About Me

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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, May 29, 2018

Responses to Chronicle of Higher Education articles on free will

(Republishing from Talking Philosophy (2012). I originally published this as a series of posts on the articles in the Chronicle. I've chopped off the very ending of the response to Bloom, which promised more posts. In the event - see the next post below on this blog - I wrote one more, replying to Jerry Coyne's rejoinder to my response to his Chronicle piece. Note that I'd now use slightly different language in places, but much of this still seems about right.)


It seems that everyone except me currently has a book about free will. As Jeremy Stangroom said when I made a similar remark on Twitter, if I had a new book about free will everyone else would have a new book about secularism. Well, so it appears … but I suppose that’s an illusion.
Be all that as it may, new books on free will or related topics have been (or soon will be) published by Sam Harris, Michael S. Gazzaniga, David Eagleman, Neil Levy, and Mathew Iredale – and there may well be others. This suddenly seems like a very hot topic, both within the academy and among a larger class of educated people.
By the way, the only book amongst this lot that I have yet read is Levy’s, which I found persuasive up to a point, although I do have the Harris book on order. Anyone who’d like to send me/get their publisher to send me review copies of the others is strongly encouraged.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has very recently published a batch of essays about free will – partly, it says, in response to the books by Harris, Gazanniga, and Eagleman – perhaps annoyingly, but not that surprisingly, philosophers Levy and Ireman are not mentioned. It’s not surprising for a number of reasons, including that their books are not aimed at a broad general audience. Or rather, Levy’s book is very much written for fellow philosophers, and more particularly those with some specialisation in this field (its approach is quite technical, which is not true of all Levy’s books), while Iredale’s forthcoming volume is from a relatively small academic press, even it’s written in a broadly accessible way. These books are not likely to receive heavy marketing. Still, it’s unfortunate that important new books on the topic by philosophers haven’t been picked up on by the Chronicle, of all places, mainly because they are too academic.
I’m planning, over the next few days, to look at the six articles in the Chronicle, taking them in order (which will mean starting with the contribution by Jerry Coyne, then, respectively, those of Alfred Mele, the aforementioned Gazzaniga, Hilary Bok, Owen D. Jones, and Paul Bloom).
Do I have a dog in this fight? Well, to an extent. I still tend to think of myself as a compatibilist, although I’ve increasingly come to wonder whether “free will talk” is actually very useful at all, one way or the other, in illuminating our situation. Perhaps everything that needs to be said can be said without actually using the expression “free will” – and perhaps both “You have free will!” and “You do not have free will!” convey false or misleading content, or are simply too unclear to convey anything very coherent at all to the average person. So I’ve become something of a sceptic about the whole concept, or, rather, the expression, while still thinking that there are useful things that can be said in the vicinity, perhaps in other language. Since these things include some of the content that affirmations that we have free will are apparently intended to convey, my scepticism is not so much about whether we have free will, whatever it is, as whether the expression “free will” is especially clear or useful.
But we’ll see. Although I do have a viewpoint that I start with, I’m open to being persuaded by all or any of these six articles. Join me over the next few days as I tackle them one at a time.

As I indicated yesterday, I am going to comment on the six pieces about free will published recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ll start with Jerry A. Coyne’s article entitled “You Don’t Have Free Will”.
Some preliminaries
This article contains points that I agree with (for example, that the expression “free will” is used in many ways or with many meanings) and points that I possibly agree with (for example, that we should drop free will talk). I do think it’s clear that many different definitions of “free will” are used, and I’m inclined to think that that, alone, might be a reason not to use the expression. It can mean that we are all just debating at cross-purposes.
At the same time, I wonder what the expression conveys to an ordinary person in ordinary discussion. Attempts to get that clear by the sort of conceptual analysis favoured by analytic philosophers don’t appear to me to have gone anywhere near settling this, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of empirical research on the subject. To an extent, I am relying on a hunch here, but the difficulty that philosophers have had, historically, in defining “free will” makes me wonder whether the meaning of the expression is clear at all, unless a meaning is actually stipulated for the purpose of debate. In that case, we might frequently be talking past each other when we use the term.
I also suspect that the term has various connotations that are troubling. It may be that when I say, “You have free will”, I at least connote something rather spooky that is likely to be false. At the same time, if I say, “You do not have free will”, I may at least connote certain fatalistic or passivist ideas that are also likely to be false. So perhaps, if I want to avoid misleading people, I should avoid saying either of those things. (But I’d like to see some more empirical research on what these statements, “You have free will” and “You do not have free will”, actually do connote to people.)
