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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One take on free will

The author of this piece sent me the link, so I pass it on. I'd be happier with the piece if not for the passing mention of "engrams" (is Scientology lurking behind it somewhere?). [Edit: The author assures me that he does not support Scientology and points out that the term predates Hubbard. Fair enough.] It also seems to be touting for hypnotherapy or something. Hmmm.

In any event, I'm not really convinced by the analysis, even though the author is, like me a compatibilist. I don't see it all as a kind of struggle between the conscious will and the subconscious mind. There are many things that we do without conscious thought but were free to do.

However, I agree on one important point: determinism should not be confused with fatalism. The author's words on this, near the end, are just fine with me.

It does seem that some folks think that fatalism follows if we throw out libertarian free will, but that's not true at all. There are other possibilities. Sam Harris is actually quite good on this, even though he rejects compatibilism. Harris would agree that we're not in a position where the future will unfold the same way no matter what choices I (or you) might make. Fatalism is not true.

I get to deliberate and make choices, and they will have consequences. But the "I" here is not something spooky that created itself de novo, complete with desires, values, attitudes, and so on. I can deliberate and make choices, and my choices can reflect my own set of desires/values/attitudes, and the actions I then take can have effects (often including the effects that I intend!). But this "I", complete with its desires, values, and attitudes, is the product of a material process including its original genetic potential, its socialisation, and other influences.

I think it may have been Bertrand Russell who said, "I can do what I please but I can't please what I please." Not all the way down, I can't. Even if I manage to change my own set of desires, my inclination to do so was based on the desires I began with.


Jambe said...

Much of the in/compatibility talk annoys me because it often reduces earnest assertions that free will has an indefinable-yet-paramount quality mystically unbound by causality. There are entire books full of questions people have invented to justify belief that "free will" is bigger or wider than it logically needs to be.

Russell Blackford said...

Which makes you a compatibilist. Welcome to the club.

Michael said...

Agree with all of the above and I've gotta say the free will "debate" depresses me since it's always portrayed as such a great/meaningful/open/profound question. Can't everyone just accept compatabilism, see this as one of the biggest pseudo-problems in the history of thought and move on?!

Maybe this enormous confusion about free will is akin to some other evolutionary hangups that have been keeping humans down (just like folk Platonism contributes to rejecting evolution and folk dualism contributes to religion and new-age thinking...

March Hare said...

I still don't get the use of 'free' in this reading of free will.

Free means with no restrictions but your understanding is that not only are there restrictions but that they are so severe that the outcome is inevitable, i.e. cannot be avoided.

I just don't see what adding free will (however defined) adds anything useful to saying everything (outside of the quantum realm) is determined. It simply confuses the vast majority who do not understand the difference between free will and libertarian free will.

March Hare said...

PS. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills".

Russell Blackford said...

It's amazing how wildly people's intuitions on this vary. I mean, I don't see that I am under any restrictions at all on the simple account I gave. I act in a way that expresses my own nature and nothing in the picture prevents me from doing that. All going well, I accomplish the outcomes I set out to accomplish. It looks like I'm free.

The only sense in which I can't "act otherwise" is that I can't act in a way that expresses someone else's nature (or perhaps no one's nature at all), but why on earth would I want to do that? I want to act in accordance with my values, achieve outcomes that are desirable to me, and so on.

I'm not even so much arguing here, MC, just demonstrating how we have totally different intuitions about what is important here. But really, if I acted in some other way that doesn't express me, with my value set, etc ... that would seem to me quite disturbing.

Darrick Lim said...

I've adopted the compatibilist viewpoint too, mainly because it's the intellectually honest position to take. Which is why I find philosophies like existentialism and Objectivism to be flawed because they posit free will/volition that's unaffected by determinist factors like neurobiology, psychology and socialisation.

Speaking of Objectivism, I recently debated a bona fide Objectivist and boy, was he ever so confident that Ayn Rand (and by extension all Objectivists) was unaffected by cognitive bias, bounded rationality and involuntary, deterministic brain processes. Apparently Objectivists aren't human like the rest of us.

Physicalist said...

Spot on, Russell.

