Sunday, April 7, 2013

Free Will: Why it Doesn't Matter if Determinism is True

**This is from guest blogger, Michael Dean**

I find it fascinating that many arguments against free will take it as a crucial assumption that determinism is true. While I do believe determinism is true (at least at the macro level), I don’t think it really matters in regards to the debate about free will if determinism is true or not. I’m convinced the common notion of free will is simply a result of not paying enough attention to our own subjective experience. People believe they are the authors of their own thoughts. You contemplate options, and yes you do actually make decisions. But can you account for why you ultimately made the decisions you did? Sure, you can provide the reasons that swayed you, but can you tell me why those reasons were the most convincing to you? You could not have controlled which reasons were more convincing to you at the time anymore than you can control what reasons pop in your head in the first place. This is the nature of a stream of consciousness. Thoughts simply occur in our minds, and while there may be reasons why various thoughts occur to you, you are not the author of them. If determinism is true, then the thoughts are determined by prior events. If indeterminism is true, then they are not determined by prior events. Either way, you do not control what thoughts occur to you. So what’s the fuss about determinism?

Think of one kind of candy. Take your time and actually come to a decision about which kind of candy you want to have in your mind. Notice the process your mind just went through. Perhaps a variety of candy just popped in your head: skittles, reese’s, twix, whatchamacallit, etc. Can you account for why certain kinds of candy popped in your head and why others did not? Perhaps you can think of reasons why one kind of candy popped in your head and another didn’t, say you just saw Babe Ruth candy bars at the store earlier so it was in your recent memory, but did you choose to think of that candy bar? No, it simply occurred to you. Then you had to settle on one kind of candy. Can you account for why you settled on the candy you did? Maybe it was your favorite, or the most recent one you ate. Can you account for why that reason was the one that caused your final decision? No, it simply occurred to you. Even if you thought, “screw you Michael, I’m going to think of a kind of chip instead,” can you account for why you decided to be stubborn and not play along? Does it matter if the thought was determined by prior events? And where is the free will here either way?

This is not some sort of epiphenomenalism. Again, you are actually choosing to do something. I do not deny that. It is not as if your decisions do not matter, it is simply that you do not choose which thoughts will occur to you and how strong of an influence those thoughts will have on your ultimate actions. This does not preclude theories of rational choice and intentionality; in fact I think it illuminates the importance of these theories. Further, I think this does not preclude the importance of moral responsibility, or perhaps the rationale behind holding people morally accountable. I’ve said a lot already, so perhaps I will return to this in the comments if people are interested in how I think this cashes out.

6 comments:

Chelsea R. said...

I am eating candy right now- spooky.

I like that you talked about thoughts as examples of unchosen things. I've never heard this specific argument before and it it very interesting. I guess my question to you is that do you think there is a difference between something being determined by past experiences/laws of nature and something that seemingly occurs at random? Is it possible (if one believes in determinism) for a mental event to be random?

For the person who doesn't believe in determinism, his these thoughts of candy don't need a reason- they are just random.

Nathan T said...

Interesting- I think there's a lot of intuitive value in what you say, Michael. Combining both what you and Chelsea say, there seems to be a rather bizarre situation if determinism weren't true (or, perhaps, if mental states weren't caused). Imagine a case in which you're mad at your sibling and you feel like hitting them. You hit them. That was wrong. Let's say you're in the same situation and you don't decide whether or not to hit your sibling, but you suddenly have a seizure and your arm flies out and smacks him or her in the face. It doesn't seem that you're morally accountable because you didn't intend to hit them. And yet, if mental events are uncaused (because of a lack of determinsm), then what's the morally relevant difference between having a seizure in your arm and having a "mental seizure" in which you randomly choose to hit your sibling? It seems that a causal story is necessary to explain your action in a satisfying manner.

It seems you're going to maintain free will in a Lockean sense, in that while our actions might be determined, as long as our actions are not coerced from external sources, then our actions are free. I think this has some plausibility. However, what do you think about moral reformation or our ability to change who we are? If we are unable to change our thoughts or attitudes, it seems we're unable to control the thoughts that cause us to either become a moral or immoral person. When somebody changes, is it simply because they have a particularly strong thought that causes them to choose to do something new? If somebody doesn't have control over whether they become a moral saint or an evil villain, in what sense do we hold them morally accountable? Or is this not relevant?

Michael Dean Hebert said...

