Gregg Caruso calls himself a free will skeptic. In his words, he believes that “who we are and what we do are ultimately the result of factors beyond our control.”
As for myself, free will is one of those things that I neither believe nor disbelieve. I’ll say more about that later. But convincing us that free will does not exist is not the point of Caruso’s talk. Instead, he asks the question, what would be the effect on our society if we stopped believing in free will? Or perhaps, if we acted as if free will does not exist, whether or not we believe it. Caruso’s position is that it would lead to a more humane society.
He makes his case in this TEDx talk. I think he makes some very interesting points, particularly as he discusses the implications for how we deal with criminal behavior. Briefly, Caruso advocates dealing with criminality similarly to how we deal with dangerous infectious diseases: by quarantining the infected so the rest of us are safe, rehabilitating (or curing) them, and taking steps to address the causes.
Watch his talk:
Now, back to the question of whether free will exists:
I think it is entirely a question of perspective, and not something that can ever be determined objectively.
Scientists using fMRI on the brains of experimental subjects have found that brain activity can be observed that reliably predicts a person’s decision before the person is aware that they have made a decision. (See this article at Nature.com) This caused quite a stir, but to me it seems not at all surprising. By self-observation – and common sense – it seems obvious to me that decision-making is not an instantaneous process. Even a decision that’s made very quickly, like where to move your arm to catch a ball, is a physiological process that has to take some non-zero amount of time. It must be the case that brain activity builds over time toward a decision, and at some point reaches the threshold of having made a decision. That close inspection of brain activity while this process is going on can often predict what the outcome will be, perhaps before the person themselves would say they’ve decided, is not too surprising. So I don’t believe such experiments demolish the idea of free will.
On the other hand, what does it really mean to say that we have free will? If you’re looking for some essence outside of our physical, chemical, biological makeup that makes choices for what our bodies end up doing, I don’t think you’ll ever find it. We are our bodies; our physical brains make decisions based on immediate sensory input, our present mental and emotional state, past experiences stored in our memory (both conscious and unconscious), our genetic makeup, etc. Philosophically, you could view this as meaning that we are automatons merely responding automatically to stimuli, or that we are free-thinking beings. I don’t see any clear logical or scientific reason to choose one interpretation over the other.
But it feels to me like I have free will and make my own decisions (whatever that means.) And I like to think I should get credit for all the good decisions I make. But what about times when I choose to do things that I know are ultimately not in my (or anyone else’s) best interest, like spending time mindlessly scrolling through Facebook instead of applying myself to the creative and productive work that I need to get done? Who’s in charge, anyway?
I came across the following conversation between philosopher Daniel Dennett and Nigel Warburton at Salon.com (here
). It’s an excerpt from the book “Philosophy Bites Again” by Warburton and David Edmonds. I have further abridged Salon’s excerpt below.
I think the perspective Dennett takes on free will makes a lot of sense.
NW: The classic description of the problem is this: ‘If we can explain every action through a series of causal precedents, there is no space for free will.’ What’s wrong with that description?
DD: It’s completely wrong. There’s plenty of space for free will: determinism and free will are not incompatible at all. The problem is that philosophers have a very simplistic idea of causation. They think that if you give the lowest-level atomic explanation, then you have given a complete account of the causation: that’s all the causation there is. In fact, that isn’t even causation in an interesting sense.
If I want to know why you pulled the trigger, I won’t learn that by having an atom-by-atom account of what went on in your brain. I’d have to go to a higher level: I’d have to go to the intentional stance in psychology.
When discussing the ‘intentional stance’, the word ‘intention’ refers to states that have content. Beliefs, desires, and intentions are among the states that have content. To adopt the intentional stance towards a person – it’s usually a person, but it could be towards a cat, or even a computer, playing chess – is to adopt the perspective that you’re dealing with an agent who has beliefs and desires, and decides what to do, and what intentions to form, on the basis of a rational assessment of those beliefs and desires. It’s the stance that dominates Game Theory. When John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern invented the theory of games, they pointed out that game theory reflects something fundamental in strategy. If there’s something in the environment that’s like an agent – that you can treat as an agent – this changes the game. You have to start worrying about feedback loops. If you plan activities, you have to think: ‘If I do this, this agent might think of doing that in response, and what would be my response to that?’ Robinson Crusoe doesn’t have to be sneaky and tiptoe around in his garden worrying about what the cabbages will do when they see him coming. But if you’ve got another agent there, you do.
What’s special about us is that we don’t just do things for reasons. Trees do things for reasons. But we represent the reasons and we reflect on them, and the idea of reflecting on reasons and representing reasons and justifying our reasons to each other informs us and governs the intentional stance. We grow up learning to trade reasons with our friends and family. Until you get the level of perspective where you can see reasons, you’re not going to see free will. The difference between an organism that has free will and an organism that doesn’t has nothing to do with the atoms: you’ll never see it at the atomic level, ever. You have to go to the appropriate design level, and then it sticks out like a sore thumb.
NW: So we can adopt the intentional stance towards a chess-playing computer, and we probably ought to if we want to beat it at chess, but it doesn’t follow from that that it’s got free will, or agency?
DD: Exactly. Those beings with free will are a sub-set of intentional systems. We say ‘free as a bird’, and birds have a certain sort of free will. But the free will of a bird is nothing compared to our free will, because the bird doesn’t have the cognitive system to anticipate and reflect on its anticipations. It doesn’t have the same sort of projectable future that we have; nor does it engage in the business of persuasion. One bird never talks another bird out of doing something. It may threaten it, but it won’t talk it out of something.
NW: So let’s go back to the original topic. What is the kind of free will worth wanting?
DD: It’s the kind of free will that gives us the political freedom to move about in a state governed by law and do what we want to do. One thing we require of moral agents is that they are not somebody else’s puppet. If you want the buck to stop with you, then you have to protect yourself from other agents who might be trying to control you. In order to fend off manipulation, you should be a little bit unpredictable. So having a poker face is a very big part of being a moral agent. If you can’t help but reveal your state to the antique dealer when you walk into the store, then you’re going to be taken for a ride. If you can’t help but reveal your beliefs and desires to everybody that comes along, you will be a defective, a disabled agent. In order to maximize getting what you want in life, don’t tell people exactly what you want.
NW: That’s a very cynical view of human nature! There’s an alternative account, surely, in which being open about what you feel allows people to take you for what you really are, not for some kind of avatar of yourself.
DD: Well, yes, there is that. But think about courtship. You see a woman and you fall head over heels in love with her. What’s about the worst thing you can do? Run panting up to her showing her that you’ve fallen head over heels in love. First of all, you’ll probably scare her away, or she’ll be tempted by your very display of abject adoration to wrap you around her little finger. You don’t want that, so you keep something in reserve. Talleyrand once said that God gave men language so that they could conceal their thoughts from each other. I think that’s a deep observation about the role of language in communication. It”s essential to the understanding of communication that it’s an intentional act, where you decide which aspects of your world you want to inform people about and which you don’t.
NW: So freedom, of the important kind, of the kind worth wanting, is freedom from being manipulated. It’s about being in control of your life, you choosing to do things, rather than these things being chosen by somebody else?
DD: Yes. In order for us to be self-controllers, to be autonomous in a strong sense, we have to make sure that we’re not being controlled by others. Now, the environment in general is not an agent, it’s not trying to control us. It’s only other agents that try to control us. And it’s important that we keep them at bay so that we can be autonomous. In order to do that, we have to have the capacity to surprise.