Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Question of Free Will - Part I - Why It Matters

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Is it true, as the pragmatists say, that we do not solve philosophical problems, only get over them?

What a strange idea.

Suppose we treated other problems like this.  What if our ancient precursors had deliberately ceased to wonder just what that mysterious light is which is born and dies each day, sailing across the sky, which we call the sun?  Would our world be a richer place if we had simply dismissed Zeno's paradox of motion, and Newton had never developed his calculus?  If hitherto unsolvable problems don't matter, then why is there a million dollar prize on offer to the person who solves certain long-standing problems in mathematics?

To be sure, problems which seem to have no solution have been with us since time immemorial.  And yet, we do not ignore them, brush them aside and pretend like we have "got over" these problems.  Or if we do, we do so at the risk of our own intellectual impoverishment.  In fact, there is a very good argument to be made, that our degree of abstract thinking and our ability to make conceptual leaps beyond the present, are the very factors which make human beings unique in the animal kingdom.

Now, in a way I agree with the pragmatists, in that philosophical problems which have no significant consequence should be ignored.  But the truly ageless philosophical problems persist for a reason, and the reason is that they are of the utmost practical importance.

The question of free will crops up in different forms and under various guises in ages as far back as we have record of.  The Greeks certainly wondered about it, as did the Hindus.  Even the ancient Egyptians wrestled with this question, as implicit in their code of Ma'at and lurking as it does not far below the surface in their many stories, for example that of Sinuhe.  Philosophy is not free from the vagaries of fashion, and problems in this discipline go in and out of vogue like bad hairstyles, but the problem of free will has remained at the heart of philosophy since the time of the Pre-Socratics at least.  It is ever-present outside of philosophy as well, from antiquity down to modern times, both in the popular consciousness and deeply enmeshed within religious thinking as far back as one cares to look.

The very fact that the question of free will persists, is enough to suggest that it is far from irrelevant.  But why is this?  Why is the question of free will important and why has it not been resolved?  My aim in this treatment of the problem is to address these questions, the first of which will be dealt with presently.

When we find our modern selves faced with a problem which, for all intents and purposes, will not yield an answer, what do we turn to?  We turn to science.  We live in the scientific age, where we have a method which, in principle at least, appears to be able to investigate just about anything, and to deliver better results than just about any other method at our disposal.  But there is a cornerstone of empirical science for which the problem of free will has grave implications, and that is the concept of falsifiability.  Falsifiability, simply put, is a property of a statement or theory that makes it possible to hypothetically show that it is false by the observation of some fact.  It is a tool for distinguishing empirically justifiable theories from non-empirical ones.

The problem is, no answer to the problem of free will is falsifiable.

So we have a dilemma in which one must choose either an answer to the free will question, or falsifiability as a universal criterion of sensible theories, but not both.  Just exactly why this is the case will become clear as I explain in subsequent entries what the problems are with each proposed answer to the free will question.  I offer this brief mention of it as a provocative suggestion for the reader to consider, though for now I will concern myself first with outlining the problem of free will and why it is important.

So, deep philosophical questions are not irrelevant, least of all that of free will.  Easy to say, but where's the proof?  Well, perhaps we should briefly sketch out the problem of free will first, before moving on to why it matters on a down-to-earth, practical level.  The problem of free will, in a nutshell is this:  It makes no sense given our daily, commonsense notion of causality, for us to be free, but at the same time, it makes no sense, given our daily, commonsense notion of personal autonomy, to be anything except free.  We have an apparent paradox here, and a very difficult one at that.  Neither one of these metaphysical positions (free or predetermined), seems rationally acceptable on its own, and neither of them alone squares with the facts as they are given to us.  One of our commonsense notions will have to be thrown over and rejected.  Or is there some compromise?  Could we be both free and determined at the same time?

Before I get to weighing the assets and liabilities of these positions, I want to first consider the question of why the notion of free will is important.  Can't we go through our day-to-day lives without ever thinking about these things?  Can't we just ignore the question and believe that, whatever the answer is, it doesn't matter if I know it or not?  Why should I care?  Isn't this the type of problem that only the chronically unemployed have the luxury of worrying about?

I certainly hope not.  You should care about the problem of free will, because where you come down on this problem makes a colossal difference in your life, as it does for society as a whole.

