I can’t help but write about this again.
Reader Jeff Johnson was one of the participants on the lively “free will” thread that started with my response to a defense of “compatibilism” (the idea that free will is compatible with physical determinism) by Ian Pollock at Rationally Speaking. On that thread Johnson made a comment that I liked a lot (because I agree with it, of course). He was responding to a comment by “tushcloots” claiming the immense complexity of human behavior as part of “free will,” and went on to say this:
We are not dualists, no one here is. That is what I don’t understand, it seems to me we are saying the same thing, except you say we don’t have free will, and those of us that do are somehow dualists and incompatabilists.
Okay, but perhaps pseudo-dualists…let me explain.
Why do compatibilists want to redefine the term “free will”? This has long been a basis of theological speculation and used as a foundation of moral reasoning. The traditional view of “free will” is that some non-physical “I” decides freely of any constraint or limitation. What’s more, this traditional view of “free will” has always been considered to be a unique attribute of humans, it has long been advertised as an invitation to choose and accept God, and it has long been presented as a gift from God. It is that thing that makes us special and raises us above the level of mere animals.
It should be clear why incompatibilists want to abandon it: because it truly does not exist, it stems from an illusion in our minds, and it confuses people into thinking that maybe God does exist after all.
Why not just admit that “free will” is an illusion? We can will, want, and decide, but not freely in this traditional sense.
It seems that compatibilists squirm uncomfortably when faced with the reality of a material deterministic world because they fear that if our choices and our will is not “free” in this traditional way that somehow we lose some or even all of our humanity.
They don’t seem to grasp that our choice at any moment can be algorithmic and determined by the state of our brain and body, and that we could not have chosen otherwise, yet we still have all the human things like loving and feeling and the seemingly non-deterministic things like reasoning and intending and sincerity and honesty. It seems that compatibilists fret over the worry that these human qualities are somehow impossible in a fully material and deterministic world.
The compatibilist position feels like a fearful straddle of God world and real world because they just aren’t quite able to grasp that how we observe people to be actually is the product of an entirely materialist deterministic world.
Perhaps that we can not (at least for now) build a conscious machine worries them. Or even scarier, the possibility that someday we really may build a conscious machine worries them more. And these worries cause them to waffle about in the middle hoping some third way will appear to save their cherished notion of humans somehow elevated above the level of being products of pure biochemistry.
Just like the optical illusions created by our mental processing of the perception of color values on boundaries between contrasting colors, the feeling that our will is “free” and unconstrained by the physical computational structure of our brain at any moment is an illusion.
And there is no need to fear that these facts diminish our ability to voluntarily engage in action or resist external coercion. Those are natural human behaviors that are products of our deterministic brain, and their existence is abundantly evidenced by everyday humanbehavior.
So what is the need to nervously cling to insistence on some special reduced concept of “free will” out of fear that without it we somehow lose our humanity? I’m calling this pseudo-dualism. Instead, by clearly understanding this distinction between libertarian free choice and algorithmically determined choice we truly discover our actual humanity, and it is every bit as beautiful and satisfying as any vague dualist or compatibilist pseudo-dualist conception of humanity ever was.
I like the term “pseudo-dualism,” which seems to me pretty accurate. Now I don’t agree that every attempt to redefine “free will” in the “nonreligious” sense is meant to preserve some sense of autonomy in humans, but I don’t think that characterization is far off. Not many compatibilists are dualists anymore, but “pseudo-dualism” often takes the form of criticizing our scientific understanding of the brain, trying to find the elusive free will in the gaps of our understanding about neuropsychology. In that respect it’s similar to creationists trying to find God in the gaps of our understanding about biology.
Here, for example, are a couple of defenses of compatibilism raised by Massimo Pigliucci in his recent post on Rationally Speaking, “On free will, response to readers” and in his earlier post, “Jerry Coyne on free will”:
- The concept of causality is unclear:
. . . there is a free use of the concept of causality which, as I pointed out in my original post, is far from being clear at all, and of course is most definitely extra-scientific, meaning that science can only help itself to it, not investigate it empirically.
- There is an important difference between living creatures and nonliving matter:
. . . it is interesting to see that Matthew cannot conceive of a significant difference between filled polymers and brains, despite the obvious fact that brains, and not filled polymers, are alive, thinking, feeling, etc. Please do not take this as an argument for vitalism, it most definitely isn’t what I mean. But I find that that line of argument is somewhat question-begging: we are trying to figure out how chunks of matter can behave in such drastically different ways from other chunks of matter, so to point out the obvious (that they are all chunks of matter) hardly helps moving the debate forward. And of course, as someone commented in response to Matthew, it is no surprise that postmortem brains are just as inert as polymers. What interests us is what happens before they become postmortem.
