For a while, I’d considered myself done debating free will, having expressed everything about it I had to say. However, with this Crash Course video, and in light of the discussion on physicality we had earlier this summer, I realized I do have some additional thoughts on it.
Just a quick reminder: I’m a compatibilist. I’m convinced that the mind is a system that fully exists in this universe and operates according to the laws of physics. However, I think responsibility remains a coherent and pragmatically useful social concept.
Even if the laws of physics are fully deterministic, the knowledge that we may be held responsible is one of the many causal influences on our choices. Holding people accountable for their decisions is productive for society. In that sense, I’m a compatibilist, regarding free will as the ability of a competent person to act on their own desires, even if those desires ultimately have external causes.
For me, free will is something that exists at a sociological, psychological, and legal level. Like democracy, the color white, or the rules of baseball, you’ll look in vain for it in physics. At the physics layer, nothing exists except space, elementary particles, and their interactions, and even they may be patterns of even smaller phenomena. Insisting that anything that we can’t find at this layer doesn’t exist strikes me as unproductive; to be consistent with it requires dismissing the things I listed above, along with most of every day reality.
Anyway, this post isn’t about compatibilism, but old fashioned libertarian free will, that is, the type of free will that many people do think exists, the one that says that even if the laws of physics are mostly or fully deterministic, there is something about the human mind that makes its actions not fully determined by those physics. It’s an assertion that each human mind is essentially its own uncaused cause. But is this a coherent concept?
It seems to me that there are two broad approaches to libertarianism. One is substance dualism, the idea that there are two types of substances in reality: the physical, and the mental. With substance dualism, free will is possible because the actions of the mind are affected by its non-physical mental components. Therefore our decisions can’t be fully accounted for by physical causes. We must bring in mental causation to complete that accounting.
Another approach is to posit (per the Penrose / Hameroff crowd) that quantum indeterminacy is a significant factor in mental processing. In many ways, this seems like a modern version of the Epicurean swerve proposition, that there is something inherently random about mental processing. This makes it impossible for us to predict decisions with physics, although in this case it should be possible, in principle, to account for them. (Whether quantum randomness is real depends on the interpretation of quantum mechanics you prefer.)
The problem I see with both of these approaches, is that even if the mind is not part of the normal physical causal framework, it must operate according to some kind of principles. These principles might be forever beyond our understanding, but minds have to operate in some manner. That means, in the case of substance dualism, we haven’t so much avoided or escaped the causal framework as expanded it. Everything is still determined, it’s just that the causal framework now includes mental substance.
You might argue that perhaps mental dynamics aren’t deterministic, that they have an inherent unpredictability, which would make it similar to the case of quantum consciousness. In both of these scenarios, it means we’ve added a randomizing element to the causal framework.
But in all cases, the question we have to ask is, what is added to make an action praiseworthy or blameworthy if it wasn’t before? If physics fully determined our choices before and that made our choices free of responsibility, how does adding mental causation add responsibility back? Or how does adding randomness do it?
It seems like there is an appeal to ignorance here, to the unknowable. Somehow, if we can’t predict a person’s actions, then they can be held accountable for them. Of course, for all practical purposes, we can’t predict a person’s actions even if they are fully determined by physics, which seems to nullify any advantage from the unknowable aspects of the other scenarios. Chaos theory dynamics might make prediction of physical minds actions just as unreachable as quantum mechanics or ghostly dualism.
Chaos theory is all about the fact that no measurement is infinitely accurate. There is always a margin of error. In a complex dynamic system, the margins of error quickly snowball, making the system unpredictable, even in principle. This is why weather may never be 100% predictable: too many factors that can’t be measure with absolute precision. And unless synapses strength turns out to exist in discrete steps (a possibility), then brains may be an excellent candidate for a complex dynamic system.
In other words, introducing non-physical phenomena or new physics doesn’t evade the central issue: does it make sense to hold people accountable for their decisions or not? It seems like the issue basically remains the same.
If the mind is strictly physical, people do talk about someday altering a convicted criminal’s brain so that they wouldn’t have immoral impulses, or at least would have the will to resist those impulses. This is usually presented as a more humane approach than traditional punishment, and it might well turn out to be so. The problem is that we’re still a long way from being able to do that, and even when it is possible, something tells me that people will regard having their mind, their core self, forcibly altered, to be just as nightmarish as many other punishments.
Personally, my own feeling on this is that the mind’s operations are substantially, if not fully, deterministic. It’s possible that quantum indeterminacy has some role in the brain’s processing, but if so, it seems like it would be an extremely nuanced one. The brain evolved for animals to make movement decisions, presumably to maximize access to food and reproduction while minimizing exposure to predators. A rampantly indeterminate brain doesn’t seem like it would be very adaptive. (One reader did point out to me how a slight indeterminism might be adaptive, although it seemed to me that the unpredictable causal factors in the environment would accomplish much the same thing.)
Myself, I certainly hope that the mind is mostly deterministic. I know the kind of decisions I want to make, and the idea of some random element affecting those decisions is not one that I’d personally find comforting. I want learning, practice, and deliberation, and the other things I’ve done to become the person I am, to causally determine my decisions. It seems like randomness would actually undermine responsibility, rather than justify it.
Unless of course, I’m missing something?
By the way, Crash Course followed up the above video with one on compatibilism. Here it is: