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Do What You Want

A psychological reconstruction of free will

chimp thinking

By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will.

~ David Hume

chimp thinking

By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will.

For some time, psychologists funded by the Templeton Foundation have labored to construct a respectable argument for the freedom of the will. Doing so, they find themselves between the rock of determinism and the hard place of chance. If they were incompatibilists, they would have to go for the libertarian hard place, but that would entail forfeiting the chance to study any regularities in human behavior. They would have to choose between doing science and believing in free will; they could not have a science of free will. This leaves compatibilism, or the idea that you can have your free will cake and eat it with science built on the idea of determinism.

The latest flower of psychology’s wrestling with the question of free will is an article by Seligman et al. (2013) in the Perspectives on Psychological Science. The goal of the article is to present a vision of prospection, or the capacity to act with foresight. The article is well reasoned and written. The authors skillfully make the case for the idea that at least for humans (and perhaps for some non-human animals), we must recognize some unique features of agency, chief among them the ability to envision several possible future actions and sets of consequences, and the capacity to choose among them. In other words, the authors discuss Cognition with a capital C. This type of cognition is deliberative and it comes with a strong experience of awareness and self-awareness. This cognition comprises conscious planning, choice, and voluntary action. If one defined such cognition as psychologically free will, one could be done with it. One would acknowledge that these phenomena arise from a complex web of antecedent causes, perhaps with a pinch of irreducible chance thrown in. And that would be that. It would not be terribly original because David Hume had similar ideas 2.5 centuries ago. At any rate, we could get on with the business of studying how these causes work themselves out in their effects.

Seligman et alii (SEA) are not satisfied with the Humean view. They set their sights on a higher, teleological, target. They want Aristotle, not Hume. And that’s where it gets embarrassing. To show you why, I will quote from their section on the Freedom of the will (pp. 132-133) and comment as I go.

SEA open by noting that the “metaphysical debate has reached a stalemate” and that they are “not going to enter the metaphysical fray about determinism.” Instead, they wish to “develop additional perspectives on free will that might move us past the deadlock.” In my understanding of the English language, this means that they do plan to speak to the metaphysical debate while trying to outmaneuver it. That is a bold plan. How do the think they can pull it off? They announce that they will “start with the question of what component psychological mechanisms or capacities a creature needs to have in order to be free and autonomous.” Once “the functional specifications of the items on the ‘free will inventory’ are fleshed out, then, and only then, are abstract metaphysical questions broached.”

In order to build such an inventory, one must first offer a definition of free will. With a definition in hand, one can then search for the necessary features of the construct. SEA do not provide a definition. Instead, they move directly to folk wisdom and ask what ordinary people believe free will to be. SEA find that folk beliefs map well onto what they themselves define as prospection (voluntary agency with the experience of being free from constraint and coercion). The folk and SEA hold that “actions reflecting free will [a]re more likely than non-free-will actions to emphasize pursuit of long-term future goals. Free actions [a]re more likely than the nonfree ones to be about conscious deliberation and reflection. The free actions [a]re also more likely to be consistent with the person’s moral values, and the free actions [a]re also more likely than unfree ones to bring about positive outcomes.”

Notice that this strategy presumes that free will exists. It does not ask whether it exists. Research participants were asked “to narrate an event from their lives in which they acted of their free will.” Such data contribute nothing to the question of whether the will is free; they only speak to human experience and phenomenology. If we knew that free will existed, we could engage in reverse engineering. For example, since we know that the Pyramids of Giza exist, we can ask how the Egyptians built them. But the existence of free will is highly controversial. It is the question at stake. And so, no reverse engineering – however appealing it may seem – can contribute any new evidence for the existence of free will. We can reverse engineer a unicorn by envisioning a pony with a horn, but that does not make unicorns real.

SEA get more specific and suggest that free will would comprise the features of complexity, time horizon, and accuracy about the future. Complexity means that humans are able “to perform sequentially linked prospections” in order to “build more flexible plans.” Time horizon means that “humans, unlike other animals, can project years ahead and adjust current behavior accordingly.” Accuracy about the future means that humans can imagine themselves “in different subjective states that [they] will experience in the future.”

