“free will” n’est conduit pas

“Free will” is probably not the best guide to the thing we want to talk about. “Will” connotes assertion, imposition, the fiat that brings something forth; “free” means absence of constraint or control. Put the two together, and it sounds like what we’re fighting about the unconstrained assertion or a chaotic fiat. This is why people have been objecting since Chesterton’s time that “free will” would be a sort of mania or madness: Mr. R.B. Suthers said that free will was lunacy, because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic would be causeless (Orthodoxy, c. 2 “The Maniac”).

The better term is simply “choice”. Not “free choice” – which is pleonasm – just choice, i.e. the rational decision for one of many real alternatives, where “real” means “not just conceivable or logically possible”. Determinism merely denies the reality of alternatives – one can conceive of acting otherwise but it was never a real possibility.

So taken, the fight between determinism and its opposite seems very esoteric: it involves trying to come to terms with the ontological status of things that do not happen. But, as Aristotle points out, the debate does have one crucial outcome: it seems to determine the value of deliberation. Deliberative processes rest on the supposition that something is really at stake, and so we need to collect evidence, sift through it, weigh arguments, and try to do our best to pick between which really live option is the best. Determinism has a very difficult time accounting for why we should care about this.

27 Comments

  1. August 18, 2016 at 9:59 am

    “Determinism has a very difficult time accounting for why we should care about this.”

    No, this is not a difficult thing. Let’s suppose there are two deterministic chess computers. One moves immediately, at random. The second considers the various “possible” moves and their consequences, but the second is the only one that, in effect, “collects evidence, sifts through it, weighs arguments, and tries to do its best to pick between which really live option is the best.”

    Both are deterministic, but only the second plays good chess. There would be the same reason for us to make choices the way we do.

    • August 18, 2016 at 11:05 am

      Let’s suppose there are two deterministic chess computers.

      Whether an instrument is determined or not is a function of the agent using it, and computers are instruments.

      only the second plays good chess.

      Most sides agree that one (sometimes? often?) gets better results by collecting evidence. The dispute between determinism and choice is over why one is better than the other. Determinism needs to explain why the inclusion antecedently impossible, and therefore essentially superfluous alternatives could be informative for outcomes, which is a very odd claim to make in the face of the idea that the alternative inform because they are real alternatives.

      The basic problem with the analogy is that we can only make it descriptive of human life if we have a criterion for successful living that is narrowly defined enough to dictate a concrete action from relevantly similar evidence, and I very much doubt we have such a thing. “Happiness” or “utility” or the other suggested criteria have either never been seen as dictating a single action (STA, Aristotle) or the attempts to narrow the criterion have not panned out (Benthamite calculus). But this pushes the discussion to the next, and more appropriate level, where we talk about the determination of goods, or at least human goods.

      • August 18, 2016 at 7:46 pm

        Most people believe that dogs and cats do not have free will. They very obviously consider alternatives, and it is obviously beneficial for them to do so.

      • August 19, 2016 at 8:46 am

        Since the whole point was to deny that free will is a good term for what we’re targeting, I don’t see how most people’s opinions are relevant. Maybe you could poll everyone again and ask them if dogs and cats choose after deliberating.

        Again, this is your third or fourth appeal to the never contended point that considering alternatives is beneficial. The whole problem is to explain why this consideration of alternatives works. Choice gives a very simple answer, determinism has to do some explaining, as it must deny the existence of alternatives.

        Let me give some possible determinist explanations. Problem: nature makes this thing “reason” that thinks it considers alternatives. But in fact there are no alternatives and so reason is an illusion-maker. Solution 1 We could fill out c emerson’s explanation and say that organisms who have the illusion of alternatives feel more powerful, which makes them more confident with mates and so more reproductively successful. Solution 2 Reason is given a whole bunch of data to adapt to different situations. It’s like a reference book. This mass of similar data is not useful to show alternatives, since there are none, but it confuses reason, and makes it think it’s seeing alternative courses of action when in fact it only sees stuff that looks like the course of action it must take.

      • August 18, 2016 at 7:49 pm

        Also, it is evident that a chess computer programmed in a particular way can only make one move, and yet it is beneficial for it to consider other moves, just as with dogs and cats.

      • August 19, 2016 at 8:26 am

        Right. This is your second that but not why comment. The OP took for granted that consideration of alternatives works, or that the deliberation over alternatives works (books and computers can keep records of this deliberation). The point was never contested. You insist on taking a point of agreement as a point of contention.

      • August 20, 2016 at 9:17 am

        We know why considering alternatives is beneficial, and it surely has nothing to do with whether the alternatives are “real.”

