If We’re Determined, Do We Choose?

In my earlier post on free will I listed four mistaken claims that pro-science folks tend to make about determinism:

If determinism is true (they say):

  1. It doesn’t matter what I decide (because the outcome is already determined).
  2. I don’t have any real choice (because what I’ll do is already decided).
  3. I couldn’t have done otherwise (because the laws of nature determined my action).
  4. I’m not really responsible for my actions (since they are the outcome of laws and circumstances that I had no control over).

I tackled (1) and (3) in my last post, but now I see Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne making mistake (2): They’re claiming that if my actions are determined by neurophysiology, then I don’t have any real choice in the matter, or at least no “free” choice.

Here’s Harris (quoted and endorsed by Coyne) attacking the compatibilist notion of freedom:

But this is not what people actually mean by free will. What people mean is that they—their conscious selves—are free to chose their actions. You choose what you want; you choose what you will to do. . . they still feel that at every moment, there is freedom to choose. Now what can this mean? From the position of conscious awareness of your inner life, this can’t be true. Everything you’re consciously aware of, at every moment, is the result of causes of which you’re not aware, over which you exert no conscious control.”

Now, where does this go wrong?

First, it is clear that we do in fact go through a decision-making process. We do sometimes consider different options and evaluate them, and this process of conscious deliberations results in our performing one action and not some other that we considered.

Determinism gives us absolutely no reason to question this obvious truth. So if this is all we mean by “choosing” then it is clear that we do in fact choose, and Harris’s rejection of the common person’s belief that “you choose what you want; you choose what you will to do,” is just a mistake.

Presumably Harris and Coyne will complain that this doesn’t count as a real choice, or a free choice, if determinism is true. They have to grant that we do go through the psychological process of choosing, but they suppose that the common person believes we have something more, that we have an ability to transcend the laws of nature when we choose.

Of course, it is true that the common person does believe that we have this libertarian (contra-causal, supernatural) form of freedom. This is because the common person is a dualist and so concludes that if the neurophysiology is doing the job, then it can’t be me who’s causing the action.

But once we reject dualism, what should we then say about “freedom” and “choice”? When I discover that I just am a deterministic neurophysiological process, should I say things like “I freely chose to go to the beach”? Or should I agree with the dualist that if the brain has produced the decision then it doesn’t count as a “real free choice”?

It seems clear to me that it would be foolish to abandon the word “choice” in a deterministic world. There is a very important distinction between acts that are the outcome of deliberation and those that are not. It is important to distinguish between cases where someone does something because she wanted to and cases in which she does not.

If we throw out the word “choice” just because folk-conceptions link choice with supernaturalism, then we’re going to need some other word to label what we do when we deliberate and select a course of action based on our desires and commitments. But it would be silly to introduce a neologism to do this work, since this is precisely what the word “choose” covers in our language. So let’s just prune away the mistaken assumptions about dualism and supernaturalism, and we can still retain the core concepts of “choice” and “freedom.”

For comparison, let’s imagine a conversation between two eight-year-olds about whether there are Christmas presents. Most of their classmates believe that all “real” Christmas presents are delivered by Santa, but Susie and Sammy both know that there is no Santa Claus. Susie is nevertheless quite happy to talk about the Christmas presents that she and her classmates got; she just knows that they were delivered by parents and not by magic reindeer.

Sammy, however, insists that no one has ever received a Christmas present in all of history. He agrees that there are toys in boxes covered in wrapping paper, but he says that to point this out is to “change the subject.” After all, he says, what all the other kids mean by Christmas presents is something that shows up on Christmas morning, that is for a particular child, that the child wants, that was built by elves, and that was delivered by Santa coming down the chimney after a magic sleigh ride. Further, he points out, almost all the kids agree that if there were no Santa, there would be no Christmas presents. (So they take the presence of presents to be a clear indication that Santa is real.)

Sammy goes on to argue that science rules out the possibility of elves at the North Pole and of flying reindeer, and so (Sammy concludes) Christmas presents are just illusions. When Susie points out that there obviously are gifts that children get on Christmas morning, Sammy chastises her for changing the subject. “That’s not what kids mean by Christmas presents. They mean a real present, that really is for them, and that they really want, and that came from a real Santa Claus flying behind real reindeer. If you want to make up some other name for that box you opened up the other day, you can, (call it a “boxed-toy-in-pretty-paper-for-a kid” if you want) but don’t pretend that it’s a real present, a Christmas present.

