Metaphysics – the problem of Free Will

One of the major sub-fields of philosophy is Metaphysics.  It is difficult to define exactly what metaphysics is; it began as the search for first causes or the study of ‘being as such’ (unchanging reality).  However, metaphysics has evolved from its ancient roots to encompass a great deal of distinct, yet related, areas of philosophical debate.  One such area is closely connected with the Philosophy of Mind (itself an area of metaphysics) – the problem of free will.  Recall that one of the implications of accepting a materialist account of mind is that it would seem to entail that free will is just an illusion.  The issue of free will also arose in our discussion of the Philosophy of Religion as a response from Christian apologists to the problem of evil.  As such, the Free Will debate is of enormous philosophical importance.  However, its importance is not limited to the metaphysical realm; it has huge moral ramifications and cuts deep into our very conceptions of ourselves and others.  So what is the problem?

Well, firstly, there are a set of specific reasons for thinking that we are neither so free in forming our desires, nor in acting on them, than we might think.  Firstly, consider the correlation between peoples tastes and choices, and their social class and upbringing.  For example, one of the best predictors of how people will vote is how their parents voted.  Consider too, the effectiveness of advertising: the multitude of ways in which companies can manipulate our desires and choices.  Furthermore, there is a wealth of psychological literature showing that we are less free in our choices than we might think (phobias, neuroses, hypnosis, Freud’s theory of the unconscious, etc.).  Such considerations as these seem to restrict our freedom to form our desires, and our freedom to act upon them.

Secondly, and more generally, science operates on the assumptions that: (1) every event is caused and; (2) the cause of every event is an antecedent event.  Thus the natural world is governed by deterministic causal laws.  The scientific world view (evident in, for example, Darwinian theory) is that human beings are part of nature.  Therefore, everything we do, along with everything else, is governed by deterministic causal laws.  This is the thesis of determinism.

Given determinism, there will always be some much earlier set of conditions (s) that is connected by laws of nature to any human action (a) that takes place.  But nothing can be done to alter, nothing can be done, about those laws; and neither, it may be added, can anything be done about s at any time when the doing of a is immediately in question.  Since s is thus necessary (e.g. unalterable) at the time when a is in question and since a law leading from s to a is similarly necessary (unalterable) at that time, it would seem to follow that a itself is necessary (unalterable, unavoidable) at that time – however ignorant of that fact the agent of a may be.  Presumably, then, the agent in question does not act freely in performing a, and, since the argument has been entirely general in its assumptions, one may conclude that no human being ever acts freely in a deterministic universe.

Michael Slote, ‘Selective Necessity and the Free-Will Problem’, (1982)

The Determinist’s Argument may be laid out as follows:

  • P1 If determinism is true, then every human action is causally necessitated
  • P2 If every human action is causally necessitated, no one could have acted otherwise
  • P3 One only has free will if one could have acted otherwise
  • P4 Determinism is true
  • C. No one has free will

This, then, is the problem of determinism.  But why is it a problem?  Why do we seem to find the conclusion of the determinist’s argument so troubling?  Well, firstly, there is what we might call the issue of the phenomenology of freedom.  That is to say, it just seems to us that our choices are up to us.  Consider, for example, the choice between two dishes at a restaurant.  First you sway one way and then the other; you’re about to choose one but then change your mind and – right up until the moment of choice – you feel you could choose either.  Now imagine you are deciding what Open Studies course to take, which house to buy, which person to spend the rest of your life with.  Indeed, to state that that it seem to us we are free may be to understate the point; there are few things in life about which we are so certain (as Samuel Johnson stated, ‘Sir, we know our will is free and there’s an end on’t’).  Now, if determinism is true, it seems that we are radically wrong about ourselves.

Secondly, the truth of the thesis of determinism seems to have serious repercussions for the way we normally ascribe moral responsibility.  When we praise or blame someone for their actions it is because we think that they are acting freely. This is why we don’t, unless we’re badly anthropomorphising, blame our car for breaking down or our computer for crashing (see video below).  Similarly, we don’t blame someone for not meeting us or emailing us when we find out that their car broke down or their computer crashed.  When someone bangs into us over in the street we hold them responsible for doing so, but if we find that that person was pushed by another person, we withhold the ascription of blame on the grounds that they could not have done otherwise.  But then, if determinism is true, then we are all being pushed all of the time and no-one could act otherwise. As such, it would seem that we have good reason to seriously reevaluate the way we apportion responsibility.