        This is why. Consider, again, chess. Chess works by rules. There are rules about which moves are allowed, and there are rules about which positions count as winning or losing. Considering alternatives is beneficial, because by using those rules together with the alternative, you can see which move would be helpful, if it were made.

        Note that none of this depends on saying, “This move is metaphysically or physically possible.” The rules of chess logically imply that one move is better than another, even if it turned out that only one move could physically be made by whoever or whatever was making the moves.

        The world is very similar to chess. It works by rules. If you drop a heavy object, it falls. This does not mean that in any particular situation, it is physically possible to drop it. Thus for example I can say, “if I drop this building on you, it will crush you,” and this is perfectly understandable even in the ordinary situation where I cannot possibly drop it on you, because I cannot pick it up.

        And that implies that we can reason about outcomes even if the physically possible actions are more limited than our reasoning, just as in chess.

        Now since we know that this has nothing to do with how many things are physically possible, it will be true even if there is only one physical possibility. (Which by the way I am not asserting; I am simply pointing out that your argument is not relevant to it.)

      • August 20, 2016 at 10:33 am

        Let’s stick to chess. Q: how is the game improved by considering an option that is not physically possible? No one would program a chess computer to consider what would happen if the rook moved diagonally. Not only do the rules specify the physical and metaphysical possibilities of the game, this is their only reason to exist.

        If what you mean is “the computer is programmed such that it is physically impossible for it to do anything but the best possible option.” Then this is not determinism, since the alternative is not antecedently fixed before the discourse. But even granting that it is, the computer would execute a determinist action only in the way that the action of any instrument is determinist. If I swing an ax and hit the log like so is is impossible for it to do anything but split, but it does not follow that my wood-chopping is determinist, unless we want to beg the question.

      • c emerson said,

        August 20, 2016 at 11:39 am

        James says: “it does not follow that my wood-chopping is determinist, unless we want to beg the question.”

        This always gets us to the question of active rather than passive agency, I think. Which is just another way of say actual choice.

        If humans can actually choose between alternatives, then they can either a) find the external objective Good, to make selections towards, or b) they can construct their own view of internal subjective Good, to make selections towards.

        Neither seems required. We may not be free, moral agents. We may be reproducing machines, produced by eternal physics.

        Or the system may have been created by an intelligent free agent beyond the view of physics, who chose not to allow ‘itself’ to be scientifically proven as existing.

        Chose among those choices. Tongue in cheek. But relevant.

      • August 27, 2016 at 4:01 pm

        It is not physically impossible to move a rook diagonally, obviously. But it is impossible to do it in accord with the rules of chess.

        And yes, of course I meant that given a situation, the chess computer has to follow its programming, which can be a deterministic process of considering options and choosing one of them, where the conclusion is determined in advance by the programming and the situation (i.e. given the same programming and same situation, you will get the same move.)

        I don’t know why you bringing up the idea of the computer being an instrument, because for all you know, you are instrument in the same sense, namely that in the same situation you will choose the same options.

  2. c emerson said,

    August 18, 2016 at 11:58 am

    I enjoy your blog. Here I think you still miss the target. It might be an “odd claim” that determinism admits alternatives UNLESS by doing so the organism might improve survival chances … by being the second type of computer rather than the first type. Choices can mean possible alternatives “out there” but a dterministic brain process that still weighs those choices “in here” and deterministically selects based on the build-up of criteria (values). Nothing actually odd about that except, if verified, it would force a change in our understanding of what individual hunan organisms are. Not saying here that I agree with scientific determinism. Just that the argument against it is really an argument about what “we” are.

    • August 18, 2016 at 12:06 pm

      UNLESS by doing so the organism might improve survival chances

      Again, this is an appeal to that something works, but not why it does so.

  3. c emerson said,

    August 18, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    You said: “The basic problem with the analogy is that we can only make it descriptive of human life if we have a criterion for successful living that is narrowly defined enough to dictate a concrete action from relevantly similar evidence, and I very much doubt we have such a thing.”

    But that “narrowly defined enough” criterion is, biologically speaking, what all living organisms do, isn’t it? Every organism functions in a way that permits its continuation. The mouse has to choose between going for the cheese and avoiding the cat in the room.

    Does the mouse really make free choices?

    I believe this is really the key question in explaining what life is.

    • c emerson said,

      August 18, 2016 at 12:13 pm

      You said: “Again, this is an appeal to that something works, but not why it does so.”

      Yes, exactly the point. Life either has a ontological purpose designed by something or someone, or the physics produces the results, which include modifications and reproduction of those modifications.

      Which is it?

