On Philosophy

May 21, 2009

Free Will And Quantum Physics

Filed under: Free Will — Peter @ 12:28 pm

An advocate of determinism can be supporting to one of two things. The first is a specific kind of physical laws, where each initial state has only a single possible successor state at any given future time. The second is the denial of a certain kind of free will. The first is philosophically irrelevant because it is a purely scientific matter concerning what the best mathematical model for describing observed events is. So it is the second that I care about. And with respect to the second some claim that quantum mechanics somehow refutes it. I of course am committed to them being wrong about that, because I am committed to the claim that philosophy is completely independent of scientific fact, which means that a scientific discovery can neither support nor refute a truly philosophical claim.

But before I can discuss that matter it is first necessary to talk a bit about what free will is. There are many definitions of free will. Some, including myself, take free will to be essentially the power of self-determination or self-causation. In other words, you are free if you are the primary cause of your own actions. This fits nicely with a physicalist view of the world, since in it you are identified with your brain, and it is obvious that your brain could be considered a primary cause of your actions. Such a view is a compatibilist view, because it entails that the question of whether we have free will is independent of whether the universe is deterministic.

Despite my inclinations that is not the definition of free will that I will be using here. Compatibilism in many ways is the antithesis of the determinism-indeterminism debate because it denies any significance to it. To really engage in that debate we need to make free will part of the stakes. So what is free will in the context of this debate? Many characterize it as “the ability to do otherwise”, but obviously that definition doesn’t say much since it could just as well be used to describe the self-determination view of free will. What is meant by this definition is that to be free one must have the ability to make a meaningful choice which is not fully determined by the preceding physical facts. In other words, one must have the ability to be an uncaused cause (interestingly giving people a property that was classically reserved for the divine).

Obviously in a Newtonian world-view there is no room for such a thing. Every event is caused and completely determined by preceding events. Which means that either the choices of individuals are determined in this way, making them un-free, or their choices are somehow made outside the physical world and cannot have any causal import. Either way free will is an impossibility. Quantum physics changes the Newtonian picture of the world. In it there appears to be room for randomness. Moreover it appears that this randomness is somehow connected to people, because observers are credited with collapsing the wave-function, which is what gives rise to it. And some take this to make room for the exercise of free will.

The first objection that could be raised against this leap in logic is that this is simply one interpretation of quantum mechanics. And it is a very problematic one. Most interpretations that try to overcome its problems either get rid of the collapse of the wave-function or get rid of the observer’s role in that collapse. But let’s be a charitable as we can and stick with this interpretation of quantum mechanics. Even so it still doesn’t give the supporter of free will what they want. It opens the door for the possibility of events that aren’t fully determined by preceding events, and that is part of what is required for free-will, but it doesn’t leave room for a meaningful choice to be behind it, which is the other part. Perhaps I should elaborate. In quantum mechanics it is certainly true that the collapse of the wave-function happens in a way that is not completely determined by preceding events. But the collapse is also completely random. The fact that the collapse is random means that we do not have any control over it, because that would be the opposite of random. In other words this randomness is not a place where choice can have an effect. But perhaps the observer’s role in sparking collapse is where their choice enters into the picture. Alas, this cannot be the case either: observers don’t have a choice about whether they cause the wave-function to collapse, they always cause it to collapse.

In summary: quantum mechanics refutes the first of the two claims “determinism” might be a label for, as described in the first paragraph. Namely it may, under certain interpretations, be incompatible with certain ways of mathematically modeling the universe. But it has no bearing on the second claim, namely the denial of effective uncaused choices. In fact I would go so far as to say that it is impossible for any scientific theory to lend credibility to the existence of free will, so defined. Because every theory in physics will model the world using laws. And the laws of physics will make predictions about events. Those predictions will be precise, in which case the events are completely determined, or they will be statistical, in which case the actual course of events will be random and independent of human choice. Either way there is no room for uncaused causes within the course of events described by such laws; an uncaused cause is necessarily outside of any such laws.

Everything I have said so far has been a negative claim; I have been arguing that an appeal to physics, even quantum physics, cannot justify this sort of free will. But in the process of doing so I have been playing that game which I despise so much, namely pretending that scientific findings have some bearing on this issue. I have been pretending they have some bearing to show that, even under all the assumptions made by the advocates of this sort of free will, even assuming it was Newtonian physics that was the biggest obstacle to this sort of free will (which it isn’t, since, again, philosophy is independent from scientific theories), it still cannot be justified by appeals to quantum physics. Now I am going to stop playing that game – I’m going to stop being a bad role model – and describe how this sort of free will can be argued for and against independently of scientific theories.

