On Free Will

The philosophical debate on whether or not humans have free will has been going on for thousands of years. In this blog post I do not intend to settle the debate once and for all. People much smarter than me have already tried. Here I will simply  expound upon my own personal thoughts behind the concepts of causality, determinism, and free will.

Much of this info is taken from the Information Philosopher website and the book Free Will Scandal which I encourage you to look at if you are interested in this topic.

First I think we need to define a couple of terms to get started.

Causality

Causality is the basic idea that all events have causes. When every event is caused completely by prior events and their causes, it leads to the idea of determinism. A causal chain links all events to earlier events in a limitless sequence.

Determinism

Determinism is the idea that everything that happens, including all human actions, are completely determined by prior events. There is only one possible future, and it is completely predictable in principle, most famously by Laplace’s Supreme Intelligent Demon, assuming perfect knowledge of the positions, velocities, and forces for all the atoms in the void.

Indeterminism

Indeterminism is the idea that some events are uncaused, specifically that they are random accidents with only probabilistic outcomes.

Libertarianism

Libertarianism is a school of thought that says humans are free, not only from physical determinism, but from all the other diverse forms of determinism. Libertarians believe that strict determinism and freedom are incompatible. Most libertarians in the past have been mind/body dualists who, following René Descartes, explained human freedom by a separate mind substance that somehow manages to act indeterministically in the physical world. Religious libertarians say that God has given man a gift of freedom.

Free Will

Free Will is sometimes called Freedom of Action. Libertarian Free Will includes the availability of alternative possibilities and the ability to have done otherwise. How you define this term is tricky, as there can be various interpretations of the term, and depending on these interpretations, you may end up confirming or denying free will.

Thoughts on Determinism

Lets take a look at determinism first. Do I think that determinism is true? Well, no. At least, not in the sense of  pre-determinism, the idea that the entire past (as well as the future) was determined at the origin of the universe.

I think that there is potentially such a thing as self-caused events, or at the very least, a probabilistically caused event. Why do I think this? Well essentially, it is based off my interpretation of quantum mechanics. Based on our modern conception of physics, the Laws of Nature are not deterministic. They are probabilistic due to the underlying quantum mechanics that has replaced classical mechanics as the proper description of the universe’s fundamental particles. Probability is the explanation for alternative possibilities and unpredictable uncaused causes.

I believe that adequate determinism it the most apt way to describe our universe. This is the idea that macroscopic objects are adequately determined in their motions, giving rise to the appearance of strict causal determinism. Where as microscopic objects show the probabilistic consequences of indeterminism, due to quantum mechanics. These probabilistic effects usually average out in large objects, leading to the illusion of strict causal physical determinism, the powerful idea of deterministic laws of nature.

Essentially I think that ontological randomness (true randomness) does indeed exist, at the very least, on the microscopic or quantum level.

Even if you deny the idea quantum mechanics implies ontological randomness, I have a simpler, albeit more naive argument for you. Take a look at the chains of causality. If you follow the chain of causality all the way back to the beginning you need to ask yourself the question, well what caused that beginning? What created the first link in the chain? What is the primary cause?

Really, for me, the only thing that makes sense here is that we have an uncaused cause or a self-causing cause. If you really wanted to, you could say that this self-causing cause is God. This is the idea behind Artistotle’s “prime mover” or “unmoved mover”. I take this a step further and say, why stop at one prime mover? Why can there not be more than one? Why limit it to the very beginning of the causal chain? We could have uncaused causes filtered throughout chains of causality. This would then lead back to the idea of ontological randomness.

The universe is adequately determined, essentially meaning that there are both factors of determinism and indeterminism at play here.

Thoughts on Free Will

So how does the idea of adequate determinism fit in with the idea of free will? Well this really depends on how we define free will. You can define it as the ability to have done otherwise. Meaning that if you reset reality back to the exact state it was 5 minutes ago, before you made the decision to choose between vanilla and chocolate ice cream, you could actually make a different choice here.

