As I’ve established before, there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural. This leaves us with a lot of consequences and unanswered questions. One of these questions is “If everything is made up of atoms, is there free will?”
It’s a good question. However, in order to answer that, we first need to know: What is free will?
Setting Up The Problem
Here’s the classic problem. As far as we can tell, everything that exists is based solely upon arrangements of matter-energy in space-time and nothing more. But I still personally hold people accountable for their actions. I still think there are choices to be made, and choices we should make.
The key question is, without suggesting a soul, isn’t there a contradiction here? How do we go from the unthinking nature of atoms to directly blaming people for problems with their thinking? This is the problem of free will.
(Relax, we’ll get to morality in just a few more steps. First I need to demonstrate free will and show that there is moral responsibility, then I can attempt a long unravel of what morality really is. In the end over perhaps twenty or so posts [!], we will emerge with what I think is a complete moral theory. Enjoy the ride, and remember: things are always complicated in philosophy!)
What Is Free Will?
The biggest failure of philosophy is that people are arguing over definitions instead of ideas. When someone asks Does free will exist?, the proper response is Depends on how you are defining free will.
So when it comes to free will, what are we really saying? It turns out that we’re looking for some notion of responsibility. Do we really choose our actions or are our actions completely determined for us by something beyond our personal control, like our biology and psychology or God’s unswayable will?
There are basically three camps. The hard determinists believe that there is no free will, specifically because everything we do is determined by physics. They would also agree that the future is fixed, and there is not much point in blaming people for their actions. Note that hard determinism might also be held because of beliefs akin to predestination; that God has perfect foreknowledge and it is impossible to do anything besides God’s Will.
All the way on the other side is libertarianism, the idea that free will exists because a soul allows us to initiate uncaused causes and therefore make choices that are free of any determination.
Lastly, there is the free will theory I defend and believe is obviously correct, called compatibilism. On compatibilism, we do have some sort of free will that exists despite the fact that all our actions are determined by physics.
Compatibilist Free Will
As I’m typing these words, I’m making choices. On the whole, I’ve decided to write this blog post instead of writing something else, or not blog at all, or just give up on this whole naturalism thing and become a Christian. I’m choosing to focus on writing these words instead of on the television. I’m choosing to organize my essay this way. I chose the word “essay” for the previous sentence instead of “article” or “blog post”.
It would be absolutely ridiculous to deny that choices exist. I could do this or do that. But all my choices are determined. But determined by what? The answer: Reason. I choose things for a reason. These reasons existed before my choice and I have very limited ability to freely change these reasons or how I reason. As Richard Carrier says, “free will is doing what you want – nothing more, nothing less” and as Arthur Schopenhauer says “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”. Both of those very accurately describe what compatibilist free will means.
Is this free will as we think of it? It’s good enough — it accounts for the fact that we know we have choices and we can pick a choice. And as it turns out, all alternatives are crazy — both hard determinism and libertarianism are clearly false. Also, combatibilism works perfectly fine, accounting for everything we want, including moral responsibility.
Hard Determinism and The Prediction Machine
Imagine there are four cards in front of you, each of a different colour: red, blue, yellow, and green. Which one do you pick?
Well, if you have free will, you pick whichever one you want.
Now imagine we have a Prediction Machine that reads absolutely every piece of information in the universe, including your brain state, and reports a perfectly accurate prediction of which card you choose. Such a machine would be possible only if hard determinism is true, and if such a machine were impossible, hard determinism would be false.
But what happens if we actually used the machine and made a prediction? Well, we would introduce new information to the universe — namely, the prediction itself. This would change the universe considerably, altering many molecules. We would then require a new prediction. However, the issuance of this new prediction would change the universe considerably, and we would need a new prediction. Continue infinitely.
This is simply because the only way to predict something is to measure something, and the only way to measure something is to interact with it, and it is impossible to interact with something without changing it. Predicting your brain state will change your brain state. This is the foundation for, among other things, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It is physically impossible to predict something with 100% accuracy.
Therefore, yes, all of our choices are caused, but they are unpredictable. Since the future cannot be determined, the future is, by definition, indeterminate. This means hard determinism is false — there are some indetermine parts of the universe, and this is where free will can exist. (I owe this point to Ebonmusing’s essay “Ghost in the Machine”.)
Hard Determinism and Ethical Dilemmas
Imagine you’re faced with a classic ethical/moral dilemma, such as deciding whether you need to risk your own life to save a baby from a burning orphanage. You internally battle between fear and duty, weighing in your mind the chance for you and the baby’s survival versus both of your deaths. Now imagine someone comes up to you and says “You don’t have free will, your choice is predetermined. You are forced to make the choice you will make; you cannot choose otherwise.”
That’s great, and that’s exactly what hard determinism says. However, it doesn’t tell you anything useful. The ethical dilemma doesn’t go away, and your personal battle between duty and fear doesn’t get any easier. The knowledge that your choice is predetermined has literally changed nothing. The choice, emotional panic, and guilt does not go away. If determism were true, we would be able to say Oh, ok., make the choice we were going to make regardless, and go on our merry way. But that’s silly — which choice is the one I was going to make regardless? And why are you giving me advice if you don’t think I can listen to it and change my opinions?
