Free will versus Determinism
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Let's dive into ontology. That’s arguments about what the world consists of. Here we ask questions like, is there just matter? Or is there both matter and mind? I like to compare “ontologies” in terms of kinds of processes. Are there only physical and chemical processes. Or are there in addition other kinds processes, found only in living creatures, that to some extent can defy the laws of physics.
Can we tell which of these worlds we actually live in? Not absolutely, it’s a matter of opinion, of personal judgment.
Here’s the critical issue that people give different answers to. What difference would it make if some processes could defy the laws of physics? Novelties would pop up that you couldn’t predict in terms of physical processes acting on prior events. Is that true of our world? That’s where opinions differ. What some people think are novelties other people dismiss as simply physical processes at work. I’m talking about nature: the evolution of species and how organisms develop from embryos to adults. Nowadays these are referred to together as “evo-devo.” So the question resolves into: Has evo-devo created novelties?
That seems a simple question. Let’s consider some examples. How about the appearance on Earth of the first living cell? How about that cell evolving into the far more complex kind of cell we find in our bodies? How about the evolution of a simple microbe, with a thousand or so genes, into elephants and giraffes with genes by the billions? Are these “genuine” novelties, or could you have predicted them from the action of the laws of physics alone?
I’m biased. To me there couldn’t be anything more novel, creative, less bound by the laws of physics, than the appearance over time on Earth of new kinds of living species and what happens during an organism’s development. However we define creativity, that has to be its ultimate expression. Whatever processes are responsible for evolution, they are by this definition creative. So in my ontology, there are in the world besides purely physical processes also creative processes responsible for evolution. That’s the source of any creativity we have, it’s a characteristic that evolved in us.
Arguing for the other ontology are writers of today’s biology textbooks. They insist nature (evo-devo) isn’t creative at all. It’s simply the result of purely physical processes—the mechanisms behind today’s evolutionary theory--given sufficient time to work their magic. That ontology, that all processes are purely physical, controls how evo-devo is taught in schools and expressed in public. We’re assured science has proved that nature is not creative. That’s actually not so. Science can’t yet measure creativity, it can’t pronounce on the issue one way or the other.
Now let’s come up for air. Are you creative? Of course you are. Then creativity is a property of the world you’re a part of. You’re simply one more instance of nature being creative. There, does that help you decide?
I came up separately with the treatment below. I shied away from trying to blend it into the essay above. The essay is about the issues, the treatment below is more about how to think about the issues.
Arguments about free will resolve into problems of ontology, world view. Specifically, we’re not been able to articulate a distinction between purely physical matter and our experience of conscious thinking that we’re all satisfied by.
Descartes distinguished between matter of all kinds, including everything about all other living creatures, and the human soul which for him came defined by a thousand years of theology. We’ve a much clearer idea of matter than he had but we’re fuzzy about what he referred to as “soul.” We’ve stripped it of its theological connections and secularized it to “conscious mind” but we’ve not yet figured out how it most significantly differs from matter.
I propose a better distinction is between purely physical non-living matter, and life. The issue then is, is the universe such that the source of what we refer to consciousness and free will is us being evolved living creatures?
This distinction changes the ground for discussion. It’s no longer philosophy, it’s primarily biology. More specifically the evo/devo of consciousness. What is conscious experience, as an evolved and inherited biological property? And what must the universe be like for it to support that kind of property? The answer to that may drive changes in ontology. Literally, conscious experience may change the world as we know it.
I think what we all start from is our sense that, in the course of our conscious experiences, we can arrive at decisions through non-physical processes that we tell our bodies to execute physically, and that as a result they do so. We experience our physical bodies behaving as if driven by our conscious decision-making.
