Jerry Coyne has taken me to task recently for the “position” I have taken on free will, and has challenged me to make a response. He has worked this theme rather assiduously over the last few weeks, but the real challenge lies in this post: One more go round on free will: Eric MacDonald’s take. He ends the go round with these words: “So, Eric, that’s my response. Cheers.” I take this as a challenge to make a response, even though, to be frank, I have never spent a great deal of time thinking about this issue, one that has dominated philosophy from the time of the Greeks, 2500 years ago. This may seem an unforgivable lacuna in my training — as it doubtless is — but the problem itself has always seemed to me to intractable to solution.
The main reason for this intractability lies, it seems to me, in its unverifiability, a problem that Jerry Coyne himself, even with the aid of Ceiling Cat, has failed to shake. You might say that, as a scientist, determinism is a “properly basic” principle (in Alvin Plantinga’s sense), and neither needs defence, nor can find any. This, it seems to me, should worry Jerry a lot more than it apparently does. As an article of scientific faith, you might almost say that Jerry is here fudging off by degrees into the realm of theology — Ceiling Cat help us! – a space normally occupied by religious believers.
Of course, this was just the reason for Strawson’s famous paper, “Freedom and Resentment,” for the reactive attitude of resentment seems to be in tension with the other requirement of our understanding of human action, that human actions are not free, and therefore, it would seem, we have no good reason to resent what has been done to us. If we are not free to choose, then we are not free to avoid causing the kinds of harm to which resentment seems an appropriate response.
It is only fair, I think, to begin with the fact that it is hard not to make a distinction between actions we perform as agents, and things that merely happen to us as a consequence of causal factors that we can, at least to a certain extent, discern. In his famous essay, “Freedom and Resentment,” Peter Strawson speaks of the fact that “people often decide to do things, really intend to do what they do, know just what they’re doing in doing it; the reasons they think they have for doing what they do, often really are their reasons and not their rationalizations.” (Freedom and Resentment and other essays, 3). He then goes on to say that these facts (if we accept them) are consistent with the determinist thesis.
But it is hard, I think, not to accept them. That’s why the problem of free will is so intransigent. We seem to have a subjective conviction that we do things for reasons, and not just because we were determined by antecedent causes to do them, and yet the universe seems also to be governed by iron laws of necessity, which leave no room for the reasons that we give. Thus Sam Harris can say, with Schopenhauer: Der Mensch kann was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will. (Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills — or he can do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants. ) So what Schopenhauer is saying, if I remember my Schopenhauer correctly, is that one can want or make choices, but one cannot choose to want or make choices, because that pertains to the noumenon, to that which we cannot in fact change or influence, since it is the underlying nature of reality. That’s why he speaks of the world as will and representation, Wille and Vorstellung. We may not be able to choose not to choose, but we do choose, for that is the very nature of being, even though Schopenhauer, like many scientists, as Harris doubtless rightly reads him, cannot find a role for choice in particular circumstances, and, as a consequence, Schopenhauer’s position seems to be a contradictory one, since he does find a role here for moral blame and praise, and administers it quite widely and with a great deal of passion too.
Take the upbringing of children, which Strawson introduces to put more meat on the bones of his argument. This is particularly apt, from my point of view, since I once had a philosophy of education class with a dyed-in-the-wool Skinnerian, who not only believed that we are all just a skinful of robotic conditioned responses, but thought about education in the same way. It was, I must tell you, an extraordinarily frustrating experience, since he would not give an inch so far as determinism was concerned. Education had nothing to do with enlarging the child’s vision, or the scope of his or her choices; it was, in fact, merely a matter of instilling, by means of shortcuts, a pattern of stimulus/response to help the child cope better with ranges of inputs. He conceived of children as input-response systems, much as Deep Blue is (or was) a sophisticated input-response system with myriads of possible responses to the various possible moves in a chess game. So there was no sense of enlarging a child’s freedom, but to make the child a more efficient robot, so that the consequence, in the end, should be a happier child, and later a happier, well-adjusted adult in a kind of robot utopia.
Now, this is not the usual consequence of arguments designed to show that free will is an illusion. Indeed, Jerry Coyne cannot himself help thinking that some people make the wrong choices, seriously wrong. That’s why he writes a blog entitled, eponymously, ”Why Evolution is True,” after the book of the same name, written to convince people that they are wrong. And he didn’t make the book into a series of stimulus patterns, but actually included in it sentences with meanings which, he believed, and I think believed rightly, should convince those who read it that the theory of evolution is not just a working hypothesis, but actually reflects the truth about the way that the world of life works.
