I write this with trepidation, for how can a philosophically unsophisticated upstart (i.e., moi) take on a friend who not only has a Ph.D. in philosophy, but criticizes me at the venerable organ Talking Philosophy? Perhaps I’m an April Fool, then, but I want to rise to the challenge of Russell Blackford’s critique, “Jerry Coyne on free will.” His piece was written in response to my essay against free will published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Sometimes I think that either I’m missing the whole point of such critiques, or the philosopher is, or something else is at issue that I don’t really understand. I want to be brief here, so I’ll address only three of Brother Blackford’s points:
- He is not trying to save face. Russell doesn’t agree with my claim:
Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn’t exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices. In response, some philosophers — most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained — have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy.
His response is this:
I don’t think there is any reason at all to believe that; it strikes me as overly cynical. I can report, in my own case, that my past (and certainly not entirely buried) tendency towards compatibilism is not at all a face-saving device of this kind. It is a sincerely held position based on the view that we retain certain capacities even if our decisions are the product of a causally more-or-less deterministic process.
Let me first exculpate Russell in such cynicism, for I do believe him. But he either didn’t read what I wrote, or took it too personally. I deliberately said some philosophers redefine free will to prop up our feeling that we have choices. And I do believe that, for it’s explicit in some compatibilist treatments. As I recall, Dan Dennett’s notion of free will was expressly described as “the only free will worth wanting.” Other philosophers have addressed the problem with the aim of reconciling physical determinism with the express purpose of finding some descriptor that matches our feeling of agency. I think this is a losing proposition, because such descriptors always overreach, or seem ludicrous, but I certainly don’t think those compatibilists are intellectually dishonest. They’re trying to rearrange their ideas to match their emotions. But on to the major issues.
- Blackford thinks he has “capacities” that are an important part of his free will. As he says:
Furthermore, reflection on what is important that reasonably falls within the ambit of the free will debate leads me to think that the capacities we retain are very important.
These capacities include: the ability to deliberate; the ability, more specifically, to deliberate about what I most value or desire in a situation; the ability to shape my own future to an extent, as a result of my choices; and, more generally, the ability to affect the future of my society and my world, to an extent, as a result of my choices. Some people – certain fatalists and passivists – seem to deny the latter abilities, at least.
My response is: so what? Yes, Russell thinks he is deliberating, and he is insofar as his brain is working and mulling over alternatives when he makes a decision. But he’s sorely mistaken if he thinks he has any control over those deliberations. They are the result of the laws of physics, and are largely deterministic, with the exception of any quantum indeterminacy (which, as I have said ad infinitum, doesn’t play a role in anyone’s notion of free will.) Blackford, by the way, does seem to be a determinist, but appears to accept that only grudgingly.
Further, Russell is mistaken if he really thinks that he has “the ability to shape [his] own future to an extent.” Here, I think, he’s sneaking in a kind of dualism. How can he affect his own future by ruminating and deliberating if that future has already been determined before his deliberations?
Yes, humans have evolved an elaborate system of weighing inputs before giving an output—a “choice”—but the apparatus and the results of the deliberations are also part of a deterministic system of molecular interactions. It is true, as Russell says, that his own actions and words “affect the future of [his] society and [his] world,” but none of this is a result of a free choice on his part. What Russell doesn’t address is whether his ability to deliberate really could lead to more than one possible outcome in a session of deliberation (it can’t), nor does he explain what he means when he says that he can “shape his own future.” How is that supposed to happen? What he means is that his future has already been shaped, before deliberation, by the peculiar (and handsome) configuration of molecules that is Russell Blackford and his environment.
- Blackford finds free will in the contradictory idea that “I could have done otherwise had I wanted to.” As he says:
Even this is problematic. The idea of “could have chosen otherwise” (which some philosophers do, indeed, use as a definition of free will) is at best equivocal.
On one interpretation, to say that I could have chosen otherwise simply means that I would have been able to act differently if I’d wanted to. Say a child drowns in a pond in my close vicinity, and I stand by allowing this to happen. The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.
What more would I have needed to have been able to act otherwise? I was at the right place at the right time. I can swim. No special equipment that I lacked was actually needed … and so on. The parents are likely to reply that it’s not that I couldn’t have chosen to act otherwise, but that I merely didn’t want to act otherwise.
