Arguments for and against free will


I came across this interesting debate between two professors of philosophy Gregg Caruso and Daniel Dennett on the endlessly fascinating and controversial question of whether we have free will or not. The topic is fascinating because what exactly we mean by the term ‘free will’ is difficult to pin down and controversial because many people find it hard to give up the idea that they have free will and respond very strongly against arguments that deny it exists. (For those who want to go into it in some detail, back in 2010 I wrote a multipart series of blog posts on this very topic. It is better to read them in sequence but do not follow the links at the top of each post to ‘previous posts’ because that link takes you to when the posts were published on a site before I moved to FtB and that site no longer exists.)

I used to give a seminar class to graduate students on how to read journal articles critically, an important research skill. Trying to assess the merits of an argument, whether the evidence justifies the conclusions, and what are the shortcomings, are all skills that need to be learned. As an exercise, I would give them a paper from the journal Nature which had fMRI data that suggested that we did not have free will. I chose it because most people have a deep belief in free will and hence the students were more likely to spend an enormous amount of energy to analyze the argument and try and find holes in it, far more than if I had given them a paper on pretty much any other topic.

This debate between Caruso and Dennett is at a sophisticated level. Neither of the debaters believes in immaterial entities like the soul or a ‘ghost in the machine’ (a term coined by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle to connote some kind of homunculus that exists inside our head and controls our actions). Both these people believe that our biological bodies are all that there is and that our actions are the products of our brains. The realization of that fact was what convinced me that we have no free will, defined in the sense that I could have done something differently from I have just done, like typing the word ‘typing’. This is the stance taken by Caruso who calls himself a ‘free will skeptic’ or ‘hard incompatibilist’.

A lot of the debate centers on what happens to morality in the absence of free will and to what extent can we hold people responsible for their actions and punish them for their transgressions. Caruso says that free will skeptics do not deny that there may be good reasons for retaining punishments but they do say that the retributive motivation for punishments, that we punish people because they deserve it are not valid. He says that who we are and what we become is largely dependent on the various forms of luck that occur as we grown up. But he says that punishments can “be justified by its role in incapacitating, rehabilitating and deterring offenders”. Dennett too rejects the idea of retributive justice but argues that adult human beings who are not insane can be held responsible for their actions because they are autonomous agents.

So what is Dennett, a well-known atheist philosopher who has written a lot about evolution, arguing for? He is what is known as a ‘compatibilist’, who believes that even if we concede that we are purely biological entities, there is room for free will. I must admit that even after reading Dennett’s argumenta, I find myself still not able to understand how he arrives at this conclusion, and Caruso seems to share my mystification. Dennett argues that all biological organisms have evolved but that humans uniquely evolved to have free will. That alone makes me uneasy because the effort to find some marker that distinguishes humans from all other species has been fraught with difficulties and I do not believe has been successful.

Here are some passages from Caruso.

[T]hose who reject moral responsibility reject the basic system which starts from the assumption that all minimally competent persons are morally responsible. For the free-will skeptic, it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible, no matter how reasonable, competent, self-efficacious, strong-willed and clear-sighted that person may be. Since skeptics like myself, who globally challenge moral responsibility, do not accept the rules of that system, it is question-begging to assume our ordinary moral responsibility practices are justified without refuting the various arguments for global skepticism.

My second concern is that blame and punishment, especially legal punishment, can cause severe harm. If you want to justify the harm caused by blame and punishment on the assumption that agents are free and morally responsible, hence justly deserve to suffer for the wrongs they have done, then it would seem you need good epistemic reasons for thinking agents actually are free and morally responsible in the sense required.

But my claim is that basic-desert moral responsibility, and with it the notion of just deserts, is too often used to justify punitive excess in criminal justice, to encourage treating people in severe and demeaning ways, and to excuse and perpetuate social and economic inequalities. Consider, for example, punitiveness. Researchers have found that stronger belief in free will is correlated with increased punitiveness. They also found that weakening one’s belief in free will makes them less retributive in their attitudes about punishment

The system of desert keeps alive the belief that if you end up in poverty or prison, this is ‘just’ because you deserve it. Likewise, if you end up succeeding in life, you and you alone are responsible for that success. This way of thinking keeps us locked in the system of blame and shame, and prevents us from addressing the systemic causes of poverty, wealth-inequality, racism, sexism, educational inequity and the like. My suggestion is that we move beyond this, and acknowledge that the lottery of life is not always fair, that luck does not average out in the long run, and that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control.