Though I'd even quibble with Bertrand Russell's (*) claim that "I can't please what I please," which might give the impression that I might have some unfulfilled desire regarding my wants. But if I do have such a second order desire, then there's usually nothing to prevent me from acting on it. (Cf. Harry Frankfurt.)

Perhaps it would be better to say "I don't please what I please," to make clear that it's just a fact that we accept some desires as basic and unchosen.

(*) Did you know your first name is the same as BR's last? I first simply wrote "Russell," and got some crossed brain wires.

Tom Clark said...

The libertarian folk intuition I hear expressed all the time is that if determinism is true, then we don't make *real* choices. What people seem to want is to have causal powers but to not be fully caused in their character and motives except by *themselves*. So the freely willing libertarian self is conceived as ultimately self-caused in some respect, an obvious impossibility. Not that some libertarian philosophers haven't worked hard to defend something along those lines. The idea is implicit in the American myth of the self-made man who owes nothing to circumstances. Quite the inflation of ego, it seems...

Jerry Coyne said...

Russell, why exactly do you think that the future is not determined, and that you can influence it through your behavior? After all, your behavior is also determined: it's the product of genes and environment mediated through molecules and electrical impulses.

Do you really think that you have a free choice to do something and that that choice could cause two alternative outcomes in the universe? If so, WHAT is doing the choosing?

March Hare said...

I, the system, have what you would call free will.

I, the consciousness, act at the behest of uncontrolled and unseen mental processes.

In the first instance I think people are happy to think that they are the complete set of mental (and physical) processes that lead to a decision and that each of these follow physical processes.

In the second their sense of self is broken and what they consider their mental self often has little to no control over their physical self. The conscious I is sitting impotent in the driver's seat unable to have any control over (most) decisions.

Don't know if that makes much sense, it was written in a rush at the end of the work day...

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with the idea that the questions about the existence or otherwise of libertarian free will are meaningless wastes of time.

My impression of those who think these are "pseudo-problems" is that they think that their libertarian or compatibilist intuitions are obviously true; but as a hard incompatibilist I think there is much to be said and much at stake, specially regarding our notions of blame and praiseworthiness, and the practical and ethical (how we treat each other, how we deal with criminals, etc.) implications of their possible falsity, which in my opinion would be big.

I also find amusing how Michael says that these questions might be the result of some "evolutionary hangups", since folk psychology seems more likely to be the evolutionary hangup that makes people take some form of dualism, libertarianism or compatibilism for granted.

Russell Blackford said...

Jerry, leaving aside quibbles about uncaused quantum events, I'm happy to say that the future is determined. But fatalism would have to be stronger than that. It would have to say not just that there is some truth about what I'll do (given my desires, etc., which are naturalitically caused) but a truth about what will happen whatever I do.

Fatalists can make this sound good, at least to gullible people, when they're talking about vague events like when I'm due to die (when God wills, or when the stars ordain, or whatever). But it really doesn't make much sense when you break it down. Whether I end up meeting my friend for brunch later this morning really does depend on whether I get in my car and drive to the place where we're meeting. It's not as if we meet there (or fail to meet, whichever happens) whether I get in the car or not.

Sam Harris is actually pretty convincing on all this. I agree with about 90 per cent of what he says on the free will issue, even though he seems to be some sort of hard determinist or hard incompatibilist.

Darrick Lim said...

Tom, you have just described the Objectivist mindset, which isn't surprising since Objectivism is simply just another flavour of libertarian philosophy that pretends to be unique and revolutionary.

It seems that the more right-wing people are, the less likely they are to accept that external, deterministic factors contributed to their circumstances. Especially if those circumstances include an abundance of wealth, health, security and power.

March Hare said...

But Russell, to all intents and purposes you are a hard determinist, are you not?

Incidentally, predetermination can be shown to be false since it is trivially easy to scale up a quantum event into the real world: Set up a system that has a given percentage (ideally 50-50) to be A or B and decide before running it that you will make a real world choice to to X if the outcome is A and Y id it is B. Since you are committed to following through with this the outcome of a probabilistic quantum experiment has a macro result and due to the chaotic nature of the universe there will be large enough changes in the world that could not be definitely predicted (but potentially could be probabilistically factored in.)

Tom Clark said...