So I can agree with Professor Coyne that we might do best to avoid the term “free will” … and try, instead, to make whatever points need to be made with other language. At the same time, my reasons are, I think, a bit different from his.
Are compatibilists just saving face?
I do not agree with him when he says the following:
Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn’t exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices. In response, some philosophers — most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained — have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy.
I don’t think there is any reason at all to believe that; it strikes me as overly cynical. I can report, in my own case, that my past (and certainly not entirely buried) tendency towards compatibilism is not at all a face-saving device of this kind. It is a sincerely held position based on the view that we retain certain capacities even if our decisions are the product of a causally more-or-less deterministic process. Furthermore, reflection on what is important that reasonably falls within the ambit of the free will debate leads me to think that the capacities we retain are very important.
These capacities include: the ability to deliberate; the ability, more specifically, to deliberate about what I most value or desire in a situation; the ability to shape my own future to an extent, as a result of my choices; and, more generally, the ability to affect the future of my society and my world, to an extent, as a result of my choices. Some people – certain fatalists and passivists – seem to deny the latter abilities, at least.
Consider “soft determinism”, which is perhaps best regarded as a sub-set of compatibilism (if compatibilism is regarded as something like the view that free will and determinism are logically compatible whether or not determinism is actually true). Soft determinism might be interpreted as the claim that these fatalists and passivists are wrong, even though causal determinism is more-or-less correct. If that’s a plausible interpretation of what soft determinists are trying to say, then soft determinism seems like a position that is at least arguable and that people could hold sincerely. Once again, I see no reason to believe that people who hold these sorts of positions are insincere or trying to change the subject. So I reject this talk of “face-saving” and so on.
The “couldn’t have acted/chosen otherwise” argument
Still, is the Coyne position correct to this extent: We don’t have free will in the sense defined by the article?
The first problem is that the article relies on the claim that we live in a more-or-less deterministic world, including at the level of the brain. Things could get a bit complicated if it turns out that the brain functions in an indeterministic way (to some important degree), and I’m not at all sure that the actual science accomplished to date rules this out. However, the science may be suggestive, and in any event I’m not opposed to the claim, either temperamentally or philosophically, so in what follows I’ll assume its truth for the sake of argument. The claim seems plausible enough to me, at least, even if not definitively established. For the sake of argument, then, let’s assume that the brain (along with everything else) functions deterministically to whatever extent is needed for Professor Coyne’s argument to go through.
Does this rule out free will? Well, that’s going to depend on our definition of free will, and I’ve argued that this is unclear and that different definitions may be used sincerely and reasonably. Still, what if we use the idea of:
At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.
Even this causes problems. The idea of “could have chosen otherwise” (which some philosophers do, indeed, use as a definition of free will) is at best equivocal.
On one interpretation, to say that I could have chosen otherwise simply means that I would have been able to act differently if I’d wanted to. Say a child drowns in a pond in my close vicinity, and I stand by allowing this to happen. The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.
What more would I have needed to have been able to act otherwise? I was at the right place at the right time. I can swim. No special equipment that I lacked was actually needed … and so on. The parents are likely to reply that it’s not that I couldn’t have chosen to act otherwise, but that I merely didn’t want to act otherwise.
Surely there are many cases like this where the reason that I didn’t act otherwise was not any lack of capacity, equipment, being on the spot, etc., but merely that I didn’t want to act otherwise. The most salient thing determining how I acted was my desire-set. Leave everything else in place, but change my desire-set, and I would have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, it is true that I could have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, someone can rightly say to me: “It’s not that you couldn’t have acted otherwise; it’s that you didn’t want to.”
Suppose the tape is replayed. Suppose that determinism is sufficiently true that I end up making exactly the same decision for exactly the same reasons (I don’t want to get wet, I don’t like children and desire that as many as possible drown, or whatever my reasons might be). If determinism holds true to that extent (which, again, I am happy to stipulate), I’ll act in exactly the same way – speaking tenselessly, I don’t save the child. Professor Coyne says, and we’ll stipulate that he’s right: “free will means that your choice could have been different.”
But, Jerry, it could have been! It’s true that if the tape is replayed my choice will be the same. Putting it another way, it’s true that my choice wouldn’t be different if the tape were replayed. But the article is confusing wouldn’t with couldn’t. It’s a straightforward confusion of modality. As happened the first time, I could save the child in the perfectly familiar sense that I have whatever capacities, equipment, proximity, etc., are required. As happened the first time, the parents could and would rightly say to me, “It’s not that you couldn’t have; it’s that you didn’t want to.”
