In defense of Free (ish) Will

Beneath the hype, hard determinism still has major flaws

The debate around free will is one of the longest running in all philosophy, and has huge ramifications well beyond it. By and large, we live in societies created under the libertarian notion that human beings possess free will: the ability to make decisions that are free of causal and coercive influences. If I go to a bar and choose beer over wine, it was an act of free will since nothing stopped me from choosing wine instead; I don’t dislike wine (though I prefer beer), they cost pretty much the same, and both were readily available on the menu. Laissez-faire economics runs on the notion that we have free will in nearly every element of our lives, and the way to maximize individual freedom is to provide people with more choice, while removing the constraints that would limit those choices (namely the state). It’s hard not to feel some natural sympathy for this position. We all feel like we have free will. The very notion of being human and feeling human (as opposed to being an automaton) depends on this.

Unfortunately, the evidence in favor of this libertarian view of free will is scant. In contrast to libertarians, determinists believe that every single human action was entirely determined by prior causes and therefore is not truly free even when there is no coercive influence that prevents us from doing otherwise. So perhaps nothing stopped me from choosing wine, but was I entirely in control of my physical desire for beer? Not really. Perhaps I want to “prove” my free will by next time choosing wine but did I choose the thoughts in my head that made me want to behave like a contrarian? Did I choose my contrarian personality? Perhaps there is some degree of randomness in the neural activity or quantum mechanisms in my brain that led me to this and so my choice is not fully determined in a strict sense, but since I cannot control processes at the micro-level, are they even relevant? Either way I did not have the free will to pick wine over beer in the first instance, or beer over wine in the second.

In recent years, determinism has exploded in popularity, particularly since it has been embraced by numerous celebrity public intellectuals like Sam Harris (who wrote an essay length book in 2012, Free Will). Determinism is to pop philosophy similar to what Freakonomics was to pop economics a few years back: it’s a great way to start a dinner conversation and look like you’re the smartest person in the room. After all, most people who haven’t read extensively on both sides of the philosophical debate would be naturally prone to thinking that they have libertarian free will. Getting swayed to the determinist camp is easy when done by an eloquent and convincing interlocutor, which Harris certainly is, and when one doesn’t particularly have a stake in the outcome – if anything, determinism seemingly justifies all the bad things you’ve ever done since you couldn’t help yourself from doing them!

The problem is that Harris performs a number of intellectual sleights of hand that are common among determinists: reduce the debate to a single definition of free will, claim that the opposing arguments are so rubbish that they cannot be taken seriously, and avoid discussing those arguments that seriously threaten his point. That Harris chooses a 66-page pop philosophy book to do this rather than undertake his battle in rigorous, academic channels is telling of his unwillingness to face serious opposition from compatibilists: those who believe that free will and a deterministic universe can coexist. So let’s dwell deeper into this topic.

Moral responsibility

The main problem with the pop philosophy version of free will is that it is not what most serious philosophers discuss, even those on the libertarian side which there are still a few. To say that human beings are never free of causal influence and could have never behaved differently under exact circumstances is an easy answer to an easier question. The hard question, the one that truly matters in philosophy (and in the real world) is whether we have enough free will for human beings to have moral responsibility over their actions.

This is because determinism suffers from a serious moral agency problem: if we are not in control of our actions in any meaningful way, why should we be morally responsible for anything we do? I can beat a homeless man to death on the way home from work and blame childhood abuse, genetic makeup, and hard day a work to justify my abhorrent action. Hard determinists have yet to – in my view – offer a convincing conciliatory approach to the moral responsibility problem. The cop-out that they provide is that we need some form of punishment as deterrence which is really no better than setting examples of people through punishment that is disproportionate to the crime. This deliberately avoids making any claim about the morality of an action if this action was causally determined. Determinists do not deny that we need morality but only in the sense of avoiding the amorality of fatalism. Morality therefore has value, but on purely utilitarian grounds rather than in the sense that it originates from human agency, which is how most people define it. Richard Oerton argues this in The Nonsense of Free Will:

“It must surely be true that if a person’s crime is determined, he or she does not deserve to be punished for it. But the italicized word needs to be emphasized. To my mind, the idea of i punishment cannot be reconciled with determinism. If… a person acts as he does because he is the person he is, and he has not made himself the person he is, then the view that he deserves to be punished for what he does is not sustainable. But this doesn’t mean that we should not take him in hand in some way or another.”

