I’ll be brief here, as I promised not to post on this topic for a while—a promise I’m now breaking for the third time. But I wanted to draw attention to Sean Carroll’s new and thoughtful post on the “free will issue.” It’s at his website Cosmic Variance, and is called “Free will is as real as baseball.” What does he mean by that? That both the game and our appearance of choice are emergent properties that are useful to consider as wholes rather than simply as groups of atoms obeying the laws of physics:
The concept of baseball is emergent rather than fundamental, but it’s no less real for all of that.
Likewise for free will. We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes “autonomous agents with free will” as crucial ingredients. That’s the “variety of free will worth having,” as Daniel Dennett would put it.
Carroll is a materialist, and believes,as do I, that quantum uncertainty plays little role in macroscopic human behaviors. And it follows that he’s a complete physical determinist. But our inability to predict human behaviors that are already determined is what he construes as “free will”:
If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future. But we don’t know that, and we never will, and therefore who cares? What we are trying to do is to construct an effective understanding of human beings, not of electrons and nuclei. Given our lack of complete microscopic information, the question we should be asking is, “does the best theory of human beings include an element of free choice?” The reason why it might is precisely because we have different epistemic access to the past and the future. The low entropy of the past allows for the existence of “records” and “memories,” and consequently forces us to model the past as “settled.” We have no such restriction toward the future, which is why we model the future as something we can influence. From this perspective, free will is no more ruled out by the consequence argument than the Second Law of Thermodynamics is ruled out by microscopic reversibility.
As far as I can see, then, Carroll mostly agrees with me, but decides to label as “free will” the observation that humans appear to make choices. I say “appear,” because if you’re a determinist you don’t believe that they are really choices—that is, you could not have done otherwise in any situation. That’s certainly “will,” but in what sense is it “free”? It only appears to be free.
At the end, Carroll admits that whether choices really are “free” is important in our notion of moral responsibility and punishment:
We don’t find people guilty of crimes simply because they committed them; they had to be responsible, in the sense that they had the mental capacity to have known better. In other words: we have a model of human beings as rational agents, able to gather and process information, understand consequences, and make decisions. When they make the wrong ones, they deserve to be punished. People who are incapable of this kind of rationality — young children, the mentally ill — are not held responsible in the same way.
The problem here is that maybe criminals are no more “responsible” for their crimes than are miscreant “young children” and “the mentally ill.” If all acts are, as Carroll believes, physically determined on a macro scale, then there’s no difference between these groups, and any lawbreaker is as guilty as any other. What does Carroll mean by “responsibility” if someone’s crime looked like a choice (even if the person had the “mental capacity to have known better”), but in reality the crime was already determined by his genes and environment?
To me the important question—and I recognize that people will disagree—is this: did a criminal really have a “choice” to commit a crime, or was his behavior determined well before the moment of the crime? One can still have a valid theory of punishment under a completely deterministic world view, and I’ve talked about this before. But if, like Carroll, you’re simply defining “free will” as “the observation that humans pick one thing to do one then when there are many apparent alternatives”, then I say that he should slap a warning label on that definition: “NOTE: Agent was not really capable of making any “choice” other than the one he made. It only looks as if he could.”
Carroll winds up asserting again that we have free will because it’s a good model of human behavior:
Thinking of the collections of atoms we call “people” as rational agents capable of making choices seems like a pretty good theory to me, likely to remain useful for a long while to come. At least, that’s what I choose to think.
Well, yes, it’s hard to accept (as I really have) that my choices are all determined before they’re made, and we can’t live our lives thinking that. That way lies madness—and nihilism. And it’s impossible in most cases to predict what those choices will be. But Carroll might be a bit clearer about his last sentence, which I’d rewrite like this, adding the stuff in bold:
Thinking of the collections of atoms we call “people” as rational agents capable of making choices, even though they aren’t really capable of free choice between alternatives, seems like a pretty good theory to me, likely to remain useful for a long while to come.
And I guess I don’t really agree that it’s a “pretty good theory”, because it ignores things that are important in our philosophy and practice of punishment. If science shows, in the future, that a “common criminal” had no more freedom of action than a criminal who was young or mentally ill, then Carroll’s theory is not quite so useful. Determinism is the elephant in this philosophical room: we may know it’s there but pretend otherwise.