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Will As Thou Wilt

4 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 July 2008 10:37AM

Followup toPossibility and Could-ness

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) said:

"A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills."

For this fascinating sentence, I immediately saw two interpretations; and then, after some further thought, two more interpretations.

On the first interpretation, Schopenhauer forbids us to build circular causal models of human psychology.  The explanation for someone's current will cannot be their current will - though it can include their past will.

On the second interpretation, the sentence says that alternate choices are not reachable - that we couldn't have taken other options even "if we had wanted to do so".

On the third interpretation, the sentence says that we cannot control our own desires - that we are the prisoners of our own passions, even when we struggle against them.

On the fourth interpretation, the sentence says that we cannot control our own desires, because our desires themselves will determine which desires we want, and so protect themselves.

I count two true interpretations and two false interpretations.  How about you?

Comments (27)

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Comment author: Rubin 07 July 2008 10:44:54AM 0 points [-]

How about Kafka?

Comment author: michael_vassar3 07 July 2008 11:01:07AM 0 points [-]

The true interpretations seem casually to be much more plausible readings of the sentence.

Comment author: Ian_C. 07 July 2008 11:30:17AM 1 point [-]

I read it as "You can consciously choose your actions, but your ultimate reasons will always be subconscious and unchangeable."

I disagree with this. Many of our conscious choices are driven by subconscious desires, but not all. We do have veto power. What's more, through conscious repetition we can reprogram the subconscious and change how we feel about things, even on a very deep level.

Comment author: RogerG 25 August 2012 07:08:14PM 0 points [-]

Do we 'choose' to exercise our veto power? If so, then is there a reason for this choice? Follow the thought chain and it will become apparent that even our choice to veto emanates from our unconscious. There is no escape. And no room for free-will.

Comment author: Caledonian2 07 July 2008 11:46:40AM -1 points [-]

Many of our conscious choices are driven by subconscious desires, but not all.

Oh? And how do you know this?

I suppose it's logically possible that there are high-level priorities that are neither formed out of nor controlled by lower-level ones. But you couldn't know that even if that were the case, and as incoherent as most people are, they're still more consistent than your claim implies they should be.

It is much, much more elegant - and more compatible with what we know about cognition - to hold that the complex systems are built out of smaller, simpler systems over which the complex has no control.

Comment author: Unknown 07 July 2008 01:31:57PM 0 points [-]

First interpretation is true; third interpretation is partially true. Second interpretation false, fourth interpretation mainly false (because people can execute a process which will change their desires in some unforeseeable manner.)

Comment author: Ian_C. 07 July 2008 01:53:25PM 0 points [-]

@Caledonian - as you say, there's no a-priori reason to believe that a thing composed of predictable parts must itself be predictable. We just have to learn by observation whether it is true or not, and so far the evidence is that we can not predict individual humans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_composition

Comment author: Caledonian2 07 July 2008 02:04:57PM 0 points [-]

@Caledonian - as you say, there's no a-priori reason to believe that a thing composed of predictable parts must itself be predictable.

That is not what I said, and it's not what's true. Something composed of only predictable parts is predictable itself, because there's no place for unpredictability to enter in.

The problem is in determining whether something has only predictable parts.

Comment author: Latanius2 07 July 2008 02:05:29PM 0 points [-]

Unknown, for the fourth: yes, even highest level desires change by time, but not because we want them to be changed. I think the third one is false instead: doing what you don't want to do is a flaw in the integrity of the cognitive system, a result of that we can't reprogram our lower level desires, but what desire could drive us to reprogram our highest level ones?

Comment author: Ian_C. 07 July 2008 02:33:16PM 0 points [-]

"That is not what I said, and it's not what's true. Something composed of only predictable parts is predictable itself, because there's no place for unpredictability to enter in."

Sorry, I thought that's what you meant by "I suppose it's logically possible that there are high-level priorities that are neither formed out of nor controlled by lower-level ones."

How do you know that two predictable actions composed must equal another predictable action? There is no a-priori reason to believe that is true in every possible universe. I regard actions as just another aspect of objects, like their attributes. Logic won't tell you that red + blue = purple, and it won't tell you how the actions of atom X with combine with atom Y.

