Derek Abbott Debates Gilbert Ryle

 

DA=Derek Abbott (yours truly)
CRS=Cosma "Cozzie" Rohilla Shalizi (with one z)
GR=Gilbert "Bert" Ryle, b.1901 d.1976 (resurrected to life by the wonders of
                                   the science of quantum pneumatodynamics :-)

                                                    [Note, Gk. Pneuma=spirit]
CRS:
Excerpt fro
m Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, Ch. III, sec. 2, pp. 63-9 of the Barnes& Noble edition. Not for the copyright-squeemish. Any errors in spelling or punctuation are, of course, mine, and should be discounted appropriately. [Ditto comments in square brackets. -CRS]

GR:
Volitions have been postulated as special acts, or operations, 'in the mind', by means of which a mind gets its ideas translated into facts. I think of some state of affairs which I wish to come into existence in the physical world, but, as my thinking and wishing are unexecutive, they require the mediation of a further executive mental process. So I perform a volition which somehow puts my muscles into action. Only when a bodily movement has issued from such a volition can I merit praise or blame for what my hand or tongue has done.

DA:
Bert appears to be defining "volitions" as an intermediate step in between will and physical action. This "three-step" model does not correspond with my non-dualistic soul/brain model, where the soul and body are a "hypostatic" unity and thus "will" and "volition" meld into one concept.


GR:
It will be clear why I reject this story. It is just an inevitable extension of the myth of the ghost in the machine. It assumes that there are mental states and processes enjoying one sort of existence, and bodily states and processes enjoying another.

DA:
Bert, you are being somewhat obtuse here for a person of your high calibre. Mental states "enjoying" a separate existence from the body is a dualist position a la Plato, Descartes and Leibnitz. This is not the only position. I hope you are not going to reject free will based on this particular strawman. There are other positions. Theology rejected the dualist position centuries ago. Weren't you awake?

Or maybe I am being somewhat too hasty in judgment. Maybe you are just going to bash the dualist position and it is Cozzie's fault for bringing you back to life amidst a quite different debate. The irony is that I am taking a non-dualist position too, whilst Cozzie seems to only be capable of thinking in terms of dualisms himself (eg. he has not yet appreciated the `hypostasis' of brain & soul and is still thinking in terms of Cartesian paradigms) and he uses you (a non-dualist) as a weapon against me!! Cozzie is like the lovable but scheming coyote in a "Roadrunner" cartoon who fires a gun, but the bullet comes out the wrong end!

Despite this misdirection, I shall nevertheless offer comments to your points - even though this is now somewhat tangential to the main theme.


GR:
An occurrence on the one stage is never numerically identical with an occurrence on the other. So, to say that a person pulled the trigger intentionally is to express at least a conjunctive proposition, asserting the occurrence of one act on the physical stage and another on the mental stage; and, according to most versions of the myth, it is to express a causal proposition, asserting that the bodily act of pulling the trigger was the effect of a mental act of willing to pull the trigger.


DA: By your model.


GR:
According to the theory, the workings of the body are motions of matter in space. The causes of these motions must then be either other motions of matter in space or, in the privileged case of human beings [or aliens? -CRS] thrusts of another kind.


DA:  These "thrusts" are soul in my model.

GR:
In some way which must forever remain a mystery, mental thrusts, which are not movements of matter in space, can cause muscles to contract.
[Or, presumably, cause nerves to fire, which then cause muscles to contract. -CRS]

DA: 

Because of Quantum Mechanics, this might not be so mysterious a la solution of Nyikos. See also the solution of JC Eccles in Evolution of the Brain, Publ. Routledge.

GR:
To describe a man as intentionally pulling the trigger is to state that such a mental thrust did cause the contraction of the muscles of his finger. So the language of `volitions' is the language of the para-mechanical theory of the mind. If a theorist speaks without qualms of `volitions', or `acts of will', no further evidence is needed to show that he swallows whole the dogma that a mind is a secondary field of special causes. It can be predicted that he will correspondingly speak of bodily actions as `expressions' of mental processes. He is likely also to speak glibly of `experiences', a plural noun commonly used to denote the postulated non-physical episodes which constitute the shadow-drama on the ghostly boards of the mental stage.

