Looking for free will

Ignorance is bliss

. ~ Thomas Gray

The idea of genuine or libertarian free will is dead. It cannot be logically defended (see Schopenhauer, 1999/1839, for a classical treatment, Harris, 2013, for an readable rehash, and here and here for previous blog posts). In a personal communication, a respected social psychologist who studies self-regulation and agency agreed. He (the respected psychologist) said that psychological theory and research should get on with the business of studying what ordinary people think free will is and how these beliefs (deterministically!) affect their behavior. I think this is a good plan.

Of those who still defend the libertarian notion of free will, how many really think that they can make choices that are so free that they cannot be attributed to prior causes or (quantum) chance? Lacking good arguments for radical freedom, these defenders need to find their justifications elsewhere. Perhaps they take pleasure in spiting consensus, have scriptural commitments of the rabbinical (Talmudic) or catholic (Augustine or Thomist) variety, or receive grant money from foundations with such commitments.

If there were good reasons for believing in free will, they would paradoxically force a return to determinism. We would have to believe in free will, but could do so only with regard to matters other than the belief in free will itself. Once they have explained their belief in free will with reference to causes and reasons, advocates of free will can no longer argue that their own belief in free will is freely willed. If their justifications of free will were compelling, we would have to change our minds. If so, we would have no choice but to believe, which in turn would refute the idea of free will. The other side of this coin is that someone who claims he has freely chosen to believe in free will has no compelling case for us to do the same, and hence no case for free will either. Why would we choose to believe what he – without reason or cause – chose to believe? This is bad news for the libertarian position. Its case for free will – if there is to be one – can only be made by deterministic arguments; and if that case succeeds, it fails.

Some advocates of free will recognize the indefensibility of the libertarian position. For them, only the compatibilist position remains. Compatibilists say they can have it both ways: accept determinism (flavored perhaps with a pinch of chance) and preserve human (and thus their own) freedom (see related post). To do so, they either need to redefine determinism or redefine free will. Most do so by redefining free will; they say it is enough for the will to be experienced as free. Compatibilists agree that their actions (thoughts, emotions, behaviors) arise deterministically (with chance perchance) from everything that went before. The state of the universe at Time 0 determines what happens at Time 1, and that includes what they do.

What a person does at Time 1 falls into two broad categories. One type of action involves conflict. There are competing and irreconcilable demands (wills) on behavior. You either ask Adele out or you don’t. You either have that smoke or you don’t. This is the domain of self-control. The person needs to overcome inhibition (ask Adele) or resist temptation (spurn tobacco). If he succeeds, he can be proud because he is witness to his own struggle. If he fails, he can berate himself and be blamed by others on the premise that he could have succeeded had he only tried harder (especially in the temptation case). Such ‘moral’ blame can come only from a libertarian position. A compatibilist, who accepts determinism, knows he could not succeed because he could not freely choose to try harder. A compatibilist cannot get into the business of self-control or self-regulation.

The other type of behavior is the kind that occurs without the experience of conflict. The behavior feels as though it is truly ours; it is congruent with the will, and there is nothing pulling action in a different direction. To do what you want (as per your determined will) is the free will worth having, they say. Alas, this conception of free will stakes its explanatory power on the notion of ignorance. A willed action can only be experienced as free if the causes underlying the conscious intention and the overt behavior are themselves not available to consciousness. The will (or intention or preference) appears in consciousness and the action follows. This may feel like freedom, but it is the admission of not knowing how the will (or intention or preference) came to be what it is. The less a person understands why he wills what he wills, the freer he is according to the compatibilist view.

Die Gedanken sind frei

Thoughts are free. -- That's what YOU think.

Free will is typically seen as a moral good by those who carry its flag. Supposing that I have made the case (after Schopenhauer, Harris, and many others) that the experience of free will is positively correlated with ignorance regarding its psychology, then ignorance would have to be a moral good. If so, we should work toward reducing people’s awareness of the empirical evidence concerning the causes that make them do what they do, feel what they feel, and think what they think. Ignorance would have to be bliss, if one takes the free will argument seriously.

One shudders at the implications for justice. The less one knows about a defendant’s history, context, and experience, the more easily one could claim that she acted freely. Savvy prosecutors would seek to keep a jury as ignorant as possible. This strategy may seem clever, but is it moral? Is there not a moral imperative to seek knowledge? And if, by and large, greater knowledge erodes the foundations of blame and punishment, is it not the case that blame and punishment are concepts fundamentally opposed to morality (see related posts here and there)?

Harris, S. (2012). Free will. New York: Free Press.

Schopenhauer, A. (1999/1839). Prize essay on the freedom of the will. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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