This may be explored by distinguishing between what a purely physical brain is capable of, and what’s being claimed for consciousness. But I think that’s a dead end. There’s no aspect of consciousness I can’t make my brain testify to by writing, a physical action, proving to my satisfaction that my brain is privy to everything I can think, including all my decisions. If I can carry out actions through non-physical processes that’s a property of my body-and-consciousness operating as one. The necessary distinction should then be drawn between the properties of that combination, and the purely physical world in which all processes obey the laws of physics.
What do I mean by non-physical processes that defy the laws of physics? Suppose I think up a performance consisting of a series of actions that could not occur by chance in a purely physical universe in a billion billion years, I write it down and then perform it--a conjunction of transcription of conscious decision and physical event with essentially zero probability in a purely physical world--that would be a property of my body-mind combination. Not unlikely enough? Then I’ll come up with another such performance. And another. Eventually, surely, it becomes implausible that my performances could be driven by physical processes acting on past events in line with the laws of physics
In making that point I drew on the language of determinism and probability. What I raised was an instance of novelty of a degree hard to account for in terms of physical determinism. But I think that’s another dead end. I propose we talk about novelty in terms of how we experience it, as creativity. And creativity as a biological property, in terms of how it evolved and gets inherited. And what that tells us about the universe we live in—ontology.
Merely saying, “the evo-devo of conscious creativity” implies that the world includes processes capable to transacting in terms of conscious creativity. Any theory that ignores that possibility, doesm't consider it, is clearly inadequate. That includes the modern synthesis, today's theory of evolution.
This blog item was partly inspired by an email correspondence with Roger Smith, author of "Do I believe in free will?" published in January 2014 but recently posted at academia.edu where I came across it.
I don't think free will is an empirical issue but a conceptual one (on which, certainly, hinges how to conceptualize ethical questions). Thus, I don't think acceptance of Darwinism or not logically affects the question, though to be sure many people may feel that Darwinism, in our societies, enforces determinism. I think natural science thinking is in its conceptual form deterministic. But I believe there are other forms of understanding, and in these other forms free will is viable (and is in fact believed in certain dimensions of society, eg, the legal system).
What I found notable here is that he says, "many people may feel that Darwinism, in our societies, enforces determinism. I think natural science thinking is in its conceptual form deterministic" But despite finding the issue of free will impacted by empirical entities like science and Darwinian evolution he starts out saying, to me it seems in contradiction: "I don't think free will is an empirical issue but a conceptual one (on which, certainly, hinges how to conceptualize ethical questions). Thus, I don't think acceptance of Darwinism or not logically affects the question."
This helps me understand where I stand. For me free will is an empirical. issue. It impacts self esteem and meaning in life. These are painfully involved in our epidemics of depression and anxiety, suicide and opioid abuse, For me, those are empirical isssues demanding attention, and if our philosophers won't engage with them they are shirking their responsibility.
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Zombies don’t have free will. Any one zombie would know that about itself, that it doesn’t have free will. But how could it tell whether other zombies had free will? What questions would it have to ask them, what experiments would it have to perform on them, to find out?
Actually, this is part of a Turing Test. We’ve set up two rooms, one with zombies in it, and a second one with scientists. We’ve asked both groups the same question—do the members of your group have free will. The test is, from the groups’ conversations, can we tell which is the one consisting of zombies?
Actually, no, this is not a Turing test, there aren’t any zombies, there’s just the scientists, part of a $4.4 million Templeton Foundation four-year project titled “Big Questions in Free Will.” We can eavesdrop on their conversation in “FREE: Why Science hasn’t Disproved Free Will,” a report on the project for the general reader by the project director, Alfred R. Mele, William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University.
But if this were the Turing Test, it would be hard to tell the scientists from the zombies. Only once does anyone acknowledge having conscious experience—Mele himself: “I like extra legroom on planes. So right after I buy a coach ticket online, I check the airline website for an exit row seat — first on the aisle and then next to a window. If I find a seat I like, I snatch it up. I do all this consciously.” But everyone else in the book seems to be a zombie, without free will, and eager to show that none of the other zombies have free will either. “Some people say that free will is an illusion. This is a book about scientific experiments that are supposed to prove these people right,” says Mele.
