I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about free will and determinism and laid out my thoughts in a lengthy piece here: Free Will & Determinism. I also had a lengthy discussion about this with some of our friends from YouTube and in the AiR discord. In the video, you can probably see my mental state written across my face as I am trying to hold on to my bias/pre-conceived notions against a very logical and well-presented set of arguments against it. (Some of this was also due to talking past each other in places too.)
Part of the issues with any free will discussion is that even if you try and talk about a from of compatibilist free will the conversation keeps switching back to libertarian free will. Whether you or your discussion partners(s) intend this to happen, we keep talking cross purposes/past each other. This happened a few times in the video, and you can see at times it causing this confusion.
I conclude, in the article and in the conversations, that Libertarian/Non-Causal Free Will is completely off the table without heavy modification, but argue for one of the definitions of free will, ‘The ability to reflect on your mental states, knowledge and experience and make a decision.’
I think even a determinist would agree that we have this ability, and in fact, I can still re-read the article and agree with what I wrote. The question I have been mulling over is if this is actually ‘free will’. That is to say, whilst we have this ability, is it actually free and does it count as will?
When I considered all the different definitions of compatibilist free will, some didn’t seem to be describing what I thought of as free will was at all, more so they seemed to be trying to justifying moral judgements. I understand this because in a hard deterministic universe we are without free will and don’t have any agency. If we can’t choose otherwise, are we really morally responsible? The answer there is no, no more responsible than an NPC in a game or an avalanche wiping out a village. We would simply be following our programming and the universe would just be taking different configurations.
I think the aforementioned issues with conversation and reading takes of free will that ‘don’t seem to be describing free will’ come down to the fact that we are so fixated on the religious/libertarian version of free will, where the soul has the ability to completely override our brain states giving us completely free choice. When we reject this and start to talk about things that actually describe human behaviour, we still get caught up in thinking about free will from this point of view.
The way we need to think about free will is in terms that actually describes human behaviour, and modify the conversation as to how we can actually consider free will within the confines of our system.
When I made the post On Value I noted that without life, there is no value, therefore all value is ultimately extrinsic, yet within the confines of a life system, there are things with intrinsic properties which are of value regardless of if they are not personally valued.
Could then, we say the same for free will? On a macro scale its deterministic, on a quantum scale it is probabilistic (or perhaps even random), but within the confines of our consciousness we have the experience of free will and we ought to work within that environment to describe various behaviours which in turn will allow us to still hold people morally culpable and consider better ways at determining the future.
I think it is fair to say the compatibilist free will is a long way from libertarian/religious free will, so anyone stuck in that mindset will argue it is not free will. Perhaps it is actually a misnomer altogether. ‘The ability to reflect on your mental states, knowledge and experience and make a decision.’ seems like an act of will to me.
The X-Factor of The Brain
I mentioned I felt that the brain had a sort of X-Factor – that even though there could be all these causal factors we could still operate in a way that went against these factors. ‘Physical Determinism doesn’t necessarily entail Psychological Determinism.’ and perhaps this is true. If everything originates at the quantum realm, inclusive of consciousness, that would perhaps be an argument for psychological probability or randomness rather than actually having free will. If we think our mental states are, or at least can be, completely free of physical influence, then we would be describing something closer to that LFW.
Dave brought a good point up in our Video which was Laplace’s demon.
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.— Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities
The example Dave gave was even more specific, in which he discussed being able to see every neuron in the brain, every single physical fact about the brain, and not just a general brain like you would get on an fMRI readout, a specific brain. Would they be able to determine the behaviour?
At the time, I will admit to still being attached that even if we knew all the physical facts about the brain and could see every neuron moving we wouldn’t necessarily be able to predict the behaviour.
Part of this is because I reject a purely physicalist view of experience or qualia. For example, Mary’s Room.
Frank Jackson (1982) formulates the intuition underlying his Knowledge Argument in a much cited passage using his famous example of the neurophysiologist Mary:
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.
The argument contained in this passage may be put like this:
(1) Mary has all the physical information concerning human color vision before her release.
(2) But there is some information about human color vision that she does not have before her release.
(3) Not all information is physical information.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia-knowledge/#BasiIdea
In fact, we can’t even qualify if we are all experiencing red in the same way. If we could transport our consciousness into a bat to experience sonar and flight, we would still be translating it through our lens and our understanding rather than really experiencing it as the bat.
