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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, March 20, 2012

Is free will an illusion?

Mainly just a placeholder post here, as I need to read the articles in this special issue of the Higher Education Chronicle. I have a copy of the new Sam Harris book on order (sigh, why doesn't anyone send me review copies of such books? grumble, grumble), and I've promised to review it for the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal when I've read it. I'll get back to the Chronicle's pieces and say something about them soon, if I can (!), but as always I agree that free will doesn't exist in the sense that Harris seems to have in mind when he claims that, well, free will doesn't exist.

But that doesn't mean that I think it's useful or accurate to say to someone, "You don't have free will" ... which to me at least connotes something false (that our deliberations and efforts are all futile, so we might as well adopt a passive, fatalistic attitude to life).

In short, I'm not at all convinced that "free will" means what Harris thinks it means; however, I'm open to an argument that the meaning of the term has become so confused (or perhaps was always so confused) that we should all drop it and use more specific terminology.

But anyway, I'll be interested in the arguments in the Chronicle piece and in the Sam Harris book. Maybe I'll be convinced by some of the arguments one way or another. Or maybe not. Meanwhile, have at the arguments for yourselves.

H/T Jerry Coyne, who has a good thread running (even if the computer science stuff on the thread is baffling to me).


Anonymous said...

From Tom Wolfe's essay "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died":

Since the late 1970s, in the Age of Wilson, college students have been heading into neuroscience in job lots. ...In the venerable field of academic philosophy, young faculty members are jumping ship in embarrassing numbers and shifting into neuroscience. They are heading for the laboratories. Why wrestle with Kant's God, Freedom, and Immortality when it is only a matter of time before neuroscience, probably through brain imaging, reveals the actual physical mechanism that sends these mental constructs, these illusions, synapsing up into the Broca's and Wernicke's areas of the brain?...

A hundred years ago those who worried about the death of God could console one another with the fact that they still had their own bright selves and their own inviolable souls for moral ballast and the marvels of modern science to chart the way. But what if, as seems likely, the greatest marvel of modern science turns out to be brain imaging? And what if, ten years from now, brain imaging has proved, beyond any doubt, that not only Edward O. Wilson but also the young generation are, in fact, correct?...

Thereupon, in the year 2006 or 2026, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: "The self is dead"—except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche I, he will probably say: "The soul is dead." He will say that he is merely bringing the news, the news of the greatest event of the millennium: "The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists." Unless the assurances of the Wilsons and the Dennetts and the Dawkinses also start rippling out, the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase "the total eclipse of all values" seem tame.

Jambe said...

Russell —

You keep bringing up the fatalist connotation as if it's an important problem or a significant stumbling block for acceptance of deterministic (or probabilistic) worldviews. Is it, though? My main problem here is that fatalism itself seems necessarily metaphysical, or "oughty". It is concerned with how we should behave — namely with the "futility" of actions given the lack of free will.

Firstly, fatalism doesn't logically follow from the suggestion that "we don't have free will". Secondly, even if it did, so what? Should a resigned, apathetic fatalism actually become commonplace (which strikes me as unlikely), would it significantly hamper our daily lives? I think our biological compulsions would keep us doing what we've been doing since we evolved.

I just don't see why you insist on focusing on such an (apparently) irrelevant canard.

The term "free will" seems equally meaningless regardless of whether it's used in a compatibilist or libertarian sense. Just to illustrate my point, Russell, could you describe, in your own words, what exactly you mean by "free will"? In lieu of going down that rabbit hole, could you perhaps comment on why you think the term is useful?

Russell Blackford said...

Jambe, my post actually casts doubt on whether the term is useful, so I won't try to defend the usefulness of the term! :D Really, it's a term that I never find myself using from day to day - it only comes up for me in conversations like this, or in discussions of free will theodicies.

I've evidently misled you about one thing, though. I'm not temperamentally resistant to determinism. Not because I think it implies fatalism, or for any other reason. If determinism, or something like it, is true, then so be it. In fact, I'm generally prepared to adopt determinism as a working assumption.

As for whether fatalism follows logically from "We don't have free will" ... well that really depends on the definition of free will, doesn't it? And the definition I am interested in is that of the ordinary person. If I say to an ordinary person, "You don't have free will" will that be heard by her as saying, in part, "Fatalism is true"? My best hunch is that it will be; it does contain that content in ordinary conversation.