But why must anyone be punished if they were never in control of his action? How can one claim there are morals unless you resort to redefining morality in such a way as to ignore human agency? Determinists frequently cry foul that compatibilists redefine the concept of free will away from the popular conception of it (i.e. libertarian free will), but by doing this are they not guilty of doing the same about morality?

That said, the moral responsibility problem doesn’t falsify determinism, it just makes it uncomfortable. But truth need not be comforting. To me, the problem with determinism is that causal influences are not given any orders or magnitude, not are our capabilities to resist them. The way I like to think about causal influences is like gravity: some have greater pull than others. Being Mexican, I come from a beer culture, which means my preference for beer was probably stronger than someone who only mildly prefers beer over wine. Physiologically beer also gives me milder hangovers. If I was not just Mexican but also an alcoholic, my desire for my favorite alcoholic drink would have been even greater still, perhaps irresistible.

If desires are like gravity, our will to resist them is like a rocket: stronger desires require stronger wills, just like you would need a stronger rocket to escape a stronger gravity field. Often, gravity is too strong and we are unable to escape from their pull; when there is a pathological or psycho-pathological cause behind our desires, it may be impossible. Hard determinists frequently resort to such examples, such as murderers with brain tumors that compelled them to kill. But these cases are so obviously deterministic that one wonders why they are even brought up in the first place or why they are of moral relevance. After all, most civilized societies do not treat mentally impaired people the same as an able-minded person for committing the exact same crime. The question is why able-minded people are punished at all if they are still merely puppets to their desires in a hard deterministic universe.

Dual-process theory and compatibilism

The analogy with gravity is certainly better than the image of a puppet which determinists like to use (and which is the cover of Harris’ book) and presents a more compelling image of the compatibilist position: that while determinism is true in the sense that none of our actions are free from causal influence, we do have a minimal level of free will to ensure moral responsibility for our actions. My “proof” is dual-process theory, developed by the renowned Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tsversky, which has it that our brains operate on two levels: our intuitive side (also known as “System 1”) and our rational side (“System 2”).

System 1 is the source of irrationality: non-conscious and sub-optimal (in the sense that they are not utility-maximizing) decisions that we take as a result of cognitive biases or misuse of heuristics (mental shortcuts used for decision-making). System 2 is also prone to errors of reason such as motivated reasoning and illogicality, but it is deliberative. Given enough time, it can override some of the irrational decisions that System 1 would make if it had the final say. System 2 is far from perfect also, but it can be strengthened in many ways, such as through knowledge of logic (to avoid logical fallacies), mathematics (many System 1 errors are related to our ignorance of basic probability), or simply time: the more time we have to deliberate over anything, the more likely we will reach a rational decision rather than an irrational one.

Reframing the free will question: can a deliberative agent willfully ignore the causal influences on their decision-making? I certainly think so. I can go to the bar and realize that I desire beer over wine for reasons unknown. But even though I do not know the reasons, I know that this desire exists so I decide on a method to choose one over the other so that this desire is nullified. Perhaps a coin flip. Perhaps choosing beer if the barperson who serves me is a guy, or wine if it’s a girl. Perhaps choosing beer if the time at the moment of choice is an even number, and wine if it’s odd. Hard determinists will say that all of these situations are also determined or product of randomness that we have no control over. This is uncontroversial and beside the point. The point is that I took the decision willfully devoid of the main causal influence, which was my desire for beer.

More so, I fully retain moral responsibility for the decision – in fact, even more so than if I had chosen beer out of desire! Why? Think about the Batman super-villain Two-Face, who typically flips a coin before taking major decisions, such as killing someone. Two-Face could claim psychopathy behind the action of killing an innocent person. But by choosing to put his victim’s fate on the hands of a coin flip, he is willingly choosing a decision-making process that alienates him from this causal influence. He has reasoned himself into killing someone by willfully choosing randomness over desire: System 2 made the choice, not System 1. This is, to me, as free as will can get in a deterministic universe. As Schopenhauer famously stated, “man can do what he will, but he cannot will what he wills.” But you can be aware of those wills and will against them.

Is wisdom the source of free will?

So we have it that wisdom, that is, the training of our own behavior to prefer rationality over irrationality, and reason over unreason, is really the only way to obtain anything resembling free will, in at least part of our decision-making processes. This is how we construct rockets that are powerful enough to escape the gravitational impulse of our desires and thus keeping causal influences at bay precisely by recognizing their existence. The only way in which I can have free will in choosing beer over wine is recognizing my own desire for beer when I look at the drinks menu, and thereby making a decision that willfully ignores that desire through some other method where I am denied agency. This argument for compatibilism implies the humility of accepting that many of these desires may be difficult to identify and uncomfortable for us to accept. But the hard determinist notion that we are swamped by so many causal influences that it’s impossible to escape them is absurd. In many cases it’s only a few that matter. And in many of those cases, they may be too weak to determine our choice in the way hard determinists seem to suggest they do.

Most people may indeed be the wantons that Harry Frankfurt (a leading proponent of compatibilism) describes: controlled entirely by their desires, their rockets too feeble to escape even the weakest gravitational pulls. But enough people are reasonable enough to resist. Harris and other hard determinists will argue that wisdom is deterministic too since are not in control of how much wisdom we are capable of developing. The problem with this is that I’m not arguing his premise, since his kind of free will has near zero practical use for the things that matter to the human experience. It fails the moral responsibility issue which makes it useless as a guide for, say, criminal justice. And more importantly, it fails to account for the fact that while we may be influenced by our desires, by our environment, and by any number of other causal factors, we are not necessarily captive to them even if in repeated iterations of the same scenario the outcome would be identical. Perhaps this means that our will is not free… just free-ish. Sometimes. Not nearly enough times to justify our inherent illusion of libertarian free will. But enough to say that I do have some agency in choosing beer over wine if I make an effort to make System 2 be the driving force of my deliberations. To be fair, Harris does not ignore deliberation. The problem is that he sees it as ultimately having no effect:

“If after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king – well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.”

It’s not hard to see how this statement practically nullifies reason itself. Is everyone who decides to kill a king after honest deliberation a regicide? Of course not. Surely we can think of people who felt the necessity to kill the king even if their desire was otherwise (say, if the king was particularly oppressive). Surely we can also think of people who felt he desire to do so and after deliberation, decided against it. It all depends on how strong the gravity of our desire to kill the king was in the first place, and whether deliberation was effective enough in overruling it. This is wisdom. This is the source of our (admittedly limited) free will.

It should be troubling for determinists that so many experiments that supposedly prove determinism in the physical world deny our usage of System 2, for example, by resorting to quick decision-making that triggers System 1 only. An example is the famous Libet experiment which unfortunately for hard determinists, was a recent victim of the replicability crisis in academia. In most cases, beer over wine is indeed a System 1 choice. But I gave an example of how this quick decision could be left to System 2 by establishing a method of choice which denied me agency in the outcome. One can come up with situations that facilitate System 2’s usage, for example if I had to choose between beer or wine – for the rest of my life. And I had a month to make that decision. I would perhaps study the health effects of both substances and reasonably conclude that wine is healthier and that would be my choice, against my desire.

I may not control the strength of that desire: certain people may like beer (or hate wine) so much that preserving their health would not be a necessarily strong driver to go against their desire. But we need only concern ourselves with the situations where it is possible; compatibilism does not imply that free will exists all the time, only enough times to debunk the hard determinist position that it never exists. The stronger that System 2 is, and the more time it has to deliberate, the more likely that an agent will be able to alienate him or herself from causal influences. And most importantly, the more likely they will behave under something approximating free will with moral responsibility.

Thank you for willing to read up to here. Even if you didn’t choose this link to pop up on your Facebook or Twitter feed…

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