In the May 4 New York Times, culture reporter Reggie Ugwu interviewed Sean Carroll about the recent television series “Westworld” (HBO) and “Devs” (FX on Hulu). Sean watched both shows and gives his reactions, then discusses the premises of the shows. Since I’ve seen only two episodes of one show (“Westworld”), and none of the other, I’ll let you read Sean’s take. Instead I’ll concentrate on one of the big topics of the interview as well as a pet interest of mine: free will.
Sean is a “compatibilist”: someone who, while admitting that our behaviors are determined in the sense that that laws of physics “fix the facts”, as Alex Rosenberg claims, including the facts of our behaviors, still avers that we can sensibly speak of “making a choice”. That is, while we could not have “chosen” other than what we did, we can still talk about “making a choice” and even pretend to ourselves that we really did make a “libertarian” choice where, at a given point, we could have made several alternative decisions.
I have no objection to saying that we have “free will” in the sense that we behave as if we did, though what rankles me are two things. First, philosophers dealing with the issue tend to concentrate on the “we really have a free will” part and downplay the determinism part, which to my mind is the part that has real ramifications for human behavior. Second, I think they do this (Dan Dennett has said so explicitly) because they think that if people realize that they don’t have a “free” choice and could not have made other choices, society will fall apart, with all of us, feeling like automatons or puppets, becoming nihilists unable to rise from our beds. That, of course, is false. I’m a “hard determinist” and get out of bed every day, and I realize that my “agency” is illusory even though I feel that it’s real. And if you’re a philosopher who argues for compatibilism in this way, it is condescending, for it tries to buttress most peoples’ feelings that they have libertarian free will. It’s exactly like those cynical theologians who don’t really believe in God, but think that it’s good for people to do so, as it keeps them on the straight and narrow. It’s odd that Dan Dennett, who’s demolished the theological argument as “belief in belief”, does nearly the same thing with free will.
There are a few more issues that compatibilists like to bring up.
Nobody really accepts libertarian I-could-have-chosen-otherwise free will. That may be true among non-theological philosophers, but not among the public, with 60-85% of people surveyed in four countries saying that we live in a universe that has libertarian free will. And ask a religionist, one who thinks that one has a free choice to accept Jesus, God, or Allah, if they are really determinists at bottom. With the exceptions of Calvinists and a few other sects, they’ll say “Hell, no!” (Well, they’d probably leave out the “hell.”)
Even if our behaviors are determined, it wouldn’t make a difference to society if we espouse some form of free will. This is palpably untrue. Although some philosophers as well as some readers here say, “there are no consequences of determinism”, I think that’s cant and, indeed, somewhat disingenuous. Our whole legal system has a retributivist bent that comes from punishing people because we think they could have made a better choice than they did. Likewise, poor people are often held responsible for their own circumstances (viz. Reagan’s “welfare queens”), so that people ultimately get what they deserve. This is called the “Just World” view of life.
And if you don’t believe that, look at the Sarkissian et al. study of those four countries: 60-75% of people surveyed thought that if they lived in a deterministic universe and could not have chosen other than they did, then people would not be morally responsible for their actions. This, I believe, is the reason why some philosophers like Dan Dennett, though avowing otherwise (but contradicting himself in other places), espouse compatibilism: if you tell people they have free will, they consider themselves morally responsible for their actions. And, said Dennett, if they don’t, then society will fall apart.
My response to that is that we can have more justifiable and more ethically based systems of reward and punishment if we don’t accept that people could have done other than what they did. They can be held responsible for their actions, and rewarded or punished (the latter on the basis of deterring them, sequestering them from the public, or reforming them), but not morally responsible for their actions. For “moral responsibility”, as with the people surveyed above, implies libertarian free will and can justify retributive punishment. (That said, I don’t object to the use of “moral” to characterize” what comports with human ethics”. But I dislike the term “morally responsible”, which smacks of free choice.
Compatibilists have not settled on a definition of “free will”. To one compatibilist, free will means freedom from obvious coercion. To another, it’s that we have complex processing in our brain that spits out a decision that’s gone through an involved (and evolved) program. To a third, it’s somebody who’s sane enough to understand the consequences of their actions. There are as many definitions of “free will” as there are compatibilist philosophers. So when you say “we have free will”, you better be damn sure that you add exactly what you mean, explain why your compatibilistic “free will” is not only different from others, but is better than others.
Enough. In his interview, Sean not only admits that he’s a determinist (and a compatibilist, which he lays out in his book The Big Picture), but comes surprisingly close to saying that determinism should affect our view of human behavior. I’ll quote a few of his answers (indented) and make a few comments:
First, Sean’s definition of determinism:
A common thread between the two shows is the conflict between free will vs. determinism. Can you explain what determinism is?
