Free Will and the Unmoved Mover

Steven Nadler is an expert on the 17th century philosopher Baruch (or Benedict) Spinoza. He was interviewed for the Elucidations philosophy podcast in 2017. Here he talks about Spinoza and free will:

Spinoza had a very idiosyncratic conception of freedom: idiosyncratic because of the larger metaphysical picture in which he discusses the issue of freedom. Remember that for Spinoza, we are all modes, or in God or nature—and so human beings don’t have this kind of ontological autonomy that we ordinarily think that things have. We are no different from other parts of nature….We are governed by nature’s laws, and this is just as true for our states of mind. Our mental states, our emotions, our passions, our acts of volition, our imaginations—even our intellectual thoughts—are all bound together by the laws of nature, just as much as our bodies are.

Spinoza does not think that there is such a thing as freedom of the will, … in any sense in which all things being the same, one could have chosen otherwise than as one did. So if you are looking for the kind of freedom that gives you independence from the causal determinism that governs most of nature, you’re not going to find that in Spinoza. What freedom does consist in, for him, is a kind of spontaneity, or self-governing autonomy. Not ‘spontaneity’ in the sense of uncaused events—there are no such things (for Spinoza) in nature—but, in a way, very much like a Kantian autonomy, where the things you do, the choices you make, the decisions you make, the goals you pursue follow not so much from how you are affected by other things—that’s passivity—but from your own knowledge of what’s really good, and what is in your own best interest….

Maybe the most precise way to put it is: it’s the difference between being acted on and being active. We’re always active to some degree, because we are always striving. That’s sort of our core essence, for Spinoza….

Things strive to maintain themselves. Other things strive to maintain themselves. Sometimes they come into conflict and these strivings push against each other. We as a part of nature are always being impinged upon by other things, and we’re always being passively affected by the objects in the world around us. But because we’re also striving ourselves, we’re in a way pushing back. And so, our lives are a struggle between being acted upon, and being active, or acting. The more free we are, the more active we are. The more we are determined by things outside of us, the more passive we are, the more we are in bondage to the world around us.

So, according to Spinoza, we are only free in the sense that we can do what we want to do, especially if we have good reasons for doing so. This is what philosophers call “compatibilism”, the idea that everything that happens — including human behavior — is caused by something else, yet we are truly free if nobody has a gun to our head and we decide for ourselves what to do.

I think what Spinoza and others call “free will” feels like free will but really isn’t. In order for an action to be free in the purest sense, there has to be a gap between what’s happened before (even the prior state of your mind) and the choice you finally make. You choose to do something – possibly after a great deal of deliberation – but nothing causes you to make that choice, other than your own free will. The result is that you truly could have chosen otherwise.

This is what Aristotle called the “unmoved mover” or “prime mover”. He thought of it as the primary or first cause of all motion in the universe. The unmoved mover moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. To have free will in this pure sense, each of us has to be an unmoved mover.

Are we? It’s hard to believe that we are.

“Devs” Is an Excellent Series, Except…

Devs is a science fiction series that’s streaming on the Hulu service. You have to pay for Hulu, but they usually have a free trial for new subscribers. If you have the right kind of Spotify account, Hulu is free.

The people who made Devs have done a brilliant job. The scripts are intelligent, the actors are talented. One thing that sets it apart is that it’s visually stunning. It’s a TV show that looks better than most big-budget movies. One reason it’s so good is that it’s written and directed by Alex Garland, the filmmaker hugely responsible for 28 Days Later, Ex Machina and Annihilation.

Another thing that sets Devs apart is that it concerns the nature of reality. Is the universe deterministic? What is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics? Are there multiple worlds? Do you and I have free will? Should we be held morally responsible for our decisions if we couldn’t have chosen otherwise?

I haven’t finished the series yet. Maybe when it’s over, my opinion will have changed. I think Aristotle said we should judge a work of art as a whole.

What motivated me to write this post, however, was that one of the characters, Lily Chan, is now faced with what might turn out to be a truly momentous decision, possibly the biggest decision anyone has ever made. (A determinist would say I had no choice — the history of the universe made me start writing.) It isn’t giving much away about the show to say that Lily has been told she will be at a certain place later tonight and, assuming she is, things are going to go terribly wrong. She and her friend both think it’s crazy to think anybody could reliably predict such a thing, but at the same time she wants to make sure the prediction doesn’t come true. How should she make sure of that?

Here are two options:

(a) She and her friend, who are in the beautiful city of San Francisco, should get some cash, turn off their phones and start driving. They should drive as far away as possible from the place she’s predicted to be later tonight. They should definitely not stay in San Francisco, since it’s only a few miles from where the big, bad event is supposed to happen. Come on, Lily! Run away!

(b) Lily and her friend should stay in her apartment in San Francisco, but not go outside. That should be good enough.

If you were in her situation and you wanted to prove the prediction wrong, which option would you choose? Would you choose (a) or (b) to make sure the very, very bad thing didn’t happen?

This is a TV show. Which option does she choose?

I think we all know the answers to these questions.

Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, etc. by Galen Strawson

This is a book of nine essays by the English philosopher Galen Strawson. The essays aren’t technical. Two were originally published in the London Review of Books; two were published in the Times Literary Supplement.  One is a shortened version of a lecture given at Oxford University.

I don’t think death, freedom or the self actually bother Strawson. What bothers him are certain ideas people have expressed on those topics and a few others. The idea that bothers him the most has to do with consciousness.

What is the silliest claim that has ever been made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-is-it-like” of experience. Next to this denial — I’ll call it “the Denial” — every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green [130].

As far as I know, no philosophers have ever denied that people are conscious of things like feelings. What some of them are saying is that consciousness isn’t what we think it is, and therefore, in some sense, it is an illusion or doesn’t exist. Strawson argues that no serious person has ever said anything as silly.

Strawson also argues that we don’t have free will in the most important, meaningful sense; and that, as a result, we are never ultimately responsible for our actions.

Why does the dear old agent-self decide as it does? … The general answer is clear. Whatever it decides, it decides as it does because of the overall way it is. And this necessary truth returns us to where we started: somehow the agent-self is going to have to get to be responsible for being the way it is, in order for its decisions to be a source of ultimate responsibility. But this is impossible: nothing can be causa sui in the required way [i. e. “the cause of itself”]. Whatever the nature of the agent-self, it’s ultimately a matter of luck [105].

Another philosophical position Strawson argues for is that, as far as we know, all of reality may be mental in some sense. That’s because the most compelling evidence we have for what the universe is made of is what we are most aware of, and that is our consciousness. So he thinks rocks and other inert objects might be somewhat conscious too.

I should mention that some of the essays are more personal. Strawson rejects the idea that stories or narratives about ourselves are necessary to live a full life. He doesn’t view his own life as a story at all. He also thinks that the prospect of a painless death, even within the next few minutes, shouldn’t bother us, except for the effect it might have on other people. It’s not as if we lose anything by dying, since we never had a future something to lose (after all, we weren’t guaranteed that we’d live so many years or have certain future experiences). He ends the book explaining what it was like to be a teenager and a young man in the 60s and 70s when he attended Rugby School (the famous one founded 450 years ago) and Oxford. He traveled a lot and loved rock music and sometimes got into trouble. It was apparently good training for his future career as a philosopher.

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.

A Guide to Reality, Part 12

Chapter 7 of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is called “Never Let Your Conscious Be Your Guide”. A more grammatical title would have been “Never Let Consciousness Be Your Guide”. A longer but more accurate title would have been “Never Let Introspection Be Your Guide to What’s Happening in Your Mind”, because that’s the actual theme of the chapter: “Scientism requires that we give up everything introspection tells us about the mind” [147].

As he often does, Rosenberg overstates his case, apparently for rhetorical effect. After all, is it really true that introspection is a completely unreliable guide to what’s going on in our minds?