I think my largest err is assuming that, with the fact that there is non-physical information and qualia is a wholly subjective thing we cannot pass on, that this too would apply to the way we behave.
In regard to the Demon, or Dave’s example, I don’t know. My intuition is that there could be something that our mental states have over the physical. Whilst generated by the physical brain, are not wholly physical themselves and therefore could have some form of non-physical influence over us, much like there is non-physical information (e.g. experience of colour). Part of this is also an argument from incredulity (yes, I know that is a fallacy, I am just explaining things and being honest with you). I can’t really explain why our consciousness would give us the experience of free will without us actually having it. This sort of ties into the hard problem of consciousness, and there isn’t a good answer, yet. I will, however, cover how I think it might have happened and the benefits of it later.
That said, I try and be as rational as possible, and a good argument vs a feeling I have.. well.. I have to go with the good argument for now. Even though I feel a certain way, and will continue to see if anything comes up in the future, I have to concede that if one could know all the physical facts about the brain we probably would be able to predict that person’s behaviour, and if we had all the physical facts about everyone and everything we could predict everything, short of times where there is a probabilistic or truly random (if there is such a thing) influence.
Therefore, this brain x-factor might not be so much an ability to override the physically determined in a ‘free’ way in so much as it is just a probabilistic/random factor we cannot fully determine.
But all Your Decisions are Made Subconsciously Before You Make Them!
This is kind of a misunderstanding of the studies that have been done. Yes, there are studies that have been done on choices and it can be said that these choices originated in the subconscious before we were even aware of them.
The issue here is not taking the time to fully understand these studies.
- It was simple choices, not complex ones.
- The trend was only about 60% of these choices originated in the subconscious.
- We can still consciously override our subconscious.
It doesn’t mean our conscious processes are any less determined though, it’s just a bad argument to say all of our choices are determined by our subconscious before we are aware of them.
Argument from Desire
This is one of the key things I note as a defeater of LFW. We cannot control our desires. I went into this here: https://www.answers-in-reason.com/philosophy/metaphysics/free-will/free-will-determinism/3/#conflictingdesires but in short, we can’t control our desires. We can control how we act on our desires, but even then it is other desires that guide how we chase our desires. We could argue that we could train ourselves pavlovian dog style to have different desires, but that is a larger desire to not have those desires.
The same could be said with CBTs. The therapy uses our non-physical mental states to affect the physical brain and build new pathways. This could be seen as “wow, non-physical mental states can change physical brain therefore free will” but again we are back to there was a desire to change a behaviour (physical->mental), work done to change the behaviour (mental->physical), new behaviour (physical->mental).
The only real argument you can have is that it is still us consciously choosing things rather than being unconscious (as in mindless) zombies acting on pure instinct.
So is it Free Will?
Whether you use how I describe free will or one of the other compatibilist theories of free will, they are all working within the confines of a deterministic universe. Therefore:
If by free will you mean is it completely free of causal factors, then no.
If, however, you accept we are speaking it within the confines of our environment then we can reason thusly. The will part comes from the reasoning, wanting, and choosing part. The free part comes down to the self. We have a sense of self, we can consciously process all the causal factors and there is still an ‘I’ that makes (or wills) the choice. All of our desires, moods, knowledge and experience influence the ‘I’, but this choice being made by said ‘I’. As long as there are no external influences forcing a choice upon us, the choice is still coming within and is being made freely by the ‘I’. ‘The ability to reflect on your mental states, knowledge and experience and make a decision.’ fits this.
We can still make the argument that if we were to look on a macro scale, and have every single bit of data available that everything is deterministic, or at least probabilistic, though none of us has access to this data and if we did I doubt we could process it.
I can understand why this version of ‘free will’ doesn’t sit exactly right with many people. I am left wondering if it is a bit of a misnomer and if we should still refer to this as ‘free will’, or we should understand that the religious version of ‘free will’ is based on some immaterial soul that is in charge of the body allowing us to make choices independently of the brain, and this is actually the faulty definition because it doesn’t actually describe what we know of human behaviour.
It is Definitely Will, But is it Free?
You might still be wondering if “free” is the word we should be using here, so let me say this.
If we mean free in the realms of free from causal factors, no, it is not.
If you mean is free in the sense that, even with all causal factors we can do something that wouldn’t be in tune with any of it, this seems incredibly unlikely. Even if it could happen, e.g. the x-factor in the brain I mention, how would we know this isn’t due to randomness instead of being free?
