Are free will skeptics wrong?

I think not.

The authors of this post argue that we are.

In their conclusion, they write

If you seriously believe that fundamental forces leave no space for free will, then it’s impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral beings. We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way for our reactions to global climate change, child trafficking or viral pandemics. The underlying physics would in reality be governing our behaviour, and responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture.

and i don’t see why this is so. Free will skepticism doesn’t rule out the effect of training/ education in our behaviour.

Elsewhere, the author has argued free will skeptics ignore time dependent constraints that he has discussed in the piece for example how one reacts to a car crash. One person with sympathy and another picks their pockets. I don’t see how this argument is fatal to the determinist position unless I am missing something.

I also think bringing up the problems of quantum physics- you either know the position or the velocity of a particle does not rescue freewill.

Tell me your thoughts.

On free will

First a thought experiment

Buridan’s Ass

an ass

A donkey who is much happier than the one in our experiment. (Wikimedia Commons)

Variations on this experiment date back to antiquity, this formulation was named after the philosopher Jean Buridan, whose views on determinism it ridicules.

Imagine a donkey placed precisely between two identical bales of hay. The donkey has no free will, and always acts in the most rational manner. However, as both bales are equidistant from the donkey and offer the same nourishment, neither choice is better than the other.

Question: How can it choose? Does it choose at all, or does it stand still until it starves?

If choices are made based on which action is the more rational one or on other environmental factors, the ass will starve to death trying to decide on which to eat- as both options are equally rational and indistinguishable from one another. If the ass does make a choice, then the facts of the matter couldn’t be all that determined the outcome, so some element of random chance or free will may have been involved.

It poses a problem for deterministic theories as it does seem absurd to suppose that the ass would stand still forever. Determinists remain split on the problem that the ass poses. Spinoza famously dismissed it while others accept that the donkey would starve to death. Others argue that there is always some element of a choice that differentiates it from another one.

and a guardian article

in defense of determinism

In this post, the author and a few of those who have commented blame Dawkins and Krauss of having a banal view of freedom. Maybe at the end of my post, I will be in the same box with them, except without the fame and publicity.

I can’t tell whether the post is a critique of determinism or science as a method. The author is all over the place. If the critique is about science as a method, we can safely say we have no method of acquiring knowledge. Revelation is unreliable and unnecessary if the facts it reveals are such that we can arrive at through other modes. Tarot sticks/ cards or whatever have not given us any reliable knowledge about ourselves or the universe. Science remains the only means we have to acquiring knowledge.

It is to be readily admitted there are many things about us not yet answered but am certain no amount of prayer will show why I like vanilla ice-cream. Neither do I expect to get revelation on why sex is good.

But if the post is a critique of determinism, I can say without fear that the author has not even scratched the surface of the problem. Further, I should be  forgiven for saying the author is ignorant of the issue at hand and by going after Dawkins and Krauss, he is venturing into adult talk where he isn’t qualified to speak.

But I digress. The debate on freewill and determinism is to me one of misunderstanding and especially from the freewill proponent. They want to use words freely to mean what they want.

And at the heart of the problem is what is the meaning of freewill and determinism. In Determinism and freewill, C Chapman writes determinism asserts

human nature is part and parcel of nature as a whole, and bears to it the same relation that a part does to the whole.

This means if the law of causation applies universally in the universe, it must apply to human nature. And even if we allow that biological laws are a different set, they are not contradictory to, but additional to other laws of nature.

Going back again to Chapman, he says of the freewill believer

does not on his part deny the influence on the human organism of those forces on which the Determinist lays stress. What he denies is that any of them singly, or all of them collectively, can ever furnish an adequate and exhaustive account of human action. He affirms that after analysis has done its utmost there remains an unexplained residuum beyond the reach of the instruments or the methods of positive science. He denies that conduct–even theoretically–admits of explanation and prediction in the same way that explanation and prediction apply to natural phenomena as a whole.

What about choice someone may ask?. While I admit to not having provided an adequate answer, I think Chapman does a good job at it. He writes

Choice, then, is a phenomenon of consciousness, and it implies a recognition of alternatives. But a recognition of alternatives does not by any means imply that either of two are equally eligible. It is merely a consciousness of the fact that they exist, and that either might be selected were circumstances favourable to its selection. Without labouring the point we may safely say that all that is given in the fact of choice is the consciousness of a choice. There is nothing in it that tells us of the conditions of the selection, or whether it was possible for the agent to have chosen differently or not.

So that when our author quotes Dawkins saying

I have a materialist view of the world, I think that things are determinied in a rational way by antecendent events.

I can’t for the life of me see what he finds wrong with the statement. One Dawkins is saying he has, not the world is and the question for the author is to show that Dawkins is wrong which I haven’t seen him do.

When Marvin writes in his comment in the post

And if we are free to make that choice for ourselves and are not forced by someone else to act against our will, then it is a choice and an act of our own free will.

and I will hasten to say he doesn’t understand the problem. When I say we are not free, I don’t say there is a person compelling you to do anything. No, not all. It only means at any given time our will is determined by previous events and our environment. That it is no way ever free from such influences. To show that my understanding is wrong, all one needs to do is to give an example of a situation when we are free from outside/ external influence.

