Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Point of Free Will

I've been enjoying (or is it suffering?) another round of free will posts. Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne state the obvious, that contra-causal free will does not exist, and so conclude, contra compatibilists like Daniel Dennett, that free will does not exist. This is not entirely unreasonable, since free will is commonly considered to mean contra-causal free will. And maybe they're right, that it should be held to that definition; for philosophers to amend free will to some other thing allows theologians the get-out of pointing to many respected philos who believe in a free will that has nothing to do with their bankrupt theological concept of free will.

But I'm really not that fussed about the use of the term. I've previously discussed how contra causal free will makes little sense whether determinism is true or false. But rather than rescuing free will, I do think it's worth rescuing the point of free will; or why responsibility is worth laying.

In another piece Coyne says this:
I still see myself as a meat robot, and I don’t accept free will as meaning “I could have done something different had circumstances been different.” For in that sense computers and nearly all living organisms also have “free will”.
This strikes me as a slightly strange thing to say; the first part seems to contradict the second, since if he's a 'meat robot' then obviously robots too can have free will, and we surely treat many living organisms as if they too have free will. I treat my cats as if they have causal influence over their own behaviour, for example. And there's a sense in which Coyne is suggesting some kind of human exceptionalism; if we allow free will then I see no reason to deny it to computers and living organisms a priori

I suppose he means something more, that any computer or any living organism would have free will under the definition offered - it's too liberal. But I think this gives a clue to the point of free will; if a computer or living organism is sufficiently complex that it can change its behaviour because it has an internal guiding mechanism that responds in a certain way to external prompts, then we have a reason to talk about the machine having something like 'free will'. We aren't puppeteers in these circumstances, but nudge button operators.

What difference does this make? If we want to affect our futures, and I assume we all do, we need to differentiate between objects that can be remonstrated with and those that can't. Now, although I do remonstrate with my computer, I understand it's pointless: I could change how it operates, but it could not reflect on its actions. However, a more complicated computer, like Marvin, might be worth remonstrating with, if it has an internal guidance and reflection system open to external prompts and information. Similarly, experience shows that my cat is worth remonstrating with too, even if it's less effective than with fellow humans; she doesn't have all the tools or understanding available to most humans. But notice, there are humans who also can't be remonstrated with, so membership of homo sapiens does not determine who is in this group.

In another Coyne piece, in response to some issues that Russell Blackford raises, he says this:
When Russell says “I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise,” he seems to mean only, “had I been somebody other than Russell Blackford at that moment, I might have done otherwise.” And in what sense is that free will? It’s one thing for people to chastise somebody for making a “bad choice” (an emotion that feels natural but is at bottom irrational), but it’s a different thing to think that somebody actually can act in different ways at a single time.
To me, this highlights the very point of free will; to identify the nature of particular agencies, so we can take an appropriate course of action in the light of that nature. I don't think Russell, or anyone, would have behaved differently under the same circumstances (that would just make us randomly-acting beings) - but the difference between how Russell behaves and how another person behaves under the same circumstances reflects a freedom to act differently which is open to all agencies. So we can then apply a 'blame' in proportion to the 'culpability' of each agency going back in the causal chain. I use scare quotes to recognise that the agencies weren't 'free' from their own causal determinism, but we can now usefully employ this information to address any problems caused, or reward any benefits resulting, in the knowledge that the responsibility reflects an agency's ability to self-regulate. We wouldn't allocate moral responsibility to the snow in deadly avalanches, but we might to folk who detonate charges setting off deadly avalanches, because the former has no agency that would respond to remonstration, but the latter has. And such allocation would actually require determinism, or, at least, if there are any indeterminate events, these would be irrelevant to any such moral calculation.

So, in summary, I'm happy to jettison free will; I'm just not so happy to jettison the point of free will, if this is what it is. It does appear that Sam Harris, at least, agrees:
...I argue that people are mistaken in believing that they are free in the usual sense. I claim that this realization has consequences—good ones, for the most part—and for that reason we should not gloss over it by revising our definition of “free will” too quickly. Dan believes that his adjustment of the concept has allowed him to provide a description of human agency and moral responsibility that preserves many of our intuitions about ourselves and still fits the facts. I agree, for the most part, but I think that other problems need to be solved.


  • Ron Krumpos says:
    8 April 2012 at 15:59

    Sam Harris does feel that free will is mostly an illusion. I believe we can make choices, but seldom freely. In my (free) ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Outside the box." Here are three paragraphs from it:

    What if you had to make all your decisions about living while detained in a jail cell? The cells may be open for brief periods each day, but the prisoners are still surrounded by walls. There are also walls around cells of everyday life. We are restricted by our ability to control our emotions, mind and body. Even with full command of our “self,” we must live within the restraints of Nature and society. Freedom is relative.

    “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices...until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

    Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.

    Sam Harris has written positively on mysticism and said “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.” Harris' personal background reflects his own search toward that goal.

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