This time I’m truly puzzled. Humanities professor William Egginton, whose New York Times column on free will I “deconstructed,” is back again with another column, responding to my comments and trying to explain what he meant by “free will” in the first place.
When you have to write a second column explaining what you meant in the first, you know you’re not writing well. And indeed, Egginton, though a professor of German and Romances languages and literatures, is a pretty dire writer, wedded to academese. (Maybe he writes better in German.) But there are alternative explanations for his opacity: perhaps he doesn’t really understand what he’s saying in the first place, or maybe I’m just too dense to understand him (remember, I iz naive and philosophically unsophisticated). At any rate, since Egginton claims that he has an airtight and simple explanation for why we truly do have free will, I’ve puzzled through his latest piece. Perhaps readers can help me see what his explanation is. Let’s wade through his argument (I’ve omitted a lot of excess verbiage).
First, Egginton repeats his earlier claim that physical/biological determinism has nothing to do with whether we have free will.
To make a choice that in any sense could be considered “free,” we would have to claim that it was at some point unconstrained. But, the hard determinist would argue, there can never be any point at which a choice is unconstrained, because even if we exclude any and all obvious constraints, such as hunger or coercion, the chooser is constrained by (and this is Strawson’s “basic argument”) how he or she is at the time of the choosing, a sum total of effects over which he or she could never exercise causality.
What he means here—I think—is that if behavior is determined by the prior arrangement of atoms (the environment plus “how he or she is”), it seems that one can’t really make a choice that is free, that is, one that could by will overturn what has already been determined. Seems fair enough to me. But of course Egginton doesn’t see it that way.
This constraint of “how he or she is,” however, is pure fiction, a treatment of tangible reality as if it were decodable knowledge, requiring a kind of God’s eye perspective capable of knowing every instance and every possible interpretation of every aspect of a person’s history, culture, genes and general chemistry, to mention only a few variables. It refers to a reality that self-proclaimed rationalists and science advocates pay lip service to in their insistence on basing all claims on hard, tangible facts, but is in fact as elusive, as metaphysical and ultimately as incompatible with anything we could call human knowledge as would be a monotheistic religion’s understanding of God.
This is where Egginton seems to go off the rails. He’s apparently claiming that because we don’t know all the variables, they aren’t playing a role in determining decisions. (This is the same mistake Jerry Fodor makes when claiming that because scientists can’t figure out which traits are experiencing natural selection, that selection doesn’t exist.) Yes, reality may be “elusive,” but does that make it “metaphysical,” equivalent to belief in God? He then pulls back a bit to answer an obvious criticism:
When some readers sardonically (I assume) reduced by argument to “ignorance=freedom,” then, they were right in a way; but the rub lies in how we understand ignorance. The commonplace understanding would miss the point entirely: it is not ignorance against the backdrop of ultimate knowledge that equates to freedom; rather, it is constitutive, essential ignorance. This, again, needs expansion.
Indeed it does. What on earth is “constitutive, essential” ignorance, and how does it provide a nucleus for free will?
Knowledge can never be complete. This is the case not merely because there will always be something more to know; rather, it is so because completed knowledge is oxymoronic, self-defeating. AI theorists have long dreamed of what Daniel Dennett once called heterophenomenology, the idea that, with an accurate-enough understanding of the human brain my description of another person’s experience could become indiscernible from that experience itself. My point it not merely that heterophenomenology is impossible from a technological perspective or undesirable from an ethical perspective; rather, it is impossible from a logical perspective, since the very phenomenon we are seeking to describe, in this case the conscious experience of another person, would cease to exist without the minimal opacity separating his or her consciousness from mine. Analogously, all knowledge requires this kind of minimal opacity, because knowing something involves, at a minimum, a synthesis of discrete perceptions across space or time.
