Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Free will and the Foresight Obesity Map

Dear Ron (my atheist friend)

All I think I can do is reiterate my opinion that I cannot prove that choices are freely willed rather than illusory but I do want to argue that free will is a useful concept because it leads to the idea of responsibility and without a notion of responsibility (and indeed blame) you can’t solve problems that relate to human behaviour. Some of these problems are the ‘big’ problems of our age like global warming, the Afghan War, etc. but here is an example taken from my world – the world of obesity prevention.

To elaborate on what I mean, here is that Foresight Obesity ‘map’ again (right). If I’d chosen the Afghan War as my ‘problem’ but then the relevant map would have been this.

In the Foresight Obesity map there is no box labelled ‘free will’ because it is not in itself a thing which causes things: things which cause things are shown as boxes in the map. But there are lots of ‘points of entry’ for free will even though the authors of the map have seemingly tried to write free will out of the map as much as possible. This is because they were afraid of making obesity a moral problem and think, rather vaguely, that it can be tackled solely as a scientific [deterministic] problem.

Incidentally if I had my way I would have included a box labelled ‘God‘ in the map but that’s because I am a theistic scientist. This would have been just as rational as some of the boxes they have included such as ‘ambient temperature’! How on earth does ambient temperature cause obesity!? They might as well have put ‘God’ there instead.

Whilst there is no box labelled ‘free will’ there is there is a box called ‘psychological ambivalence’ which might be summarised as something like: the type of thinking which leads to people saying ‘For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.’ {KJV of Romans 7: 15}. This box is in the map because of one particular psychologist and it was in my view given too much weight because he had much too much say over the way the map was drawn!

Causal relationships are shown in the map by the lines connecting boxes. But the authors of the map seem to have no clear idea of what they mean by a causal relationship. For example: do they think that it is just when an event is consistently followed in time by another event (cf Hume)? Clearly not – at least in some cases - see below! Do they really think that ‘ambient temperature’ causes ‘level of thermogenesis’ in any way that is comparable to the way that the ‘social acceptability of fatness’ causes (according to the map) ’peer-pressure’? But more relevant to our discussion: do they think cause can be agency (cf Kant) at least for some of the links? E.g. do they not think anyone is responsible (has freely willed) anything that happens in the map?

I think that different types of causal relationship need a different type of line in the map. And incidentally we CAN put equations to some of the lines. My research group is doing research which quantifies the link between ‘fibre content of food and drink’ and ‘nutritional quality of food and drink’ (an interesting causal relationship because one thing instantly causes the other without any time delay – so not a Humean type of causal relationship at all.)

Naturally most of the lines between boxes are completely independent of free will e.g. the line between ‘fibre content of food and drink’ and ‘nutritional quality of food and drink’ or between ‘level of infections’ and ‘extent of digestion and absorption’. But some of the lines do involve free choices on the part of human agents and should be shown differently.

In the map are boxes with the implied names of agents within them e.g. ‘parental control’ [read parents]’, ‘media availability’ [read journalists, advertising executives, etc.], ‘education’ [read teachers], ‘effort to acquire energy’ [read consumers]. There are not a lot of agents mentioned in this map. Only the vaguest hint of Government ministers or CEOs of food manufacturing firms for example! Oh what a surprise. And agents – where they are mentioned - have been depersonalised as much as possible.

But the mappers can’t get away without referring to agents at all. How could they? Where we have agents we have choices. And where we have choices we have responsibility: a moral responsibility to behave in ways which reduces the problem that is under scrutiny: in this case obesity.

Just a bit of thought would indicate, surely, that you cannot make a map of causality in such a case - a complex problem involving human beings - without any reference to the (moral) choices of those human beings that are supposed to be acting as causal agents in relation to the problem.

So in the Foresight Obesity map when ‘Education [read teachers’] is supposedly a cause of ‘media availability’ [read the output of journalists and advertising executives] what do they mean here? Don’t they mean something like ‘teachers have chosen to educate advertising executives to advertise junk foods to consumers’? (A bit speculative but I can’t see what else they mean).

