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):
- It doesn’t matter what I decide (because the outcome is already determined).
- I don’t have any real choice (because what I’ll do is already decided).
- I couldn’t have done otherwise (because the laws of nature determined my action).
- 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.