Henry: "...as a hard incompatibilist I think there is much to be said and much at stake, specially regarding our notions of blame and praiseworthiness, and the practical and ethical (how we treat each other, how we deal with criminals, etc.) implications of their possible falsity, which in my opinion would be big."

Right on, see the free will and criminal justice pages at Naturalism.org. The problem with compatibilism is that it glosses over the lack of justification for retribution, social inequality and other desert-based practices and status differences tacitly premised on the assumption of libertarian free will.

Jerry, Russell: Fatalism, as Russell points out, requires that one's actions not be causally effective, but we know they are as causally effective as anything else in nature. Dependency relations, seen over time, are omnipresent, forming a causal network in which no participating element is in an "inferior" position of being only pushed around without itself doing any pushing.

From the eternalist block universe perspective (see “The Frozen River” chapter in physicist Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos), successful human efforts to control outcomes are static patterns of a certain sort, patterns which we hope we will conform to (we can't know in advance of course, being time-bound creatures). Wanting to not be caused, to *not* to conform to such patterns, is the futile, egoistic notion that being outside of cause and effect, outside spacetime, would give us more control. Good luck with that! See http://www.naturalism.org/spacetime.htm#inevitability

And yes, Harris does a nice job debunking libertarian free will and drawing out the progressive implications. If you agree with him about this, I wish you'd say so. http://www.naturalism.org/roundup.htm#Harris

Physicalist said...

@ Jerry:

Just to follow up on Russell's point:

You ask, "why exactly do you think . . . that you can influence [the future] through your behavior?"

The fact that you even ask this question shows that you're thinking of fatalism, not determinism. That is, you're thinking that future events are independent of current actions.

But this is clearly false. And it is clearly not implied by determinism.

If you can rid yourself of impulse to conflate determinism and fatalism, you're likely to find yourself a compatibilist.

Dimitri said...

This is an interesting post, and I find it interesting the viewpoints here. I just posted a dissertation on Free Will, which I wrote several months back, on my blog deafeningsilence-dimitri.blogspot.com, and I came to a rather different conclusion. I think that perhaps where I differ is on the existence of God. Although I believe that God exists, I concluded that due to that fact there is no true free will in the purest sense. If God (as in the Hebrew Bible God) does in fact "know our actions before they happen" and "has a plan and purpose for those actions" then how is that free will? I am most definitely not saying we are robots, simply that if our actions are known/pre-planned, then how is that free will? If your bored sometime, you might read it (my blog post) and tell me where/if I screwed up.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, it's hard to know what hard determininists/ hard incompatibilists really want - and think we're missing out on - that's so important. We tell them all this stuff about how fatalism is false, how it's possible for people to deliberate and come to decisions, how those decisions can reflect and express their actual values, desires, attitudes, etc. (not someone else values, etc., being imposed on them coercively), how their decisions really do have consequences, often even the ones they intend!, and so on.

I mean, I'm not actually a fetishist about the term "free will" if it causes hang-ups, but all the above is true, and it sounds like a pretty good deal to me. If someone insists on defining "free will" in some way that goes beyond this, they can have their definition for the sake of the specific argument. But I think that a broadly compatibilist conception of free will is perfectly coherent and reasonable, and consistent with what we know about the universe.

E.g., I don't see why I'd want to be some sort of indeterministic system such that I could just as easily end up choosing to act in way X rather than way Y - not because way X better expresses my values, etc., but because my brain just indeterministically "goes" that way. If anything, that makes me seem less free to act in a way that actually expresses me. And I can't coherently wish to go back in time and, for example, alter my own genetic potential, intra-uterine environment and socialisation (even if this made sense as a logical picture of how space-time works, the alterations would be those I desire, and my desires must still have come from somewhere).

It's just really hard to get a grip on what people want so much that is actually missing from the picture I've sketched. Even when sophisticated theories of what is missing are presented by philosophers, they always seem bizarre to me ... and a bit desperate.

Tom Clark said...

Russell: "t's just really hard to get a grip on what people want so much that is actually missing from the picture I've sketched. Even when sophisticated theories of what is missing are presented by philosophers, they always seem bizarre to me ... and a bit desperate."

