I don't believe in free will. I've got good neuroscientific company, which includes Sam Harris, author of "Free Will." (See here and here for my previous blogging about the book.)
Reading a New York Times review of "Free Will," I was reminded of how the have-it-both-ways notion of compatibilism doesn't make sense to me. Compatibilism claims that free will and determinism are compatible.
Huh? is my reaction. Harris' also, according to the review.
For quite a while now, philosophers and public intellectuals, including Harris’s friend Dennett, have tried to rescue something like the common notion of free will from the jaws of science and logic by embracing a position called compatibilism. Compatibilists believe that “a person is free as long as he is free from any outer or inner compulsions,” Harris writes, and they “have produced a vast literature in an effort” to salvage free will. “More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology,” he continues, consigning it to what one assumes is, for him, the intellectual subbasement.
For some reason unrelated to my non-existent free will, I've never even been able to understand how compatibilists justify their position, much less agree with it.
I started to make my way through a lengthy philosophical examination of the subject, but couldn't handle the intellectual exertion of reading it all.
After all, it's summertime, and thinking is easy (when I do any of it). It just seems to me that if determinism rules the brain, and there's essential zero scientific evidence to the contrary, then the only way to save a belief in free will is to redefine the term.
This is what compatibilists do. They accept brain-based determinism, but somehow argue that if I can act on my fully determined motives without interference (mostly from other people, I assume), I'm free.
However, if I'm not free to choose what to do, what kind of freedom is that? To me, and Harris, free will is being able to do something different, even though the status of every neuron in the doer's brain is exactly the same as before.
This, of course, requires that a mysterious "will" be something supernatural, since if "will" is an altered brain state, determinism still rules: my will is the result of some cause, which itself is the result of some other cause, and so on -- all the way back to the big bang.
Since there is no evidence of a non-material entity (soul, spirit, whatever) which acts upon the physical brain, genuine free will appears to be an impossibility.
Here's an excerpt from the above-linked Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on compatibilism. Makes good sense. Of course, what else could I say? I don't believe in free will, so naturally I agreed with this:
Despite the classical compatibilists' ingenuity, their analysis of could have done otherwise failed decisively. The classical compatibilists wanted to show their incompatibilist interlocutors that when one asserted that a freely willing agent had alternatives available to her—that is, when it was asserted that she could have done otherwise—that assertion could be analyzed as a conditional statement, a statement that is perspicuously compatible with determinism.
But as it turned out, the analysis was refuted when it was shown that the conditional statements sometimes yielded the improper result that a person was able to do otherwise even though it was clear that at the time the person acted, she had no such alternative and therefore was not able to do otherwise in the pertinent sense (Chisholm, 1964, in Watson, ed., 1982, pp.26–7; or van Inwagen, 1983, pp.114–9). Here is such an example:
Suppose that Danielle is psychologically incapable of wanting to touch a blond haired dog. Imagine that, on her sixteenth birthday, unaware of her condition, her father brings her two puppies to choose between, one being a blond haired Lab, the other a black haired Lab. He tells Danielle just to pick up whichever of the two she pleases and that he will return the other puppy to the pet store. Danielle happily, and unencumbered, does what she wants and picks up the black Lab.
When Danielle picked up the black Lab, was she able to pick up the blond Lab? It seems not. Picking up the blond Lab was an alternative that was not available to her. In this respect, she could not have done otherwise. Given her psychological condition, she cannot even form a want to touch a blond Lab, hence she could not pick one up. But notice that, if she wanted to pick up the blond Lab, then she would have done so.
Of course, if she wanted to pick up the blond Lab, then she would not suffer from the very psychological disorder that causes her to be unable to pick up blond haired doggies. The classical compatibilist analysis of ‘could have done otherwise’ fails. According to the analysis, when Danielle picked up the black Lab, she was able to pick up the blonde Lab, even though, due to her psychological condition, she was not able to do so in the relevant respect. Hence, the analysis yields the wrong result.
The classical compatibilist attempt to answer the incompatibilist objection failed. Even if an unencumbered agent does what she wants, if she is determined, at least as the incompatibilist maintains, she could not have done otherwise. Since, as the objection goes, freedom of will requires freedom involving alternative possibilities, classical compatibilist freedom falls.
Great article; I've listed it on my site's page of blogs refuting free will - http://causalconsciousness.com/free%20will%20refuted%20in%20blogs.htm
I hope you'll write more, and cover my Exploring the Illusion of Free Will initiative
Posted by: George Ortega | July 22, 2012 at 09:01 PM
You're absolutely right - free will doesn't exist. It is religiously motivated crap that is used by conservatives to support the moral justification for inequality. Unfortunately for conservatives, free will doesn't exist, which means the moral justification for inequality falls apart. The idea of free will is best understood as a product of human psychology, like the idea of God. People have a psychology need for autonomy, from which springs the idea of free will.
