George Ellis has an article at Aeon on free will that is garnering some attention. Ellis’ case is a fairly classic one. Brain are complex systems whose operations, due to chaotic and stochastic dynamics, cannot be predicted. Furthermore, minds constrain the detailed physical reactions, a case of downward causation. And if that weren’t enough, there’s the inherent randomness of quantum mechanics. Therefore, free will.
He finishes with this conclusion:
If you seriously believe that fundamental forces leave no space for free will, then it’s impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral beings. We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way for our reactions to global climate change, child trafficking or viral pandemics. The underlying physics would in reality be governing our behaviour, and responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture.
That’s a devastating conclusion. We can be grateful it’s not true.
The problem is that there’s nothing in randomness that provides responsibility. If it’s a valid excuse for me to blame my actions on the deterministic laws of physics in a clockwork universe, then it’s an equally valid excuse to blame my actions on the random laws of physics in an unpredictable universe. Randomness, in and of itself, doesn’t add anything praiseworthy or blameworthy to my actions.
In addition, the idea of downward causation is an invalid mixing of description levels. It’s always possible to account for causes at the descriptive level of the effect. That doesn’t mean the higher level descriptions aren’t useful. If I’m meeting you for lunch and call to let you know I’m stuck in traffic, that’s a lot easier to say than to describe how I’m delayed because of the car in front of me, which is delayed because of the car in front of it, etc, but the latter is the fundamental causal reality.
And it’s a mistake to take quantum mechanics as definitely adding significant randomness to these dynamics. Setting aside that there are deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics, any quantum indeterminacy gets cancelled out as we scale up to larger systems, unless there is something about those systems that magnify isolated quantum effects.
The good news is that determinism doesn’t really take away social responsibility. (Whether it takes away free will is a definitional pit I’m going to just step around.) Indeed, to the extent things are deterministic, it preserves the factors that really make our actions responsible or irresponsible ones.
What are those factors? In my mind, a responsible entity has three attributes:
- Desires, that is, automatic inclinations toward certain actions (or inactions).
- An ability to foresee the plausible consequences of those actions.
- A capacity to override its desires, or indulge them, in light of the foreseeable consequences.
2 and 3 function best in a deterministic system and environment. To the extent there is randomness, they are actually undermined.
If you think about it, this fits with who or what in our society we hold responsible for their decisions. Normal mentally complete adults have these capabilities. Animals, children, and the mentally ill either don’t have them, or only have them in some diminished capacity, which is why holding them responsible for their actions has limited utility. And being held responsible actually becomes part of the foreseeable consequences for those capable of such foresight.
All of which is to say, I don’t think Ellis successfully makes his case, but he is wrong to think he even needs to make it to avoid the “devastating conclusion” he fears.
Unless of course, I’m missing something?