Hume’s mistake

David Hodgson

Supreme Court of New South Wales

Hume’s Mistake

Journal of Consciousness Studies

Hodgson’s article is interesting for its examination of freewill in respect of particular decisions, even if its eventual proposal for the functioning of freewill seems less convincing. The author points out that the dominant paradigm of the brain, which excludes freewill, is based on classical Newtonian physics, with possibly some allowance for quantum randomness impinging on it. Here he draws an important distinction between Newtonian physics, which is based on things that can be measured by the same standards and our motivations and opinions, where there is no precise measurement.


Hodgson examines the problem of choice and takes the example of a three way choice. In this example, he has received a windfall of $500, and he contemplates (1) Buy a new amplifier (2) Give the money to famine relief (3) Save the money (4) Spend half the money on a low quality amplifier and then give the other half to famine relief. In particular, this example is a welcome relief in that it confronts us with the sort of decision that we would normally associate with the conscious exercise of freewill, rather than obstinately insisting that any discussion of freewill should be based on the timing of trivial actions such as wrist flexing.


He feels that no verbal expression of his reasons for or against particular choices will ever by conclusive. He needs to make an effort to decide between them, but what does this effort refer to. Once he has expressed the reasons in favour of each choice, there are no further reasons for or against a particular choice, and yet the reasons are not by themselves conclusive. Yet the decision does not feel like chance, like resolving the matter by tossing a coin. There appears to be some other mental act, which does not constitute either additional reasoning or choice. He touches on the issue of what extent the outcome of a choice derives from the background that has determined his character. he accepts that this will have an important influence on the reasoning, but not to the extent of providing a precisely measurable outcome


He realises that reductionists will argue that although the reasons cannot be expressed in a conclusive way, at the unconscious level, they have weightings, which are precise and deterministic. He accepts this as possible, but considers that he has a more plausible theory.


Hodgson could be thought to be justified in a firmer rebuttal of the reductionist argument. Theoretically, it is possible to make a choice based on unconscious weightings. But this raises the question of why we make lengthy consciously reasoned choices, rather than quick unconscious decisions. From an evolutionary point of view, the time spent mulling over choices, which can be considerable, would be better spent pursuing prey or reproductive opportunities. The process is also extravagant in terms of energy, tying up brain capacity which is a notoriously energy intensive part of the body.


Having got this far with the mechanism of choice, it also seems a pity that Hodgson makes no mention of the role of the emotions. Clinical evidence shows that problems with the connection between the limbic (emotional) system and the rational/executive areas leads to severe difficulty in making decisions. If we think of situations like those described by Hodgson, it is the emotional colouring of the different possibilities is a major factor in the eventual choice. In our minds, we could imagine or test out the likely future pleasure that we would get from the improved quality of our music, and compare to feel-good factor of having given $500 to famine relief, or even possibly empathise with the improved conditions of the recipients. The result of these subjective feel-goodscenarios might well be the descisive factor, particularly as it is impossible to put an exact conscious weighting on the rational arguments.


Hodgson goes onto discuss the possible involvement of quantum mechanics in choice. He suggests that with an undecided choice the brain is put into a superposition of states. This appears similar to Stapp’s top-down approach to quantum control of the brain. In fact the actual decision might be weighted by the pre-existing character of the subject, as to say 95% in favour of buying an amplifier and 5% as to giving the money away, with the final decision as a random quantum event. However, it is hard to see why evolution would ever have selected for a long-winded conscious reasoning process, when all it was getting for its expenditure was a slight randomisation of what was basically determinstic.


Hodgson does somewhat refine his initial quantum proposal by suggesting that throughout the decision process, volitional causation would be adjusting the probabilities for the outcome, so that what initially might seem the most likeley outcome might have receded immediately prior to the actual decision, while the eventual choice might only become highly probable in the latter stages of the process. This seems reasonable given that it actually approximates to our experieince of the more decision making processes, but it does little to resolve the difficulties inherent in his main proposition. Furthermore, it introduces another puzzle. He mentions that the probabilities are adjusted by volitional causation. It is not clear what exactly this volition is within Hodgson’s causation model, which only allows for determinsitic weightings plus a bit of randomness.


It is interesting that Hodgson’s description of how the reasons for different actions in a decision are not conclusive and yet there are no further reasons to be looked at, and some other process is brought into play, sounds very like the Penrose suggestion of decisions and understanding based on a non-computable process.


The article reads like a missed opportunity. The author is free from the psychology department fixation with discussing free will in terms of trivia, and the analysis of the rational side of decisions is such as to put the reductionists on the spot, but this does not carry through to the production of a particularly interesting theory of freewill.
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