Friday, October 21, 2016

On Free Will

One thing that occurs to me after years of teaching Introduction to Philosophy is that the central problematic of modern thought is the mind/body problem and that the various subdivisions of modern philosophy‑ epistemology, philosophy of mind, free will, personal identity, ethics, etc.‑will be solved by viewing them all as aspects of the same problematic or they will not be solved at all.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I also think the solution lies in the phenomenon of life. 
As a case in point, I offer the topic of freedom.  The various approaches to this topic may be organized around the answers to two questions. 
  • 1.       Is determinism true? 
  • 2.      Are free will and determinism compatible? 

Depending on whether you answer those two questions as yes or no, four possibilities present. 
Determinism means the doctrine that the past rigidly determines the future.  Given the state of the Kosmos at any point in time, one and only one state is possible at any subsequent time.  Here “state of the Kosmos” indicates everything in the physical universe, down to the smallest detail.  So the position and momentum of every object, every molecule and atom and subatomic particle rigidly determines the state of the same at all points in time. 
Free will means that the actions of a human being are determined by the deliberate choices that the human being makes, so that the actor is in some significant sense responsible for those actions. 
If you say that determinism is true and that free will and determinism are incompatible, you are a hard determinist.  Determinism means that all events are rigidly determined by previous events.  Human decisions are events.  Since the past is not something over which individuals have control, for no one has control over the past, decisions are not something over which individuals have control.  Consequently, no human being can be responsible for his or her actions. 
If you agree that free will and determinism are incompatible but you insist that free will is real, then you must reject determinism.  That makes you a libertarian, in the lingo of the tradition.  Libertarians will allow that some causation is event causation, where each event rigidly determines the next event.  Think of billiard balls striking one another.  However, there are special cases of agent causation.  Human beings are agents, capable of initiating chains of causation by making uncaused decisions.  We have something like a clutch, which disengages us from the chain of causation and allows us to act with genuine, metaphysically robust free will. 
Because these two positions agree that free will and determinism are incompatible, they are described as incompatibilist positions.  Soft determinists agree with hard determinists on one point: determinism is true.  Our decisions were determined in advance, from the very beginning of the coherent Kosmos.  They argue that free will is nonetheless genuine.  How so?  Free will does not depend on why I want what I want.  That is indeed determined by forces beyond my control.  Instead, free will depends on whether I can do what I want to do.  Am I free to leave the room I am sitting in now?  The answer is yes, if the door is unlocked. 
Compatibilists argue that I have acted out of genuine free will if the following criteria are met:
  1.  If I had chosen otherwise, I would have done otherwise.
  2. The choice is unforced.

Someone offers me vanilla or chocolate ice cream.  I choose vanilla, but if I had chosen chocolate I would have gotten chocolate.  Nobody put a gun to my head or tortured me.  My choice of vanilla was an act of free will, regardless of the fact that my genes predispose me to like vanilla or that I got sick when eating chocolate ice cream when I was a child. 
Let’s arrange the positions in a nice, four box chart. 

Are free will and determinism compatible?


Is determinism true?


soft determinism

hard determinism



You will notice that one box is unoccupied.  That happens to be my position.  I agree with the soft determinists that freedom turns on whether I can do what I want, not on why I want one thing rather than another.  What matters is whether I am the one doing the choosing.  All the forces acting on me, from my past and my present, have to act through me.  Here we can draw from another field of investigation: the mind/body problem.  Functionalists argue that the mind is an information processor.  Information gathered from the environment (the ice cream vendor) is processed into better information or directly into behavior.  The human mind is almost certainly more than that but it is at least that. 
On the other hand, I regard determinism as one of the myths of modern thought.  It is like Santa Claus.  Einstein wanted to believe in it (God does not play dice with the universe!) but there is no reason to believe in it.  Science requires that the past influences the future, but only within some margin of error.  It might be that we could determine the outcome of any experiment with perfect precision if only we could incorporate all the relevant factors with perfect precision.  There is no reason to suppose that we can ever do the latter, so there is no reason to suppose the former. 
Moreover, quantum mechanics indicates that Kosmos may be, at very small levels, fundamentally indeterministic.  In a deterministic world, everything is at one place at one time.  In the quantum world, a single photon may pass through one slit in a barrier and through the other slit, and both, and neither, all at the same time.  A particle may decay at this moment or not, without anything causing it to so the one or the other. 
When we put aside the myth of determinism, what are we left with?  The human mind is, at the very least, a decision generator.  In this respect, it is no different from the minds of similar creatures such as chimpanzees or beagles.  We are conscious, in our choosing, of sensations (it hurts or it feels good), passions (I love this or fear this) and concepts (this is just and that is unjust).  Why have such existential states of mind emerged over the course of evolutionary history?
The only reasonable answer is that at some point in the evolution of animals, they became free in a metaphysically robust sense.  They no longer responded mechanically to environmental stimuli but got to pick and choose.  This capacity was selected for because it dramatically expanded the creativity with which animals could respond to their environments.  Animals can explore their world, looking for opportunities that their genetic inheritance could not predict. 
The flip side of that freedom was an existential stake in their existence.  Freedom could only be selected for if it secured reproductive success.  Sensations and later emotions are means by which existentially free creatures can be bribed to pursue the paths that secure the latter. 
We do not know how biological organisms can achieve genuine, metaphysically robust freedom.  Neither do we know how it is possible for moist robots, consisting of cells consisting of molecular mechanisms, to achieve consciousness.  We don’t even know how to begin asking the question in a way that might lead to an answer.  We do know that consciousness was achieved, for we sense and feel.  We know that we are free because we are faced with choices. 

We can only make progress on these central question of modern philosophy if we look for the answers in our nature as living creatures.  

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