PART 3: INTERVIEWS
Thoughts on Free Will
Thoughts on Free Will
My interest in free will was originally driven by my questioning of my own life: how free have I been to become who I am? It was later reinforced by a fear that anybody reading the news might legitimately worry about: is science really telling us that we don’t have free will? Going into this project, I had some understanding of the matter – more than the regular Joe at least, enough to approach it confidently and know how to explore it further. But as I got deeper, I discovered I had only started grappling with the outer weeds of the forest. And the process of making this project forced me to make some adjustments in my understanding which I will present here, because my own “un-weeding” of the question may be helpful to those who want to know more too.
To begin with, it took me a long time to come to really appreciate that the question “do we have free will or are we entirely determined?” is a misguided question, because it is implicitly opposing determinism and free will, which at first glance feels kind of natural, but depending on how you define free will, might not be at all justified. And it is essential to get this: most philosophers arguing about free will are often talking about different kinds of freedom. And while the distinction is often summarily presented at the beginning of classes or lectures, it may not quite register that we are talking about two different things, because we continue to use the expression “free will” indiscriminately. So the first step in approaching this discussion is to clearly understand that there are two very different ways of defining free will.
One way is to say that free will means being morally competent, and moral competence relies on two things: (1) being able to reason correctly, to make rational decisions and to act freely (in the sense of not being constrained by outside forces or internal incapacities) to pursue our desires and ambitions (whatever they may be and however they may have been formed, excluding the involvement of external manipulators), and (2) the presence of a society with other people who hold each other responsible in light of a commonly shared and accepted set of rules and standards. If either one of these two conditions isn’t met (a child, for instance, or a person alone with no one else around), then this kind of free will just isn’t there or worth talking about. With this kind of free will, we are essentially saying: (a) a man is free because he is morally responsible, (b) he is morally responsible because he is morally competent, and (c) he is morally competent because he is able to decide and act in accordance with his will. Now if we define free will in this way, then determinism is not an issue, because determinism says nothing of our ability to be morally competent. In fact, living in a determined world (i.e. one where causal laws allow us to act in a controlled way and predict the actions of other objects and persons) is in some ways a setting that enhances our ability to qualify moral competence (if everything was entirely random all the time, we wouldn’t be able to attribute any consequence to any act, and therefore the idea of responsibility would be even harder to make sense of). So, in short, this kind of freedom is compatible with determinism; this is why it is called Compatibilism.
The other way is to say that free will means some form of true authorship over our wills themselves. In simple terms, it can be defined in a negative sense, in contrast to determinism: you’re free so long as you are not fully determined to be the way you are. So it’s not enough that we be free to act in accordance with our will, we must have been responsible for forming the will from which we act. This is sometimes called “ultimate responsibility,” in the sense that you were not just responsible for causing your act, but also for causing the will that motivated your act. So, in contrast to compatibilism, here (a) you are responsible if and only if you are free (in this undetermined sense), and (b) being free requires that you were not fully determined to will what you will, which means in turn that (c) at some point in your past, there must have been decisions which were both (1) undetermined and (2) caused by you in such a way that they weren’t entirely random either. Answering these two conditions is where the meat of the work rests for those who hold this view of freedom, which, seeing as it is not compatible with determinism, is called Incompatibilism, or, more commonly, Libertarianism.
So you see, if you view freedom in the compatibilist sense, then determinism doesn’t really matter; it’s only if you think that freedom should be understood in a libertarian sense that the determinism question comes up. And this is important because the original question “Are we free or are we determined?” while misleading, is useful because it tells us something about our intuitions on free will: namely that we have this natural bias towards libertarian free will. We really do believe that if we were to go back in time, we could have made a different choice – and that we really could have, not just in a “no one is forcing me to do this” way, but in a “I dictate the course of the universe with my decision” way.
Because of this natural inclination, I think the indiscriminate use of the expression “free will” leads to a quite a bit of confusion, because when a scientist or a philosopher says “we do” or “we don’t” have free will, it isn’t obvious to the untrained listener which kind of free will is being talked about. Usually, when we hear people say “free will is impossible,” they are referring to the libertarian kind of free will, and it makes absolute sense to say that if determinism is true, then it is hard to make sense of it; conversely when we hear philosophers being disgruntled at such claims that free will is impossible, arguing in return that free will is possible, they are usually not talking about libertarian free will – they are talking about the compatibilist kind of free will, which, again, most would say is possible in a determined world.
In fact, it’s enlightening to detect potential points of agreement among philosophers who, on the spectrum of the debate, are polar opposites. Let’s take the example of Dennett and Kane, who most clearly personify the compatibilist/libertarian divide. If you ask Kane and Dennet the following unspecified question: is free will possible? They will both say yes.
And this is where a lot of people, myself included, get confused – because usually if you get interested in this subject, it’s because you’ve read somewhere that science is proving that we don’t have free will - and they mean it in the libertarian sense even if they don’t specify it. So you get hooked, you read a few things then hear a big-name philosopher like Dennett say something like “No not at all, don’t listen to the naysayers, free will is possible” and then gives you the compatibilist argument as though it was a straightforward idea, and then for a moment you get it, but then you don’t, because something’s off. And this is why: the compatibilists are essentially shifting the conversation, they are doing some form of conceptual slight of hand. When Object A (libertarian free will) seems to vanish into thin air, they make it appear again, saying “surprise, it hadn’t actually disappeared,” but it is in fact Object B (compatibilist free will). And I don’t mean this in a bad way, either. Compatibilist free will is its own thing, just as important a subject as libertarian free will, and compatibilists are understandably baffled by people’s eagerness to discuss libertarian free will. But they feel this way because they themselves, personally, have already lost interest in it, and are quite happy having their compatibilist kind of free will. But in doing so they alienate many listeners because they don’t address the issue they are concerned with when they dive into this subject.
The big question we’re left with, then, is: which definition of free will should we favor? And there are basically two ways of looking at it:
My initial impression was that generally, compatibilists and libertarians each tended to have a different approach: on the one hand I felt that compatibilists were the ones following approach 1, that they first looked at how the world works and then constructed a view of freedom that can operate within the bounds of that answer – thus compatibilism. On the other hand, I initially suspected that the libertarians were prone to approach 2, that they started with their intuitive preference about what freedom should be, and then needed to look at science in the hope of finding some explanation to make it possible – thus their sometimes “hopeful” stance on the random interpretations of quantum mechanics and brain processes. But as I looked closer, I saw that both camps might sometimes be approaching the question the other way: compatibilists sometimes seem so attached to the compatibilist view of freedom that they refuse to really engage with the research in quantum physics, simply dismissing the influence it might have on our brains and arguing that it is irrelevant to the compatibilist kind of free will (which, in a sense, it is). But in doing so they are resisting new scientific evidence that might shift the answer to the first question, in order to not distract from a definition of freedom that functions well. Meanwhile, libertarians sometimes appeared to be the most in tune with modern science, starting with an assessment of how the world works – including indeterminisic interpretations of quantum mechanics – and then constructing a view of free will accordingly.
And so, on the libertarian side of things, I genuinely think that Doyle follows approach 1, that he is first and foremost a quantum physicist, convinced of indeterminism, before being a libertarian philosopher of free will. Whereas Kane, I feel, follows approach 2: he is first and foremost a philosopher who wants libertarian free will to be possible and therefore must become scientifically knowledgeable enough to defend the indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics in support of his philosophical preference. While on the compatibilist side of things, I think that Gazzaniga is first and foremost a neurobiologist who, based on his own findings on the brain, has drawn conclusions about free will that happen to fit quite neatly in the compatibilist category. In contrast, Dennett seems to be predominantly a philosopher who argued quite successfully in favor of a free will that is compatible with determinism at a time when science was claiming all over the place that free will (in a libertarian sense) is impossible, and is therefore uninterested in opening up his conversation to the desirability or possibility of libertarian free will despite possible new insights into quantum randomness.
The bottom line here, that really muddies the waters, is this: we really don’t have a definitive answer to the first question. How does the world actually work? Is there some randomness? We don’t know for sure, so the matter of fact is still open. Some think it’s not open enough to leave room for any argument in favor of libertarianism, others do – and that is yet another level of possible debate. But still, most philosophers don’t depart from what science is saying – at most they exploit some “open questions” in support of their view, but they hardly ever push the boundaries of what is scientifically possible beyond – otherwise they’d lose all credibility. So, despite everything we know and understand about the physical world, there’s still a lot we don’t, particularly on the causal order of the quantum level, and we know even less about the brain. So there’s still a reasonable “fog of uncertainty” there where libertarianism can live. The reason why most philosophers are compatibilists is because compatibilism is the “safe bet”: whether the universe is deterministic or not, we can have it. The libertarian kind is the one that is a bit tricky, because it cannot exist if everything is actually genuinely deterministic.
How you feel about this issue really depends on what you consider to be important for freedom, what do you think is worth wanting. If free will in the compatibilist sense is good enough, then you have nothing to worry about, because even if quantum randomness did have an effect in our brain, it wouldn’t fundamentally change anything - it would essentially take the place of Dennett’s “pseudo random generation” and be a “better” source of randomness – and in response to claims that this would make our actions random, we can just appeal to the libertarian arguments of “adequate determinism” and absorption of quantum randomness to restore reliability and coherence to our actions. In short, transitioning from compatibilism to libertarianism is fairly easy – it’s the other way around that’s painful.
Indeed, if free will in the libertarian sense is what matters to you, then you have to “take your chances” with science and fulfill two conditions:
If either of these steps fail, then you cannot have the libertarian kind of free will. And even if these steps are satisfied, there are further complications: How does a random event make us any more responsible for our actions? Why doesn’t that make us random? Isn’t an undetermined decision irrational? And so on. So beyond the tricky question of whether it is possible lies the question of whether it is at all useful.
While grappling with these issues, I always felt a little frustrated by the “free will debate”, because it opposed two camps I kind of agree with: on the one hand, I felt that the libertarians did really capture the kind of freedom we intuitively feel and that actually matters to us in a deep way, and that determinism was thus legitimately a big concern; however, libertarianism requires fulfilling a bunch of conditions that are scientifically challenging, and also, annoyingly, it sometimes comes bundled up with mystic, religious or otherwise new-age conceptions of human agency. This is why, on the other hand, the pragmatism of compatibilists appealed to me: I shared their suspicion that many libertarians seemed to hold out for some metaphysical view of free will and agreed that compatibilist freedom was not only what really should matter to us in a more practical sense, but that it’s possible; however, compatibilism always left me wanting more, as though just stopping there was sidestepping the issue that the libertarians were addressing. And this bothered me too. So the debate didn’t sit well with me: either you’re a libertarian, either you’re a compatibilist. One or the other.
As I worked on psi, I slowly came to realize that doesn’t have to be the case, for one simple, basic reason I have been detailing above: compatibilists and libertarians are arguing about different things, two different definitions of freedom, and that means they didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. They could co-exist. They just operate in a different space, or rather, at a different “time” or “level” in human behavior, and so you can have one and the other.
In other words, compatibilism and incompatibilism are not… well, incompatible.
Let me explain: the way I see it now is that they are in a continuum, like in a “two-stage model of free wills,” if you will:
So my two stage model basically would be:
And even if everything was determined, libertarian free will wouldn’t be doomed the trash bin of ideas, for two reasons. The first is that our intuitions about libertarian free will are still pretty deeply ingrained in our genetic hardware – and it’s one that is almost impossible to shake off, even willingly. So I think whatever we learn about the causal laws of the universe, we’ll still live in some “simulation” of libertarian free will. The second reason is that there’s even a way to get a “sort-of libertarian free will” even in a determined world: we just basically substitute the “real randomness” of quantum physics by the unpredictability of our behavior, given how chaotic our brains and social interactions are. In theory, sure, an all knowing machine could predict what you’re going to do – so the future is not really undetermined - but the reality is: this machine just doesn’t exist, and quite possibly never will. And so we would operate in a way that is for all intents and purposes “free-in-a-libertarian-sense” because our brains and our social interactions are so complex that they are just as unpredictable as quantum events.
This model, combining libertarianism and compatibilism as part of a continuum or as working at two different layers in human behavior, is the one I tried to present in Act 3 of the film. My first edit was originally a more traditional presentation of the free will debate, where I basically started by saying “look, we’re pretty determined, but it doesn’t matter because we have compatibilist free will” and then went on with “but wait, is that enough? What about libertarian free will?” As I started seeing both in the way presented above, and re-edited Act 3 to present libertarianism and compatibilism on a continuum, rather than as two different views that would have more or less merit. Obviously, I don’t know if that will come across to the audience, which is why I wrote this entire chapter to explain. Thanks for indulging me. On to the next.