I don't think it's that difficult to get a grip on what people want. They want to be, or have been taught that they are, little prime movers, little gods, that can take ultimate credit and blame for their choices. Libertarian free will flatters the self with the grandiose idea that it pulls itself out of the swamps of nothingness by its own hair, as Nietzsche put it. In the West, we are vastly affronted when we discover this ain't the case.

Darrick: Yes, Rand's Objectivism is built on the idea of the radically self-made self. The commitment to libertarian free will is the rather glaring fault of a philosophy that deeply prides itself (no coincidence!) on its supposedly hard-nosed, fact-based assessment of human nature, http://www.naturalism.org/libertar.htm#Round4 As you say, it's the right wing which gravitates toward this very convenient justification for social inequality and laissez-faire. On the other hand, liberals are more likely to accept the scientific debunking of contra-causal freedom.

Svlad Cjelli said...

To give an example of fatalism versus determinism that occasionally shows up in bad movies:
A person will die on March the 8th, hence he is hit by a speeding vehicle on that day.

The deterministic version is that a person gets hit by a speeding vehicle on March the 8th, hence he dies on that day.

Richard Wein said...

Russell wrote: E.g., I don't see why I'd want to be some sort of indeterministic system such that I could just as easily end up choosing to act in way X rather than way Y - not because way X better expresses my values, etc., but because my brain just indeterministically "goes" that way.

But I don't think that's what a proponent of "real" free will believes. He doesn't believe that his choices are random. He believes in an "I" that can choose freely. His choices are neither predetermined nor random but something else, even if he's unable to say what that something else could possibly be. You may say that that a third alternative is incomprehensible or even logically impossible, and I would be inclined to agree. But then I prefer to say that the notion of free will is incoherent or self-contradictory, rather than saying that I believe in some other sort of free will.

What I'm suggesting is a kind of error theory about free will discourse. I think it can be argued that in standard (or folk) usage the term "free will" is committed to indeterminism, in something like the way that standard moral discourse is committed to inescapability. If I'm right, then deterministic "free will" is not really free will, in something like the way that moral naturalist "moral facts" are not really moral facts.

At the very least, I would want to say that you're not using "free will" in its standard sense, but in a modified sense. I think this is why Jerry and others find your position confusing.

BTW I suspect that those who associate determinism with fatalism are using "fatalism" in a different sense from you. According to the SEP: "When argued for [by appeal to causal determinism] it is not now commonly referred to as “fatalism” at all...".

Russell Blackford said...

Okay but I find this idea of being prime movers incomprehensible. I don't see how even God could be a prime mover in that sense - not as long as he is supposed to be a personality with a structure of desires and so on. God is free, on the theist account, to act in accordance with his nature. But he won't act in some way that is not in accordance with his nature. He won't do evil, even though he could if he wanted to.

He is free to act however he wants, which is the most he could rationally ask for.

When we try to unpack what this "being a prime mover" really amounts to it always ends up being something ,that seems (at least to me) bizarre. I refer both to my time travel example, which is not an account that anyone seriously uses, of course, and accounts that some philosophers use quite seriously.

Obviously not everyone has my intutions, though - see my long debate on a thread here with Neil a few months back.

Richard, I don't have any difficulty using the expression "free will" because I think it actually is free will. My will is free in the only way that makes sense, and I think it cleaner and simpler to put that message out, and try to clear up confusion, rather than to around saying "We don't have free will but, um, we have all this other stuff that's pretty good and which I'll now spell out." I don't think what we have is some kind of second best that we have to settle for.

As I said, I'm not a fetishist about terminology, but nor do I think there's anything wrong with saying that compatibilism is an account of free will. It's not some consolation prize.

Russell Blackford said...

And I don't think that the standard sense of "free will" is as specific as "libertarian free will". Or maybe it is in America, perhaps affected somehow by all the religiosity there, but it's certainly not my life experience here in Australia.

Tom Clark said...

Russell: "I find this idea of being prime movers incomprehensible."

Agreed, but that doesn't prevent many folk, at least in the U.S., from vaguely imagining they are such things. It's imbibed with mother's milk as part of the radical individualism that's at the heart of the "American dream" (now being exposed as the American myth). I suspect many non-philosophers down under harbor similar intuitions, should you care to check in with them.