Hi Chelsea,

There is a clear difference between something determined by prior events and the laws of nature versus something that occurs at random. The event which occurs at random is uncaused; it simply occurs spontaneously. There may be limited options, say path A and path B, but there is no cause to which path is taken. Determinism is the denial that this is possible, and that whether path A or path B is taken is caused by a prior event. It was determined by the past combined with the laws of nature whether or not path A or path B would be taken.

If determinism is true, then no it is not possible for there to be a random mental event. If determinism is possible, then it is possible for there to be random mental events. Or at least it will be up for more debate. However, my larger point is that this debate is really irrelevant to whether free will exists or not. If determinism is false and there is no reason which caused the individual to pick a particular candy (that is, the candy which is chosen is randomly chosen) then I do not see where the free will is in this picture. I agree it's random, but this is no argument for free will. I don't think the picture is any brighter if you argue that determinism is true for the reasons I laid out in my post.

Hi Nathan,

You highlight an interesting case. If there are random mental events, then my picture of moral accountability might not hold together as well as I thought. Let me try to sketch out how I think moral accountability works to show why.

The largest difference between punching your sibling because of a seizure in your arm and the 'mental seizure' is that when you have a mental seizure, we learn something about the state of your mind, your conscious processes. We learn that you have mental impulses which are dangerous to others. For the same reason that we might put you on some sort of medication to avoid muscle seizures to keep you from being a danger to others in yourself, we may put you on mental drugs, put you in therapy, or send you to jail if you are dangerous enough. The most moral actions are going to be the ones which lead to minimizing the danger you pose to others. While I may not hold you responsible for such an event because I do not say you acted out of free will in either case, the rationale behind holding you morally accountable is straightforward: to maximize happiness (positive mental states) and to minimize suffering. This is why we may hold the person who carefully plans out his attack even more morally accountable than the mental seizure (in fact, we do this already in documented cases of people with brain tumors which induce violent behavior). You're correct that if there is no causal story it will be harder to hold someone morally accountable since the causal story is what causes the discrepancy between these cases.

Free will in the Lockean sense can probably be maintained under my system. Stampe (from UW-Madison) also has a view of free will which might fit under my system. I simply maintain that these views of free will do not capture the intuitive notion of free will. I'm unsure who said it (perhaps Locke himself?), but I'll paraphrase a quote which probably sums up my thoughts - "You can do what you will, but you cannot will what you will." We hold the moral saint and the evil villain accountable for what actions they cause of conscious volition, but on a more fundamental level I do not believe they had free will on their paths to becoming the respective people they are. An important outcome of this is that the rationale behind hating the evil villain is untenable. It is unfortunate that they are who they are and we should take the necessary precautions to minimize the suffering they cause, but there is no further need to punish them for the evil they cause. Further, we are incredibly lucky to be the people we are (assuming all you readers are morally good/happy people).

Michael Dean Hebert said...

Hi Chelsea,

There is a clear difference between something determined by prior events and the laws of nature versus something that occurs at random. The event which occurs at random is uncaused; it simply occurs spontaneously. There may be limited options, say path A and path B, but there is no cause to which path is taken. Determinism is the denial that this is possible, and that whether path A or path B is taken is caused by a prior event. It was determined by the past combined with the laws of nature whether or not path A or path B would be taken.

If determinism is true, then no it is not possible for there to be a random mental event. If determinism is possible, then it is possible for there to be random mental events. Or at least it will be up for more debate. However, my larger point is that this debate is really irrelevant to whether free will exists or not. If determinism is false and there is no reason which caused the individual to pick a particular candy (that is, the candy which is chosen is randomly chosen) then I do not see where the free will is in this picture. I agree it's random, but this is no argument for free will. I don't think the picture is any brighter if you argue that determinism is true for the reasons I laid out in my post.

Hi Nathan,

You highlight an interesting case. If there are random mental events, then my picture of moral accountability might not hold together as well as I thought. Let me try to sketch out how I think moral accountability works to show why.

The largest difference between punching your sibling because of a seizure in your arm and the 'mental seizure' is that when you have a mental seizure, we learn something about the state of your mind, your conscious processes. We learn that you have mental impulses which are dangerous to others. For the same reason that we might put you on some sort of medication to avoid muscle seizures to keep you from being a danger to others in yourself, we may put you on mental drugs, put you in therapy, or send you to jail if you are dangerous enough. The most moral actions are going to be the ones which lead to minimizing the danger you pose to others. While I may not hold you responsible for such an event because I do not say you acted out of free will in either case, the rationale behind holding you morally accountable is straightforward: to maximize happiness (positive mental states) and to minimize suffering. This is why we may hold the person who carefully plans out his attack even more morally accountable than the mental seizure (in fact, we do this already in documented cases of people with brain tumors which induce violent behavior). You're correct that if there is no causal story it will be harder to hold someone morally accountable since the causal story is what causes the discrepancy between these cases.

