by Ben Best
- THE FREE-WILL VERSUS DETERMINISM PSEUDO-DICHOTOMY
- KARL POPPER'S ATTEMPTED REFUTATION OF "SCIENTIFIC" DETERMINISM
- FREE WILL IN LEONARD PEIKOFF'S OBJECTIVISM
- A REPLY TO THREE ESSAYS ABOUT DETERMINISM
- FREE WILL VERSUS DETERMINISM AS IT RELATES TO CRYONICS
- REPLIES TO E-MAIL CRITIQUES BY ERIC MCMILLAN
This collection of essays is not a systematic presentation of a thesis. Instead, it is pieces in the development of my thinking written at different times — presented in chronological order. The later material reflects my current belief that the use of the word "free" in the determinism controversy confuses metaphysical issues with political issues. I have not changed the titles or the use of the word "free" in the earlier essays because they contribute to the development of my view.
THE FREE-WILL VERSUS DETERMINISM PSEUDO-DICHOTOMY
Some people consider it impossible to advocate both determinism and free will. Yet this position has been taken by many philosophers — from the time David Hume wrote the classical "reconciliation" in his ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.
Determinism is the view that all events have causes. Although many people delight in the belief that quantum theory disproves physical determinism, they refer only to The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Schroedinger, Einstein, Bohm, Penrose and many other physicists have never accepted the claim that quantum theory disproves causality. Moreover, random causality can be regarded as another form of determinism. Even if quantum uncertainty is a reality, it can do no more than establish "random will", not free will.
The word "freedom" does not mean "freedom from causality or materialism", it means "freedom from compulsion or restraint". Thus, if will exists, it can exert its influences through causal relations. Causality provides constraints, not unfreedom. Gravity limits the conditions under which a person can fly, but it does not prevent flying. The causal sequences by which nerve stimulation results in muscular action give the will the freedom to manifest itself in the world.
Determinism is often erroneously equated with fatalism, which is the true opposite of freewill. Under fatalism the will is ineffectual, no matter how much it struggles. Under determinism there is no limit to how effectual the will can be. Causality determines the nature of will, but does not prevent any action which is not in violation of physical law. A will is not unfree by virtue of the causal roots of its origin and existence (heredity and environment). Causality creates a will, but does not subject the will to ongoing compulsion. To justify a causeless will on the grounds that a person can choose what he or she does not really wish to choose (wills what is not really willed) is self-contradictory.
First Cause refers to an uncaused cause. Absolute causality requires that every effect has a cause, which implies infinite regression when each cause is interpreted to be an effect of a prior cause. How can there be an infinite chain of prior causes to all phenomena? Ultimate First Cause seeks to sidestep this infinite regression. But this is like asking for a beginning or end of time — or an end of space. The non-infinite is harder to conceive of than the infinite (space ending at a wall beyond which there is nothing?), even though the infinite cannot be fully comprehended. A physicist might assert that the Big Bang was the beginning of time & space just as a Deist might assert that a Creator was the beginning of time & space. "What created the Big Bang or the Creator?", and "What came before the Big Bang or the Creator?" are assumed to be prohibited or meaningless questions.
Aside from Ultimate First Cause used to avoid infinite regresssion, First Cause can be invoked to avoid causality of choice, or to describe will as an uncaused cause. All theories of First Cause (uncaused "choice") imply a spiritual, non-material "chooser". Whether choices are the product of material causes is entirely a scientific question — not a question of "self-evident axiom". A claim that knowledge is not possible without this spiritual First Cause chooser loads the definition of "knowledge" with spiritual assumptions.
Although most people acknowledge that the random will of indeterminacy is not a free will many people nonetheless seek "freedom" in causelessness. But if freewill is an uncaused cause, how can it be anything other than random? Ironically, there are two opposite classes of defenders of the theory that a freewill is a First Cause (uncaused cause).
One class of defenders of First Cause finds freewill in the most whimsical and spontaneous of actions. But how can such actions be anything other than a consciousness manifesting pseudo-randomness from unconscious impulses? Can such acts — which clearly don't spring from intention — really be the mark of freedom?
The other class of defenders of First Cause will find freedom in the greatest acts of deliberation and effort. A person's will is composed of many desires and many kinds of desires (and fears) which can come in conflict. Deliberation and effort can resolve these conflicts, but resolution of conflicting desires is not an uncaused process. A person may choose not to eat "junk food" because the desire for good health outweighs the desire for momentary gratification. A person's desire to fulfill a duty may outweigh the desire for entertainment — or vice versa. A person may be prudent enough to avoid letting anger dictate her or his behavior. Bodily reflexes incline a person to withdraw a hand from hot water, but interneurons from higher brain centers can allow someone to keep a hand in hot water. If "lower motives" incline me to strike a person out of anger, but "better judgement" inclines me to refrain, the fact that "higher motives" have taken precedence does not make those motives any less caused (First Cause) than the anger.
The will is simply the sum of a person's desires, motives and tendencies. Although the will is created by external factors, once it has come into existence it becomes a control centre (rather than a marionette on strings). Only when a will cannot manifest its intentions is it unfree. A will that has been drugged, restrained or subject to compulsion is physically unfree, but does not lose its autonomy.
Introspection indicates that the will is the source of choices. Freudian determinism, however, asserts that "Freudian slips" reveal the extent to which the conscious mind is subject to unconscious impulses. In this view, hidden motives are more important than the motives we imagine (or rationalize) to be the cause of our actions. But if the will or the self is taken to include the conscious as well as the unconscious, it can still be declared to be free from external constraint. It would be meaningless to talk of internal constraint — does the self constrain itself? The self is created by, not controlled by external causes. Causes interior to the self are the self, and cannot be said to control it. Nonetheless, the idea of a central commander in the brain that is in charge of — rather than at the mercy of — unconscious impulses, could still be an illusion.
