J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

Of your own free will try on the yoke of fate. ~ Aischylos: Agamemnon

As a fan of Oxford’s Very Brief Introduction series and a card-carrying foe of the free-will hypothesis, I couldn’t resist (I really couldn’t, although I could imagine myself resisting) picking up a copy of Thomas Pink’s (2004) treatment of the matter. I was wondering, would I learn anything new and would I change my mind? Yes to the first and no to the latter. Pink goes over some familiar territory: compatibilism, incompatibilism, libertarianism, determinism, and other what-have-yous. New to me were some of historical points. The first point of interest was that the Christian medievals, with Thomas Aquinas at the forefront, insisted on the freedom of the will in a manner that suited their theological preconceptions. They figured that men must be distinguished from beasts, and that only men are morally capable and responsible. God had made a difference between good and evil and man had partial knowledge of it. Now man has a choice to do good and eschew evil. There must be something within man that lures him towards evil. If man always did the good anyway, life would not be interesting and moral philosophers (and priests) would be out of work. Yet, man is not compelled to do evil either. Again, if he were, life would be boring. The observation that man can do good, but may not, is the starting point of philosophy.

In the hands of theologians, freedom allows man to do what god demands. In more modern garb, freedom allows what society demands. Man obeys the dictates of society (eat your spinach, do not litter, do not lust in your heart) because he freely chooses to. This is what the freedom of the will is designed to do. Astonishing as it may seem, this appears to be the position of my colleague’s Roy Baumeister, who, funded by the Templeton Foundation, has worked diligently to restore a Thomist tinge to cognitive psychology (see here). Now imagine we always succeeded in doing the good. We would not know whether we had chosen freely or whether god’s or society’s demands had too strong a causal pull. Ditto if we always acted badly. God’s and society’s demands would be too weak. The idea that free will is responsible for the choice between good and evil flourishes when there is a mix of good and bad behavior. However, there is no logical connection between the proportion of the observed behavior that is good and the validity of the free will hypothesis.

The second point of interest was Pink’s treatment of Hobbes. Hobbes denied the categorical distinction between man and beast, preferring a quantitative one instead. Men are psychologically complex beasts. Like beasts, men act under the causal influence of desires. The desires are the wills, or action tendencies, that arise out of man’s nature and other influences (e.g., society, the weather) acting on them. As there are many causal factors in play and many competing desires, behavior ends up appearing probabilistic – and sometimes even random – to the observer, or man himself. With Hobbes, there is no necessary distinction between desire and decision. The strongest desire wins, it manifests in a decision, and then in a behavior. When desire, decision, and behavior are aligned, that is, when no intrusive external cause (the proverbial gun to the head) forces man to act differently, the behavior is voluntary, or willed in a congruent way. This behavior presents itself as being free to introspective man inasmuch as there is little conscious conflict between desires. But this experience of free will is an illusion, if a pleasant one. It does not mean that man could have acted differently. Pink presents Hobbes so well that I thought he might side with him, before remembering that Pink promised to defend libertarianism. At any rate, I realized that I am a Hobbesian; I thought I had been a Schopenhauerian, but apparently Hobbes anticipated Schopenhauer’s argument, or put less genteelly, Schopenhauer hauered Hobbes. According to Pink, it was Hobbes who said “I acknowledge this liberty, that I can do if I will, but to say, I can will if I will, I take to be an absurd speech” (cited in Pink, p. 61).

After having presented Hobbes and other determinists with lucidity, Pink defends libertarianism, that is, the view that there is a genuinely free will in addition to whatever the world has to offer in the way of causality and randomness. Presumably, free will is limited to (hu)man. The shark may chase the seal for the purpose of eating it, but he the shark does not qualify as a free willer. Pink does not elaborate why. Presumably, it is the shark’s more modest neural equipment and putative lack of self-consciousness and rationality that makes it so. Pink also avoids the question of whether humans who differ from prototypical rational man have free will. Where in development does free will first present itself? Where in pathology does it disappear? Pink, unlike Hobbes, assumes that somewhere on the scale of complexity there lies a qualitative difference between free and unfree will. The existence of this qualitative difference is of decisive importance. Hence, it is a pity being left in the lurch by Pink. 

