Free Will: Incompatibilist “Freedom”

This post is my attempt to put into words those realizations which some 3 years ago led me to my current position on the existence and nature of free will.

Though I have written much on free will in online forums since arriving at my current beliefs, I’ve said little regarding these core realizations that underlie my philosophy, in part because giving a thorough explanation of why I believe what I do would require far more space than is really suitable for those forums, and in part because I had a lot of trouble stringing together the sometimes-disjointed ideas that led me to my current worldview in such a way as to make them coherent and convincing.

A great deal of thought and effort has gone into this post–more than for the three previous posts in this series combined, at any rate–and it is my sincere hope that what is written here will help at least one person gain a new perspective on the matter.

Now, without further ado: I said in my previous post that I would be talking here, in this fourth and final post on free will, about what I consider to be the real meat and bones behind all disagreements on whether or not free will exists; about the most convincing argument for determinism being incompatible with free will. See, even if an incompatibilist were to accept, as I previously argued, that determinism doesn’t mean our choices are determined for us by the brain or chemical reactions or whatever, they could still put forth something like the following argument in favor of incompatibilism:

“Under determinism, even if our choices may be determined by us, we ourselves are in turn determined by factors outside of our control, like our DNA, our parents, and the society we grow up in; therefore, it is these factors, and not us, which are truly responsible for our choices.”

I will not argue with the premise that, under determinism, we’re determined by things external to us, because I mostly agree with it, but I will challenge the conclusion the argument arrives at, because I do not believe that our being determined by other things means that we don’t have free will.

Back in the first post in this series I said I believed that at the core of just about every use of “free will” lies the idea of a particular freedom, that being what I called the “freedom from external necessity”, meaning the freedom to make our own decisions or the freedom from having others force decisions onto us. Even if it’s true that our nature is determined by external factors in ways we can’t control, it would still be the case that we have free will if it can be said that these externals don’t make decisions for us, which is a position I will be arguing for.

However, I realize that I have thus far given no reason for others to accept my own definition of free will over theirs, and that without giving such a reason my argument won’t be changing the mind of anyone who believes that free will is incompatible with determinism, so I will also be arguing that the freedom from the deterministic influences of externals can’t possibly be the sort of freedom necessary for free will, because having such a “freedom” wouldn’t actually make our choices or actions any freer.

To begin with, I have to grant that the idea that our genes, our upbringing, and other factors which influence our nature are ultimately responsible for our choices is a valid interpretation of the facts. However, it remains no more than an interpretation; the concept of ultimate responsibility is a human invention, not a fact of nature, and there are other interpretations in which ultimate responsibility lies with us. Take for instance the view that everything in the universe reflects and is reflected in everything else, as in the metaphor of Indra’s net, and so nothing is truly separate from anything else. Under this worldview (which I believe is perfectly consistent with determinism, as I will be arguing in a future post), my upbringing, my society and my genes are not something separate from me, because nothing is separate from anything else; thus saying that they are ultimately responsible for my decisions is the same as saying that I am responsible for my decisions.

Of course, under this interpretation, the existence of free will is only trivially true, since even were I being mind-controlled into making certain decisions it could still be said that my decisions are coming from me, since everything in the universe is “me”. However, my point in bringing up this alternative worldview was not to argue that this interpretation is the correct one, but rather to show that whether or not you see free will in the world depends on how you look at the world.

If you see the world as a bunch of causal chains stretching from the beginning to the end of time, free will doesn’t exist, and if you see everything as a manifestation of a single universal consciousness, free will exists but only trivially so. Similarly, if you look at the world on the level we humans experience every day, cows definitely exist, but if you look at it on a molecular level, you’ll never find any cows.

Of course, just because you’ve seen the world on a molecular level and failed to find any cows that doesn’t mean you can conclude that cows don’t exist. If you want to figure out whether or not cows exist, you’ve got to look for them on the level where cows are supposed to exist. In that same manner, if you want to figure out whether or not free will exists you can’t just pick any random worldview and say “well, looking at it through these lens I can’t spot any free will, so I guess that means free will definitely doesn’t exist”; you have to look at the world using the perspective from which free will is supposed to exist.

What perspective might that be? Why, it’s the same perspective from which cows can be said to exist, of course; the mundane human perspective we use all the time as we go about our daily lives. Seen from any other angle, “free will” as a concept simply loses any and all meaning.

