This blog is a rebuttal of some arguments found in Marvin Edwards’ essay on free will. For full disclosure, I am monistically inclined. And I cannot do otherwise but find remnants of dualism in Marvin Edwards’ essay. While dualism can be useful to model this universe, it is fundamentally wrong, at least in my opinion. Also, I tend to use determinism in a slightly non standard way, I am not sure this affects the discussion. For me, determinism is a description of ’cause’ and this cause could behave in a classical fashion, in a probabilitistic way (indeterminism perhaps), in a way we might not have thought of yet or some combination. But the general discussion of free will reminds of a quote from Adams. Deep Thought talking to a pair of philosophers.
And it occurs to me that running a program like this is bound to create an enormous amount of popular publicity for the whole area of philosophy in general. Everyone’s going to have their own theories about what answer I’m eventually to come up with, and who better to capitalize on that media market than you yourself? So long as you can keep disagreeing with each other violently enough and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourself on the gravy train for life. How does that sound?Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Of course, there are various definitions of free will, and as such some are more common than others. There are those that revolve around our legal system, that take into account, undue influence, coercion, mental illness, ie I had a gun to my head, or my tumour made me do it. And for pragmatic reasons I am willing to concede we have free will in this trivial sense, and indeed, I would happily use this phrase in this pragmatic sense. The problem comes when people start believing in morality, in the sense of good and evil. Now Marvin, seems to me, has an emotional response to the use of the strong sense of the definition of not having free will. He calls it a hoax several times in his essay. But of course, historically free will has been closely associated with morality and even hard determinists who believe in morality are giving a nod to compatibilists.
In Marvin’s essay, matter is classified into three: inanimate that behaves passively, living organisms (animate) that behave purposefully and intelligent species that deliberate. While we can debate the validity of this classification, let’s take the three at face value for the moment. It is worthwhile remembering, all three consist of components that mechanistically behave passively with their environment and amongst one another. So, for the living organisms we assign a purposefulness to them although the purpose is all mechanism. I cannot help but assign a remnant of religious conviction to this claim of behaving purposefully (not meant to be an insult). Regarding deliberation, in what way is it not simply an inanimate chemical/physical process or mechanism albeit an extremely complex one?
The essay claims because causality is true for every event, it is so ubiquitous and true we may as well ignore it for practical purposes. I don’t find this argument convincing. This section goes on to claim; For example, if causal necessity is used to excuse the thief for stealing your wallet, then it also excuses the judge who inflicts a harsh penalty. The hard determinist would go on to note that judges are more likely give a harsher sentence late in the morning before lunch. Did the judge use his free will here, for the harsher sentence? A lack of belief in free will is not about excusing the thief or the judge, it is about understanding the underlying causality; well at least for me it is. We may take this concept on board or we might not.
The original blog can be found here. I suggest that a casual reader might want to review both at the same time. The blog is fairly lengthy, so I won’t touch on every point the blog makes.
Bait and Switch: The initial deception goes like this: “If everything I do is causally inevitable, then how can it be said that my will is free?” Did you see what just happened? The definition of free will just got switched from a choice “free of coercion and undue influence” to a choice “free of causation”.
This reminds of the debate around what atheism means. Is it I believe there is no god, or I lack belief in a god? Sometimes people hold onto a semantic definition with a passion that is simply not worth the energy. My personal take on this is let’s just be clear on which definition we are using, and we can move on. Regardless of what is the correct ‘definition’ of free will, for me the issue (not the definition) is what do we mean by when we say we could do otherwise.
Later Marvin undermines his argument a little, when he discusses Epicurus’s take on atomism and its consequences. So, this concept of not being able to do otherwise and things being inevitable, negating free will has been around for at least two thousand years. It could be argued that if everyone believed they could do otherwise then a concept of free will was not even necessary. It is only with the realization that we might not be able to do otherwise, the concept of free will makes sense.
So, as such, it is not a bait and switch.
What We Will Do Has Already Been Determined: Predetermination suggests that something other than us has already caused what we will to do. Is that true?
I have never heard someone who does not believe in free will say this, strangely enough, or at least not recently. I have heard it as defence for free will by those who do believe in free will and then go onto argue, quite possibly incorrectly, life would be pointless etc. The claim that existence has ‘already’ been determined requires a certain knowledge of the universe that I do not posses, and the current evidence is against classical determinism. To be fair Laplace does intimate this when he suggests an intellect could predict the outcome of the universe:
… know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain … Of course, this is impossible, I suspect Laplace thought so too. For this to be true even in a fully deterministic world, models would have to be infinitely accurate and the data entry infinitely accurate, and the calculations carried out would have to be infinitely accurate too. Plus, the intellect would have to not affect the universe in anyway and in some sense be separate from this universe.
In this discussion Marvin asks, which point should we choose as the cause? for some event that is happening now. This to me seems a strange question, the cause? There isn’t a “the cause”, we and our actions including choices are a product of the universe. At this point the blog moves on to meaningful and relevant causes in the discussion. Apparently, our choices are governed by our interests, concerns, life experiences genetics etc. We will get no argument from me here. Marvin then implies this makes “us” the final responsible cause for our actions. If by responsible, Marvin means the proximate cause, then I have some sympathy for this position. If he means I am morally responsible, then I must also be responsible for my genetics etc. This does not mean I don’t take accountability for the genetics and will bear the consequences, positive or negative, of my choices and actions.
If I heard some hard determinist claiming everything has already been determined, I would give him a metaphorical slap, not because he is wrong; but because I don’t think he has the evidence to make that claim.
Splitting “Me” in Two: The next deception suggests that she and her character are two separate entities, such that it is her character, and not herself, that is in control.
Well I don’t buy into this either. Nor do I buy into the concept that she and her environment are two separate entities either. Every scrap of her physical entity came from the environment as food, water and air, most if not all of her ‘programming’ came from her environment, every bit of her capability to be programmed came from her genetics. Believing her as fundamentally separate from her environment is nonsensical.
- Plainly, nutrition affects a person’s intelligence, moods, health and physical development in general ie the ability to make decisions.
- Obviously, our society and our immediate socialization affects who we are, uncuddled babies, our education and peer pressure come to mind. There is nothing unconventional here. Sure, we can break away from a pattern of behaviour, but there are pressures to do that too. Either way our place in society shapes our decisions.
- And of course, our genetics, which are a reflection of our deeper past environment affect us. In part it could be through illness or evolutionary fitness for what today is a rapidly changing environment.
But if we are simply splitting the concepts of a person in to two or more to explain a concept that is fine by me. Marvin split the universe into inanimate, living and intelligent. I might not buy into this classification. As an explanation it might work.
But that does not mean inanimate objects don’t control things, eg a governor on a steam engine or the Sun keeps the planets in orbit. Let’s not get taken in by the semantic games we play with ourselves.
Shifting Causation to Prior Causes: The next little hoax suggests that we cannot call something a cause if it has prior causes, because those prior causes are the real causes.
I am reminded of a discussion I was having with a YEC evangelical Christian. When I asked why the universe looks like it is pushing 14 Gy in age. His reply was well God had to make it look some age. My immediate counter to that was well in that case the universe could have come into existence five minutes ago. In short, I too disagree with the premise as presented. But singling out a simple proximate cause is also fraught with inaccuracy, and we understand intuitively we don’t necessarily see all the proximate causes, secondary causes etc, their interaction nor can we assign their importance with certainty. Also, once the proximate cause has shifted to outside of the body then it difficult to assert it is our choice. We don’t have to go very far back in history to see we don’t have free will in the sense of our control.
The assertion that a true cause must be both meaningful and relevant is just that, an assertion. I concede that if we a looking for a reason for leniency or perhaps reward, the big bang made me do it is not a reason for either. Again, I have not come across this argument from hard determinists. Marvin, I must hang out with a better class of hard determinist than is your experience.
Confusing “Can do” with “Will do”: The next false suggestion is that, because she will choose only one option, the one that best suits her at that moment, she “could not have done otherwise”. The error here is a conflation of the concept of “can do” with the concept of “will do”.
There is no confusion here. In the vernacular she may well have the ability and in the vernacular, it is “possible”. The question for me is there a conflation of she thinks can do with she can do?
It’s All Just Physics: Epicurus’s “atomism” introduces the next deception, the suggestion that the “laws” of Physics are sufficient to explain all events.
Here we go onto say that physics does not explain why a car does not stop at red light. My immediate thought was, is this true for an autonomous car? And if not, what are the essential differences between a brain and a computer chip or many computer chips? In a computer chip the rules might be fairly specific, but with many chips the logic might become fuzzy or networked. One of the complaints about artificial intelligence is the underlying “logic”, starts to become opaque, whereas humans can confabulate a reason or logic. Either way the underlying physics has not gone away. Perhaps a good definition of intelligence is to confabulate a reason?
The fact that we need to use different levels of scientific study to explain increasingly complex phenomena does not invalidate the observation that it is all physics. The semantics of the claim in the deception are clumsy; but nevertheless, the intent is spot on.
The Solution is Indeterminism: In modern times, the Epicurean notion of atoms subject to “indeterministic swerves” is mirrored in the suggestion of quantum indeterminacy.
Generally, I have been a little bewildered by Marvin’s use of “reliable” causation. I can only interpret it as causation that can be described by classical physics (including relativity). When we are talking about quantum phenomena they are described by laws, here are a couple Hawking and Mlodinow quotes from The Grand Design:
Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty
The above quote obviously does not contradict what the blog is saying. But the following quote does:
… the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets…so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion
Marvin suggests that the concept of “causal indeterminism” is impossible to imagine. Well it was imagined by Schrodinger when he did his thought experiment of a cat in a box arguing against a certain interpretation of his equation. We can imagine photons going through a diffraction grating one at a time creating an interference pattern. We can imagine doing otherwise no matter how inevitably impossible it might be.
In this section Marvin describes the lack of free will as an imaginary problem. While we might disagree with the intent of this statement, I do think the problem is imaginary. Not having free will is not a problem. If our decisions turn out in reality to be a product of a cosmic dice shaker or it is a Meccano set, so what? Reality whatever it is, is not a problem.
Delusion by Metaphor: The “laws of nature” are a metaphor for the reliable behavior of natural objects.
I agree laws of science can be seen as metaphors, or better still more like useful descriptions that allow prediction. The thought that the moon does not follow the laws of gravity is correct, but it is certainly well described by the laws of gravity. Marvin falls into the same trap (to be fair we all do) when we behave purposely and deliberatively. These too are metaphors for the underlying process. So, I don’t buy his delusion by metaphor because it applies to about everything we might think.
Deception by Figurative Speech: In conversations with “hard determinists” (also known as “free will skeptics”), we often hear claims like this, “since it was inevitable that you would choose A rather than B, you never really had a choice”.
This one bugs me too. I can’t help but feel frustrated when someone like Jerry Coyne unconditionally says we have no choice. But our choices that we do make use the same physics that a creek chooses to meander over a flat plain. There was nothing stopping the creek from taking a slightly different path, we could imagine other paths on its behalf. Similarly, my Excel spreadsheet and computer can choose, and answer based on the inputs and programing. We could feed in a (real) random number generator and we could program the computer to explain how it got its answer to its calculation using the random number.
The comment that we are just “puppets on a string” attributed to hard determinists, I suspect has been misquoted. I will wager, often this just is added by a libertarian or a compatibilist. If not, then a metaphorical slap for this hard determinist is again in order. I will use a more personal example, I have often said that human beings are bags of chemicals. The retort is always I said they are just bags of chemicals. Well my statement was wrong in that it is incomplete, we are immensely complex, shaped billions of years of evolution, by society, our experiences and the fundamental behaviour of the universe. What the compatibilist got out this was just the “just”. Perhaps I should meet up with a better class of compatibilist. But to use the metaphor quoted, it should have been something like we are puppets strung incomprehensibly complexly with each other, the environment, and in space and time.
No doubt readers will recognize Sam Harris’s A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.
Misinterpreting Neuroscience: Experiments by Benjamin Libet and others reveal that there is unconscious brain activity that precedes one’s awareness of choosing in some very simple decisions, such as deciding when to push a button.
I would agree that the Libet experiment does not prove anything, but it does provide food for thought. I don’t hold the fact the participants had been primed detracts in of it self from the experiment. My problem with the objection even if such an experiment could be done perfectly it would not disprove this version of free will. In fact, just about any study looking at the mechanism would do nothing, in that we accept there is a mechanism; assuming we see signs of a mechanism.
The Presumption of Authority: It is odd that the “Determinism Versus Free Will” hoax has continued for so long.
I must admit I found this strange. Me being of an agnostic persuasion, I take a look at whether an authority figure has the skills to talk about a subject. When people like Hawking and Einstein talk about essentially how the universe ticks and how it might apply to free will, personally I would up my game a little. Marvin simply states his position as incoherent, while I can understand it. Some would argue this position of she could have chosen otherwise than her inevitable choice, straining the coherence a little bit. By this logic, me understanding the chair is not red, yet behaving as though it is, is not coherent (see below). The illusion is strong my bro.
Frankly, I don’t accept Marvin’s authority in that free will requires an absence of causality is a hoax. I can see reasons for that argument. That one has an alternative definition to that of a hard determinist does not make it true. The definition of unicorn might be an equine creature with a single horn. The fact they don’t exist does not make the definition any less valid.
Marvin’s definition defines free will in to existence and mine punts it out.
The basic question is, at least for me, in a given situation could I do otherwise? Some questions a compatibilist might ask are:
- Do I have the physical capability to carry out the action?
- Is the situation in some way physically impossible?
- Do I have a gun to my head?
- Do I have the mental capability, ie am I disabled in some way?
Let’s say that the situation is could I choose not to read a book in this given moment and am I employing my free will to not read the book? Plainly, I can pick up the book or not, I have the skill set and strength. I plainly have the skill set to read and glasses and a light if necessary. I may or may not have the inclination to pick up the book and read, so what? This is an utterly trivial form of free will and not worthy a second moment’s consideration, well that’s a bit harsh. It may have some value in quickly assessing of how we go about our daily lives.
What has the two millennia plus of debate been about? The question is quite a bit deeper than a simple compatibilist view. Or even a complicated one for that matter. It is about the properties of the universe and how human action and perhaps ultimately thought fit into the great scheme of things.
And in the end
There is a chair in my kitchen, I sometimes think about it, it draws my attention. It is red. Now everything I know about physics suggests to me it is not actually red. A variety of photons in the “visible spectrum”, hit the chair, some are adsorbed, tending to warm the chair, others with wavelengths of about 680 nm tend to reflect. There is no “redness” here, so to speak. These reflected photons in or around the red part of the spectrum then strike our retinas. Photochemical reactions in some of our cones happen and electrochemical signals are sent to our brains, then we have an experience of “red”. The latter part still remains a bit of a mystery, but we can identify where we think it is happening. Yet I call it a red chair. Unthinkingly I believe it is red. It is only when I apply understanding and reason to the problem, I understand that it is an illusion, in the sense of not as it seems.
Think about yellow on our monitor screen. Most of the photons that our brain is interpreting as yellow are coming from the blue and green LEDs in our monitor. Our brains interpret complex electrochemical signals from our retinas, and we see them as “yellow”. In this sense, our experience of colour is an illusion. I see the kitchen chair as red. I call the chair red (it is a useful illusion). But the illusion exists nowhere but in the brain. Similarly, it could be argued, the illusion of I could do otherwise exists nowhere but in the brain.
In summary when I say I could do otherwise, it means that I think I could do otherwise and that I am almost completely unaware of the myriads of tiny processes that shape my choices and actions. And the outcome is inevitable.
And Marvin’s final comment
If you’re currently a “free will skeptic” or a “hard determinist”, I hope this essay may finally release you from the Chinese Finger Trap.
The argument might have been persuasive, other than the argument is based on confounding I could do otherwise with I think I could do otherwise.