Now it’s true that my wants or values or goals, or whatever – my desire-set – may itself be determined causally. Indeed, I’m assuming throughout that this is so. I’m assuming (and I think this is reasonable, given the concessions I’ve made to causal determinism) that all these things are identical with states of my neurology that have a physical causal history. Perhaps that fact grounds some kind of argument against free will, if we imagine that free will involves some sort of ultimate capacity for self-creation. I agree that we don’t have free will – certainly on this picture – if “free will” means: “Free will all the way down.” Thus, on this picture, we don’t have free will of a kind that could be deployed in theodical arguments … my choices can be traced back eventually to the initial creative acts of God, if such exists.
But as long as the explanation as to why I didn’t act otherwise is just those states of my neurology – the ones that constitute my desire-set – the parents are quite right to complain that I could have chosen to do otherwise and saved their child. “You just didn’t want to,” they say, correctly. I was someone whose desire-set was such that I wouldn’t act otherwise in such circumstances, but I was not someone who couldn’t do so. Thus the “couldn’t act otherwise” argument, based on causal determinism, should not convince us that we lack free will. When I failed to save the child, I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise.

Alfred R. Mele’s recent article on free will in The Chronicle of Higher Education is short and to the point. First, Mele argues that most people do not have a conception of free will that involves anything obviously spooky, such as a non-physical soul. Second, he argues that arguments against free will that rely on Libet-style experiments are inconclusive. He may be right on both points, but this falls well short of vindicating free will (to be fair to him, all he concludes is that it’s too early to bet the farm on free will’s non-existence … a rather weak claim).
As to the first point, Mele refers to a simple study that he conducted (he suggests that there were more, but only offers us the one):
In one, I invited participants to imagine a scenario in which scientists had proved that everything in the universe is physical and that what we refer to as a “mind” is actually a brain at work. In this scenario, a man sees a $20 bill fall from a stranger’s pocket, considers returning it, and decides to keep it. Asked whether he had free will when he made that decision, 73 percent answer yes. This study suggests that a majority of people do not see having a nonphysical mind or soul as a requirement for free will.
Just a few points about this. First, even as reported only 73 per cent of participants in the study thought that free will is compatible with physicalism – that seems to be the essence of what they were asked. That’s an overwhelming majority, no doubt, but the fact remains that 27 per cent of people in the study apparently thought that free will is not compatible with physicalism. Furthermore, we are told nothing to assure us that the participants were a random sample of the population (any population you might consider relevant, whether it be the population of the local community where the study was conducted, the population of, say, the US, or the population of the English-speaking world). Was the study biased, for example, towards highly educated people, or more secular people, who might be more accepting of physicalism than the general population?
Thus, the study is suggestive, but it does not, at least as it’s reported, prove a great deal. It suggests that many people, perhaps a majority, think that free will is compatible with physicalism, and perhaps that it’s compatible with causal determinism (if we make an assumption that the two ideas tend to be closely linked in people’s minds). That’s important, in that the study at least provides data casting doubt on the view that “free will” just means, in the English language, something … well, something incompatible with physicalism and determinism. It provides one set of data, albeit not necessarily a very reliable one, that many people actually have a much more mundane conception of free will.
However, we don’t know enough to draw strong, specific conclusions about how the participants in the study approached the question they were asked. Did they answer quickly and intuitively, or did they think about it in a more theoretical way? Perhaps some thought it was sufficient that the person not handing back the $20 was able to deliberate, was not externally impeded or coerced, etc. Perhaps some thought it enough that nothing described in the scenario implied the truth of anything like fatalism (it is arguable that this is the issue that really bugs the folk … both now and historically). Perhaps, for all we know, the participants, or many of them, had rather confused conceptions of free will, involving a jumble of ideas, but at least the majority of them did not have a clear conception that “free will” just means (in part) the actions or deliberations of some kind of spooky non-material thing.
Furthermore, we should ask about the arguments of writers who insist that the meaning of “free will” – what the expression actually conveys in ordinary use in the English language – is the deliberation of some sort of non-material thing whose activity transcends any natural order of causation. How is this semantic claim grounded? What evidence do we have for it? Perhaps Mele’s little experiment is not decisive against the people who define “free will” in such ways, but their semantic claim doesn’t seem to have any more solid grounding. On the contrary, it generally seems to be an intuition based on the life experience of those making the claim, but that is hardly scientific and others may have very different life experiences. At the most it relies on highly indirect evidence, such as evidence that the folk tend to have a dualist theory of mind.