So who else is there in the world, besides zombies and scientists? There’s artists, and members of the humanities. Let’s make up a group of those people. Now we’ve a triad of three groups. Divide that triad into two, between the two groups that are most similar and the one that’s most different. I’ve no doubt, the one’s that’s most different would be the group of artists and members of the humanities. If the scientists represent anyone, they represent not those of us in the arts, but zombies. They’re obsessed with whether or not other people have free will, with trying to identify it from the outside. And that goes for almost everything that gets published on the subject of free will. What free will means to artists and members of the humanities goes unacknowledged.
What free will means to us is, it’s something we each experience, as a vital part of ourselves. We take for granted that other people experience that too. We don’t need to prove they do, we know it. That’s just how human beings are. Why would anyone feel the need to prove it! Unless, like zombies, they didn’t experience it themselves.
I appreciate that, for many scientists, absence of experimental evidence for consciousness and free will means they can’t have physical reality. But, for me, to therefore dismiss consciousness and free will as illusions verges on insanity. Deprive me of consciousness and I could not register anything—almost by definition I can’t register the meaning of something if I’m not conscious of it. So life would be meaningless, I’d become a zombie. But restore consciousness, and life is meaningful again. And much of that meaning is about how I could improve my conscious experience if I did such-and-such. That’s free will. It’s what we do for the prospect of improved future conscious experiences. And from experiencing those improvements we know free will can express itself in the necessary physical behavior. For us free will is a part of our experience, more real than reports of our senses or the findings of science. There is almost no overlap between what consciousness and free will mean to us, and the quibbles of scientists over whether or not they can demonstrate free will in someone else’s behavior by one or another experiment.
Need the humanities respond to the physicalist attack on free will? I think so, to stem the spread of a sickly determinism. And that’s what I encourage in maintaining this site. Response could take the form of asking scientists to identify in a purely physical world any parallel to their being able to ask a question, hold in mind two alternative hypotheses, design equipment around experimental requirements, judge their results, even to apply reason. I believe scientists avail themselves of these operations without acknowledging they can arise only in consciousness, even as the same scientists claim their experiments show consciousness to be an illusion.
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I was challenged to say what I mean in a few words. The fewest I could come up with, nine, is the heading above. Here it is a little less condensed:
I’ve a mind good enough to give up Darwinism for.
Here, expanded further:
Because Darwinists can’t account for mind evolving they say it’s merely brain; I value mind too much to accept that.
In other words:
Because quality of conscious experience is my top priority I can’t accept a chemicals-in-a-test–tube origin story like Darwinism.
In more abstract terms:
Being driven by the evidence of my senses to be a dualist I can’t accept a purely physicalist origin story like Darwinism.
Seen from a different viewpoint:
Since what we expect of ourselves is bound to be shaped by the origin story we embrace, I favor origin stories that emphasize the value of conscious experience over alternatives such as Darwinism.
Our choice of origin story should be driven more by the quality of conscious experience it accommodates than by how well it conforms to current physics.
Here I think lies the basis for controversy over Darwinism;
Darwinists, giving priority to physics, fail to appreciate how much more priority others give to conscious experience, that Darwinism slights.
Here lies a reason for us to endorse two origin stories. Darwinists should call off the bulldogs when rivals appear, allowing for a future reconciliation of competing theories we cannot today imagine.
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As someone who in his early manhood was a physicalist, I know how it feels, that rapture of seeing everything as purely physical, even ourselves, even how all of nature evolved. But in middle age I settled for the common-sense view of ourselves as “volitional” creatures. So now I’d prefer a theory of evolution in accordance with common-sense dualism. We can account for evolution with either a physicalist or a dualist theory, the choice is really one of temperament. But when the temperamental divide is as wide as that between physicalists and dualists it’s hard to compromise. So I propose we negotiate. Like this:
If you’re an evolutionist in a public institution may I, as a representative of the lay public, call on you for professional service?