(As an aside, it seems to me that a great deal of free will denial, along with several other philosophical positions, has its roots in the rejection of this perspective in favor of seeking some “higher”, “objective” perspective, and this is a topic I will talk about in the future.)

From the mundane human perspective, the decision to sit here and write this post which is now well over a thousand words long wasn’t made billions of years ago when the big bang occurred and set in motion everything that ever has or will happen in this universe, nor was it made decades ago when my father’s sperm and my mother’s ovum fused to form the zygote from which every cell in my body would spring, nor was it made back in elementary school when I started learning the skills that would eventually allow me to go carrying out this project. That decision is made here and now, as are all others, and in the here and now there is absolutely nothing outside myself forcing me to make that decision; thus, it was made completely out of my own free will.

Now, moving on to the second issue–the validity of the freedom from external influence as a potential definition of free will. In order to evaluate if the absence of external influence might be what “free will” refers to, let us try to figure out whether or not this absence would actually make our choices any freer. To begin with, I’ll describe the two basic ways in which these influences can affect us, then try to deduce what difference it would make in our decisions if we weren’t influenced in these ways.

In the first place, external factors influence the nature we are born with: our genetic code, the foods and drugs our mother uses while she is pregnant with us, and any diseases she might have at that time all help determine what our nature is at the moment of our birth. What would someone who was uninfluenced by such factors look like? Well, such a person would need to have come into existence as an uncaused event, completely at random–as a human baby, an adult, a fish, or a tree; in the depths of the ocean, in the void of space, going 600 miles an hour, or at the big bang.

Regardless of how exactly the began existing, though, they would have had no more say in the matter than they would have if their existence had been the deterministic result of prior events, nor would there be any real difference in how they would then go on to make their choices, so being uninfluenced in this way would give us no more freedom than we would have otherwise.

In the second place, after our birth, external factors continue to influence us, producing changes in our nature: I become able to read after my parents teach me how, I become scared of dogs after one attacks me, I suffer personality changes after severe head trauma. How would a person not influenced in this way go about making the choices we make every day, like choosing what to order at a restaurant? Simply put, they wouldn’t.

See, a decision is the result of the interplay between two factors: the decision-making agent, who contributes a set of personal preferences and some capacity to evaluate different options and judge which of them best fits their preferences; and the situation that the agent is presented with, which contributes a set of possible options and consequences that the agent can judge and choose from. As a result of this interplay, both the agent and the situation are changed. By making the decision-making agent completely independent of its surroundings, the interplay between these factors is erased and the agent can’t make any decisions regarding its surroundings–can’t even become aware of their existence, in fact, and so is doomed to spend their lives stuck inside their own minds, completely alone.

So, since being uninfluenced by external factors doesn’t make our choices any freer, but rather removes our ability to make choices, the freedom from external influence can’t be a valid definition of free will. Indeed, I would say that it’s not really a freedom at all, just an idea born from taking the notion of freedom to such an extreme that it becomes contradictory; the idea of a freedom so free that it’s even free from those qualities that make it freedom in the first place, meaning it ceases to be freedom.

This idea that things are only free if they’re even free from being themselves is what seems to me to be the core assumption behind the incompatibilist position, but this is incoherent because it’s not a freedom anyone can actually have; to be free from being yourself is to cease to be yourself, so that there is no longer a you to be free. Real freedom is not the freedom to be not-yourself, it’s the freedom to be yourself, by yourself, for yourself, and though this may not be the one some people want, it’s the one we have, and it’s a very real and very meaningful one nonetheless.


Other posts in this series:
Part 1 — On “Free Will”
Part 2 — Free will: on Physical Determinism
Part 3 — Free Will: “Could Have Done Otherwise”

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4 comentarios

  1. Excellent analysis. I find it helpful to take a magnifying glass to the “causal chain” to reveals it is made up of specific cause and effect links. We happen to be links that are equipped with the hardware and software to “decide” things and the physical ability to “causally determine” what will happen next. The typical “hard” determinist sees the chain but ignores control links, like us, as if they can see the forest, but are unaware of the trees. That’s the problem with higher level abstractions, one can lose sight of the objective reality right there in front of us.

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