Yes, I know we’re getting free-willed out, but I have no choice about continuing to post, mainly because the discussion, and critiques of my own views, continue on other sites. This week at the Rationally Speaking website, both Massimo Pigliucci and Ian Pollock take up the issue. I have only the time and the (unfree) will for one response, so I’ll leave Massimo’s piece, “On free will, response to readers,” aside for the moment.
Pollock’s article, “Some observations on the ‘free will wars’” does deserve a brief response. He is defending compatibilism, the view that free will is compatible with the physical determinism of the universe. Given my view that “free will” involves the ability, at any given moment, to freely choose between two or more alternative decisions, I see free will as incompatible with physical determinism, which mandates that only one choice is possible: the one conditioned by your genes, environment, and personal history. Pollock sees this incompatibilism as incoherent:
. . . many see incompatibilist determinism a la Jerry Coyne as either “reductionism gone mad,” or, putting a positive spin on it, the logical consequence of reductionism applied to human brains.I confess myself perplexed by this, because it seems to me that the intuitions driving incompatibilism stem from absent or insufficiently applied reductionism.
Pollock’s brief against incompatiblism deserves to be set out in a bit of detail:
So how would I tackle the issue of free will/volition?
Suppose I am driving along an undivided highway when the stray thought comes into my head that I could steer into the opposing lane, resulting in a horrible, deadly accident.
Of course, I don’t do so, because… well, I like living and I don’t much want to kill others, either. And I just washed my car. But I could have done it….
Wait, was I right to say that I could have done it?
Yes and no. As we have seen, the pivotal word in that sentence is “could,” and “could” has at least two meanings that are relevant to the question of free will.
Meaning #1 maps physical possibility, and in this case returns the clear answer “No, the physical state of the universe was such that you could not have steered into oncoming traffic, as evidenced by the fact that you did not, in fact, do so. QED.” Jerry sees this clearly, and I have absolutely no argument with him.
Meaning #2 of “could” maps counterfactual statements. To say that you “could” have done something in this sense is (roughly) to say that IF circumstances had been otherwise, a different outcome would have resulted. Meaning #2 returns the answer “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic, if you had wanted to.”
Meaning #2 is what people actually mean by “could,” most of the time.
If you’ve been sleeping through this post, pay attention now, because the entire click of compatibilism lies in this realization.
Proposition #1: “No, the state of the universe was such that it was physically impossible for you to have steered into oncoming traffic.”
Proposition #2: “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic (if you had wanted to).”
These two propositions are both true in my example. THAT is the essence of compatibilism.
Also note the very important fact that “wanting to” corresponds to a different physical state than “not wanting to.”
These propositions look incompatible because people (especially incompatibilists!) have an annoying tendency to forget about the implicit counterfactual “if” clause in proposition #2.**
Now we are in a position to see that incompatibilism is basically a huge equivocation fallacy. The incompatibilists prove Proposition #1, then assume that therefore, Proposition #2 is proven false. But this does not follow.
I don’t think I’ve ever made that argument. Insofar as Pollock argues that the two propositions are different, I fully agree with him. I also agree with him that proposition #2, in which you “want” something different, implies a different state of the universe, for your desires are no longer the same as before. But I’ve never argued that the two propositions are the same thing, nor that the first leads ineluctably to the second. That would truly be muddled thought, and if Pollock is lumping me in with such incompatibilists, as he appears to do in the last sentence, he’s mischaracterizing me.
Given that, what, then, is the “huge equivocation fallacy” Pollick sees in incompatibilism? It boils down to this: we appear to make choices, so we really do make choices.
The fact that individuals appear to choose is, of course, true. Even people who have brain injuries that compel them to behave in a certain way appear to make choices, as do those who are forced to behave in a certain way by electrodes implanted in their brain. If we didn’t know these facts, we’d think that they were making choices, though they weren’t. I contend that we are all in the effective state of having electrodes in our brains: we are constrained to “choose” only one alternative because of the physics of our brain. But I am jumping the gun; here’s Pollock’s argument:
Now consider this passage from Jerry Coyne’s USA Today article:
The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we’re characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics. Most people find that idea intolerable, so powerful is our illusion that we really do make choices. (my emphasis).