Comment author: Alan4 07 July 2008 03:04:02PM 1 point [-]

For what it's worth, in the German, Schopenauer wrote: "Ein Mensch kann zwar tun, was er will, aber nicht wollen, was er will." My non-expert literal translation is: A person can indeed do what he wants, but not want as he wants. In German, wollen is the infinitive of the verb to want, while tun is the infinitive of to do (an alternative of machen, or to make). Query: How do you interpret Schopenhauer's comment in the context of his work, The World as Will and Representation? (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung"?)

For us anglophones, to will is to want something rather explicitly in conscious terms. To want may alternatively have to do with underlying tastes and preferences beyond conscious control. I take issue with your English translation, though native German speakers may have something more insightful to say about this.

If we are looking for "true" interpretations, that is, interpretations mostly likely to have been intended by Schopenhauer, then I would count your third interpetation as being the closest. None of them actually reflect what he is literally saying. I believe, from what I remember barely of Schopenhauer, he viewed ultimate reality as a pervasive underlying Will, a thing in itself (das Ding an Sich) which did not even know what it wanted.

Schopenhauer could not have intended as true more modern interpetations relying upon modern facts about the world, such as cognitive systems, because such facts were not accessible to him writing as he did in the 19th century.

Comment author: Fly2 07 July 2008 03:41:34PM 0 points [-]

Caledonian: "It is much, much more elegant - and more compatible with what we know about cognition - to hold that the complex systems are built out of smaller, simpler systems over which the complex has no control."

The brain has feedback loops to even the earliest processing stages. Thus, I might choose to look for a lost contact lens. With that goal in mind, my unconscious visual processing systems will be primed to recognize signals that could be a contact lens. (The feedback loops can be observed in the neural tissue. There are cognitive science experiments that demonstrate that high level conscious decisions can affect neural processing in the earlier stages.)

The conscious mind may be a dim reflection of the top level computation that makes choices but it does reflect some of the processing that occurs. The conscious mind is aware of possible future outcomes and potential paths to preferred outcomes. The conscious mind isn't aware of the total brain mechanism that makes decisions, but it is aware of important pieces of that computation.

Comment author: A_Madden 07 July 2008 04:09:05PM 0 points [-]

I would interpret this as the third option, and I would also disagree. You can manipulate others to want things/you and you can manipulate yourself, it isn't even that difficult. You can distract yourself at a critical moment for example (this works well when you are about to punch someone.) And then you won't need to anymore because the surge of anger is gone, although you might need to for other reasons.

The fourth is false as an interpretation, it isn't consistent with the sentence and I don't think it is what he meant to express either, the fourth would in fact be willing as you will. Whether he said it has no bearing on whether it is true though.

The first is trivially true, though false as a reading.

The second is the real bait, free will.

Comment author: Caledonian2 07 July 2008 05:27:25PM 0 points [-]

How do you know that two predictable actions composed must equal another predictable action?

Because we can only call something 'predictable' if we know how we can predict it. So we already have a working model of the possible interactions involved, and we know what it will do.

You can always speculate that things will somehow be different this time, because every moment in time is unique and induction doesn't provide certainty. Well, there is error in all things, and any conclusion we reach is uncertain - no reason to refuse to conclude. Maybe basic logical truths don't hold, or we incorrectly believe we've described things so our conclusions won't be accurate. That's life.

If you're really not certain how the actions will interact with each other, they're not 'predictable' in regard to the consideration we've giving them.

The conscious mind isn't aware of the total brain mechanism that makes decisions, but it is aware of important pieces of that computation.

Actually, it may not be. It may merely be convinced that it is. The consciousness may keep a record of some of the things the mind does, but we know it's an imperfect record, and an awful lot seems to be consciousness making things up in retrospect.

Comment author: prase 07 July 2008 06:00:12PM 0 points [-]

Concerning the four interpretations:

I am not sure what exactly the first two mean. If the first one means that the current will or want is not caused by itself, that seems to me as true, but it is sort of truism which doesn't include much information (nothing is caused by itself, as far as the word cause is used in ordinary language).

