Free Will Again

British newspapers pay more attention to philosophy than American papers do. That partly explains why the Guardian published two articles about Julian Baggini’s new book, Free Will Regained: The Possibility of Free Will.

Baggini’s principal thesis is that we have “free will” in the crucial sense of that phrase so long as our actions reflect our important beliefs and desires. Philosophers call Baggini’s view “compatibilism”. It’s the claim that free will is compatible with determinism. Even though every event in the history of the universe, including everything we think or do, might be the result of what happened previously (plus the laws of nature), we human beings are free and make real choices in the morally relevant sense. We are morally responsible for our actions even if determinism is true.

Both of the Guardian articles endorse Baggini’s position. The first was written by Terry Eagleton, a well-known Professor of English Literature. It’s labeled as a review but it’s really a statement of Eagleton’s views on the nature of freedom. This is the paragraph I found especially interesting:

Can we still be free if we could not have acted otherwise? Baggini is surely right to claim that we can. In fact, most of the things that matter – being in love, composing a superb sonata, … feeling horrified by the slave trade – have a smack of inner necessity about them, as this book argues in a perceptive chapter on art. What defines the self most deeply are the sort of commitments from which we could not walk away even if we tried. The point, however, is that we don’t want to. Freedom from such engagements would be no freedom at all. True liberty lies in being able to realise such a self, not shuck it off.

The other article is by a Salley Vickers, an English novelist. This paragraph corresponds to Eagleton’s:

The book’s central argument is that while it may be true that we could not in any given circumstance have acted otherwise, that is an impoverished definition of freedom and by no means the same as saying we have no freedom to choose. Our choices may be rooted in our physiology, our genetic makeup, but out of these arises something that was once called “character”, and it is this that is the final arbiter on choice.

So, is it true that a person was free to do X, Y or Z even though that person could only have done X? To me anyway, there is something odd about saying that I freely chose to live in New York instead of Montana, but I couldn’t have lived anywhere except New York.

The easy answer to this conundrum is that, in discussions like this, we are using different senses of words like “free” and “could”. Ordinarily, those of us who decide where to live do so freely if nobody has a gun to our head. We might prefer urban density to wide open spaces, or have better job prospects in New York or have been scared by a cowboy the last time we visited Bozeman, but unless something out of the ordinary, like being hypnotized, compels us to choose one particular place to live, it’s perfectly acceptable to say we made a free choice. If nothing out of the ordinary happened before we decided where to live, we could have lived somewhere else if we wanted to.

However, there is a different sense of “could have been different”. That’s the one that’s kept the free will discussion going all these years. Suppose that nothing out of the ordinary happened before you made your decision. You did some research, thought about it for months and then picked New York. Why would anyone deny that you made a free choice?  

It all goes back to the idea that human beings are part of nature and what happens in nature is determined by what previously happened. If we are physical beings, whatever happens in our bodies happens in accordance with physical laws. Hence, given the state of the world at time t – 1, the state of the world at time t can’t be any different from what it turns out to be. When you chose New York, your decision was merely one event in a chain of events that couldn’t have been any different. We might call this the “metaphysical” sense of “could have been different”. 

When the writers above say that we have free will even though we “could not have acted otherwise”, they’re saying that it doesn’t matter whether we could have done something else in this metaphysical sense. So what if the state of the world at t – 1 (before our decision) completely determined the state of the world at t (when we made our decision)? If we acted in accordance with our desires or character, and nothing extraneous or bizarre affected our decision, we acted freely. Determinism is compatible with free will.

This is the view endorsed in the two Guardian reviews and, according to one survey, it’s the view accepted by most academic philosophers. It’s a highly respectable philosophical position. Yet it strikes me as very odd.

A typical human life includes millions of decisions. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of these decisions involve conscious deliberation. Our decisions help define who we are: what we did with out lives, who we spent time with, where we went, what we sought and what we avoided. I find it extremely difficult to look back at the decisions I’ve made and see them all as effects of what came before. If my choices were all caused by what came before, that would make me feel less responsible for making those choices, even though my experiences and my psychology played major roles in determining what I did. To say that I couldn’t have taken a different path than the one I took, in that deep, metaphysical sense of “could have been different”, seems to make my decisions less meaningful.

Not only that, if determinism is true, everything the human race has ever done, whether good or bad, couldn’t have been otherwise. Adopting that idea would surely make some of us think differently about the past. Would we celebrate our achievements or regret our failures in the same way if we were determinists?

The situation is even stranger if we consider the future. If determinism is true, whatever I choose to do in the future will result from what has happened before. I won’t be choosing between truly possible alternatives. Should I merely wait to see what happens? 

Of course, whether determinism is true or not, there won’t be any noticeable difference. We will make decisions in either case, without knowing how much metaphysical control we actually have. We’ll find ourselves deciding this rather than that. But I’m pretty sure that if I were to think that determinism is true, I’d feel less responsible for my decisions, and that would probably affect how much I deliberated, which decisions I made and how I thought about other people.

What bothers me about compatibilism is that its proponents don’t seem to care whether determinism is true. They don’t think it would make any difference if it were true. Fortunately or unfortunately, we’ll probably never know whether it’s true or not. It’s not as if we could step back and observe an alternative history take place and we may never figure out whether quantum-level randomness affects our behavior. So our lives will go on as usual. But I think our lives would change if we somehow discovered or became convinced that determinism is true. It would be reasonable to view the past and future differently and reconsider the idea of moral responsibility. The compatibilists don’t agree and I find that odd.

3 thoughts on “Free Will Again

  1. Deterministic inevitability is a fact. But it is a spectacularly useless fact. Your attempts to draw meaningful implications about what you should do differently are based in the mental error that views yourself as somehow separate from causation, as if you were causation’s helpless victim.

    But that is irrational. Determinism must include ALL causes, and that includes you. You are a living biological organism that comes with both a biological will to satisfy your basic needs of life and a conscious will that can choose your own means of dealing with the environment in which you find yourself. You cannot sit back and wait upon inevitability, because it is sitting back waiting on you.

    If you’re thrown into a swimming pool (and life is often like that) then you’d best take your destiny into your own hands, because, if you wait to see what inevitability will do, you’ll drown.

  2. A thoughtful and interesting post. You addressed the chief concern I usually have when free will debates ensue. What kind of freedom are we talking about? There are always freedoms that we may or may not have, and freedoms that we never have. I may or may not have economic, political, social, or physical freedom, but I’m never free to be a duck, or violate the laws of physics.

    On determinism, I fall into the camp of saying it doesn’t matter. I’m agnostic on whether or not strict determinism is true. If it isn’t, it would be due to quantum randomness, which only offers freedom from predictability. If it is true, due to the dynamics of complex systems, it’s unlikely we’d ever be in a position to predict the actions of a person with any certitude. In other words, based on chaos theory, we’d still have freedom from predictability, even in principle.

    In any case, I think responsibility remains a coherent and pragmatically useful social concept, and fatalism an unproductive one. When someone has enough freedom that it is socially effective to hold them responsible for their actions, I’m fine with calling that “free will”.

  3. Right. Free will cannot rationally imply freedom from causation, because without reliable causation the will cannot implement its intent, making it irrelevant. Free will cannot rationally imply freedom from oneself, because then it would be someone else’s will. And, as you point out, free will cannot rationally imply freedom from the real world as it is.

    I like to use the example of a bird freed from its cage. Do we say it is not really free because it is still subject to the laws of cause and effect? No. In fact, without reliable causation the bird cannot fly, Flapping its wings would produce no reliable effect.

    All uses of the word “free” in every rational context presumes a deterministic universe, including free will.

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