On Bee’s Free Will


Sabine Hossenfelder, over at her Backreaction blog, is arguing for hard determinism — that is, for the claim that we don’t have free will.

She’s making the mistake that many (but not all) scientists make when they confront this question: she’s assuming that the libertarian analysis of freedom is correct, she’s not recognizing the compatibilist’s account of free will, and she’s slipping into conflating determinism and fatalism.

To quickly recap, libertarians believe that we can be free only if our decisions are not fixed by pre-existing physical laws and facts (or any pre-existing laws and facts, for that matter). If we make a free choice, they say, then it is impossible that anyone — even a Laplacean Demon — would be able to predict the action I choose. Determinism is not compatible with freedom.

Compatibilists (also known as soft determinists) argue that it doesn’t matter if our actions are the result of physical laws and pre-existing facts. The only think that matters is whether we acted because we wanted to act in that way. As long as we weren’t coerced, as long as nothing forced us to do something against our will then we acted freely. Free will is compatible with determinism.

I’ve made the case for compatibilism before, so I won’t rehash it all here. But I do want to step through and highlight the specific point where Bee (I hope Dr. Hossenfelder won’t be offended if I use her nickname in the informal context of blogging, even though we aren’t acquaintances) goes astray.

The first problem is that Bee doesn’t seem to be familiar with the compatibilist position on free will. She lists three objections that she typically hears raised against her denial of freedom: (1) the practical impossibility of predicting future actions; (2) quantum randomness falsifying determinism; and (3) a denial of reductionism.

As she quite rightly argues, none of these objections hold up.

But I am a bit surprised that she hasn’t heard more about compatibilism. Most philosophers think compatibilism is the right way to go, and I would have thought that it had trickled out into society at large enough to at least make itself known. (Wikipedia does an OK job.)

Hard determinism is the view that free will requires the sort of freedom from laws that the libertarians insist on, but we don’t have that sort of freedom. So we don’t have free will. This is the position that Bee is arguing for.

It seems to me that most of the arguments for hard determinism grow out of a failure to distinguish between determinism and fatalism. “Fatalism” in this context means that there are some things that will happen no matter what.

So, if the Fates say that you’re going to kill your father and sleep with your mother, then it doesn’t matter whether you run off to another country to avoid that possibility, or remain home and ignore the prediction — it’s going to happen either way.

If an event is fated, then your decisions don’t matter. You choose to live a life of pacifism and celibacy: it doesn’t matter you still kill dad and sleep with mom. You choose to convince yourself that incest is fine: you kill dad and sleep with mom. You choose to have yourself locked away in prison to avoid your awful fate: well, you still kill dad and sleep with mom.

However, determinism is not fatalism. In a deterministic world, your choice matters. It makes a difference. Your choice to go to college causally affects the rest of your life. If you instead chose to skip college and jump straight into a job, then the events of your life would be different.

Choices causally matter — they make a difference — even though the world is (effectively) deterministic. And compatibilists claim that this is all the freedom we can make sense of, and all the freedom we could reasonably want.

Now, Bee comes closer than most hard determinists to recognizing these facts, but it doesn’t quite prevent her from denying free will.

She recognizes that determinism doesn’t imply fatalism when she counsels us on “how to live without free will” (as she titles her post):

Free will or not, you have a place in history . . . you still make decisions. You cannot not make decisions. You may as well be smart about it.

Here she’s got it right. We make decisions, and those decisions shape our future. This is just an obvious part of the deterministic account of the world.

But she doesn’t seem to realize that this undercuts her earlier claims that we don’t have free will. For example, she says

You have free will if your decisions select one of several possible futures. But there is no place for such a selection in the laws of nature that we know.

But on the determistic account, my decisions do “select one of several possible futures.” They don’t break the laws of physics to do so, obviously, but they are physical things that have a physical impact on future events. As she said earlier, we have a place in history. Our decisions have a place in history. They make one future come about rather than another by being a physical thing at a certain place at a certain time.

Just as an asteroid striking the Earth 65 million years ago made one future come about, and not some other possible future, so too my decisions make some events rather than others happen in my life. I do select one future over another — it’s just that that process is effectively deterministic. I don’t violate any physical laws when I do it. But why would I want to violate physical laws anyway?

5 responses to “On Bee’s Free Will

  1. Dear Physicalist: You wrote, “But on the [deterministic] account, my decisions do ‘select one of several possible futures’.” Bee might object, “Those alternative futures *aren’t* all physically possible, because on the deterministic account every alternative except the actual future is ruled out by the combination of prior conditions and the laws of nature.” Until I make my choice, each alternative future is possible only epistemically: i.e., only because of our ignorance (each alternative will be actual for all we know beforehand). Maybe, then, it would be better to *deny* that choosing freely requires selecting from among alternatives each of which is physically possible.

    • Yes, I think this is a line she might take — I’d like to hear what she as to say on the matter. But I don’t think it really changes the story.

      The notion of “physically possible” is a bit ambiguous. It could mean what is possible given only the laws nature, and supposing that the state of the universe is slightly different at a given time.

      Or it could mean what is possible given both the laws and the complete state of the universe. But if we have this latter notion in mind, then (if determinism is true) the only thing that is physically possible is the actual history of the universe.

      But typically we have the former notion in mind. If I ask whether it’s physically possible to break a steel bowl, one might answer, “Yes, it’s possible; you’d have to hit it with a sledgehammer, though. Please don’t!” That is, it’s physically possible to break it even though it never will be broken — given the actual state of the universe.

      It would be somewhat perverse to say that it’s physically impossible to break a thin crystal vase just because in the actual history of the universe it sits safely intact. Almost always, when we talk about possibility, we’re talking about what *would* happen if circumstances were slightly different.

      But I agree that there are tricky notions here with epistemic possibility vs. metaphysical possibility. I just think when you sort them all out correctly, the compatibilist is clearly right when she says that we choose (and so contribute to the actuality of) one of several genuine possibilities.

  2. I can see your opponent replying, “Fine. I’ll give you the weaker reading of ‘physically possible’. Nevertheless, determinism says that only one future is causally open to us (i.e., permitted by the combination of prior conditions and the laws): we never choose between two or more causally open alternatives.” I think the correct reply is “Choosing freely and responsibly doesn’t require causally open alternatives.” Would you agree?

    • Yes, that is the line an incompatibilist (i.e. a libertarian or hard determinist) will take. Obviously there are philosophers who understand the point I’m making but don’t agree with it.

      (Although I will say that it’s usually libertarians who might fall into this camp. There aren’t many hard determinists in philosophy — they tend to be folks without philosophical training. And libertarians tend to be theists who are comfortable postulating miraculous forms of causation to have a version of free will that gets the gods off the hook for evil.)

      So ultimately it is going to come down to whether you think we need a supernatural physics-violating form of freedom to have moral responsibility.

      As you say, compatibilists are arguing that we don’t. Indeed we’ll often argue that the notion of fully contra-causal decisions doesn’t even make sense; and even if you could make sense of it, there’s no reason anyone would want it.

      I think most hard determinists coming at this from the sciences (e.g. Hossenfelder, Harris, Coyne) have views that are more in line with compatibilism, though — they just think the have to buy into the simplistic notion of freedom championed by dualists — people who think that we are nonphysical souls, so if the physics is doing the work, then there’s nothing left for *me* to do. So it can’t be my fault, it wasn’t *my* decision, and so on.

      But once you realize that the physics doing something *just is* my doing it, it’s easier to see that we have real choices that we’re responsible for.

  3. Pingback: Les philosophes ne comprennent rien à la liberté | Monsieur Phi

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