The truth of the thesis of determinism, then, would seem to present a major challenge to our conception of ourselves as free and responsible agents.  Can this challenge be met?

There are three positions that can be adopted in the free will debate: Hard Determinism, Libertarianism, and Compatibilism.  Hard Determinists accept the soundness of the above argument and so embrace its conclusion (and what it entails). Libertarians, on the other hand, deny the conclusion (and thus the soundness of the argument), and do so by denying the truth of determinism (P4).  Although differing greatly in their views, both hard determinists and libertarians agree that free will and determinism are incompatible (they cannot both be true).  Both are, therefore, incompatibilists.  Compatibilists also deny the conclusion of the above argument but accept P4 – they want to hold that free will and determinism are compatible – and so standardly want to reject one of the other premises; typically P2 or P3 (or both).

Let us look briefly at Libertarianism before going on to consider some compatibilist approaches.  The problem with Libertarianism is that it is not enough for libertarians to deny that human actions are subject to deterministic causal laws, they must give an alternative explanation of human action. However, they do not, they leave a blank where an explanation should be.  And it would take a very odd something to fill in that blank. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy states that:

The desired entity (self, soul, agent, originator) must be sufficiently connected to the past to constitute a continuing locus of personal responsibility, but sufficiently disconnected so that its past does not determine its present. It must be sufficiently connected to the causal chain to be able to interrupt it, but sufficiently disconnected not to get trapped. It must be susceptible to being shaped and maybe governed by motives, threats, punishments, and desires, but not totally controlled by them. It resembles very much the river god, who serves as an explanation for what seems to be the free behaviour of the river until a better explanation comes along through physical geography, meteorology, and physics.

Such remarks bring to mind the problem for Dualism of explaining the ‘ghost in the machine’. If, though, we can show the compatibility of Free Will and Determinism there will be no need to resort to what Strawson calls ‘the panicky metaphysics of the libertarian’.

An early attempt to argue for the compatibility of free will and determinism was offered by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651):

A FREE-MAN, is he, that . . . is not hindred to doe that he has a will to . . . from this use of the word Free-will, no Liberty can be inferred of the will, desire or inclination, but the Liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop in doing what he has the will, desire or inclination to doe.

David Hume, a century later wrote: “By liberty … we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will.” (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748).  These and similar accounts provide us with the simplest form of compatibilism; they are known collectively as Classical Compatibilism.

Classical Compatibilism suggests that we read the ability to do otherwise conditionally. That is to say, an action is free insofar as: ‘if I had desired to do otherwise, I could have done otherwise.’ (G.E. Moore)  For example, imagine a piece of flotsam floating near the shore; it is free insofar as it may drift with the tide.  That is, it is not free to drift out to sea when the tide is coming in, however, the freedom of the flotsam consists in the fact that if the tide had been going out, then it would have been carried out to sea.

What this amounts to is freedom of action; freedom from constraint or coercion.  That I am free to act on my desires requires only that I am not fettered or forced by external factors beyond my control, which stop me from realising these desires. The distinction between being coerced (compelled/ constrained) and being caused is identified by A.J. Ayer in ‘Freedom and Necessity’ (1946).  He states:

[N]o one now compels me to get up and walk across the room: but if my doing so can be causally explained in terms of my history or my environment, or whatever it may be, then how am I any more free than if some other person had compelled me?  I do not have the feeling of constraint that I have when a pistol is manifestly pointed at my head; but the chains of causation by which I am bound are no less effective for being invisible …  [However] it is not when my action has any cause at all, but only when it has a special sort of cause, that, it is reckoned not to be free.