Susie agrees that the facts could be expressed without using the term “Christmas present” but she thinks it’s silly to do so. Most of the features that Sammy points to are in fact satisfied by the boxes they open on Christmas. They are gifts; the occasion is Christmas; etc. Why ignore all of this just because Santa isn’t real? Further, kids are going to think you’re crazy if you go around denying things they can see and feel; they’re going to think that you’re claiming there are no toys for kids in wrapped boxes. But Sammy (and Jerry) want none of it. They’re not content to point out that Santa doesn’t exist; they think we should also convince people that the presents aren’t real either.

To bring it around to the task at hand: Susie thinks that it makes more sense to talk of Christmas presents that require no magic and no Santa than it does to insist that the term is inextricably bound to a false account of gift delivery. The compatibilist likewise thinks that a substantial core of the meaning of “freedom” and “choice” remains even when we recognize the falsity of supernaturalism and dualism.

Consider, for example, what it would mean to ask someone whether she chose to have a child “of her own free will.” Clearly the relevant question is whether it was her personal desires and commitments that led her to have the baby, or whether there was some external form of coercion involved. If she had the baby because she desired a child, and after considering various pros and cons came to the conclusion that this is what she wanted to do, then she freely chose to have the child.

The eight-year-old complaining that he never chose to be born has a point; the mother complaining that she had no choice about having a child because the world is deterministic (despite her having done so because she wanted to, after deliberation, and without external coercion) does not.

So, where does Harris go wrong? It seems to me that the main mistake lies in the justification he offers for claim that we have no free choice. He says that you can’t be free to choose, because “everything you’re consciously aware of, at every moment, is the result of causes of which you’re not aware, over which you exert no conscious control.”

But why should this worry us? Harris doesn’t flesh out the argument here (perhaps he does elsewhere?) but it seems that he has something like the following argument in mind:

(a) All your actions are the result of causes over which you have no conscious control.

(b) Therefore nothing that you have conscious control over is a cause of your actions.

(c) Therefore, your conscious mental processes of deliberation and deciding don’t make a difference; you don’t make any decisions that matter. It’s all done for you by the unconscious causes.

But this line of reasoning isn’t valid.

First, (b) doesn’t follow from (a). Obviously determinism does guarantee the truth of (a) because we have no control over the laws of nature or the state of the universe a billion years ago (and determinism says that our actions are the result of these causes). But this in no way implies that my conscious decisions aren’t themselves causes. According to the physicalist, these mental states are perfectly respectable physical causes. Yes, the mental states were produced by earlier causes, but that doesn’t somehow render them irrelevant or inert.

Second, given the falsity of (b), we find that (c) is false as well. Clearly we do make decisions, and clearly these decisions have an impact on what we do. We freely choose to act in certain ways, and that makes a difference. Indeed, (c) is essentially Mistake One that I addressed earlier.

The mere fact that dualists are going to think that these can’t be “real free choices” because they are the result of deterministic natural processes should be irrelevant to the physicalist. We shouldn’t throw out the psychological and moral baby with the dualist bathwater.

I freely choose, and so do you.

20 responses to “If We’re Determined, Do We Choose?

  1. Pingback: What Jerry Needs to Know about Freedom « Physicalism

  2. “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices…until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between heaven and Earth…between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

    • I agree that there are limitations, but there are at least some circumstances in which our desires do make a real difference. Just to take a trivial example, I’m free to order several different items for dinner tonight. Of course, I’m not free to appoint the next president or fly to the moon.

      I think that discussions of ethics and punishment should include careful discussions of just how much power or freedom we have. That’s one reason I’m opposed to the hard determinist position advocated by Harris and Coyne: It lumps together too much. It doesn’t allow us to make important distinctions between someone who was literally forced to do something, and someone who made the decision based on his own values and desires.