DA:  So what?

GR:
The first objection to the doctrine that overt actions, to which we ascribe intelligence-predicates, are results of counterpart hidden operations of willing is this. Despite the fact that theorists have, since the Stoics and Saint Augustine, recommended us to describe our conduct in this way, no one, save to endorse the theory, ever describes his own conduct, or
that of his acquaintances, in the recommended idioms.


DA: 

The theorists haven't always followed your dualist strawman. Augustine is out of date. He could never make up his mind on the nature of the soul. He oscillated between Creationism and Transducianism and was very confused :-)

GR:
No one ever says such things as that as 10 a.m. he was occupied in willing this or that, or that he performed five quick and easy volitions and two slow and difficult volitions between midday and lunch-time.


DA:  Most amusing. But so what? It's a matter of language.

GR:
An accused person may admit or deny that he did something, or that he did it on purpose, but he never admits or denies having
willed. Nor do the judge and jury require to be satisfied by evidence, which in the nature of the case could never be adduced, that a volitions preceded the pulling of the trigger.


DA:  Bert, you are being silly. The legal system obviously sees things in terms of concrete physical events that can be checked. It is not interested in "untestable" wills.

GR:
Novelists describe the actions, remarks, gestures and grimaces, the daydreams, deliberations, qualms and embarrassments of their characters; but they never mention their volitions. They would not know what to say about them.
       

By what sort of predicates should they be described? Can they be sudden or gradual, strong or weak, difficult or easy, enjoyable or disagreeable? Can they be accelerated, decelerated, interrupted, or suspended? Can people be efficient or inefficient at them? Can we take lessons in executing them? Are they fatiguing or distracting? Can I do two or seven of them synchronously? Can I remember executing them? Can I execute them, while thinking of other things, or while dreaming? Can they become habitual? Can I forget how to do them? Can I mistakenly believe that I have executed one, when I have not, or that I have not executed one, when I have? At which moment was the boy going through a volition to take the high dive? When he set foot on the ladder? When he took his first deep breath? When he counted off `One, two, three - Go', but did not go? Very, very shortly before he sprang? What would his own answer be to those questions?

DA: 

This is a false dilemma created by the reductionism of the dualist position. In my unified `hypostatic' model these dichotomies do not even arise because the answers are given by directly measuring the performance of the brain. That performance then characterises the soul/brain hypostasis as a whole - the two elements are inseparable. We cannot ask that question of how the soul would act on it's own, as it does  not have a separate existence - therefore  there is no dichotomy. The question is as inappropriate as asking "does the Pauli Exclusion Principle exist in a universe with only one electron." On death of the body, the soul does indeed then separate - however theology handles this problem by postulating a resurrection body - so the soul never has an existence on its own and Platonic reductionism is inappropriate.

GR:
Champions of the doctrine maintain, of course, that the enactment of volitions is asserted by implication, whenever an overt act is described as intentional, voluntary, culpable or meritorious; they assert too that any person is not merely able but bound to know that he is willing when he is doing so, since volitions are defined as a species of conscious process. [Are they always? -CRS] So if ordinary men and women fail to mention their volitions in their descriptions of their own behaviour, this must be due to their being untrained in the dictions appropriate to the description of their inner, as distinct from their overt, behaviour. However, when a champion of the doctrine is himself asked how long ago he executed his last volition, or how many acts of will he executes in, say, reciting `Little Miss Muffet' backwards, he is apt to confess to finding difficulties in giving the answer, though these difficulties should not, according to his own theory, exist.