As for Mele’s point about how to interpret Libet-type experiments, this is an area where I hesitate to get involved. I don’t want to pretend to expertise that I lack. Still, I’ve never been convinced that the experiments prove much at all, and not for the sorts of reasons that Mele gives. While Mele argues about how to interpret the data, I wonder whether he isn’t chasing a mirage here. Even if he is correct about everything else, his arguments only seem to be relevant if he is trying to defend a position that we make decisions, or perhaps final decisions, entirely consciously – or at least that this happens in important cases. But, Libet aside, is that even remotely like the experience we actually have? While agonising conscious deliberations may play some kind of important role in reaching some of our decisions on difficult issues, we never seem to reach these decisions in an entirely conscious way.
Not surprisingly, therefore, courtroom advocates (barristers and trial lawyers) are trained to immerse themselves in the detailed evidence relating to a case, but not to think they can work out the case theory consciously. At least that’s my experience: they are told, in effect, to let the unconscious mind do the creative work, or much of it. I doubt that it’s different for other professions, irrespective of what practitioners are explicitly taught.
The way we reach factual conclusions, arrive at theories and understandings, make decisions about what to do next, and do so on, will generally, at some stage, involve an Aha! point (or more than one) where the answer (or some aspect of it) seems to “come to us” from the unconscious parts of our minds. Not only is this the actual phenomenology of decision-making, there are reasons to question whether we can coherently imagine or describe a situation in which every aspect of our decision-making is fully conscious – just try to do so! I defy you to. (Neil Levy has a 2005 article questioning whether the idea is even conceptually coherent, though I don’t know whether it represents his current view.)
A suitably deflated concept of free will may match up with the ideas of the folk, at least in a rough way, and may also be instantiated in the real world – e.g. it may be enough that fatalism is not true and/or that we are often able to make uncoerced decisions after an adequate time for deliberation (which may, in part, be conscious). If these are the sorts of things that the folk, or many of them, primarily have in mind when they think they have free will, then free will is not only compatible with physicalism and determinism. It also seems compatible with the role that is played by the unconscious mind. On the other hand, it may not be compatible with the role played by the unconscious mind if we always (or even typically) have unconscious desires, fears, etc., that are at odds with our consciously held values, and which we’d experience as alien if we knew about them.
In any event, no matter how much we fence and skirmish over how to interpret the Libet data, we are not going to be able to defend free will unless we have a conception of free will that allows a large role for the unconscious mind in our decision-making processes.

The third of the recent pieces on free will in The Chronicle of Higher Education is by Michael S. Gazzaniga. He (or perhaps a sub-editor or someone) has chosen to entitle this: “Free Will Is an Illusion, but You’re Still Responsible for Your Actions”.
An interesting feature of this one is the way its author dismisses the whole concept of free will as “without meaning” – asking rhetorically whether robots, ants, and chimpanzees have free will. The implication, I suppose, although Gazzaniga doesn’t quite spell this out, is that we don’t have free will, either, since we are sufficiently like these things for the purpose. He asks, still rhetorically, “Is there really something in all of these machines that needs to be free, and if so, from what?” He goes on to say that no one thing is in charge of us, according to modern neuroscience, “with its ever-increasing mechanistic understanding of how the brain enables mind”.
Something about this is attractive (too me, at least). I must say that a lot of free will talk – for example that in the work of religious apologists – strikes me as sanctimonious nonsense, often full of intellectual confusion. So why not cut through it all and simply abandon talk of free will once and for all?
Still, the argument Gazzanniga sketches in his piece is not very strong. I take it that what he is really getting at is that we are relevantly like other things – robots, ants, and chimpanzees – in that we are deterministic physical systems with no single centre of control from some kind of (non-physical?) commander of the whole thing. If the idea of free will seems silly for robots, ants, and chimpanzees, then it should damn well seem silly for human beings! So the thought seems to go. I say “deterministic physical systems” because at one point Gazzaniga refers, as if it’s important, to “brain determinism”; he tells us that this has no effect on personal responsibility, even though it (apparently) prevents us from having free will. (This will be news to those philosophers who actually define free will as having personal responsibility for our actions. But so it goes.)