    • August 18, 2016 at 12:16 pm

      But that “narrowly defined enough” criterion is, biologically speaking, what all living organisms do, isn’t it?

      Morally, we all seek “happiness” or maybe “utility” in the same way that the biological organism (in the Darwinian paradigm) seeks survival. But this sort of goal is not specified enough to dictate a particular action. It’s just this situation of absence of specification that makes prudence a virtue in human beings.

    • c emerson said,

      August 18, 2016 at 12:18 pm

      My thoughts recorded here in 1994:

      http://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1974&context=ndlr

      When I was a second career student at ND Law. Enjoy.

  4. Curmudgeon said,

    August 18, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    What does the title mean?

    • c emerson said,

      August 18, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      I was presented with the question of whether there is an objective rather than subjective morality. How to overcome Hume’s is/ought dichotomy. I chose to pursue a naturalistic argument.

    • c emerson said,

      August 18, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      Sorry, that was probably aimed at James’ title.

    • August 18, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      The sense is ‘”free will” (the term) is not a [good] guide’. I wrote that really late and, as the cops say, alcohol may have been a factor.

  5. David said,

    August 18, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    It is always entertaining to me to see someone choose to argue for determinism.

    • c emerson said,

      August 18, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      I am not arguing for determinism, if that is directed at me. Just looking for any summary under Thomism as to the grounds for defeating it. How is the natural system out there not deterministic? And do we make humans some kind of exception to the natural law rules? Just asking, actually. How do you defend the existence of free will (or here free choice)? Matter of faith or something else?

      • David said,

        August 18, 2016 at 4:50 pm

        Yes, I realize that after I posted. The general sentiment still stands.
        If you’re asking me personally, I’m only a layman, but I base my belief in choice in a few ways:
        1) As a matter of faith: the bible presents a reality full of real responsibility for choices; many times in the bible, God appeals to man’s will.
        2) Because to deny it seems to make moral responsibility absurd.
        3) Because to argue against it seems to presuppose it, or be self-defeating in some way.
        4) Like relativism, it’s an unlivable philosophy. No one is a relativist when reading warning labels on Rx bottles, and everyone makes choices as if they had a choice.

      • c emerson said,

        August 18, 2016 at 5:16 pm

        Yes, the core idea that decisions are not based, at least at times, on actual choice between optional courses of action, is a bit stultifying. Such a mechanistic system would seem to make a mockery of a) our very awareness of the issue and b) of the fact that even this discussion would have to be pre-determined. So the idea offends some aspect of our view of what makes “sense” to have been created in the first place. But, it may, in fact, be the fact of the case. It certainly seems nearly universal, if not universal, that humans feel they are making choices, and therefore can feel that they are (morally) responsible for their choices. Thanks.

  6. c emerson said,

    August 19, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    This may be extending your comment further off-topic than you would prefer, so sorry then, but .. it has seemed to me, for at least 30 years now, that the whole science / naturalist / religion question .. based on what we now ‘know’ about the big bang and some form of natural selection and DNA modification and organism adaptability (evolution in a broad sense), that logical problem reduces pretty much to this:

    1) God ‘created’ the whole thing at or prior to the big bang, setting it in motion, with either

    a) humans having free will, moral responsibility, and the ability to become aware of God, or
    b) humans having no actual free will, no actual moral responsibility, and the ability to become aware of God,

    OR

    2) energy, physical laws, and subsequently matter ‘produced’ the whole thing, setting ‘our knowable history’ into motion at the big bang, with either

    a) humans having free will, moral responsibility, and the ability to become aware of the natural world, or
    b) humans having no actual free will, no actual moral responsibility, and the ability to become aware of tge natural world.

    I don’t see in likely alternatives to the above, but of course other even more unusual explanations could be correct.

    Any religion has a hard time explaining a lot of its sacred texts where conflicts with scientific knowledge develops counterpoints, but atheists tend to put too much confidence (faith) into atheism itself, because science, as we know it, cannot disprove God as the source of it all. But religion, imo, cannot prove the existence of God either. Ergo, faith.

    Of course, it is also necessary to distinguish the idea of scientific ‘knowledge’ from the idea of directly apprehended or revealed ‘knowledge’. It is very easy to argue about what we ‘know’ without carefully explaining what we think counts as ‘knowing’.

    Peace.

  7. Cristian C. said,

    August 29, 2016 at 10:15 am

    ‘Conduit’ does not mean guide. It means ‘canal’, as in ear canal; it also means drain. Your title means ‘free will is not canal-ed/drain-ed’.

  8. Cristian C. said,

    August 29, 2016 at 10:18 am

    But in fact it means ‘free will isn’t accompanied’, or directed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: