Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Friday, June 08, 2007

An Essay on Free Will

I would like to note that this essay no longer reflects my views on free will, because I am no longer a determinist/compatibilist. I am a libertarian incompatibilist now. Read about my current views here.

An Essay on Free Will
By Will G

Edited 12/19/07


This essay about free will is based on an essay that I wrote for a university class, on the subject of whether determinism is compatible with moral responsibility. In this posting, the bulk will be taken from that essay as it illustrates very neatly one possible view on the free will/determinism question that I think can be used to support Christianity in some way. The essay itself is completely religion neutral - I didn't mention anything about religion or draw any religious conclusions. At the end, in the Appendix, I will try and draw some Christian conclusions relating to certain Christian paradoxes regarding free will. I should note regarding some Christian readers that the idea of evolution is central to this essay, although not in a religion undermining way, I believe.

Introduction: How Evolution Influences and Shapes Our Cognitive Beliefs

(Note, this section is not my original work but is taken from lecture notes I made during a subject at my university, I wish to especially note that. I found it enormously useful for approaching this essay. Everything beyond this introduction is my own work and reflects my, not necessarily anyone else's, views. I am putting this here because I believe this is a good introduction to the approach in this essay.)

All animals have quite an elaborate array of instincts that govern their behaviour. For example, in spiders, in some species, when a male meets a female, the female wraps the male up in spider silk so she won't eat him when she gets hungry after copulating. Now, in many of these species male and female spiders come across each other extremely rarely, so neither of them have observed each other or learnt this behaviour. In other species of spiders, the male presents a fly, impregnates the female, and then runs off while she is distracted with eating it. In some the male just presents a parcel of silk, and by the time she finds there's no fly in it he escapes. Since the male is escaping with his life, and has probably never met, or seen a female spider before, these behaviours cannot be conditioned by experienced or learnt; they must be mental behaviours that have never been learnt, but proceed purely from instinct, which, for us, might resemble a rational, reasoned belief about the world (i.e. run off now, rather than be eaten, or trick her in some way etc.)

This varies from species to species. When some birds learn a song at age 3, they sing the song they heard in the first 2 weeks of their life. In some birds they know phrases, they have to learn the order. In others they know the order but have to learn the phrases. In some learning only goes on for a certain length of time.

An amazing instinct involves the Tunisian desert ants, which make their living by scavenging the desert. An ant wanders randomly until it comes to a grasshopper or another piece of food, then makes a dead straight line to the nest. So in that miniscule brain it has done what sailors call 'dead reckoning'. It has done a vector sum. It doesn't overshoot the hole and searches for the hole in its location. If you pick up an ant and move it, it will make the same line (though to a wrong destination.) It does it unconsciously. So it's hardly surprising there are incredible things the human brain does unconsciously, if an ant's tiny brain can do that. We would know only the tip of the iceberg. Steven Pinker says our language is an instinct that is very open, and very complex.

Some birds migrate in flocks and learn the route of migration from others, but some migrate alone and know this instinctively. When in nests they look at the stars slowly rotate. Birds look at this and they learn where North is: where the stars don't rotate. So when they migrate they set off at a certain angle. By using a Planetarion you can trick birds in this way.

One instinctive male behaviour in chimpanzees is male dominance displays; whoever can display the most dominance is given the most respect. One chimpanzee who was particularly thoughtful used empty kerosene tanks to make large amounts of noise in a very frightening dominance display, and he rose through the ranks of the tribe quickly.