Therefore, hard determinism in the sense that “we have no need to think over our choices because everything is predetermined” is completely false. We still agonize over our choices. I owe this point to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essay “Causality and Moral Responsibility”.
Libertarianism and Uncaused Causes
Now that hard determinism has been solved, we slink on over to libertarianism. It turns out that while hard determinism is absurd for denying that choices exist, libertarianism is absurd for denying that causes exist. If libertarianism intends to depart from compatibilism in any meaningful way, it has to say that physical forces aren’t enough to create choice. …But if physical forces don’t create force, what does?
According to libertarianism, we make a choice via an uncaused cause — we… just… choose. But this doesn’t make sense — how can our actions be completely uncaused? How is that in any way distinguishable from doing things at random? If our choices aren’t caused in any way then our choices can’t even be caused by thinking or reasoning. If nothing causes our choices, I might decide to walk into a wall despite not wanting to or decide to jump out a window for no reason at all. Compatibilist free will is what keeps me in control of my actions, and prevents me from acting randomly.
If an exact, perfect duplicate of me was in an exact, perfectly duplicated situation, it would make the same choice I would, 100% of the time. There is no reason to believe that this is not true, however libertarianism denies it. Libertarianism asserts that I would always have a chance of choosing otherwise in this situation. Sure, I could have chosen otherwise if my circumstance was different, but it’s not. I owe all of these points to Richard Carrier’s essay “Moreland’s Christian Science”.
Instead, we have a simple account for all of our actions. We have a certain set of acquired beliefs and acquired desires, and we act to realize our strongest desire at any given time. Our beliefs and desires change as we interact with our environment over time. This is exactly what compatibilism says will happen. Libertarianism would have us act on a desire at random, or act on no desire at all. Hard determinism would have us make a completely fixed choice, without any consideration of our desires.
Moral Responsibility Requires Compatibilism
So now that we have affirmed compatibilism as the most accurate account of free will as we can understand it; the only theory that accounts for the existence of both choices and causes; how do we derive moral responsibility? The question remains, How can I blame someone if their actions were caused solely by physical interactions?. Well, I can rephrase the question to make the answer clear: How can I blame someone if their actions were caused by them?.
On naturalism, there is no humanity separate from matter-energy, but only humanity as a specific (and very meaningful) arrangement of matter-energy. This means that the physical interactions of atoms within the human are the human, and this arrangement is the target of our blame, the blame itself an arrangement of matter-energy. As Carrier writes, “it is wickedness we condemn and goodness we praise, not freedom from causation. Complaining changes nothing. But acknowledging your faults and improving yourself changes everything.”
We also know that people’s actions are entirely determined by the circumstances they are in, including their desires and beliefs. This is perfect, because we can blame people in order to change their circumstances, desires, and beliefs! So blame actually does something very important, and we have every reason to continue to blame wrongdoers and praise rightdoers.
Moral Responsibility on Hard Determinism and Libertarianism
Now that we can get a sense of moral responsibility with compatibilism, how do we get it from hard determinism? Well, we don’t by definition. Hard determinism tells you that you cannot possibly change anyone’s actions no matter what you do, which not only prevents moral responsibility, but is absolutely untrue now that we think about it.
Again, we bounce over to libertarianism. How do we get moral responsibility here? Well, again, we don’t. Remember that with libertarianism, we are making choices at random; not because we have gone through thought processes, weighed morals, weighed reason, weighed desires, and made a conscious decision. (If this doesn’t sound like actual libertarianism, that’s because most libertarian theorists agree with me and are actually compatibilists as I have been defining compatibilism; see the Tree Falling Problem.)
As I said, Compatibilist free will is what keeps me in control of my actions, and prevents me from acting randomly. Compatibilism also says that one’s desires, beliefs, and circumstances are the sole determinants of choice. This failure to properly control my actions can be changed by changing the my desires, beliefs, and/or circumstances, which can be done via blame.
More importantly, this is also the only method that will work, since it is impossible to blame if people make choices based upon factors other than desires, beliefs, or circumstances. Can you persuade someone who is by definition unpersuadable (hard determinism)? Can you persuade someone to change their soul (libertarianism)?
Why Does Free Will Exist?
This is another question I imagine will be asked — how can we even account for free will without a soul? Well, I answer with only one word: evolution. Ebonmuse puts it best, and I see no reason to reinvent the wheel:
How could free will come into being? By far the most feasible answer involves the evolutionary process that created the human species. After all, free will is a highly adaptive property. A living creature without free will, or some equivalent decision-making capability, would necessarily be guided purely by preprogrammed instinct. This can work so long as that creature never encounters anything other than the limited range of situations it is programmed to deal with, but if it is faced with a situation that does not fit the assumptions of its programming, it will be unable to respond effectively and may well die. (For an excellent example of how instinctive programming can produce a creature unable to deal with novel situations, consider the sphex wasp).
By contrast, a free-willed living being would stand an excellent chance of responding appropriately no matter what type of situation it is faced with, rather than becoming inert or entering an endless loop such as the sphex wasp does. This could conceivably be a powerful selective advantage that evolution would favor for living beings, such as the ancestors of humans, that inhabited complex and unpredictable environments.
– From Ebonmuse’s “Ghost in the Machine”
Followed up by: The Folly of Debating Definitions
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