DA: 

That's cute, Bert. I've always wanted to find a way of bringing Little Miss Muffet into a conversation. But seriously, three possible solutions are:
        (a) postulate that volitions aren't conscious and see where that takes us
        (b) postulate a non-dualist model (a la moi, par example)
        (c) stick with your model and argue that playing a piano is a conscious
            activity and yet a pianist isn't churning all the details of which
            keys to press in his mind. There is something special that happens:
            the piano becomes part of his body. He cannot remember what keys
            to press in isolation from a piano - but soon as his fingers
            meet a real keyboard, the real interaction makes everything flow
            forth. We can argue that our "unawareness" of volitions is similar
            to the unawareness of the pianist as to which physical locations
            his fingers are really moving in.

GR:
If ordinary men never report the occurrence of these acts, for all that, according to the theory, they should be encountered vastly more frequently than headaches, or feelings of boredom; if ordinary vocabulary has no non-academic names for them; if we do not know how to settle simple questions about their frequency, duration or strength, then it is fair to conclude that their existence is not asserted on empirical grounds. The fact that Plato and Aristotle never mentioned them in their frequent and elaborate discussions of the nature of the soul and the springs of conduct is due not to any perverse neglect by them of notorious ingredients of daily life but to the historical circumstance that they were not acquainted with a special hypothesis the acceptance of which rests not on the discovery but on the postulation of these ghostly thrusts.


DA: 

I agree: for your model. However, an argument by retrospection back to Plato and Aristotle is not sound, and thus I would have expressed it differently.

GR:
The second objection is this. It is admitted that one person can never witness the volitions of another; he can only infer from an observed action to the volition from which it resulted, and then only if he has any good reason to believe that the overt action was a voluntary action, and not a reflex or habitual action, or one resulting from some external cause. It follows that no judge, schoolmaster, or parent ever knows that the actions which he judges merit praise or blame; for he cannot do better than guess that the action was willed. Even a confession by the agent, if such confessions were ever made, that he had executed a volition before his hand did the deed, would not settle the question. The pronouncement of the confession is only another overt muscular action. The curious conclusion results that though volitions were called in to explain our appraisals of actions, this explanation is just what they fail to provide. If we had no other antecedent grounds for applying appraisal-concepts to the actions of others, we should have no reasons at all for inferring from those actions to the volitions alleged to give rise to them.


DA: 

Bert is essentially objecting that volitions are untestable. Fine. I personally don't let "untestability" upset me too much, in general, provided that the untestable concept is consistent with a set of other things that are testable. Then I can choose to believe in the untestable concept on the grounds of circumstantial evidence.

This choice is not for scientific purposes. It is to give me a structure for my world-view. It may indeed prove to become scientific one day when measuring instruments do things we never dreamt of.

So for the moment, it is an act of faith. Such acts of faith, supported by circumstantial evidence, are not irrational. Humans do it all the time for their sanity. When you walk into an aircraft, you fly by faith that the pilot is not drunk. The circumstantial evidence you use is the reputation of the airline and the lack of merry singing coming from the the cockpit :-)

Science rests on various untestable axioms that are accepted because they are consistent with a bunch of other things that are testable.

These axioms do get challenged, such as when this century discovered that space is not Euclidian. In science we "believe" by induction much more than perhaps we should. We believe that our digital number system corresponds with physical object space - two objects plus two objects equals four objects. Sounds straightforward, but where are the boundaries of the objects? Do they overlap? Is addition testable for large numbers of objects? For large enough numbers, might the objects collapse into one black hole? :-)

Science must not belittle rational faith and belief. Ryle's untestability objection is not weighty, IMHO.


GR:
Nor could it be maintained that the agent himself can know that any overt action of his own is the effect of a given volition. Supposing, what is not the case, that he could know for certain, either from the alleged direct deliverances of consciousness, or from the alleged direct findings of introspection, that he had executed and act of will to pull the trigger just before he pulled it, this would not prove that the pulling was the effect of that willing. The connection between volitions and movements is allowed to be mysterious, so, for all he knows, his volition may have had some other movement as its effect and the pulling of the trigger may have had some other event for its cause.
[!!! -CRS]

DA: 

Actually, I agree with this. Sometimes, I drive to work when I'm supposed to go shopping -- it's an automated response. Sometimes, I squirt the shaving foam on my toothbrush - a stray gamma ray caused a `soft error' in my brain. Or maybe thermal or random quantum noise in my brain somehow gets occasionally amplified via a chaotic process causing the glitch in my behaviour.