But if anything is true, it’s that there’s no important material difference between nonlife and life. After all, the latter evolved from the former.
- The claim that we cannot choose freely is untestable and hence unscientific:
. . . my beef with Coyne is that he is the one making the strong claim that free will denial is a scientific proposition. I am not at all making the symmetrical claim that affirmation of free will is demonstrated by science, only the neutral one that science has precious little (okay, pretty much nothing) to say about free will.
I claim again that the onus is on critics of compatibilism to show that our brains are not subject to the same determinism as, say, a billiard ball. I also claim that there is evidence that our will is “illusory” in the form of many experiments showing that our sense of volition can be completely disconnected (or more strongly connected than warranted) from our actions.
- We’re not really sure that physical determinism is true, or operates throughout the universe.
And there are very decent philosophical arguments against determinism (and reductionism, which is also implied by this sort of claim). Moreover, what is at issue here is precisely whether “the same causes” are at work. Physics would have to have established causal closure in order to argue that, and it most definitely hasn’t. (Another way to put this is that everything in the universe behaves in a way that has to be compatible with the known laws of physics. This says nothing about whether those laws as we understand them comprise all there is to know about how the universe works.)
Parsimony suggests—and evidence supports the view—that the laws of physics apply throughout the universe, and certainly to our brains.
- There are irregularities in human behavior.
Of course we do observe departures from regularities, it’s called human behavior! Yes, as I mentioned above, it is predictable to a point, but it is nothing like the movement of planets or the behavior of polymers.
Predictability is not the same thing as determinism. We’ll likely never have the kind of knowledge we need to completely predict the future of the universe, much less how one person will behave. But that doesn’t mean that that behavior is somehow subject to laws different from those that govern the movement of atoms and planets.
- We feel that we make decisions, and that hasn’t been explained.
And there is, of course, the first person experience of making decisions after deliberation. That experience constitutes data (albeit not of the controlled fashion that would make them amenable to straightforward scientific investigation), and that data that needs to be explained, not explained away.
True, we don’t understand where our sense of agency comes from, or how it might have evolved—if it did. But this is a free-will-of-the-gaps argument. Like consciousness, free will is an epiphenomenon of our complex brains, and a material product of those brains. Which brings me to the final point in Massimo’s second post:
- Free will is an epiphenomenon, a subjective experience, that may not be reducible to the laws of physics.
My problem with Jerry’s position is that it is a form of eliminativism, a position in philosophy (not science!) of mind made popular by Paul and Patricia Churchland. When the Churchlands provocatively say that pain “just is” the firing of neuronal C-fibers they only begin to explain the subjective experience of pain. Yes, without the C-fibers we wouldn’t feel pain, but there is a huge difference between saying that the C-fibers are necessary for feeling pain (which we could express as: other conditions … > C-fibers > pain) and saying that firing C-fibers are the same thing as pain (C-fibers = pain). So too with eliminativism about free will: yes, we need the laws of physics to be able to make decisions, nor can we make decisions that violate said laws. But this is not at all the same as saying that therefore decision making is an illusion brought about by physics, no more than pain is an illusion courtesy of C-fiber firing.
True, free will is “real” in the sense that, like consciousness, it’s a phenomenon that we feel we have, but that doesn’t mean that we can choose freely, or that ultimately our sense of agency cannot be understood by studies of the brain. “Love” is a real phenomenon, too, but will, I think, ultimately be explained by the effects of chemicals on our brain. (Apropos, see Johnson’s comment, in the same thread, about his attempts at a software designer to produce a program that would produce different outputs from the same inputs.)
To me, the important question about whether free will is an “illusion” is not whether it’s an unexplained epiphenomenon, but whether we really can make alternative decisions at any point in time (that is, after all, why it’s called “free” will). Massimo more or less admits that we can’t when he says that “we neeed the laws of physics to be able to make decisions, nor can we make decisions that violate said laws.” This is an admission that at any point in time we cannot choose freely: the laws of physics dictate that there’s only one decision to be made. And that is an admission that while we appear to make choices, they aren’t free. The choice you made is the only one you could have made. Where is the freedom in that?