If the second means that the alternate choices of what we want are not reachable (in sense we do not make conscious decision process to choose our wants), it is true concerning the primary desires (like the desire to survive) and false concerning more complicated (or derived) desires (e.g. desire to get some particular job); but if one takes the distinction between primary and derived desires as defined by the fact whether we consciously decide about them, then the second interpretation is empty.

The third is probably false. I was too lazy to think about what Eliezer precisely means by "controlling our passions", but if we interpret it in a way how it would be interpreted by a random person with no special interest in philosophy, then it is false.

The fourth is true as long as there is some sharp border between "we" and "our desires", otherwise also rather empty.

Altogether the four interpretations, altough more specific than the original sentence, seem to me only slightly less ambiguous. As a result I know neither what Schopenhauer intended to say nor what Eliezer intended to say.

My interpretation (of Schopenhauer, not of EY's interpretation thereof) is that the processes in our brains can be divided into formation of desires and practical decisions. The practical decisions are caused by the desires (we can do what we want), but it has no sense to say that the desires are caused by themselves - the only input of the creation of the set of all desires comes from the outside world (we cannot want what we want). It is probably closest to the first EY's interpretation.

Comment author: TerriblyInept 07 July 2008 07:33:03PM 0 points [-]

I count four true interpretations. To me, all seem to be stating basically the same thing. It reminds me of reading the three formulations of Kant's Categorical Imperative. It's claimed that they are different interpretations. Ultimately, I think all of these formulations are stated in different ways for a practical purpose, to point an individual's way of thinking in a different direction, toward new implications.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight3 07 July 2008 11:01:19PM 0 points [-]

The first two look correct to me, while the last two seem problematic, more confused than false, because they seem to confuse revealed preference with believed preference. I can only struggle against the preferences I believe I have, which might not be my "real" preference. Certainly, my revealed preference will win, by definition :-)

But that's no reason to doubt that my struggle against particular preferences will fail, let alone that my preferences have enough agency to defend themselves. If it weren't for the word "protect," I might prefer the fourth to the third.

Comment author: Vishal_Lama 07 July 2008 11:44:12PM 1 point [-]

Could we also have the context in which Schopenhauer said that?

Comment author: Roland2 08 July 2008 12:40:52AM 0 points [-]

Only the first interpretatio is correct!

4. I would agree with the 4. before "because", which says the same thing as the first. After "because" there is an error of circular reasoning: our desires will determine our desires. Wrong! Our desires are the result of subconcious mental processing of our brain. Anyway Schopenhauer didn't say anything about the origin of our will or desire in this sentence so there is no point in interpreting it into it.

Comment author: Ben_Jones 08 July 2008 01:30:01PM 0 points [-]

On the first interpretation, Schopenhauer forbids us to build circular causal models of human psychology. The explanation for someone's current will cannot be their current will - though it can include their past will.

Clearly accurate. The reason for me wanting ice cream may be obscure and complicated, but there must be something on a lower level than 'I want ice cream'.

On the second interpretation, the sentence says that alternate choices are not reachable - that we couldn't have taken other options even "if we had wanted to do so".

Depends on your viewpoint. Inasmuch as the whole of the timeless universe is, what we think of as the past and the future are effectively determined. However, this interpretation seems to advocate a rejection of personal responsibility for one's actions, which is wrong. If I want ice cream, I can either go to the shop, or not go to the shop. The fact that I will either go or not go doesn't mean this choice was never there, only that a choice was made. Eliezer's gone into detail about personal responsibility in a deterministic universe. This interpretation is a re-wording of the free will wrong question, and so is incorrect for our purposes.

On the third interpretation, the sentence says that we cannot control our own desires - that we are the prisoners of our own passions, even when we struggle against them.

This is comparable to the second interpretation, but on a more personal level. Our 'desires', such as they are, dictate our wills, and hence our actions. But the way this is worded suggests that we can only do what we want to do. The recent conversation between Subhan and Obert notwithstanding, I would say that morality overcomes this. I have experience of doing things I don't want to do because I feel as though I should. Argue over the definitions of those terms if you will, that's how it feels. So, thinking of 'control' as 'successfully deal with and ignore where appropriate', false.