Sometimes there may be physical damage in my brain, due to viruses or alcohol. I'm certain that there are a whole host of things we do that we didn't "mean."

So Bert has not found an objection, he has found a fact of life.

Luckily, the brain averages glitches out by feedback. So when I taste the disgusting shaving foam on my toothbrush, I then proceed to correct my actions & get the toothpaste. However, in the case of holding a gun to your head, once the trigger goes off, you don't have the freedom to correct your action :-)

It was by free will that you pointed the gun at yourself in the first place. However, when you use your free will to put yourself in a
position where you cut off the feedback for correcting your actions, you have only yourself to blame.

GR:
Thirdly, it would be improper to burke the point that the connection between volition and movement is admitted to be a mystery. It is a mystery not of the unsolved but soluble type, like the problem of the cause of cancer, but of quite another type. The episodes supposed to constitute the careers of bodies have another sort; and no bridge-status is allowed. Transactions between minds and bodies involve links where no links can be.


DA:  Unsupported statement. Nyikos' solution is an example of such a link or bridge.

GR:
That there should be any causal transactions between minds and matter conflicts with one part, that there should be none conflicts with another part of the theory. Minds, as the whole legend describes them, are what must exist if there is to be a causal
explanation of the intelligent behavior of human bodies; and minds, as the legend describes them, live on a floor of existence defined as being outside the causal system to which bodies belong.


DA: 

Tut. Tut. Tut. Bert, you are confusing "causality" with "determinism." Shame on you. Mind, as you say, (I would say soul) is outside the deterministic system that body belongs. Something can be non-deterministic and yet causal. Sheeesh, did you write this book towards the end of your life or something?

GR:
Fourthly, although the prime function of volitions, the task for the performance of which they were postulated, is to originate bodily movements, the argument, such as it is, for their existence entails that some mental happenings must also result from acts of will. Volitions were postulated to be that which makes actions voluntary, resolute, meritorious and wicked. But predicates of these sorts are ascribed not only to bodily movements but also to operations which, according to theory, are mental and not physical operations. A thinker may ratiocinate resolutely, or imagine wickedly; he may try to compose a limerick and he may meritoriously concentrate on his algebra. Some mental processes, then can, according to the theory, issue from volitions. So what of volitions themselves? Are they voluntary or involuntary acts of the mind? Clearly either answer leads to absurdities. If I cannot help willing to pull the trigger, it would be absurd to describe my pulling it as `voluntary'. But if my volition to pull the trigger is voluntary, in the sense assumed by the theory, then it must issue from a prior volition and that from another ad infinitum.


DA:  

There is no ad infinitum, in my model. The soul is non-material and not in bondage of such an event chain.

GR:
It has been suggested, to avoid this difficulty, that volitions cannot be described as either voluntary or involuntary. `Volition' is a term of the wrong type to accept either predicate. If so, it would seem to follow that it is also of the wrong type to accept such predicates as `virtuous' and `wicked', `good' and `bad', a conclusion which might embarrass those moralists who use volitions as the sheet-anchor of their systems.


DA:  

My model solves all the ethical problems. That was the reason for formulating it. [BTW, when I say "my" model I don't mean that I thought of it. I mean the one that I support].

GR:
In short, then, the doctrine of volitions is a causal hypothesis, adopted because it was wrongly supposed that the question, `What makes a bodily movement voluntary?' was a causal question. This supposition is, in fact, only a special twist of the general supposition that the question, `How are mental-conduct concepts applicable to human behavior?' is a question about the causation of that behavior.


