More on Free Will
[My apologies to those who do not find these philosophical niceties either interesting or even, perhaps, intelligible.]
After reading Sam Harris’s book Free Will, I quickly put up a post about it while it was still fresh in my mind. None of the comments really surprised me. Most (?) of them took me to task for beliefs which I do not hold. First, I do not claim that there is contra-causal free will, in the sense that free will can be thought of as a power within us that can overturn the causal precedents of action. I do not even make claims about the existence of selves, as unitary entities, though it is not clear to me that Sam Harris does not support such a belief. Nor would I want to claim that more will not be discovered about what it is that we call free will, and how it operates to produce decisions and choices.
Harris (I have been accused of condescending to him by using his first name, though I think it is probably a response to the chatty character of his writing style) seems to think that the only kind of free will worth having is contra-causal free will, which is, he says, what we think of, intuitively, as free will. I’m not even sure that this is correct, since most of us, I believe, have a sense that our present choices are circumscribed by choices already made, as well as other restrictions placed on our choices, limits that we are sometimes acutely aware of. How could we not have such a sense? After all, the fact that I did not concentrate on maths in school or university means that there are many choices that I simply cannot make now. I am also aware that many of my desires and preferences, expressed over many years, severely limit the kinds of choices I am likely to make. I am even aware, of course, that some of these are a result of my upbringing and childhood socialisation; and very conscious that some of my choices were constrained by a (at the time largely unconscious) desire to upset my parents who, in many ways, had made my childhood an unhappy affair.
These limitations upon the field of our choices would, I suggest, become obvious to most people if they were to stop and think for a moment about the matter. Nor, I think, do we have a sense that we are the ultimate uncaused originators of our actions and choices. This is a philosophical — or more likely a theological — predilection, especially one deriving from monotheistic religious belief, and the sense of ultimate responsibility that this has given rise to. It has even been thought that we are ultimately responsible notwithstanding the fact that we are not the originators of our own actions. In the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, for example, there is simply no question that there must have been a person to play this perfidious role, and that fact notwithstanding, Judas was held to be responsible for his betrayal, and to be morally despicable for that reason. Jesus himself expresses the thought that: “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come!” (Luke 17.1) And our failure to believe, although predestined, as John Calvin held, is still something for which we bear ultimate responsibility and as a consequence of which we will be punished absolutely. So, I think the issue of free will is much more complex than most people seem prepared to recognise. It is not simply a matter of intuitively thinking of ourselves as the ultimate, uncaused causes of our actions.
It is in this context, I think, that we need to think about the nature of free will. It is not, specifically, the question of contra-causal free will that is at issue when people feel threatened by the idea that causal determinism amounts to a denial of free will, even though this is what gets the most attention. I suspect, in fact, that most people wouldn’t understand what was meant by the idea of contra-causality. What they are more concerned about is the denial of free will in any sense of the word, the denial that we have any sort of control over what we do, that there is a sense in which the decisions and choices that we make are forced, and that we never have any options — and that, even though it may appear that we do, this is nothing but an illusion (or perhaps an illusion of an illusion, whatever that means).
In a comment on my post on Sam Harris’s new book, Jon Jermey says this:
We have — what, well over a million? — comprehensive explanations of things that go on in biological systems. None of them involves any mysterious ‘agency’. To claim that ‘agency’ must be responsible for just those phenomena that we can’t yet explain is a little too much like invoking a God of the Gaps.
Now, this seems to me to be a strange claim, because no one is attributing agency to the things that go on in biological systems. Where agency comes in is at the level of biological systems themselves. Biological systems sometimes display agency. We watch a tiger padding through the tall grass, alert to every movement that might indicate the presence of lunch. He stops, waits patiently, watching. Then, suddenly, with a few quick bounds, he lunges towards the small antelope in the clearing, upwind of him, and pounces mercilessly on his prey, bringing it to the ground by the sheer force of his weight and movement and the accuracy of his claws and the quickness of his jaws, opening the antelope’s throat as it falls, lifeless, to the ground. Nothing in that biological system, the tiger, displays agency, but the system itself is directed and purposeful. The tiger is an agent. Why should we deny this, or assimilate the claim that he is to the invocation of a god of the gaps?
The problem, as I see it, lies in the fact that there is a great deal of confusion in what is meant by ‘free will’, which is, in origin, a term of art, not an expression in ordinary language. We do things freely, voluntarily, without coercion, with malice aforethought, or with a guilty mind, but we do not speak, in ordinary terms, about having free will. The term derives from philosophers’ and theologians’ uses of voluntas, or appetitus rationalis, which have no application in ordinary speech. Aristotle spoke in terms of those things which were “up to us”. As Thomas Pink points out in his Free Will: A Very Short Introduction, it was only later Greek philosophers who spoke in terms of eleutheria, or freedom. And when ordinary people say that they did something “of their own free will,” they are saying that they were not forced or tricked into doing something, not that they exercised a particular mental faculty. But then scientists, like Sam Harris, come along, and suggest that, after all, what you think you did “of your own free will” you were compelled to do, that you, and all your “actions”, are simply a cog in a machine, in the great deterministic process called nature, and that you could not have done otherwise. You are just a puppet of fate, after all.