This has the air of a postmodern word game, not a profound observation. True, we will never know everything about any issue (for example, where all the molecules reside in an object), but we can know some things with near certainty (i.e., how many eggs are in this carton, and what is the diameter of the Earth to the nearest ten miles). What on earth does he mean by saying that “completed knowledge is oxymoronic, self-defeating”? And finally, why does this prove that we have free will? This needs more expansion, and Egginton tries to come up with a QED moment:
Because of what we can thus call our constitutive ignorance, then, we are free — only and precisely because as beings who cannot possibly occupy all times and spatial perspectives without thereby ceasing to be what we are, we are constantly faced with choices. All these choices — to the extent that they are choices and not simply responses to stimuli or reactions to forces exerted on us — have at least some element that cannot be traced to a direct determination, but could only be blamed, for the sake of defending a deterministic thesis, on the ideal and completely fanciful determinism of “how we are” at the time of the decision to be made.
Far from a mere philosophical wish fulfillment or fuzzy, humanistic thinking, then, this kind of freedom is real, hard-nosed and practical.
Clearly, Egginton’s hat is missing its rabbit. We’re ignorant of all the forces that may determine our behavior, but in the end we’re free simply because we’re constantly faced with “choices”? So we are, and so are earthworms and rabbits. Egginton simply evades the question by asserting that because we apparently have choices (our behaviors must bifurcate), these choices must be determined freely, not by a semi-deterministic confederacy of molecules. But how does he know? What is the element that cannot be traced to “how we are”—or “what is our environment”—at the time of choosing? The weasel words, of course, are “to the extent that they are choices and not simply responses to stimuli or reactions to forces exerted on us.” But that, to my mind at least, is the crucial question. Are there such choices that are not just responses? And if there aren’t, does that comport with how most people envision “free will”?
Well, maybe I’m missing something. I’m not a professional philosopher or—thank God—a literary critic. But if Egginton’s argument eludes me, so it surely must elude other readers of the Times. Perhaps my readers can explain how, in just a few paragraphs, Egginton has constructed a convincing, hard-nosed, and practical argument for free will. I welcome explanations.
Egginton asserts that the notion of determinism is irrelevant to notions of morality and law:
Indeed, courts of law and ethics panels may take specific determinations into account when casting judgment on responsibility, but most of us would agree that it would be absurd for them to waste time considering philosophical, scientific or religious theories of general determinism.
I don’t think most of us would think it’s absurd. In fact, I think most of us already agree that some views of determinism must play a role in law and ethics. Indeed, they already do. Criminals who are deemed mentally ill receive either less or different “punishment” on the grounds that their actions were not “free” but at least partially determined by illness. “Crimes of passion” are treated differently from crimes involving premeditation. And at least two professional philosophers have told me that understanding the extent to which our actions are determined is of crucial philosophical importance in understanding “moral responsibility.” The reason Egginton thinks that determinism is irrelevant is, it seems, the reason why most people think it’s irrelevant: because we have no choice than to act as if we have the capacity to make free moral choices. (And if you ask me what I mean by “we have no choice,” I’d answer that society would collapse in the face of such nihilism, but that ultimately our constitutions, which are the result of our genes and our physical and social environments, make us feel this way.)
Egginton tails off by dealing with me and my accusations of accommodationism He is “content to let Professor Coyne’s dismissal of every cultural, literary, philosophical, or artistic achievement in history speak for itself.” Of course I never said anything even approximating that. Do I have to repeat I not only have great respect for culture, art, and history, but spend a lot of time immersed in them? Egginton claims that the term “accommodationist” is an deliberate attempt to conflate compatibilists with Nazi appeasers. But that’s not how I use it. I use the word accommodationist” like I use the word “Republican”: both terms refer to ideas I don’t like, but I don’t see either as inherently insulting. Finally, Egginton declares that atheists and religious literalists are both fundamentalists in their unreasonable asssertion that “the ultimate nature of reality is a code that can be read and understood.” He doesn’t seem to grasp that there are two entirely different (and incompatible) ways of understanding this code.
I continue my reading on free will. It seems to me that in view of physical determinism (plus fine-scale physical stochasticity involving quantum events), there is no way that we can make decisions that are truly free. Some, like Egginton, simply finesse the question by redefining “free,” but I don’t think that these redefinitions of “free will” comport with how most of us understand the term, or with how it’s been historically (not philosophically) understood.