DA: 

I agree that the model you are attacking is pretty dumb.

GR:
Champions of the doctrine should have noted the simple fact that they and all other sensible persons knew how to decide questions about the voluntariness and involuntariness of actions and about the resoluteness and irresoluteness of agents before they had ever heard of the hypothesis of the occult
[=hidden] inner thrusts of actions. They might then have realised that they were not elucidating the criteria already in efficient use, but, tacitly assuming their validity, were trying to correlate them with hypothetical occurrences of a para-mechanical pattern. Yet this correlation could, on the one hand, never be scientifically established, since the thrusts postulated were screened from scientific observation; and, on the other hand, it would be of no practical or theoretical use, since it would not assist our appraisals of actions, depending as it would on the presupposed validity of those appraisals. Nor would it elucidate the logic of those appraisal-concepts, the intelligent employment of which antedated the invention of this causal hypothesis.

DA: 

"Screened from scientific observation" at the moment. I believe this limitation is not fundamental.

GR:
Before we bid farewell to the doctrine of volitions, it is expedient to consider certain quite familiar and authentic processes with which volitions are sometimes wrongly identified.

People are frequently in doubt what to do; having considered alternative courses of action, they then, sometimes, select or choose one of these courses. This process of opting for one of a set of alternative courses of action is sometimes said to be what is signified by `volition'. But this identification will not do, for most voluntary actions do not issue out of conditions of indecision and are not therefore results of settlements of indecisions.

DA: 

Bert asking how to explain "indecision." Indecision is simply a string of decisions that keep changing! The final one that is executed is just as much an act of free will as any other normal decision. In practice, though, external events don't wait for your deliberations and you are forced to use what ever decision you have come to at a particular window of time. This is a special case of limitation of freedom of action. Therefore I can't see a problem here.

GR:
 Moreover it is notorious that a person may choose to do something but fail, from weakness of will, to do it;


DA: 

The choice to not do it, won over the idea of doing it. His free will chose to chicken out. Free will is allowed to be chicken. Got a problem with that?

GR:
or he may fail to do it because some circumstance arises after the choice is made, preventing the execution of the act chosen.


DA: 

Cummon. This is basic stuff. Freedom of action is different from freedom of will. You should know that Bert. You really did write this mush at the end of your life.

GR:
But the theory could not allow that volitions ever fail to result in action, else further executive operations would have to
be postulated to account for the fact that sometimes voluntary actions are performed.


DA: 

Rubbish. A man with a phantom limb has lots of volitions to move that limb. The action fails (as there is no limb). There's no problem.

GR:
And finally the process of deliberating between alternatives and opting for one of them is itself subject to appraisal-predicates. But if, for example, an act of choosing is describable as voluntary, then, on this suggested showing, it would have in its turn to be the result of a prior choice to choose, and that from a choice to choose to choose...


DA: 

My model escapes from a deterministic chain. Your model should be able too. I don't know why you are saying this. Senility?

GR:
The same objections forbid the identification with volitions of such other familiar processes as that of resolving or making up our minds to do something and that of nerving or bracing ourselves to do something. I may re- solve to get out of bed or go to the dentist, and I may, clenching my fists and gritting my teeth, brace myself to do so, but I may still backslide. If the action is not done, then, according to the doctrine, the volition to do so is also unexecuted. Again, the operations of resolving and nerving ourselves are themselves members of the class of creditable or discreditable actions, so they cannot constitute the peculiar ingredient which, according to the doctrine, is the common condition of any performance being creditable or discreditable.

.................................................................................^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

DA:            Oh, really? Nicely unsubstantiated, Bert.

There is nothing weird about unexecuted will or volition as per my phantom limb example. Also I can will to my hearts content for my body to levitate, but with, alas, no executive action.

Also Bert is forgetting that backsliding is a free choice in itself. He talks as if backsliding is when your initial choice magically vapourises. No. You've made a distinct counter-choice, that supersedes the last one. This is what free will is all about!