Monday, September 26, 2011

A Defense of Free Will, Part 1

"No man can pull himself up by his bootstraps."

With this declaration, a particularly taciturn determinist might colloquially sum up one of the challenges to free will: at the end of the day, the cause of one's choice lies in pre-existing states over which we had no control. We were born in such a way; raised in such a way; grew in such a way; almost all without our input. By the time we are even making choices that we think are free, our initial condition has developed without our control. And if we want to preserve causation, we must believe that effects follow from their causes. I am such and such a way, most of which is and has been beyond my control. I choose what I choose because of who I am. My choices are beyond my control, except in a very limited experiential way in which it can be said that I psychologically "feel" in control when I make the choice.

If our taciturn friend wanted, he could even go farther, and laud this subjective feeling. Of course, it is psychologically important to feel like one is in control. We wrestle with decisions, boldly or timidly making our wills into reality, reacting with all the confidence or temerity of a conscious, sentient agent. This is all well; we need this. These feelings, he might go on, are just another part of our nature, another aspect of our existence over which we have little to no responsibility and which nevertheless subsequently comes to rule our thoughts and actions.

Before I go on to discuss a reply to this argument, let me only point out that it is a bold philosophical, and only philosophical, claim. Empirical science cannot come to the rescue; it can only be an aide, bringing us some bits and pieces about a mind whose secrets still are shrouded in mystery. It is a question beyond the competency of its methodology; quite frankly, it is an unfalsifiable story. I could never reply to my determinist friend, as he could never reply to me, that if only we set up the right experiment we could clear the whole issue up. The question lying at the heart of the matter is really, given any situation in which a sufficiently aware rational creature did one thing, was it really and truly a possibility that he could have not done it? No experiment can ever bring back a past moment and make it present. I cannot bring back this evening's dinner to see if I really could have chosen not to put dressing on my salad, and no amount of controlled experiments regarding tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow's dinners will bring me any closer to a conclusion on the matter.

Nor can sentiment be our guide. Clearly, we do experience moments of subjective freedom just as we experience moments of subjective encagement. It is just as likely that I might feel that I have a hundred choices as that I might feel I cannot do anything differently. And either feeling may be experienced as positive: it is, in fact, often more relieving to experience the continuity and safety of routine and habit, engrained qualities which can render action into something nearly mechanical. Sometimes the very feeling of choice can be painful, as though the specter of moral responsibility has raised itself to weigh us down with concepts like duty, guilt, good, and evil. We can feel enslaved by choice, paralyzed in our ability to act by the sheer number of apparent possibilities, like the man who starved to death because the menu had too many excellent dishes.

There is a little that can be said for the concept of moral responsibility on the whole, but not enough to constitute an argument for either side: clearly, a society with some concept of justice, duty, and morality would want to preserve some notion of subjective moral freedom and a corresponding responsibility. Perhaps the determinist is right, and Harry sawed off Harriet's arm because of a conglomeration of pre-existing causes over which he had no control. It's not his "fault" in a deep moral sense. It's only his fault in the sense that he did it, not in the sense that he had any other choice he could truly have made. And yet - and here is the rub - we do, in fact, want to maintain that he chose to do it, is responsible for it, and ought to have some form of justice applied to remedy the situation. Here, I think it is safe to say that our ingrained tendency towards freedom is made most manifest: we really do want to maintain a sense that one should and can choose the right thing. We really hope that our neighbor chooses to not murder us in our sleep, as we really do expect that fellow drivers choose to obey traffic laws. "You shouldn't have done that" has the subtext "You could have not done that." We hope to rehabilitate the guilty, to aid them through therapeutic or other means so that they will make better choices in the future. All of this must maintain the vocabulary and concepts of freedom even if the overarching theory of human freedom were eliminated.

I do want to be somewhat clear about what I mean when I say "free will" or "freely chosen act," or anything of the sort. I think that I would be satisfied with a definition of freedom which simply states that I am either the sole or primary determining factor in a free act, and I could have acted otherwise. I do not think it is necessary or even wise to assert that I must be the sole determiner of my actions. I think it safe to acknowledge that even in a free act there are forces other than my will at work. But I do think it is necessary that I am the primary or ultimate determiner of my actions, in the sense that I act that way only because I willed to act that way and I would not have acted that way if I had not willed to act that way. If, on the other hand, I acted in some way but didn't really will it (as if, for example, someone grabbed my hand and used it to slap my wife, or if I was so drunk or drugged that I was unaware of my own actions) or if I acted in some way that I did will but not because I willed it (as if, for example, I wanted to ask a girl out, didn't have the courage to, got drunk, then in my stupor asked her out), I wouldn't call those acts "free." Similarly, especially to the latter case, if I willed to act in some way, X, and did in fact act that way, but the reason I acted was not because I will to act in that way but rather was because forces beyond my control determined that I should act in that way, I would not be free. Moreover, if I never had any real ability to will something other than I did, then I really would not be free. The crux of free will, then, is twofold: primacy of control, in the sense that I act the way I will because I will it, and the possibility of contrary action, in the sense that I really could have willed to act otherwise, and would in that case have acted otherwise because I willed to act otherwise.

I present this as merely a prologue; in my next part, I will more closely examine the argument against free will.

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