Photo Credit: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/01/case-against-one-way-streets/4549/
We are continually faced with choice in our day to day lives. From the mundane to the critical, choice rears its head every step of the way. We quickly discover that it is the choices we make and the actions we take that mold who we are. It is this role that choice plays in our day to day lives in determining who we are that makes the idea of free will most appealing. But do we really have free will? This is what I want to look at today.
In my experience, there seems to be three different positions on this topic. The first position is the belief in ultimate free will. Typically held by the religious, while the degree to which we have free will is more so as you move closer towards religious fundamentalism. In the middle there is a strong second position, typically held by intellectuals with a passion for philosophy, which is compatibilism. As the name suggests, compatibilists believe that we can live in a deterministic universe while still maintaining wiggle room for the freedom to choose. Simply put, compatibilists believe that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, that is, it is possible to believe both while maintaining logical consistency. I currently reject these first two positions and find myself in the third position which is determinism, sometimes called hard determinism. As a determinist, I, in short, hold the belief that everything we do is determined. Looking at the laws of physics, I claim that in principle, we could calculate, and therefore determine, every single thing you do, from when you will take your next breath, to what you will decide to have for lunch in two weeks. I will go deeper into this later in the post, but first I would like to look at the first two positions. My goal is to first disprove these positions and then conclude by explaining why I believe the third position, my position, is the most reasonable to believe.
Ultimate Free Will
The first problem that I think many will find when analyzing the idea of free will for the first time is that free will isn’t very well defined. What does it actually mean to have fee will? When asked to define it immediately, most will say something to the extent of, the ability to choose. This is empty in my opinion and doesn’t really grant anyone the power that they believe free will gives. Choice exists, that is the first thing to understand. We are constantly faced with choices, whether it be what to watch on TV or where to go out to eat. We are constantly presented with choices, and thus we must make a choice. Therefore, regardless of whether or not we have free will, choices must be made. But this means nothing with regards to your freedom with the choice itself.
So we now realize that what makes free will so appealing is that it appears to give us real control or some kind of power over our lives. So to have true free will, everything must be of one’s own doing. Hence, to have free will, one must be the author of their own thoughts and the ultimate decider of every choice they make and every action they take. To claim to have ultimate free will, I do not know how it is possible to not hold these attributes. Because these attributes are so rigid, as they must be to truly define free will, it acts as the weak stability that makes it so easy to bring the idea of ultimate free will down.
There are a few thought experiments one can do to easily bring down the idea of ultimate free will. My favorite experiment is to ask you to think of a city (feel free to actually try this while you are reading). Now when you read this, surely a few cities began to emerge into your mind. And you can just kind of observe this experience, just cities coming into consciousness, Orlando… New York… Portland… etc. They almost came into mind in the same manner to which you read the cities I listed a moment ago. Now choose a city, you can take as much time as you’d like. This whole experience immediately begins to expose potential weaknesses in the idea of ultimate free will. The feeling of cities simply coming into consciousness, without authorship. Granted there was still that point when you chose amongst the list of cities that were in your mind, this may appear to be the moment where free will kicked in, you might say. Well if you are to be the author of your thoughts, how could you be when you didn’t author the cities that merely came to mind. Now you might argue that you did author the cities that came to mind. To this, I meet you with a counter; surely you are aware that, for example, Atlanta is a city. For many of you, Atlanta probably didn’t come to mind and thus Atlanta was off the table in terms of cities that you would choose. I propose this question then; how were you free to choose cities which did not occur to you? To someone who believes in ultimate free will, this is a question which demands an answer.
Another shot in the leg to those who believe in ultimate free will comes from the mouth of science. In scientific experiments it has been shown that your mind has determined what you will choose, sometimes as many as seven seconds before you are consciously aware. In this link here, it acts as many similar experiments, a person is asked to select something, typically as simple as a left button or right button. They are told to go back and forth on their decision making but as soon as they make their decision to press the button. What studies have found is that your mind had already made the decision several seconds before you were consciously aware. As they point out in the video, this shows that conscious decision making is secondary to brain activity.
The most significant point which I believe buries completely the idea of ultimate free will is the fact that we are not perfect. The fact that we make mistakes, we become addicted to bad things, or in the mind of the religious, we sin. The idea of mistakes, sin, or temptation does not fit in a reality where people have ultimate free will. I like how Sam Harris puts it in his short book Free Will where he states,
To say that someone freely chose to squander his life’s savings at the poker table is to say that he had every opportunity to do otherwise and that nothing about what he did was inadvertent. He played poker not by accident or while in the grip of delusion but because he wanted to, intended to, and decided to, moment after moment.