Here's a brief summary of some arguments against free will:
arguments against free will:
Free will must be defined in a way that distinguishes it from other concepts. In order for free will to avoid being a synonym for another concept, it must be defined as "the ability to have chosen otherwise in accordance with one's actions."
The universe must be either deterministic or indeterministic. If the universe is deterministic, then only one possible state of affairs can obtain at any given time. Therefore, free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe. However, if the universe is indeterministic, then my actions cannot be determined by my choices; all of my actions would be like dice rolls. If I choose to raise my right arm in an indeterministic universe, I might or might not raise my arm. My choice to raise my right arm might cause me to start laughing hysterically or to spontaneously combust in an indeterministic universe. In an indeterministic universe, effects are random. Even if there is a certain probability that I will raise my right arm, this is not sufficient control to say that free will exists. Since free will cannot exist in either a deterministic or an indeterministic universe, and since the universe must be either deterministic or indeterministic, then free will cannot exist.
3. infinite regress
Shoppenhauer wrote "Man is free to do what he wills but not to will what he wills." Suppose instead that a person is free to "will what they will." In this case, an infinite regress results: if I will to will something, then I must ask if I am free to will this. If I answer affirmatively, then I must say that I will to will to will something, and I must ask the same question again, ad infinitum. The only way to end the infinite regress is to say that something I will is determined. If the first thing that I will in the chain is determined, then the entire chain is determined. Since this is the only way to avoid the infinite regress, the will is determined. Therefore, free will does not exist.
4. psychological explanation
Free will is a product of human psychology just as God is a product of human psychology. The idea of free will stems from the human desire to see oneself as autonomous and as being better than other people. These are "immature desires" which depend on the notion of free will. When the notion of free will is rejected, people can begin to understand that everything is connected and that no one is better than anyone else.
5. practical reasons for rejecting the idea of free will
The idea of free will is the foundation of all conservative philosophy. Without the idea of free will, inequality in the distribution of resources cannot be justified on moral grounds. Central to conservative thought is the moral justification of inequality; it isn't enough for conservatives to establish a wealthy elite, they want the rest of society to recognize this elite as deserving their position (i.e., conservatives want to establish an aristocracy). Aid to the poor is typically rejected by conservatives since they see people's circumstances as being the result of the own free will. Taxes on the rich are rejected as "punishing success." Talk of "earning" one's riches makes no sense if we are not in control of our actions.
The idea of free will can be tied to what is called the "fundamental attribution error" in social psychology. ...Which basically says that we are hippocrites when it comes to explaining people's behavior.
Negative emotions such as jealousy and hatred require the notion of free will (Spinoza). These dissappear when we realize that there is no free will and that everything that happens happens necessarily.
Posted by: Patrick | July 31, 2012 at 05:45 AM
From my perspective the definition is a straw man in and of it's self. I think I happen to fall into the view of a compatibilist.
You are effectively defining freedom only to exist in a state where you could be not your self.
My view is that if my internal state determines the decision free of external influence then I determined my choice freely.
To me my inner compulsions are my free will.
To take away my inner compulsions is to take me away.
Posted by: Dwayne | December 26, 2012 at 11:12 PM
Patrick, if free will doesn't exist, how can you condemn conservatives for their actions?
Posted by: Josh | August 31, 2013 at 06:34 PM
" This, of course, requires that a mysterious "will" be something supernatural, since if "will" is an altered brain state, determinism still rules: "
......if it ever ruled. Physical determinism is something of an open question. To argue against free will, you need to argue against compatibilism , which you have done, and in favour if determinism, which you ha've not.
(Alternatively, you could argue that both determinism and indeterminism, are incompatible with free will, as Patrick did)
Posted by: TheAncientGeek | January 01, 2015 at 08:28 AM
"However, if the universe is indeterministic, then my actions cannot be determined by my choices; all of my actions would be like dice rolls"
And why is that a problem? Are you saying the choice would not be yours? But why shouldn't an indetetministic event in your brain count as yours? Or is the problem that you might end up doing something you don't want? But if the mechanism consists of making a choice between N actions, each of which you want, then you won't. Or is the problem that you can't have control over a random choice? But there is nothing to stop one part of the brain filtering the output of another, random, one.
". If I choose to raise my right arm in an indeterministic universe, I might or might not raise my arm. My choice to raise my right arm might cause me to start laughing hysterically or to spontaneously combust in an indeterministic universe."
No, indeterminism doesn't mean anything is possible, it means more than one thing is possible.
By that argument, evolution is also impossible.
Posted by: TheAncientGeek | January 01, 2015 at 08:55 AM