The concept of “free won’t” was, I recall, floated by researcher Benjamin Libet, the first person to show that our brain can make simple but predictable “decisions” that can be detected and predicted by researchers (using brain scans) before the subject is conscious of having made a decision. Although, said Libet, we may not be able to exercise “free will,” we can somehow override the “decisions” made by our brain in an exercise of dualism called “free won’t.” That, of course, is completely bogus: if your actions are determined by the laws of physics, then “overriding a perceived decision” is also determined by the laws of physics. If there can be no libertarian free will, then there can be no libertarian free won’t.
Here, in Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy, Bucky Catt and Satchel engage in a muddled discussion of the issue. Still, it’s pretty philosophical for a comic strip!
While I’m on the topic, Dan Dennett has published a review of a new book that, he says, refutes simplistic notions of free will (i.e., the book defends “compatibilism”, the notion that we can still have free will even though our decisions are determined). The book is Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, by philosopher Alfred Mele, and Dennett’s review, “Are we free?: Neuroscience gives the wrong answer” is on the Prospect Magazine website.
Dennett, as usual, defends his compatibilist view that despite the reign of determinism, we can still have free will and be morally responsible. Dennett’s view of “free will” is simply that the human brain is a complicated device, and must take in many inputs before it reaches the “output” of a decision. (That requirement for multiple inputs is presumably evolved.) Yes, that output could be predicted given perfect knowledge and the assumption that quantum mechanics doesn’t apply in the brain (even if it did, that doesn’t give us any “freedom”), but it’s still complicated. My own refutation of this notion is to admit that the wiring and operation of human brains (sometimes called “rumination” when it is accessible to consciousness) is complicated, but that there’s still no freedom in the output, just as there’s no freedom in the output of any complex computer program. So although the lab experiments showing pre-conscious decisions are simple ones, I have little doubt that, with refinement of brain-imaging techniques, we’ll be able to predict with appreciable accuracy even more complex decisions. In the end, any kind of dualistic free will is ruled out by naturalism, and any kind of compatibilism is just a sop foisted on the public to let them continue believing that they can “choose otherwise.”
Seriously, I don’t know why philosophers occupy themselves with this arcane and diverse exercise in compatibilism, which resembles theology more than philosophy (it’s motivated, as Dan has admitted for himself, because some philosophers think society would disintegrate if we thought our decisions were all predetermined by naturalism). To me it seems far more important that philosophers impress on the average person that determinism reigns, something that philosophers seem reluctant to do. After all, it’s determinism, not compatibilism, that carries the important lessons about how we should change our views of responsibility, punishment, and reward.
And, at any rate, Dennett, I, and nearly all philosophers agree that for any decision, we could not have decided otherwise. So there is no real “freedom.” The rest is semantics and commentary.
I’ve amply aired my disagreements with Dan on free will in previous posts on this site, so I won’t dissect his piece further except to say that he repeatedly makes statements that appear to give us some kind of “autonomy,” which of course can mean only that the entity who makes a decision is identifiable as a named human (my emphasis below):
. . . people can be manipulated into doing things they know better than to do; people’s introspective access to their own thought processes is far from foolproof, and you shouldn’t play poker if you can’t maintain a relatively inscrutable poker face. People who don’t know these home truths are perhaps too benighted, too naïve, to be granted full responsibility for their actions, but the rest of us, wise to these weaknesses in our own control systems, can take steps to protect our autonomy and be held responsible for doing just that.
Science may someday come up with some further line of investigation that does indeed show we are deluded about our capacity to make responsible choices, but to date, the cases made are unimpressive, and that is all that Mele modestly attempts to show.
Certainly we must be held responsible for our choices: to protect society if we make bad ones (showing our brains have “faulty” wiring), to deter others from thinking they can get away with antisocial behavior, and to help rehabilitate those who engage in such behavior. But I deny that this responsibility for is a “moral” responsibility. What does the word “moral” add to that? And if we don’t have a choice in how to act, what is “moral” except the label that predetermined actions comport with social norms? Imputing “moral” responsibility is no different from saying “this person did that thing for reasons we can’t completely understand.”
But I do agree with Dan’s piece in one respect: he says that we must worry a bit about Mele’s conclusions because they comport with the goals of the organization that funded them: the Templeton Foundation. I quote Dan in full here:
This review could similarly end on the mild, modest verdict that Mele has done his job and done it well. But there is a larger context worth considering. Suppose you were reviewing a scientific report that drew the conclusion that a diet without fat was in fact unhealthy, and that butter and cream and even bacon in moderation were good for you, and suppose further that the science was impeccable, carefully conducted and rigorously argued. Good news! Yes, but the author acknowledges in fine print that the research was financed by a million dollar grant from the Foundation for the Advancement of Bacon. We would be entitled—obliged—to keep that fact in the limelight. The science may be of the highest quality, honestly and sincerely reported, but do remember that the message delivered was the message hoped for by the funder. This is not reporting a finding contrary to the goals of the fact-seekers.
So it is important to note that Mele’s research, as he scrupulously announces, and not in fine print, is supported by the Templeton Foundation. In fact, Mele is the director of a $4.4m project, “Free Will: Empirical and Philosophical Investigations,” funded by the Templeton Foundation, almost certainly the most munificent funding of any philosopher in history. The Templeton Foundation has a stated aim of asking and answering the “Big Questions,” and its programmes include both science and theology. In fact, yoking its support of science with its support of theology (and “individual freedom and free markets”) is the very core of its strategy. The Templeton Foundation supports, with no strings attached, a great deal of excellent science that is otherwise hard to fund. The Foundation supports theological and ideological explorations as well, and it uses the prestige it garners from its even-handed and generous support of non-ideological science to bolster the prestige of its ideological forays. It could easily divide itself into two (or three) foundations, with different names, and fund the same research—I know, because I challenged a Templeton director on this score and was told that they could indeed, but would not, do this.
Alfred Mele is in an unenviable position, and there is really nothing he can do about it. Was his decision to stay strictly neutral on the compatibilism issue a wise philosophical tactic, permitting him to tackle a more modest project, demonstrating the weakness of the scientific argument to date, or was it a case of simply postponing the more difficult issue: if, as science seems to show, our decision-making is not accomplished with the help of any quantum magic, do we still have a variety of free will that can support morality and responsibility? The Templeton Foundation insists that it is not anti-science, and demonstrates this with the bulk of its largesse, but it also has an invested interest in keeping science from subverting some of its ideological aspirations, and it just happens that Mele’s work fits handsomely with that goal. And that, as I persist in telling my friends in science whenever they raise the issue, is why I advise them not to get too close to Templeton.