This reminds me of an argument I had with my sister when we were very young. She maintained that our father was a “perfect man,” and could do anything. “He could even fly if he wanted to,” said my sister. “Well then,” I responded, “Why don’t we ever see him fly?” “Because he doesn’t want to!” she answered.
Need I point out that (especially given the unconscious nature of motivations and desires, long adduced by psychiatrists but now revealed by neuropsychological experiments), the idea that you do something because you “want to” is simply a tautology. There is no difference between saying “I couldn’t have chosen otherwise” and “I didn’t want to do otherwise”. What does it mean to say “I wanted to go dancing but had to study”? To a determinist, all that means is that you had a desire to go dancing but that was trumped by a greater “want” to study. One could say that you really wanted to study, but the idea of “wants” is irrelevant here anyway. What one can best say is that “For reasons I don’t really understand, I studied instead of danced.” One can certainly acknowledge conflicting desires, but those cannot be instantiated in different actions in an identical situation.
So when Russell says something like this—
Surely there are many cases like this where the reason that I didn’t act otherwise was not any lack of capacity, equipment, being on the spot, etc., but merely that I didn’t want to act otherwise. The most salient thing determining how I acted was my desire-set. Leave everything else in place, but change my desire-set, and I would have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, it is true that I could have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, someone can rightly say to me: “It’s not that you couldn’t have acted otherwise; it’s that you didn’t want to.”
—he’s simply is making up a new word for “the physical factors that impelled one to act”: he calls it the “desire-set.” Yes, of course if you change the “desire-set” construed in that way, then your actions would have been different. But, Russell, your desire-set is fixed by your molecules: by your genes, physiology, and the determined environmental factors that impinge on them. You haven’t said anything new here or adduced a new argument for why one’s choice is “free.” Indeed, Russell sort of admits this later in the article.
What it appears to boil down to—if Russell does agree with me that his desire set is fixed and he can only ever do one thing, even after “deliberating about it”—is whether or not the parents of the drowned child have a right to reproach Blackford for his dilatory and selfish behavior:
But as long as the explanation as to why I didn’t act otherwise is just those states of my neurology – the ones that constitute my desire-set – the parents are quite right to complain that I could have chosen to do otherwise and saved their child. “You just didn’t want to,” they say, correctly. I was someone whose desire-set was such that I wouldn’t act otherwise in such circumstances, but I was not someone who couldn’t do so.
But in what sense are they “quite right” to complain that Russell didn’t save their child? They certainly feel aggrieved about this, for such feelings are evolved and powerful, but in my view Russell had no “moral responsibility” to save the child: he could only do what he did. Yes, the parents could complain about what he didn’t do, and that, indeed, may affect not only Russell’s future behavior, making him more altruistic, but influence others to act more altruistically in the future. (Nobody—even pure determinists—deny that social approbation or disapprobation can influence people’s future behavior.) The parents’ statement that Russell “didn’t want to save their child” is in fact identical under determinism with his statement that Russell “couldn’t save their child.” Blackford’s claim that these statements differ in substance is wrong. Or, if there is a relevant difference here, Blackford hasn’t made it clear, especially if he’s a determinist.
In his attempt to save free will, Blackford concludes:
Thus the “couldn’t act otherwise” argument, based on causal determinism, should not convince us that we lack free will. When I failed to save the child, I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise.
This statement leaves me completely baffled. When Russell says “I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise,” he seems to mean only, “had I been somebody other than Russell Blackford at that moment, I might have done otherwise.” And in what sense is that free will? It’s one thing for people to chastise somebody for making a “bad choice” (an emotion that feels natural but is at bottom irrational), but it’s a different thing to think that somebody actually can act in different ways at a single time.
So I ask Russell—and I’m confident that he’ll answer me—where is the “freedom” in your notion of free will? Are you agreeing with me that all of our actions are determined? If so, then where does the notion of “freedom” come in?
I freely admit that we feel we have free will, but I adamantly deny that this is anything other than an illusion.
UPDATE: I’m still confused about what Russell means by the difference between “could have done differently” and “could have done differently if I wanted to”. If by the latter he means “I could have made a different decision had circumstances been slightly different,” then I agree with Russell completely. But that was never my argument to begin with, and I doubt that anyone takes issue with it.