The Problem of Free Will

There is no subject more divisive in my household than the question of free will.  Holiday dinners have devolved into screaming matches over abstract reflections on moral responsibility, and so it is with some reluctance that I broach the subject in this blog.  But, I haven’t done a post in a while, and Jim suggested that I write something on this essay, so I’m going to humor him.  I would like to recommend that all of the readers of this blog take the time to review Galen Strawson’s "Basic Argument for Determinism" as well as William Eddington’s response, "The Limits of the Coded World" (linked above) before continuing this post, but since you may not have time to do that, I will briefly review the relevant arguments.

Simply put, if we have no free will, then moral responsibility as we normally think of it (blame, praise, obligation, etc.) seems impossible.  This is bad news for the study of ethics because the arguments against free will are pretty compelling.  Whether we cash the story out in terms of mental states (desires, personality, beliefs) or pure physics, it looks like there’s no way around the fact that unchosen forces determine our actions.  It certainly feels as though I have a choice about whether to spend my last 20 dollars on food for my family or whiskey and cigarettes, but the choice is going to come down to the person I am (values, experiences, beliefs, and desires, none of which I choose) and the circumstances in which I find myself (again, unchosen).  Or, to reach the same conclusion in a different way, my brain states are as causally determined as all other physical phenomena,* so there is no place in the causal chain of neural events for an undetermined "free" choice.

I think that Strawson’s arguments for determinism are very compelling, which is unfortunate because the implications are devastating.  If my choices are actually illusory, then so too is my sense of moral responsibility.  I am not morally responsible for choosing whiskey over food for my family if I am not responsible for being the person I am, and there is a very good case to be made that I’m not. And of course, this same logic applies to all levels of "choices," some of which are great deal more heinous than alcoholic excess. Because the implications of determinism are so devastating, I am very sympathetic to philosophers who attempt to navigate some alternative route to moral responsibility which bypasses the problem of free will.  So, I really wish that I could agree with William Egginton.  Unfortunately, I just don’t think his argument works.

Egginton seems to think that the problem of free will and the corresponding question of moral responsibility are really issues in epistemology, not metaphysics.  In other words, he seems to believe that the fact that we don’t know our futures is somehow relevant to whether or not we have free will.  I would like to pick out one short sentence from his essay that summarizes this position, but unfortunately, for all of his references to Kant and interesting asides about neuroscience, I can’t find a single place where Egginton makes a complete argument. So, I am extrapolating a bit, but I think his point (largely borrowed from Kant) must be that because we can never have knowledge of the world from an omniscient perspective but instead must experience it temporally, the future, as it is to us, really is undetermined.  This leads him to conclude:

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it.

Now, as nice as Egginton’s conclusion sounds, it is clearly not logically sound.  The question of whether I believe I have a choice is certainly relevant and useful in terms of psychological motivation, but belief in moral responsibility no more corresponds to actual moral responsibility than belief in magic corresponds to actual magic.  Moreover, if Egginton’s argument is motivated by a desire preserve our intutions about free will, moral responsibility, and all of the ethical theories that depend upon them, then this "solution" to the problem of free will fails on that front as well.  We may not want to say that the child rapist is not responsible for his actions because he had no choice in his desires or impulses, but we certainly don’t want to say that the child rapist is only responsible for his actions because he feels responsible.

Free will is a metaphysical issue, not an epistemic one.  Epistemology plays an important role in ethics because belief justification is an important part of moral deliberation, but the mere fact that we believe in free will does not prove that we have it, and the mere fact that we believe ourselves to be morally responsible for our actions is not proof that we are.  If we are going to make sense of moral responsibility in any useful way,  we need some account of choice that can distinguish between non-cognitive action (impulse), delusional action, and deliberative, intentional action, and  Egginton’s story can’t do that.  I kind of wish it did.

*Also, just in case you skipped the recommended reading, and happened to see the colossally awful film What the Bleep Do We Know?,  no. Quantum Theory does not get you out of the problem of free will.

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5 Responses to “The Problem of Free Will”

  1. Alex SL Says:

    Oh yes, most difficult issue ever. However, the realization that free will probably does not exist does not bug me as much as it did a few years ago.

    You have probably read it, but Massimo Pigliucci did a nice blog post some months back where he essentially argued that free will is an incoherent concept anyway. I thought about it and these are the points I would submit here:

    1. What should my free will allow me to do differently than how I am doing things now? Should it make it possible for me to throw my food at the wall instead of eating it this evening in 5% of the cases? But why would I do this, ever – if not only because I want to demonstrate that I can? (Which would, of course, also have been predetermined?)

    2. And how would we test the possibility? We cannot rewind time twenty times to see if I actually have the choice to do that one time out of twenty. What happens, happens, and exactly once in history, and that alone makes it doubtful whether free will can be sensibly defined.

    3. What difference would free will make to us emotionally, anyway, if we had it? Whether I treat my family well because it is the result of a chain of fully determined but mostly unfathomable physico-chemical events or because I have a magic independence from those events does not matter for me personally nor for them.

    4. And yes, because we cannot ever possibly know how somebody will behave in the future, a big part of the problem disappears. We can, however, recognize that humans behave predictably, and that may allow us to build a better society by creating an environment that makes humans behave better (see hambydammit’s very recent blog post on the issue).

    5. And most importantly, I do not believe that it changes much for our feeling of moral responsibility. We are all agreed that a machine does not have free will. When it malfunctions, we still repair it (similar to punishment with rehabilitation in humans). If it malfunctions badly, perhaps in a way that endangers people, and also in a way that cannot be rectified, we may throw it away (life imprisonment) or destroy it (death penalty). (The main difference is that we value people more and will thus only use the more severe punishments for severe crimes, while a machine may in time be dismantled simply for not being the most modern one, so there the analogy breaks down.) Even if we are just very complicated data processing devices, we can still be considered responsible in every sensible meaning of the word for our wrongdoings. Just because we find determinism to be convincing, we stop not suddenly stop to correct bad behaviour, so nothing much changes.

  2. Clouser Says:

    “I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it.”

    This seems such a common idea, and it simply does not follow. The similar idea–“if someone knows what I will choose, then it cannot be a fee choice”–is one that I also see a lot.

    I just don’t understand why people think that outside knowledge of what a choice might be has anything to do with whether or not it is freely chosen. We both know that none are, despite widespread belief to the contrary, but knowledge of what will be chosen has nothing to do with it.

    Do people just not know how to think? Don’t answer that.

    • Liza Says:

      How is it that we spent the better part of a week together and only touched on this topic tangentially while moderately intoxicated? I certainly don’t understand most people’s reasoning on this topic, but, since I failed to persuade even your bright and open-minded wife, I’m really not the person to ask about why people don’t get things.

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