AS49: Free Will, Part 1 of ….

This week I’m going to attempt to tackle the topic of free will! This is a favorite of mine. Do we have free will? Who was right in the debate between Harris and Dennett? Does determinism by definition negate free will or is there some way that they are, one might say, compatible?

This is part 1 of at least 2, I’ll try to limit it to that but I had a lot to say and didn’t get through a majority of it in one episode… Such an interesting topic!

11 thoughts on “AS49: Free Will, Part 1 of ….”

  1. I love this discussion, Thomas! Hard determinism vs. compatibilism is a fun topic. I’ll explain what led me down the path of compatabilism. It ties into Dennett’s Cartesian Theater idea.

    I think most people, at least somewhat, conceptualize their conscious minds as sitting in that theater with an Xbox controller. They press the buttons to control their lives. This seems to describe, loosely, how we all experience decision making. We see what’s on the screen, we make a decision that we put into the controller, and we see what happens next.

    It seems odd to deny that this conception is consistent with free will, or indeed seems to describe it. Sam Harris describes free will as a “user illusion” of consciousness — that is to say, our actions are consistent with the idea of free will, but in truth are not caused by it. The little controller the fellow in my head is using isn’t actually plugged it. He’s just pressing the buttons and rationalizing whatever comes next.

    When I was first thinking hard about the problems of free will, I found the idea of the unplugged controller very troubling. I didn’t want to feel like my decisions were happening without my knowledge and–worse still–I was in a deep state of denial that I was causing them. I strive very hard to live truthfully and would be upset to learn that one of my fundamental beliefs was a lie I was telling myself.

    But I realized something. What exactly is the hard determinist argument in this context? It seems to be “Because determinism, the controller is unplugged.” But this is a non sequitur. The hypothetical homunculus playing the videogame of my life isn’t outside the scope of determinism either! The only reason his input into the controller would have to be discarded in a deterministic model is would be that his inputs are non-deterministic. Thus, just as Dennett suggests, the conclusions of hard determinism presuppose some kind of materialist dualism–not of substance, but of determinism. Hard determinism seems to believe–if not expressly, implicitly–that our consciousnesses aren’t deterministic, and therefore can’t be responsible for our actions, which are.

    But this is an absurd, incoherent, and entirely unnecessary assumption. If the homunculus is supposed to represent my desires, my character, my core values, my needs–that is, everything that one might identify as as the actor exercising free will–there is no reason to suppose that his actions can’t be deterministic.

    Your actions flow directly from your character. Your character /is/ the actor making the decisions. This is free will.

    (Whether the nature of your character is grounds for retribution is another matter; it doesn’t trouble me because I don’t believe in retribution. The only reason to imprison someone is if they will continue to be a danger to society if you do not.)

    1. Interesting discussion and good comment – you raise issues which I’d never really considered before, I’m not completely sure I understand the meaning of the homunculus being deterministic though. Are you saying that if I (my consciousness) am faced with a choice which I am not sure about (i.e. there is some considerable uncertainty involved in making the correct decision) that I would always make the same decision if I made it say, 10 times? If there is a chance that I can make a different decision (e.g. I can second-guess myself and deliberately choose the opposite of what I think I would normally go for) then is it still deterministic? Does the homunculus not possess “agency”? Thanks. Hopefully, at least one of those questions makes sense ! 🙂

      1. I’m not totally sure which thought experiment you’re referring to, but if I understand you correctly I can try to answer. I am imagining some decision where the evidence points to a certain conclusion, but that the conclusion will be false. If it was a completely arbitrary or meaningless decision then we might expect a variety of answers, but if all our best guesses point us to a certain conclusion, we are likely to choose the same thing every time. Or if we didn’t, whatever random factor that led to a change in decision could hardly be the home of free will, could it?
        I hope I understood the question, please elaborate if I haven’t answered it properly.

      2. You have understood me correctly! If you were to, as Dennett says, run the tape backwards, it would always move forward in the same way, even if you were very unsure about what you wanted to decide. The same for Thomas’s very interesting argument about the amnesiac – if you can’t learn the results of your actions, you’d always make the same decision because you’d always have the same inputs. Of course, this requires “freezing” the state of brain more than simply giving it amnesia; your brain could simply decay and cause you to make different choices.

        But basically all I’m saying is this: even if my value of truth has been predetermined, my valuing truth isn’t separate from my identity, it is a part of my identity as an actor. It makes that decision only when I make that decision.

  2. (Harris cites scientific evidence that our conscious mind doesn’t make decisions – this may be true but a) it is not clear why this isn’t also free will [i.e. why doesn’t your unconscious mind count as an actor, an aspect of your will?] and b) whether hard determinism happens to be true is unrelated, as we atheists should know, to whether the philosophical argument hard determinism relies upon is compelling.)

  3. Great discussion! I seem to be on the same page with Dale here.

    I see an important distinction between the decision making process and free will.

    D. Dennett seems to focus on the decision making process. He seems to build on neuroscience with a goal to explain and educate. I see D. Dennett trying to align our common misunderstandings with reality. Sam Harris seems to reach for a different goal. He points at our common misunderstandings and says: see, there is no free will!. There is little value in that, but just like picking a fight with D. Dennett it may be good for self promotion.

    We have decision making. We may or may not decide to call it “free will”. I think there are compelling reasons to do it, therefore I am a compatibilist.

    The decision making perspective resolves the responsibility/accountability angle. It gets us to examine how the person ended up making the decision, how his decision making process can be altered, whether the person poses danger to themselves or others, and so on.

    The decision making perspective also resolves the conscious/subconscious angle. It is well known that consciousness is a high-level process that integrates different subsystems. Winning activity from those subsystems “bubbles up” into consciousness. Of course this activity can be detected before it reaches consciousness. How else could it possibly work?

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    1. What?? I haven’t offended her! She’ll come back when she has finished another book! She’s a very busy person as well and unfortunately I can’t just have her back whenever I might want. She will likely be on the bonus content for this week though. She attended a conference and I am going to have her on to talk about the experience.

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