Thursday, January 21, 2016

Free Will is a False Dilemma

There is an age-old debate among philosophers: do people have free will? The question is considered important for moral judgment. If people don't have free will, it seems they shouldn't be held responsible for their actions. Why should we praise or scold a person for actions they were unable to control?

I submit that the question isn't as complex as it seems, and neither is the answer important to help us decide how to behave. I believe the sides aren't as diametrically opposed as it would seem.

The key question these philosophers are asking is whether the decisions and actions that a person takes could have been otherwise. If a person's decisions could have been otherwise, then clearly they had free will to choose one or another option, and it makes sense to hold them responsible for the choice they actually made. But if, on the other hand, they could NOT have done otherwise, what sense would it make to give them credit, or blame, for their actions?

The question of free will is usually posed with the assumption that the world is deterministic, despite what we know about the inherent unpredictability of quantum physics. My intent isn't to question that assumption, at least not today. Let's take it as given that the world unfolds as a sequence of events, one after another, each the cause of the next in a well-defined way, even though mere mortals aren't able to predict the future in practice. The two sides in this debate are the compatibilists and the incompatibilists, reminiscent of the big-endians and little-endians of Gulliver's Travels. Recall that the big-endians cracked their eggs on the big end, and the little-endians cracked them on the little end. Because they could not agree on such an important issue, they were forever at war.

The incompatibilists believe free will is impossible ("incompatible" with determinism), as people are not in control of the ultimate causes of their actions. By "ultimate cause" they mean the cause of the cause of the cause... ad infinitum. Or as far as time can be said to have existed. Because a person cannot influence any link in the causal chain, they "could not have done otherwise." The incompatibilists deem something like the big bang as the ultimate cause of everthing that has happened since. Because we did not control the big bang, we can't reasonably be held responsible for anything since then, such as our actions. To an incompatibilist, the concepts of moral blame and worth are nonsensical. A person can't reasonably be said to be ultimately responsible for their actions, and therefore they should not be held moraly responsible, blamed, or praised. Many incompatibilists believe that an understanding of this truth will lead to a more humane treatment of our fellow man.

The compatibilists, on the other hand, believe that we have free will (it is "compatible" with determinism) because people think, feel, make moral judgments, and decide how to act based on their thoughts and feelings. It is obvious that we have free will. The compatibilists don't care whether we have control over the chemical reactions in our bodies, or our genes, or the limited set of choices we have to select from. To a compatibilist, it isn't relevant whether or not we are the ultimate cause; we are the proximate cause of our actions, and they arise from us. That is all that's necessary to say that free will exists. Compatibilists believe that the kind of free will that the incompatibilists say we don't have wouldn't be useful even if we had it. When a compatibilist wonders if we "could have done otherwise", the question is really whether one is likely to repeat the same decision in situations that are the same only in morally relevant ways. A murderer has demonstrated that he is likely to murder: clearly, under the specific circumstances that actually occurred, he did murder. But the compatibilist looks at all of the relevant circumstancess to see if at the time and place of the act there were circumstances - such as being threatened by the victim - that would have forced the hand of any reasonable person. Because people respond to them, we can use praise and blame to influence others to act for the benefit of society. Parents use blame and praise to teach children how to behave: for things such as intentionally poking someone in the eye, or taking the time to do a good job on one's homework. Laws and punishment for violating laws are necessary for a functioning society.

These two camps don't really disagree with each other about the facts. They just disagreee about what words we should use to describe them. The compatibilists agree that we aren't the ultimate cause of our actions, they just don't happen to care about that. The incompatibilists agree that it's useful to act as if we have free will, as long as we recognize that it's an illusion. What they disagree about is which we should call "free will". The incompatibilists agree that we should influence others to behave in ways beneficial to society. The compatibilists aren't too concerened about making absolute "moral" judgments, and agree that we should treat people humanely. What they disagree about is which we should call "praise" and "blame".

Of course I am oversimplifying both positions. Many people believe, for example, we can make absolute moral judgments, sometimes by reference to a deity (or deities). When people ask me what I believe, I ususally say that I am agnostic on free will, or that it depends on which definition you want to use. I agree with both camps, and I don't really care which words we elect to attach to which definitions, as long as we're clear about what we're trying to say. The two camps mostly agree with each other about the facts, though not always about what conclusions we should draw from them. The fight is more about the right to choose the "correct" meaning for words such as "free will," "cause", and "responsibility", because those words have emotional baggage attached to them that influence our thinking.

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Chandler Klebs said...

I think it's a great post because it clarifies the difference between the incompatibilists and compatibilists. I do however disagree slightly because at the bottom of it, many compatibilists are actually believing that we truly could have done otherwise.

You made one excellent point when you said: "Compatibilists believe that the kind of free will that the incompatibilists say we don't have wouldn't be useful even if we had it."

This is correct because free will in the libertarian sense(I could have done otherwise in an identical situation) would not be useful because the decision would have to be different than what we desired to do in that situation. It would be a useless freedom that goes against our desires.

So in short, what compatibilists call free will(decide how to act based on their thoughts and feelings) is more useful, but I will always disagree with it being called free will because it implies that they could choose to desire the opposite of what they desire and temporarily suspend their thoughts and feelings during the decision making. They might as well just carry dice with them to make all their decisions. I suggest the term freedom of action or freedom to act as we desire.

I think compatibilists and incompatibilists are in disagreement about both words and the facts which those words are based on.

Barry Kelly said...

I think the two camps are talking about the same set of facts using different words that operate at different abstraction levels.

Consider physics vs chemistry. You could, in principle, laboriously model the interaction of elements and compounds using physical laws of interaction. The world is just an arrangement of particles; compounds are not a thing. Or you can move up a click in the abstraction level, and talk about elements and compounds, disregarding the lower level interactions and only caring about the statistical aggregate outcomes that come up in practice.

Similarly, you can talk about a deterministic world whereby the outputs of a human organism are determined by its inputs, including its biology and early life treatment, stimula from education and social feedback, and acute short-term stimula from a particular situation that gave rise to the action under question.

Or you could talk about a world with certain inherited inclinations, education, learned morality and principles, life lessons that came out of specific events, and the internal mental and emotional pressures that informed the decision at the point of action under question.

The former has no internal position to take on free will; the latter uses a different framework to think about human agency, and free will is the process of internal self-aware cogitation that produces action.

Where things get problematic is when you mix and match the two different models of human behaviour. For example, a defendant in a criminal trial could talk about how their poor upbringing caused them to act in a certain way, and thus they are not guilty and should not be punished because they were incapable of making a different choice. But this is mixing two different ways of thinking about the world; if you want to invoke the determinism of early experiences, punishment should be considered independent of whether you had agency, because the punishment is just another input into your deterministic process, and not a mechanism for moral justice.

Barry Kelly said...

Of course different abstraction levels find it easier to talk about different details, and all abstraction levels hide - abstract away - some details, so they are intrinsically lossy or incomplete.

Moral punishments may not have the end result of changing behaviour, but may have an alternative desired effect of giving other people the belief that justice has been done.

So there is another way things can differ: what we believe is important; whether we want to feel good about how we treat people who do bad things, or if we want to shape a society where fewer people do bad things. Democracy makes the latter harder for obvious reasons.