Good and Real

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics
Book Author: 
Gary L. Drescher

In Good and Real, computer scientist and independent scholar Gary Drescher mounts a mind-bending attack on problems that arise when common sense conflicts with the science-based view that we inhabit a purely physical, mechanistic, deterministic universe.

Promoting a thorough-going naturalism is a fraught business. Explain to people that they are fully natural, caused creatures, that they don’t have contra-causal free will, and they often suppose you’re dallying with fatalism. Explain that there is no provable basis for morality outside the natural world, and they often assume you’re a moral relativist or nihilist. Put another way, it’s the threats to human efficacy and ethics that most trouble those encountering naturalism. How can we construe human choices as anything but illusory if all we do is fully determined? How can we judge behavior right or wrong if there are no supernatural ethical foundations?

In Good and Real (MIT Press, 2006), computer scientist and independent scholar Gary Drescher mounts a mind-bending attack on these and other problems that arise when commonsense conflicts with the science-based view that we inhabit a purely physical, mechanistic, deterministic universe. (Please fasten your seatbelts.) Establishing that we are in such a universe is just one of his projects, set forth in a chapter called “Quantum Certainty.” Drescher explains and defends Hugh Everett’s relative-state interpretation of quantum mechanics in which there is no collapse of the waveform and in which the evolution of the (locally branching) universe in configuration space is fully deterministic. This unflinching fidelity to the mathematical quantum formalism is quite the opposite of pop-quantum physics, for instance as popularized by the film What the Bleep Do We Know, which gives the putatively undetermined conscious observer a special role in “creating” reality by collapsing the waveform. Here as elsewhere in the book Drescher draws a tough-minded, unpopular conclusion: sorry, we don’t create our own reality.

Nor is consciousness something that transcends mechanism. Rather, Drescher explains in “Dust to Lust,” it’s what happens when a representational system goes recursive and starts taking its own episodes of representing as objects of further representation. Consciousness isn’t something extra generated by recursion, it is recursion (of a particular type), and so not anything that can’t be instantiated by a sufficiently complex mechanism, for instance ourselves. Many readers will object to such a characterization: after all, we’re not just machines, are we? Well yes, we’re organic machines, choice machines in fact, Drescher says, whose consciousness and rationality can best be explained as the complex deterministic functionality of achieving goal states that have many sub-goals. Sticking with science, there’s no reason to suppose we’re animated by something non-physical in our goal-seeking behavior, since that assumption does no explanatory work. It’s here that many will likely part company with Drescher, and hold out for extra-scientific claims about our cognitive capacities, for instance that consciousness transcends the brain. Such claims support a more “optimistic” view about human exceptionalism, in which our choices have contra-causal leverage over the world. But this refuses to let empirical findings drive our conclusions about reality – a no-no of the first order for naturalists like Drescher.

The discussions of consciousness and quantum physics are joined by a consideration of time in the chapter “Going Without the Flow.” Drescher reminds us that, according to 100 year-old standard physics, all events are sitting statically in four dimensional space-time. The past, present and future just are – there is no cursor moving forward along the time dimension that temporarily endows each moment with reality. All moments are equally real, which means that the future is there, “waiting” to be discovered by consciousness, not created de novo by human action. Now we start to see the problem for our standard intuition about human efficacy: if the future is inalterable, aren’t choices futile?

Before tackling this problem, Drescher explains how the illusory impression of the flow of time arises, and further, given that basic physical laws don’t specify a temporal direction, why it is we only observe events evolving forward in time, not backwards. As is often the case in this book, readers will find the explanations challenging; not because the writing isn’t lucid (it is, and often entertaining) but simply due to the conceptual complexity and counterintuitiveness of the material, which sometimes translates, inevitably, into what are politely referred to as technicalities. Although the gist of his conclusions can be grasped without tangling with the tough parts, to decide if he’s right requires you grapple with them.

