The question of what constitutes free will and how to describe the various arguments for and against its existence is tricky and requires careful articulation. I have been thinking about how to more carefully elucidate the issue since the interesting discussion the comments on my recent post on a debate by two philosophers on this issue, so here goes.
Let’s start with how we define free will. What I mean by having free will is that I could have decided to do something different from what I just did, which was to take a sip from a cup of coffee. This can be called contracausal free will. There are those who believe in such a contracausal free will because they think that our decisions are driven by a soul or by 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) that is somehow either disconnected from our body or can act independently of it and can control it. I am going to dismiss such ideas without further discussion, because those seem to invoke religious or spiritual elements that do not have any empirical basis and seem to deny the reality that we are biological machines whose behavior is driven by the way our bodies have been shaped by evolution and personal experience, and that our behavior is driven by physiological processes obeying natural laws.
But there are people like philosopher Daniel Dennett who are atheists and do not believe in the existence of such extra-material entities and yet seem to think that even given the fact that our biology is the driver of our actions, there is still room for free will. Such people are called compatibilists and I admit I do not understand their reasoning. It seems to me to be largely dependent on the subjective experience of feeling that ‘we’ are making decisions about what actions to take, though I am pretty sure that more sophisticated reasoning is involved.
In his debate with Dennett that I wrote about earlier, philosopher Gregg Caruso argues against the free will of compatibilists but also against determinism. People who deny the existence of free will are often called determinists but that is an inaccurate label. Determinism implies that the future is completely determined by the present. But that position became no longer tenable with the discovery of quantum mechanics and the realization that at the very fundamental levels of matter, there is an inherent indeterminancy that cannot be controlled and hence the future is neither strictly determined nor predictable, except perhaps in statistical terms. Although some believers in free will have seized upon this to claim an opening for the existence free will, that cannot be the case since all that it implies is that there is an element of randomness in outcomes that we cannot control, hardly what most mean by free will which requires the ability to control actions.
So what do I believe happens when we have the experience of ‘making decisions’? Our actions are directed by our brains. Those brains consist of neural networks whose pattern of firing determines outcomes. One pattern will cause me to take that sip of coffee right now, another will cause me to defer doing so until later. So what determines which firing pattern occurs? Part of it is the way our brains have been formed by our biological history. But outside stimuli also can play a role. One external stimulus such as a fly coming into view may result in one action while a different external stimulus may result in another. At the deepest level, quantum indeteminancy may trigger one firing pattern instead of another. But the basic fact is that while ‘I’ am doing these things, that ‘I’ consists of neural networks acting according to physical laws..
Almost all the actions we take in our daily life occur involuntarily, without us making a conscious decision to do so. We know that there are many things going on in our brains and the rest of our bodies that we are not consciously aware of. Within our bodies, our organs are busily working away and we are unaware of those processes. Furthermore we do many things unconsciously, like moving our hands, without feeling that we consciously decided to do them. Those things cannot be part of free will.
But there are times when I am conscious of making a decision to take an action before that action is taken. How does one explain those in purely biological terms? The same unconscious firing of neural networks that leads to involuntary actions can also, in some cases, lead to creating a feeling in our consciousness that makes us think we are deciding to do them. As long as that feeling rises into our consciousness before our actions, we think we have decided to do something of our own volition, when in fact both the feeling of deciding to take a specific action and the action itself arose from subconscious processes over which we had no control, with the illusion of choosing arising from the fact that the former occurs slightly before the latter. That time lag is what neuroscientific studies of the brain have been reporting. Schopenhauer had a nice formulation of how we retain the sense of having free will while not having it, saying that “We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must”.
So what are the consequences of not believing in free will? In most cases, there will be no difference. The key areas where the issue has an impact are morality and assigning responsibility for actions, especially in the case of crime and punishment. Caruso argues that since we have no free will, it is pointless to say that people are morally culpable for their actions. We should shift from talking about good and evil people, who use their free will to choose to do those things, to instead describing actions as good or evil. People can be punished for doing evil things because we want to deter them and others from doing similar things in the future, not because we think that they deserve punishment because of their moral failings. The same holds true for those who perform good actions. They are not rewarded because they are morally superior but because we want to encourage such actions by others. In both cases, punishments and rewards provide external stimuli that have an effect on the biological history of people who either receive them themselves or see others receiving them. That will influence their subsequent actions.
Whether we have free will or not has very little impact on our everyday lives and for most practical purposes we can continue to use language that has been developed around the idea of having free will because trying to avoid doing so would require tortuous circumlocutions and may not be worth the effort. As Isaac Beshevis Singer said: “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”
What name can we give to this set of unconscious processes that I am describing, since ‘determinism’ is not suitable? While I agree with Caruso’s arguments, I find the label he gives himself to be unsatisfying. Caruso calls himself a hard incompatibilist but that has problems. For one thing, it is not clear what extra value the word ‘hard’ is providing. It seems redundant. Secondly, defining something by what it is not is not a good practice, because then its meaning will shift if people start defining the original word differently. This is especially the case with the word compatibilism since its meaning is so hard to pin down and different people may have different understandings.
We need a better word than incompatibilism or hard incompatibilism for what Caruso and I believe and I am somewhat at a loss as to what to come up with. The best I can do is biologicalism that incorporates the idea that all our actions and decisions are determined entirely by our biology, fully incorporating the randomness that is inherent at the quantum mechanical level. But I am not sure if it will catch on. It may be that others have come up with a more suitable word that I am not aware of.