A Short Overview of Free Will

Last night, I gave a short presentation on Free Will in order to kick off some discussion between mixed groups of atheists and theists. It went quite well, I feel, and the discussions that I was involved with went pretty well. The notes I used are included below. It’s a really just a rough overview, and I wouldn’t consider it a compelling argument for the compatibilist position in and of itself, but… Well, people have written books on that, and this was only a 15-min presentation, so bear that in mind if you think that I think you should be convinced by this.

My presentation here will be in three parts. I’m going to give an overview of the three positions you can hold on Free Will (Determinism = no Free Will, Free Will = no Determinism, Free Will is compatible with Determinism). The overview will be secular (or, if you prefer, atheistic), and then I’ll discuss how theism complicates the picture in, frankly, self-defeating ways.

In order to discuss the ideas of Free Will, it’s necessary first to think about the nature of the universe: do we, or do we not, live in a deterministic world?

This has been a central part of the conversations about Free Will, so it cannot be taken lightly, as if this world is a determined one, whence choice? How do we choose? If the positions of all objects (from the atomic level and up) at a particular time are necessary consequences of their positions at a previous time, then how do we choose? All of this can be summed up with a single statement: if determinism is true, then we don’t have free will.

In discussion here, I’m mostly drawing on ideas from Daniel Dennett that he outlined in his most excellent book “Freedom Evolves”. I’d recommend checking it out if you want to really get into these ideas in meticulous detail. I’m assuming (correctly, I hope) that most of ye here are committed to a deterministic model of the universe, at least on the scale at which we interact. Where does ‘inevitability’ fit into all of this? When I say ‘deterministic’, do you hear ‘inevitable’? Because I’m not saying ‘inevitable’ and (as per Dennett), this is a common conflation. I want you to hold your intuitions up for questioning here, and the following two sentences should help:

If determinism is true, then whatever happens is the determined outcome of the complete set of causes that obtain at each moment

If determinism is true, then whatever happens is the inevitable outcome of the complete set of causes that obtain at each moment.

Do you have the sense that these two sentences mean precisely the same thing? The first one is trivially true, but the second one… Not so much. Inevitable implies that nothing could be done about something, that the consequences are inescapable. It is, in short, fatalism, not mere determinism.

You may want to say “hang on there, Brian, the movements of atoms and molecules are entirely determined and inevitable. The manner in which they can move is entirely predictable, given a sufficiently powerful computer. If their movements are inevitable, and we are comprised of them, then our movements are also inevitable.”

This is a pretty common rebuttal, but it’s deeply flawed: the attributes of atoms and molecules are not the attributes of tables, or dogs, or humans. Atoms cannot act, they can only be acted upon. Atoms cannot ‘do’, and yet I appear to be holding this book, and speaking just fine. There are regularities and rules that apply at particular scales that, if they are to be applied above that scale, require significant justification, not merely swapping out a word here and there. Atoms, themselves, are ultimately formed of quarks, which are governed by indeterminism. I think there would be loud objection if I said “the movements of quarks are not at all determined nor inevitable, and since atoms are comprised of quarks, therefore the movements of atoms are not at all determined nor inevitable”.

To speak to this a little more deeply: it is entirely true that we are made up of atoms and molecules, which then make up neurons and neurochemicals, and their interactions are governed by physical laws. However, we draw information from the world at large, and we hypothesize about the future. This action is, itself, an additional release of neurochemicals that interact with the ones that are ‘merely’ part of our history. In this way, we can create choice, and the ability to avoid problems in the future. Some of us were incessantly bullied while young, and habitually went over and over ‘how we should have done things differently’, until one day, all of those thoughts gelled and we did do things differently.

We need to differentiate between the language of ‘what actually happened’ and the language of possibility. While it’s trivial to say that ‘the thing that happened could not have not happened’, this does not entail fatalism, that there’s no point in trying as whatever will happen will happen: our ‘trying’ is an intentional stance that we can take that does make a difference in the world.

I’m not arguing that we can’t discuss inevitability, I’m saying that inevitability simply can’t be taken as a given, it’s not the default position even if we’ve accepted determinism, because these things are not the same. An assertion that inevitability is synonymous with determinism must also come with a supporting argument.

I believe that I’ve shown that the first incompatibilist position isn’t true, but I can appreciate that it feels a bit odd.

The second incompatibilist position (known as Libertarianism, though completely unrelated to the political position of the same name) is to affirm that we do have free will, and therefore the universe is not deterministic (as it pertains to our decision making, at least). The general description here is to argue that there is something about the human decision-making process that is disconnected from the physical reality of the world. The non-religious will point at quantum indeterminacy. The problem here is that ‘quantum indeterminacy’ does not get you free will. Imagine that you had to spin a roulette wheel each and every time you made a decision, and the roulette wheel was a significant part of the decision-making process, would you say that you made the decision, that you had Free Will? Or that the decision was dependent upon what came up on the spinning wheel? It seems to me that in this case we would assign the ‘decision-making capability’ to the wheel, to the quantum indeterminacy, not to the human involved. This appears to be a terminal problem.

For the religious, some would argue that we have immaterial souls, which (perhaps) do not interact with the material world, except when it suits them. In addition to this view being logically incoherent (it contradicts itself, and what we know about the world, in a wide variety of ways), it’s also completely unsupported by any evidence. Dualism, as a Philosophical position, has been abandoned by the overwhelming majority of Philosophers for several hundred years as completely untenable. In order to hold this position, anyone religiously-minded needs to have a very serious think about about their world-views: in order for me to have a conversation about the possibility of the soul making decisions independent of the world, I first need to be persuaded that such a thing as a soul actually exists. Without any evidence for the existence of a soul in the first place, I’m afraid that this position need only be summarily dismissed.

The final position is the compatibility between determinism and free will, known as the Compatibilist position, or the Soft-Determinism position. This is the position that I hold, and it’s one that is also held by many religious folk the world over. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are a religious person who has abandoned the untenable notion of ‘the immaterial soul’, but you still want to keep your all-knowing god. This is a serious problem for the religious. Before, I mentioned our ability to look to ‘alternate futures’ in order for us to consider what decisions we might be called upon to make in the future: with an all-knowing god, there are no alternate futures. Baruch Spinoza, a devout Jew, wrote on this in the 17th century. In a world where the future is known completely, that world is nothing more than a book, memorized by the god in question. When we watch a movie, it would seem that the characters on the screen have choices, but we know that, in reality, they are doomed to inevitably live out the lives that were chosen for them. Leibniz, another deeply religious philosopher of the 17th century, posits that we did, indeed, have choice, but god chose to bring a timeline into being in which the only choices that were made where the ones that were inline with god’s plan. This, in effect, eliminates Free Will in any meaningful sense. If you are a theist, I do not see any way to reconcile the ideas of free will with your religious beliefs: they directly contradict each other, and at least one of them must be given up.

As I mentioned earlier, I think there is room for free will in the world, but not the completely-independent-of-the-world Free Will that has historically been spoken of: that view is incoherent, and has long been abandoned in Philosophy. We are material beings, interacting in a material world, who come from that material world, whose brain works according to a neurochemistry that we’re still figuring out, arranged in a structure that is incredibly flexible (or plastic) such that we can recover from tremendous brain injuries. Nevertheless, those brain injuries do have significant impact on our personalities and the choices we subsequently make, indicating that the brain, and the brain alone is responsible for who we are (and our subsequent choices). And yet because of our ability to imagine the future, to imagine the choices that we would make before we make them, we are able to guide our future selves into making the decisions that our present-selves want. And we often fail, because habit, the ingrained choices that have been made repeatedly for decades, is a hard thing to break. Free Will is not big, Free Will is not all powerful, but Free Will is real.
I’d like to offer three questions for the audience to perhaps bring up in discussion later on.

1) If you believe that humans are governed by nothing more than the rules that govern the motion of atoms, there’s a lot of steps between ‘the motion of atoms’ and enjoying Shakespeare: how do you account for that? It’s easy to handwave it all away, and simply assert that everything at the human scale is reducible to that of the atomic scale, but the question of emergence is a serious one that has not been fully explored in science, or philosophy. I think our certainty should be in proportion to the evidence, and I don’t think the evidence is in.

2) If you are religious, and believe in an immaterial soul, how does that work? How does the soul interact with the body, and yet remain uninfluenced by the body? How does the soul receive it’s information from the body without being changed and altered by that information? In short: how does having a soul get you out and away from determinism?

3) If you are religious, and you believe in an all-knowing god: how do you have any choice about anything?

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