Let's start with society, and work our way back to the individual.  The problem of free will is relevant to all forms of ethics, from the most complex theological and meta-ethical systems right down to the simplest forms of morality that a 2-year-old can understand.  This problem is relevant, because to even have a moral code or a notion of ethics in the first place, means to take a particular position on this question, i.e. that in some way, we are free to act, and have alternatives before us.  To take a page from the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, nobody curses the empty boat for crashing in to their own boat.  The empty boat has no volition, no agency, no blame, just like a river flowing over a cliff cannot be blamed for falling.  The empty boat has no choice in the matter, because it is entirely determined in its actions by conditions prior to itself.  The hard determinist, who suggests that there is no such thing as free will, cannot argue that we are morally responsible for our actions, and consistently maintain their position.  Does this seem like a mark against determinism and a point for free will?  Not necessarily, if you consider that some of our other commonsense notions have been challenged by recent scientific discoveries.

So, nearly all of us believe, or at least behave as though we believe, that we are morally responsible for our actions.  But it doesn't stop at personal responsibility.  This responsibility is the foundational principle which underlies all legal systems.  "Guilt" in the legal sense is the state of being responsible for the commission of an offence, and that responsibility can only be borne by an agent who has the power to choose one action over another.  Again, the empty boat will never be seen in court, defending itself against charges levelled against it for some impropriety.  The empty boat has no alternative but to do whatever prior conditions necessitate it will do.  It cannot even be said to agentially "act", but rather is only acted upon by external forces.

One might argue that, regardless of whether or not free will exists, some legal system should be brought in to being or maintained in order to deter those inclined toward aberrant behaviour, and to bring punitive measures against those who engage in such behaviour.  There are at least two problems with this argument, however:

1)  This metaphysical position (no free will) must either utterly undermine the legal concept of "guilt" as arising from responsibility, or it must impel us to assign responsibility in such a way as would make no sense to the ordinary person.  To remain consistent, we would be forced to assign equal responsibility to other "actors" who could not have chosen a different course of action, just as we ourselves lack this freedom to choose.  We must hold the empty boat responsible, since it is no less able to do otherwise, than we are.

2)  This idea that legal systems should be maintained or brought about, is unintelligible on a hard determinist account.  If there is truly no such thing as free will and thus alternative possibilities, then it makes no sense to speak of what should be done or even whether any legal system whatsoever is "appropriate", because in a deterministic universe, there is no "should", only what is inevitable and what can never be.  Indeed, all ethical considerations (which state what "should" or "ought to" be done), break down in the face of such a metaphysics.

The ethical and political implications of whether or not free will exists are many and serious, however in my view, these are not necessarily the most important reasons why the problem of free will is worth your attention.  Another, perhaps more important reason is that, by all reasonable accounts, this question should not be controversial.  I mean really, do you doubt that you actually even had any choice in whether to begin reading this essay?  If you do doubt that (and let me just say if you answered "yes", I share your doubt), then you really need to check your claims to any significant level of certainty on other, less settled matters.

It might seem like I'm contradicting myself here, saying at once that we should care about whether we are free, and that the question should not be controversial.  This is no contradiction.  The fact is, this question is controversial, it is paradoxical, it is a mystery.  And that is very unsettling.  Free will is so deeply embedded in our consciousness, such a fundamental given in our conduct, that if we suddenly found ourselves unable to maintain our belief in its existence, then this would call in to question other "certainties" which appear to be self-evidently true.  This is what I was alluding to when I stated near the beginning of this essay that perennial philosophical problems persist for a reason - namely that they are of the utmost practical importance.  If you can't trust your most basic commonsense notions, what can you trust?

No wonder this question is unsettling, and no wonder it tends to get swept under the rug in favour of more "practical", more "important" problems.  Well, what could be more important?

Like other questions such as "do my senses deceive me?" or "is there really a world outside of myself?" if the answer to the question "am I free?" is "I don't know" then this really should change the way we comport ourselves, namely with a substantial degree of skepticism, which I hope to impart to the reader in the next few essays.

Free will is important because whether it exists or not, makes a difference.  And I am fairly certain that by the time I am done elucidating the problem, you will have some considerable doubt as to whether it does exist.  But many have argued, among them well-respected philosophers, scientists and thinkers, that whether we are free or not, it makes no difference at all.  Embracing the concept of either free will or determinism or both does not change the facts of the world, and makes no difference to how we act in it.  If so, then they must know something I don't.