Although hunger & thirst are interior to the physical body they can feel inferior to the self in the same sense as sensations of pain & anger that higher control centers (will) can override. But when pain becomes intense enough it can feel interior to the will or overwhelm the will. Similarly, hormones & drugs can profoundly affect mood, attitude or will.
Romantic & erotic arousal are not acts of will. A man does not have an erection because he wills himself to become tumescent — even though he can "seduce" his own arousal by guided fantasy. Similarly, loving another person is not an act of will — we cannot command our hearts to love someone. Love feels more closely associated with self than with will. If the will and the self are regarded as distinct entities then the question of"free self" may be more relevant than "free will". But even if self is distinguished from will, this distinction does not affect the issues at stake in the freewill/determinism question because both can be regarded as control centers created by external causes.
A problem with introspective evidence for volition is that it is not possible to introspectively describe the difference between a volition to raise an arm and a volition to tap a foot. Another problem is that we can only imagine that we could have made choices other than the ones we made. We do not actually observe ourselves making choices other than the ones we made. A third problem is that introspection doesn't necessarily reveal all of the causal influences on our decisions, even if we imagine otherwise. Intuition is fallable.
Some people claim that determinism precludes knowledge and ethics, implying that determinism means that choices can only be made on subjective, not objective considerations. But the material, causal human brain has the capacity to use reason and assess a situation apart from vested interests and immediate desire — and such an ability has survival value. That reason, reality and effort can influence choices is not inconsistent with determinism.
Some people claim that determinism renders life meaningless. But the source of meaning in life is the will. The will is the source of all values — values exist when the will exists. All purpose arises from beings which have enough consciousness to have valuing entity — a will — which is the source of motivation, emotion, pleasure, pain, aesthetics, etc. (For more on the subject of "The Purpose of Life", see my essay Why Life Extension? or Why Live at All? .)
Does determinism preclude moral responsibility? Legal systems must be based on the principle that people are responsible for their actions. The same applies for me, personally. I want to deal with people who are trustworthy and dependable — people of good character. I am reluctant to praise or blame someone whose actions are erratic and inexplicable. If I am injured by a person who is under the influence of alcohol, I may conclude that I can trust that person not to injure me only when that person is sober. But if I conclude that a man injures me because he was abused as a child, I still hold him to be the source of my injury — and to be regarded with circumspection, despite the pity I may feel. Holding him responsible for his actions is primarily a matter of concern for myself and those I care about — especially in view of his possible future behavior. Responsibility is concerned with social context, rather than properties of the brain or personality.
Free will means that one's actions are the result of one's desires. People with addictions often do not feel responsible for their own actions. But this can be a matter of mood — desires may be different when yielding to temptation than the desires experienced in moments of regret. Conflicting desires often underly any action, with the predominating desires governing the action. An addict is not coerced by the addiction, despite the feelings experienced during regret. Degrees of free will could be the product of degrees of consciousness or degrees of will power. Alcohol affects both consciousness and will power, neither of which may be separate from another. Will power will also be affected by mood, and what determines mood? If free will is greater when there is greater consciousness, the free will of a genius should be greater than the free will of a mentally disables person, the free will of a monkey, the free will of a dog, or the free will of a frog.
Children are taught about the world by adults as well as by their experience. Children can learn moral behavior ("guidelines for conduct") by reward or punishment (praise or blame). Adults too can learn from others or by "the school of hard knocks". In all cases some have quantitatively better or qualitatively different opportunities than others — and some have better capaciti (or different capacities) for learning than others. In this sense, ther is a great similarity between facts and values.
Determinism does not imply complete predictability or a denial of creativity. Flipping a coin is a deterministic mechanical process, but predicting the outcome is inordinately difficult. The human brain contains 100 billion neurons, many of which have the potential to connect with thousands of other neurons. The complexity of the system allows for creativity and precludes absolute prediction — especially with current technology.
"Experimental philosophy" investigates the psychological sources of philosophical belief. Psychological research indicates that people equate determinism with the idea that deliberation cannot influence choice. Even in the context of a hypothetical deterministic universe, people are not inclined to relieve others of blame or moral responsibility, especially for highly reprehensible actions. Emotional reactions to reprehensible actions bias people against determinism [SCIENCE; Nichols,S; 331:1401 (2011)]. Neuroscience has produced results which philosophers find more troubling — specifically, the finding that recordings of neuron activity can predict an impending decision with 80% accuracy many milliseconds prior to a subject's conscious decision or awareness of a decision to act [NEURON; Fried,I; 69(3):548-562 (2011)].
Determinism is the most productive way of viewing the universe insfar as a determinist will be more "determined" to search for causes when causes are not apparent. The relentless drive to understand causes underlies not only scientific discovery, but understanding of all aspects of life. In this sense, anti-determinism is the more fatalistic attitude because it allows for the acceptance of certain phenomena as being uncaused, and thus unable to be found by investigation.
In sum, claims against determinism rarely contain much explanation of the workings of the alternative. Causelessness cannot be the source of a will, free or unfree. Arguments that the will does not act in accordance with desire usually imply motives which are not acknowledged to be desires. A free and morally responsible will can be created-by and exist-in an entirely causal world.
KARL POPPER'S ATTEMPTED REFUTATION OF "SCIENTIFIC" DETERMINISM
This essay is a critique of the book THE OPEN UNIVERSE: AN ARGUMENT FOR INDETERMINISM, by Karl Popper. In this book Popper attempts to refute what he calls "'Scientific' Determinism". Quantum Physics plays little role in his argument. (His book QUANTUM THEORY AND THE SCHISM IN PHYSICS is the best single critique of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics I have ever seen.) Moreover, he also claims to be focused on refuting "scientific" determinism rather than metaphysical determinism. And he claims to be defending indeterminism rather than free will.