As I have said before and I will say it now, I am open to persuasion. I would like the thorough going freewill believer to explain what they mean by freewill in a way that is clear and give examples where such a thing as described actually occurs in human affairs and I will readily consider my position on determinism.

In this discussion, we will refer to Schopenhauer’s definition of freewill stated as

that a given human being, in a given situation can act in two different ways.

and I think that definition would suffice for the purpose of the discussion we shall have this evening. We have been presented with a problem in this manner

how free will can exist in a deterministic world?

Before we proceed into examining the OP, I don’t know if those who, like me, believe we live in a deterministic universe believe also in freewill of any kind. I think this would be a contradiction of sorts, unless one who holds that the universe is deterministic while human actions are free has to explain in what way humans are exempt from the laws of nature, whatever these be. In this sense, I think the OP has started with a false dilemma.

I think therefore that this assertion that

when one has free will, one has a choice, and can make a choice without anything or anyone impeding, influencing, or forcing their volition. It is the ability to act without constraints, whether the choice is between two options or one hundred

is false. I also would need to clarify that when we say you don’t have free will, we don’t imply you have been coerced into doing something, no, far from it. We are only saying there are antecedent causes that made you act in the way you did and that all circumstances remaining the same, you will act in the same way.

We agree with observation, with reservation, that everything has a cause/ reason for its occurrence.

I realize that many people, for emotional and not rational reasons want to believe they have freewill. The author writes

I also feel very strongly that every human being has free will, and not just because I want there to be moral responsibility, but a world without free will just seems wrong and incomprehensible. Call it the human ‘superego’, but I don’t like the idea that humans are robots.

In what way would a world without freewill be incomprehensible and wrong? If this is an emotional reaction, it has no place in a philosophical debate. Maybe calling man robots seems too harsh for some, and as such I will refer to our race as biological automatons.

She says, she has come to a few conclusions on the matter. These appear under two headings

  1. The future is open and
  2. my will as a cause.

We will look at what she writes about each and explain where we disagree.

In the first instance, she writes, following Hume

that despite our tendency to link two events together and call it cause and effect, we still cannot properly conclude that A will always cause B, even if A has been causing B in every recorded and observable instance.

A point we would agree with. We cannot say effect B was caused by A. We however do not see how she jumps to the conclusion

Thus, when I make a choice, the result has not been decided for me already, and thus I am making a free and open choice.

Maybe am wrong, but I don’t think the proponents of no freewill mean to say when you act someone has decided for you. The argument here is that there are previous events A, B to whatever numeral you like that has influenced your effect Z. To say more here, we argue that due to the complexity of human actions, it is difficult to plot a chain of causes leading to the present effect and as such many people assume they are free. The future can, contrary to her claims, be predicted if we know how one behaved in a particular situation. We can be almost certain that if the circumstances remain the same, we can predict like clockwork how you will act. Many people after acting in a particular way do say I will act in a contrary manner next time. This however, is not usually the case.

Looking at the second point, yours truly doesn’t seem to understand what she means when she writes

[..]These two sentences (deciding on a flavour, and deciding that caramel tastes bad) seem to contain meaning; I am making a choice.

Our problem here being to determine whether this choice is free or not. She has already stated she has tasted caramel and didn’t like it- which to me represents a past cause and deciding on flavour is dependent favourites and motives so that if the greater motive is to try a new taste, regardless of whether she liked vanilla the previous, she will decide to try lets say strawberry.

As Schopenhauer wrote elsewhere, and I think it is persuasive that

[H]e is such and such a man, because once for all it is his will to be that man. For the will itself, and in itself, and also in so far as it is manifest in an individual, accordingly constitutes the original and fundamental desires of that individual, is independent of all knowledge, because it is antecedent to such knowledge. All that it receives from knowledge is the series of motives by which it successively develops its nature and makes itself cognisable or visible; but the will itself, as something that lies beyond time, so long as it exists at all, never changes. Therefore every man, being what he is and placed in the circumstances which for the moment obtain, but which on their part also arise by strict necessity, can absolutely never do anything else than just what at that moment he does do. Accordingly, the whole course of a man’s life, in all its incidents great and small, is as necessarily predetermined as the course of a clock.

In this case, the will is uncaused. Knowledge only comes to support the will and the phenomena of the will, that is our actions, follow like clockwork upon the laws of nature. We can go further and say and we will what we choose but we cannot choose what we will.

We would answer, tongue in cheek, yes to the question

Could we not say that it was their will that led them to their respective destinies? Could we not say that the Will was the cause?

as long as we grant that they don’t chose what to will. It must be understood that the acts of the will are not free and it is with this that the discussion o freewill is concerned. It is on the phenomena that, in my view, is the concern when we are discussing freewill and these I think are not free.

As I have said, I think the OP started with a case of false dilemma and so when she writes

it doesn’t seem like I’m committing any major sort of syntactical or logical error

she is blind to the dilemma she put herself in, in the very first place. I don’t think there are only two explanations available and other possibilities need also be examined.

I don’t know if this claim that

we all have the following two intuitions about ourselves and the world: (1) things are caused, and (2) we have free will.

is correct about everyone.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. I also would like to stop here so this post doesn’t get longer than it already is.

Freewill and determinism

Freewill and determinism