For an extremely superficial argument for free will, see this essay by science writer John Horgan who essentially says that since we have the feeling that we are choosing to do things, that means that we have free will. The counter to that argument is found in a passage by Caruso.

In a 1929 interview in The Saturday Evening Post, [Albert Einstein] said: ‘I do not believe in free will … I believe with Schopenhauer: we can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must.’ He goes on to add: ‘My own career was undoubtedly determined, not by my own will but by various factors over which I have no control.’ He concludes by rejecting the idea that he deserves praise or credit for his scientific achievements: ‘I claim credit for nothing. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.’

Schopenhauer’s neat formulation of how we retain the sense of having free will while not having it (“We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must”) explains why we can feel that we have free will (in Horgan’s sense) without actually having it. Isaac Beshevis Singer also had a great quote that I use in my book: “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”

I recommend reading the whole debate if you are interested in this question.

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    what exactly we mean by the term ‘free will’ is difficult to pin down and controversial because many people find it hard to give up the idea that they have free will and respond very strongly against that deny it exists.

    This is a strange phenomenon. Redefining a term because you don’t like the fact that, as straightforwardly defined, it is clear that it doesn’t exist.

  2. Allison says

    1. I recall reading a summary of some research on decision-making. They monitored (MRI? EEG?) the brain activity and had people indicate what they were thinking, and the conclusion was that the brain starts acting on a decision before the thought appears in the conscious mind. (This actually isn’t so surprising — it’s well known that there are unconscious parts of the brain that recognize things by some sort of pattern recognition and can trigger a response before the person is even aware of what’s happening. What we call “reflexive” actions.)

    2. I think there’s a place for moral thinking. That our thinking and behavior are (at least in a reductionist sense) determined doesn’t mean that having different ideas will not affect our actions.

    I think of “free will” vs. “determinism” is a question of perspective. From the point of view of an observer outside the universe, everything is determined and “responsibility” is meaningless, but inside our minds, we do have to make choices, and if we use these notions of “free will” and “responsibility” to guide us in our choices, then it makes a difference.

    The metaphor of the particle/wave duality is much overworked, but it should at least remind us that apparently contradictory concepts may both be “true”, but differ in what situation they are appropriate for.

    For instance, a therapist who is advising a person in difficult circumstances (e.g., an African-American in a ghetto in a racist society) will reasonably talk about “choices,” but the same therapist, if asked to advise on social policy, needs to point out that treating people a certain way is rather predictably going to result in certain behaviors (e.g., addition, crime, violence.)

  3. mnb0 says

    “I came across this interesting debate between two professors of philosophy”
    Wrong guys. Free will isn’t a philosophical topic anymore, but a scientifc one. Specifically neurbiologists will have to decide by reaching consensus about a model of the human brains that works. Then we will see to what extent human decisions are predetermined and to what extent not. My bet is that that model will be largely probabilistic (which will mean that free will is a meaningful concept), but I tend to lose such bets.

    @1 RegS: ” Redefining a term because you don’t like the fact that, as straightforwardly defined, it is clear that it doesn’t exist.”
    This remark is even stranger, because this happens in science pretty often. Cf. force in physics.

  4. Jean says

    If you reject duality, there is no other conclusion than that there is no free will. Everything we perceive and do is due to chemistry which is totally deterministic.The issue is that there are so many variables that is would be impossible to predict the outcome and even the simple action is dependent on a multitude of inputs in the present and everything that has happened since our creation to result in the current cells and neural pathways as well as the biome living inside of and on our body.

    But everything that we do in the only thing that we could have done because the circumstance were what they were. The initial state defines the outcome.

    Having said that , it still leaves out the issue of what is consciousness and how we end up with this illusion of ‘mind’ and we build our own internal story and perception of reality. It still doesn’t change the absence of free will and determinism but it is something needs exploring (without magical thinking such as any special human evolution…).