      On mysticism, I’m not as opposed to your position as one might guess. Once upon a time I was a religious studies major with a strong interest in mysticism. (And I share your admiration for Chandrasekhar, though I only know him through his work.) But these days I’m inclined to think that it has little to contribute to a careful accurate account of free will and the physical nature of the world.

  3. I tend to think of Newcomb’s paradox as presenting a problem for the Coyne-Harris view of choice.

    • I don’t quite see how Newcomb’s paradox is related to one’s position on freedom. Presumably both the hard and soft determinist will agree that a Laplacian demon could accurately predict your choice.

      And even a libertarian might claim that prediction is compatible with freedom, as long as it doesn’t involve law-like necessitation. One might know what the virtuous person will do (says the libertarian) even though she really does have the ability (even given the laws of physics and the complete physical state at the time of her choice) to do otherwise.

      So a libertarian too could face Newcomb’s paradox: What do I do if I have strong evidence that someone can predict what I will freely do? Given that the prediction has already been made, and so cannot be affected by my current act of choosing, why not grab both boxes? But then if the predictor is really as good as is claimed, won’t I just be screwing myself?

      And the determinist faces the same problem: Yes, if the predictor knows all the physical details, then it could predict exactly what I’m going to do. But my current mental processes obviously cannot change the past. The prediction is made. How can I justify taking only one box? But if I do, and the prediction is accurate, . . .

      Now perhaps a consistent hard determinist wouldn’t go through this thought process because he or she would adopt a fatalist attitude and say “Well, I don’t have any real choice anyway.” But this is just silly.

      Perhaps the point is that I can’t understand how someone can consistently be a hard determinist at all (in that it seems to me to illicitly conflate determinism with fatalism). So I agree that they can’t make sense of Newcomb, but this just trivially follows from the fact that they can’t make coherent sense of any choice whatsoever.

  4. I have followed the several discussions about “free will” on Jerry Coyne’s blog without coming to a clear position on the issues. But your analysis here jostled the pieces into place. Thanks! (I particularly liked the analogy with Christmas presents.)

  5. Me, too – found it helpful. It’s a discussion which constantly bewilders me because *surely* nobody can seriously hold the Harris/Coyne position – or why even bother to argue it? (My disagreement with it is somehow determined; their holding it is determined; nothing is the result of actual conscious deliberation…)

    If I’ve understood you – crudely – they are confusing two levels of reality (or something). Makes sense to me.

    Or am I being an utterly philistine crudifier?

    • I think you’ve got the gist of it. They mistakenly see the laws of physics as being in competition with our will. If the physics does it, then it’s just the result of unconscious, brute, physical processes. So it can’t be me (the conscious agent) doing it.

      But, as you say, this neglects the fact that the physical processes are, in reality, the very same thing as my making a conscious choice.

  6. On the compatibilist view, not only do I have “free will”, but so does my computer chess game and a planarian, since there are only differences of algorithmic complexity, not of kind, between the processes we use to direct our actions. Yet if no one would call a computer chess game “free,” then why should the term apply to what I do? If it does apply to the chess game also, then free will is a triviality that’s simply synonymous with unimpeded activity.

    • Except, a chess program does not have the subjective experiences that humans have — we consciously experience that we make choices that have effects. Dualism is an attempt to explain how that can be (although of course it just pushes the non-understanding back 1 level, like Vitalism does).

      “Unimpeded activity” doesn’t work as a phrase to capture the experientially important aspects of so-called free will. A falling rock also engages in unimpeded activity (for a while).

    • It’s worth recognizing that there’s no single notion of “free” or “free will” — it’s a vague cluster of notions some of which will be more relevant in some contexts but not in others.

      The usual debate over free will is specifically concerned with moral responsibility. Most compatibilists (and libertarians too, for that matter) will say that neither a chess program nor planarian can be morally responsible for its actions because it has no understanding of moral principles, cannot evaluate its “preferences”, cannot consider what is good for other people, and so on. This means that it is not “free” in the relevant sense of the word.

      However, I think there are some contexts in which it can make sense to say that a chess program acts “freely” in a related but different sense.