Popper always puts the word "scientific" in quotes when using the phrase "'scientific' determinism" to emphasize his belief that the argument for determinism based on science is fallacious. Popper is specifically concerned with discrediting the claim by LaPlace that a hypothetical "demon" with enough knowledge of the state of the universe could use that knowledge to predict the state of the universe at any future time. Thus Popper builds his case against "scientific" determinism primarily around the issue of prediction, rather than causality. In doing so, I think he confuses epistemological issues with ontological ones. To be sure, any claim which is not testable can be dismissed as "metaphysical" (ie, meaningless). But I think he misses the point of the idea of determinism by the way he looks for scientific evidence to support or refute it.
Popper cites a statement by F.A. von Hayek that to succeed in its calculations, LaPlace's demon would have to exceed the complexity of the universe, and therefore could not be part of the universe. But Popper also bolster's his argument by the demand that predictions would have to be capable of infinite precision. For example, he would demand that a prediction of where a dart would land on a dartboard be exact to as many decimal places as could be measured — and would doubtless take any limit on measurement capability as a failure to predict exactly.
Popper further loads his argument by claiming that indeterminism only "asserts that there exists at least one event that is not predetermined, or predictable" [his emphasis], whereas "scientific" determinism makes the "stronger assertion" that "all events are in principle predictable". Thus, according to Popper, the burden of proof rests on "scientific" determinism, because it makes a stronger assertion. Given the impossible standards of proof Popper requires, indeterminism becomes true by default. But why should determinism be a bolder ontology than its mutually-exclusive opposite?
The essence of Popper's argument seems to be that "scientific" determinism can not be proven unless all scientific truth has been discovered in its entirety. This reminds me of the claim that spiritualism cannot be disproven except by a Being with God-like capabilities. (After all, there only needs to be one event which is spiritual.) Popper claims that metaphysical determinism (ie, an argument for determinism not based on scientific evidence) cannot be proven or disproven. He also says that metaphysical INdeterminism cannot be proven or disproven. But then why does he not subtitle his book AN ARGUMENT FOR SCIENTIFIC INDETERMINISM? He attempts to show that science cannot prove determinism, and assumes that this proves indeterminism — but is that a "scientific" proof? The reader can observe that Popper rapidly construes his case against "scientific" determinism as a proof of both indeterminism (scientific, by implication only) and "human freedom".
Popper likens a determinist world-view to a motion-picture film in which the part of the film which has been shown is the past, and the part which is yet to be shown is the future. Einstein's inclination to treat time as a "fourth dimension" struck Popper as an indication of Einstein's subjectivist, determinist dismissal of the "arrow of time". (Popper claims he disturbed Einstein by this characterization of determinism as subjectivist, because Einstein saw himself as an ardent realist — a believer in objective reality.)
Popper holds that only the future is indeterministic, and that the past is trivially deterministic. I find this claim to be contradictory in many ways. How could the past be "scientifically" proven to be deterministic by Popper's standards if it is no more possible to measure events in the past with infinite precision than the present or the future? More to the point, why would all past events be caused, while future events are uncaused (until the future becomes the past)?
Popper is correct in asserting that if we were able to predict our future predictions, then the latter would be part of the present and not part of the future. But does this really address the issue of causality? Despite the fact that I do not know the causes of all events, I do not know of any events which are uncaused. I do not need to be omnipotent or to believe that scientific knowledge is complete in order to believe that all events are caused. The belief that all events are caused has the heuristic value of leading to a scientific investigation of causes, but there is neither evidence-for nor value-in the belief that some events are uncaused.
Popper links "scientific" determinism with reductionism, ie, the belief that psychology can be reduced to biology, which can be reduced to chemistry, which can be reduced to physics. As an argument against this he mentions that physics itself is incomplete because the four forces have not been reduced to a unified field theory. He postulates the idea of "emergent properties" of chemistry, biology, etc. without explaining where they emerge from or why they emerge.
The closest Popper comes to offering a positive theory is his ontology of "World 1", "World 2" and "World 3". "World 1" is the physical world of rocks, trees, bugs, gravity, light, etc. "World 2" is the psychological world of thoughts, feelings and subjective experiences of humans and animals. "World 3" is the world of abstraction — including problems, theories, social institutions and ethical values. The distinction between "World 2" and "World 3" is that "World 2" refers to thought processes, whereas "World 3" refers to the contents of the thoughts.
Thus, Popper substitutes Descartes' matter/spirit dichotomy with a trichotomy of three "worlds" which he refuses to identify with either matter or spirit. This explains nothing and raises more questions than it answers — for anyone who would take Popper seriously (not me!). Popper sounds very Cartesian when he says "My own position is that the brain-mind parallelism is almost bound to exist up to a point. Certain reflexes, such as blinking when seeing a suddenly approaching object, are to all appearances of a more or less parallel character ..." [his emphasis]
If "World 1" is not the material world, then what (or where) is it? Where in the universe is "World 2", if not in the brain? If determinism is an unproveable (and therefore disproven, according to Popper) assertion, where is the scientific evidence that "World 2" is not a part of World 1"?
Popper says that "the decisive argument for indeterminism is the existence of rational knowledge itself." This, of course, would be "scientific" indeterminism, proven by the "scientific evidence" of the existence of knowledge. He quotes J.B.S. Haldane, who wrote, "I am not myself a materialist because if materialism is true, it seems to me that we cannot know that it is true. If my opinions are the result of the chemical processes going on in my brain, they are determined by the laws of chemistry, not those of logic." Popper identifies materialism with determinism, but both he and Haldane seem to accept this argument as a self-evident truth, which I would paraphrase "I know I have knowledge, therefore I know I am not determined." Descartes would be proud.
But why cannot a material brain have knowledge? If knowledge is an accumulation of synaptic strengths in the brain — as scientific evidence points to — why would the existence of knowledge point to indeterminism, nonmaterial substance or uncaused events (all of which are presumed to be linked to "free choice")? Effort to form knowledge by choices between explanations seems well within the capabilities of a fully material brain.