But when Gazzaniga asks what robots, ants, and chimps need to be free from , that question does not easily translate to human beings. It is not just obvious that there is nothing that human beings need to be free from, even if our brains function deterministically. The fact remains that you and I are conscious beings with certain values that we’d consciously like to honour, certain desires that we’d consciously like to satisfy, certain goals or outcomes that we’d consciously like to achieve or bring about. We may also have various unconscious desires, etc., but for the moment it’s enough to observe that we have these conscious ones. It doesn’t matter if my current desire for a cup of hot chocolate is itself identical to or supervenient upon some aspect of my neurophysiology that undergoes causally deterministic transformations – that can’t take away from the fact that I have the desire. (Frustratingly, we ran out of hot chocolate here last night, and my desire not to go to the trouble of heading off to the supermarket for fresh supplies is currently more salient to me than my desire for the chocolate.)
My desire for hot chocolate right now is a rather weak and trivial one; however, there are other things that matter more to me, such as success in finishing the books that I’m working on at the moment and seeing them through to publication … and there are other things that matter to me even more, and which I seem to be able to influence, such as the happiness of various friends and loved ones. A robot has no such desires – it may be programmed to achieve certain goals, but it cannot consciously desire anything. In the absence of conscious desires, I don’t believe we can meaningfully talk about its possessing unconscious desires, either. If we talk about a robot having desires, this is just a metaphor or an instrumentally useful manner of speaking. Something similar applies, probably, to an ant. What about a chimpanzee? Well, we just don’t know enough about what it is like to be a chimpanzee, but the more like us chimpanzees are in possessing conscious desires, values, goals, a sense of the future, and the like, the less obvious it is that we can’t meaningfully talk about a chimp having free will. A very advanced chimp (or, if it comes to that, a very advanced robot or ant) with those cognitive characteristics might have much the same concerns about its choices and actions as we do. It is not obvious that that sort of chimp (or robot, or ant) would lack free will.
If I possess conscious desires, etc., and if you are capable of communicating with me (as you are), then you can reassure me that I am capable, at least in many cases, of acting in ways that reflect those desires, etc., together with my beliefs about the world. I will only be able to act in ways that fall within my physical and cognitive capacities, I concede, but within those limits (and doubtless others) I’ll be able to act on my desires (values, etc.). What is important to me is that my actions genuinely reflect my desires – that I am not, for example, being tricked or manipulated in some way that is inconsistent with this – and my choices and actions are not subject to onerous constraints above and beyond the limits imposed by my ordinary capacities. E.g., I’m not in jail or acting with a gun at my head.
I want to be able to act in a way that expresses my desires, is not the result of some kind of trickery, coercion or compulsion by others, and is the product of having at least some opportunity to deliberate: I don’t want to act without appropriate time (appropriateness being a highly flexible, pluralist, and case-specific concept, however) to work out what I want to do. This is not intended to be a complete or rigorous list, but it’s a reasonable sketch of what I and others want we say that we want to be able to act “of our own free will”. A life in which we typically act of our own free will is one that we generally aspire to.
I’ve glossed over the issue of capacities here, because it adds a complication. None of us is omnipotent, and most of us could, conceivably, be far more capable even within a normal human range. But we are generally fairly accepting of mere limitations in our capacities, at least if they are not massive compared to those of the people around us, or massively inadequate to what we regard as living a worthwhile life. Inadequate capacities to satisfy our desires are not usually what we have in mind when we discuss free will, though the level of my capacities can indeed affect my options, affect my vulnerability to coercion, etc. Questions about free will and questions about capacities cannot be kept completely separate.
There’s another thing in the vicinity that we seem to want, and this does seem to worry a lot of people. We want to live in a world where our choices and actions have some significant efficacy. Conversely we don’t want to live in a world where, perhaps as a result of the operations of Fate, or Moira, or some other overriding principle or being or force, certain outcomes that are important to us are disconnected from our choices and acts. Some things, such as my death on a certain day, might be imagined to be unavoidably fated – independently of whatever choices I make or what I actually do. In a world like that, it makes intuitive sense to say that I am not free. (I’d like to see some concerted research aimed at testing whether the folk think free will exists in such a world.) Perhaps, on this picture, I can will certain things, all right, but my will has no efficacy (in important respects) because something overrides its effects. So I might as well (in those important respects) give up. This is a counsel to … if not to despair, then to resignation and passivism, or alternatively to imprudence or recklessness.
If someone forgets that these are the sorts of concerns that free will talk is mainly about, he or she may imagine that it is possible to dismiss free will with references to causal determinism at the level of our brains, and with analogies to robots, ants, and the like. But history, experience, and the few empirical studies conducted so far suggest that the concerns I’ve described are, in fact, the sorts of things that bother people. Free will talk may, for all that be confused and misleading, and perhaps we could eventually replace it with more precise kinds of talk that eliminate the expression “free will” altogether – but it does not follow that this sort of talk is, meanwhile, just without any meaning or usefulness.
