Yes, I know some of you are thinking “Oh, no—not another post on free will!” Well, if you’re one of those, you know what to do: just don’t read any further. I write about what interests me; and the free will debate, which is a rare nexus of of science, religion, and philosophy, is interesting. Plus I’m finishing up Sean Carroll’s very nice book, The Big Picture, and have just read his short chapter on the free will issue.
Sean is a compatibilist: someone who’s a determinist but still thinks that we should retain some conception of free will. In other words, he’s with me on the view that, in a given situation, we could not have “chosen” other than we did, for the laws of physics are either deterministic or probabilistic, and the quantum-mechanical “probabilistic” part doesn’t give us any “freedom of will.” Further, Sean is adamant that libertarian free will is not on the table, for it violates the laws of physics.
To his credit, Sean doesn’t try to offer up an alternative definition of free will like some compatibilists do, but merely says that using the language of “choice” is a useful convention, even if it’s not true that we “could have decided otherwise”. We talk about making such free choices, we feel like we make them, and we (I’m included here) use language implying that we could have chosen otherwise. As Sean says, “We attribute reality to our ability to make choices because thinking that way provides the best description we know of for the human-scale world.” This is in fact the theme of his book: if talking about “higher order” behaviors beyond the behavior of particles—things like consciousness or pain—is a useful convention, and helps us communicate or understand things better, than it’s okay—so long as we keep in mind that such behaviors result from the underlying physics.
I am not going to fight about that. I use the language of choice, and I don’t suggest eliminating it (the alternative is awkward, as I’ve discovered when trying to be scientifically accurate); but I do insist that we always remember that we could not have done otherwise, and I insist that because its ramifications for human behavior are profound, we must always keep fundamental determinism in mind. (Some readers disagree on these ramifications of determinism, but Sean agrees that they are important.)
But there’s an important way that higher level talk about free will differs from higher level talk about emotions like love. Our feeling of volition, like our feeling of love, ultimately rests on neuronal, biochemical, and physical processes that adhere to the laws of physics. And we are better able to communicate by talking about “love” and “choice” than by trying to parse that language down to the level of leptons. (In fact, you could lose your lover if you talk that way!) But there’s a difference. Knowing that love rests on chemistry (once a metaphor, now a reality) doesn’t have any clear or important implications for society.
That’s not true for free will, for the difference between pure determinism and most people’s conceptions of free will (a libertarian one) has huge implications for society. Sean is correct when he says “Where the issue [the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists] becomes more than merely academic is when we confront the notions of blame and responsibility.”
That’s why it’s not that important to keep reminding people that their feeling of love is a reflection of their experiences and genes mediated through the laws of physics, but why it IS important to keep reminding people that their feeling of agency is just a feeling, and doesn’t mean that in a given situation we could have chosen otherwise. It’s important to let them know that their behavior feel like they had agency, but really didn’t.
So, after this, there are two points I want to make about Sean’s chapter 44: “Freedom To Choose.” The first is simply a paragraph that I don’t understand, and perhaps readers can clarify. It’s this one (pp. 380-381):
One popular definition of free will is “the ability to have acted differently.” In a world governed by impersonal laws, one can argue that there is no such ability. Given the quantum state of the elementary particles that make up me and my environment, the future is governed by the laws of physics. But in the real world, we are not given that quantum state. We have incomplete information; we know about the rough configuration of our bodies and we have some idea of our mental states. Given only that incomplete information—the information we actually have—it’s completely conceivable that we could have acted differently.
I don’t get that paragraph at all. Lack of information simply means we cannot perfectly predict how we or anybody else will do, but it doesn’t say that what we’ll do isn’t determined in advance by physical laws. Unpredictability does not undermine determinism. And therefore, if you realize that, I don’t know how you can assert that “it’s completely conceivable that we could have acted differently.” It’s surely not conceivable to either Sean or me, or anybody who’s a determinist! Maybe we FEEL we could have acted differently, but what is “conceivable” is what we can conceive of with our existing knowledge. To me this means that it’s inconceivable that we could have acted differently. Am I missing a point here?
My other question is about Sean’s example of how our conventional human-level “ability to make choices” can be undermined by physical circumstances. He uses an example of a patient who had a brain tumor that changed his personality, causing him to download child pornography. (The “disease” was Klüver-Bucy syndrome, which causes hypersexuality). The patient was arrested, and, though a neurosurgeon testified that the patient was “not in control of his actions—he lacked free will”, he was convicted anyway.
What I would have added to this is that nobody who downloads child pornography is in control of his actions, at least in the sense that they could have avoided downloading the pornography. I’m sure Sean would agree. Whether you have a brain tumor, some other cause of hypersexuality, were abused yourself as a child, were mentally ill in a way with no clear physical diagnosis, or simply have been resistant to social pressures to avoid that kind of stuff—all of this is determined by your genes and your environment. How you treat someone convicted of that crime will differ depending on those causes, but a tumor takes away no more “freedom” than does the nexus of your genes and environmental experience.
And, to give him credit again, Sean recognizes this. But at the end he still seems to think that there’s a substantive difference between a tumor that affects your neurology or other things that affect your neurology, even if both cause you to seek out child pornography. Here’s what he says on p. 384:
To the extent that neuroscience becomes better and better at predicting what we will do without reference to our personal volition, it will be less and less appropriate to treat people as freely acting agents. Predestination will become part of our real world.
It doesn’t seem likely, however. Most people do maintain a certain degree of volition and autonomy, not to mention a complexity of cognitive functioning that makes predicting their future actions infeasible in practice.
But what does predictability have to do with this? We already know that people are not freely acting agents in the sense that they are free from deterministic control by their brains. We already know that people are predestined. (I’m not sure what Sean means by “a certain degree of volition and autonomy,” unless he means something like “compelled not by a brain tumor, but by other aspects of their neurology.”) And we shouldn’t treat anyone as freely acting agents.
I’ve already given my solution to this issue. We recognize that, at bottom, nobody could have done otherwise. If they are accused of something that society deems to be a crime, you find out if they really did commit that crime. If they’re found guilty, then a group of experts—scientists, psychologists, sociologists criminologists, etc.—determine what the “punishment” should be based on the person’s history (a brain tumor would mandate an operation, for instance), malleability to persuasion, likelihood of recidivism, danger to society, and deterrent effects. None of that needs the assumption that someone is a “freely acting agent.”
I know many of you will disagree on that, or on the ramifications of determinism for our punishment and reward system. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that Sean agrees with me on this: if science shows the way our behaviors are determined, that knowledge should affect the way we punish and reward people.