The question of free will is really one of how we choose understand the choices that we make and that others make, not the forces behind them (how we choose to constitute them). The forces behind them are irrelevant from a philosophical perspective. Because even if we live in a deterministic universe it doesn’t make any difference to us. I don’t know all the relevant physical facts about previous states of the universe – in fact I can’t know them – and thus I will never be in a position to be able to predict with complete accuracy the choices of other people. In other words, as far as I am able to know there will never be any contradiction in taking myself and others to have free will of the “uncaused cause” sort, even if such a thing is physically impossible. But neither does this mean that I must take them to have free will of this sort. Philosophically we have a choice, we are faced with the question: “what is the best way to conceive of the ability of ourselves and others to make choices?”

The “uncaused cause” conception of free will emphasizes the randomness and unpredictability of people’s choices. It emphasizes their “radical freedom”, their ability to make choices that go against everything that they have previously done and said. In contrast the “self-determination” conception emphasizes the connection between our free choices and responsibility. It emphasizes that when our choices are free that we have to own up to them. I can see both conceptions of free choice as being philosophically interesting. So described the “uncaused cause” conception of free will would fit nicely with a theory that was trying to encourage people to make radical choices and to fully exercise their freedom. Using this conception of free will is one way to emphasize to people that they are free to make a break with their past, their past choices, and their past conception of themselves. The “self-determination” conception of free will can be used to good effect in a theory where we are trying to motivate certain kinds of behavior on the basis of someone’s desire to see themselves as free. Kant’s ethics, specifically the Groundwork, is a good example of this. From the conception of ourselves as free agents we are supposed to concede that we are autonomous, and thus self-determining, and that the only way to be autonomous is to govern ourselves with reason.

Obviously it’s not my intention to develop theories based on either of these two conceptions of free will, or the many unnamed alternatives, here. The point is merely to demonstrate that it is possible to have a lively philosophical discussion about them without having to appeal to science. In fact I think that we are far better off without dragging science into it. Because as I have framed this possible debate it is one that is going to involve philosophical systems, as we evaluate different conceptions of human choice and free will based on how they are philosophically useful. I think that this is much more interesting than deriving philosophical consequences from something that is itself unphilosophical, but maybe that’s just me.

October 31, 2008

Guzen and Hitsuzen

Filed under: Free Will,The Good Life — Peter @ 11:35 pm

Let me begin this piece by introducing two technical terms, guzen and hitsuzen. Both are stolen from Japanese, and their translations come out to being something like coincidence or chance and fate or destiny, respectively. While I could simply repurpose the English terms “coincidence” and “fate” I think they are already too loaded with meaning, and thus that our intuitions about them are bound to get in the way. So, as an aid in avoiding confusion with our intuitive conceptual scheme, I introduce guzen and hitsuzen. By guzen I will designate things that happen by chance, not in the sense that occur probabilistically, but in the sense that they occur by happenstance and aren’t part of some larger scheme. Thus events that fall in the domain of guzen are meaningless, in the sense that that they are unconnected to other events and thus signify nothing beyond themselves, certainly not some larger scheme or goal. In contrast hitsuzen is the opposite of guzen. Events that fall under the domain of hitsuzen happen in accordance with some scheme, plan, or design. Thus hitsuzen is meaningful in exactly the way that guzen isn’t. Events that fall under hitsuzen can be understood as connected to other events within that scheme, and thus signify the scheme and its ends as a whole. To speak in philosophical terms for a moment: hitsuzen manifests teleology, i.e. goals or ends, while guzen does not.

Once the categories are defined the next question to consider is how to deploy them. Three possibilities immediately present themselves. First everything, or at least everything important might be hitsuzen, i.e. part of some larger plan. Secondly the world could be a mixture of hitsuzen and guzen. Finally, there may only be guzen; with any appearance of hitsuzen being simply a kind of delusion or illusion.