(If no, goodbye.) If yes, great. On behalf of the lay public I accept that the evidence we evolved is overwhelming. Now we want an origin story to help us understand what that implies about human nature. Would you agree to come up with some evolutionary theories we can select among? We’ll expect you to take into account the traditions we already subscribe to, either accounting for how they evolved or giving us suitable alternatives. Is that agreeable?
(If no, that’s OK, we’ll come up with something ourselves. We know almost four out of five of you are physicalists so of course you prefer physicalist accounts of natural phenomena. But we’re mostly mind-matter dualists and we wanted you to put our wishes before yours. But we realized that might be too much to ask. So goodbye.)
If yes, good. Of course, we’ll expect you to come up with theories accounting for the evolution not only of our physical bodies and behaviors but also of our volition--our conscious experience, our ability to consciously direct our behaviors, and our creativity, which are as real to us as our bodies. You will provide this service?
I've had people complain about this approach by saying you can't vote the truth. But we can, and we do. Minority views are quite often suppressed. Temple Grandin abides by decisions she doesn't understand arrived at by the non-autistic majority around her. Desire for child porn is "true" for those with the desire but is forbidden for the greater good--the same case was made against eugenics, and could be made against anything tending to induce fatalism. The mere fact that physicalism is inscrutable to the majority of people does not make it true.
Can physicalists be persuaded (paid?) to come up with a dualist theory of evolution as a public service? Or are they absolutely compelled to paint human origins in terms of their own passion for physics?
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If science is right about free will, then there's no contest--what we call free will would defy physics, according to science, so it can't exist. And if it can't exist, then it doesn't exist. Science wins.
What is this free will that science says can't exist? It's our experience of being able to consciously think what we like, and to execute those thoughts in actions. Not all the time, but at least some of the time. Even only occasionally. Even, in a whole lifetime, just once.
The problem isn't that scientists don't experience what we call free will. They do, and they value it--I've asked some of them. But they think that in themselves, and in everyone else too, it's an illusion. We're not free to think and do whatever we like. Not ever. We're determined.
Ask them and they'll give you good logical reasons. First, just as our shadow is simply a projection of our body onto the ground, conscious experience is simply a projection into consciousness of what's happening in our brain chemistry. Since brain chemistry, like anything else material, is determined, our conscious experience must be determined too. We can't have free will.
Second, because consciousness isn't physical it can't interact with matter. Even if we do experience something that feels like free will, there's no way it could express itself in our brains or our behavior. There's no way it could affect how we think and act.
Third, the world's much too complicated for anyone to trace all the physical causes leading up to what we think and do and prove those causes couldn't account for our conscious decisions. So you can't prove you do anything free of physical causation. There's no conceivable way you can tell free will from being determined, to be sure you have free will.
It seems an open and shut case. Science has come up with a web of logic that it's wound around free will like a shroud, preparing it for burial.
Hold the eulogy. I'm not yet ready to say goodbye. Give me a little time to come up with a defense on free will's behalf.
It's hard to know where to begin. We don't have as developed a language for justifying free will as science has for denying it. You can do something and say, "I'm doing this of my own freewill" but someone watching you can just as easily say, "No, you're not. It was already determined that you'd to that," and there's no way to tell who's right. You can say, "I experience doing this of my own free will" but they can say "that experience is just an illusion," and how can you prove them wrong?
Let's take a closer look at the supposed corpse. Maybe there's a loose thread we can tug on to unwind some of the web of logic encasing it. First to hand is the last argument, that the world is too complicated for anyone to ever trace the chains of causes leading up to what we do and think, so you can never prove you've escaped them. But of course the same argument means science can never demonstrate that you are determined. That we're determined is revealed to be nothing more than materialist doctrine. There's no science behind it.