If it is true that our metaphysical position on free will doesn't change reality or our perception thereof, then it is equally true of all statements about reality.  Evolution, the big bang, God, Newtonian mechanics, all of these must be grouped under the heading "irrelevant".  I can scarcely imagine a more cognitively dissonant viewpoint.  It seems to reduce "irrelevance" to an utterly meaningless term.  Of course these things make a difference to our understanding of reality, and this is equally true of the concepts of free will or determinism.  Indeed, how can you even conceive of Newtonian mechanics without the fundamental underlying metaphysical framework of determinism?  To say that "it doesn't matter if we are determined" and in the same breath that "Newton's physics is a paradigm shift for the human understanding" is like saying that mathematics doesn't matter but calculus does.  It is madness, pure and simple.

If you embrace free will, then you can act with the full conviction that you are responsible, and not just in the sense of ethics.  You are also responsible for your victories.  But this does not mean you can be complacent in your freedom.  As the existentialists have rightly pointed out, freedom may not necessarily be the parade of self-congratulation that it seems, it may in fact be something much more distressing.  You may be, as Sartre puts it, "condemned to be free".  Yes, your successes are yours, but your failures also belong to you, and you alone.  If you are free, you are responsible, and that in itself, is disquieting.  At the least if you find that you are unquestionably, self-evidently free, then there is one sense in which you can rest easy - you know that at least one assault on your commonsense, intuitive, experiential grasp on reality has been laid aside, and that you can trust your immediate experience once again.

If you reject free will, then, well, there is no you can, only you will.  Like freedom, this prospect itself is very disconcerting.  However in rejecting free will, one all of a sudden recognizes the many misapprehensions that one has laboured under, and can begin to strip the layers of illusion away from what is in fact only a perceived reality.  You will have an understanding that to worry about responsibility is futile, and that what we perceive on this commonsense, intuitive, experiential level does not always have a direct bearing on what has genuine ontological standing.  In so possessing this understanding, you will no longer be subject to the errors and prejudices of the great majority of people, who cannot be blamed, because they do not know any better.

Our position on free will underscores our philosophy on many things, it cuts across all the major branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and even politics.  To suggest that the free will debate is irrelevant can only be done from a non-philosophical, and furthermore, a mistaken perspective.

"Fair enough," you might say.  "The question of free will matters.  But hasn't it been resolved?  Aren't I obviously free?"

As I mentioned at the outset, this is one of the most fundamental of all philosophical problems.  Now, I would be the last one to tell you to take someone else's word, but let's have a look at what the experts can tell us.  Philosophers certainly disagree on this and always have, in fact a 2009 survey of philosophers by Bourget and Chalmers suggested that about 3 in 5 believe that we are both free and determined simultaneously, with only about 1 in 7 believing that we are entirely free to choose between alternative courses of action.  But let's ask the scientists.  While there has been (and indeed I will argue in future installments can be) nothing approaching definitive empirical evidence for or against the existence of free will, it would seem based on anecdotal evidence that scientists generally also do not believe that we are free to choose between alternatives, even more strongly than philosophers.  Amazingly, the only survey which I was able to find that asked professional scientists was a 2003 survey by Graffin and Provine which showed that about 4 in 5 scientists do believe in free will.

It seems there is more to this question than idle musing.

The jury is not in on the problem of free will, either in the modern age or in earlier times.  The reality or unreality of volition, or free will is one of the, if not the most fundamental of philosophical problems.  This is philosophy 101, and like other questions like "what is real?" it does not get answered by way of a reductive method any more than by popular opinion.  In the next entries I will explain exactly what is involved with asserting free will or determinism, or both, and hopefully show that, although the question is a sensible one, none of these proposed solutions is satisfactory.


  1. "2003 survey by Graffin and Provine which showed that about 4 in 5 scientists do believe in free will."

    Do or do not?

    1. Do believe in free will:

      I was surprised. But then again the question was posed as a dichotomy, and the "free will" option was seemingly a compatibilist one. I suspect that if the dichotomy were drawn in a different way (incompatibilist) or there were more options, free will would have been a lot less accepted among scientists.