Free Mind

Free Mind

Philosophers of free will usually focus on bodily action. Does anything change if we switch to purely mental actions such as thinking and imagining? Suppose a man is imprisoned: we would normally say that he is not free to do what he wants as far as his body is concerned, but he is free so far as his mind is concerned. He is not free to go to the corner store, but he is free to imagine doing that. He can think whatever he likes, but he can’t move his body in whatever way he likes; he is physically coerced or controlled, but not mentally. The compatibilist says he is mentally free but not physically free. That seems like an eminently reasonable thing to say—simple common sense. It would sound paradoxical to say that he was equally unfree both physically and mentally. If we add that the prisoner’s mental acts are determined by his desires, we seem not to detract from his freedom.[1] The reason he imagines as he does is that he has certain mental states, variously called desires, wants, wishes, inclinations, feelings, likes, and attitudes, which lead him to act as he does mentally; that is precisely why he acts freely. So the compatibilist maintains, and he seems right on the money—free action is doing what one likes because one likes to do it. It is going to take philosophical work to dislodge the compatibilist from this commonsense position. Notice that no reference to the body is made in this telling of things: the action takes place wholly within the mind; the body doesn’t move. Intuitively, the action was as free as any action could be—what more could possibly be wanted of freedom? This kind of action is a paradigm of free action: how can there be a problem of whether free will exists with regard to such actions? Free action is acting on one’s desires (etc.) and that is what we do when performing purely mental actions. A shade more theoretically, free action is action caused by desires (using the term in the broadest sense), and we do that all the time; therefore, we are free. If an action is not caused by one’s desires, then it is not free—say, it is caused by someone else’s desires or some sort of brain defect. An action is free if, but only if, it is (appropriately) caused by one’s desires.[2] It is harder for other people to influence your ability to think or imagine what you like than to control your bodily movements, so you are freer in the former area than the latter. But in both cases, you can act according to your desires, so you can be free to act with your body as well as your mind. All this seems pretty straightforward.

But things get more complicated for the compatibilist when we consider bodily action. In that case, the action involves movements of the body, and these are caused by internal states of the agent’s nervous system. This may also be true of purely mental acts, but it is not so obviously true—we can ignore it in the case of mental acts. But in the case of bodily actions there is now a clear rival to the explanation in terms of desires and other mental states, viz. internal states of the body. Indeed, such internal states look like the correct explanation of the movement in question, since physical events have physical causes. When the effect is mental, however, we have no such compelling reason to wheel in extra-mental causes. That is, bodily action involves us in the idea that actions have physical causes; maybe mental actions do too, but this is not something pressed upon us by the phenomena. And now we start to see a threat to freedom of action: for the physical causes of bodily movements are not desires, and freedom exists only when the action is caused by a desire. It isn’t determinism that undermines freedom; it is determinism by non-mental causes. Freedom actually requires determination by mental causes, chiefly desire, but it is ruled out by the existence of non-mental (i.e., physical) causes. Free action must (according to the compatibilist conception) be caused by desires, but bodily movements are not so caused, so they are not free. There is no such argument against the freedom of mental actions, since they are not bodily and hence don’t cry out for physical explanation. In other words, the incompatibilist position is more compelling for bodily action than mental action. Determinism is not the issue; the issue is what kind determinism, mental or physical. Physical determinism rules out freedom even if you are a compatibilist, because it invokes non-mental causation in the explanation of action. An action is free only if it is caused by desire, not by brain states. If epiphenomenalism were true, desires would not cause actions, only brain states would, so action would not be free according to the compatibilist credo. Desires have to be the reason people act as they do, or else they are effectively coerced by something other than their desires, something non-mental. So it is natural to suppose.