  5. Callinectes says

    The punishment debate is a curious one to me. I’d have thought that in the absence of free will we have no choice *but* to punish wrongdoers for that very reason.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Jean @#4,

    Caruso says that he does not call himself a ‘determinist’ since there is a probabilistic element to life and the future is not entirely determined by the present. Instead he calls himself an hard-incompatibilist:

    Side note: my own free-will skepticism is agnostic about determinism. I maintain that whether or not the Universe is governed by deterministic laws, Einstein’s general point remains true, since indeterminate events are no more within our control than determined ones. This is why, following [the Dutch-born moral philosopher] Derk Pereboom, I call myself a hard-incompatibilist rather than a hard-determinist.)

    I also consider myself a hard incompatibilist.

  7. René says

    I often think of the matter of free will in the morning; when do I decide to get up? and when do I actually get up? These thoughts arise more the lower the temperature in the bedroom. There is no conscious decision involved, is my experience — I just get up.

    So, I can easily concede I have no Free Will.

    Nevertheless, when it comes to the courtroom, you are a black box to the rest of us, including the judge. So, if I were to judge your crimes, your behaviour will be judged as if you DO have a free will.

  8. flex says

    @Allison#2, to your first point I have read the same studies, done in the early 2000’s. However, a few months ago I read a new analysis of those studies which cast doubt on the results. IIRC the early studies were discovering potentiation pulses which may, or may not, have been linked to decision making by the non-conscious brain prior to the conscious brain making a decision. With this new information (it was in a journal, not some random blog post on the internet, so I give it a certain amount of credence), I would say that the evidence is inconclusive. Our non-conscious brain may be making decisions before our conscious brain is, or it may not be.

    As for free will, the more I look for it the less of it I see around me. Most of the time people are not using their minds to think, or make any conscious decisions, they are only using their minds to navigate the world they live in. The decision to have either chicken or fish for supper does not need free will to resolve.

  9. Jean says

    This probabilistic view seems to me more like the inability of predicting rather than things being deterministic or not but I don’t have enough technical background and knowledge to back this up with anything concrete. In either case, as you mention that doesn’t affect the inability to control one’s own future.

  10. consciousness razor says

    I’m not on board with every aspect of Dennett’s position, but some kind of compatibilism seems right to me. It is consistent with determinism that something worth the label “free will” exists … just not libertarian/contracausal free will.

    Maybe that feels like a bait-and-switch, but we don’t actually need to define the term so that it has the libertarian/contracausal meaning. I argue that people (at least not most of them, in my experience) don’t actually spring out of the ground with a fully-formed, detailed, sophisticated concept of “free will” in their minds, such as the libertarian/contracausal one that was hashed out by philosophers over many years. People tend to have a very vague idea that they can make choices, and the point is that this is basically the correct thing to think about oneself.

    Determinism doesn’t have much of anything to do with it. If the world were indeterministic, that wouldn’t cut it. Random events and so forth might seem “free” in some sense, but they’re still not something that a person “willed” to happen. If anything, it’s the other way around: a complete lack of determinism would preclude it, because then “your choices” wouldn’t be motivated/decided by you or by anything whatosever. Anyway, the whole controversy about it is just one confusion piled on top of another.

    I also disagree with some of Dennett’s moral claims, but it’s hard to sort through when they get mixed in with the rest of the arguments. He says he’s not arguing for retributivism, but sometimes he does seem to waffle about that.

    Dennett argues that all biological organisms have evolved but that humans uniquely evolved to have free will. That alone makes me uneasy because the effort to find some marker that distinguishes humans from all other species has been fraught with difficulties and I do not believe has been successful.

    Well, he thinks it’s more of a continuum…. Not really a one-dimensional thing like that term suggests, but a whole space of different abilities which can vary more or less independently.

    Think of it in basically the same way as you probably would about “intelligence.” (Leave aside results of IQ tests and so forth, just the plain old concept.) That’s hard to nail down to anything precise. It seems to be true that humans are uniquely intelligent among animals, that no other species comes close, although others do still have it to some extent or in some ways.

