Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Or Not Do In Some Relevantly Similar Possible World

As I discussed in the first post on the free will topic, the idea that we are free seems obviously true. This is the intuitive position on the free will debate, or what we can refer to as the received view or the common sense view: we have free will. It is essentially the default position, one for which mountains of introspective evidence can be assembled.

But what is exactly meant when we say that we are free? According to just about any doctrine of free will, when I make a decision a few different things have to obtain in order for us to call the decision free. First, it must be possible for me to have done otherwise. At the moment of decision, it must be the case that given a list of possible choices, it is in a real sense undetermined which action I will select. Second, I (as an independent agent) am the cause of the action that I undertake. The decision I make is the result of my deliberation and my desires. Third, I am responsible for my decision. This follows from the conjunction of the two other, but is important enough to emphasize separately. In what follows I'll briefly sketch what is entailed by each of these components of free decisions, why we think it's important, and touch on some of the reasons for the belief that each of components really does obtain when we make decisions.

First is the notion that we could have done otherwise. There is certainly a lot of philosophical ink that has been spilled in fleshing out this notion, but it is in the end relatively straightforward, I think. The notion that we could have done otherwise can be expressed thus: at the moment that I decide to do X it is possible that I might choose otherwise, even if the background conditions for my decision (i.e., everything else in the universe including facts about me) are exactly the same as they are at the moment I choose to X. In other words, there is some possible world up to the moment of my decision that is identical to the one in which I X, but in which I do not X.

Why do we care about this? First and foremost, the notion of responsibility appears to be at least partially dependent on the notion that an agent could have done otherwise. If you wish to praise or blame me for Xing, then it certainly seems to make more sense to do so if not Xing was a live option for me at the moment I decided to X. But further than this, the idea that I could not have done otherwise seems to undermine the idea that I have any control over my own action. If not Xing was never really an option for me, then it isn't immediately obvious that I can be said to have even chosen to X in any relevant sense. Xing becomes something that simply happens to me.

The evidence of our ability to do otherwise has been under fire for some time, but perhaps we have good reason for holding on to the common sense notion. Our own introspection and observation of our ability to choose provide the most pervasive evidence that we are free. Some philosophers (Descartes, for instance) have even gone so far as to assert that free will is a fact that doesn't require defending. It has to be admitted by even the staunchest defender of determinism that we at least seem to be free; in the absence of countervailing proof, we are probably justified in maintaining the belief in free will, at least provisionally. So any fully developed attack on free will would need to account for that feeling of really choosing as well as explain how the illusion of freedom arises.

More evidence comes from the fact that some experimental evidence that purportedly shows free will to be an illusion is perhaps not as cut and dry as it first appear. A blogpost clearly is not the place to  undertake a survey of relevant neuroscience, and I 'm not exactly qualified to do so at any rate. But a brief discussion of an oft used example might be in order. Perhaps the most widely cited experiment that points away from our ability to do otherwise is the famous study of readiness potential in voluntary action by Libet. Very briefly, what the Libet experiments appear to show is that our brains begin to put us into action before we are conscious of having deciding to act. But it is possible that these experiments do not prove all that determinists try to use them to prove. Libet, for instance, did not endorse such a reading, instead claiming that they were compatible with a version of the will as a vetoer of actions. Other researchers have argued that the readiness potential phenomenon Libet discovered is not actually related to decisions themselves, but rather to the brain being in a state of attention (see the discussion here).

The second component, if I'm going to call my Xing a genuinely free action, is that the action must be the result of me as an agent. Getting clear about exactly what is entailed in agency is not simple, but I think a useful way to think about agency is to start with the idea that there are a number of properties that I might have that have causal powers in the world, but not all of them are agential properties. Those properties that are relevant to my exercising free choice as an agent are those that are relevant to my decision making processes: my capacity to deliberate, my willingness to be responsive to reasons, my level of understanding of the true options before me, etc. Emotional faculties also play a role. Damasio has argued convincingly in Descartes' Error that there is an emotional component to our rationality such that if a person lacks the requisite structure to his emotional life he will be unable to adequately engage in the practical decision making that we expect. (I'll note here, without addressing it, that many of these agentially relevant features are unchosen by me, which is cause for concern for someone who wants to develop a full account of agency and freedom.)

Why do I care about this? When I X, it is important to me that my Xing is not merely the result of random chance or statistical probabilities. If we think in terms of possible worlds, then what we want from a theory of the will is an account that makes something about me related to my decision to X the "difference maker" between the possible worlds in which I choose to X and the possible worlds in which I choose not to X. If we establish the ability to do otherwise but only in the sense that there the distribution of Xing across possible worlds is simply the result of some statistical laws (like the possible worlds in which I toss heads instead of tails) or some random quantum fluctuations. Otherwise the ability to have done otherwise is unconnected to me, and doesn't support the notion that it is me that is acting.

These two combine to give us what we care about most in regards to discussions of free will, which is moral responsibility. Without the ability to do otherwise, responsibility seems ill placed. If my decision to X is determined by a chain prior causes that reach back to before I was born, then it is difficult to argue that I am responsible for Xing, since I could not have done otherwise. We don't hold objects and beings responsible without the ability to do otherwise. Similarly, without locating the cause of my action in one of my agentially relevant properties it would make no sense to say that I'm responsible for an action or event.

Why do we care about responsibility? The obvious answer is, because we want to know whether we can praise or blame others justifiably, reward or punish appropriately, and have reliable expectations of other people and ourselves. Nearly the entire structure of our interpersonal relationships hinges on the idea that we are free. Moral instruction, for example, is obviously built on the notion of free will. Early on children are taught what what ought to be done in given circumstances. But if we ought to do something this implies we can do it by choice, and the fact that we do it by choice implies that we can similarly not do it by contrary choice. It is unclear how moral education can even proceed if there is no free will. Would we say, "Do X. But only if causal factors beyond your control necessitate it in a deterministic fashion." But pushing the idea further, what sense does it make to even talk about how we should proceed with moral education in the absence of free will? Absent free will we have no control over how we do anything, including how we structure our moral education!

So the ability to do otherwise and the notion of myself as a causal agent can combine to provide us with a coherent route to moral responsibility that determinism seems to lack. The question is, how plausible are these two components, given the arguments for determinism? And, if they are not plausible in the end, is there another route to moral responsibility (or something close enough) through determinism? There is differing opinion about this on the part of determinists and compatibilists. It's to these I'll turn in upcoming posts.

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