Monday, 26 March 2012

Is Free Will an Illusion?

An interesting collection of articles on the question of free will.

Mele's in particular strikes me as pretty weak. He points out a study which indicates that the "majority of people do not see having a nonphysical mind or soul as a requirement for free will." Well, so what? That's an observation about what "most people think," but not about what is actually the case. Any way you slice it, it's damn hard to make room for free will in a wholly naturalistic universe.

He also asks for "scientific evidence that [free will] is an illusion," shifting the burden of proof away from the believers in free will. This is always a silly and dishonest maneuver; no one has ever really "disproven" the existence of werewolves, but does that mean it's prudent to carry silver bullets with us every time we venture into the woods? It's not as though belief in free will is a "default" position, requiring no logical or evidential support. What we call free will in the traditional sense (that is, the power of a human being to "pull his or her own strings," in some sense, or to be the ultimate author of his or her own actions) is a sort of cultural artifact, something we come to believe in largely just because of, well, "what most people think," or "what we're told." I'm not convinced that just any person would come around to accept metaphysical libertarianism just by way of careful introspection or anything like that. I don't deny that deliberation and reflection occur, but I do contend that they occur within a larger causal context, and even introspective observation of our own deliberation and reflection would lead us, at best, to a feeling of uncertainty about the future, not that some future events can be things for which we are, as they say, "buck-stoppingly" responsible.

I'm also not convinced that the question of the existence of free will is a "merely academic" question, or something that has no bearing on practical activity. Both Einstein and Spinoza, for example, rejected the notion of free will and felt that without this dogma, a person can become more compassionate and understanding, and less prone to anger, envy, and hate. Einstein in particular felt that the rejection of free will "conduces to a view of life in which humor, above all, has its due place," and "prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously."

What really intrigues me is why certain philosophers put so much time and effort into constructing some kind of "proof" or argument for free will. Is this really necessary? Is there any phenomenon which requires us to posit free will for explanatory purposes? I can't think of any.

I suspect that, like theism, metaphysical libertarianism is a doctrine to which people cling for largely emotional reasons; just as many people want to feel that there is an invisible, powerful, all-knowing being out there somewhere who always loves them very much, people want to feel that they are fully in control of their own lives, that they are the authors of their own vices and virtues, that they are "responsible" for their good deeds and deserve all the credit, and that their enemies are "responsible" for their bad deeds and deserve punishment.


  1. Hi Keith,

    Yes, I do think there exists one phenomenon that beckon us to postulate some free agent behind what we do; all waking lives depend on it for self-reference. It's the phenomenon of creation. I know it is vague, but I think it's probably the strongest impetus behind the will to argue for free-willing, if that's not redundant.

    There is something wrested from you when you concede that X, Y, and Z felt like your doing but were, in the end, quark-ily determined (to use one idiom for determinism). Granted, inquiry cannot isolate some sole agent amidst the mess of decisions humans are, let alone one that has autonomy. But I guess I just feel for those who want to think their actions are bound up with something that is unordained and outside the causal flux. Of course the trick to animating a free-will debate is, I think, finding a way to show free-willing as unique and critical to human endeavours, but without the cosmic invocation of noumenal digs that, somehow, psychologically justify the belief in free will as the place whence it comes. I'm actually empathetic to this view. But the view is largely a consequence of psychological desire, basically, one reached when certain feelings -- of solidarity, ingenuity, creativity, of order -- are fulfilled. What I don't get, or admire, about the free-will debate is that it continues in its own hubris simply by choosing to see this view as one that wants strong contention with a metaphysical determinism.

    Compatiblism, whatever one calls it, seems to get us to ask ourselves what happens when we redefine the terms of the debate. It seems to point to the opponents of determinism and say, 'Well, if you are interested in arguing from a standpoint of mere feeling that your spontaneity of will shall pass the scrutiny of science's criterion for identity, then you're wasting your time. It is not a 'thing' inside you, connected to something beyond you, that makes you think and feel you're free. Rather, it is a thing inside you, a things that stays inside you infact, and it makes you feel and think in the first place: namely, your mind.'

    To which another side says, 'Yes, I know. But though you can tell me the physical causality of my feelings, you cannot predict the normative weight they carry for my own sense of things, especially my sense of ownership, caring, responsibility. Your doctrine of the necessary causality of things capable of jarring lends no weight to what freedom means in another significant way.'

    All the arguments in the world -- from Democritus and all the way down -- will not convince people of determinism in any useful sense; they'll always assume responsibility for things, as they should. The psychological person certainly 'is' free, and cannot be a person without that freedom felt.

    I think Einstein's intent, like that of Spinoza's, was to realize the sense of control you can have in your life when you see things under a greater vision: Sub specie aeternitatis. What scares people off is probably the danger lurking behind taking free-will or determinism to conclusions unmatched for human life (we don't know much about other kinds of life), or at least taking them too far.

    But only a Sith deals in absolutes.

  2. Hey, Robert!

    Thanks for being the first to comment on the blog, and for making a thoughtful and interesting post.

    I've really only superficially touched on my thoughts on free will here so far. As I mentioned, I don't deny that deliberation, choice-making and reflection actually occur, and play an immensely important role in ethics (and, like Spinoza and Schopenhauer, I don't believe that ethical inquiry has no place in a world without free will). But I do feel that what we call a "person" is not, as you sort of hinted at, some "sole agent amidst the mess of decisions humans are," or something "that has autonomy."

    To a significant degree, a person is a collection of drives and wills, "a parcel of vain strivings tied / By a chance bond together," as Thoreau said. Choice-making depends on pre-existing drives, desires and motives, and without these, we cannot make a choice whatsoever (we have no "reason" to pick A over B without any desire or motive). We do not choose our desires or motives; as Schopenhauer argued, a person can do what she wants, but cannot choose or will what she wants. What we call deliberation is largely just the process of competing drives fighting it out until the strongest wins.

    Making a choice in the absence of desires and will is like making a snowball without any snow.

    But I suspect that the traditional conception of free will (i.e. the notion of a human being as causa sui, as the initiator of causal chains, as "pulling her own strings," so to speak) is not only a superfluous piece of metaphysical nonsense, but also a pernicious doctrine. This is evident, for example, in defenders of pure, free-market capitalism, who argue that the rich should not be taxed or "penalized" for freely choosing to be hard-working, and that they "deserve" their wealth, and that the poor "deserve" to be poor because they freely chose to be lazy and stupid or whatever.

    Retributive justice and the death penalty are also things that are hard to justify in a world with no free will.

    I don't necessarily subscribe to determinism or any alternative view. I'm not entirely sure that all events are necessarily "caused." Some may be uncaused, some events may very well "just happen." But even so, the question of free will is the question of which events or things are self-caused, which is something different.

    That we are all puppets of fate (which may be broadly conceived of as some combination of random chance and rigid causation) or, in Spinoza's words, that we act only by God's will, is a view which, I think, expands the scope for compassion and humor, and limits the scope for poisons like envy, hatred, pride, and guilt.

    Responsibility is not something we "have," but rather something we "take on," for purposes of living with other persons.

    The sophomoric objection I often encounter in seminars and other discussions is that, if there's no free will, and if people don't just "have" responsibility, we should just open the prisons and let all the murderers and rapists go free, because they weren't responsible for their misdeeds. But, of course, we seek to mitigate the destructive capabilities of things like floods, tornadoes and other natural phenomena without attributing free will to them.

    The Spinozist conception of freedom is one with which I sympathize, and involves not "cutting the strings" that move us, but recognizing and acknowledging them. Freedom as understanding, not as self-causation.