Now, one thing that he missed in this process is the whole issue of meaning, and how remarkable it is that the evolutionary process actually produced animals that could understand and appreciate the power of language and meaning, which is (or at least may be), as theorists like Dawkins, Blackmore, Dennett, and others suggest, a second replicator, similar to, but completely different from the first replicator known as DNA. I don’t want to get involved here in the whole problem of memetics, and whether this really is a Darwinian replicator in the way that DNA is, although Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine is very compelling. This is still, so far as I know, not widely accepted. But what happens when animals become, not simple input-response mechanisms like Deep Blue or Ichnumonidae, but intentional systems with a narrative history? Whereas we may quite properly see Ichnumonidae as quite simple input-response systems which are hardwired to lay their eggs, as they do, in the living, paralysed bodies of caterpillars, it is much harder to see human beings in these terms.
The question of determinism, as I see it, does not have so much to do with contra-causal possibilities, since once something has been done, it scarcely makes a lot of sense to ask whether the agent could have done something quite different. Presumably, all the causes and influences that came to bear on the person at that time are such as to have produced exactly that result and none other. The question is whether the agent might have acted differently had he or she considered more thoroughly the possible alternatives that were open to choice at that time, and all their many ramifications and consequences. Redoing the same situation with the very same parameters, including the person’s limited survey of the alternatives, and inadequate consideration of the consequences of his action, will almost certainly produce the same action, not because that action was determined — though it certainly was determined by the influences then in play upon the person’s decisions — but because that action was only one of a range of possible actions he or she might have done, depending upon the thoroughness with which he or she had considered the alternatives to what he or she in the end decided to do. That may seem to be contra-causal in this sense, that the possibility of his having considered the alternatives and their consequences in more depth was not available to him at the time, and if that is so, then the question of freedom does ask the contra-causal question.
Is the agent the ultimate source of his or her actions? No, obviously not, since there is so much complexity at work in every action, even of the simplest sort, that it is hard to sort out what might be thought to be the agent’s contribution to the action itself. There is no ultimate responsibility of this sort, as though each time the agent acted, he or she acted as a result of never before considered reasons and powers which stand outside the causal chain. At each moment of action, a person stands within the chains of causes leading up to this moment, including, it may be, childhood influences, past bad decisions, present overpowering desires, and so complexly on.
Let’s take an example. This is a post in a blog which I began in early December 2010. It has been much more successful than I thought it might be, but I began it for a reason, or for a number of reasons, and there were probably other things that came to bear on my decision to start the blog of which I am not aware. I began the blog, in the first instance, because I had volunteered to manage the blog of Dying with Dignity (Canada), and the new Executive Director of Dying with Dignity decided to take down one of my posts without consulting me first. That was a form of censorship which I was not prepared to accept. Had she come to me with suggestions, that would have been one thing, but she didn’t. She took the post down peremptorily and without consultation. From some experience that I had had with her I did not think it likely that we would see eye to eye about this, and so I resigned from the blog as well as from the Board of Dying with Dignity.
That was, you might say, the precipitating cause of my starting a new blog, where I could call the shots myself, without being monitored by someone else whose understanding of the issues involved in advocacy for the right to die with dignity seemed to me to be sadly inadequate and largely misinformed. That perception was no doubt influenced by my experience with authority figures in my past, and what might be called (thank you Ophelia) my Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I have always had rather ambiguous relationships with authority figures, and do not respond well to dictums from on high that seem to me to be inadequate to justify interference in the ordinary occasions of my life.
But then, add to this my own sense of frustration that Dying with Dignity (Canada) was really heading nowhere, and that after years and years of existence it still had only about 1800 members across a country whose population is, while small, numbered in the millions, 70 percent or so of whom claim, in polls, that they would like to see laws governing assisted dying in force, and that it seemed to me that part of the reason for this was Dying with Dignity’s refusal to address, head on, the major issue facing advocates of assisted dying, namely, religion and its enormously powerful “pro-life” lobby — add in all this, and resigning from Dying with Dignity, especially since the post that was censored addressed some religious issues head on, seemed a reasonable thing to do, and starting a blog was, for one person, without any visible means of support, perhaps the only, if not the best, way, to get my message out. And so, weighing all these different factors, starting a blog seemed to be a reasonable thing to do, at least to test the waters to find out what the response might be.
Just as Jerry Coyne thought that writing a book and starting a blog was a good way to address issues of importance to him, so starting this blog and writing about religion and unbelief as well as about assisted dying, seemed to me one way of having some impact, at least more impact than I would have had, had I simply withdrawn into my little fortress, and called it a day. Now, having given those reasons, which, I think, fairly sum up many of the considerations which weighed with me before I took the plunge into WordPress, I wonder, could I have done any differently? Was that decision determined by the iron law of necessity, or was it, however much different causal factors impinged upon the making of the decision, reasonably thought to be a free decision on my part? The truth to me seems to be that, even if it could be explained by taking all the factors into account, including the reasons I just gave, I did choose to do this — that is, it was my choice — and that what I did was inexplicable apart from the reasons given, and what it means to give them. And that seems to me a freedom worth having. But, as I say, this is only a very tentative first step.