Getting free will wrong

Free Will book cover pictureHave I really never weblogified about this? I see I have written about it briefly in the ancient Problems of Consciousness tree, and that pretty much lays out my (i.e. the correct :) ) view, but I will write about it again here Just Because.

I have just had delivered to my ‘Pad Sam Harris’s recent book “Free Will”, because I heard Harris talking on the Brian Lehrer Show (also on my ‘Pad; see last month’s post on how odd the world is these days).

I haven’t read the book yet, just skimmed around a bit, but it looks as though he is going to get free will wrong in the way that so many others have gotten it wrong: by assuming that free will is possible only under certain conditions, showing that those conditions don’t hold, and concluding that there is no free will.

When in fact, of course, they just got the definition wrong.

Free will exists. I got that Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie just now, on the way here from the other side of the house, of my own free will. If someone had been holding a gun to my head and required that I got a Samoa instead, that would not have been of my own free will.

Those things are facts. The job of the philosopher is to explicate just what “free will” means, given facts like that. The philosopher who concludes that there is in fact no free will bears a very heavy responsibility, that includes convincing me that in fact I didn’t get that Thin Mint of my own free will. No philosopher has ever done that, and I think none is likely to (although I’ve been wrong before!).

From listening to Sam Harris on NPR, and looking through some of this here book, it looks like he will be getting free will wrong in a pretty typical way. Here are some excerpts from the beginning of the book:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are not simply of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

These statements reveal a whole swarm of background assumptions that I think are pretty flatly wrong. These include:

  • To have free will, our wills must be simply of our own making.
  • To have free will, we must be aware of, and exert conscious control over, the causes of our thoughts and intentions.
  • We can be responsible for our decisions only if those decisions are neither determined by prior causes, nor random.

I don’t think any of these background assumptions are true. It will be interesting to see, as I actually read the book, whether Harris makes them explicit and analyzes and defends them, or if he just takes them for granted and repeatedly points out that they are not satisfied by the facts.

So if I don’t think those kinds of things are true about free will, what do I think is true about free will?

I think free will is a useful concept that we humans have come up with to determine when to ascribe moral responsibility to a moral actor, and when not to. It is a concept that we learn mostly by ostention (i.e. by reading and hearing and talking about examples and stories) rather than by definition, and so (like “knowledge” and “virtue” and really most other interesting words) it tends to have fuzzy edges, and people can have honest disagreements about when it applies. But that doesn’t mean it never applies at all.

Roughly, we say that someone does something of their own free will if their doing it reflects primarily their own nature, their own desires, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses. If, that is, it provides useful evidence about what kind of person they are in morally-relevant ways. Which is just what you want as a criterion when you’re deciding which acts to include when doing moral judgement and assigning moral responsibility.

If I unknowingly step on a weak board and the board breaks, all that tells anyone about me is that I weigh more than the holding capacity of the board; my having broken the board tells you nothing about my morally-relevant properties, and I didn’t intentionally break it, didn’t break it “of my own free will”. I broke it by accident.

If on the other hand I saw the board making up part of the wall of an abandoned building, and kicked it so it broke just ’cause I like hearing things break and didn’t really care that it wasn’t officially mine to break, that was a freely-willed action, and it tells you something morally relevant about me. You might not want to include me in certain activities; you might even want society to fine me for wanton destruction.

All that seems pretty easy. So why does Harris (and why do the many other philosophers who’ve made similar arguments) think that free will is an illusion?

Well, they argue, science can (at least in principle) explain why I broke the board in both cases. In both cases there is a story about my birth and upbringing, about purely physical processes occurring in my brain and body, that show how the board ended up being broken. In the second case this involves my enjoyment of things breaking and my disregard for the concept of ownership, but those things can themselves be explained.

And if, the argument goes, science can explain why I have certain tendencies and values, then surely I can’t be held responsible for them.

To which the reply is “whyever not”? The assumption is that people can’t be held responsible for their preferences and desires and values because we can explain how they ended up with those preferences and desires and values, and/or because the person didn’t choose to have those preferences and desires and values (or at least didn’t choose to have the initial genes and early-life experiences that led to having them).

But why should we accept that assumption?

The usual argument by analogy is that if it turned out that I have a small brain tumor that is pressing on a certain part of my cerebrum that is causing me to enjoy breaking things and to ignore property rights, then surely I wouldn’t be held morally responsible. And having genes and life-experiences that cause me to do those things is just like having a small brain tumor.

This strikes me as unconvincing. Having certain genes and life-experiences really isn’t all that much like having a small brain tumor. When we exercise moral judgement, we are trying to determine (basically) what sort of person this person’s genes and life-experiences have brought into being.

We may or may not be willing to factor out small and identifiable and perhaps reparable things like brain tumors (I think this is an edge-case of free will where different people may have different intuitions), but we are not willing to factor out every single fact that makes this person different from every other person.

This form of the denial of free will hinges, I would say, on a false dichotomy, related to the dichotomy in the second Harris quote above: either, the dichotomy says, our actions are determined by causes (in which case those causes are responsible, we are not, and we don’t have free will), or our actions are random (in which case, again, we are not responsible for them, and we don’t have free will).

The actual fact of the matter, I believe, is that our actions are determined by various causes, and to the extent that those causes are part of what kind of person we are, we are responsible for the action and we exercise free will. To the extent that those causes are outside of the morally-relevant parts of us (including random die-rolls, although perhaps not the weighting of the dice), the actions are not morally relevant, and don’t count as free(ly) will(ed).

The fact that I didn’t cause myself to have the nature that I do isn’t relevant to the fact that when my actions are expressions of that nature, they are expressions of my free will, and I bear the responsibility for them.

Which seems pretty simple, really. :)

When I actually read the book, I will see if any of it applies to the sort of objection that I put forth here, and report back with any interesting findings, on that issue or any other.



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