      Suppose, for example, that the programmers of Deep Blue suspected (through cleverness or spying) that Kaparov was going to try a particular game plan to manipulate a weakness in Deep Blue’s programming. To counteract this, the programmers have their chess pro come up with the strongest reply to that game plan, and program Deep Blue to just follow the laid out responses as long as Kasparov does indeed follow the foreseen line of attack

      Now, suppose the match is on and one programmer comes in late well after the match is underway. She might turn to her fellow programmer and whisper, “Did Deep Blue freely make that move, or is it on the script?”

      There is indeed a sense in which the program is responsible for its decisions (and for the outcome of the game) when it’s evaluating different possibilities and choosing between them. If Kasparov never makes an unexpected move and the script is followed all the way to checkmate, we’d be inclined to say that real winner of the game was the chess pro that wrote the script, not Deep Blue.

      On the other hand, when Deep Blue is running using the full strength of its calculating power and its chess algorithm and it beats a chess master like Kasparov, it does make sense to say that the program was acting freely (in a sense) and that it’s responsible for the win. The programmers are responsible for building Deep Blue, but not for beating Kasparov — none of them could come close to besting him in a chess match.

  7. Why worry about the “usual debate over free will”? No one questions whether there are sociological and political consequences to different ideas on the subject, but presumably we are discussing whether the concept refers to something that exists independent of our wish for it to. The fact that we all want something like free will to exist should place extra burdens of proof on anyone who would show that it does.

    Your argument confuses me. First you suggest that free choices require the ability to understand moral principles. But then you say that Deep Blue (which obviously has no programming relevant to morality) *could* make a free choice.

    I don’t really get how Deep Blue “going off script” is making a free choice while otherwise it’s the programmer’s choice. In going off script, Deep Blue is just following another script. How can one escape the conclusion that a chess computer like Deep Blue always has compatibilist “free will”? And if Deep Blue, then so my presumably less sophisticated Apple Chess v. 2.4.2 that I am playing now. Even a simple program selects moves based on moves it projects I will make. But what does the complexity of the program matter or even that there was a programmer?

    Of course there is choice and there is will, or volition. Some choices are binary and others take place after long and complex deliberative processes. No one fails to see this. But when and how it is meaningful to use the modifier “free” given a naturalistic worldview is still elusive to me.

    • “Why worry about the “usual debate over free will”?

      Because most of us care about whether any of us are morally responsible for our actions. The compatibilist claims we are. Hard determininsts like Coyne and Harris claim we aren’t

      “First you suggest that free choices require the ability to understand moral principles. But then you say that Deep Blue . . . *could* make a free choice. “

      My point is that there are multiple notions of “free.” Using one of those notions, computers are sometimes “free.” But using the notion that we’re interested in for the question of moral responsibility, no computer existing now has “free will.”

      Compare: Is the superbowl a “game”? (1) Yes. Football’s a game, and the superbowl is a football game. (2) No. It’s deadly serious business, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

      Point being: It depends on what you mean by “game.” Likewise, we use the term “free” to mean different things.

      “when and how it is meaningful to use the modifier “free” given a naturalistic worldview is still elusive to me.

      Here’s my suggestion.

      1. Let’s focus on the notion of freedom that’s tied to moral responsibility (so let’s ignore the sense in which your chess program is free — that’s not the notion we’re after).

      2. Let’s agree that the world is close enough to being deterministic at the level of human actions (if there is indeterminism, it’s not relevant for what we’re interested in).

      3. Now we need to ask what is our contrast class? What are paradigm examples of acts that are not performed “of our own free will”?

      4. The compatibilists says that paradigmatic cases that lack freedom are cases of coercion. If you didn’t eat because you were on a diet, you freely chose not to eat. If you didn’t eat because you’re trapped in the desert, then it wasn’t a free choice to refrain from eating.

      5. When you do have multiple options, and when you select one particular option, after careful sane deliberation, based on your desires, your commitments, your character, and your moral convictions, — and in the absence of external constraints — then you acted “of your own free will.” Perhaps not all of this needs to be required (e.g., perhaps I sometimes act freely without deliberating), but something in this neighborhood is sufficient.

  8. Well done, physicalist. Your Christmas present analogy is truly a gift.

  9. Pingback: Misunderstanding Compatibilists | Physicalism

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