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23 October 2010

The Inauthentic Doubt of Free Will Scepticism

The title is more bold than I feel about this. I hesitate to dip my toe in the tempestuous waters of the free will debate so early in my studies. I haven’t read much about it, and what knowledge I have is mostly just from SEP and IEP. That didn’t stop me participating in some discussions online, and I’m beginning to form a position on it – but it is very much a provisional one, based on intuitions. One thing I know for sure: metaphysics is hard.

The subject of free will has never attracted me until now. From avoiding it like the plague my interest has suddenly popped into existence, after participating in some discussions at Philosophy Forums.

One thing I need to work out is where the battleground is, and try to decide where it should be. In the debate I have seen so far, it is all about the ultimate physical nature of the universe. If this is appropriate, I probably won’t have much more to say about it until I’ve studied a lot of physics (which, of course, I probably won’t do). Right now, as my starting point, I want to defend the notion of free will because I don’t find its denial coherent – at least, I don’t understand it – and life gives me good reason to believe that it exists.

First, the various positions on free will, very roughly speaking, are:

Determinism: states of affairs are determined by prior states of affairs, through causal chains, and this happens consistently.
Compatibilism: Free will is compatible with determinism.
Incompatibilism: Oh no it isn’t.
Libertarianism: This is a kind of incompatibilism, holding that we have free will, and therefore that determinism is false. Proponents claim to find support from quantum mechanics.
Hard determinism: Another kind of incompatibilism, holding that determinism is true, and therefore that we do not have free will. Proponents claim that there is no evidence that quantum indeterminacy can bubble up to the level of consciousness.

There are fine distinctions and careful definitions for the concepts of freedom, volition, will, action and so on, but I’m not getting into the nitty-gritty at this stage.

They May Take Our Exemption From Consistent Physical Causality, But They’ll Never Take Our Freedom!

The view I have seen most often expressed has it that free will is an illusion or a meaningless and incoherent notion. This doesn’t sit right with me, because it seems impossible to authentically doubt that you have free will. That we have freedom is part of the background of life, or of the shared foundation of social life. Maybe it is what Wittgenstein called a hinge-proposition, a basic indubitable belief that all others hinge on. The notion is weaved right into society, history, our individual lives, our subjective experience and our personal relations. It is central to being human.

If you question whether I have free will, it is like asking me doubtfully, “Are you sure you have a pain in your neck?” I can with the best possible justification say, “Yes, absolutely.”

In the same way, I am certain that I can decide to stop writing this blog post and go to bed, or make a cup of tea first, or make a coffee and stay up for a couple of hours longer.

The idea that we make decisions freely is not one that we can easily give up. I do not just mean that we are quaintly attached to an outmoded notion, as some determinists would have it, but that freedom – whatever it is – is as real as beauty or love. In using the term we are referring to something real in human life. It as self-evident to me that I am free as that I am, I exist, or that I have a pain in my neck.

And rather like sceptical hypotheses such as the dream argument, free will scepticism depends on the faculties that it affects to doubt. Therefore, perhaps we are justified in rejecting it.

Am I a Quasi-Compatibilist?

In taking personal freedom to mean some kind of exemption from consistent causation, free will sceptics may be making a mistake. What I am feebly groping towards is the idea that freedom does not mean freedom from causality, or from some kind of determinism; that, in fact, there are two ways of describing human action that are exclusive of each other but which are compatible.

The problem with this quasi-compatibilist view is that you might say that what I’m talking about is not really freedom at all; it is, as they say, just an illusion, and all I am doing is attempting to prevent it from being revealed as such. But this is not a position I would like to take if I can possibly avoid it: I’m looking for something stronger.

Freedom seems to have been co-opted by the determinists, and even some of the defenders of free will tend to understand it in terms of physics. It is, apparently, a make-or-break issue for the fundamental nature of the universe: how can physics accommodate causal agency? But what if, in fact, the mistake is not in applying “freedom” to human affairs, but in applying it to physics? Freeman Dyson says that atoms are free: they decide what they’re going to do apparently with no external influence. But this is metaphorical. The primary understanding of what freedom means is gained from human life.

What a determinist physical account of the universe leaves out, when applied to people, is exactly what we’re talking about.

And I’m not comfortable with the libertarian position that looks to quantum indeterminacy for the source of freedom. Maybe that’s because I don’t understand quantum mechanics. Certainly, I am almost as suspicious of philosophers who look to physics for evidence of free will, without having done any of the relevant mathematics, as the physicists themselves are.

Cutting Us Down to Size

In exchanges with free will sceptics, and reductionist physicalists in general, I detect an impatience with any emphasis on the human realm. I don’t mean anything mystical by that; I mean the level at which there are irreducible human realities. The denial that such things exist and are no less essentially human than our genetic inheritance or neural configuration strikes me as perverse. There also seems to be a certain anti-philosophical aspect to it as well, which is feeding in from the science-fanboy militant atheist community.

But wait – this is sociology now, and clearly reveals how biased I am. It is interesting, though, to look at the wider historical and social context of these debates.

In conclusion, there is little in all of this that I’m sure of, but what does seem beyond doubt is that freedom is, practically, beyond doubt. Whether or not we have ultimate agency is irrelevant to our lives, because to treat someone as a person is to credit them with agency.

There is so much more to be said. I haven’t mentioned psychology or cognitive science, or even moral responsibility, which is perhaps the most important issue. More to come…

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