Free will in the Lockean sense can probably be maintained under my system. Stampe (from UW-Madison) also has a view of free will which might fit under my system. I simply maintain that these views of free will do not capture the intuitive notion of free will. I'm unsure who said it (perhaps Locke himself?), but I'll paraphrase a quote which probably sums up my thoughts - "You can do what you will, but you cannot will what you will." We hold the moral saint and the evil villain accountable for what actions they cause of conscious volition, but on a more fundamental level I do not believe they had free will on their paths to becoming the respective people they are. An important outcome of this is that the rationale behind hating the evil villain is untenable. It is unfortunate that they are who they are and we should take the necessary precautions to minimize the suffering they cause, but there is no further need to punish them for the evil they cause. Further, we are incredibly lucky to be the people we are (assuming all you readers are morally good/happy people).

Kyle said...

Something about your account didn't sit right with me upon my first reading of it, but now I think I've figured out what it is. The picture you paint of determinism I think is fine, but when you speak of a world in which determinism is false is where you lose me.

If determinism is false, then you seem to be suggesting that one's thought of a particular candy bar when tasked to think of one is not of one's design. One isn't truly the author of one's thoughts, as it were, but is rather subjected to them via this stream of consciousness of which you speak. The problem I have with this understanding is twofold: 1) if not your thoughts, what constitutes "you"? What constitutes the idea of Michael Dean Hebert in the minds of others is most likely your personality, your actions, your beliefs, etc. If determinism is false, under your understanding of that world, these mental facets that others attribute to you are things you are afflicted by rather than participatory in, that don't actually define you as an individual, which, to my intuitions, seems absurd. You're a man who has a propensity to pick Skittles when given the option, not someone who's berated by the thought of Skittles to the point of submission. 2) I think your account of thought even in an indeterminate universe is unfairly deterministic to really allow for there to be a significant distinction between the two. Even when free from the bonds of determinism, what both subjects agents to their thoughts yet allows them to freely choose between them? Is a choice not a thought? If one is subjected to one's thoughts rather than participatory in them, it seems that one is subjected to one's choices as well, seeing as how they are also thoughts. While this view may be your own interpretation of indeterminism, I think it's ultimately a straw-man. Those against determinism likely hold that position as their intuitions are such that either their thoughts are of their own authorship, that they aren't simply things they're subjected to, including their choices. By denying this premise, I don't think you're accurately addressing the indeterminist account of thoughts and choices.

Jordan Bowe said...

Hi Michael,
Your post highly relates to a Psychology book I'm reading (or at least was reading over spring break) called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. A lot of what I have gotten through so far supports what you're saying about how you don't necessarily control what thoughts occur to you or how strong of an influence those thoughts have on your actions.

A study at Duke University found that more than 40% of the actions people perform each day aren't actual decisions, but habits. Habit being defined as: the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day. The way our brains create these habits is by a process they call "chunking" where the brain converts a sequence of habits into an automatic routine. It's a way our brain saves effort and once learned our brain clings to them, pretty much to the exclusion of all else (even common sense).

Here's the key thing-- It's possible for us to learn and make unconscious choices (like what candybar I want right now, what pair of socks I grab, the way I walk to class) without remembering anything at all about the lesson or decision-making! We sometimes (I'd argue often) don't remember the experience that created our habit in the first place. Those prior events cause current actions, often unconsciously. So what may seem like a "random" choice is determined by our brain, which created a habit due to a reinforced loop (consisting of a cue, routine and reward).

This may be going to into depth, or not enough, but either way it's an awesome book and seems to relate a lot to this discussion. I do agree that whether or not determinism is true, it doesn't affect the argument of free will-- if understood correctly.

I also read in a psychology class this semester that it's been shown when faced with a decision our emotions are the primary decision maker, followed by rational thought. Basically we use logic to rationalize the decision we already made based on emotion. This could help explain why it is so hard to vocalize why it was skittles that you chose and not any other candy. Perhaps you have had a couple experiences in the past where you were eating skittles in a certain context and something good happened to you, your brain stored that connection, and when asked later, in the same context, your brain unconsciously jumps to skittles as the thing you want to get that reward (the good feeling).

Nathan, I'm currently getting through the chapter on how to change habits, which relates to your question about people's ability to change our thoughts or attitudes. Perhaps I'll be able to offer some information about that soon enough!