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?

A Guide to Reality, Part 1

Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy and chairman of the philosophy department at Duke University. He’s published more than 100 articles and reviews. Among his books are Microeconomic Laws: A Philosophical Analysis, Hume and the Problem of Causation, The Structure of Biological Science and Darwinian ReductionismLike most philosophers these days, he writes for an academic audience. In 2011, however, he published a book for a general audience: The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.

The title is a little misleading, since Rosenberg derives his atheism from a more fundamental belief called “scientism”. That’s the view according to which, in Rosenberg’s words, “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”. Unfortunately, there is no word for a person who accepts scientism other than “scientist” and you can be a scientist without believing in scientism. For that matter, you can be an atheist without believing in scientism. 

On the other hand, if you’re sure of God’s existence, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality probably won’t change your mind. It’s a book for people who are willing to take science extremely seriously, even to the point of concluding that many of humanity’s most common beliefs are wrong. Since I’m one of those people, I enjoyed the book, even while disagreeing with some of Rosenberg’s conclusions.

Because The Atheist’s Guide is well-written and covers so much ground (for example, physics, evolution, perception, consciousness, free will, history and morality), I thought it would be an interesting exercise to work through it, explaining and responding to Professor Rosenberg’s views right here on this blog (while continuing to write about other things, like class warfare and mowing the lawn). 

If you want to consider the professor’s views first-hand and be able to correct my account of what he has to say (assuming you want to participate), the paperback and electronic versions are going for less than $15 online.


Next time:  the relationship between science and atheism.

Should He Be Free? Are Any of Us?

Some news stories generate more than their share of questions. At least in my mind.

Like this one:

Clifford Jacobson, 55, of Franklin, New Jersey, has been arrested for calling the 911 emergency number when there was no emergency. This is the third time he’s been arrested for the same offense:

In the latest incident, Jacobson called 911 at about 5 p.m. Saturday…. When Franklin police arrived at his house, Jacobson “related that he had no emergency to report and that he had a feeling in his heart to call 911″. Police said they have responded to similar calls from Jacobson on more than 30 occasions. Jacobson continues to call 911, even though he has been given the non-emergency police number in numerous instances… Jacobson has been sent to the Somerset County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bail.

I’m wondering what Mr. Jacobson says when he calls 911. Does he make up an emergency or say nothing at all? What compels the police to keep going to his house? Has Mr. Jacobson been treated for what appears to be a symptom of mental illness? Or is he just very lonely? Why was Mr. Jacobson able to call 911 twenty-seven times without being arrested? When Mr. Jacobson is arrested, does he get to make a phone call? Does he call 911? If he spends time in jail, will he have access to a pay phone?

I’m not above making a joke or two at Mr. Jacobson’s expense, but unless he simply enjoys annoying the police department, this is a sad story. It sounds like he is an excellent candidate for treatment, not incarceration. I hope his story has a happy ending.

Coincidentally, I read about Mr. Jacobson after watching a YouTube lecture on free will. The philosopher who delivered the lecture, Derk Pereboom, argues that we don’t have free will — everything we do is fixed by the previous state of the universe, by either deterministic or statistical laws. Looking back at our lives, in the circumstances we found ourselves, we could never have done anything other than what we actually did.

Professor Pereboom concludes that we should take our lack of free will into account when we react to other people’s behavior (or our own). For example, it makes no sense for the police to be angry at Mr. Jacobson – even if they can’t help themselves, since they don’t have free will. It’s fine to stop him from interfering with the 911 number, but the only justification for punishing or treating him is to change his behavior (or the behavior of people like him), not to cause him unnecessary pain or to dehumanize him.

Philosophers and theologians in the West have been thinking and arguing about free will for more than 2000 years. I’ve only been thinking about it for 40 years, so it isn’t surprising that I haven’t written the definitive paper on the topic. (Keep an eye on this space, however!)

For now, I’ll merely say that Professor Pereboom, although a respected authority, is in the minority of academic philosophers on this topic. Most of his fellow professors believe that we do have free will, even if our actions are always determined. But I agree with Pereboom. Our actions aren’t free in an important sense. The standard view of personal responsibility is mistaken.

Nevertheless, I find it almost impossible to behave differently based on this apparent fact. For example, it should be easier for me to excuse myself for past mistakes now that I doubt the existence of free will, but that hasn’t been the case so far. And when I need to make a decision, it’s not as if I can sit quietly, waiting for the universe to tell me what to do. How would I even know when the universe had spoken?

Still, maybe that’s what we do when we make a decision. We wait a second, an hour or a year, considering our options, and then discover what we’re going to end up doing. We think we’re choosing among real alternatives, but it’s really the universe doing the “choosing” for us. After all, we’re made of the same stuff that makes up everything else. Everything in us is subject to the universe’s laws – we’re carried along by the course of events, whether we know it or not. 

If Mr. Jacobson thinks about free will, maybe he’ll reach the same conclusion.


The story about Mr. Jacobson:  franklin_twp_man_charged_for_third_time

Professor Pereboom’s 45-minute lecture:

PS — Was the title of the movie Free Willy an intentional pun?