And when the map suggests that there is a causal relationship between ‘pressure for growth and profitability’ and obesity through e.g. ‘effort to increase consumption’ who do they imagine is responsible for this pressure. Is it like ‘ambient temperature’ and 'education' just a causeless cause of obesity? (Of course I would have the ‘God’ box linked to ambient temperature!)

The whole problem (of obesity) can surely never be explained let alone solved by reference to a model of causality which fails to take account of different types of causal relationship and in particular the difference between relationships which involve inanimate objects and those that involve animate human beings (either as cause or effect).

Relationships between human beings and other human beings (or indeed their relationship with inanimate objects such as food) necessarily involves choice and therefore moral choices. So parents have a choice about how they control their kids, journalists about what type of articles they write, advertising executives about what type of foods they advertise, teachers how they teach their pupils, consumers what they choose to eat, etc.

This is where free will comes in. I do think it is important to measure and compare this responsibility (perhaps not in the same way as you can quantify the relationship between say ‘fibre content of food and drink’ and ‘nutritional quality of food and drink’) but otherwise where do you start in tackling the problem. Rather too much of the Foresight Obesity map is – to my mind - focused on the consumer (who for example appears in the centre of the map if not by name) and therefore it implicitly makes the consumer the problem to focus on in relation to obesity. You cannot get away from apportioning responsibility whether you like it or not.

The Foresight Obesity map, lauded by some as persuading the British Government to acknowledge that obesity is not just a function of the moral choice of consumers, goes too far in trying (in vain) to remove the moral dimension to the obesity crisis. Fundamentally obesity IS a a result of greed, not just on our part (those of us who are obese) but of all those who contribute to the crisis and that’s virtually everyone.

This started as a reply in a conversation at


  1. Hi Mike,

    All the boxes you refer to as agents (e.g. parents) would themselves be caused systems, and their complex behaviours would have an impact on the obese person - if there is no free-will.

    Similar maps could be created for all aspects of a persons character and physical condition (and under a deterministic model 'character' is just a behavioural expression of similar internal physical states of the brain over time).

    Similar maps could be constructed for slim people. Each person could build their own map, identifying influences. In a less visual sense isn't this what happens in various therapies, and AA meetings - people examine the influences in their lives and try to look deeper than the current state they are in. They examine the extent to which their choices (internal biological responses, both 'reasoned' and 'emotional') were guided by influences.

    All such maps are just sub-representations of the whole person in terms of predominant effects on that aspect of their character or physical state.

    For an individual the numbers on many of the lines would change moment by moment, and other numbers would be no bettre than guesses, and that's what I meant by the difficulty of putting meaningful numbers on the graph to any extent that would make the determinisms determinate.

    You could use numbers derived from various statistical studies to make a generic map for obese people, but those numbers might not mean anything for an individual. So in government action terms the map may be useful for identifying predominant causes with an end to change the environment to so that obesity overall drops statistically - a population exercise.

    "The whole problem (of obesity) can surely never be explained let alone solved by reference to a model of causality which fails to take account of different types of causal relationship and in particular the difference between relationships which involve inanimate objects and those that involve animate human beings (either as cause or effect)."

    I agree. There is no isolatable 'whole problem of obesity' at the social, individual, brain, neuron levels, only a vague representation of countless influences. The causal chains are too complex. This also applies to the notion of free-will too. Individuals and all the causes that impact on them are too complex for a simple free-will model. Even if we really did have free-will, then we would still not know which actions were chosen truly freely and which were influenced predominantly by other events - hence the various defence uses of extenuating circumstances. We seem to have a tacit understanding that we are not free, and yet persist with the desire to be free-willed.

    However, that does not stop us appreciating that those causal relationships, though most often out of reach, are there, and that with effort some of them can be overcome.

