Thursday, 21 September 2017

How Free Do You Need to Be?
Philosopher Daniel Dennett posed this question to someone who asked him whether humans have free will.  I borrowed it for a discussion of the topic at our recent Philosophy Night Live meeting.  The precise topic was "Why do we need ethics if we live in a deterministic world?"  The conversation focused mainly on the freedom/determinism issue, and we never got to the ethics part of the question.   More on that later. *
Meanwhile, let's take a closer look the general issue and then at Dennett's interesting question.  Determinism is simply the commonplace view that events in the world have causes; they can at least theoretically be explained by identifying the previous relevant events or conditions that preceded them.  A traffic accident causing injury and property damage, for example, was the result of reckless driving on the part of a drunken driver.  But other conditions were necessarily in play as well: the car he was driving (no car, no accident), the driver's failure to use a safety belt perhaps; the failure of an air bag; the unfortunate presence of another vehicle which was struck in the incident, etc.  (No event has just a single cause.)
Determinism bothers many people, because it seems to rule out free will.  Most of the time they feel they are acting freely.  On the other hand, belief in free will seems to imply that some events, e.g. deliberate human choices, have no cause; they are exempt from the universal law of cause and effect.  But that seems absurd: a human act that had no cause would be simply random, unexplainable, and how would that be different from an act of insanity?  How to resolve this paradox?
One solution is offered by libertarians (not the political variety).  Libertarianism is the view that, although most of our everyday actions are automatic or semi-conscious, the result of habit or physical reflexes and therefore determined, at least those actions that result from careful, rational deliberation about the available alternatives (e.g. Which university should I attend?) are not determined by any pre-existing conditions.  The self, libertarians insist, is the sole cause of the decision.
But who or what is the self, and how could anyone know for sure whether even their most carefully considered decisions were not the result of pre-existing conditions?  Modern depth psychology has exposed too many of our unconscious motives, biases, suppressed emotions, and other 'shadow' material for us to ever be very confident about how free any of our choices really are.  Not to mention the neuromaniacs who think everything humans do is determined by fired-up neurons in the brain.  Libertarianism is unconvincing. 
Let's be honest.  In everyday life we are all determinists.  If, after investigating a burglary at your home, the police told you the alleged burglary had no cause; it just happened; your stuff just vanished - no burglar, no other explanation, forget it, cased closed - you would probably sue the department.  Our common intuition is that everything that happens has a causal explanation, even if we never discover in a given case what the explanation is.
To be free or not  to be free - that is the question, a question that is as old as philosophy.  At the meeting, we briefly discussed a modern interpretation that seems to offer a way out.  The theory, favored by most philosophers today, is called compatibilism (or sometimes soft determinism).  The basic insight of this theory is that the traditional debate sets the bar for defining 'freedom' too high.  This was the point of philosopher Daniel Dennett's question, "How free do we need to be?"  How free, that is, to satisfy the demands of morality and legal accountability and our subjective feeling of being able to choose among real alternatives?  The answer, compatibilists think, is not the absolute freedom insisted on by libertarians which violates the principle of causality, but rather a type of freedom that exists when and only when certain conditions are present in a given situation.
Compatibilitists are determinists.  They agree that human actions, like all other natural events, are determined by pre-existing causes or conditions.  In humans, one of the causal factors is, in some cases, a process of careful deliberation.  Faced with a choice of A or B, we consider both for a while, reflecting on the relative merits.  Eventually, our feelings about A win out, and that's what we end up choosing to do.  We choose A because that's what we want to do.  And that, says the compatibilist, is exactly what freedom is: the ability to choose and act according to our desires. Call this conditional or circumstantial freedom.
Thus, compatibilists disagree with libertarians about the meaning of 'freedom.'  They claim that 'absolute freedom' is a useless fiction.  Conditional freedom is the only kind we need for understanding our practical lives, and it is compatible with determinism.  To be conditionally free means you are in control of your choices.  In the moment of free decision, there is no external coercion and no internal compulsion (psychological disorder).  You choose A because you have rationally compared it to B, and A is what you want to do.  That is why you feel free in the moment of decision.  When people have this kind of control, we say they acted freely and are responsible for what they do.  But to be free in this sense does not mean your action is uncaused or generated out of nothing by a transcendent agent, self, or soul, as libertarians claim.  All decisions and actions are conditioned.  You could have chosen B instead of A, but only if one or more of the conditions had been different.
Perhaps the easiest way to grasp this point is to see that what ultimately trips the switch of a choice, the final factor in the process of making a decision, is the strongest feeling or desire that shows up at the end of reflection.  "A or B? …...Hmmm……...not sure…….. Ah! I have it - A feels right.  That's what I'll do."  Yes, you could have chosen B, but only if the strongest desire in the moment had been different.  In the end our choices are caused by our desires, but desires don't appear out of nowhere like some random quantum events, they have causes, too, some of them known to us - habits, aspects of our character - some of them unknown, buried in the subconscious mind.  But all have a causal history; we can't create our desires out of nothing.  And that fact implies determinism.
This should not bother us, however,  Compatibilists say that conditional freedom is the only kind of freedom we need or care about.  It is all we need to judge people as responsible or not responsible for what they do, and it satisfies the justice system as a criterion for determining guilt or innocence.  Demanding more freedom than this seems metaphysically absurd; it's like demanding to be God, to be able to act ex nihilo.  As philosopher John Dewey once said, "What men have esteemed and fought for in the name of liberty is varied and complex, but certainly it has never been a metaphysical freedom of will."  

* The short answer is that regardless of how we decide the freedom/determinism issue, as social beings we need to know how to distinguish right from wrong actions, and that's what ethics is about.


  1. "Yeah, but what about randomness? If you admit the reality, or even just the possibility, of true randomness, then there is a stronger version of free will than Compatabilitists (is that right number of t’s, i’s and s/s?) claim/allow. Then we're faced with the question "How does randomness come into our lives? Where does it come from in terms of mind as opposed to energy fluctuations? What the hell is mind anyway?" The materialists might say 'quantum fluctuations'. The logicians might say ‘A cannot only sometimes imply B’. The spiritualists might say 'divine intervention’, others might say ‘Cats rule'. Over to you, sir Charles." Have fun...

  2. Replies
    1. Steve - Your comment makes no sense to me. Care to try again with something relevant to my post?