Notice that neither complexity, nor time, nor accuracy entails free will. Each of these features can arise for other reasons. Everywhere in nature, complexity arises from simplicity (behold the biological brain or a patch of rainforest). The notion of time horizon is too slippery to be helpful. If we can see 30 seconds into the future for sufficient deterministic reasons, how does a quantitative extension of the horizon bring about a qualitative shift from bondage to freedom? Accuracy about the future may amount to nothing more than imagination. Are we to conclude that any kind of imagination is freely willed? No one has ever argued this.

The non-uniqueness of these three design features lays the trap of reverse inference. It may be true that if free will existed, we would find features such as these as part of its make-up. However, finding evidence for these features does not compel the conclusion that free will exists. If everyone with encephalitis runs a fever, having a fever does not compel the conclusion that the brain is inflamed.

SEA then take a sudden turn back into philosophy (which they promised not to do for fear of metaphysics) and report that to Harry Frankfurt, the “freedom of the will consists in having the will that one wants to have.”

*** Inhale, exhale, do it again, inhale, exhale. Read the quote again. ***

In Frankfurt’s world, you have free will if you can choose your will. SEA explain that “humans also have the ability to step back and form second-order desires, desires about which first-order desires they wish to have.” Now there’s a problem of regress. Where does the desire to desire X instead of Y come from? Is there a third-order desire that chooses the second-order desire? It’s desires (wills; turtles) all the way down. This is poor thinking and probably lousy philosophy as well. Sometimes it is salutary to re-read Schopenhauer (1999/1839).

But it gets better (worse) when SEA “turn from ‘freedom’ to ‘willing’.” Now they are in free fall tautology. “When we engage in the spontaneous and deliberative prospection of future possibilities [this] feels ‘free’ because the mind freely explores possibilities.” Never mind that “spontaneous” and “deliberative” actions are seen as very different creatures by most psychologists and folk, note the reverse inference writ large. If the mind is free, it will feel free. However, if it feels free, we still don’t know if it is free. Be reminded of a similar reasoning fallacy among some eager theists. If god exists, she enabled me to believe in her. I believe in her, therefore she exists.


Having returned to philosophy and metaphysics, SEA repeat the old compatibilist argument that the will is free if actions are free from external constraint (no one put a gun to Raskolnikov’s head when he killed the pawnbroker). They add that the will is free if there is no “internal compulsion” to act against one’s preferences. In other words, to them the will is free if you do what you want. This is a good definition of voluntary (willed) behavior, but it says nothing about the causes, or lack of causes, of the will itself (which, presumably, is the question on the table).

Gaining steam, SEA then repeat the oldest claim for the idea that the will is free (and hence that the person is responsible for his actions). “Had the agent thought more highly of another possibility, or had he been attracted to it whimsically and wanted his whimsy to guide him, he would have settled on that one.” Yes! But he didn’t! The observer, or the agent himself, can often imagine a different reality, but this is imagination, and imagination does not compel the conclusion of freedom. The claim that “I could have done otherwise if I’d wanted to” is sterile with respect to the free will riddle. It asserts free will without proving it; indeed, without even making it more probable.

Having shed their fear of philosophy and metaphysics, SEA go full throttle. “The central point of our analysis of willing is, however, that there need be posited no such thing as a ‘will’.” Come again? Freedom of the will without a will is freedom of what or from what? This is where Aristotle comes in. To the master teleologian, “’taking counsel’” [is] a ‘deliberative desire’ to do something here and now activated through deliberative assessment of available acts, not an inner act of willing.” This is weird. Replace the word “will” with the word “preference.” How do we settle on what “seems best” without having a will or a preference? SEA claim that the French can do it because they think of free will as libre arbitre, which means “roughly ‘free weighing and judging,’ with no reference to a special volitional faculty.” Frankly, it is hard for me to accept the idea that the French would make important decisions without desire. But then again, I have been wrong about them in the past. [Note. The French translation of Schopenhauer’s essay is called Sur libre arbitre. Are we to conclude that they took the will out of Arthur?]

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

Seligman, M., Railton, P., Baumeister, R., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 119-141.