Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Free will

I've never really 'got' free will - why it is so mystical and important and controversial. Maybe it is just that I don't see what the problems with determinism are supposed to be. As far as I can fathom free will is supposed to be the sense that we make our own decisions free of external causes, that we are the agents of our own actions. Sounds fair enough - but the problem is supposed to come when you add in determinism - apparently our thoughts and actions being causally determined by, e.g., our brains, is incompatible with our free will, with us being these free agents.

This leads some people to reject determinism in the favour of absolute randomness (something that is patently absurd), or statistical probability (e.g. quantum mechanics). Dan Dennett devotes a whole book (Freedom Evolves) to this question, I've only made it halfway through (busy man me), but I've heard him talk on the topic before. Dennett argues that in the random probability model the undetermined bits are precisely the types of freedom that are not worth having (Descartes has a similar point about the poverty of real freedom in choices made in the abscence of evidence or impulsion to one side or the other).

I have to agree - but I think that the impulse to embrace randomness to salvage free will from determinism highlights the fundamental misunderstanding that lies at the heart of the free will problem. Many of those that reject physical determinism - the idea that the brain gives rise to the mind - accept non-physicalism instead, they believe that the mind being something other than physical somehow frees them from the problem of determinism. But it is far from apparent that it does any such thing if there are causal factors operating in this mental world (and we have every reason to think that there are - from the physical input via the senses to the interaction of mental properties). It is hard to see how, if the mind is made of causal 'stuff' at all, how it can escape from determinism.

It reminds me of Nagel's famous question, "What is it like to be a bat?" - which assumes, for an answer, that it is even meaningful to ask how one mind-thing might gain access to being another, different mind-thing - the underlying assumption that you could somehow constitutively 'be' another thing, whilst retaining something of what you were before - the assumption, in other words, of a animating spirit or homunculus piloting the show (Nagel is actually using the argument to try and show that subjective experience cannot be reduced to a functionalist explanation).

At some point, one would think, there can be no more little men behind the scenes pulling the levers - something must be animating him - at some point the causal explanations must be grounded. Rejection of determinism just seems to be a refusal to begin this endeavour, a belief that if anything causal underlies the actions of a mind they somehow become unfree, because they are caused by something other than that mind. But, of course, they are not determined by something 'other' in a meaningful sense - the mistake is to confuse layers of explanation - when my arm lifts a glass - that the action is caused by the contraction of muscles, or, deeper still, by myosin sliding over actin, does not make it any less my arm that is doing the lifting.


woodchopper said...


My problem with determinism is not the notion that we are just the sum of our parts, and little more. I find the workings of the brain very fascinating, and dualism does seem to be a matter of wishful thinkin.

My problem is that a strictly deterministic approach doesn't seem to be able to explain human innovation. Its difficult for a determinist to explain the full extent of creativity.

Certainly natural selection works, and can explain how new species etc can develop, but that takes hundreds of millions of years.

But its difficult to explain the variety and speed of human imagination within a purely deterministic framework. So if we sensibly reject dualism we then have to imagine how consciousness absolutely rooted in the physical is capable of original thought.

Such a mechanism obviously exists - we do occasionly think things that haven't been thought of before. Perhaps, when we find out what it is, we can call it free will.

pj said...


I'm not convinced that creativity is beyond the explanation of determinism. Certainly most creativity seems to be the result of combining previously unrelated ideas (I think someone like the psychologist Jane Mellanby makes that argument).

The speed and variety seems to be the result of fast and flexible information processing systems. It is not like they're infallible (see Tversky and Kahneman's work).

There's a discussion over on the Philosoher's Magazine blog about consciousness at the moment.

Jean Kazez said...

PJ, Most of the time I don't care if everything's determined. It starts bothering me occasionally when I can't get to sleep (seriously!). I start thinking something bad could be coming down the road and there's nothing I can do to prevent it. Whatever it is, once it comes on the horizon, I will try to prevent it maybe, but I won't be able to do any more than the past forces me to do. So it's already dead certain this bad thing will happen, and it's been dead certain for millions of years. This does not help me get to sleep...!!!

As for just having mental state that are brain states, I couldn't care less. I don't remember ever finding that an unpleasant thought.

pj said...

jean, me neither, I think that's my point - this fear that determinism somehow limits our choices and prevents free will just doesn't affect me - in fact I don't even understand quite how it is supposed to happen.

But there are quite a few people who think that this intuition fataly undermines any deterministic philosophy.

woodchopper said...


I agree that most creativity is just shuffling about existing ideas. But not all. And its the very small proportion of original thought that interests me.

Regarding why people fear determinism, I guess first that its down to ego. We want to think that we are more than lumps of meat. Im happy to accept that I'm just meat. But then I'm fascinated by how lumps of meat are occcasionally am able to do cool and original stuff.

Also there are moral concerns. Free Will makes us accountable for our actions. I think that people fear that without it the response to any crime would be 'its not my fault, my meat made me do it'. personally, I don't think it makes much difference though.

pj said...

I've never got the legal problem from a philosophical viewpoint. Although I think it is partly driven by the legal system itself, which has created a distinction between someone doing something of their free will, and doing it because of a personality disorder say.

If you do something bad because, say, you have the 'evil' gene, causing some structural brain abnormality that makes you predisposed to doing bad things, then you are responsible because essentially that brain is you. Exceptions arise for treatable things like schizophrenia.

salient said...

“I think it is partly driven by the legal system itself, which has created a distinction between someone doing something of their free will, and doing it because of a personality disorder say.”

That’s an interesting point. The legal definition for ‘insanity’ is something like “unable to distinguish right from wrong.”

For a while, defence attorneys in America seem to have promoted this approach—though it typically resulted in incarceration in mental institutions rather than jails. Different setting, same result—yes, I’d like to think that psychiatric treatment would yield different results, though I don’t hold out much hope for the therapeutic outcome of court ordered psychotherapy.

As I understand it, the 'insanity plea' is not well received by judges, perhaps because they don't see how you can separate the action from the 'actor'.

You appear to be an epidemiologist, pj, so perhaps you have some numbers on this.

“Exceptions arise for treatable things like schizophrenia.”

Schizophrenia symptoms can be reduced by psychotropics, but I think that you may be muddling schizophrenia with DID when you say “treatable”. Historically, DID was misdiagnosed by mental health professional as 'shizophrenia' for an average of 8 years. Now, DID is misdiagnosed as 'bipolar affective disorder', with much the same neglected outcome.

If you are thinking of DID, the condition is not genetic, though it does cluster in families (intergenerational abusive 'nurture' rather than abnormalities of 'nature'.)

Yours is a very interesting blog, btw.