    On the opposite end of things, it’s not easy to distinguish between a very low level of intelligence and non-intelligence (in for example a virus, or a simple AI program). But at the same time, there also doesn’t seem to be any sense in claiming that a table or a chair is intelligent – some such things are just lacking it entirely. We’re definitely getting a handle on something when we say all sorts of things like that, but it’s a very complicated set of phenomena to try to understand.

  11. says

    I read Dennet’s ode to compatibilism a few years ago and it seemed that his argument was “if you define ‘free will’ as ‘that feeling of free will you have’ then you have free will.” Seriously, though, he used a very narrow definition of ‘free will’ that I doubt anyone who is not a philosopher named Dennet would have.

    Of course, he can’t help it.

  12. G Pierce says

    @consciousness razor “a complete lack of determinism would preclude it, because then “your choices” wouldn’t be motivated/decided by you or by anything whatosever. ” thanks for pointing this out. At some point I started feeling like the problem of free will is an absurd question to begin with. If “I” have free will, what is “I”? What is “freedom” Where would that “freedom” come from? How could “I” make a decision that is “free” without it having any basis? I don’t think I would want my “I” to be composed of complete randomness, that would feel even less free and contrary to a sense of self. I think that is where the philosophy comes in, regardless of biology.

  13. deepak shetty says

    I could have done something differently from I have just done
    You could have. But if you mean if you go back in time without these memories could you have done something differently ? If yes then we would call that “Random” , not free will. Why would you take a different decision unless something has changed -- that is not logical in any way , even if you believed in a soul -- Why would your soul take a different decision in the exact same circumstance?. Most people use this I could have done something differently in the sense of Had I known then , what I know now , I would do something different -- that is -- a change of state is needed to make a change of decision. had you known that an annoying Internet commenter would respond to your post perhaps you wouldnt have typed it!

    In a way its undeniable that a choice is made -- my spouse just annoyed me -- I can shout at her or I can count to 10.
    It is me making that choice -- The fact that I will always make that choice is neither here not there. I will always make that choice because thats what my brain decide to do for that state of information and circumstance that it had.

    I wonder though , why free will or choice is chosen for special attention by Hard Incompatibilists.
    Couldn’t we say the same thing about any emotion we feel ? Say Happiness ? Some people see their children and feel happiness , others find happiness in seeing immigrants separated from their children. Its all just laws of physics -- nothing to see here -- your brain reacts in a pseudo deterministic way and makes you feel that emotion -- it isnt “real”. We shouldnt judge these scenarios -- no one had any choice in the matter.

  14. deepak shetty says

    @Callinectes

    I’d have thought that in the absence of free will we have no choice *but* to punish wrongdoers for that very reason.

    Quick! We need to withdraw all the Gnu Atheist books/articles that complain about the barbaric punishments that Saudi Arabia and other theocracies inflict on their populations. They have no choice *but* to punish wrongdoers in that way.

    @mnbo

    Free will isn’t a philosophical topic anymore, but a scientifc one

    Oh scientific one -- please provide a scientific definition of “will” and “free”.

    @Rene

    your behaviour will be judged as if you DO have a free will.

    All the hard incompatibilists here , all act and use terms and behave as if they do have a free will. They just escape that inconsistency by saying that is just the way it is.Their brains know its not true ,but poor thing , it just must do what it must.

  15. consciousness razor says

    All the hard incompatibilists here , all act and use terms and behave as if they do have a free will. They just escape that inconsistency by saying that is just the way it is.Their brains know its not true ,but poor thing , it just must do what it must.

    A lot of incompatibilists seem pretty ambivalent about where they stand. If it’s just an insistence that it’s “incompatible” … then I have no idea what they’re really saying. Incompatible with what, exactly?

    It’s funny. Some can’t seem to decide if they mean indeterminism has to do with our ability to know/predict what happens, or if it’s about what does happen. Is it that they “must” act? Or are they actually saying the opposite because determinism is false? It’s never very clear with some people. They just start shuffling the cards, sort of oblivious to it all, and don’t seem to notice when they pulled off the magic trick. Next time, it might be a different one, and they’ll just breeze right past that too. Not like Ricky Jay, who might be fooling you, but at least he’s entertaining.