These sort of things do not make sense in a world with ultimate free will. Why would someone do such a thing? It is absolutely illogical. Someone might claim that the person is evil or easily tempted. But how can these bad attributes exist when you can simply will them away? If you can not will them away, you are proclaiming that you are at the mercy of thoughts or desires that are not truly yours, therefore eliminating ultimate free will. If you say, maybe he was aware of this and yet still wanted to do the wrong thing. This still does not fit in a world with ultimate free will. What does it mean to want something when you have free will? To want something while having free will, you must choose to want something. To choose to want to do something bad before truly desiring to want something bad is illogical again. We can continue this argument for days but you will always find that to do something bad begins at an illogical, dare I say impossible, starting point.
Temptation is perhaps the biggest point here. Especially when speaking to the religious. Temptation should either not exist or be irrelevant in a reality with ultimate free will. Temptation should probably not exist because if we are the conscious authors of our thoughts and intentions, we would have to, from an illogical starting point, choose to think of something tempting (and we can assume bad or wrong or sinful). But suppose “the devil” could plant thoughts that lead to temptation in your mind. With free will, one could simply will those thoughts away. Thus to proclaim that someone was tempted to sin and therefore did, should in fact not be held responsible by God as their actions were the result of a mental hijacking, therefore eliminating sin. And to claim that someone could not easily will the temptation away is admitting defeat. If you can not will temptation, or any bad desire away effortlessly, you admit to not having ultimate free will. You then must concede that you are subject to thoughts and desires that are in fact not your own.
I find compatibilism to be much like mainstream religion is today when debating atheists. Typically, if an atheist quotes scripture and interprets it literally, the religious person will turn up their nose and explain how scripture is much more nuanced and intricate and cannot be interpreted literally. Though they may be right in some cases, ultimately they are missing the point. The same goes for determinists in speaking with compatibilists. Perhaps as a compatibilist was reading my arguments above they were saying the same things; “free will is much more nuanced and intricate. One cannot look at its bones bare and interpret it fully.” I am here to argue that with free will, yes you can.
We humans tend to like free will so much because of what it implies. There is an idea that we have evolved to a degree greater than any other creature on the planet. This ability to pass by the laws of physics because our thoughts are beyond the constraints of natural laws. It can almost make someone feel special. I had not, until recently, heard arguments from a compatibilist. I had always been confused as to how they believe that a person could possibly blend determinism with free will. What I came to find was that compatibilists appear to be redefining free will. What I want to argue is that how they define free will is not only wrong, but it’s not even a free will worth desiring. I claim that the compatibilist is searching to hold on to that feeling that we are special, along with a concern of losing moral responsibility, and doing this through mental gymnastics that tangle in ways that even they cannot find their missteps in logic.
Daniel Dennet is one of the leading names on the side of compatibilism, and it was in reading his critique of Sam Harris’ book on free will that I was able to peer inside the logic behind compatibilism. For the sake of not taking too much time commenting on every passage to which I believe Dennet errors, I will try and choose the most pertinent to the point that I am trying to get across. I do not want to cheat, I do plan to take on what I believe to be his strongest argument as well.
The first problem that arises when reading Dennet’s critique is his claim that what Sam Harris is a compatibilist more than he realizes. As far as I have learned, Harris and I share congruent interpretations of free will, thus I would argue that if Harris is a compatibilist, he is right in wanting to remove the term free will, as it is flagrantly misleading and absolutely antagonistic to reality. This will become more evident soon.
Dennet then displays the arrogance of a compatibilist by continually not answering to points made, but rather disregarding them as pointless. For example, in response to an excerpt from Harris’ book; “We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions.” Dennet rebuttals as follows,
We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. [True, but so what?] To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose [my italics]. (p. 13)
Again, so what? Maybe we are authors of our thoughts and actions in a slightly different way. Harris doesn’t even consider that possibility (since that would require taking compatibilist “theology” seriously).
So what?! This absolutely baffled me. This is a strong point to which a determinist leans on. To reply this way in a debate format, as a professional, is intellectually lazy and borders on unforgivable. It gets worse as he begins his excuse of an explanation with “maybe”. If you begin with maybe and do not lead to justified fact or incredibly solid reasoning, you have intellectually met the equivalent of pulling shit out of your ass.
While I find the majority of Dennet’s arguments rather tiresome, he does make a couple that are worth my comments. One of these arguments lies in the idea that we “could have” done something. This is logically flawed. Here is what Dennet presents however;
Consider the case where I miss a very short putt and kick myself because I could have holed it. It is not that I should have holed it if I had tried: I did try, and missed. It is not that I should have holed it if conditions had been different: that might of course be so, but I am talking about conditions as they precisely were [Dennet's italics], and asserting that I could have holed it. There is the rub. Nor does ‘I can hole it this time’ mean that I shall hole it this time if I try or if anything else; for I may try and miss, and yet not be convinced that I could not have done it; indeed, further experiments may confirm my belief that I could have done it that time [Dennet's italics], although I did not. (Austin 1961: 166. [“Ifs and Cans,” in Austin, Philosophical Papers, edited by J. Urmson and G. Warnock, Oxford, Clarendon Press.])
This is wrong. Just wrong. Saying that I could’ve holed it after you didn’t is absolutely false. Why? Because if you could have then you would have. And if you make that same putt later, this does not mean that you were correct in saying that you could have, the correct statement would be saying you can make the putt. Say the putt was five feet away, if you believe that you have the ability to make putts from five feet away, it makes perfect sense to proclaim that you have the ability to potentially make the putt. Therefore you could say, “I can make this putt!” But if you miss the putt and proclaim, I could’ve made that putt under the very exact conditions, you are wrong, because you didn’t. And those conditions will never be met again (it is probabilistically proven, I have personally witnessed the mathematical proof involving continuous distribution functions), thus to say that you could have made the putt is so grotesquely wrong that my need for response is almost unnecessary. But to give one reason, is the ball in the hole? This shows, quite clearly, how compatibilist seek to grasp onto this idea of having more control, or being more special, than they truly are, using mental gymnastics that appear to have solved their fear at face value alone, while in depth, solve nothing.
Dennet does attempt to save himself from his very example, though, with what I believe is a better example, yet it still misses the point, and I still debate in my mind whether he is contradicting the point he attempted to make above. Dennet states;
Suppose I am driving along at 60 MPH and am asked if my car can also go 80 MPH. Yes, I reply, but not in precisely the same conditions; I have to press harder on the accelerator. In fact, I add, it can also go 40 MPH, but not with conditions precisely as they are.
If you can say this, and still believe you have free will, I am at a loss. To say that you have the ability to do things does not imply free will at all. If you couldn’t do something different in precisely the same conditions, where does your freedom come in? Where is the free will? If you call being able to do only what the precise conditions allow, which is only that one thing, free will, you are intentionally misleading yourself. If you can find the freedom in this, please present it. This is the putting mishap all over again, mistaking abilities with actual freedoms moment to moment. A free will that is worth having should not be this difficult to find, and not require the mental gymnastics we are observing. This type of free will is as necessary as molding bread.
Dennet also shows that many believe that self-control is evidence of free will. He states;
We can improve our self-control, and this is a morally significant fact about the competence of normal adults—the only people whom we hold fully (but not “absolutely” or “deeply”) responsible.
This is common and I have seen this mistake before, even in myself. I recall one day inquiring about tourettes syndrome with a friend of mine who believes we do not have free will. I was still unsure at this point in time, so I had many questions. I thought I found it, I found free will! I thought about people with tourettes and how they cannot control what they say at times. I pointed this out to him and I said “You see! This is what not having free will looks like! This person has no will to prevent himself from cursing loudly in public, yet I do!” I was met, far too quickly for my prides sake, with, “You are simply wired differently, you couldn’t not control yourself in public. That is who you are (I should note here that this is not exactly the explanation given, I am of course paraphrasing).” Fast-forward to the future and I have discussed this fact to a friend who at one time had an eating disorder. Her response to me as we talked about her eating disorder was that she was drawn to it, partly because she felt like the only thing she could control in her life was what she ate. She could control whether or not, typically not, she was going to eat food. Now, as she was leaning towards determinism, I pointed out that in that time, or whenever she would feel like she could use self-control with food, if, say, she chose not to eat food, she was bound by that choice. She believes that she is in control of the food she chooses to eat when in reality she had no choice but to deny herself food. She had no more choice either way.
This is so often used as evidence of free will, but self-control does not mean free choice. We are as bound to choosing “Yes” as we are to choosing “No”, and there is no reason that should be otherwise.
As a quick note before I move on, this is used as a manner of looking at the thought process of a compatibilist and not a critique of Dennet’s critique of Harris, if you read Dennet’s critique (linked above) and wish for me to argue a point of his which I ignored here, comment and I would be more than happy to. I believe the above is sufficient to making my point however.
Determinism and its Implications
I would prefer, personally, not to attach myself to the belief that I am a hard determinist. I personally do not know all that it entails. What I will say is that I simply do not believe that we have free will, or at least any definition of free will worth my time. The idea of not having free will is scary for many people. They come to the conclusion that this implies that we are hostages in our own bodies. This is untrue. All this means is that we are not truly the authors of our thoughts and actions, but we are no less us than we have ever been. We need not worry that we will do something that we vehemently oppose by the minds so choosing, because we are our mind. Sam Harris puts it best in his book (and it was the inspiration to the title of this post) when he says,
You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.
One of the most common misconceptions of determinism is when people confuse determinism with fatalism. Even the compatibilist will be next to me to help correct the misinformed. Determinism does not mean that we can simply lay in bed and everything that we were “supposed” to accomplish in life will be accomplished. If you want to eat, if you want a job, you need to get out of bed and make those things happen. But suppose you simply stayed in bed, this does not mean that you have “beat” determinism and therefore have free will. This gets back to what I was saying about self-control; just because you stayed in bed doesn’t mean you beat the system, I could look (in principle) at the data and determine that you had no choice but to stay in bed when you did, and I would be right, because you wouldn’t have done anything differently (how could you have?).
Many incompatibilists believe that without free will, we are not responsible for our actions. This is simply misguided, but this is in fact a fear shared by a majority (if not all) of those who fear free will is an illusion. But to believe this is to be intellectually lazy. You may not be the author of your actions, but no one else is responsible for your actions. Remember, you are the storm. Therefore, if you intend to harm people, you are dangerous to society and you are to be held accountable for your actions. This is why prisons would still be necessary. Rather than being used as a means of justice, they would be used as a means of protection. And even if we want to eliminate responsibility, that does not take away from what we know about conscious experience. If you enjoy life, not having free will wouldn’t change that, and we would in fact have a responsibility to our society to protect others from those who are “unlucky” in the sense that they are dangerous to us. And to not be able to take responsibility for our accomplishments is to make the error I stated above which is to confuse determinism with fatalism. If you won a Nobel prize, you had to put the work in, and thus everything that truly is “you” is responsible for what led you to earning the Nobel prize. It wasn’t going to fall on your lap had you not put in the work.
A large reason that many people fear that free will is an illusion is this sense of losing responsibility. But this concern does not imply free will exists. It is the same when a Christian proclaims that moral responsibility would be lost if there was no God. Just because you need (in your mind) X to have moral responsibility does not mean that X actually exists. Simply put, free will does not exist simply because you feel we need it to be held morally responsible. With or without free will, you desire peace and the well-being of conscious creatures. Losing free will would not erase this desire, thus some new kind of responsibility could represent this. At the end, what really falls to the ground is the logic of wanting revenge. We would be more compassionate towards those who have been wired to be psychopaths. We would still have to lock them away for safety, but the idea for revenge should dissolve with a full belief in determinism. But it is important to remember that wanting free will so that you can feel morally accountable in no way proves that we have free will.
One of the biggest pieces of this puzzle that left me unsure in the past was the idea of choice. Because I knew that I was constantly faced with choice, I could not see how there couldn’t be free will. I had to make a choice. What I realized however, was that choice exists. We are constantly presented with choices and we are left to make this choice. We must. But while choice exists, my actual freedom in making the choice that I inevitably make is void of freedom. Now I don’t wander through my day consistently reminding myself of this. I don’t wake up and decide to make oatmeal but utter “like I had a choice” in the back of my mind. It is merely something that I am aware of and need concern myself with it only when it matters. I find personally that this understanding allows me to much more easily have compassion for those who have not had the same “luck” as I have had. And because I don’t have free will, it has become much clearer to me why this in fact makes life as enjoyable as it really is. I talked more about this in a previous post here.
When we truly investigate free will, it becomes clear that it is an illusion. And when people try to argue that there is a more complex and convoluted version of free will that we don’t yet understand, we can quickly see that they are grasping at straws, holding on to something that they are too afraid to admit just isn’t a free will worth fighting for. But we just need to remember that everything is ultimately okay. Not having free will is the reason why life brings us so much genuine joy. It is why we have emotions that are so beautiful and yet so unexplainable at the same time (again, I go deeper into this in my earlier post linked above). We need not fear it. We will always behave consistently with who we are and how we desire to be. We are simply aware that at the heart, we are not the author, but merely witnessing another beautiful miracle of nature. Remember, we are not lost in the storm. So in the mean time, I recommend you do as I do, and enjoy your time in the I of the storm.