FREE WILL IN LEONARD PEIKOFF'S OBJECTIVISM
In the Objectivist metaphysics of Ayn Rand, atheism and materialism are affirmed. Rand apparently accepted the principal of causality as universal, but she staunchly defended free will. Since Ayn Rand is dead, we might turn to Leonard Peikoff (her "intellectual heir") for an explanation.
In OBJECTIVISM: THE PHILOSOPHY OF AYN RAND, Peikoff never explicitly defines determinism or free will, but instead weaves a tortuous web of implied distinctions. In arguing for "free will" he states: "if man's actions do have causes, then they are not free; they are necessitated by antecedent factors". This statement occurs just after Peikoff uses the word "indeterminism" to describe the "anticausal viewpoint". Peikoff rejects both determinism and indeterminism by equating the former with unfreedom and the latter with anticausality, although he does not express himself clearly enough to make his contradiction obvious. He purports to be defending causality while opposing determinism when he says: "'to be caused' does not mean 'to be necessitated'" (a phrase that I regard as self-contradictory nonsense).
Peikoff defends causality only in the sense that he justifies the causal sequences leading from choice, but rejects causality with his implication that choice is not entirely the product of antecedent causes. Peikoff makes choice a "First Cause" rather than a product of material antecedent causes. A "First Cause" is an "uncaused cause". Often used as a definition of God, "First Cause" is an entirely mystical notion — it is certainly not a materialist one.
Peikoff equates deterministic choice with "effortlessness and automaticity". But the existence of effort and the subservience of reflexes to higher brain centers is entirely compatible with determinism. Peikoff characterizes determinism with the words "I have to do it, even if I realize at the time how badly I am acting". Altered action due to realization is not incompatible with determinism, and the existence of antecedent causes of will does not imply ONGOING COMPULSION to will.
As a clincher, Peikoff suggests that arguments about this topic are unnecessary because of his claim that uncaused volition is axiomatic: "volition, accordingly is not an independent philosophic principle, but a corollary of the axiom of consciousness". He "proves" that it is axiomatic by claiming that it is impossible to prove anything without uncaused choice (the only root of true knowledge). He asserts that knowledge is not possible without accepting his view of volition, and therefore asserts that proof is neither possible nor necessary. He is wrong. Whether choices are entirely the product of material causes is an empirical question which neurophysiological studies should eventually verify.
Objectivists commonly assert that knowledge and ethics are not possible in a deterministic universe. This is invariably stated as a "self-evident truth", with no attempt at explanation or justification. If anything, it is stated as an argument from desire, along the lines of "If my house is on fire all my possessions may be destroyed, therefore my apartment cannot be on fire."
But what is knowledge? Knowledge is facts and beliefs that correspond to some extent with reality. The human brain is a material biochemical-bioelectrical machine that accumulates facts and beliefs corresponding with reality — and the evolution of this machine has been driven by survival value. Is the causal nature of the accumulation of knowledge grounds for describing that knowledge as meaningless? No, meaningfulness relates to the relevance of the knowledge to the values of the organism. Knowledge which is of service to the acquisition of things valued is meaningful.
An attempt to distinguish between political and metaphysical freedom implies that the former relates to coercion by human agents and that the later relates to coercion by causality. Is knowledge impossible if prior causes constrain choice between alternate beliefs? On what basis does one choose between possible beliefs? Is the choice arbitrary or is it on the basis of a greater weight of evidence favoring one of the options? If choices are not the product of prior causes then they are spiritual (magical) and unrelated to reality.
The essence of freedom is the ability of the self to express its desires, motives, tendencies and preferences without external coercion, compulsion or restraint. Factors that have caused or determined the self cannot be said to have coerced it. Causality forms the self, but freedom relates to the ability of the self to manifest its will long after it has been formed. The distinction between causal influences that form the self and causal influences that impinge upon the formed self is at the root of the issue of freedom. I believe that the concept of freedom is only meaningful to describe external influences coercing the self — not the internal composition of the self or the formation of the self. If this distinction is ignored, then no distinction between self and reality is possible, and therefore no concept of freedom is possible.
A REPLY TO THREE ESSAYS ABOUT DETERMINISM
I reply here to three essays: "Over the Top for Freewill" by Nicholas Dykes (FREE LIFE, No. 20, August 1994), "Determinism and Free Will" by Kenneth Nahigian (TRUTH SEEKER, Vol. 120, No. 5, 1993) and "Introspective Arguments for Determinism " by Timotheus (THE FREETHOUGHT EXCHANGE, various issues).
Dykes' essay strikes me as not much more than a character assassination of a straw-man determinist, who is described as "never able to know anything ... nor able to confirm its truth ... whatever he thinks, writes or says must itself be determined ... he cannot choose for himself ... every disaster is unavoidable, every disease is incurable ... The determinist is the slave of his genes, or his subconscious, or his class, or his culture; a helpless schmoo ... never ... able to accept a reward as deserved or earned." Dykes no-doubt imagines that statements like "every disease is incurable" stand as a reductio ad absurdum of the determinist position, but by no stretch of the imagination does causality, or even an absence of "free will" imply that diseases cannot be cured. Even fatalism need not be fatal.
Dykes' style of argument-by-ridicule relieves him of the necessity of defining his terms or rationalizing his own position. What is self? What is choice? What is will? What is freedom? Dykes implies that universal causality (or randomness) — ie, materialism — equates with coercion. He makes no distinction between coercion by political agents and "coercion" by material causes. Yet, if a distinction between self and non-self can be made, it follows that self can as easily be a cause as non-self. Because this is true, self is capable of choice, knowledge and merit. The fact that self is the product of material causes in no way invalidates its existence, its character or its ability to function as a cause of subsequent events (for which it is responsible).
Knowledge is a function of the impact of experience upon a material brain. No misuse of the concept of "freedom" can reasonably justify the idea that knowledge is less fallible than it is or that self can enjoy a special exemption from causal (or random) materialism. If Dykes wishes to make a serious argument, he must explain the spiritualist implications of a self that can be created and exert its will independently (at least in part) of material influences. And he must explain why no distinction can be made between political freedom and the implied "freedom" which exempts the "free will" from having a material basis.