How about the second argument, that because conscious experience isn't physical it can't drive any physical processes, therefore free will can't drive changes to our brain chemistry. You could use the same logic to argue that the interaction can't go the other way either, from physical processes to consciousness, yet obviously it can. Physical processes can make us experience pain, for example. So the second argument breaks down; if matter can interact with consciousness in one direction there's no logical reason why consciousness can't interact with matter. And of course it does. Memories of conscious experiences in dreams get recorded in brain chemistry while we're asleep for us to re-experience when we wake. That's an example of conscious experience getting written into and being retrieved from memory. There's no logical reason why free will couldn't write itself into brain chemistry and express itself in our behavior.
That leaves the first argument: everything we think and do is driven by brain chemistry, only afterwards do those events show up in consciousness as thoughts and decisions. Oh, yes? Says who? This is no more than a mere claim. Experiments quoted as proving it are now seen as proving no such thing. You can just as easily assume the opposite, that thoughts can appear first in consciousness and go on to drive events in brain chemistry.
One-two-three! The scientific case proving free will's non-existence collapses. Free will could exist. That's not much, but it's a first step. Our boy is still alive. Let's help him sit up, feed him a little chicken soup. How is he now? Can he stand up?
Free will could exist. But does it--can we initiate decisions within consciousness and write them out into the brain and physical action? Again, I'll try a little judo. I'll try to use science's arguments against it to prove free will does exist.
According to science, it can't be free will that drives our behavior because only things that are physical can initiate physical actions. That means anything non-physical, such as conscious experiences or ghosts, can't communicate with anything physical, such as brain cells. If that's so, then the brain can't find out what conscious experience feels like. But lots of our decisions involve what conscious experience feels like--"I want to do this because of what it sounds like or tastes like." The brain could know something is desirable but not what experiencing that thing is like. So if a conscious decision has elements of conscious experience embedded in it, that decision can't be simply brain activity dumped into consciousness--the brain doesn't have the information about how things feel to answer the "why" question implicit in the decision--"Why do I want to do this? Because of how it feels."
Over and over again I experience wanting some conscious experience, such as the taste of ice cream, and immediately acting so as to have that experience. Since it can't be the brain that associates that decision with the experience of tasting ice cream, that decision must have arisen within consciousness. Neither the brain nor prior causes that could act only through the brain can be involved. It can only have been a free will experience in consciousness that drove me to act.
So free will does exist. We've got our contender back on his feet. Now let's see how much fight he's got in him. Let's start his comeback by trying to have a representative of science acknowledge the existence of free will.
Imagine asking our scientist, "How can you tell you're determined?" He probably won't say he actually feels he's determined, he'll more likely say, "We know free will can't exist because it would defy physics, so we must all be determined." It's not something he feels, it's part of a doctrine he subscribes to, ordained by contemporary science.
Our scientist may really believe he's determined, it's what he thinks. But is it what he does? Let's visit him when he's just finished an experiment, something to do with chemistry, say. As far as he's concerned, his thinking is chemical reactions, just like the chemical reactions in his experiment. The reactions in his test tube are determined by physical laws. Now a product of those reactions, the "results" of his experiment, have become raw material for chemical reactions going on in his brain. Soon he'll come up with a new hypothesis based on his conclusion. All just chemicals, he assumes, all determined, one reaction in a test tube leading to another reaction in a brain leading to another in a test tube leading to another reaction in a brain, and so on, all determined.
Is that really science? When strings of chemical reactions happen in the ground over billions of years, we don't call the crystals we dig up "science." They've just the inevitable result of chemistry. If doing science is nothing but chemical reactions, how is it different from those crystals? Why should we pay particular attention to the output of one particular series of chemical reactions and call it "science"?