There is an obvious way out: identify desires with brain states. Then causation by suitable brain states iscausation by desires. But this involves taking a controversial stand on the mind-body problem: we are free only if the mind-brain identity theory is true, i.e., freedom requires physical reductionism. We might have hoped not to be saddled with such a heavy metaphysical commitment in our efforts to save freedom. We could try claiming that bodily movements are not caused by brain states, but only by desires, but that is a hard pill to swallow. Or we could go for a more complicated position (supervenience, token identity without type identity, functionalism, etc.); but now we are up to our neck in the mind-body problem. The lesson is that the free will problem is deeply connected to the mind-body problem: we won’t know whether we are free until we have solved the mind-body problem. That is, we won’t know whether we are free in the way required by the (plausible) compatibilist definition of freedom until we are clear about how, if at all, the mind acts causally, i.e., how it relates to the causal machinery of the brain. If the mind really does cause movements of the body, and nothing else does, then we have freedom in the defined sense; but if the brain, as distinct from the mind, carries the causal burden, then we are not free, because then desire isn’t the cause of bodily action. The question of freedom must remain murky so long as these questions are not resolved. We may be free, if desires cause actions in the required way, but we may not be, if they don’t. To put it intuitively, desire must cause action directly and intimately in order that action be free, but we don’t really know whether this is true or not, because we don’t understand the mind-brain nexus. This is why freedom comes under threat: not from determinism as such but from the involvement of the physical world in the causation of action. If anything otherthan desire is responsible for the production of action, then the compatibilist conception of free action is undermined: but that is something far from clear, pending a resolution of the mind-body problem. Of course, this means that if the mind-body problem cannot be solved, neither can the free will problem be solved. We know what it would be to be free, but we don’t know whether those conditions are in fact satisfied in the real world. The incompatibilist thinks he knows we are not free (because of the truth of determinism); the typical compatibilist thinks he knows we are free (given the correct definition of freedom): but really, we only know that we may be free (but may not be), given the uncertainty about the relation of mind and brain. My own feeling is that desire really does cause and explain action, both mental and bodily, so that the compatibilist position is correct: but I acknowledge that this is not demonstrably true. It feels like desire causes action, but that may be illusory, or partly illusory. I think mind and brain are inextricably connected, so that the causal story will inevitably award desire a central role in action causation, in which case it will be true that we are free in the required sense—desire will be the reason we act as we do. If so, bodily action will fall into line with mental action: both will involve causation by desire and only by desire (no intrusion of causes that can act as alternatives to the agent’s desires).

Perhaps ironically, it is dualism that acts as the greatest threat to freedom, because it suggests that action has a causal history that excludes desire, and hence it takes freedom away from the agent. The causation of action could become detached from the agent’s psychology, thus undermining the idea of doing what one likes as definitive of freedom. The identity theory, on the other hand, keeps desire in the center of free action by assimilating it to brain states, which cause bodily movements; but that theory is deeply controversial (perhaps not even intelligible in its classic formulations). We need a theory of mind and body that makes desire the true cause of action but doesn’t sideline the brain completely. This is none too easy a thing to do. Thus, the difficulty of the free will problem owes a lot to the difficulty of the mind-body problem. Still, the bogeyman of determinism is beside the point: freedom entails determination, though it must be determination of a specific kind, viz. desire-based determination. What is incompatible with freedom is the idea that our actions are notcaused by our desires, because then we are not doing what we would like to do (what we like could easily include what we think is morally right). True, freedom consists in acting from one’s desires, but do we really act from our desires, as opposed to physical states of the brain? That is the question.[3]

[1] In this paper I presuppose the compatibilist position; the problem I discuss arises from within this tradition. I have defended compatibilism elsewhere.

[2] I put aside the deviant causal chains problem.

[3] If you take a moment and review the possibility that your actions stem from deep within your brain, instead of from your manifest desires, you will feel your sense of your own freedom evaporate; you will start to feel like a puppet. You will not feel like the master of your own destiny.

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4 replies
  1. Paul Reinicke
    Paul Reinicke says:

    It’s a little hard for me to perceive mental states as non-physical (e.g. biochemical, electrochemical). It’s also hard to perceive anything constituting true freedom inside there. For example, if the brain is hardwired for desiring and wanting, then even if someone desires ‘x’ or ‘y,’ are they not slaves to the brain ordering them to desire something? Do they have the freedom to go against this? This part is a bit off topic, but while there is a term — mysterian — for the belief that we will never solve the mystery of consciousness, I was wondering if there’s a comparable term for the belief that we will never solve the mystery of how life originated on a planet devoid of life (how non-life begat life)? Is there a term for people who believe that mystery will never be solved?

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    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      We are not free from the brain or our past but we are free to do as we wish (except when coerced otherwise). This is compatibilism. See my “Two Concepts of Freedom” on this blog.

      There is no established term for believers in the origin of life mystery, but we could venture “bio-mysterian”.

      Reply
      • Paul Reinicke
        Paul Reinicke says:

        “It feels like desire causes action, but that may be illusory” — this is the camp I’m in (that it is illusory); but your blog post helped me understand and see the compatibilist’s position more clearly. I like your Johnny-on-the-spot neologism “bio-mysterian.” Separately, I would find it interesting hearing your feedback if you’ve ever experienced one of those Benjamin Libet-type experiments (but using the MRI) — I don’t know if there’s a technical name for this type of experiment. I can’t recall his exact words, but Dr. Robert Sapolsky seemed quite moved by the experience.

        Reply
        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          If desires don’t cause actions, then there is no freedom of the compatibilist kind, because we wouldn’t act fromour desires. But it is very hard to deny that desires do play a causal role in the production of action: surely it is true that we eat because we feel hungry (this is compatible with there being another level of physical explanation). There are always different levels of explanation for any given event.

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