A hard determinist would say that no matter how many times you rewind the clock, you will always make the same choice. You will always choose chocolate. Due to adequate determinism I say that, if you do rewind the clock, there will be some times that you choose chocolate and other times that you choose vanilla. To most people this change in choice is simply random, and not actually a case of free will. If I just randomly choose one flavor over another, it cannot be said that my choice here is really free. Technically though, I would say that this fulfills the requirement of ‘being able to do otherwise’.

Think that the criticism of the ice cream example, saying ‘that isn’t really free’, is a valid criticism based on that specific idea of free will. However I do not think that this idea of free will  gets us anywhere, as it does not actually exist in any real sense. We have a much more plausible idea of free will that we use on a day to day basis. When you go to sign a legal contract, and the witness asks you, “are you signing this contract of your own free will?”, and you say “yes”, this is essentially what we mean by free will, that you are free from outside coercion.

More specifically I would define free will as essentially being reasons responsive. What does this mean? Reasons-Responsiveness describes an agent who has the kind of control needed to initiate or originate an action. Being “reasons-responsive” and taking ownership of the action means the agent can say the action was “up to me.”

To put it a little more simply, you could say it literally means that you are response to other reasons. For example, lets pretend that you plan to go on a bike ride outside to exercise. Your reasons for this is that riding your bike will help you burn calories and become healthier. You then hear on the news that there is going to be a heavy thunderstorm outside in 15 minutes. Due to this, you decide to not go on your bike ride, and instead stay inside. In this case you were responsive to other reasons as to whether you should ride your bike or not. Therefore it can be said in this case that you exercised your free will.

Lets take the same case but modify it a bit. Pretend that you now have a diabolical fitness instructor that has brainwashed you into thinking that you must always ride your bike outside no matter what. Even though you hear on the news that there is going to be a heavy thunderstorm outside in 15 minutes, you will still go outside and ride your bike regardless. In this case, you were not response to other reasons, and it cannot be said that you exercised your free will.

Some people might think of this idea of free will as a type of cop out, but for me, this is the only concept of free will that really makes sense, and it useful to us as humans. This concept of free will is common to those who embrace compatibilismCompatibilism essentially argues that determinism is compatible with human freedom. This allows us to take responsibility for  our actions, including credit for the good and blame for the bad.

My full view on the matter is more accurately described as that of comprehensive compatibilism. You can read a whole lot more about comprehensive compatibilism in this PDF on page 385. The following is a simplified definition:

Comprehensive compatibilism is the belief that free will can be reconciled both with adequate determinism and with indeterminism. Free will is not a metaphysical mystery or gift of God. It evolved from a natural biophysical property of all organisms. Comprehensive compatibilists believe that normally actions are adequately determined by deliberations prior to a decision, including one’s character and values, one’s feelings and desires, in short, one’s reasons and motives. They believe that free will is reasons responsive. Comprehensive compatibilists put limits on both determinism and indeterminism. Pure chance, irreducible randomness, or quantum indeterminacy in the two-stage model of free will is limited in the first stage to generating alternative possibilities. But also note that sometimes we can “deliberately” choose to act randomly, when there is no obvious reason to do one thing rather than another.  Comprehensive compatibilists believe that humans are free from strict physical determinism, or pre-determinism, and all the other diverse forms of determinism. They accept the existence of ontological chance, but believe that when chance is the direct and primary cause of actions, it precludes agent control and moral responsibility.

Essentially, it is a complex two stage model of free will. In the first stage, ontological randomness is able to generate additional possibilities. This can be simply expressed as additional thoughts popping into your head, or changes in your memories as you try to recall them in-order to make a decision. Ontological randomness also ends up being a core component of creativity in the human mind. Then in the second stage, we use our adequately determined will to choose from these potential possibilities, or potential reasons. This in the end, give us free will.

Final Thoughts

I hope you think that I have made a somewhat compelling case for comprehensive compatibilism. It has taken me much time, deliberation, research, and existential panic to decide that this conclusion makes sense to me.

I would also like to point out that the majority of modern day philosophers consider themselves to be compatibilists, and that indeed the ancient Stoic philosophers were  some of the earliest proponents of compatibilism.

I tried to keep the ideas in this post as simple as possible so that they might be accessible to people who are not as familiar with the free will debate. It is possible that in the process of keeping things simple, I have done a disservice to the complexity of certain ideas and viewpoints. Again I implore you to look into these ideas yourself, and see what conclusions you reach.

