The Confusing Philosophy of Free-will

Over at Jerry Coyne’s place Brad asked for some links to the topic. Physicalist commenter offered some that included a link to this page at Stanford.

Unfortuneately the ‘incompatibilst’ term there is not the same use of the term on the JC post comments.

And so welcome to the wonderful mixed up world of philosophy.

I’ll make some general points but also try to focus on this issue of incompatibilism. It’s worth asking ‘incompatible with what?’ and then note the following points.

1) The incompatibilists (I’ll get to incompatibilist later) commenting on the JC post are determinists who claim that free-will is incompatible with determinism, and that we live in a deterministic universe, and so there is no free-will. But this particular free-will that is rejected is that of dualism – the notion of the mind being something separate from the body, that for religious believers has some existence of its own that might live on after death of the body, such as the soul. We incompatibilists determinists think there’s no evidence for such a mind, and that everything is physical, and so the brain is a physical system and that free-will is merely the human feeling that we do have such a mind. This is why we think free-will is an illusion – that is the dualist free-will is an illusion.

2) Compatibilists also think everything is physical. They don’t think there is a separate mind, or a soul. They are not dualists in this respect. But, they think that what happens in a human brain is so complex and so self-contained that it does make sense to think of it as free-will.

One part of the dispute is about whether, for low level philosophical and scientific purposes, we should abandon the use of the term ‘free-will’ to describe what both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on. There are other issues, such as that about the attribution of responsibility, that seem to cloud the dibate, but the core issue is whether we should use the term free-will for what both sides really do agree on, that is what is happening in a brain, particular when some behaviours are framed as (a) ‘it makes decisions’ (compatibilist) or (b) ‘is caused to produce an outcome that we commonly call a decision’ (incompatibilist)

3) The term ‘determinist’ sometimes causes confusion because we all accept that quantum physics introduces indeterminism into our understanding of the universe. There are several sub-issues here. Even a fully deterministic universe would still be indeterminate to humans because it is too complex to determine all the detailed outcomes. And quantum events, once they occur, have deterministic effects. And quantum effects are not sufficient to give back the dualist the free-will they are looking for. All this has to be accounted for when interpreting how incompatibilists determinists use the term determinism. Many, possibly most, compatibilists will also agree with these points, so determinism isn’t specifically a problem of contention. Except that a few compatibilists do wonder if quantum effects play a part in what they perceive to be free-will. Having said that, non-compatibilists would probably agree that quantum effects can have a moment-by-moment effect that makes the universe and any brain process (e.g. a decision) indeterminate, but would still not call this free-will. So, even give or take some variation in the strictness of the use of the term ‘determinism’ many compatibilists and incompatibilists still agree on the physical basis of brain function and still dispute the use of the term ‘free-will’.

4) Now for the Stanford ‘Incompatibilism’. The title and the introduction to that article use the term to describe what is essentially a dualist free-will account. It is portraying incompatibilists as those people who think that there is a free-will that is incompatible with determinism. Meanwhile in our discussion here some of us have picked up on the use of ‘incompatibilists’ as being the determinists that think free-will is incompatible with determinism.

From the Stanford article: “According to McCann (1998: 163-64), when one makes a decision, intrinsic to the decision is one’s intending to make that very decision.”

When compatibilists make such statements the determinists see this as a dualist statement – but in this instance it is a dualist statement. The qestion is, what caused the ‘intending’? Answer: physical activity in the brain. What caused ‘that’ physical activity? Answer: more physical activity. The problem for determinists is that when compatibilists make such statements we know they don’t really mean dualist free-will decision, but the compatibilists object when we say this is not free-will because it is still a determined outcome.

More from Stanford: “Kane holds that a free decision or other free action is one for which the agent is “ultimately responsible” (1996b: 35). Ultimate responsibility for an action requires either that the action not be causally determined or, if the action is causally determined, that any determining cause of it either be or result (at least in part) from some action by that agent that was not causally determined (and for which the agent was ultimately responsible).” [my emphasis]

This is pure dualism. This is not the determinism that we incompatibilists or determinists here are suggesting is the case. This is not the free-will of compatibilists.

There is a distinction that isn’t made clear. Determinist incompatibilists are those (including me) that infer from all available evidence that the universe is deterministic (broadly) and that non-material minds do not exist, and therefore free-will is an illusion. Dualist incompatibilists are those dualists (proponents of a non-material mind, or a soul) that infer from their conviction to dualism that determinism cannot be a full description of the universe. Quite often we find philosophers not being clear on this distinction, declaring incompatibilism an unsustainable position because they are only thinking about the dualist incompatibilists. Dan Dennett seems muddle on this point – at least as he writes in his derision of incompatibilism.

5) What’s been happening in the particular JC post is that we’ve adapted the language to use the terms compatibilist and incompatibilists (using the latter as opposed to determinist).

Now it may well be that we non-professional-philosophers do misuse philosophical terms sometimes, but we’re in good (bad) company, since many professional philosphers seem to change the meaning of words at the behest of their own free-will (ahem, which they don’t have, of course).

This is also why this ground is covered so often in so many ways, why points are made and re-made in different terms. It’s all part of the process of trying to understand what the hell is going on in the context of incomplete science, and a mad history of philosophy that’s all over the place.

Some people deride this process (Oh no! Jerry Coyne is banging on about free-will again! Enough already!). Well, maybe they can only take so much. But for the rest of us these are interesting points, with interesting outcomes (how we view responsibility) that depend on how we view human behaviour, and even how we frame it (free-will as an illusion or a reality).

So, I’m afraid you’ll have to wade through a lot of crap from all sides. At least you can narrow it down to what is basically a love-fest threesome: dualist (actual separate free-will), compatibilist (an emergent free-will worth having), incompatibilists (free-will is an illusion). They are the three main categories, with lots of overlap.

8 thoughts on “The Confusing Philosophy of Free-will

  1. Ron, thanks for these posts.

    There may be yet a fourth category, based on what I have seen in comments. You could split the “free-will is an illusion” position into

    1) those who accept that there are determined choices (call it what you will — “selection from among alternatives,” “selection from among the apparent-for-all-we-know alternatives,” etc.)


    2) those who believe that no sensible analysis can possibly include those alternatives because whatever happens is what happens and that was the end of it – for them, determinism implies that there is no functional difference between an automobile and a roller-coaster, or that any perceived difference between their operational freedom is “merely an illusion.” Further, terms like “avoid” are taken to be nonsense, at bottom, because the only situations are the ones that actually manifest, and so you can’t avoid a situation if it doesn’t exist. The only dangerous flying bullet is the one that makes contact and causes actual harm — if we accept determinism then a bullet that missed was determined not to hit, so in no actual sense can we call it “dangerous,” or even “potentially dangerous” (the “potentially” doesn’t add anything but confusion to the analysis).

    I have usually argued against the the latter type (but not the former) on the grounds that our scientific method depends on exactly the same kinds of analysis — posing hypotheses, counterfactuals, doing tests, and so forth, to see what dispositional properties something has when poked in different ways, or what freedom exists in something’s behavior (and in the case of evolved things, for what retrospective reasons).

    I think the differences between my 1) above and compatibilists is just semantic — what deserves to be called “free will” and why? But the differences between my 2) and the rest are much more substantial and worthy of debate. I think that accepting the consequences of determinism in the way that the 2) people do would cause us to give up the fruits of science, especially those of natural selection. What do you think?



  2. Hi Matt, welcome.

    Good points. Some of this I think boils down to subtle differences between personal views (one’s life philosophy) and how we try to investigate the world (one’s philosophy about life).

    I think the key to understanding of the universe is the latter. It’s worth trying to step outside the human condition and do the science (and the science based philosophy where the science isn’t informative enough). This is our best attempt to understand reality. This is why I would go for the determinist incompatibilist view – it’s describing the universe, and in the context of these discussion how a particular bit of the universe operates (the brain) in nuts and bolts terms. Unclouded by human subjective perceptions.

    I’ve got a couple of post that address the problems of subjective perceptions and the related issue of how humans seem to give greater credibility to pure thought than to the collective of empirical experience:

    Anyway, wherever our considered view of reality leads us it can, if we choose (oops! free-will language is sneaking in again), let it inform our life philosophy, how we as human react to the world. My deterministic free-will-is-an-illusion has informed and does influence (beyond my control! Ah, that sounds less like free-will) my view of life.

    Consequently I do see the missed bullet as something that simply didn’t happen. Perhaps I don’t mentally go through all the detail; perhaps I don’t always mentally articulate the thought that it was never going to happen; but I certainly don’t get my knickers in a twist about what a close call I had. When unusual and ‘dangerous’ events happen that miss me and I’m asked “weren’t you concerned?” Well, yes, while the prior uncertainty holds. I’m as big a coward as anyone, depending on the danger. But as soon as the incident passes, that’s it. Missed me.

    Like most people who fly I’ve been on a couple of really bumpy rides. Now as passengers we never really know the extent of the danger – the pilot might be completely unconcerned. But when you see concern in the eyes of the cabin crew it can be worrying. But I really think this worry is purely about the process, the uncertainty of what might be about to unfold. It’s certainly not a fear of death, only a fear of dying. Once I’m gone I’m gone. I won’t be around to worry about it once it has happened. The aftermath of death means nothing to me.

    This sort of fatalism is sometimes mistaken for a religious fatalism – it’s in the plans of the gods. But the two forms of fatalism are different. What I might call the deterministic fatalism is just what we happen to find out happened, after it happened. The religious fatalism still seems to be tied to a prior knowledge of what’s going to happen, even though it’s some deity that’s supposed to be calling the shots and supposedly has the prior knowledge. I am the deterministic sort of fatalist, but not the religious sort.

    But still, this doesn’t interfere with my choosing. Or should I say it doesn’t interfere with my subjective feeling of choosing. I’m still an animal driven by biological processes that manifest at the macro level as survival instinct. I still choose food, life, love over the more austere alternatives.

    This comment has meandered a bit, but I hope it expresses what I think is the relationship between how we view the universe philosophically and how we behave in it. They can be different but are tied together by our individual identity, which can mistakenly make us think they should be the same. I think about free-will as a determinist non-compatibilist, and believe we experience the illusion of having free-will, But I often behave as if we do actually have free-will, because that’s what having the illusion causes me to do.

  3. Is there a label for my kind of determinism? Let me explain briefly.

    I believe in cause and effect. It’s the basis of science. You don’t even need to prove it: it’s presupposed. Without it—and without an associated belief in determinism—there’s really no point to conducting any scientific inquiry. That’s on the gross level where the laws of Newton and Einstein apply. The quantum level is analyzed using probabilistic tools. Is there a kind of cause and effect down there? Maybe. Probably. However, we’ll also probably never know.

    I’m not a predeterminist. I don’t think whatever happens today was determined by the Big Bang or whenever the physical laws started taking hold.

    My conception of determinism only takes cause and effect back one step. In other words, whatever happens follows with absolute necessity due to the immediately antecedent events and conditions operating under deterministic physical laws, never mind what happened billions of years ago.

    I think also that quantum events intrude into the gross world making changes in causal chains. Recently, it’s been said (I don’t know if we can say “shown”) that due to quantum entanglement, the future can actually affect the past. Minimally, I’m aware of no proof that quantum events don’t influence the everyday world. This is why predestination makes no sense to me. It also makes no sense, for the same reason, to suppose that what we do today somehow determines the future..

    I see the mind as an epiphenomenon of the brain, simply reflecting events in the brain which, as a physical object, is entirely governed by physical law. I think we have to assume that as long as we believe in science, which always analyzes the world above the quantum level in terms of deterministic physical law.

    This does have implications for morality. Even if what we do is not done freely, we still make moral judgments (if you want to call them that) not based on punishing people because they are bad, but because they are doing things we don’t like, want to stop, and don’t want repeated.

    1. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but you might check out a book called “Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics” by Henry Stapp (publ. Springer).

      Here’s a thought experiment. A supervillain kidnaps a dozen world leaders, and ties them side-by-side around the outside of a very large post. He puts a gun with one bullet on a machine that conveys it in a circle around the group, pointing at each in turn. He then sets up a Schrödinger death machine such that a radioactive substance will cause a Geiger counter to trigger the gun, killing whoever it happens to be pointed at at the time (let’s say the French president). After that, he releases the 11 living leaders back to their countries.

      This would be a quantum event with huge real-world consequences.

      1. Hi Matt,

        Yes, quantum events have macro world causes. But if the macro events are caused (rather than magically uncaused) there only significance is that they present as statistically indeterminate to the macro level observers (and by ‘observers’ I include any macro machine, not ‘conscious minds’ which some peddlers of spookiness look for).

        I didn’t know of the Henry Stapp book. Thanks for the tip. Feel free to add anything from it.

    2. Hi Tom, welcome.

      So, determinism applies back one step. Then, from there applies back one step, etc. You seem to be describing predeterminism, and then deny it without explaining why.

      You introduce quantum stuff, but as you say there is no reason to think quantum stuff is not deterministic. At the very least we are acknowledging that it has outcomes in this world, deterministic outcomes.

      The main thrust of the probabilistic nature of quantum events is that we, as macro systems, can’t predict the quantum events better that ‘random’. That begs the question of what ‘random’ events are. Are they caused or magical, theological, un-caused causes?

      I realise that the causal deterministic model is one we humans have difficulty doing without – it is how we perceive the world. But it’s still a model.

      There is the possibility of a completely static universe (ignoring for now what the bounds are on it) so that all space-time ‘events’ exist in a space-time matrix, and the only thing that connects them temporally is their proximity temporally. I think Sean Carroll and others have covered this in their books. So, time doesn’t exist as we perceive it. That begs lots of other questions, so this model is only good as a philosophical perspective, like solipsism, that we can’t then do anything with.

      Except, this would mean temporal causation is an illusion of our perception. What do I mean by that? Every space-time event (we really need to talk about region of space in a single time point) already exists in this static matrix. In the space-time event of any particular here-now my brain state is such that there are echoes of other states elsewhere in the matrix: there is a part of my brain state here now that is similar to the brain-state that is in some other part of the matrix, the bit that represents what I call yesterday’s meal time. When I ‘remember’ eating bacon yesterday, that ‘memory’ is part of the state of my brain here-now that is similar to my brain at-the-table-yesterday. Every space-time point that includes my brain feels like it is the true NOW. In any NOW space-time event that includes my brain, if it has similar patterns

      But, if we do accept deterministic causation, and have no good evidence that quantum stuff is not deterministic, even if indeterminate to macro objects like us (there’s frequently conflation of our epistemological indeterminacy and actual ontological indeterminacy – they are different), then it is determinism all the way.

      There is nothing in quantum stuff I’m aware of that ‘determines’ that winding back the universe would not see a ‘random’ event produce the same result.

      So, Schrodinger’s cat is in a box. We can’t know if it’s dead or alive, but just before we open the box it is one or the other – the quantum event has had its macro causal effect. Wind back the universe and rerun a thousand times and THAT specific quantum event will always be the same, if quantum events are causal. Note though that to us, being rewound and re-run, it is always the first time that event ever happened, because at that point our brain states are still caused to be the same.

      On the other hand, as the universe unwinds ONCE, then in different space-time events – I pick strawberry on Monday, but vanilla on Tuesday – then ‘could have done otherwise’ is nothing more than did do otherwise in separate space-time events. There is ZERO reason (outside magic dualism mind/soul) for thinking the Monday even will always be strawberry, no matter how often the universe is re-run – there is no possibility that the Mondy-strawberry event could ever be otherwise, and I could not have done otherwise and picked vanilla on Monday.

      Such a thought experiment requires the magic demon of course – i.e. some entity that can observe this rewind without actually being stuck in it.

  4. I don’t see a way to edit my comment, so I’ll so it in this reply.

    Despite proofreading twice, I missed this: When I wrote “This is why predestination makes no sense to me,” I meant “This is why predeterminism makes no sense to me.”

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