It's all very well to make distinctions between instinct/learning/reason but practically it's extremely difficult to separate them. The problem is hugely greater regarding humans. Something can be innate and not be apparently so at birth. Of course there's the maturation of instincts. Like wisdom teeth later in life. Given a decent diet wisdom teeth will come in the teenage years. The same sorts of things happen with behaviour. It's very natural to assume birds need to learn how to fly. Now there may be some learning involved, but virtually none it seems. If you take half of a group of nestlings, bring them up in a box, so they never see any other birds, they know how to fly when they are let out. So it looks like instinct is involved, not learning, which would otherwise seem to have been the case. With humans, the Navajo didn't let their children walk until they were well after the usual time for walking, but then after that time the children easily learnt how to walk. We know how to walk by instinct. It comes naturally but not immediately after birth. Children smile after 6 weeks. Smiles get people talking to the child, which is essential for mental development. But do chimpanzees smile? They have nervous grins. But do they really smile? You can see chimps playing but they don't really smile, at least not like we do. It may well be peculiarly human.

But there's another source of information about this. Deprivation experiments can't be done to humans (they're illegal) but some humans are unfortunately born deaf and blind and hence can't copy humans, but still smile the same way. So evidence from a number of sources shows things thought learned are innate.

One more instinct may apply to humans - what about the response to emotions? Take the case of newborn monkeys who were sensorily deprived and raised alone. From early on the baby monkeys show more interest in pictures of other child monkeys and angry monkeys. But then suddenly at 42 days old, almost exactly on the dot, these little monkeys who have never seen another living monkey are suddenly very frightened by a picture of an angry adult monkey, so they hide. So the response is not based on experience, but instinct. So it might be the same for humans (but we don't know for sure of course, because it's not humans but chimps here.) But we do have natural responses.

My Thesis

Having illustrated these concepts with my notes, regarding this essay, what I am about to argue in this essay is that just like animals have a variety of complex instincts that regulate behaviour and in us would approximate instinctual 'beliefs', we do as well. Just like we have instinctual mechanisms for walking, or regarding seeing others and interacting with them, smiling, we have a huge array of instinctual beliefs regarding the world around us. Things which are not learnt, but which are genetically programmed into us to believe.

As it applies to the free will/materialism problem, I will argue that in fact, we have cognitive instincts regarding the idea of being 'able to choose other than we do' and regarding free will, moral worth and moral responsibility, which are more or less conditioned by evolution. This has important repercussions for what we understand free will to be.

Basically, the approach that I'm using in my essay is a very compatibilist one, that instead of providing a libertarian account of free will, one could provide a satisfactory compatibilist account of free will that encompasses ideas like moral responsibility, if one could only explain all of our pro-libertarian intuitions as not being indicative of the truth of libertarian free will. This kind of approach can (strangely) rehabilitate the doctrine of free will, by honouring our intuitions about free will and moving them, especially the one that there is something really great and good about free will, into a compatibilist account. I do this using the ideas of reason and character as the essence of a doctrine of free will. I try to show how these both lead to all our other free will intuitions. This done, I conclude that since reason and character are free will, and are compatible with determinism, therefore moral responsibility, which flows from reason, is compatible as well.

A Statement of the Free Will Problem

The main reason why philosophers have objected to the idea of free will is because they have believed some variant of determinism to be true. Physical determinism is the idea that all current events in the universe have a past cause. So a tree falling down in the forest has a cause; perhaps that the tree is old and decrepit, and there are strong winds blowing. But determinism also says that not only do collapsed trees have a cause, but also mental events in our brains, since, of course, they are physical as well. This means that when I choose to eat something, that choice has a previous cause. This may not be so discomfiting if the previous cause is in my character, but if the structure of my brain is determined by a combination of environment and genetics, then presumably my character, my mind, and the basic facets of my mind also have a cause in the outside world. So if my character and my biological desires have causes, then presumably all my choices have an ultimate cause outside of my free will. And thus, determinism challenges the idea of free will, because if all my character's attributes, that generates my choice, has a cause outside of my free will, then I have no ability to genuinely choose other than I do, and hence have no moral responsibility. For the ability to choose other than I do is regarded by many as a critical component of moral responsibility and free will.

The Approach of This Essay

As this essay argues, there is a flaw in the way philosophers have attempted to answer the free will question. Philosophers must necessarily place great store by the intuitive answer to a question, and our intuition relates to what we regard as 'common sense'. While this approach yields insightful and reliable answers, as Wittgenstein argued sometimes it can mislead philosophers. The reason is that our minds and bodies evolved, and there is no reason to think we necessarily evolved in the way so that we would always have right intuitions on all important subjects; that our language would never mislead us. For example, the Cartesian idea of a soul is based on an intuitive idea of an 'inner self', separate from the body. But, as Wittgenstein argued, in practice we attribute personhood to behaving, acting human beings. No brain sitting in a jar by itself can have a mind/soul, because humans evolved to think of minds as belonging to those who behave. So even supposing brains were somehow able to live in jars, we would not say that a brain had a soul if it could never express itself, because we evolved to think of persons as behaving and a brain cannot. So our intuitions, that a person is something distinct from his or her behaviour and body, can be misleading, and it seems our intuitions are largely determined by what we have evolved to think, that is, what is within our ordinary experience. And in reference to free will, our ordinary experience of the world is that it is partly random and partly predictable, not deterministic. So if experience of the world determines our intuitions, and that experience is not deterministic, then that could be why we think determinism conflicts with free will.

The Argument 1: What Do We Mean When We Say A Situation Involves Free Will?

When we take a situation that seems to involve free choice, let us say that of 'Jack freely choosing to marry Jane', there are a number of elements of all such situations that seem to appear to us as important elements of free will. The first such element is that, in the case of Jack choosing to marry Jane, that Jack is a person. In other words, stones cannot have free will, and neither can anything that cannot manifest its free will in action.

The second element is that Jack's choice is ordered, or reasoned. It is a product of some kind of reasoning process. Either it is a product of reason at the highest level, or reason has allowed a baser instinct to manifest itself. A choice that takes place regardless of a person's reasons for or against it cannot be said to be freely willed.

The third element is that the choice is a product of character. That is, Jack is someone who must consistently choose one way or the other. If Jack's character changed from one moment to the next, from valuing Jane to ignoring her, then he can be said to lack free will.

The fourth element is that Jack's choice, while ordered and reasoned, cannot be completely predictable. Marriage is a serious undertaking, and involves serious advantages and disadvantages. If it was completely predictable that Jack would choose to marry Jane, then Jack's free will would be violated. But note that this only applies 'from the outside looking in', i.e. for us looking at other people. When it comes to myself, I know myself so well regarding my choices that my free will would be violated if there was even the slightest chance that I would jump out of a window right now. This point will prove informative later.

And finally, the most crucial aspect of free will for moral responsibility is that it has to be possible for Jack's choice to marry Jane to have gone the other way. That is, though Jack sincerely wishes to marry Jane, at the moment of the choice, it had to have been possible for him not to choose to marry Jane. And this is the area that seems to contradict determinism, since presumably Jack's desire to marry Jane was determined by factors before he was born.

The Argument 2: Why Do We Think This Way?

Let us look at some of the reasons why we have such intuitions, since I believe this can show what free will and moral responsibility really are. Take the issue of personhood, that only a person can possess free will. I would argue this is partly a result of the ability to reason, as only highly advanced animals, like humans, can reason (as presumably also could aliens.) It is also about being able to manifest your reason, since a 'brain in a vat' would not be taken to have free will because it cannot manifest its reason in an action. As Wittgenstein argued, when the human mind adopted concepts such as personhood and free will, we adopted it in a certain context, that of our ordinary experiences of other people.

Can other intuitions also be so explained? Take the intuition about predictability, that most of our choices cannot be completely predictable if we are to have free will. Take a scientific experiment in which a subject was forced to choose between eating a banana or an apple a thousand times in a row and had no preference either way. If they always chose to eat the apple we would be suspicious, and perhaps think that they had been compelled to in some way. Why would we get this intuition?

The reason why is that when I make a choice that is very debatable and difficult to decide, there may be many reasons for or against the choice, and potentially any one of them could be the deciding reason. So, without some kind of godlike knowledge, it is effectively be impossible for me to perfectly predict how someone will decide in a debatable choice - there are just too many variables and reasons involved. It is even conceivable that no matter how advanced our technology was we could never predict choices perfectly. But in the evolution of humanity, it would surely have been extremely important to 'sense', intuitively, regarding your companions whether they were choosing freely or whether their choices were being compelled. Being able to 'know' when someone else's choices were being compelled by some outside force would have been vital because it would tell you if they were acting freely. If being able to predict debatable choices are practically impossible, and will probably remain so forever, then if someone can predict debatable choices perfectly then that strongly indicates to me that someone's freedom has been interfered with. The reason why my neighbour Bill the Extortionist perfectly predicted Jack would give him $10,000 is because Jack was compelled. Yet such predictability is what determinism means. And we never evolved in an environment where determinism was the norm, to our ancestors the world was a mostly ordered by partially unpredictable place, so the idea is very disturbing to our intuitions about freedom.

[Edited in] This even applies to choices that are less debatable, like whether Jack will run in front of a car just before marrying his fiancee. I can say with confidence that he won't, to even 99.9999% etc. probability. I may even say he certainly won't jump in front of a car rather than get married, and you may well believe me. But if I present you indisputable evidence that proves that there is no chance that Jack will jump in front of a car, actual proof, then it triggers that intuition, because in a random and unpredictable world, where people are never completely predictable, surely, my mind thinks, something is 'wrong' for you to have such perfect proof of his choice - he must be being compelled in some way. Of course, we never get such proof in the real world, and probably can never, but we can imagine God having such proof, which is as good as such proof actually existing if God exists. Like matter approaching the speed of light, our knowledge of other people's choices in a world that we evolved to understand as basically unpredictable, cannot ever reach 100% certainty. We can get very very close, but we cannot reach absolute certainty, just as our knowledge of other people, what's going on in their lives, their motivations, personality, way of seeing the world, etc., can never reach 100% certainty.

But remember regarding predicting our own choices, we can have 100% certainty, because we know ourselves so well. Ask yourself now, regarding something right now that you would most hate to do out of anything you can imagine, is there even the slightest chance that you will do it the moment you finish this sentence? Of course not - that wouldn't be free will, but randomness. This is important because since we are ourselves, we know ourselves, we are allowed to predict our choices perfectly well, which we could never do for others in an unpredictable world (unless we could 'become' someone else somehow.)

The intuition about being able to 'choose other than one does' when one makes a choice, which is the essence of moral responsibility, can be explained from this. The idea of a person being able to choose other than they did is really an intuition about things being able to 'go the other way': that there is some uncertainty about the outcome. But maybe this intuition is just that: uncertainty about an outcome. Let us say that I throw a ball straight up in the air. To my understanding, it could go either way. Thus it seems to me that although it went to the left of my hand, it could have gone to the right. But I would say this intuition is just a result of not knowing which way the ball would go. If I knew which way the ball would go, based on an intimate understanding of physics, then to my mind it could not have gone either way. But since I do not have such knowledge, to my mind it could have gone either way. So instead of being some metaphysical conundrum that we have to solve, the sense of being able to choose other than one does is really just a very simple intuition about someone's choice being unpredictable. So our sense of moral responsibility when applied to an action, is really just the assurance we have that a person's moral choice was not completely predictable, in other words, that it was not tampered with by an outside force when it was made, and so to us it could have gone either way.

Essay Conclusion

So, to conclude, it seems as though all our intuitions about free will really amount to one thing: the idea that a person chooses based on reasons that are decided by their character, leading to intuitions about unpredictability and our ability to do otherwise. So given this, is determinism compatible with moral responsibility? The problem determinism posed for philosophers who supported free will was that it triggered a number of intuitions in our minds that made us doubt whether a deterministic universe could contain free will. But if the argument in this essay is correct, these intuitions are misfiring. Our intuition is misfiring regarding determinism's alleged incompatibility with free will and moral responsibility, because humans never adopted their basic psychological concepts by referring to advanced scientific theories or ideas, but simply in reference to our everyday experience as humans. And the everyday experience of humans is that the world is partly random and unpredictable; we never realised that it could someday be in principle completely predictable. So, although one could say that technically speaking moral responsibility is contradicted by determinism, it really is not. And since reason is free will and thus the root of moral responsibility, then since reason is compatible with determinism, so is moral responsibility, regardless of our intuitions to the contrary.

(End of essay, Appendix and analysis of the argument follows)

Appendix: Analysis of the Argument from A Christian Perspective

What I am basically saying in this essay, to summarise it again, is that we know from evolutionary considerations that absolutely huge numbers - possibly the vast majority - of our cognitive beliefs are either influenced by or determined by evolutionary considerations. I think this is hugely important. It's important because it opens the way for our questions about free will to be answered, which, in my opinion, are amongst the most intractably difficult philosophical issues to answer.

Consider that when we try and explain what free will is, we ultimately come down to the conclusion that it must mean whatever 'being able to choose other than I do' means. But what is the cognitive content of this belief? What does it actually mean in practice? Well, I don't think it necessarily means anything, it's just the term we give, trying to explain it, of this 'feeling'. The 'feeling' is that of freedom, and 'being able to choose other than I do', is how we explain it. But that feeling is an evolved feeling, not determined by reason, and the reason why we get that feeling is because it's something we evolved. We evolved it because it protects us in terms of making sure our fellow humans aren't have their choices compelled by some internal (e.g. addiction) or external force. The trick is that the cognitive belief really isn't anything at all except a way we express that evolutionary feeling of freedom. So in a way, free will both does and doesn't exist. It doesn't exist in the sense of being able to choose other than we do in a way philosophers have often conceived of it, but it does exist in the sense that everything that could in a way give credence and honour to the concept is actually real - because what gives credence and honour to the concept of free will is not being compelled (this account is clearly compatibilistic.)

What this means in reference to Christian theology, is, well, a couple of things. The first thing is that since free will is essentially being able to choose based on reason and character, that all the complicated and eloquent arguments that God can't have free will because he sees the future, or we can't have free will because God sees our future, or whatever, collapse. Those arguments are based on a mistaken instinct, as we have seen, and are no more true than the cognitive concept itself as explained by philosophers.

The second point is that the moral worth of people's actions, and the moral worth of free will still exists, but I think it should be expressed differently. I think on my view, moral worth in Christian theology under free will is more like 'I have created a completely independent rational being, imbued with the image of God, and it can decide based on reasons to the best life for itself.' And I think this should have as much moral worth in terms of free will as anything we can conceive. After all, as I said at the beginning of this essay - showing free will is compatibilistic in this way actually strangely rehabilitates free will, because what we're really concerned about with free will is the sheer goodness and valuableness of free will itself. But if free will is really compatibilistic as I have been saying, but our intuitions are really right and just badly explained, then that also means the 'free will is great and true and important' intuition is also right. So if that's right as well there must be something supremely valuable about created beings making choices based on their character with their reason, something that we should all honour and that God honours.

Ah ha - but then you might say, people don't genuinely choose freely on my view, so isn't everyone innocent when it comes to choosing to go to hell or do things blameworthy? So hell can't exist? Not necessarily. I believe that God necessarily has to create all other beings that are not part of Himself as somewhat, or slightly imperfect, because the only thing that can be perfect completely is God by definition. In other words, when God created the human race we were always slightly imperfect which led to the great evil we have in our universe today. The only way to become completely perfect is to go to heaven as I explain in other articles and unite our spirits with God's Holy Spirit in some way. See here [1] and here [2 - See the 'post note' section]. God in other words, created the best humans he could, but inevitably some of us must necessarily, as part of our necessary imperfection, become evil. Now, God puts people into hell not as a punishment but more as quarantine. I seem in other words, to have replaced justice with utility in God's actions, but I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing as everything can remain the same as it was before.

First Written 6/8/07
Will G

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