He offers as evidence three kinds of phenomena. The first is “blindsight”. Researchers have discovered that people with certain kinds of brain damage can perceive features of the world without being conscious of what they’re perceiving. For example, a person with a particular kind of damage to the visual cortex, who denies seeing anything at all, can “see” colors and shapes and even the expressions on other people’s faces. If asked whether they see something, they answer “no”, but forced to guess, they give the correct answer. Here, then, is a case in which conscious introspection, which indicates that I don’t see anything, is unreliable, because I really do.

Rosenberg’s second piece of evidence concerns our common belief that we have free will. Most of us are quite convinced that we make conscious decisions that result in freely-chosen actions all the time. However, experiments suggest that when we decide to perform a random action like moving a finger a certain way, the physiological process that will inevitably lead to the action taking place is underway before we’re aware of our decision to perform the action. 

The most interesting case he cites is one in which a neuroscientist stimulates a subject’s brain, causing the subject’s finger or wrist to move but also causing the subject, milliseconds later, to claim that the motion resulted from the subject’s conscious decision.The interpretation of these findings and their relevance to the free will problem are controversial, but they do suggest that conscious decision-making may not be as important in making decisions as we think it is.

Finally, Rosenberg argues that the existence of optical illusions shows that consciousness is unreliable. We interpret visual stimuli according to unconscious rules of thumb (mixed metaphor). These rules of thumb, which are probably the combined product of human evolution and our own experience, often mislead us. The circles in the diagram below look different but really aren’t, so here’s another case, according to Rosenberg, in which we shouldn’t let consciousness be our guide. (The book includes some interesting illustrations from the Purves Lab, which are available here.)

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Chapter 7 is relatively brief, because in this chapter Rosenberg is laying the groundwork for an especially counterintuitive idea he’s going to discuss in the next chapter (that we don’t actually think “about” anything at all). For now, here’s his conclusion:

We have seen that consciousness can’t be trusted to be right about the most basic things: the alleged need for visual experiences to see colors and shapes, the supposed role of conscious decisions in bringing about our actions, even the idea that we [see the world as it is]. If it can be wrong about these things, it can be wrong about almost everything it tells us about ourselves and our minds [162].

An important thing to note regarding Rosenberg’s argument is that he isn’t really claiming that conscious sense perception is completely unreliable (at least that’s not what I think he’s claiming). Although he denies that colors, for example, are mind-independent properties, he clearly believes that we do learn about the world using our eyes and ears. Otherwise, it would be odd to offer evidence that a blind person can perceive the “correct” color of an orange and that optical illusions are illusory (compared to what?). It would also be difficult to explain why most of us navigate the world better when our eyes are open and we’re not wearing headphones.

His principal thesis in this chapter is that certain conclusions we naturally draw from introspection (“the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes”) are mistaken. Specifically, it’s natural for us to assume that we need to be conscious in order to perceive certain features of the world, that our choices clearly determine our actions, and that (prior to being let in on the secret) we can always tell whether two lines are the same length or two circles are the same color just by looking.

I think Rosenberg is wrong, however, when he concludes that introspection can’t be trusted about “the most basic things”. What are the most basic conclusions we can draw from introspection? I’m not sure about that, but some natural conclusions seem more basic than the ones Rosenberg criticizes.

For example, we are better at perceiving features of the world when we’re relatively conscious (like when we’re awake) than when we’re relatively unconscious (like when we’re asleep). Some people see and hear better than others. Sight is usually reliable, even though there are occasional optical illusions. And when we feel angry or sad, we are generally angry or sad. It’s just wrong to think that introspection is always wrong about the most basic things.

I won’t offer a more basic conclusion about free will, except to say that conscious deliberation seems to help in making some decisions (whether to enroll at a college, get married or buy a house, for example) – whatever the underlying physiological processes are. Rosenberg may be right that conscious decisions are always the aftermath of unconscious decisions. We never really know what decision we’re going to make until it starts to “feel” like the right decision or we actually do something. Maybe our brains always do the necessary work unconsciously right before we discover what we’ve decided.

Coming up (sooner or later), part 13 of “A Guide to Reality”: Is it true that the brain does everything without thinking about anything at all?