Thus the standard response of the classical compatibilist is that freedom is characterised as opposed to coercion or constraint, not as opposed to being caused (this is rather the notion of freedom employed by the libertarian).  In order to clarify the distinction consider the following example:

  • Judge:  Did you sign this confession of your own free will?
  • Accused:  No.  I signed it because the police beat me up.
  • Now suppose that a hard determinist had been on the jury.  We can imagine the following conversation taking place in the jury room.
  • Foreman:  The prisoner says he signed the confession because he was beaten, and not of his own free will.
  • Determinist:  This is quite irrelevant to the case.  There is no such thing as free will.
  • Foreman:  Do you mean to say that it makes no difference whether he signed it because his conscience made him want to tell the truth or because he was beaten?
  • Determinist:  None at all.  Whether he was caused to sign by a beating or by some desire of his own – the desire to tell the truth, for example – in either case his signing was causally determined, and therefore in neither case did he act of his own free will.  Since there is no such thing as free will, the question whether he signed of his own free will ought not to be discussed by us.

What this shows (apart from the fact that determinists make poor jurors) is that the determinist is using the term ‘free will’ in some peculiar way which is not the way people use it when they wish to determine a question of moral responsibility.  The classical compatibilist approach is to define free will as the ability to act on one’s desires. It follows from this that the ‘ability to do otherwise’ necessary for free will is properly understood as no more than the ability to do otherwise, had one in fact desired to do otherwise.  Hence the prisoner was not free as he desired not to sign the confession, but was not able to act on this desire.

There is, however, as you may already have realised, a major problem with the classical compatibilist account; that it tends to just push the problem back onto our desires. For what if my desires were not free?  Suppose that they were implanted in me by hypnosis or whatever.  Then we wouldn’t think my act was free even if it were true that had I desired otherwise I would have acted otherwise.  Consider, for example, a drug addict who desires to take drugs.  According to the classical compatibilist account, as long as he is able to get the drugs he is free.  Suppose further that he is an unwilling addict; that he desperately wants to give up.  Would we really consider him to be free when he acts on his overwhelming desire?

Therefore, although the ability to act on our desires granted us by Classical Compatibilism is a necessary condition for what we take, intuitively, to be a wholly free act, it is not sufficient. In addition a person requires freedom of will, or, in other words, the ability to control those desires upon which we act.  Such an account is offered by Harry Frankfurt in his ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’. This Frankfurt article is the main reading for this week. In it Frankfurt maintains that – when someone has freedom of action and freedom of will ‘then he is not only free to do what he wants to do; he is also free to want what he wants to want  . . .  he has, in that case, all the freedom it is possible to desire or conceive.’

But does this mean that we are responsible for our actions?  In her ‘Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility’, Susan Wolf responds to Frankfurt’s account (she calls his and other views like it ‘deep-self views’) with the following example:

JoJo is the favourite son of Jo the First, an evil and sadistic dictator of a small, undeveloped country.  Because of his father’s special feelings for the boy, JoJo is given a special education and is allowed to accompany his father and observe his daily routine.  In light of this treatment, it is not surprising that little JoJo takes his father as a role model and develops values very much like Dad’s.  As an adult, he does many of the same sorts of things his father did, including sending people to prison or to death or to torture chambers on the basis of whim.  He is not coerced to do these things, he acts according to his own desires.  Moreover, these are desires he wholly wants to have.  When he steps back and asks, “Do I really want to be this sort of person?” his answer is resoundingly “Yes.” for this way of life expresses a crazy sort of power that forms part of his deepest ideal.

Wolf maintains that in light of JoJo’s upbringing it is ‘dubious at best’ he is responsible for what he does.

It is unclear whether anyone with a childhood such as his could have developed into anything but the twisted and perverse sort of person that he has become. However, note that JoJo is someone whose actions are controlled by his desires and whose desires are the desires he wants to have: That is, his actions are governed by desires that are governed by and expressive of his deepest self.

The reason that Wolf believes that JoJo is not responsible for his actions in the same way that most of us are for ours is that he, unlike us (hopefully), is insane.

Being sane, we are able to understand and evaluate our characters in a reasonable way, to notice what there is reason to hold on to, what there is reason to eliminate and what, from a rational and reasonable standpoint, we may retain or get rid of as we please.  Being able as well to govern our superficial selves by our deep selves, then, we are able to change the things we find there is reason to change.  This being so, it seems that although we may not be metaphysically responsible for ourselves – for, after all, we did not create ourselves from nothing – we are morally responsible for ourselves, for we are able to understand and appreciate right and wrong, and to change our characters and our actions accordingly.

Feel free(!) to add your comments, questions, or whatever, below.


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