If everything, or everything significant, is hitsuzen then the natural question to ask is: what is the overarching plan? The obvious religious answer is that the overarching plan is a divine one. In fact a religious perspective would seem to necessitate that everything is hitsuzen. If god is omnipotent and interested in what happens in the world then the idea that some things go against god’s intent contradicts his supposed omnipotence (since omnipotence cannot be opposed). Or, if god falls short of being omnipotent because he is opposed by some equally powerful, but evil, divinity, then it would seem that everything is still hitsuzen, although whose plan an event is in accordance with becomes an open question. I don’t, however, think the implicature in the other direction holds; it is not necessary to have a religious perspective in order to believe that hitsuzen dominates. It is possible to look at the natural laws as a kind of hitsuzen, for example. More plausibly, some see large-scale events as being the work of historical, social, or evolutionary forces that are beyond the control of individuals. These forces can be seen as creating a kind of hitsuzen connecting major events.

Of course not everyone finds the idea of universal, or near universal, hitsuzen plausible. There is something undeniably compelling about seeing the natural world as being devoid of hitsuzen. Sure, there are natural laws that determine which events occur, but those laws are devoid of meaning. They don’t appear to stitch together the events into a plan. Meaning, it would seem, is a purely human construction. But the world is not composed simply of things bumping up against one another in the dark. People do exist, and people can impose meaning on the world. Thus under this view the world is naturally all guzen, but in this world of guzen people create hitsuzen though their choices. Naturally this view sparks further questions. What happens when the domains of hitsuzen generated by individual lives come into contact with each other? Do they come together to form a unified hitsuzen, one that structures society as a whole? Or do they conflict, reducing the areas where they rub up against each other to guzen again? Such questions are beyond the scope of this piece.

Finally, we are brought to the third possibility. Like the previous picture it accepts the idea that fundamentally the natural world is nothing more than guzen. However, it rejects the idea that people can create hitsuzen. After all, there is nothing ultimately supernatural about people, and so, if nature cannot create hitsuzen, neither can individuals. Of course people see themselves as living in a world of hitsuzen, but that hitsuzen is not real, it is all in the mind. And this view may seem vindicated when things don’t go as they should or events escape control. Such occurrences may seem to demonstrate that hitsuzen is really an illusion.

I advocate the idea that philosophical theories, such as the three that were just mentioned, are really philosophical perspectives, and that there isn’t a definitive answer about which is right and which is wrong; they can only be more or less useful. However, under that view I am obligated to say a bit about how they might be useful, to who, and why. But to do that an additional element needs to be introduced: the human element. Because it is not clear, at least under the first and third perspective, how people fit into the picture, and thus it isn’t clear what implications accepting one of them would have, either in terms of how we go about our business or live our lives. The missing human element, I think, is free will or free choice.

But is free human choice a manifestation of guzen or hitsuzen? The answer will depend on which perspective the question is asked in. The “obvious” answer is that hitsuzen excludes free will, that when events fit into a larger picture the individual is no longer free to choose. Certainly that seems like the kind of answer that would have to be given under the first perspective discussed, where most events are attributed to hitsuzen. Exactly what the significance of this is depends on the precise variation. If hitsuzen is essentially god’s plan then being deprived of free choice can be comforting, because it implies that really everything is directed towards some good end and that it is impossible for individuals to make mistakes or interfere with that end. Thus, even if you make a mistake and do something that appears wrong from a human perspective, it was really all part of hitsuzen, and in the long run will turn out to be good. Alternately, if everything is hitsuzen because of two or more competing divine plans, then there may be room for guzen, and thus free choice, where the two plans rub up against each other. Specifically, it could be the case that under one plan some event is supposed to occur but under the other it is supposed to be prevented. Then, the omnipotence of both agents canceling out, which occurs is guzen, and so might be affected by free human choice. Thus under this perspective free choice plays a small but crucial role in deciding between the two divine plans. Finally, if, under the last version of this perspective, the large-scale events are all directed by hitsuzen, then free choice, and guzen, remains only in the small things. This justifies the view that what is really important is the small things, since only over them do we have a measure of control.