So, what is your take on free will?

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6 thoughts on “On Free Will

  1. I believe the paradox can be easily resolved, and that we can have both free will and determinism.

    The paradox arises when we mistakenly view causal inevitability as a constraint upon our freedom. It may seem so intuitively at first. But if we think about it, we will realize that what we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. We are clearly not constrained by reliable causation in any meaningful way. If it is not a constraint, then it is nothing that we need to be free from.

    Quite the opposite, all of our freedoms require reliable causation. Without reliable causation we cannot reliably cause any effect. That is, we are not free to do anything. Without reliable causation, the will is impotent to reliably accomplish any intent.

    The paradox arises when we replace the ordinary concept of free will with the irrational concept of “freedom from causation”. If we presume that all events have reliable causes, then there is no event that is ever “free” of causation. If we insist upon “freedom from causation” then we may as well remove the concept of “freedom” from our dictionaries.

    Once we abandon the irrational concept of “freedom from causation” we are left with ordinary free will, the ability to decide for ourselves what we will do, free from coercion or other undue influence.

    And we can return to ordinary determinism, the idea that every event is reliably caused. But this is not the infamous “hard” headed determinism, which bypasses humans as purposeful causal agents. To be true, determinism must include all forms of causation, including those choices we make according to our own purpose and our own reasons. And that put’s us back in the driver’s seat.

    Determinism should empower us, not enslave us. The reliable behavior of forces and objects allows us to learn how things work so that we can predict and even control certain events. Each of us happens to be one of those physical objects that are also intelligent living organisms. This means that our behavior cannot be predicted by physics, but only by the life and social sciences. We decide for ourselves what we will do according to our own purpose and our own reasons.

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    1. Well put Marvin. I certainly agree with you on the point that we must differentiate between the ordinary concept of free will and freedom from causation. I also agree, that the idea of freedom from causation as being a necessary requirement for free will does not make a lot of sense, and is seemingly irrational.

      I would however postulate that if Laplace’s supreme intelligent demon did indeed exist, and it knew the current state of the universe in its entirety along with all the laws that govern it, the demon would indeed be able to predict the behavior of humans to a large degree, but not unerringly (ontological randomness being a factor).

      So I would disagree on the point that our behavior cannot be predicted by physics, since as you said, we are also physical objects. Perhaps if you mean that a human’s limited understanding of physics, now and in the future, would not be able to predict human behavior without the help of the life and social sciences, then I would agree with you.

      Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

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      1. Oh, make no mistake, in a perfectly deterministic universe, everything is in theory predictable. But being able to predict the weather is entirely different from being able to control it. While Laplace’s daemon, or God, or your wife may be able to perfectly predict your choice, it remains you that is making the choice. As long as they neither coerce nor manipulate you, it is you that causally determines what you will do.

        Physics can explain how the apple came to fall on Newton’s head. But physics cannot explain how the apple ended up 200 miles away from the tree in Johnny’s lunchbox. That would require the life sciences and the social sciences.

        Each science conducts observations in its own domain, and physics does not conduct observations of purposeful conduct by humans or any other life form. Biology observes living organisms and tells us that each species behaves in ways that enable it to obtain what it needs to survive. The difference between the animate and the inanimate is that living organisms are motivated into action to accomplish a purpose: to survive, thrive, and reproduce.

        We are indeed physical objects, but we are also living organisms. If you drop me and a bowling ball off the tower of Pisa, we will both hit the ground at the same time. But the bowling ball will never build a tower or conduct an experiment. Properties emerge in living organisms that do not exist in the underlying atomic particles.

        Or, for example, a round rock will roll down a hill and remain there. But I will defy gravity walking up the hill to get to McDonalds.

        Another way to express this is the difference between computer hardware and software. The hardware can run any number of programs, but it is not a program. The software performs the logic using the hardware, but the software is not the hardware. And the same software can run on different computers. We transfer human learning from parent to child. Some learning is encoded in a book, existing separately from any person, and can be picked up by a person in the future and used to perform a meaningful task. Physics cannot read books.

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