Q&A: Idan Landau and Noam Chomsky on Mysterianism and Free Will

Noam Chomsky is arguably the most influential thinker of our time, having made seminal contributions to linguistics and philosophy, as well as political and social thought. In one succinct and powerfully argued volume, he presents a synthesis of his key ideas.

~Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard University

The interview between Noam Chomsky, author of What Kind of Creatures Are We?, and Idan Landau, professor of linguistics at Ben Gurion University, Israel, continues today with a discussion on mysteranism and free will. Come back tomorrow to read a discussion on anarchism on the ground.

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Idan Landau: There’s a curious asymmetry between your responses to two “mysteries” that have accompanied us since the seventeenth century. One is the problem of influence between bodies at a distance, which defies the mechanical philosophy and makes our scientific theories unintelligible (for common sense). Here you adopt Lock’s suggestion, essentially mysterianism: reality need not conform to our cognitive limitations. In particular, what we find indisputably intuitive—that motion requires contact—may turn out to be an illusion. But now consider how you approach the mystery of free will. This too goes beyond the mechanical philosophy. We perceive free will as involving a type of causation that is neither deterministic nor random. This is an indisputable intuition. But how do we know that it is not just like the “contact physics intuition”—a feature of our cognitive limitations rather than a feature of reality? Perhaps our actions are, after all, fully determined. No two situations are identical to the level of neural activity; minute differences at the molecular level may explain why I choose to move my arm in scenario A but not in scenario B, which look identical from our necessarily limited perspective. I feel that you would object to this analogy, and I wonder why. What makes our free will intuitions more reality-based than our (false) contact-physics intuitions?

Noam Chomsky: As just discussed, I don’t see the matter of action at a distance quite in the way you describe; much more was involved than violation of common sense.

The analogy that you formulate seems to me fair enough. I have never questioned it. I think we can extend it. It seems to me that we (at least I) have conflicting intuitions about free will. One is that each of us believes, as firmly as anything we can conceive, that we can choose right now to raise a finger or not to—even to put it into the flames, to take the Cartesian example. And in the case of language, keeping to Descartes and his contemporaries, we can speak in ways to which we are “incited and inclined” but not “compelled” (“the creative aspect of language use”). I could right now choose to report the weather outside but won’t.

 We also have a conflicting intuition: that what happens in the world is determined (randomness aside).

Turning to science, it provides no answers. It does not go beyond determinacy and randomness but does not refute the first intuition. For now, we cannot go beyond the conclusions of the leading scientists who study voluntary motion, Emilio Bizzi and Robert Ajemian, who write (“fancifully,” as they say) that “we have some idea as to the intricate design of the puppet and the puppet strings, but we lack insight into the mind of the puppeteer.”

We are therefore faced with two options. We can reject what we most firmly believe, relying on a conflicting intuition and the failure of science to provide answers. Or we can adopt some version of Descartes’s conclusion in the letter to the queen of Sweden that I quoted: since “there is nothing we comprehend more evidently and more perfectly [than that] the free actions of men [are] undetermined, . . . it would be absurd” to doubt something that “we comprehend intimately, and experience within ourselves” merely because it conflicts with something else that is “incomprehensible to us” (Descartes goes beyond to allege that we know that it reduces to “divine preordination”).

In short, we have no answer. Rather, a decision—which might be determined, hence not a decision, or might be ours to make on the basis of rational analysis.

To return to your comment, at a fundamental level there should be no asymmetry. We do not know whether the collapse of the mechanical philosophy poses a mystery for humans, as Locke and Hume concluded (with Newton’s indirect acknowledgment) or whether it is merely a problem (in the terminology I have been using). The rich history of the past half millennium suggests, to me at least, that Locke,Hume, and Newton were right, but the question is not settled—though it is possible to imagine experimental studies that would bear on it, and in part there are, including classical work of Michotte and much more since.

The same is true with regard to free will, where we (at least I) face conflicting intuitions, I personally feel inclined to suppose that there is some gap in our scientific understanding, perhaps an irremediable one for human science, and to adopt something like the Cartesian position, though leaving open the possibility that some entirely unknown aspect of the world is compelling me to do so and to write these words—and to be more precise, not really “leaving open the possibility” because I am compelled even to do that—so our discussion is really no more than an interaction between two automata governed by determinacy and randomness, with no reason or purpose. Just “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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