We come to the fourth of the six pieces in the recent batch in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Hilary Bok’s “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience.”
Before we get to that, recall that I’ve confessed to compatibilist leanings – but on the other hand, I’ve also wondered whether “free will” might be a term that we ought to abandon. I don’t say the latter because I think any particular conception of free will is incoherent, but I do think that the term is vague (vagueness is a very different thing from incoherence) and potentially confusing or misleading. So this series of posts is not from somebody who especially wants to go around saying to people, “You have free will!” … or from somebody who is especially keen to defend others who talk like that. On the other hand, people who go around saying, “You do not have free will!” also run the risk of conveying something that is misleading (e.g. that we never act freely or that there is some truth in fatalism). The safest thing to do, arguably, is forget free will talk, and try to make more precise claims about what abilities we do and do not have.
But with all that said, I think there’s much to agree with in Bok’s essay. She is surely right that these questions cannot be settled merely by establishing that determinism rules at the level of the brain (I’ve been assuming throughout my posts that it does). Although this may not be fully established, I’m happy to assume that it’s true – I’m not opposed to the idea temperamentally, have no contrary philosophical commitments, and think that the science is suggesting that the brain probably does operate deterministically, with any indeterministic quantum effects washing out on its scale. Even if this last bit is wrong, I’ll assume it for the sake of argument, as it is invoked against some of the points I’ve been making lately.
Even if we assume that determinism rules (at the required level), Bok seems to be correct in saying the following:
With the exception of those who work within a religious tradition, philosophers tend to be naturalists who see individual mental events as identical with events in our brains. When we say that a person’s choice caused her action, we do not mean that she swooped in from outside nature and altered her destiny; we mean that an event in her brain caused her to act. On this view, the claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it.
For compatibilists, therefore, the problem of free will is not that neuroscience reveals our choices as superfluous. It does not. Nor do compatibilists deny that our choices cause us to do things. The problem of free will for compatibilists is not to preserve a role for deliberation and choice in the face of explanations that threaten them with elimination; it is to explain how, once our minds and our choices have been thoroughly naturalized, we can provide an adequate account of human agency and freedom.
How can we reconcile the idea that our choices have scientific explanations with the idea that we are free? Determinism does not relieve us of the need to make decisions. And when we make decisions, we need some conception of the alternatives available to us. If we define an alternative as an action that is physically possible, then determinism implies that we never have more than one alternative. But since we cannot know in advance what we will choose, if we define “alternative” this way, we will never know what our alternatives are. For the purposes of deciding what to do, we need to define our alternatives more broadly: as those actions that we would perform if we chose them.
Quite so, and it won’t do to accuse compatibilists of being wrong because, supposedly, “free will” just means something like indeterminism at the level of the brain, or some mysterious ability of human beings to step out of what is otherwise a deterministic causal order. Most philosophers don’t mean anything like this when they talk about “free will”, and it’s far from clear that the folk do either – the evidence is ambiguous at best, and it by no means confirms that this is how free will is generally understood in the English language, as spoken by ordinary people (not philosophers or theologians). Someone who claims that we don’t have free will, while defining “free will” in such a manner, is merely knocking down a straw man.
If anything, Bok undersells the compatibilist case. She says:
… when we make decisions, we need some conception of the alternatives available to us. If we define an alternative as an action that is physically possible, then determinism implies that we never have more than one alternative. But since we cannot know in advance what we will choose, if we define “alternative” this way, we will never know what our alternatives are. For the purposes of deciding what to do, we need to define our alternatives more broadly: as those actions that we would perform if we chose them.
A person whose actions depend on her choices has alternatives; if she is, in addition, capable of stepping back from her existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among them, then, according to compatibilists, she is free.
Whether this view provides an adequate account of free will is not a problem neuroscience can solve. Neuroscience can explain what happens in our brains: how we perceive and think, how we weigh conflicting considerations and make choices, and so forth. But the question of whether freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with free will is not a scientific one, and we should not expect scientists to answer it.
Whatever their views on the compatibility of freedom and determinism, most philosophers agree that someone can be free only if she can make a reasoned choice among various alternatives, and act on her decision; in short, only if she has the capacity for self-government.
Perhaps, but an unnecessarily anti-Humean theory of motivation may be lurking in the background here (as may an unnecessarily restricted understanding of science). It’s not clear to me that compatibilists should require that we use reason in any strong way to choose among alternatives that are available to us. I don’t see the need, in all cases, to step back from our existing motivations and habits.
