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 arguments, 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.