On Philosophy

December 24, 2007

What Is Free Will?

Filed under: Free Will — Peter @ 12:00 am

I hold that people who concern themselves over free will are probably chasing a phantom. In the contexts where it is invoked, namely in distinguishing us from the inanimate and mechanical world and in ethics, the concept of self-determination is sufficient. And we can wonder whether we really are self-determined, and put forward arguments that we are, without ever getting into deeper waters concerning the nature of the universe itself, and whether it leaves any room for “genuinely” free choice. But let’s put that aside. Let’s even put the nature of the universe itself to one side and ask what would constitute genuine free will, allowing ourselves to imagine any kind of natural laws that are necessary for it to exist. I suspect that, even without those usual restrictions, which come from trying to fit free will into some larger philosophical framework and the actual nature of the universe, it won’t be possible to come to a coherent understanding of what it is. This is because “genuine” free will, along with things such as immaterial minds and divine natures, seems like it is defined in only a negative way; people who insist on it don’t come out and say what exactly would give something genuine free will, or what it is like, they only say what it is not. Of course I cannot forbid negative definitions, but they leave too much open to be philosophically useful. Even if such things turn out to be possible we still wouldn’t know whether they existed or what effects they would have, because to make such judgments requires a positive description so that we can look for and find them, or evidence of them, and so confirm their existence and their effects. And because such negative definitions are naturally inferior to positive ones I suspect that they are only given when positive definitions are impossible because of something internally inconsistent with the idea itself.

But, anyways, back to the task at hand. Genuine free will is held up as requiring the ability to choose otherwise if events were to somehow replay themselves, and thus that human freedom is some special element that can’t be constrained. Indeed this is what distinguishes it from compatibilist accounts, which allow free will to exist in deterministic universes, and which proponents of genuine free will say don’t count for that very reason. This implies that what we may want when it comes to genuine freedom is for the mind not to be bound by any laws. But that is impossible, no matter what events transpire there is always some law that can be said to describe them. Even if we are dealing with a completely random series we can say there is a law that holds of it, which asserts that the probability of any particular event occurring is not affected by the preceding events. And if that law didn’t hold it would have to be the case that the probability of whether an event occurs or not is affected by the previous events, which is a law of a different sort. Thus being governed by some laws is simply inescapable, and the idea of a lawless domain is nonsensical (as the very description “lawless” is to say that it has a particular structure). Of course we can only say this because we are envisioning the laws as descriptions of the events that occur, not as some extra entities that push things around. Which is not to say that no one thinks of the laws of extra entities that do this pushing, and that there might not be worlds in which some things are pushed around by the law-entities while others move under their own power. While such worlds are possible we can simply deny that when we talk about laws we mean law-entities. Because obviously there is some regulation in how the law-entities interact with other things, and how they do their pushing. Thus there must be laws governing the law-entities. So, if we refused to think of laws as descriptions of events, and only as law-entities, there would have to be an infinite hierarchy of law-entities, which is rather absurd. Additionally, if all the defenders of genuine free will were worried about was law-entities pushing them around then the debate surrounding free will would have a substantially different tone. All the compatibilists would have to show is that there are no law-entities, which isn’t a hard argument to make. And, as a result, not only would we have free will, but so would everything else, even rocks, since nothing is being pushed around by law-entities. Because that is not the course that the debate takes I conclude that genuine free will does not consist in just a freedom from control by law-entities.

Well, perhaps what genuine free will requires then is not a freedom from laws, but for us to be governed only by statistical laws, such that every choice is at least possible for us. There is nothing inherently contradictory about this requirement, but it too seems to fall short of what those who care about genuine free will want. For example, we can conceive of universes that are genuinely indeterministic at a large scale, where coin flips really could go either way, and that if we let events run their course a second time the coin might yield the other result. Again this makes having free will too easy, because in such a universe every sequence of coin flips would thus embody free will, because every possible outcome was genuinely possible, even though some might be more likely than others. And since the actual world looks like it may not be deterministic at a fundamental level we might, again, conclude that rocks are free, since there is a non-zero chance that the rock could literally do anything and become anything, even though it is extremely likely that it will just sit there and be a rock (it must thus be freely choosing to be a rock most of the time).

So again we haven’t really uncovered what genuine free will consists in. And, to add some more constraints, I’ll throw in the fact that not every choice is actually open to us. We can make many choices but some psychological facts, such as sexual orientation, cannot be chosen. And many psychological studies have discovered statistical laws concerning the choices people actually make. So, if genuine free will is not to flat out contradict actual observed human nature, it must be compatible with those facts. One way that is not open for reconciling genuine free will with such facts is a retreat to the push-pull understanding of laws, where the laws are pushing things around. Under such a push-pull interpretation it could be claimed that the statistical nature of the laws is evidence of free will, because some percentage of the people have “resisted”, using their free will, the direction that the law was inclining them. This is flawed because these laws are not developed with any intent in mind; it is not the case that we have, by inspection, come up with some Newtonian like laws of psychology where every mind follows a fixed course, and that the statistical nature comes about as a result of deviations from that course. No, statistical laws are statistical by design, not as an unforeseen circumstance of human nature, and thus a person making either choice reflects complete obedience to those laws, so long as people as a whole make those choices in the proportions predicted by the law.

Given all those constraints, and the fact that simply adding indeterminacy might make even rocks free, I think the only open avenue for reasonably defining genuine free will must involve some appeal to the way minds work that makes them free. Here the obvious way to define what makes a mind free, at least in my opinion, is to say that it is free when it is not constrained to a single choice by forces external to it. But that simply identifies free will with self-determination, which I endorse, but which does not satisfy those who are looking for genuine free will. Unfortunately I have a hard time coming up with alternate definitions. We might simply stipulate that a mind is free if the added spice of indeterminacy is thrown in, but I can’t see how that makes any actual difference. (People worry that if we don’t have free will that we might be able to escape responsibility by saying that we didn’t have a choice and blaming physical law for our actions. But adding indeterminacy doesn’t help with that, we could then blame physical law plus the random nature of the universe for our actions.) Indeed I don’t see how any stipulation concerning the nature of the mind, or some way it operates, could combine with indeterminacy to yield genuine freedom in a way that actually makes a difference. Whatever conditions we stipulate the mind must meet, outside of being indeterministic, can occur in a deterministic mind. Indeed given any particular mind in an indeterministic universe there is some possible deterministic universe containing a mind that has exactly the same mental history as that indeterministic mind (simply consider a deterministic universe that develops like the indetermistic one, except that it contains a very complicated set of rules that force it to deterministically follow the same history that the indeterministic universe it is modeled after actually chose at random). For all intents and purposes these two minds are the same; indeed we couldn’t even distinguish between them expect from an impossible perspective where we can determine whether the universe is actually indeterminate or simply obeying, for example, a deterministic pseudo random number generator with a period longer than the amount of randomness it actually needs to generate. Thus I can’t think of a way to define genuine free will in which the ability to choose otherwise (which is what causes all the problems) meaningfully contributes. Thus I conclude that genuine free will is, if not impossible, at least empty. Whatever might hang on the concept would depend on what it means to be free above and beyond the ability to choose otherwise. And so the “genuine” part of genuine free will, the part that makes it supposedly incompatible with determinism, could be discarded with no loss, since the new version of free will is completely indistinguishable in all respects from the old one, at least as far as we are able to know.

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