Free Choice

Free Choice

A strange air of unreality surrounds the free will debate. Fanciful ideas abound. One feels that something is going seriously wrong somewhere, but it is hard to pinpoint where exactly. It is otherwise with the concept of liberty: here things are plain sailing. The OED defines “liberty” as follows: “the state of being free from oppression and imprisonment”, and “the power or scope to act as one pleases”. No one thinks that liberty is incompatible with determinism, to the detriment of one of them. No one sees fit to deny the reality of liberty or question its conceptual coherence, or to affirm that liberty requires randomness and lack of determination from prior states of the world. We are all compatibilists about liberty. It is true that we might discover that we have less liberty than we supposed—we might have a device implanted in our brain by aliens that makes us control our sexual behavior a lot more than we would really like. But no one thinks that liberty is an incoherent concept or that it requires supernatural phenomena (or quantum indeterminism). In the case of freedom of the will, however, all these possibilities are entertained; and there are rival factions each claiming to possess the precious truth of the matter. Strange! The reason is that determinism is thought to pose a threat to free will, so that we must deny either determinism or freedom. Some people think that we are not free of (or from) the past, including past states of the brain, and so not free at all; others think we are free of (or from) the antecedent conditions, so that human action is not determined. Thus, incompatibilism threatens either to deprive us of our freedom or to be committed to mysterious unintelligible incoherent supernatural goings-on. What should we say about this familiar dilemma?[1]

I won’t say much about the second horn of the dilemma, since it has been extensively covered, except to observe that the postulated theory involves us in the scarcely intelligible idea of uncaused physical occurrences at the macro level. Bodily movements are alleged to occur that have no causal explanation in terms of prior states of the universe; they just spring into being randomly. Yet it is evident that this is simply not so: internal states of the body cause the muscular contractions that constitute bodily motions. To avoid this, we might suggest that the initiating acts of will are completely incorporeal, but then their nature is left up in the air (they are like “bare particulars”). Clearly this is pure mythology. So, the preferred alternative is that free will is an illusion: nothing is free from the past, so nothing is truly free. Even if the past states are desires, they still constrain the action and hence rob it of any freedom it might be thought to possess. So, at any rate, it is widely believed. The point I want to make is that the destruction doesn’t stop there: if free will goes, a lot more goes with it. The determinist incompatibilist denies the existence of free will—no one ever acts freely—but the denial has to extend further into the mind as we normally conceive it. For the notion of choice is also put on the chopping block, along with allied notions: no one ever really chooses anything. We have the illusion of choice but not the reality. The OED defines “choose” as “pick out as being the best of two or more alternatives” and “decide a course of action”. But that is not possible if freedom does not exist, since then we have no alternatives, only the illusion of them. Why we should be under this illusion, or how the illusion is possible, is not made clear—since the concept of freedom has been denied intelligibility, or even conceptual coherence. But anyway, choice must be unreal if freedom is: it cannot be an existing feature of human psychology. We have no capacity to choose (we are just “machines”). We have no genuine alternatives to choose among. A single course of action is determined before any alleged choosing can take place. The concept of “unfree choice” is self-contradictory. If freedom goes, so does choice. But doesn’t this fly in the face of obvious facts—for example, that I can choose what I will have for dinner today? So, it must be that free choice (a pleonasm) is compatible with determinism (as it is for a compatibilist); at any rate, so it may be contended. Furthermore, if choice disappears along with freedom, so also does decision: we never really make decisions if freedom is ruled out, because decision and choice go together. And then deliberation goes the same way: deliberating is choosing or deciding among alternatives, but there is no such thing as choosing or deciding. This is all (unexplained) illusion. And it isn’t like a visual illusion in which the illusory scene is at least logically possible (even commonplace): no, the alleged illusion involves an incoherent concept, viz. the concept of free will (hence choice, decision, and deliberation). A lot of folk psychology collapses if freedom does, even some of its most evident propositions (e.g., that I chose chocolate over vanilla ice cream yesterday).

Does the destruction stop there? What about desire? Aren’t desires dispositions to choose? If I desire a chocolate ice cream, then I have a disposition to choose chocolate over other flavors, especially if I strongly desire chocolate; but if choice is illusory, then this would be a disposition to nothing. I never choose (I just behave), so I never choose based on my desires—they are not “choosy” things. Maybe some desires don’t presuppose choice, but a great many desires do, so these would go by the wayside along with decision and deliberation. Choice reaches down to desire, so to speak, so desires cannot survive the elimination of choice (needs can). The whole conative side of the mind, as we normally understand it, disappears if the will is not free; it can’t be detached by itself leaving the rest intact. If we want to save the conative mind, we need to find a defensible account of freedom; we can’t just abandon freedom and go on our merry way. The dialectical position, then, is that incompatibilism faces severe problems, whether pro- or anti- free will, so compatibilism seems like the better option. It doesn’t involve us in any fanciful ideas, or denials of the obvious, or weird science. It is conservative not revisionary, straightforward not convoluted. There is no air of unreality about it. Freedom is thus akin to liberty.[2]

[1] I have several papers on free will on this blog, approaching it from different angles. This paper doesn’t purport to go over this ground again but to add something new.

[2] It would be odd if the concept of liberty and the concept of freedom (“free will”) were unconnected, as incompatibilist positions take them to be. We would want our theory of the one to slot into our theory of the other, as compatibilism suggests. In a word: freedom is liberty generalized.

2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Good point. How does a strong free-will denier argue against a dictatorship in favour of a society with freedom of expression?


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