The Times Literary Supplement, which I used to write for, doesn’t often make its articles free online, but this one was (click on screenshot below to see it). And it’s about free will: a review of three books on the topic (The Limits of Free Will: Selected essays by Paul Russell, Aspects of Agency: Decisions, abilities, explanations, and free will by Alfred R. Mele, and Self-Determination: The ethics of action – Volume One by Thomas Pink). The reviewer, Jenann Ismael, is a professor at Columbia University, specializing in, as her website reports, “Philosophy of Physics; Philosophy of Science; Philosophy of Mind; Epistemology; Metaphysics, with interests (and some expertise) in Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Literature, and Existentialism.” That’s a lot of expertise!
As is common in many book reviews, and in most of the good ones, the books themselves play a secondary role to the author’s ideas about the subject. The thing is, I’m not sure what the author’s ideas are, as she goes back and forth between hard determinism and “freedom”, trying, I guess, to forge some compatibilist view that gives us free will. It has something to do with “moral responsibility”, too; but the rather flabby article would have benefited from tighter writing and better editing.
Ismael starts out admitting that the laws of physics make it certain that we could not act other than what we did. She even goes so far as to claim that quantum indeterminacy would not affect her claim that everything we do was determined from the moment of the Big Bang. I don’t accept that, for I’m pretty sure (though I can’t prove it), that quantum indeterminacy made today’s actions fundamentally unpredictable, even if we knew the position of every particle in the Universe after the Big Bang. But since Ismael asserts that quantum mechanics and quantum field theory are not truly deterministic, I’m not sure how she claims that a rerun of the Big Bang would produce exactly the same results, right down to our choice of food the last time we went to a restaurant (or even if there would be restaurants!).
So be it. I’ll buy it since it’s irrelevant to her argument. For as Ismael admits, even quantum mechanics gives us no agency. In one of her better paragraphs, she says this:
Considering quantum mechanics helps us focus on the kind of control that seems essential to human freedom. We don’t want our actions to be controlled by the initial conditions of the universe, and we don’t want them to be controlled by random sub-microscopic events in the brain either. We want to control our own actions ourselves, and we think we do. We want to get ourselves into the causal chain. And we want our decisions to come from us.
But for her the important issue is that although determinism be true, and we couldn’t have chosen otherwise, it doesn’t square with our experience of agency:
This problem [of free will] has been around for millennia, but physics gives it a precise formulation and a concrete setting. It’s a beautiful problem because it brings physics into contact with issues of central human concern and forces us to think hard, in concrete detail, about what a scientific view of the world really entails about ourselves. The problem confronts us with a vision of human action that appears to be irreconcilable with the way we experience the world.
Well, lots of our experience is at odds with what science tells us. We experience a chair as a solid surface, yet most of it is empty space. And physics tells us that our experience of solidity is illusory, but also why we have that experience. In the case of free will, the so-called disconnect between our experience of agency and the reality of determinism may rest on evolution’s having instilled into our ancestors a sense of you-can-do-otherwise agency. It may have been illusory, but it may also have been adaptive. I can think of several reasons why selection would favor that cognitive illusion, but I won’t go into them here.
And there the issue should rest, but Ismael still can’t seem to reconcile our experience of agency with the reality of determinism. This, she says, tells us something important:
To most people, however, it seems literally unbelievable that the scales of fate don’t hang in the balance when making a difficult decision. And it is not just those dark nights of the soul where this matters. You think that you could cross the street here or there, pick these socks or those, go to bed at a reasonable hour or stay up, howl at the moon and eat donuts till dawn. Every choice is a juncture in history and it is up to you to determine which way to go.
Yet, if there is one foundational scientific fact, it is that things can’t happen that the laws of physics don’t allow. And the clash between these two things shows that there is something centrally important about ourselves and our position in the cosmos that we don’t understand.
Apparently—though in a way that she doesn’t make clear—the “centrally important” thing is our sense of moral responsibility—a sense that Ismael thinks is important to preserve. Again, I’d punt to evolution here, and simply say that “morality” is the word we use to describe the dos and don’ts of behavior instilled in us by both evolution and culture. Some animals have it, though not to the degree that we do, but a sense of “right and wrong” is not absolutely unique to humans. Still, the issue appears to keep Dr. Ismael awake at night.
She then describes in detail the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959—a story well known to those who have read Capote’s In Cold Blood. Surely Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the murders, were morally responsible for that horrific crime, no?
As I’ve said many times, I don’t think adding the word “morally” to the word “responsible” adds anything. In fact, it’s misleading, for to most people, if moral responsibility means anything it means that you could have done other than what you chose to do. I prefer to simply use the word “responsible”. Or, if you insist, “responsible for violating the social norms considered part of ‘morality’.” To me, the term “moral responsibility” is heavily freighted with libertarian free will, and should be, if not abandoned, heavily qualified, as I’ve just done. It is this feeling of moral responsibility that Ismael appears to find problematic in light of determinism:
It is the question of moral responsibility that transforms the problem from the relatively shallow one of reconciling the rigid necessity of physics with the felt spontaneity of action into one that engages with deep human questions about what we are, both as individuals and as a species. It also moves the question outside of the simple setting of physics. The question “what am I? And how do I fit into the universe?” is one of the oldest in philosophy. Linking the question to moral responsibility gives us more traction because it forces us to think about what makes another human being an appropriate target for moral emotions like praise and blame, not to mention love, admiration, anger and contempt. Science won’t answer these questions, but it provides us with the right setting in which to address them, if we do not want to rely on magical thinking.
Well, I think science could at least give us a purchase on these questions. Why do we even have notions of morality? Do most people really think that being morally responsible means that, at the moment of your decision, you could have chosen to do something other than what you did? I don’t think philosophy has much to add to this; in fact, I think philosophy has actually muddled thinking about free will by dragging in the inevitable compromise of compatibilism: the “little people” notion that we must have some notion of free will, despite physics, because without it society will fall apart. (They used to say the same thing about ideas of God.) Philosophers can’t even agree on what compatibilistic free will is!
And so, at the end, Ismael proposes, but not explicitly, her own idea of compatibilist free will:
We are shaped by our native dispositions and endowments, but we do make choices, and our choices come from us to the extent that they are expressions of our hopes and dreams, values and priorities. These are things actively distilled out of a history of personal experience, and they make us who we are. Freedom is not a grandiose metaphysical ability to subvene the laws of physics. It is the day-to-day business of making choices: choosing the country over the city, children over career, jazz over opera, choosing an occasional lie over a hurtful truth, hard work over leisure. It is choosing that friend, this hairstyle, maybe tiramisu over a tight physique, and pleasure over achievement. It is all of the little formative decisions that when all is said and done, make our lives our own creations.
This is freedom? Where is the freedom? I scrutinized this paragraph over and over, and I find no “freedom” in it. What I see is (as is common for compatibilists) a redefinition of “freedom” in which there are no degrees of freedom, no scope to do otherwise. For Ismael, your predetermined choices are called “free” because they are your choices, stemming from your personal experience (which is determined) and your genetic endowment (which is also determined).
It takes a special kind of slippery philosophy to engage in this kind of rhetoric. And, in fact, virtually every sentient organism has this kind of free will, including microbes, whose lives are also their own creations.
Truly, the idea that we have free will because our choices are the result of our unique combination of genes and environments mystifies me. After all, that same combination is what makes our choices predetermined. What we see here is a kind of Orwellian doublespeak: “DETERMINISM IS FREEDOM’.