The essay by Nahigian defends the Compatibilism of "Determinism and Free Will", in agreement with my own position. And it uses a few arguments that augment my own understanding. In particular, it addresses the issue of prediction as distinct from the issue of determinism. Opponents of determinism imagine that they can prove their "freedom" by foiling any prediction made about their actions. But a simple machine could do the same thing, ie, be programmed to respond in such a way as to foil any prediction included as an input. Action which is predicted must be distinguished from action which includes prediction of the action as one of its inputs. The latter implies infinite loop and is thus irrelevant to the issue of causality or predictability. Ken Nahigian did not make this point so explicitly, but I am indebted to him for inspiring me to see it.
I do, however, take exception to two sentences in Ken's essay: "Personal freedom arises from the fact that we can never 'know' our choices with certainty until we make them. The very act of knowing is a change in the biochemical state of our brains, and that throws new variables into the equation, making the previous prediction worthless." In other words, the making of choices is unpredictable, and this is the source of "freedom". But anything that is determined is caused and hence predictable in principal. If Ken means to say that an agent can never predict its own actions, then "freedom" is little more than a kind of blindness — an illusion.
Considerations of this nature make me think that the word "freedom" is inappropriate in discourse concerning the materiality of — or causal influences governing — the human will. If the word "freedom" is left to the political arena, then an unencumbered discussion is possible concerning whether the human will is material (causal or random) or spiritual ("uncaused" or somehow able to act without prior cause).
The essays by Timotheus will be answered in the first person, directed to Timotheus.
|Necker Cube||Penrose Stairs|
Concerning your belief that subjective experience is the most indubitable reality, I invite you to reflect upon the Necker cube and the Penrose stairs. Objectively the Necker cube shows a 2-dimensional collection of straight lines. Yet it is difficult not to see this figure as a 3-dimensional cube. Our subjective experience is unstable insofar as we can alternately view the figure as projecting downward&outward to the left — or as projecting upward&outward to the right. The Penrose stairs appear to uniformly ascending clockwise, but always returns you to the same step at the same level.
Our most reliable knowledge is not our subjective experience, but the model we build of an objective reality. It is erroneous to imagine a distinction between raw sensory information (or even raw subjective experience) and interpretation (constructs of objective reality). Both studies-of and encounters-with sensory illusions demonstrate that even the simplest so-called perception is laden with interpretation. This makes sense insofar as subjective experience is the impact of reality upon an evolved mind, which processes that experience on the basis of a long history of previous subjective experience. Even your claim that subjective experience is the most indubitable reality is, in fact, a model of (objective) reality.
Nonetheless, this does not answer your claim that a physiological description of a toothache cannot be reduced to the subjective qualia of the experience of a toothache. Nor am I attempting to challenge this claim, because I acknowledge a distinction between objective and subjective. Warmth cannot be reduced to temperature in the same way that temperature can be reduced to mean molecular kinetic energy. But that does not mean that subjective experience is unrelated to the physical world. The subjective experience of a toothache correlates with the objective physiological events of a toothache. Subjective reality is no more exempt from causal relations than objective reality — because subjective reality is based on objective reality.
You ask "What is reality if not our knowledge of it?", but the territory is not the map any more than the map is the territory. Knowledge is what is in our minds, reality is what our knowledge attempts to model. If you deny the existence of anything outside your mind, then you are hypocritical to pay your bills and avoid stepping in front of trucks. Either it is "folly to deny" objective reality or it is not. Either objective reality is what your knowledge attempts to model or it is not. Subjective experience is not finished knowledge — witness the Necker cube and a host of other illusions.
Although you concede the importance of objective reality within the context of continuing to eat food, you insist upon treating the question of will (or "free will") as entirely in the subjective domain — with objective correlates and the issue of causality being irrelevant. I say that will correlates with objective reality factors no less than warmth correlates with temperature or than a toothache correlates with the physiological events of a toothache.
You say that introspective evidence for free will is no different from introspective evidence for preferring chocolate to vanilla. Introspective evidence about facts (existence of self, thinking and will) is similar to introspective evidence about feelings (happy,sad) or preferences (like, dislike). But how could introspective evidence determine if freedom of the will is an illusion based upon rationalization or confabulation? Is there no useful distinction between free choice and compelled choice? Whether there is a useful distinction between will or free will depends upon your definition of "free". Your statement "I suppose I could deny that I chose freely and that I merely did what I had to do" disengages you from a position on the question of "free will versus determinism" — no wonder you can't find a useful distinction between will and "free will"!
You say that from an objective point of view I can demonstrate neither will nor free will. If the effects of human desire can be observed objectively, then will is no less a fact of reality than is temperature — although the subjective "qualia" of will remains as irreducible as the "qualia" of warmth. But free will is another matter, if freedom is equated with causelessness. Either the mind is material and causal or it is "spiritual". If the mind equates with the brain, then the spiritual assertion of an acausal "free will" is invalid. Model-building is a far better tool for resolving this question than is introspection.
If human beings are material, causal machines then their actions can, in principle, be predicted. Absolute predictions would be objective evidence of determinism. Introspective evidence for free will tends to be something like the thought "I could have acted differently" — but under what circumstances? A person could have acted differently if his/her will (desires, preferences, tendencies) had been different — but so what? It would have been a different will! Determinism simply says that action proceeds from will, and will at any moment of time is the sum of a person's desires and tendencies, which absolutely determines the choice of action.
I reject the idea of "free will" where the word "free" is used to designate exemption from causality. But I also object to the use of the word "free" to designate exemption from causality. Freedom means absence of ongoing compulsion, coercion or constraint. I do not believe that the will is unfree by this use of the word freedom. I believe that the will has been causally determined by the material factors which created it, but that will is not subject to ongoing compulsion. Thus, my objective view that the will is free correlates with my subjective experience of being able to make choices and decisions — of being able to express my will.
Volition is not necessarily a prerequisite for moral responsibility. If you set-up a bear trap in a schoolyard and a child is maimed, then you are responsible, whether or not you are a "machine" — because responsibility means "caused by a person". But the bear trap is also a cause of the maiming. The bear-trap must be removed and you must be stopped from putting more bear-traps in the schoolyard. What if I determine that you acted as you did because your cruel stepfather put rat-traps around your bed when you were a child? The responsibility of your step-father does not alter your responsibility.
According to one version of Christian theology, God cannot be the source of the evils of the world because He is all-knowing and all-benevolent. Further, God gave humans the knowledge of good & evil and the volition to choose between them — making the humans God created the source of evil deeds. But if humans can act contrary to God's wishes, God has limited His omnipotence by His gift of volition. It would be a farce for God to pass judgement over something entirely under His control. If God is all-knowing, then no sin committed by humans can be a surprise — and God must accept full responsibility for the evils of which He had foreknowledge, but did not prevent. What sense does it make for God to have humans enact a performance the manifestation of which He knows in every detail beforehand — including His Own Judgements?
FREE WILL VERSUS DETERMINISM AS IT RELATES TO CRYONICS
Determinism implies materialism — implies that consciousness is material. Cryonics is based on the premise that the preservation of the fine structure of the brain at low temperature will preserve the self — ie, that the self is entirely determined-by and contained-in the physical brain. Determinism would imply that preservation of the material basis of mind/self is theoretically possible. (For an exploration of how the self is encoded in the brain, see my series The Anatomical Basis of Mind. Development of the anatomical argument to explain the functioning of mind is best summarized in Chapter 8, Neurophysiology and Mental Function.)
Defenders of "free will" who say that the self has a spiritual basis independent of the brain often reject cryonics as being unnecessary. There are a few "spiritually" oriented people (like the Fyodorovians) who think that "resurrection of the body" is essential due to an intimate connection between the body and the "soul", but these are in the minority. The majority of cryonicists do not accept spiritual beliefs, but there are notable exceptions, namely people who regard cryonics as a form of medicine. If cryonics can extend life, it is no more an affront to spiritual belief than other life-extending practices such as exercise and the avoidance of tobacco.
What about anti-determinist materialists who believe in "free will"? Those, like Roger Penrose, who claim that the mind is ultimately rooted in quantum uncertainty might not accept the possibility of biostasis, but Penrose has made no explicit statement about this subject. Penrose writes of the non-computability of mind, but acknowledges that non-predictability does not equate with "free will".
Predictability is really at the heart of what is required for cryonics. If the mechanical operation of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses result in the phenomena known as the mind, the Self and the Will, then preservation & restoration of this machinery by cryonicists & nanotechnologists is possible in principle. But this also means that human beings are machines whose future actions are, in principle, entirely predictable. The positive side of this is that understanding the machinery in sufficient detail could provide the basis for reconstructing those aspects of the mind (parts of the brain) that were destroyed beyond recognition or repair. The negative side is that many people find it "dehumanizing" to believe that we are nothing but machines.
The proposition that the self/mind has a complete material basis in the mind has practical implications for cryonics, but also raised baffling questions. If it is possible to use a cryopreserved brain as a template for atom-by-atom reconstruction of a new brain, the identity of the person whose brain was cryopreserved would presumably be restored. But if such reconstruction could be done once, there is no reason why it could not be done hundreds of times. Would each reconstruction have the same personal identity (the same self) as the original? (For more detail on this question, see my essay The Duplicates Paradox).
REPLIES TO E-MAIL CRITIQUES BY ERIC MCMILLAN
I believe that a large part of the difficulty with the "free will versus determinism" debate lies in the failure to define the terms of discussion clearly. I have cast my title in terms most commonly used so that people can orient themselves to the subject of my discourse. However, the more exacting title might be "A Case for Will and Causality". I would define will as the aspect of self concerned with a person's desires, motives and tendencies.
The word "free" complicates matters and creates much of the confusion. Appropriately used, the word "free" refers to "freedom from coercion" — a political usage of the term. Inappropriately used, as in the "free will" debate, it implies that causality is coercion. And not just sometimes, but always.
I see no possible way, much less a need, to "prove" the existence of a will (as I have defined it). Proofs proceed by demonstrating what is not obvious on the basis of what is obvious. I can think of nothing that is more obvious that I could refer-to in attempting to demonstrate the existence of my will (my definition of which does not include the contentious issue of causality).
My claim that "the will is not subject to ongoing compulsion" is obviously wrong and, worse, is an implicit acceptance of the notion that causality is coercion. What is more correct is the assertion that causality is always operative, and that some specific causes can coerce, while others do not. This has made me acutely aware about how little effort I made to define coercion.
Let's not forget that justifications for a will exempt from causality must make reference to some acausal factor. Historically, this has been the "spirit", but recently attempts have been made to use quantum physics (despite the fact that this can only result in a "random will", not a self-directed one). Is causality coercion? Is it coercion that you cannot flap your arms and fly to the moon? Freedom of the will does not mean that all whims & desires are instantly fulfilled. Coercion/freedom are political terms and only political terms, referring to the presence or absence of constraints by governments or thugs. Causality does not coerce, but people do. Coercion can be causal, but it is causality resulting from the intention of a sentient being.
Let's say that I go to the grocery to buy some ingredients for a salad. I see some carrots on the shelf and decide to include them, although I had originally only planned to have a "leafy" salad. Is this compulsion? What if there is a sign — perhaps even in another section of the store — that says "try our tasty carrots", and I am reminded of the flavour of carrots in my mouth? The reminder was unsolicited, but it appealed to a pre-existing desire (or potential desire). I see no compulsion in this.
Let's say I have just given-up smoking cigarettes and I am experiencing some success in resisting my temptation to smoke. Then a friend invites me to go for a drink. I have a few drinks and then my friend offers me a cigarette. The alcohol has undermined my resolve and I accept the cigarette. Was I subject to compulsion? I would say that physiological influences altered the character of my will, but that the will is still mine. I could even compare this to the thought of carrot-flavour in my mouth altering my choices, although the influences on my "will" are of a different character in the two cases. I think that a person is responsible for the choices they make, even under the influence of alcohol.
Concerning family pressure, I'm sure you face many situations in which you experience conflicts between an immediate desire you have to do something, requests or demands upon your time, and your desire to please or appease various family members who may be at odds with each other. I do not think it is appropriate to say that you were "compelled" when you acted to please someone else — because pleasing them must be of value to you. If we fail to choose the course of action which would have most fulfilled our desires, that is a failure of judgement, not of will. This happens frequently when we are faced with a complex situation involving conflicting desires and a requirement of quick decisions. I still would not call this compulsion. I have resented other people for choices I have made under quick & unexpected pressure, but when I reflect upon these incidents I have to accept responsibility for what I did.
I believe that compulsion should only refer to situations where there is a threat of physical force. Physical force might refer to the threat of being shot with a gun if one does not agree to harm a child. But even in the face of such coercion, someone can exert free will by deciding to be shot rather than to harm the child. Your different political orientation might cause you to want to include "economic force" or even "family demands". But this has no bearing whatsoever on the philosophical claim that causality is coercive.
I think you are correct to say that formation of the will is not a once-and-for-all event, although I do believe that this is the case for the self as an identity. The will, like memories, is an aspect of self that is subject to ongoing change. Food preferences change, sexual interests change, career ambitions change, hobbies change, etc. I even acknowledge that political coercion can change the will. But this in no way proves that causality is coercive.
I believe that any prior attempt I made to depict the will as a static entity was mistaken. We have moods. The way I regard a bowl of soup before a meal is quite different from the way I regard it after a meal. My desires, motives & tendencies may be predictably different under the influence of alcohol — and unpredictably different under the influence of LSD. An adult usually has fewer sweet-receptors on the tongue (and less of a "sweet-tooth") than a child.
You said "I don't see how a string of 'If A then B; if B then C; if C then D...' can be broken by the will that exists in it somewhere." But I did not make such a claim. Remember, I believe in determinism and the universality of causality. My claim has been that the existence of the will is not incompatible with determinism — and that the fact that the will is the product of causal factors in no way detracts from the reality of the existence of will. Both the will and a watch are mechanical, but a watch does not have desires, motives or a sense of self. I am acknowledging the special character of these existents, but "special character" does not mean the exclusion of causality. I am simply acknowledging the fact that self-awareness & desire are attributes of human causal-objects, but not of watch causal-objects.
The definition of "freedom" that currently appeals to me is "the possibility of effectuality of the will". I acknowledge the effectuality of the will. The fact that a will can be effectual does not exclude the fact that it is a product of prior causes. Effectual behavior (as opposed to coerced behavior) is a characteristic of the existence of will — the means by which the will was created is irrelevant to the question of whether it exists. To say that the will was created (and later influenced) to make the choices it makes is completely consistent with the assertion that the choices made by the will are entirely an expression of the will.
Stated another way, a will that can express itself & sometimes achieve its desires cannot be said to be always being coerced. Not unless you make it a matter of definition that formative influences that create and transform the will preclude any possibility of choice, ie, are 100% coercive. The idea that true knowledge is impossible under determinism ignores the fact that knowledge is a modeling of reality by a brain that has evolved to create such models/knowledge. To imply that knowledge is impossible without a First Cause (uncaused cause) "spiritual" will is to load the definition of "knowledge" with fantasmagora.
by Tim Harding
The idea that the future is already determined is known in philosophy as determinism. There are various definitions of determinism available; but in this essay, I shall use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition, which is ‘the metaphysical thesis that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future’ (McKenna, 2009:1.3).
This idea presents a difficult problem for the concept of free will: how can we make free choices if all our actions are determined by the facts of the past and the laws of nature? A related but distinct question is: how can we be held morally responsible for our actions if we have no choices? Undesirable consequences like these are not sufficient reasons for declaring determinism to be false; but they can act (and have influenced many philosophers) as a powerful motivator towards resolving the apparent conflict between determinism and free will.
Some philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen have gone as far as arguing that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will (Iredale 2012: 8). There are various other philosophical arguments in favour of free will – one of these is an apparent paradox known as Buridan’s Ass. Some scientists, such as Sam Harris argue in favour of determinism and claim that free will is an illusion. Leading contemporary philosopher John Searle thinks that the issue has still not been resolved, despite two centuries of philosophical and scientific debate.
Most people who are neither philosophers nor scientists seem to intuitively feel that they have free will and so when presented with this dilemma are more likely to choose free will over determinism (Iredale 2012:13). On the other hand, in my personal experience, scientists who think in terms of causes and effects are more likely to side with a determinist view. In this essay, I intend to argue that a solution to this dilemma lies not in choosing free will over determinism, nor vice versa; but in the theory that determinism and free will are compatible – known as compatibilism.
Before going on, let us be clear about what we mean by the term free will. Clarke & Capes (2013:1) have provided a useful definition:
‘To have free will is to have what it takes to act freely. When an agent acts freely—when she exercises her free will—it is up to her whether she does one thing or another on that occasion. A plurality of alternatives is open to her, and she determines which she pursues. When she does, she is an ultimate source or origin of her action’.
So what does it take to act freely? Taylor (2012: 40) states that there are three essential characteristics to free actions. One is able to act freely only if:
(1) there is no obstacle that prevents you from doing A, and
(2) there is nothing that constrains or forces you to do A, and
(3) you could have done otherwise.
There is a diversity of philosophical views about the relationship between determinism and free will; but the higher-level taxonomy of these views may be summarised as follows. Those who hold that determinism and free will cannot both be true are known as incompatibilists. Within this category, those who claim that determinism is true – and therefore free will is impossible – are known as hard determinists. Those who claim that determinism is false and therefore that free will is at least possible are known as metaphysical libertarians (not necessarily related to political libertarians). Those who think that determinism and free will are compatible are known as compatibilists. There is also a range of sub-categories within the compatibilist camp; but I will only discuss a couple of them in this essay. This higher-level taxonomy can be visually described by the following diagram.