Philosophers, scientists, etc., can stipulate some other meaning for their purposes, but as long as this is what an ordinary person is going to hear, then I think "You do not have free will", uttered in ordinary discourse, is actually false.

I think we'd need to conduct some complex experiments in social psychology to settle once and for all whether ordinary people do hear "You don't have free will" as containing, among its content, "Fatalism is true." Perhaps my hunch that it does is wrong. That hunch is based on wide reading and experience, but I'm not claiming it is based on scientific studies. But until such a time as the necessary studies prove me wrong, I'm going to say (provisionally and all that) that "You do not have free will" is the wrong thing to say to people.

But you won't see me going around saying, "You have free will!" That might also be misleading, though I still think that its main content for ordinary people is something true, i.e. "Your deliberations, efforts, etc., are not irrational and futile," or, "Your future is partly yours to shape."

Philosophers have got themselves into a rather different debate than any of the above - these days it all seems to turn on whether we have responsibility for our past actions, what that might actually mean, etc. I certainly don't think we have ultimate or total responsibility for those actions. But again, I think that these contemporary philosophers have lost sight of what mattered historically, and what matters to ordinary people. I.e. questions like: "Is it rational for me to engage in difficult deliberations and onerous efforts to improve my life, or is the outcome for me fated whatever I do?" "Is my future at least partly mine to shape, or not?"

However, I'm going to read the articles and some of the new books - certainly Sam's and maybe some of the others. I'm open to changing my mind. I've recently read Neil Levy's new book on the subject, which is difficult (very much written for other philosophers rather than a general educated audience) but good if you want to get into a rather technical philosophical treatment.

However, it's all about whether responsibility should be attributed to us - that is, as I say, what mainstream philosophers have mainly been focusing on, and he does do a good job of undermining the idea without even relying on determinism. However, nothing in it addresses the question of what an ordinary person hears when told, "You do not have free will." For the moment, my hunch is that they hear a different message from what philosophers and scientists are discussing.

Jambe said...

Thanks for the reply! I have a weird feeling about some of the phrases used there (especially "your future is partly yours to shape"). It has a very libertarian free will vibe to it. If the world is deterministic, the future is already "shaped", and it only appears to individuals to be shaped by them because of their perspective on the timeline (i.e. "I was the one who decided to go to Harvard, where I met my husband" or whatever).

In reality, if the world is deterministic, that person was Harvard and husband-bound the instant after the singularity. Does her future being "determined" mean her "choices" aren't consequential or important? No. Does it mean she has "free will" or that the future was somehow "shaped" or altered from some other possible future? No. Her "shaping" her future is no different (supposing determinism) than gravity "shaping" our solar system (apart from her individual perspective on it, of course). They're both just examples of the entropic unfurling of the universe, it's just that one has a conscious perspective on the unfurling and the other doesn't.

Really, all these phrases seem to be saying something like "it is peculiar to be a self-aware individual in a deterministic system". I'm much more comfortable with a phrase like that... but it is, I admit, just as fluffy/meaningless, ultimately, as "free will".

I was never particularly attached to the term "free will" and nor are the people I usually associate with, so my thoughts on the matter may well be abnormal! I find it all interesting to ponder, though.

Russell Blackford said...

Jambe, you can say, "The future was already shaped before I made my decision to X" if you like, if you take the total system of the world, including yourself, as being fully deterministic (and as I say I have no particular compunction about working with that model, even though we know that the system actually does have indeterministic events in it). That's fine.

But that's only because there's some causal history as to how I came to be as I am, with certain desires, values, beliefs, capacities, etc.

Instead of thinking about the past, consider my next decision. Will I, for example, go and get some chocolate from the cupboard (where I believe some chocolate is to be found) and eat it?

There really is a sense in which it's "up to me" (which is closer to what the Greeks originally talked about than the expression "free will") whether or not I do that. Sure, the structure of me, as a physical system, has been shaped by past causes. But that physical structure will now do all the stuff that we call deliberating, acting, putting in effort (even if it's only walking to the cupboard), etc. All that stuff is then causally consequential for the future (I get the chocolate and eat it!).