  2. Ron

    I am not arguing for a simple free will model just a model that takes account of free will as being something real not illusory. Of course there are plenty of extenuating circumstances for obesity as is illustrated by this map. Incidentally it is I think supposed to be a model of the causes for the problem in society not the problem in one individual (though the model itself by putting the individual (rather than society) in the middle of the model fudges the issue and end up being just as ‘victim blaming’ as some of the models of obesity it is designed to replace)

    And when I say real rather than illusory I mean real in the sense of being something more than just some chemical state such as 'psychological ambivalence’. The model in reducing free will to ‘psychological ambivalence’ – or at least I think the box marked ‘psychological ambivalence’ is as close as the model gets to ‘free will’ - seems to me to assume a particular view of causation where free will plays no part. So no moral choices, so no responsibility for anything1

    This is where I get a bit stuck. To repeat myself somewhat I think that things happen in this map because agents (the individual in the middle of the map, the teachers and the media executives and the politicians (implied in some of the boxes on the edge of the map and sometimes off the edge)) make moral choices that can be described as either good or bad. Most of the other causal linkages in the map e.g. the link between ‘energy content of food’ and ‘palatability of food’ cannot be described as morally good or bad. But the link between media executives and the advertising for food that they produce (not put quite this way in the map) can be so described.

    These moral choices can be rational (based on the evidence for causation at the agents’ disposal) or irrational (based on feelings – OK if you like – generated by chemical reactions in their brains. But choices that are real nevertheless yet not material in the way other causal links in the map are. Perhaps these choices are more like reasons rather than temporal causes. Some of the links in the map are clearly temporal (where the event represented by one box precedes the even in another box but some) but some are clearly simultaneous e.g. the aforementioned link between ‘energy content of food’ and palatability of food’ and are more like ‘reasons’ than ‘causes’ already.

    Surely other people have written about the material causes, moral choices and reasons. Any suggestions?

    Or perhaps I am just going round in circles like some of the loops in this map.

  3. Hi Mike,

    Sorry for the delay in responding.

    I don't think ambivalence covers the detail of the problem. If we suppose either a real free will independent of physical causes (a mind, a soul?) that is the cause of material causes, behaviour, or, on the other hand and entirely physically caused semi-autonomous system, ambivalence could be present in either.

    The traditional notion of real free will is that it is free of the physical body associated with it, to the extent that the will can impose itself on the body, but that source or container of the will, the mind, the soul, is not actually a physical part of the body, or brain. Whether this is a soul that can survive the death of the body, or that which, in some other respect, detaches itself from, or fades away from the dying body, maybe having its own independent death, is a detail of one's own particular take on real free will.

    It's this free will that is being considered as illusory. It's considered illusory because this is the type of free will we feel we have. That still leaves scope for a notional free will that is merely the description of the extent of the autonomy of a system - in this context a human system. The same can be said of the notion of agency: it is nothing more than a label for a system of some degree of autonomy. The greater the independence, the greater the autonomy, even while being a totally physical system, then the greater agency we attribute to it; and, with sufficient agency, the more we are likely to attribute to it free will.

    As complex as the obesity map is, it must be a miniscule description of a complete human being. A map of that complexity would be inadequate to describe the interactions, internal and external, of even the most basic of creatures, such as a bacterium - though of course containing boxes with labels appropriate to the life of a bacterium.

    This leaves a great deal of room for attributing a totally physicalist existence to such an entity without invoking anything more mysterious such as real free will. It's feasible to acknowledge that all 'will' has prior physical causes, but that we, as individuals, can't detect them.

    Suppose you created a robot that had some capacities that were similar to ours, but was unaware of itself. It just reacted, according to some really complex behavioural program. Then you add in some self awareness. But only enough so that it could monitor some of its caused actions as they bubble up from prior causes. Then, give it the capacity to use this data to feed back pretty directly into its motor systems. make it aware of the distinction between its sensory inputs and the data that bubbles up from within.

    How would such a robot explain its actions if asked to do so? How would it come to think of itself if left to examine its own behaviour and its own awareness, but without it being able to detect internal causes below a certain level? Wouldn't this be like a human that has a conscious self aware brain? Wouldn't it wonder where its conscious thoughts came from? Is it conceivable that it would think it had free will, a real free will that appears to come out of nowhere, that seemed to it to be independent of its physical being precisely because it couldn't detect the origins of its thoughts?

  4. "Surely other people have written about the material causes, moral choices and reasons. Any suggestions?"

    Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape. This covers these topics well. I don't think Harris adds much that is new, other than his metaphor of the moral landscape itself. It's not a big book, but it is very concise (more so than I am), so it covers all the relevant topics well. And, it contains plenty of notes and references.