On the fourth interpretation, the sentence says that we cannot control our own desires, because our desires themselves will determine which desires we want, and so protect themselves.

More like it, though not worded how I'd like it. Factors outside my control influence or even determine my desires, undoubtedly. (This is how I read Schopenhauer the first time round.) I can't will myself to want ice cream. If I could, I'd have access to one of my own meta-levels, which would change the playing field entirely.

Comment author: Mark5 08 July 2008 06:11:28PM 0 points [-]

I think it was Hofstadter (sp?) who pointed out that when we say "I can do anything I want", although we usually mean that our options are almost umlimited, in fact we're highlighting a severe constraint on our options - namely that we can ONLY do those things we want to do - in fact, in any situation, we can only do the ONE think we MOST want to do (consistent with physical laws, etc).

Sure, you can do anything you want to... but you can't control what you want!

Comment author: Kip_Werking 09 July 2008 02:28:02AM 0 points [-]

This is one of my favorite quotes (and one of only two I post on my facebook page, the other being "The way to love something is to realize that it might be lost", which is cited at the top of the scarcity chapter in Cialdini's Influence).

I'm not sure if I interpret it the same way as Schopenhauer (who was batsh** crazy as far as I can tell), but I take it to mean this:

Control bottoms out. In the race between A, "things influencing/determining how you decide/think/act" and B, "your control over these things that influence/determine how you decide/think/act", A will always win. The desire for infinite control, control that doesn't bottom out, that bootstraps itself out of nothingness (what some people have associated with free will), is doomed to frustration.

[In fact, Einstein cites exactly this quote in explaining why he didn't believe in free will: "In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. Schopenhauer's saying, that "a man can do as he will, but not will as he will," has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others'. This feeling mercifully mitigates the sense of responsibility which so easily becomes paralyzing, and it prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it conduces to a view of life in which humour, above all, has its due place."]

Shopenhauer draws the line between action and will: we choose how we act, given our will, but we don't choose how we will. Many would take issue with that. But it doesn't really matter where you draw the line, the point is that eventually the line will be drawn. Someone might say: "oh, I choose how I will!" And then Schopenhauer might say (I like to think): "oh really, and what is this choice based on? Did you choose *that*?"

To some people, the fact that we don't have this ultimate control (free will, if you like) is obvious. "Of course we don't have *that* kind of free will, it's obviously non-existent, because it's logically impossible." But not all necessary truths are obvious, and most people are happy to believe in logical impossibilities---just pick up a philosophy of religion book and read about the many paradoxes associated with a perfectly loving, just, omnipresent, and omnipotent (etc.) God.

Note also that Schopenhauer's insight has a consequence: because everything we do, our entire lives, can be traced back to things entirely outside of our control, it follows that a sufficiently powerful and intelligent being could design our entire lives before we are born. Our entire life story, down to the last detail, could have been predetermined and preprogrammed (assuming the universe is deterministic in the right way). Most people don't realize how interesting Schopenhauer's insight, or at least the kernal of truth I think it captures, is, until you phrase it in those dramatic terms.

Comment author: Andrew2 10 July 2008 08:26:49PM 0 points [-]

To me it seems to highlight the division between the mind and the will. He seems to say that you can control your mind, but you can not control the way your mind makes you control your mind.

Comment author: Andrew2 10 July 2008 08:27:09PM 1 point [-]

To me it seems to highlight the division between the mind and the will. He seems to say that you can control your mind, but you can not control the way your mind makes you control your mind.

Comment author: Andrew2 10 July 2008 08:27:18PM 0 points [-]

To me it seems to highlight the division between the mind and the will. He seems to say that you can control your mind, but you can not control the way your mind makes you control your mind.

Comment author: RogerG 25 August 2012 07:19:22PM 0 points [-]

I see it as your third interpretation, less the last part (even when we struggle against them). To simply restate, as I see it; I can choose as I so desire, but cannot choose my desires.

Comment author: RogerG 25 August 2012 07:26:41PM *  0 points [-]

As per Albert Einstein in a 1932 writing, the actual translation is "Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants".