Free Will Blues


December 23, 2011

Some neurologists are convinced that they are finally closing in on proof that human brains are deterministic chemical mechanisms, more complex than a ticking watch but no more “free.”  Civic-minded writers worry how we will keep on talking ourselves into behaving morally and meting out legal penalties if once we become truly convinced that everything we think and do is a foredoomed self-rearranging of molecules ruled by basic physics.  A large contingent of philosophers, the “compatibilists,” argue that we can be both determined and free at the same time: in essence, that we are very complex ticking watches, but that ticking watches can have free will, as long as we correctly adjust what we mean by “free will.”


Compatibilists come in several flavors, but all want to purge us of dualistic, ghost-in-the-machine notions about spiritual forces that mysteriously tweak our neurons.  Then there are those thinkers, like physicists Frank Tipler and Roger Penrose, who plump for quantum indeterminacy, speculating that somehow the essentially unpredictable jitterings of the microverse might be amplified into brain outcomes.  In that case we might be purely material systems, but also non-determined, “free.”  Philosophers often counter this class of theories by asking how ultimately random acts would be more “free,” in any real-world sense, than rigidly determined ones.  Finally, despite the compatibilists’ scorn, a variety of dualisms are still defended, typically by religious believers.

Christians can be found all along this continuum, from the compatibilism of David McKay (who argued decades ago that we are free, though determined, because nobody can predict our future actions to us without defeating their own predictions) to the foursquare dualism of C. S. Lewis, who argues in Miracles that rational thought cannot, logically, be a deterministic outcome of “non-rational causes.”  (Lewis’s argument does not go strictly to the question of free will—we might be nondeterministically rational yet still unfree—but all the disputes over materialism and/or determinism versus consciousness, freedom, and reason are, in practice, close cousins.)  Lewis’s view is staunchly upheld by at least one contemporary Christian philosopher, Victor Reppert.

Lewis’s “Argument from Reason” gives me that fishy feeling I have whenever someone tries to get the jump on science by the power of pure reason.  As I learned from reading Lewis himself, logic only tells you that if you have one penny in a drawer and put another in, there must be two pennies in the drawer; it doesn’t and can’t tell you whether there is a penny in the drawer.  To know that, you must look.  Logic alone, no matter how pure, no matter how apparently compelling, can never tell us what is physically real, in a bureau, in a brain, or anywhere else.  We must look, and that looking we call “science.”  Lewis and Reppert, in effect, rule on what science can find before science has looked — whereupon I cry Foul.  Lewis even thought he could exclude a purely naturalistic, evolutionary origin for the human brain on the strength of the Argument from Reason (Ch. 3 of Miracles).  That’s an awful lot of biological history to settle without leaving one’s easy chair.  But despite my gripes, I think that the Argument from Reason draws attention to a fascinating and knotty class of problems.  If it were reclassified as the Problem of Reason, I would have no quarrel with it.

The rarest point of view is the one that seems, to many of us laypeople, inescapable if determinism is true: amoralism, the notion that, if we are deterministic biochemical mechanisms, then morality, free will, responsibility, and all the rest is a bunch of total hooey, so we might as well do whatever we like. What the hell, we were going to do it anyway: whatever happens is just what happens.  On this (rarely defended) view, “everything is lawful,” as Ivan Karamazov argued one would have to conclude from atheism.  In fact, materialists and determinists of all stripes tend to be quite offended whenever anyone argues that their views must end in nihilism or amoralism.

People argue about every aspect of the free-will question: whether we have free will, what it would be if we did have it, whether we can even consistently imagine having it, whether it matters whether we have it, whether there is even any “we.”  It’s all great fun and a great way to get one’s heart pumping.  I don’t imagine that I, of all the many thousands of people who have ever weighed in on this infamously bottomless topic, have any definitive answer to any part of it.  Here is an ocean of literature so vast that only a specialist could even draw its borders accurately.  But there is one goof I’d like to see conscientiously avoided by everybody:  the Me exception.  Any neurologist who goes about talking as if their own choices are valid while everybody else’s are determined by cascading molecules should be pelted politely with rotten fruit.  Any zealous philosopher who mounts a stage to urge their audience to make the right choice by accepting that there is no such thing as choice should be gently stuffed headfirst into a rich brown compost heap, feet kicking in the air.

You and I are already in that compost heap, kicking madly, because the free-will debate instantly involves anyone who touches it in absurdity.  If we are deterministic, then it’s not just the button-pushing college student in the MRI machine who is determined, it’s the neurologist setting up the experiment and interpreting it as further evidence of determinism.  It’s the editor of the philosophy journal deciding to publish another compatibilist paper on free will, neurology, and determinism.  It’s dualists disagreeing with that paper, and me writing these words, and you reading them.  If the universe is a determined system, then even an impeccably reasoned argument that it cannot possibly be deterministic is determined . . .  Or if thought is not determined, then how not?  Aye, there’s the rub.

Determinism, as it arises out of quantum uncertainty and large numbers, explains all large-scale systems investigated so far by science (and by quantum standards, a neuron is very large).  It’s inside every drawer we’ve opened so far, as far as we’ve opened it.  But dualism describes what being a person actually feels like.  The experienced freedom of personhood actually is a lot like straddling a frontier between the determined and the free, a frontier full of “twists and turns,” as Lewis put it.  We are constrained, we are limited, but we also choose.  Yet it is very hard to imagine the specifics of how such a frontier might exist, and how we might straddle it—almost as hard as trying to live out, in plain consistent mental practice, belief in one’s own total determinedness.  And that is as hard as standing on one foot, then trying to raise that foot, too, without falling down.  Try it.


Photo by me.