  5. Ron

    ‘I don't think ambivalence covers the detail of the problem. : No, for sure it doesn’t. But ambivalence (knowing what one should do but doing another) is the (only) place in the map where the authors of the map come closest to acknowledging free will (presumably illusory) as a cause of obesity.

    ‘The traditional notion of real free will is…It's this free will that is being considered as illusory.’ Yes I agree. I don’t yet know whether I want to adopt a traditional notion of real free will or not. I suspect not because traditional notions of free will seem to rely on traditional notions of causality (see below).

    ‘That still leaves scope for a notional free will that is merely the description of the extent of the autonomy of a system - in this context a human system.’ I quite like this. It seems to mean that ‘free will’ is a sort of adjective rather than a noun. Adjectives, of course, have no reality independent of the noun(s) they describe. So the colour red doesn’t have any ‘reality‘in the absence of red things but no one would suggest that the experience of something as red is just an illusion.. But I am not sure this gets us very far does it?

    ‘As complex as the obesity map is, it must be a miniscule description of a complete human being..’. Yes probably.

  6. ‘Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape. This covers these topics well.’ Thanks for this recommendation. I am now reading this book and finding it really interesting – despite the rather odd and seemingly gratuitous asides - and much better, in my view, than ‘The End of Faith’. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I have just got past the sections on ‘The Illusion of Free Will’ and ‘Moral Responsibility’. I think they are quite convincing (and quite a good summary of your side of the debate?). But surely they undermine Harris’ idea of a real moral landscape. What is sauce for the goose is surely sauce for the gander. I cannot see how he can argue against a real free will and at the same time for a real morality. On the one hand he seems to be arguing that free will and the moral responsibility which the former entails are illusory but on the other hand that there is a real set of behaviours which people ought to follow if human welfare is to be maximised (in different ways). Surely the moral responsibility of a set of x people = the set of behaviours which they ought to follow to maximise their welfare. But maybe I am missing some crucial point here.

    Of course I want to argue for a real free will so in many ways I agree with him in thinking that there is a real moral landscape as he rather helpfully describes and provides quite a coherent argument for.

    I like his demolition of the idea that the demonstration by the quantum physicists that we live in an indeterminant world doesn’t really help those of us who believe in real free will. I agree that ‘indeterminacy within the human brain would be more likely ‘to obliterate any semblance of human agency’ rather than leave room for it (p 104).

    And I like his argument that whether you believe in an illusory or a real free will affects how you view the punishment of law-breakers. I think he is rightly to argue that if you think free will is illusory you are more inclined to see punishment as either containment or rehabilitation. If you see free will as real then you are more inclined to see punishment as retribution. (‘While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility [oh yes!] it does call the logic of retribution into question’, p 109, etc.). Of course it’s not a simple as that. For real free-willers there are extenuating circumstances and for illusory free-willers retribution might find some sort of place if it makes people feel better.

    But I do think his demolition of the idea of a real free will leaves him squirming at points. E.g, he says ‘To see this is to realise that you are not the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose and then adds ‘This insight does not make social and political freedom any less important however’ (p 102) Well why on earth not? This is either a non-sequitur or needs some supporting argument surely?

    And I love the way he dimly sees the infinite regress involved in maintaining the illusory free will hypothesis when he states at the very end of these sections on free will and moral responsibility ‘The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion’ (p112).

  7. But I think Sam Harris gets to the heart of the matter is his point that ‘The problem is that no account of causality [as generally conceived] leaves room for free will.’ Of course the words in square brackets are mine and I struggle to come up with an account of causality which does leave room for free will.

    All I can think to say here is that it seems to me possible is to revert to Aristotle and argue for purpose as a type of causality. So when I say that, ‘The presence of high levels of obesity ln the UK shows us that we consume more than we should.’ I am saying something really meaningful. I am not just saying that eating too much (together with other things) causes obesity but that there is a purpose to obesity beyond its antecedent causes. And these purposes/causes are dependent on the freely willed acts of individuals (including God) which may or may not be morally responsible.

    Happy New Year