Each of these variations will appeal to different people in different circumstances. The first, where there effective is no free human choice, may be appealing to those who feel powerless; the idea of a divine plan directing things may be comforting. Such a perspective may also be necessary for someone who is being destroyed by guilt, since it assures them that, in the long run, everything will turn out all right. Finally, the perspective may be useful to someone who has rejected conventional morality altogether, since it effectively justifies them doing whatever they please (since whatever they do must necessarily be part of the divine plan). The second variation, in contrast to the first, suits those who want to be empowered rather than disempowered. Some believe that for something to be meaningful it has to be meaningful in a grand way, to contribute to some humanity or universe spanning picture. And this perspective gives them just that, in the form of a role in deciding between divine plans. What could be more important than that? The third variation seems aimed at those who have come to realize how little their life means in the grand scheme of things and are depressed by it. Consider Bob the office worker. Bob realizes that he is nothing more than a cog in the machine at his work. He is easily replaceable. And, more distressingly, the company he works for isn’t even doing something really important. For a long time Bob had his own private ambitions to write the great American novel. However, after a series of disappointments, he has come to realize that he doesn’t have the necessary genius. To feel better about himself he tells himself that what becomes the great American novel is determined by social forces and luck; that it is outside of the control of individual people. Thus Bob comes to think of the world as dominated by hitsuzen; social forces, of which his company is part of, guide what happens, and Bob is simply swept along by them. Naturally this makes Bob unhappy. However, Bob comes to realize that not everything is controlled by these social forces. The details of Bob’s life, for example his choice to maintain a small garden out back, are his and his alone. Bob thus comes to believe that this is the most anyone could ask for; everyone is subject to hitsuzen when it comes to the big things, even the great American novelist. We can only control the small things, and thus to us they are what should really matter. And Bob is making the most out of the small things that he can through his garden. So Bob is leading the best life that can be lived, given the prevalence of hitsuzen.

However, under the second perspective the connection between free choice and hitsuzen is reversed. Instead of excluding free choice hitsuzen is most naturally understood as the consequence of free choice. Meaning is essentially tied to people, because only people have the kinds of goals and plans that can produce hitsuzen. And these goals are manifested through their free choices (in contrast to their unfree actions, which they are unable to direct towards their own ends). Thus, logically, through a series of free choices hitsuzen is imposed on the world. Now who would this perspective appeal to? Consider James. Unlike Bob, James is a successful author. James is still employed, in a loose sense, by other people, but he has the ability to decide what he wants to write for himself. Moreover James likes being an author; he finds fulfillment in being an author. Perhaps James seems better off than Bob (although I think that natural assumption is highly questionable), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t faced with his own set of issues. Like Bob, the question of what matters and why presents itself to James. James does not want to surrender his life to an all encompassing hitsuzen, as under the first perspective, because that would diminish what he thinks of as most important (his being an author), by subjugating it to some larger purpose. But yet he still wants to find meaning somewhere, in part to justify his being an author and spending so much effort on being an author. Thus this perspective is a perfect fit for James. It tells him that the things he has devoted much of his life to, his being an author, are a kind of hitsuzen, a personal kind of hitsuzen that is centered around the things that he is most devoted to.

Finally, under the third perspective, which says that everything is guzen, free choice can be associated either with guzen or hitsuzen. To associate free choice with hitsuzen under this perspective is to turn it into a kind of nihilism. Specifically it is to assert, as under the previous perspective discussed, that free choices would be a kind of imposition of hitsuzen on the world. However, this perspective denies that the world can manifest hitsuzen, and thus it denies the possibility of free choice, so conceived. And so, under this version of the perspective, there is nothing we can do but be moved by chance from one meaningless event to another. However, we don’t have to be so negative. Free choice could also be associated with guzen under this perspective. What that amounts to is an assertion of absolute freedom. If there is no hitsuzen, no structure, then the freedom we have is complete freedom; every choice can be made as if it was the first choice, independently of any other choices that we have made or will make. While that won’t appeal to Bob, who sees an obvious, and sometimes oppressive, hitsuzen and wants to be able to live well within it, or to James, whose life is centered around a few important things and wants to understand how they can be meaningful, it may suit John. Unlike Bob and James, John’s life is not strongly ordered. He does not keep one job for years on end. Instead John moves from job to job, and many of his jobs are unconventional. And, unlike James, he does not have a single dominating interest. Many things interest John, and even though he is most interested in playing the trombone now he might be big into painting next year. John has a different problem than Bob and James; John probably thinks that his life should have some meaning, but because of his nature to go from one thing to another it is hard for him to interpret his own life as describing some plan or being part of one. Adopting this third perspective allows John to give up those expectations; it’s not that John’s life is falling short by being meaningless, it’s that everything is meaningless. And, moreover, it also picks out John’s life as something special: under this perspective Bob and James are fooling themselves to an extent, to the extent that they see the world as containing hitsuzen. However, free choice is in the domain of guzen, and so their false belief in the existence of hitsuzen is blinding them to their own freedom. Bob doesn’t realize that he is free to leave his boring job for something else, and James won’t allow himself to see that he is free to give up being an author for something else, at any time, without suffering any loss. John, in contrast to those two, is making full use of his freedom.