In many cases, surely, we can make a decision that the folk would count as “free” even if we don’t get much distance at all from our own psychologies. What if I calculate the expected results (weighted by probabilities) of alternatives available to me, perhaps working out how the alternatives will tend to advance or set back various conflicting values that I have – but I make no great attempt to work out what weights I put on these conflicting values? What if I merely let my unconscious mind weight them? What if I let it do even more?
Surely this sort of thing happens all the time, and there is nothing odd or worrying about it. I don’t see why this, without more, can’t be a situation where I act of my own free will, and perhaps with free will: if my choice to act in a certain way reflects my values, or desire-set, and if the action is efficacious to some extent, or is at least reasonably likely to be, that’s a long way toward saying that my choice was an example of free will, as understood in ordinary language. If we’re going to use free will talk at all, I don’t see why we should reserve it for situations where the agent gets involved in a whole lot of conscious reasoning or self-scrutiny. After all, we frequently use the phrase, “she acted of her own free will” in cases where nothing so high falutin’ is involved.
We come to the fifth of six pieces about free will recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education – this time from Owen D. Jones, who ponders the relationship between constraints on our volition and the operation of the law. Jones has a forthcoming book, Law and Neuroscience, which I look forward to reading when it appears in 2013.
While Jones’s project certainly sounds interesting, my feeling is that the article doesn’t take determinism with sufficient seriousness. Perhaps this is partly to do with restrictions of space, but Jones never really responds to arguments based on comprehensive causal determinism. He acknowledges that there are constraints on our choices, but does not appear to consider the possibility that our choices are absolutely determined by the states of our brains at the particular times when choices take place. Consider, for example, this passage:
Evolutionary proc­esses pre-equip brains in all species with some information-processing predispositions. Generally speaking, these increase the probabilities that some combinations of environmental circumstances—immediate physical and social factors, contexts, and the like—will yield one subset of possible (and generally nondisastrous) behaviors rather than others.
Okay, so the idea here is that the range of choices available to creatures like us – with an evolutionary history, some kind of evolved species psychology, plus individual socialisation, plus simply the obvious constraints of circumstances – is rather limited. In any situation involving a human choice, there is only a narrow range of possibilities as to how she will end up acting. Actually, I doubt that anyone denies this if I express it in such general and vague terms.
However, current attacks on free will go much further. In essence, they suggest that the process of choosing is an illusion. This is supposedly because there is only one way that I can choose in any situation (at any three-dimensional cross-section of space-time, we might say). I must deliberate, if I do so at all, and choose in the way that corresponds to (or correlates with, or is identical to) a transformation in my brain state that is directed by exceptionless scientific laws. It’s not just that my possible choices will be constrained within certain boundaries established by human nature and personal nurture. Rather, there is one way that I will choose, and therefore only one way that I can choose. If it turned out that I (tenselessly) choose in some other way, then I have violated the laws of physics – something that I obviously cannot do. Thus, I have no power to make genuine choices, and free will is an illusion.
While the above is not a valid argument (it is relying on equivocations about the meaning of “can” and/or conflating the meanings of “can” and “will”), talk of constrained choices from evolutionary psychology and the like don’t do the apparent force of the argument full justice. In Jones’s defence, however, that is presumably not his intention. Perhaps he could say that he does not have to deal with every argument that is currently in the Zeitgeist, irrespective of how relevant or otherwise it might be to his own project. Still, I can imagine a lot of people who are interested in current debates about free will claiming that Jones misses the point … or at least that he misses their point.
Conversely, I can well imagine many people thinking that arguments based on causal determinism are missing the point. After all, philosophers have been prepared to entertain the possibility of causal determinism for a long time now – ever since classical antiquity. This is not a new idea to us at all. A common view, and one that I tend to share, is that arguments against free will based merely on causal determinism at the level of the brain, not on something more specific such as Freudian accounts of how far our own desires are supposedly alien to us, are either addressing the wrong question or are simply invalid.

Paul Bloom’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece certainly has the virtue of raising the issues – or some of them – starkly. Bloom outright denies that we have free will, though he eventually moves on to describe a position that tends to undermine this very forthright claim. First, the stark denial:
Common sense tells us that we exist outside of the material world—we are connected to our bodies and our brains, but we are not ourselves material beings, and so we can act in ways that are exempt from physical law. For every decision we make—from leaning over for a first kiss, to saying “no” when asked if we want fries with that—our actions are not determined and not random, but something else, something we describe as chosen.