  16. machintelligence says

    Determinism seems to me to insist that there is no “noise” in the system. The past is fixed, so the future must be as well. On grand scale this is true, the planetary orbits are very predictable, however which atom of a radioactive element will emit a particle is not. We inhabit a middle ground between these extremes but are influenced by them. Your life may be cut short (or not) depending on whether a particular radon atom does or does not cause a mutation of a cell in your lungs that makes it cancerous. Therefor I would argue that the universe is deterministic at a large scale, but not at a small one.
    As a biologist, I believe that our brains are wired to predict the future (in a probabilistic sense) and choose the best perceived possible actions to facilitate survival and reproduction. Some actions are instinctive (hard wired) and others are capable of being modified to some degree. This is where free will and retributive justice come into play. Punishment is a way of “telling” the organism “you made the wrong choice.” Or possibly “we can’t make you do the right thing, but we can make you wish you had.” Some of us are even smart enough to learn from the experience of others and not just ourselves. We may not have absolute free will, but we can modify our behavior based on our perceived environment.

  17. Jean says

    Interesting that with the user name ‘machintelligence’ you think that learning means it’s not deterministic. You have machine learning that is totally deterministic and dependent on the inputs and the programming. Why do you think that the same cannot happen in biological learning? What you mention requires some sort of duality thinking and not a purely physical interpretation our universe.

    Mentioning ‘noise’, radioactivity, and predictability just adds external events that are not in your control and cannot lead to some conclusion of the existence of free will without introducing some sort of magical thinking or duality. Also, lack of predictability does not preclude determinism simply because if you cannot measure precisely the initial conditions and/or cannot model exactly some phenomenon, you won’t be able to predict the outcome. That doesn’t mean the outcome is not determined but only that you cannot predict what it will be. For example, weather forecast is not precise because you cannot measure the initial state but the weather will be whatever it will be regardless. The human brain activity is similar but with orders of magnitude more complexity.

  18. Jean says

    By the way, I don’t know if anyone here has been watching the series Devs which does rely on the free will idea but I must say that I was really disappointed in the final episode. A very unsatisfying way of going around the idea of a lack of free will.

  19. John Morales says

    To me, the free will issue is akin to the simulation issue; whether or not it is the case, it changes nothing.

    Jean @18, “Also, lack of predictability does not preclude determinism simply because if you cannot measure precisely the initial conditions and/or cannot model exactly some phenomenon, you won’t be able to predict the outcome.”

    Indeed.

  20. friedfish2718 says

    Atheists always discuss with acrimony issues of God and Free Will.

    Why?

    Discussing, say, the existence of extra-terrestials does not bring in issues of God and Free Will.

    Discussing either about God or Free Will necessarily brings in the issue of Morality. There can be no Morality without Free Will.
    .
    .
    Ah, Morality.
    .
    .
    For ages and in vain, atheists tried to build a purely materialistic theory of Morality. There MUST be a set of mathematical equations defining and describing the behavior of Morality. Akin to Maxwell’s electrodynamic equations.
    .
    .
    “Metaphysics” is a word coined by Aristotle; he knew there is a vast universe which is beyond the material/physical universe.
    .
    .
    As of 2020 AD, is Physics/Math/Logic at a stage to “conquer” the metaphysical world? Answer: no.
    .
    .
    Humans have consciousness. I propose: so do dogs, lizards, and (may I dare say) bacteria. The evolution stage of consciousness is different for different species. May I dare (again) to propose that
    protons have a “spirit” attribute.
    .
    .
    Atheist scientists are a bit cowardly; they consciously (pun intended) avoid potentially fruitful lines of investigation.
    .
    .
    Comment about a commentator who wrote: “Free will isn’t a philosophical topic anymore, but a scientific one”. Commentator is confused. Science is a philosophy, namely natural philosophy. During Isaac Newton’s time, scientists were called natural philosophers. I bet the commentator is a Marxist.

  21. John Morales says

    friedfishe:

    Atheists always discuss with acrimony issues of God and Free Will.

    Nope. Not always. Only when goddists spout their inanities.

    Why?

    Because people like you introduce your imaginary sky fairy into such discussions, thus wasting everyone’s time.

    (Your comment is the very first instance of “God” in this discussion)

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