggests that in many cases our ultimate decision as to which way to act is less important phenomenologically as a contributor to our sense of free will than the prior decisions affecting our deliberation process itself: the decision, for instance, not to consider any further, to terminate deliberation; or the decision to ignore certain lines of inquiry.”

Why We Are Free – The Two-Stage Model of Free Will

My second free will webcast will introduce the two-stage model of free will, which I first imagined some four decades ago, and over the years found similar ideas in the works of a couple of dozen philosophers and scientists, starting with William James in the 1880’s.

My model of human freedom locates randomness (either ancient chance or modern quantum indeterminacy) in the mind, in a way that breaks the causal chain of strict physical determinism, while doing no harm to responsibility.

The model combines indeterminacy – first microscopic quantum randomness
and unpredictability, then “adequate” or statistical determinism and macroscopic predictability, in a temporal sequence that creates new information.

Important elements of the model have been proposed by many philosophers since Aristotle, the first indeterminist. A number of modern philosophers and scientists, starting with William James, have proposed similar two-stage models of free will. But none of them has been able to locate the randomness so as to make free will “intelligible,” as libertarian Robert Kane puts it.

The insoluble problem for previous two-stage models has been to explain how a random event in the brain can be timed and located – perfectly synchronized! – so as to be relevant to a specific decision. The answer is it cannot be, for the simple reason that quantum events are totally unpredictable.

My solution is not single random events, one per decision, but many random events in the brain as a result of ever-present noise, both quantum and thermal noise, that is inherent in any information storage and communication system.

The mind, like all biological systems, has evolved in the presence of constant noise and is able to ignore that noise, unless the noise provides a significant competitive advantage, which it clearly does as the basis for freedom and creativity.

Consciousness and the Experience Recorder and Reproducer

Today’s I-Phi lecture will show how Consciousness, “What It’s Like To Be…,” and “subjective experiences” can be explained by the Experience Recorder and Reproducer (ERR).

We propose that a minimal primitive mind would need only to “play back” past experiences that resemble any part of current experience. Remembering past experiences has obvious relevance (survival value) for an organism. But beyond survival value, the ERR touches on the philosophical problem of “meaning.” We suggest the epistemological “meaning” of information perceived may be found in the past experiences that are reproduced by the ERR.

The ERR model is a memory model for long-term potentiation stored in the neocortical synapses. Short-term memory must have a much faster storage mechanism. While storage is slow, we shall see that ERR retrieval is just as fast, and it does not fade as does short-term, working memory.

We propose that the ERR reproduces the entire complex of the original sensations experienced, together with the emotional response to the original experience (pleasure, pain, fear, etc.). Playback of past experiences are stimulated by anything in the current experience that resembles something in the past experiences, in the five dimensions of the senses (sound, sight, touch, smell and taste).

See you at 3.


My First Lecture on Albert Einstein

I hope to show that a careful reading of the works of Einstein from 1905 to 1955 may provide us a much deeper understanding of the mysteries of quantum mechanics than reading the “interpretations” of all other physicists and philosophers of science combined.

Is it possible that the most famous critic of quantum mechanics actually invented most of its fundamentally important concepts? Just because he did not like the indeterminism and chance he discovered in quantum events does not mean Einstein should not get credit for his amazing insights. In my book in progress, My God, He Plays Dice!, I hope to make Einstein as famous for quantum mechanics as for his relativity theories.

Besides quantizing light energy and seeing its interchangeability with matter, E = mc2, Einstein was first to see many of the most fundamental aspects of quantum physics – the quantal derivation of the blackbody radiation law, nonlocality and instantaneous action-at-a-distance (1905), the internal structure of atoms (1906), wave-particle duality and the “collapse” of the wave aspect (1909), transition probabilities for emission and absorption processes that introduce indeterminism whenever matter and radiation interact, making quantum mechanics a statistical theory (1916-17), the indistinguishability of elementary particles with their strange quantum statistics (1925), and the nonseparability and entanglement of interacting identical particles (1935).

It took the physics community eighteen years to accept Einstein’s light-quantum hypothesis. He saw wave-particle duality fifteen years before deBroglie, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and Bohr. He saw indeterminism a decade before the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. He saw nonlocality as early as 1905, presenting it formally in 1927, but was ignored. In the 1935 Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paper, he added nonseparability, which was dubbed “entanglement” by Schrödinger. John Bell’s theorem has put Einstein’s original insights front and center in today’s concept of “quantum information” and quantum computing.

See you at 3.


William James, first webcast in my Philosophers and Scientists series

In yesterday’s lecture on Free Will, we saw how Bob Kane’s Oxford Handbook of Free Will, second edition, mentioned that my two-stage model of free will might be found in the 19th-century writings of William James.

We continue today with James’ work on consciousness, the human mind, and the critical contribution of chance to biological evolution and human creativity.

James insisted on the reality of alternative possibilities in our future, and that these must sometimes be the result of chance. He attacked both “hard determinism” and “soft determinism” (today’s “compatibilism“), which he called a “wretched subterfuge.”

James wrote:

“The stronghold of the determinist argument is the antipathy to the idea of chance. As soon as we begin to talk indeterminism to our friends, we find a number of them shaking their heads. This notion of alternative possibility, they say, this admission that any one of several things may come to pass is, after all, only a roundabout name for chance; and chance is something the notion of which no sane mind can for an instant tolerate in the world.”

I hope to see you at 3.

My First Free Will Webcast – The Standard Argument

For many years those opposing human free will have put forward a simple two-part logical argument, a so-called two-horn dilemma, against it.

First, if determinism is the case, the will is not free.

Second, if indeterminism and real chance exist, our will would not be in our control, we could not be responsible for random actions.

We will analyze this standard argument against free will  and see why so many writers on free will mistakenly identify it with moral responsibility.

See you at 3PM.