So I actually do produce outcomes through my deliberations, efforts, actions, etc., and those outcomes can, indeed, reflect my desires (e.g. for the chocolate), values, etc. (all of which can be treated as features of your neurology, if you like).

I am a complex physical thing, and when that thing goes through certain transformations, those are just the transformations that we call making a decision. If the decision reflects the desires and values of the this complex thing, rather than its desires and values being overborne by some external circumstance, then this thing has acted freely. Of course, it expresses its own nature, not some other nature, so there is some truth as to how it will act. But it could have acted otherwise. The reason it acted as it did includes the fact that its desires and values were what they were.

I can't clearly imagine what more anyone could want. When I try to get clear what is supposed to be missing from this picture - what is the "free will" that the complex physical thing that is me lacks - it seems to be something that can't be coherently described anyway, or at least something that is very mysterious.

Conversely, I do get to go through deliberations that can lead to decisions that reflect, and are partly caused by, what I am like, essentially my desire/value-set ... and can get me at least some of what I want. So people who claim that something is missing seem to me to be confused.

Svlad Cjelli said...

"Will" is fine enough alone, much like "chair". "Free" needs context.

Jambe said...

We're mostly on the same page! I have trouble with this, though:

Of course, it expresses its own nature, not some other nature, so there is some truth as to how it will act. But it could have acted otherwise. The reason it acted as it did includes the fact that its desires and values were what they were.

I see a very strong libertarian free will component in the "acting otherwise" phrase. If the particles of the universe are causally bound then, no, things can't "act otherwise." Each individual has its own discrete worldview, motivations, desires, etc, and that aggregate can lead down only one path. You were always going to choose the Volvo over the BMW and Audi, you were inevitably going to have steak au poivre instead of the haddock, etc ad nauseam.

There is some... ineffable quality about the present, certainly. And I think our whole discussion turns on that issue. But it's not easily put into words.

People often seem to describe reality and decision-making as if it's a sort of branching tree we're climbing, with arrays of choices represented as forks in the branches, and we chose which one to take at every intersection. From my point of view, though, it seems more like a connect-the-dots drawing, wherein we move from point to point, stopping to look for the next dot at each step.

Any individual may sit and "deliberate" but, again, if things are deterministic, the results of all deliberation are already fixed (that is to say, choices are fixed by the causal webs that lead up to them).

I'm not dogmatically attached to hard determinism, mind. It's just that I appreciate it in an intuitive, physical sense (hammer hits nail, nail is driven into wood) and I'm fairly analytic and introspective about relationships and so forth so I see cause and effect everywhere (often misidentified, hehe).

I do not know how quantum indeterminacy bubbles up into the macro scale we inhabit. If quantum switches are constantly flipped in our minds when we "deliberate" and we chose chocolate over vanilla (or whatever) because of such chaotic events... I'm fine with that. I'm honestly not very well-educated about the ramifications of quantum theory!

Alan Cooper said...

"I've recently read Neil Levy's new book on the subject, which is difficult (very much written for other philosophers rather than a general educated audience) but good if you want to get into a rather technical philosophical treatment.
However, it's all about whether responsibility should be attributed to us - that is, as I say, what mainstream philosophers have mainly been focusing on, and he does do a good job of undermining the idea without even relying on determinism. "

Is there any chance of seeing a more detailed review for the layperson? I would be particularly interested in how Levy undermines what I (and I suspect you) mean by the idea of responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Depends on the definition of 'you' i.e. the conscious or unconscious part of the brain, the human brain is still autonomous, even at the unconscious level.

The question of free will is best left to theologians and philosophers, I don't understand why scientists would consider the hypothesis.


Brad Peters said...

If we define free will as the property of a person who "is at least on some occasions able to do otherwise than what one did," it is unclear to me how this definition could be compatible with determinism: "the position that the past and the laws of nature together determine every moment - creating a unique future."

If there is no free will (as defined above) and determinism is true (as defined above), it also becomes unclear how we might hold people personally responsible for their actions.

Personally, I think the whole "illusion" nonsense has more to do with the limits of science than the legitimate absence of free will. I wrote my own essay on this on topic my webpage: www.modernpsychologist.ca