Sunday, July 15, 2007

Free will isn't a concept (unless you mean determinism)

Imagine something happens. For instance you make a decision. There are three possibilities for this occurence:

  1. It could be related purely to other factors (determinism)
  2. It could be not related to other factors (randomness)
  3. It could be a combination of these (a mixture of determinism and randomness)
None of these are free will (as commonly understood). So where does the concept of free will fit in? How could an occurence escape from being in one of these categories? Clearly it can't. So there is no possibility of a concept of free will that is in opposition to determinism, let alone a chance of it existing in reality.

But you feel like you have free will (whatever that is - just don't think about it), don't you? Or to put it another way, you feel like your actions are neither determined nor random. You choose them.

And that is precisely why they are determined. They are determined by you. And you already exist to the finest detail at the time you are making the decision. If you made choices (or some element of them) not controlled by your personality, experience, thoughts and anything else that comes under the heading of ‘the state of your brain as a result of genetics and your prior environments’, they would be random, which still isn’t free will (not to mention being a less personal and less appealing model, if that's how you choose your beliefs).

You might argue that you can choose what to think and how to feel , and how heavily to let those things influence you, when making a decision. That doesn't alter the situation however. Those are then choices too, and your decisions for them would presumably have to be made based on other thoughts and feelings , which you would presumably choose, and so on. The point at which free will should have occurred would just be shifted back indefinitely. Again you just have a long chain of cause and effect.

The closest thing you can have to free will is for your actions to be determined purely by the state of your brain. Free will is determinism.

22 comments:

Thoughts said...

There are problems with the apparent simplicity of this argument.

The first problem is "epistemic regress" in which every cause has a cause - where do we stop looking for causes?

The second problem is that if decisions are skilled behaviour based upon a series of corrective states these states may be indeterministic - see Conscious free will.

aberman said...

Katja,
Determinism and randomness is an oversimplification. Repeated Cantor diagonalization of deterministic machines (1st level comp-sci grad school course) shows that there is a infinite hierarchy in between deterministic behavior and randomness that are not simply 'mixing the two'. Free will can be defined at one of those levels, satisfying the property of not being random, nor deterministic. Penrose tried to demonstrate that the human mind can reach those levels, but it's probably impossible to prove one way or another.

Harmon said...

"We must believe in free will. We have no choice."

But there is a scenario in which we have, and have not, free will.

Suppose that each human being has two states of being: Primus and Secundus. Primus actually makes the decisions, but Secundus is where our consciousness lies.

That is to say, we regard ourselves as Secundus, but in truth, Secundus is a feedback mechanism to Primus, who is nonconscious but who makes the actual decisions which Secundus is under the illusion that he is making.

In this situation, which I believe reflects reality, Primus has free will but is not conscious of it, and Secundus has no free will, since Primus is making the actual decisions.

Harmon said...

I think maybe I need to add something explaining why I believe the Primus/Secundus theory.

Studies have shown that the "decision" made by a top athlete, like the decision to hit a tennis ball, actually occurs *after* the physical process to hit the ball is initiated. That is, first comes the action, then comes the awareness of the action which is understood by the athlete as preceding and causing the action.

Clearly, the decision to hit the ball is being made in some kind of nonconscious and precounsioys fashion. But what, then, is going on with the illusion that the decision precedes the action?

I think that what we have in consciousness is an evolutionary adaptation which allows us to reprogram the "decision making process" through feedback which necessarily incorporates awareness that a decision was made. Consciousness is a byproduct of this process, and probably has some kind of evolutionary survival value.

After writing this, I looked at Thoughts' link to http://newempiricism.blogspot.com/2009/04/conscious-free-will-and-empiricism.html which makes a very similar point. This greatly pleases my Secundus!

Vernunft said...

"It could be related purely to other factors"

What an incoherent sentence!

If ONLY David Hume were this stupid; then philosophy would be easier.

(namehere) said...

Free will would seem to follow from the choices you point out. There are limits to any conception of free will (I.e. I can't will myself to fly) but given the parameters of our environment we make choices at some level of being.

With Respect to X said...

Your trichotomy is false, or at the least, question begging in the absence of further justification. You can't simply assert that randomness and determinism are the only forces of causation within the universe and expect to convince people you have solved this old philosophical argument.

Of course I happen to agree with your conclusions - I am a compatibilist, and believe my free will is simply the result of that subset of the universe's deterministic laws concerning my brain.

How the "I" that experiences the qualia of free will comes to exist within a naturalistic framework is left kinda unresloved... but all forms of qualia are a hard problem for any appealing theory of mind to answer coherently. I verge towards strict agnosticism on that question.

Your blog is most enjoyable - you are the first compatriot who is not a friend of mine who's blog I have subscribed to. Keep up the interesting posts.

@aberman - I am thoroughly intrigued at to how diagonalization of deterministic machines leads to a deterministic/random hierarchy. Care to provide a link?

Roger said...

Free will is the alignment of two complex entities... Our view of our actions and our view of what constitutes ourselves as opposed to other-than-self.

As an example. One part of me REALLY wants that piece of cake, another part of me really wants to stay fit and healthy. There are actually two decisions that are determined or chosen... do I or do I not eat it, and do I identify with -- healthy me or hungry me?

When the self view matches the actions taken, we call it free will. Interestingly enough, I can choose to view it either way or both ways. "I didn't want to eat it but couldn't resist"... or "I chose to splurge on myself."

Since I can define it both ways, I can choose the view that is most practical/optimum. Hence free will emerges out of determinism.

Ben said...

The OP seems to me to be a good restatement of Hume's view on these issues so I wholly agree with it (I don't know where Vernunft is coming from).

The rest of the comments are the usual tangled nonsense you see when people try to slip off this logical hook.

I've never understood why people are so desperate for free will to be true that they are willing to commit such violence to our whole understanding of the universe.

I don't have any problem understanding my experience in terms of there being no free will.
In fact this belief allows me to make much more sense of my day to day experience.

Vernunft said...

"I don't know where Vernunft is coming from"

Factors other than what? What are these factors supposed to be doing? Factors for what?

Private languages aren't fun to decipher.

As far as Hume, if ONLY causation had never been under attack, things would be so much easier.

There's been a lot of philosophy since Hume, and if you aren't prepared to deal with, say, IMMANUEL FRICKIN' KANT, then you should probably not bother.

Jeff Brown said...

I wish we could count the number of people (like me) who agreed so much that they had nothing to add, hence no comment to post. Is this backwash ... wait, I mean backlash ... representative?

Vic said...

I probably don't belong here - linked from a friend's Gmail account. So I won't cite anyone when I say:

I agree that there is some chemical process underlying decisions, and therefore they are determined. But those who argue there is such a thing as free will are not arguing that decisions are random. Free will is a concept that is of use to us in explaining why people should be responsible for committing crimes and should be praised for performing great acts of skill or kindness. It posits that at some point an individual had a choice to turn back and did not take it, while we would not apply the same logic when describing computers or lesser animals.

Perhaps it seems sophomoric to you for me to state these things that I'm sure you already know, but if so, it should explain why the original argument seems so far off point. Who cares if it's deterministic, so long as the determination is partially beyond others' control?

emet tamid said...

Thoughts,

your objection is nothing more than a homunculus argument. fancy but fallacious.

Thoughts said...

Emet, you could try justifying this claim. If you read Materialists should read this firts you will discover that I am pointing out that the homunculus argument is proof that materialism is false.

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