However, that phrase, ”I could have done otherwise,” is functioning differently in, “I did it of my own free will,” than it is the scientific context, where the denial of (a faculty of?) free will is at issue. In the ordinary sense, “I could have done otherwise” only means that there were other options, and, if I had chosen one of them, I would have done otherwise, so, in that sense of ‘could’, in the sense in which there were other options at the time I chose to act as I did, I could have done otherwise, even though I didn’t. And sometimes, when we realise that we made a mistake, we say that we should have done otherwise, should have acted differently, and that, the next time, we won’t make that mistake again, and so on. This is something that the scientist seems to be denying, and this denial is taken to be threatening to the things that we value, something that Harris has the grace to recognise at the outset of his book, and then ignores for the rest of it. He says that “[t]he stakes are high” (1), but do they need to be? I think not. When, later on, Harris recognises that, despite all that he has to say about “free will”, his choices matter, because “there [but not, notice "they"] are paths towards making wiser ones,” (39) he does not provide the context in which we can speak about things mattering or having value or choices being wise. This language has no purchase in the world Harris describes, where everything emerges randomly out of the darkness of the unconscious and compels us we know not whence nor whither.
And this is where Daniel Dennett and Tom Clark come in, because they are very aware of the human emptiness of the world that Harris is describing. Indeed, it is so humanly empty that it would not be hard to imagine things done, and programmes carried out, which were almost unimaginably horrific, simply because of the idea that we cannot choose what ideas, thoughts, or choices might inexplicably come into our minds. The thought that, after speaking about molecular robots and deterministic outcomes, there is no level at which we can reasonably speak about control, where it makes sense to think in terms of better and worse choices, humane or inhumane choices, is, as Tom Clark says, demoralising. Or, as Dennett says:
As I present the fruits of my naturalism … I encounter pockets of uneasiness, a prevailing wind of disapproval or anxiety quite distinct from mere skepticism. Usually this discomfort is muffled, like a faint rumble of distant thunder, a matter of wishful thinking … [until a question reveals the] hidden agenda that has been driving their skepticism: “That’s all very well, but then what about free will? doesn’t your view destroy the prospect for free will? This is always a welcome response, since it supports my conviction that concern about free will is the driving force behind most of the resistance to materialism generally and neo-Darwinism in particular. [Freedom Evolves, 15]
And, as Tom Clark said, in a response to one of Jerry Coyne’s recent posts on free will:
Given that choices have consequences, I hope you (and Sam) would eventually agree that we aren’t puppets or victims of circumstances who lack control, for instance in achieving our New Year’s resolutions. As I pointed out in comments in the earlier thread here about your USA Today article, puppets have no internal source of behavior control – their movements are a function of external forces only, e.g., strings. We, on the other hand, have tons of internal processing that makes us radically autonomous by comparison, acting on the basis of our own motives and desires. Determinism doesn’t erase the distinction between people and puppets, between acting autonomously and proactively on the basis of one’s own character and desires and being passive, with no sense of internal locus of control. Paradoxically, accepting determinism – that we could *not* have done otherwise in actual (as opposed to counterfactual) situations – gives us *more* control, since we’re led to examine very closely the causes of behavior, see for instance the paper on weight loss naturalism linked at http://www.naturalism.org/behavior_tech.htm It also makes us more empathetic and compassionate, something I’m very glad you’ve highlighted in your critique of CCFW [contra-causal free will]. It’s no coincidence that scientists tend to be liberals.
People really don’t want to think of themselves as passive puppets, so if they get the impression that the naturalistic denial of CCFW entails this, as you said in your USA Today piece following Sam Harris, they won’t accept naturalism. So it’s crucial for the prospects of humanistic naturalism that people *not* suppose naturalism entails puppethood, which it doesn’t, as argued above and see http://www.naturalism.org/demoralization.htm and http://www.naturalism.org/determinism.htm So I hope you and Sam will change your minds on this point and let it be known.
I don’t want to say anything more than either Dennett or Clark say. I am aware that Tom Clark does not think of his position as compatibilist (although I have to say that I can’t find a relevant difference between him and Dennett that would lead to this parting of the ways, except that Clark does not think of punishment as retributive, and Dennett, unaccountably, perhaps, does). So far, neither Jerry nor Sam have evinced any tendency towards a view like that of Dennett or Clark — although Clark thinks of them as being in transition – and I guess my concern is that they do not seem inclined to even consider such a position as either helpful or coherent, even though neither has yet given any reason for not giving this position the attention (I think) it deserves.