The last third of Good and Real is devoted to the twin problems of choice and ethics in a deterministic universe, and if your mind isn’t already stretched, this will definitely do the trick. If we are choice machines, whose every decision is etched inalterably in the space-time manifold, and whose consciousness isn’t privileged in creating reality, why bother to act for the sake of what already exists? Part of the answer is relatively straightforward: if we didn't bother to engage in choice making behavior, which ordinarily includes considering alternative possibilities, then we wouldn't be as likely to achieve our goals. And choices needn't involve our being causal exceptions to nature:

Thus choice…is a mechanical process compatible with determinism: choice is a process of examining assertions about what would be the case if this or that action were taken, and then selecting an action according to a preference about what would be the case. The objection The agent didn’t really make a choice, because the outcome was already predetermined is as much a non sequitur as the objection The motor didn’t really exert force, because the outcome was already predetermined…Both choice making and motor spinning are particular kinds of mechanical processes. In neither case does the predetermination of the outcome imply that the process didn’t really take place. (p. 192, original italics)

But the rest of Drescher’s answer takes us way down the rabbit hole, first by means of the seemingly innocent example of safely crossing the street, followed by his solution to Newcomb’s Problem, a notorious thought experiment about choice and prediction that has divided philosophers for decades. It turns out, says Drescher, that it makes sense to act as if your choice had an effect on conditions preceding the choice, even though there’s no causal link between your choice and those conditions. There exists what he calls a subjunctive means-end relation, a non-causal link between action and desired states of affairs. Therefore, Drescher argues, it can be rational to act for the sake of states of affairs that you know already obtain. If this seems completely counter-intuitive, join the club. Making it intuitive or at least logically transparent is Drescher’s goal, which in my case was not achieved, at least at first pass (which says nothing about whether he’s correct, since it will likely take several passes to fully understand the argument).

The capstone of Drescher’s tour de force is to apply the rationality of appreciating subjunctive means-ends relations to the classic problem of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and from that derive an ethics grounded in enlightened self-interest. Agents caught in the dilemma who are smart enough to grasp the reality of subjunctive means-ends links will see that it’s in their best interest to cooperate, not defect. This insight, generalized, becomes the rational basis for Kant’s categorical imperative and the golden rule. Unlike Kant, however, Drescher posits nothing beyond the physical space-time continuum and goal-seeking choice machines (us) to establish this most basic ethical maxim. So, perhaps, he has fully naturalized it.

The scope of Drescher’s ambition in this volume will not have escaped the reader. But he doesn’t come across as ambitious or overbearing, just curious and relentlessly logical, wanting to get to the bottom of the best puzzles that unvarnished reality offers. That he ventures into such diverse territory might make specialists suspicious, but Drescher seems to have done his homework. Deciding whether he’s right in any given instance will, however, require a close reading of his arguments and an evaluation of his evidentiary basis, for instance in consciousness studies, physics, game theory, and behavioral economics. Many of us non-specialists will likely have to reserve judgment, but can we suppose that standard intuitions about choice and reality, comforting though they be, are better than Drescher’s carefully thought out if counterintuitive conclusions? Here are the big questions, addressed by a gifted, independent-minded thinker, made real for us in all their perplexity, and it’s good that we should catch at least a glimpse of naturalistic answers that form a satisfying whole. A deterministic, godless universe can, it seems, offer a sufficient basis for human efficacy and ethics.

Note: Gary Drescher’s first book, on artificial intelligence, is Made-Up Minds, MIT Press.

Full disclosure: Drescher counts himself an ally of naturalism, and he spoke for Cambridge Saloon Salon in June, 2006 at the invitation of the Center for Naturalism.

And another recommendation: “A breathtakingly original assault on all the Big Issues! When philosophers get stuck in ruts, it often takes a brilliant outsider to jolt them onto new ground, and Gary Drescher, coming to philosophy from AI, offers a startling feast of new ideas.” – Daniel Dennett (from the book jacket)

TWC 7/06