No reason. That's not science. What we admire in science is that its findings have been through processes that weren't determined like a string of chemical reactions. Science finds things out precisely because the thinking of scientists involves creativity in coming up with hypotheses, in the ingenuity involved in devising experimental apparatus, and judgment in interpreting results. The chemicals inside the test tube can't do that, they are determined, they have no creativity or judgment. If there's creativity and judgment in the practice of science then they must lie in the scientist's conscious experience. Free will must exist, because you couldn't do science without it.
Our scientist is not ready to make any concessions. If free will existed that would threaten the integrity of the entire scientific world view. That worldview couldn't be mistaken. Oh, no? I say. I think it could.
Here's how I view the world. My first impression is of consciousness, of everything: feelings, thoughts, emotions, urges, learning experiences. That's my primary experience. Set in that primary experience is a window, my view of what's not me--of matter and nature, the outside world. And set into that window is a still smaller window, really a porthole--that's science. It's the small part of the outside world that we've found behaves according to the rules of physics and chemistry.
Now look a little closer at that porthole, and you see someone peering in. It's our scientist, waving his hands. He wants to tell us something. "Everything you see when you look out through this second window is determined," he calls out, "so everything I see when I look in through it from the outside must be determined too." You say, perhaps things appearing determined is a property of the glass in that second window. But you can't convince him, he's sure how he sees things through that window, looking in or looking out, is how they really are. And through this window everything looks the same, everything's determined. That wouldn't be a problem except he uses the highly-developed language of science to describe things his way. Because he can describe everything he sees through that little window so precisely he's convinced what he says about my conscious experience is truer than my experience of it. "What you call free will is an illusion," he says. "Consciousness isn't physical, so it can't make anything physical happen in the real world...." and so on.
Maybe it's not me who's suffering from an illusion, maybe it's the scientist. Let's compose a little dialog. I'll play questioner. "How important is science," I ask him? "It's absolutely essential," he replies. "That's good," I say, "science is no doubt progressing just fine on several planets in other galaxies." "No," he'll say, "what matters is, it's got to be going on among us, here on Earth." "Ok," I say, "let's imagine every human being on Earth is reproduced atom for atom as a zombie, behaving just as we would and able to reproduce just like us. So everything is just as it was. Except, zombies aren't conscious and don't have freewill. There we are, still doing science and teaching science in school so science will still progress. The only difference is no one will be conscious of science. Is that OK?"
Scientists don't do science just so textbooks get published. They do it to appreciate it in consciousness. And to enjoy the exercise of judgment and creativity it involves. These all have to do with consciousness and free will, not with brain chemistry alone.
Our scientist won't give in. I try to help things along by sharpening the choice. He can announce his findings and conclusions to an audience of zombies, or the people the zombies are exact copies of. The only difference is, the people have consciousness and free will, but that won't make any difference to his experience. If consciousness is merely a reflection of brain chemistry and all response is initiated in brain chemistry and not in consciousness then it should make no difference to him which audience he addresses, one with or one without consciousness and free will. The response will be the same. Which will he choose?
OK, our scientist admits, he'd rather address the humans, he'd relish knowing they savored his report as part of conscious experience, and responded of their own free will rather than through chemical reactions determined ever since the Big Bang.
I advance another choice. "You've a choice of living in either of two worlds. In one, science is at today's level and progressing rapidly, and you're physically identical to yourself now, but you don't experience consciousness. If consciousness is merely a passive reflection of brain chemistry, and unable to act back on the brain, then you should not be able to tell consciousness is missing. Your brain works just the same and you behave just the same, as determined by physics and chemistry. Or you can choose a world where science is as primitive as it was in Shakespeare's time, before the birth of modern science, but you're as you are now, with consciousness and the experience of having free will. Which world would you choose to live in?"
What do you think? Won't our representative of science shrink from losing the experience of consciousness? I am going to assume so. Hey presto--I've generated a conceptual framework for getting even hardened determinists to acknowledge that free will's more important, more precious, matters more, than science.
Science's view of reality is incomplete, free will exists, and in a head to head contest even science's supporters come out for free will. I declare free will the winner.