Pink’s defense of libertarian free will rests on 2 arguments. Both are illogical. One argument is that there is no reason for why there should not be a third way, in addition to causation and randomness, to produce behavior. This argument is illogical because it dismisses the burden of proof. We know from our study of nature that we can model what we see with reference to either causation or randomness or both. If a third way is to be introduced, an uncaused and yet non-random origin of action, then a case needs to be made; it is necessary to model behavior successfully where the 2 older principles fail. It is not enough to say “Why not?” This why-not tactic is not only intellectually barren, but it is also deceptive. It is popular among esoterics, shamans, and UFOlogists. “Why should we not assume that the aliens built the Giza pyramids?”

The other argument relies on the resurrection of a point that Pink himself had already refuted. He had noted, correctly, that action can be voluntary by being aligned with desires and decisions. Desires and decisions, however, are matters of awareness that cannot be freely and consciously chosen before they occur. We cannot decide to make a decision and then make that decision. This sort of thinking only begs the question of how the first decision is made. It can only be made unconsciously and thus unfreely. Pink returns to the idea of ‘intention’ as the hallmark of free will. But an intention cannot by made freely if it is to be an element of freedom itself. Again, if you intend to have an intention, where does the first intention come from? The case for libertarian free will founders on the rock of ex nihilo.

To avoid these difficulties, Pink makes his greatest, and unpardonable, concession: he surrenders to folk psychology. Taking his decision to get up and go for a walk as an example, he suggests that this decision is free because he does not feel a desire either way, to get up and walk or to stay seated. We can describe his behavior as random, or we can surmise that Pink’s desires were too weak to become consciously available. To think that ‘if I can’t perceive a motive to act within myself and yet I act, then my action must be freely willed’ is not an impressive example of free will. It is rather a case of no will at all. More damagingly, it is a simple appeal to folk psychology and subjective mentalizing. For a hifalutin concept such a libertarian free will, stronger medicine should be brought up.

I final irony is the contradiction between the first point and the last. First, Pink gives credence to the “Why not accept a notion if we can imagine it” (the existence of free will), whereas in the end he takes comfort in his inability to imagine (sense his desire) as evidence of free will.

Meanwhile, Hobbes is spinning in his grave.

Pink, T. (2004). Free will: A very brief introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kill Will

A friend suggested that some psychologists (e.g., Roy Baumeister) don't study free will in the strict sense but only perceptions of free will, and that they fail to make this clear to their readers. My response is that making clear distinctions about your object of study is a basic requirement of science. Otherwise, one is open to the charge that one invites readers to read support for the strongest claims into the work. Such claims sell and attract funding (e.g. from the Templeton Foundation). For my part, I share the Hobbesian position on will. It allows us to respect our will and ask that this will be free from interference (external interference such as social pressure or internal interference such as sickness, addiction, or brain damage). To say that we want a will that is free in the sense that it can be made up in the moment out of nothing (as the libertarians do) is to kill the will, not to free it. Where is that will supposed to come from? Ask yourself 'Who am I?' before you make up your will freely.

Science for dummies

Those who study perceptions of free will, hoping to learn something about the thing itself, I ask 'Why don't you set a higher standard?' If the thing (might) exist, it ought to be studiable. But how would you study it? If Billy lifts his finger, eats his spinach, or says no to Betsy's overtures, how might we know that he did it freely other than taking his perception and word for it? This is the simplest of questions, and a libertarian cannot answer it. Anyone doing science must do better than taking the 'I-know-it-when-I-see-it' attitude. We must declare beforehand what the thing would look like if it existed and were to appear. As libertarian free willers are unable to meet this simple standard, their position devolves into metaphysics.   

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