Thus I have shown how at least one variation on each of the perspectives on guzen and hitsuzen presented may be attractive. But is that enough? My position on philosophy, discussed previously, is that philosophical perspectives are a kind of conceptual/intellectual tool and should be judged accordingly. And it would seem that we could draw a distinction between being attractive and being useful. If I have shown only how these perspectives may be attractive then I haven’t done enough. But I think I have done more than show that they can be attractive, I think I have shown how they can make life better, or at least more tolerable, and that their attractiveness results from that. The perspectives discussed help Bob, James, and John be satisfied with their own lives. And, since dissatisfaction with ones life is a problem, these perspectives are thus demonstrated to be useful, inasmuch as they help deal with that problem. And with that I rest my case.

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.

July 20, 2007

Ethical Intuitions And Free Will

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

It is claimed by some that we need free will in order for there to be such a thing as ethics. Without genuine free will, they say, it doesn’t make sense to label someone as good and evil given that they couldn’t have done anything else, because in a sense then their actions wouldn’t be their fault. Now this is not a claim that has gone unopposed. Many, myself included, think that we can make sense of moral responsibility even in a deterministic world, and that in the sense that matters free will is compatible with determinism. It is not my point though to make that argument again here. Instead I wish to attack directly the intuitions that give rise to the idea that free will is a necessary requirement for moral responsibility, namely the intuitions that simple devices and people acting because of an external compulsion aren’t responsible for their actions because they lack free will.

To address them we must first turn briefly to the point of making ethical judgments. Why do we say that someone’s actions were good or bad? Not just because they are good or bad surely; it is equally the case that people do or don’t live in the northern hemisphere, but we don’t obsess over such judgments like we do ethical judgments, nor do we share them with other people as if they were of great importance. We make ethical judgments then so as to influence the behavior of other people.* When we call a certain action wrong the point of calling it wrong is so that other people won’t act in the same way. Specifically we hope for people to consider whether their actions are right or wrong and then act so that their actions would be called right.

Which means that, given our intent in making moral judgments, there is no point in passing judgments in situations where no decision making process involving considerations of right and wrong could possibly have been involved, since we can’t influence future such situations with our judgments. And that means that we will be naturally disinclined to pass moral judgment in such situations, to say that such actions are right or wrong, because it serves no point. And this explains our strong intuition that actions that occur as a result of some compulsion, those that aren’t free, aren’t to be condemned. Of course this says nothing about whether they actually are exempt from being judged morally. Perhaps those compelled to act and unintelligent objects can be morally judged and perhaps they can’t (I would argue that they can’t, but for reasons that have nothing to do with free will).

So given such an explanation of our ethical intuitions in these cases we can’t use them to motivate the conclusion that free will is necessary for moral responsibility. As I have described them so far both explanations of our intuitions in these situations have equal weight, it is just as reasonable to explain our intuitions by saying that our intuitive ethical judgments depend on the existence of free will as to say that our intuitive ethical judgments are affected by the ability to deliberate on whether an action is ethical and to be influenced by such deliberations (something that I should note can occur in the absence of free will). But the second explanation of our intuitions is a better explanation, I claim, because it explains another set of our ethical intuitions as well, and thus is a superior explanation by virtue of explaining more. The additional intuitions that it explains are our intuitions that the actions of animals aren’t good or evil. When a lion kills a man it is unfortunate, but that doesn’t make the lion evil. And we can explain this by noting that the lion is not in a position to be affected by ethical deliberations, and like in those cases where it seems we lack a certain freedom, there is no point to calling the lion evil, as it won’t have any affect on the future actions of other lions. (Now some might try to give this a free will explanation by claiming that the lion lacks free will because it is controlled by its instincts. But this is a fallacious response, because it treats instinct, something that is part of the mind of the lion, as an external force that can be said to compel the lion. Which is as absurd as saying that people aren’t free because their reason occasionally compels them to pick one option over another. Both our reason and our instincts are part of us, they make us who we are.)