If you mean free as in an agent consciously reflecting on experience and knowledge, making choices, being able to override our subconscious instincts and desires, with an experience that feels like we have control over ourselves and our actions (most of the time), and no outside influences forcing (just internal ones) us to make a choice then yes, it is free. Sure there may be times when we are forced, or we do lose control, but for the most part, this stands.
Compatibilist free will is not the same as what we mean in the classic sense, but it is a more accurate description of human behaviour. It acknowledges both determinism and the sense of self and adds an additional causal factor that we are the ones making these decisions, so there is a level of responsibility.
Why Do We Have This Sense of Free Will?
We do have this experience of free will, it feels like LFW, but even if we concede to the compatibilist take on free will, we still have this experiential thing going on. Why would we have evolved this? To what end?
In perhaps an oversimplification:
Evolution, from an underlying mechanism perspective, is down to chance. It is copy errors/mutations that either work or don’t. The survivability of these mutations is less random. If the environment is getting colder and a mutation produces thicker fur, then a creature has a higher chance of surviving. If, however, the mutation causes fur to fall out or gets thinner it would decrease the chance of survival.
So, with that in mind, consciousness almost certainly arose by mutations in our DNA. Be it because it caused various systems working together that happened to create this thing, or just a copy error in the underlying DNA that defines the structure of the brain, it’s not really known, but the fact is, it got there. Whilst I would love to know the how and why it got there, it’s easier to comment on why it remained.
With what I described above, about the mutations that remain in a species, we can see that those that increase survivability would remain in the species. All evidence would suggest that the evolution of consciousness promoted our survival. In fact, I would suggest that it also gave us the ability to override our subconscious (see the Stroop effect), our instincts, our emotions, and reason our way into more rational behaviours. It also gave us that sense of self, which in turn gave us accountability with how we act within a society – social creatures that work together have a higher chance of survival too. So, this in turn would have increased our chance of not only surviving but also flourishing.
So Are We More Than NPC’s then?
This is a tough question. From a macro level, looking outside the universe in, it could be seen that we are no different to NPC’s within a game, with advanced programming.
The key difference is the experience we have. The NPC is purely functional. We are not. We reason, we feel, we decide. We have an internal sense of self above the NPC or p-Zombie. This internal sense of self gives rise to this feeling of free will. Does an NPC or Avalanche consciously choose things? Do they feel any way about their choice? I think that, at the very least, our experience is different to that of an NPC.
We are doing more than simply following a line of programming. Yes, we have a tonne of causal factors, inclusive of our biology, but we are still actively reflecting on our knowledge and experience and consciously making choices and even if there is only one choice we would actually make, we are still accountable for it.
So What Does this Mean for the Free Will Scale?
If you remember, I created a “free will scale” in my previous article on Free Will & Determinism and I think this still applies to both LFW and Compatibilism. Under LFW you might argue that as soon as there is any causal factor it’s no longer LFW but under ‘Freedom to do Otherwise’ it would remain free until there is only one choice.
With compatibilism, it is slightly different. There ultimately is only one choice you will make, but the free will is more speaking of the conscious reflection on knowledge and experience. With more knowledge and experience, you have the less you will consciously reflect on it and the more autonomic your decisions become. As long as you are not being forced to make the choice, the choice is still free. It is not free from your desires, but it is still you making that choice.
Compatibilist free will would not be classed as free will in the classic sense, but it does more accurately describe human behaviour. There is internal freedom of the ‘I’ and the ‘I’ wills things forward.
The biggest issue with free will discussions is that people are so focused on one form of LFW that even when you start to talk about a different type of free will, LFW is the standard you are comparing things to.
It’s like if you were discussing different types of art, and everything kept being compared back to still life.
If you are interested, here’s the video:
Thanks to Dave, Cheshire, Bearded Heretic, and Luke for the video on free will, if anyone has watched it before reading this you might have noticed a few points where my position has been tweaked. As I said in the video, I often need to sleep on it to fully process my thoughts. In fact, in this instance it wasn’t just sleeping on it, it was subsequent conversations in our Discord that helped me refine my position and realise where some of my justification was no more than intuition so I had to let it go.
Thanks Also to 3Vikings1Atheist who, even though I was focused on simplistic language for the evolution piece (as it is not a scientific paper) helped me word things in a better way.
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
This is one of many things I hope to do with Answers In Reason.
I run our Twitter and IG accounts, as well as share responsibility for our FB group and page, and maintain the site, whilst writing articles, DJing, Podcasting (and producing), keeping fit and more.
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