A while ago, a commentator on one of my posts asked me to elaborate on my view on free will which I claimed was a useless concept. I suppose the next question would have been how my agnosticism about the existence of free will is reconcilable with classical liberalism. Well on this issue I get my bearings from Hayek and this paper by Gary Dempsey of Cato on Hayek’s views on free will and his anticipation of the ‘neural networks’ idea should answer these questions, as well being a treat for enthusiasts of both evolutionary theory and Hayek. Here is the abstract:
This paper examines the evolutionary epistemology of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. I argue that Hayek embraces a connectionist theory of mind that exhibits the trial-and-error strategy increasingly employed by many artificial intelligence researchers. I also maintain that Hayek recognizes that his epistemology undermines the idea of free will because it implies that the mind’s operation is determined by the evolutionary interaction of the matter that comprises ourselves and the world around us. I point out, however, that Hayek responds to this implied determinism by explaining that it can have no practical impact on our day-to-day lives because, as he demonstrates, the complexity of the mind’s evolution prevents us from ever knowing how we are determined to behave. Instead, we can only know our mind at the instant we experience it.
Regarding the intellectual genealogy of the neural networks concept, here is a key quote:
Once a ‘thick’ net of ordering connections is established in the mind, says Hayek, a range of possible neural routing patterns is engendered. Simultaneous classification, in other words, results in “a process of channeling, or switching, or ‘gating’ of the nervous impulses” (1967, p51). Yet Hayek is emphatic that this ‘lock-and-dam’ system of neural connections does not in and of itself specify the neural routing patterns that will be employed by the mind. Instead, neural connections constitute “dispositions” (1978c, 40) and only through competition among many different neural dispositions and combinations of dispositions will distinctly functional patterns be discovered. Hayek thus embraces the view that the physiological apparatus that enables us to know the world is itself subject to the pressures of the natural selection process. This view should not sound unusual to readers aquainted with the writings of nueroscientist William H. Calvin (1987, 1996b) and Nobel-laureate neurobiologist Gerald M. Edelman (1982, 1987), and it bears special noting that Edelman and Hayek were familiar with each other’s work. In fact, Edelman cites Hayek in his book Neural Darwinism,  and Hayek cites Edelman in his book The Fatal Conceit.
Also note the anticipation of the memetics concept:
Hayek makes it clear that the discovery of neural rules is not going on in only one mind, but in everyone’s mind, and that the discoveries made in one mind can “infect” (1967b, p47) other minds through speech and example. As such, he argues that humans are intelligent, in part, because neural rules can be accumulated and transmitted from person to person, generation to generation. “What we call the mind,” says Hayek, “is not something that the individual was born with…but something his genetic equipment helps him acquire, as he grows up…by absorbing the results of a tradition that is not genetically transmitted” (1988, p22).  In other words, language, morals, law, etc., are not discovered ex nihilo by each mind, but simply constitute an epidemic of “imitation” (ibid., 24), of successful neural rules combining and spreading through populations. Under this view, “learning how to behave is more the source than the result of insight, reason, and understanding” (ibid., p21) and “it may well be asked whether an individual who did not have the opportunity to tap such a cultural tradition could be said even to have a mind” (ibid., p24).
Finally a direct quote from Hayek himself on the normative implications of his brand of materialism:
we may…well be able to establish that every single action of a human being is the necessary result of the inherited structure of his body (particularly of its nervous system) and of all the external influences which have acted upon it since birth. We might be able to go further and assert that if the most important of these factors were in a particular case very much the same as with most other individuals, a particular class of influences will have a certain kind of effect. But this would be an empirical generalization based on a ceteris paribus assumption which we could not verify in the particular instance. The chief fact would continue to be, in spite of our knowledge of the principle on which the human mind works, that we should not be able to state the full set of particular facts which brought it about that the individual did a particular thing at a particular time (1989, pp86-87).
Martin in Comments asks if the ideas above have any implications for the criminal justice system. Well, the short answer is no. Hayek was prominent in the resurgence of classical liberal thinking so it obviously didn’t affect his *normative* views. As noted, Hayek’s resolution of the dilemma is that we are unable to behave as if we have no free will so it doesn’t matter. When I say the concept of free will is ‘useless’ perhaps I should have been more exact – it is useless or meaningless for positive theory. I always thought that as a materialist this conclusion should not be very surprising and that all materialists would be comfortable with this implication. However free will may be a useful metaphysical fiction for public policy purposes.
That is , for normative purposes and everyday purposes we treat people *as if* they have free wil (and in fact the latter is unavoidable except for autistics)l. When we say that X is of sound mind and we hold him responsible for a crime and we punish him, how can we distinguish that from cases where we don’t punish X because he isn’t of sound mind?
Well, a punishment is basically a price signal we send into the environment of people contemplating the costs and benefits of the act similar to acts commited by X. The main aim of the justice system from a utilitarian perspective is deterrence. Let’s say the objective of the system is to minimise the incidence of particular acts. Absent the punishment more of those acts would be committed, with the punishment a sting is introduced which all people otherwise inclined to act like X in future will then be forced to take into account – none of this requires free will in principle. X may decide not to rob a bank because it’s too much hassle – whether this hassle comes from the fear of the law or that he can’t afford to buy the right mask or doesn’t know how to handle a gun properly is irrelevant from the perspective of positive explanation. Similarly we don’t need to believe that plants have free will when they grow a certain way because of the direction of the sun.
What do we mean when we conclude that X can be held responsible for his crime and Y cannot because Y is schizophrenic? Well it means this extra price of robbing a bank we introduce into the system isn’t going to be inputted by people of the category of Y into the calculus of costs and benefits in a way that would deter them from robbing banks because the signal receiver is too jammed. Again, no real need to *explain* the differences in doctrine in terms of free will.