In any case, putting aside which is the better explanation for the moment, it is clear at least that we don’t need to invoke free will in the context of ethics. And free will serves no other purpose, without a connection to ethics it becomes a kind of theoretical epiphenomena. Now if we define free will in a way that is compatible with what we know about how the brain works (such as: free means from external influences) then it may turn out that we have such free will, independently of whether our other theories require it. But if we insist on defining free will as some kind of counterfactual ability (the ability to do otherwise, all things held equal) then we can simply dismiss it as a confused idea, without putting a hole in ethics.

* This isn’t to say that what is right is what we want other people to do, but that what we claim is right is what we want other people to do, and that the development of our intuitions is affected by that. What actually is right and wrong may be quite different, but we can’t just expect our ethical intuitions to track it, as there is no motivation to develop ethical intuitions where they don’t matter. (We can expect that when we do make intuitive judgments as to what is right and wrong that we will be correct at least half the time, but that is only because if we were less accurate than that it would flip the meaning of the words, which would have the effect of making us right at least slightly more than half the time. Some complications omitted.)

February 7, 2007

Born Free

Filed under: Free Will,Self — Peter @ 12:03 am

There is no uncontroversial definition of free will. Some define it as the ability to have chosen otherwise, and some define it as self-determination. But I think everyone can agree on what a free choice isn’t. An un-free choice is when some external agency compels you to make a certain decision, whether you are aware of that compulsion or not.

An obvious example of an un-free choice is when someone compels you to do something by threats. Of course it isn’t completely un-free, but, like many things, free choice comes in degrees, in proportion to the extent the external agency influences the choice made. Given your psychology there may have been only one choice you could have rationally made, or only one choice you could have made that you wouldn’t have felt guilty about. And the external forces in question made you take that course of action instead of a number of others that were available to you. But there is still some freedom here, because there was still the possibility of doing otherwise (from your point of view), and so you did have some influence on your final actions, it was just that this influence was overshadowed by the pressures of the situation.

An example of an action that is even less free is the act of perception. When you look at the world you simply see things in a certain way, a way that is determined by what is out there an not be your preferences. Of course there are abnormal situations where we hallucinate, or simply close our eyes and imagine seeing things, but there aren’t examples of normal perception. Another example of an un-free situations is the science fiction scenarios where you are the victim of mind control, where thoughts are forced upon you that you would not have otherwise thought, pushing you down a course of action you would not have otherwise taken.

Free will then is when the majority of the factors that influence your choice are under your control, or in other words, when no external agency is compelling the decision (un-un-free will). So in normal situations do we have free will, defined as un-un-free will? Well normally our decisions are caused primarily by our brains. Certainly external factors (perception) have some affect on what happens in the brain, but the dominant cause, by far, of both decisions and future brain states is our current brain state. Thus whether we have free will or not depends on how our selves are related to our physical brains.

If we are materialists then we either identify the self with the brain directly, or with the functional properties of the brain. In either case since I am identical with my brain, and my brain is the primary cause of my actions then I am the primary cause of my actions, and thus my actions are free (because they are not un-free). On the other hand if we are epiphenomenalists, who think that the brain is a separate mental substance that runs in parallel to the physical brain, without the mind causally influencing the brain, then we would lack free will, since the brain would be an external agency that was in fact the primary cause of our actions, not us. Other possibilities, such as a separate mental substance that interferes with the workings of the physical brain are, of course, ruled out by modern science.

That covers the classical possibilities. But when I speak of the mind I am speaking of the combination of both conscious and unconscious mind. I assume that our self is identical to this sum. But what if we identified the self only with the conscious mind? Many of our actions would then become un-free, since the details of my breathing, my typing, ect are all caused primarily by my unconscious mind. Sure, the conscious mind seems to be the cause of some actions, but it seems possible that many of the thoughts that we have consciously, which are the cause of the actions that we think we are consciously in control of, are themselves created and put into the conscious mind by the unconscious. If this were true it would make the conscious mind controlled by the unconscious, and thus would make us un-free. But, first of all, the details of how the conscious mind and unconscious mind interact have yet to be fully spelled out, and secondly it simply makes more sense to identify the self with the sum of the conscious and unconscious mind. Our memories, our disposition, and our beliefs are usually unconscious, brought only into consciousness when the situation calls for them. Since it is natural to define the self in terms of memories, disposition, beliefs, and so on, and not simply by the contents of the current conscious experience, it seems natural to say that the unconscious as well as the conscious is who we are.

Thus, since materialism is by far the most plausible theory about the mind, I conclude that we are free.

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