Free will problem revisited

Harvey asked:

Is there free will?

Answer by Eric DeJardin

This is a question I haven’t yet (definitively) answered for myself, Harvey, but perhaps we can try to puzzle at least a bit of the way through it together.

Questions about the world seem to arise in two basic ways: first, through experience, and second, through reflection. (This is of course simplistic, since both experience and reflection contribute to the sorts of questions we ask, but it seems to be the case that many questions are motivated more powerfully by just one of these factors.) So, we might notice through experience that objects we drop tend to fall downwards, and wonder why that’s so. Or, after we’ve investigated the manner and the rate at which objects fall, we might notice certain recurring mathematical patterns, and on reflection wonder why in this respect the world and mathematics happen to match up so neatly.

Now I think it’s fair to say that questions about free will don’t tend to arise from our experience of the world, but rather from reflection on it, for we consider only our ‘inner’ experience as rational agents in the world — what me might call our phenomenal experience — it certainly seems as if we act freely, at least when we act deliberately. As it’s usually put, for any act we deliberately perform, it seems as if we ‘could have done otherwise.’ Indeed, we might say that many of our fundamental concepts, at least as they are commonly understood, reflect this seeming-so, e.g. ‘choice’, ‘responsibility’, ‘morality’, ‘mistake’, ‘regret.’ It’s only when we begin to notice that the world around us behaves in certain law-like (or, perhaps, random) ways, and that patterns of cause and effect are everywhere to be found, that we begin to question whether we, as apparently proper parts of the world, might also act in ways governed by law-like causal factors.

So it’s reflection on this tension between the apparent determinism of the world as we observe it, and the apparent freedom of our phenomenal experience (coupled with our strong sense of moral responsibility) that ultimately gives rise to the problem of free will. It’s important to notice that experience alone doesn’t give rise to this tension, but rather experience coupled with observation and reflection, for that helps explain our natural attachment to the notion that we are free, without which the problem of free will would never arise.

There are two basic ways of dealing with this tension, viz. that of the incompatibilist, and that of the compatibilist. The former believe, as the name implies, that free will and determinism are incompatible, and so one of them must be jettisoned if the other is to be retained. The latter, again as the name implies, believe that free will and determinism are compatible, though this coherence may require us to change the sense in which we understand free will. Let’s look a little closer at each of these alternatives.

There are two basic types of incompatibilists, viz. determinists and libertarians. Determinists tend to find the discoveries of modern science and the bottom-up, causally determined (and possibly partly random) world it reveals to us to be dispositive, and so they reject the notion that we have free will. Libertarians, however, tend to find the experience of freedom, and the sense that we’re morally responsible for our actions — coupled with the concomitant belief that moral responsibility presupposes free will — to be dispositive, and so they reject determinism, which leads them to embrace a radical conception of freedom according to which each person is a sort of unmoved mover.

The compatibilist wants to have his cake and eat it: he agrees with the determinist that the findings of science are dispositive, and with the libertarian that we are morally responsible for our actions, and that moral responsibility presupposes freedom. He disagrees, though, that moral responsibility requires the libertarian’s radical freedom: rather, all it requires is that one act in a way that’s not compelled (e.g. no one is placing a gun to your head), and in a way that’s consistent with one’s desires, beliefs, intentions etc. — i.e. with one’s ‘character’ — at the moment of action. Although one’s character is itself a consequence of previous causes, this doesn’t matter, the compatibilist says — if we act sans compulsion according to our character, then that’s a sufficient condition of moral responsibility, and we can be said to have the only kind of freedom that’s ‘worth wanting’.

One way to make your way through these competing notions is to ask yourself what you’re willing to give up: so, to be a determinist, you must be willing to give up any substantive notion of moral responsibility; to be a libertarian, you must be willing to give up the idea that everything in the world is governed by the law of causality; and to be a compatibilist, you must be willing to give up the notion that freedom requires that our actions not be determined by events over which we have no control.

Alternatively, you might ask what it is you cannot part with: is it moral responsibility? the scientific worldview? the acceptation of freedom?

Another way to make your way through these ideas is to consider the weakness(es) of each position: so the determinist must concede that there’s nothing immoral about genocide, since nothing is ‘really’ immoral; the libertarian must be comfortable with a notion of freedom that seems impossible to make sense of, for if my actions are not caused, in what sense are they mine, and how does this help with moral responsibility?; and the compatibilist must admit that although one’s actions are determined by events that occurred prior to one’s birth, they’re nonetheless free.

Perhaps now you can see why I’m so confused about this issue!

Here’s where I currently hang my hat: since I’m more certain that genocide is immoral than I am that every single event in the universe is caused, I find that I can’t accept determinism; and, since I think that the notion that I’m morally responsible for actions that I was determined to perform by events that occurred long before I was born is incoherent, I find that I can’t accept compatibilism; therefore, I’m left with a very tentative acceptance of libertarian freedom (LF).

While I concede that I can’t formulate an intelligible notion of LF beyond ‘whatever sort of freedom is necessary for moral responsibility,’ that’s not the same as concluding that the notion itself is unintelligible, as I would say is the case with compatibilist freedom (though the fact that I can’t intelligibly conceive of LF may indeed count as evidence of its ultimate unintelligibility). The former requires only my bafflement, while the latter requires a demonstration of incoherence.

Now the notion that we’re ‘somehow’ free in ‘the sense moral responsibility requires’, but not in this or that particular sense, doesn’t amount to a terrifically substantive position. Alas, it’s as far as I’ve gotten. But we might make the position a bit more tenable by presenting one sort of argument that might be used to support it. So, if we consider the following ‘transcendental’ argument form,

(1) Some phenomenon P obtains
(2) C is a necessary condition of P
(3) Hence, C

we might formulate an argument for LF as follows:

(1′) We are morally responsible for our actions
(2′) Having LF is a necessary condition of moral responsibility
(3′) Hence, we have LF

I think that most of us would concede that (1′) is true (if not in argument, then minimally in action — if you treat someone who claims to reject the notion of moral responsibility unjustly, chances are he’ll let you know that your treatment was unjust, and so we can say he ‘dispositionally’ believes in moral responsibility); hence, the controversial premise is (2′), and the primary difficulty with it is formulating a notion of LF that’s both coherent and capable of sufficiently latching on to the individual person in a way as to make sense of moral responsibility. Since I cannot yet provide that formulation of LF, I remain a mere tentative libertarian.

OK, now it’s your turn!


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