But um, Jerry, we do actually make choices, right? Don’t we? I mean, not in some amazingly deep philosophically or morally fraught sense of choice, as in “But did Hitler really have a choice to not be a monster?”, but in a basic, boring, everyday sense, as in “Do you want Froot Loops or muesli?” Surely you talk this way too, when you go home?I think Jerry would concede that we do make such choices, but insist that they aren’t “real” choices. Well, what is a “real” choice as distinct from an unreal one? Like in the case of magic, it would appear that according to Jerry and other incompatibilists, “real choice” refers to the choices that are not real (i.e., don’t actually happen because they require supernatural powers), while the choice that is real — that can, y’know, actually be done — is not. real. choice.And yet I would bet a large sum of money that Jerry et al. are perfectly willing to use the language of choice in their daily lives, as soon as they’ve forgotten about the day’s blogo-philosophizing. This is not just because choice is a powerful illusion (which would presumbably [sic] be their preferred rationalization) — it’s because the concept of “choice” cuts reality at the joints. Choice is one of the most important things that the human brain does; arguably, the brain’s ability to model the world and choose from alternative actions IS its survival value.
But if the appearance of choice is the same thing as free choice, or the same thing as free will, do cats have free will? How about earthworms? Rotifers? And what about bacteria, who make a “choice” by usually moving toward chemical gradients that indicate food or light? All of these organisms appear to make choices. So do plants, who can “choose” to produce one type of leaf or another, or grow in a certain direction. For that matter, so do computers. Do all of these have free will? How do we determine when the appearance of choice in other species means something different from the appearance of choice in humans? Or does it?
Ian, there’s no need to bet, for you’d win: yes, I use the language of choice because I feel that I’m choosing, even if I don’t believe that intellectually. But saying that “choice” is one of the most important things that the human brain does” (and try reading that as “‘choice’ is one of the most important things that the earthworm brain does”) really evades the whole question, which I see—and I know others might disagree—as this: “At any one moment, can we have behaved other than we did?” That is an important question that Pollock completely tosses aside—or rather, admits that the answer is ‘no’ but consider that that answer is trivial. Yet, despite Pollock’s assertion that most people concur with proposition #2 above, that is the way many people conceive of free will! Is Pollock willing to write an essay telling people that their behavior, now and in the future, is completely determined by the laws of physics, but that it doesn’t matter?
Of course it matters! It matters in how we think of ourselves (I, for one, have tried to stop fretting about bad “choices” in the past, since I had no alternative); it matters in how we conceive of moral responsibility, reward, and punishment (if it didn’t, why are philosophers engaged in furious debate about the effects of determinism on moral responsibility?); and it matters to religious people, who really do feel that they have a choice about whether to accept Jesus as saviour, or about whether the evils in the world stem from God’s having bequeathed us free will. And it matters because for hundreds of years people thought the soul was separate from the brain, and now we know that such dualism is wrong: the mind, and our choices, reflect, pure and simple, the physical behavior of matter. There is no spooky “will” controlling our thoughts and actions.
In the end, Pollock and I sort of agree, though I think he considers himself as a compatibilist because he sees the appearance of choice as equivalent to “free will.” (In this, by the way, I think he disagrees with Massimo, who still doesn’t appear convinced about determinism, and isn’t willing to go so far as Pollock in saying our behaviors are predetermined.) Pollock concludes:
A good reductionist would look at this incredibly useful concept of “choice” and then try to figure out how it fits into the determined physical universe. Eventually, they would conclude that choice is a physical process like eating or breathing or thinking.
Yes, the concept of choice is useful, and I do use it all the time. But that’s different from “free will”! In one case you evince one of several possible behaviors, in the other you see that that selection was just one of several possible actions you could have taken. That’s a vital distinction, and it’s important to let people know the difference.
Somehow, I think, compatibilists who are also determinists are loath to preach (or even emphasize) determinism. (Pollock isn’t.) I’ve even been told by determinists that although they agree with me, it’s important not to let the general public know that their “choices” are predetermined! That attitude reminds me of an old anecdote which, as The Quote Investigator has shown, is probably apocryphal. Nevertheless, it’s appropriate:
On hearing, one June afternoon in 1860, the suggestion that mankind was descended from the apes, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester is said to have exclaimed, ‘My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.’
It’s always better to tell people what you really think about issues like this than to hush up one’s determinism under the misguided notion that the general public simply can’t handle it. So yes, by all means let us retain the word “choice,” but let us realize what it really means. We appear to freely choose among alternatives, but, as Pollock admits, that freedom is illusory. But while keeping “choice,” I think we should dispense with the term “free will,” for it has so many different meanings, and is so freighted, that it’s no longer useful except, perhaps, in philosophical discourse. In both my and Pollock’s conception of “choice”, there is no freedom in “free will”!
I’ll end with a comment by Spinoza from The Ethics:
“Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause of their actions.”