To be more specific, the following set of propositions is described by McKenna (2009:1.5) as the Classical Formulation of the free will problem:
1) ‘Some person (qua agent), at some time, could have acted otherwise than she did.
2) Actions are events.
3) Every event has a cause.
4) If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.
5) If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that she did’.
This formulation involves a mutually inconsistent set of propositions, and yet each is consistent with in our contemporary conception of the world, producing an apparent paradox. How can these inconsistencies be reconciled? Compatibilists would deny proposition 5). Incompatibilists, on the other hand, might move in a number of different directions, including the denial of propositions 1), 3) or 4) (McKenna, 2009:1.5).
According to Taylor (2012: 40), all versions of compatibilism (which he calls ‘soft determinism’) have three claims in common:
(i) Determinism is true.
(ii) We are free to perform an action A to the extent there are no obstacles that would prevent us from doing A, and we are not externally constrained (not forced by external causes) to do A.
(iii) The causes of free actions are certain states, events, or conditions within the agent himself, e.g., an agent’s own acts of will or volitions, or decisions, or desires, and so on.
Claim (i) is made in common with hard determinism. Claims (ii) and (iii) are where the compatibilists part company with the hard determinists and attempt to explain how free will can be compatible with determinism.
Taylor’s objection to compatibilism is essentially a challenge to Claim (iii); that is, that the certain states, events, or conditions within the agent herself are themselves caused by external factors, consistent with determinism.
My response to Taylor’s objection is that the certain states or conditions within the agent could include the person’s values, ethics, loyalties, priorities, and so on. Let us call these states or conditions within the agent ‘values’. These values may have external causes accumulated over the agent’s lifetime. The important point is that an agent’s values could give rise to more than one possible action by the agent, all of which are consistent with the agent’s values. Let us call these possible consistent actions ‘options’. When faced with a decision to make, a rational agent would be likely to consider the options available to her and choose the best option. In this way, the options available to the agent stem from causes but the agent is making a free choice within the range of options available.
A simple way of modelling this limited version of free will has been referred to by some philosophers as a ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ after the novel of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges (McKenna 2009:2.1; Iredale 2012: 14). In other words, there are alternative paths an agent could choose to take, but the paths available have been predetermined. Within this model, the agent meets the criterion of acting of her own free will, because she could have acted otherwise. Her ability to have acted otherwise is underwritten by her ability to have selected amongst, or chosen between, alternative courses of action (McKenna 2009:2.1).
Garden with forked path (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
It is possible that consciousness is an emergent psychological property of the material mind. Free will could be seen as a manifestation of consciousness. Whilst we cannot yet fully explain what consciousness is and how is works, there is little doubt that consciousness exists. If consciousness can exist, then so can free will.
Daniel Dennett (2003) has proposed a more elegant version of compatibilism with an evolutionary basis. Although in the strict physical sense our actions might be determined, we can still be free in all the ways that matter, because of the abilities we evolved. Seen this way, free will is the freedom to make decisions without duress, as opposed to an impossible and unnecessary freedom from causality itself. To clarify this distinction, he coins the term ‘evitability’ as the opposite of ‘inevitability’, defining it as the ability of an agent to anticipate likely consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones (Dennett 2003:56). Evitability is entirely compatible with, and actually requires, determinism; because without it, an agent cannot anticipate likely consequences and avoid them. Dennett provides us with the following explicit argument:
‘In some deterministic worlds there are avoiders avoiding harms. Therefore in some deterministic worlds some things are avoided. Whatever is avoided is avoidable or evitable. Therefore in some deterministic worlds not everything is inevitable. Therefore determinism does not imply inevitability’ (Dennett 2003:56).
Dennett (2003:58) also argues that there is a concept of chance that is compatible with determinism, which has been invoked to explain evolution via natural selection. Through these means, he endeavours to unyoke determinism from inevitability (Dennett 2003:60) .
In conclusion, I have offered two accounts of how free will may be compatible with determinism – my own and Daniel Dennett’s. However, I do not claim that either of these accounts has solved the dilemma. There are also, of course, many other accounts of compatibilism as well as objections to them, plus alternative theories such as hard determinism and metaphysical libertarianism. Indeed, resolving the dilemma between free will and determinism is very complicated and may be ‘one of the most persistent and heated deadlocks in Western philosophy’ (Nichols and Knobe 2007:1).
 Peter van Inwagen’s argument that free will is required for moral judgments is:
- The moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X implies that you should have done something else instead.
- That you should have done something else instead implies that there was something else for you to do.
- That there was something else for you to do implies that you could have done something else.
- That you could have done something else implies that you have free will.
- If you don’t have free will to have done other than X we cannot make the moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X (van Inwagen 2009).
 For those who would like to read more on this topic, there is an interesting online debate between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Dennett critiques Harris’ book on Free Will in a review titled Reflections on Free Will. Then Harris responds to Dennett’s critique in a rejoinder entitled The Marionette’s Lament.
Clarke, Randolph & Capes, Justin, “Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/incompatibilism-theories/>.
Dennett, Daniel. 2003 Freedom Evolves. London, Penguin.
Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.
McKenna, Michael, ‘Compatibilism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/compatibilism/>.
Nichols, S. & Knobe, 2007 ‘Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions. Nous 41(4):663-85 in Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.
Taylor, Richard. (1976) ‘Freedom, Determinism and Fate’; printed in Time, Self and Mind Study Guide, Monash, 2012:40-47.
van Inwagen, Peter (2009). The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will. Oxford.
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Tagged as compatibilism, Dennett, determinism, free will, Inwagen, Iredale, John Searle, Paradox, philosophy, rationality, Sam Harris, Tim Harding