Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Chess, Maugham, Free Will and Dr. Lasker

Michael Gilleland, whose erudition continues to inspire and amaze, writes:

There's an interesting passage on free will and determinism and chess in W. Somerset Maugham's book The Summing Up (1938), section LXXII:

"The metaphor of chess, though frayed and shopworn, is here wonderfully apposite. The pieces were provided and I had to accept the mode of action that was characteristic of each one; I had to accept the moves of the persons I played with; but it has seemed to me
that I had the power to make on my side, in accordance with my likes and dislikes and the ideal that I set before me, moves that I freely willed. It has seemed to me that I have now and then been able to put forth an effort that was not wholly determined. If it was an
illusion, it was an illusion that had its own efficacy. The moves I made, I know now, were often mistaken, but in one way and another they have tended to the end in view. I wish that I had not committed a
great many errors, but I do not deplore them, nor would I now have them undone."

Interestingly, when I googled to see if anyone on the Web had quoted this passage, I found a gross plagiarization of it by someone named Lance Gallagher. It's a metaphor that could be expanded further
(Zugzwang, checkmate, etc.). Emanuel Lasker had some philosophical training, I think.

Thanks for writing, Mike. Here are some observations.

1. Could free will in the strong could-have-done-otherwise sense be an illusion? Well, it is certainly not an illusion in any ordinary sense of the term. Illusions can typically be seen through and overcome. For example, 'sunrise' and 'sunset' enshrine perceptual illusions that are easily seen to be such by theoretical considerations. The mis-perception of a bent stick as a snake is easily overcome by more perception. But a systematic and total illusion that we have no possibility of disembarassing ourselves of -- how could such an 'illusion' be called an illusion? Free will could only be an illusion from the point of view of a transcendental spectator that had no need of action. But we are agents (actors) whether we like it or not -- we are essentially (as opposed to accidentally) agents -- and to be an agent in the sense in which we are agents is to be a free agent. (Thus we are not agents in the way in which a cleaning agent is an agent.) We are free to do either X or Y, for some X and Y, but we are not free to throw off our freedom or our agency. An atheist like Sartre will say that we are "condemned to be free," while a theist will say that we are created to be free by a supremely free being who wishes to share an aspect of his being with us. Either way, we are -- to put it paradoxically but not incoherently -- determined to be free. We are determined (from above or from below) to be such that we could have done otherwise with respect to at least some of our actions and omissions.

Some kibitzer now jumps in and demands an argument for this libertarian freedom of the will. Here's one: (1) We are morally responsible for some of our actions/omissions; (2) Moral responsibility logically requires freedom of the will. Therefore, (3) We possess freedom of the will with respect to some of our actions/omissions. This argument is not compelling, but then no argument for any substantive thesis is compelling; it is, however, valid in point of logical form and endowed with plausible premises.

It would be nice from time to time to be able to 'turn off' our freedom (and with it our moral reponsibility) and go on 'automatic pilot.' But it can't be done. I must choose between alternative courses of action in the light of the practical certainty that the outcome is (in part) 'up to me.' If this practical certainty is an 'illusion,' then it is a necessary and unavoidable illusion and to that extent no illusion at all. From the point of view of the agent, freedom of the will is an ineliminable presupposition.

The determinist is comparable to someone who thinks we are always on 'automatic pilot' but under the illusion that we are not. I say that is nonsense. The appearing to ourselves of being free is the reality of our being free, just as the percipi of a headache is its esse. The reality of free will is simply inaccessible to the objective spectator. Our predicament is paradoxical: we are both spectators and agents, and it is quite unclear how the two aspects of our being fit together. Paradoxical or not, I see no reason to subordinate the agent's perspective to that of the spectator.

But these are bold assertions that I cannot adequately justify here. Making them, I part company with our beloved master, A. S. See his On the Freedom of the Will, a delightful classic. No one should monkey with the question of free will and determinism without first reading this.

2. You would be surprised how many chess analogies there are. I'll present some later. For the moment, I'll run a bit with the Zugzwang suggestion. As you know, Zugzwang (compulsion to move, pronounced tsoogk-tsvongk), refers to a situation in which one must move (since it is one's turn to move) but every possible move is such that it would worsen one's position were one to make it. Applying this to the human predicament -- and it is indeed a predicament -- we are "condemned to be free" (J-P Sartre)and so must act (move) and take responsibility for our actions (moves). And yet, there are situations in which anything we do worsens our predicament. A possible example of this is torturing an al-Qaeda operative or other terrorist who knows the location and detonation time of a nuclear device that could level half of Manhattan. Torture him and you open the floodgates to more human depravity by doing something that is intrinsically wrong. But refusing to torture him on the basis of a Kantian argument based on the intrinsic dignity of each person seems even worse, judging by consequences. Perhaps we can say that terrorists have put the human race into deontological/consequentialist Zugzwang.

3. As for Emanuel Lasker, he was a mathematician and something of a philosopher. As I recall, he wrote two philosophical works, one entitled Kampf the other entitled (if memory serves) Die Philosophie des Unvollendbar. He called his philosophy machology. I'll have to post more on this later.