This is what many call free will, and most scientists and philosophers agree that it is an illusion. Our actions are in fact literally predestined, determined by the laws of physics, the state of the universe, long before we were born, and, perhaps, by random events at the quantum level. We chose none of this, and so free will does not exist.
This most definitely has the virtue of clarity. For Bloom, “free will” means a rather spooky ability to act in ways that are exempt from physical laws and physical causes. We don’t have this ability, Bloom claims (and I, for one, don’t doubt him). Therefore, free will does not exist.
And yet, something exists, Bloom thinks, something that lies in the conceptual vicinity of free will (if he doesn’t think it does, then why bring it up in such a context?). The “something” is a set of capacities that we do have:
Many scholars do draw profound implications from the rejection of free will. Some neuroscientists claim that it entails giving up on the notion of moral responsibility. There is no actual distinction, they argue, between someone who is violent because of a large tumor in his brain and a neurologically normal premeditated killer—both are influenced by forces beyond their control, after all—and we should revise the criminal system accordingly. Other researchers connect the denial of free will with the view that conscious deliberation is impotent. We are mindless robots, influenced by unconscious motivations from within and subtle environmental cues from without; these entirely determine what we think and do. To claim that people consciously mull over decisions and think about arguments is to be in the grips of a prescientific conception of human nature.
I think those claims are mistaken. In any case, none of them follow from determinism. Most of all, the deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought.
He concludes, tellingly: “It is wrong, then, to think that one can escape from the world of physical causation—but it is not wrong to think that one can think, that we can mull over arguments, weigh the options, and sometimes come to a conclusion. After all, what are you doing now?”
Thus, Bloom denies that we possess free will – which he imagines to be something spooky – while at the same time claiming (surprise!) that conscious deliberation and rational thought are real, that conscious deliberation is not impotent, and that we need not give up on the notion of moral responsibility. Frankly, if this is a denial of free will, then denial of free will is proving to be a very thin doctrine. It means only denying the existence of something metaphysically extravagant (and arguably not even coherent) that many of us were not in the slightest inclined to believe existed in the first place. Conversely, it does not mean denying anything that we might fear is illusory when told that we lack free will: in particular, that our desires and deliberations are efficacious in bringing about our choices, which can, at least in a large class of cases, be efficacious in shaping our lives and aspects of the world that we live in.
In fact, Bloom is not denying the existence of free will, as most philosophers understand it, at all. Nor is he necessarily denying the existence of free will as most ordinary people understand it, given what experimental data we have so far on how the folk actually imagine free will.
I don’t deny that some people might think of a spooky capacity to defy physical laws when they think of free will. This does seem to be one conception of free will that is Out There in the Zeitgeist, and some theologians seem to trade on it in various ways. But it is not evident that it is either the philosophical conception of free will or the most common conception among the folk. It’s actually difficult to see what it could add to my life if I had this spooky capacity: even if I could defy physical laws, free will does not make much sense unless it involves the ability to act on my own desires and viewpoint. But there will always be a story as to how I came to have the desire-set and viewpoint that I actually have (even if a god created me with these a few seconds ago), and that story will never be one in which I chose my collection of desires and beliefs ab initio. Even God, if he existed, could never do that.
If I chose my current desire-set, my choice as to what desire-set I wanted must have been based on an earlier desire-set that I had, and this is not the sort of thing that can go on in an endless sequence. So even an ability to defy physical laws would not give me a free will that is ultimate, or goes all the way down. Ultimate, or all-the-way-down, free will is ruled out for separate reasons. So how, exactly, do I end up being any more free, even if I have a power to violate the laws of physics? It’s very strange.
Bloom concedes that we have certain things that we want, such as the ability to deliberate, and for the actions based on our deliberations to be (to an extent) efficacious. The power that he denies us (and I agree that we have no such power) does not get us a deeper freedom, and really does not (as far as I can see) make sense at all. I’ll settle for the mundane, yet impressive, capacities that Bloom grants me … and I suggest that you do likewise.
Finally, there might still be independent worries about whether we can hold people (fully?) morally responsible for their actions. But that depends on different considerations. These worries would arise whether we had the power to violate physical laws or not, as long as the observable facts about, say, human socialisation remain true. Once again, there is always a causal story as to how I ended up with the desire-set that I have … and how some other, perhaps less pleasant, person ended up with her desire-set. That fact might shake some of our notions of freedom, desert, and responsibility, but it has little to do with the kind of causal determinism that Bloom evidently has in mind.

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