Determinism is basically the idea that if you knew everything that was happening in the universe at one moment, then you would know, in principle, everything that was going to happen in the future, and everything that did happen in the past, with perfect accuracy. Pierre-Simone Laplace pointed this out in the 1800s using a thought experiment called Laplace’s Demon.
Well, that’s his view of determinism, but I would rather use the world “naturalism”. For, if quantum mechanics be true, there are things that we couldn’t predict even if we had perfect knowledge of the Universe—like when a given radioactive atom will decay. And this means that even if we knew everything happening in the universe at one time, predictions might be inaccurate. I myself have argued that perhaps even evolution is unpredictable with perfect knowledge if mutation involves quantum processes. If that’s the case—and we don’t know—then the fuel for evolutionary change is unpredictable, and hence so is evolution.
Below is Sean’s compatibilism. Most readers here probably agree with it, and I don’t disagree unless one emphasizes the free will part and not the determinism part. All the following emphases in bold are mine, in which Sean makes it clear that we could not have done other than what we did.
Let’s talk about free will. Do we have it?
It’s complicated, and I apologize for that, but it’s worth getting right. The very first question we have to ask is: Are we human beings 100 percent governed by the laws of physics? Or do we, as conscious creatures, have some wiggle room that allows us to act in ways that are outside of the laws of physics? Almost all scientists will tell you that of course it’s the former. If you jump out of a window, the laws of physics say that you are going to hit the ground. You can use all of the free will you want, but it’s not going to stop you from hitting the ground. So why would you think that it works any differently when you go to decide what shirt you’re going to wear in the morning? It’s the same laws of physics. It’s just that one case is a more crude prediction and the other case is a more detailed prediction.
Good, Dr. Carroll! We obey the laws of physics when we “choose” a shirt to wear.
Did I make the choice to pick up the phone and call you?
Short answer: yes. Long answer: It depends on what you mean by “you” and “make the choice.” At one level, you’re a collection of atoms obeying the laws of physics. No choices are involved there. But at another level, you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices. The two levels are compatible, but speak very different languages. This is the “compatibilist” stance toward free will, which is held by a healthy majority of professional philosophers.
I think this is a bit confusing given that most people think that the words “you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices” means “FREE” choices. Now Sean takes care to make the distinction between determinism and the illusion of free choice, but I couch the distinction in a way very different from Sean, emphasizing the determinism. The rest is semantics, often (not with Sean!) constructed to fool people into behaving morally.
Here Ugwu asks a good question, and Sean answers with the traditional form of compatibilism.
But isn’t that a rhetorical sleight of hand? If our choices are fully predetermined by physical processes outside of our control and beneath our consciousness, are they really choices? Or is that just a story we’re telling ourselves?
I think it’s the same as the chair you’re sitting on. Is it an illusion because it’s really just a bunch of atoms? Or is it really a chair? It’s both. You can talk about it as a set of atoms, but there’s nothing wrong with talking about it as a chair. In fact, you would be dopey to not talk about it as a chair, to insist that the only way to talk about it was as a set of atoms. That’s how nature is. It can be described using multiple different vocabularies at multiple different levels of precision.
At the level of precision where we’re talking about human beings and tables and chairs, you just can’t talk that way without talking about people making choices. There’s just no way to do it. You can hypothesize, “What if I had infinite powers and I knew where all the atoms were and I knew all the laws of physics.” Fine. But that’s not reality. If you’re reality based, then you have to talk about choices.
In his response below, Sean comes about as close as he ever has to saying that there are tangible social effects of accepting determinism (again, the emphasis in the third paragraph is mine).
On both shows, the laws of physics are used to reframe the idea of morality. On “Devs,” Forest makes the argument that determinism is “absolution.” And there’s an idea in “Westworld” that humans are just “passengers”; forces beyond our control are behind the wheel. When you see people on the news, or even when you think about the people in your own life, does your belief in determinism affect the way you judge their behavior?
Not really, no. As long as you’re talking about a human-scale world. This idea that we are just puppets is clearly a mistake. It’s mixing up two different ways of talking about the world. There’s a way of talking about human beings going through their lives and making choices. There’s another way of talking about the laws of physics being deterministic and so forth. Those are two different ways — pick one.
[Carroll] Now, there are situations where we might learn that the choices that we thought people had are more circumscribed than we knew, either because of their biology or because of mental health issues, or what have you. By all means, take that into consideration. But that’s very human-scale stuff. If a person could not have acted otherwise, then you don’t hold them responsible in the same way. It’s not a matter of cutting edge science, it’s ancient law.
Well, ancient law isn’t that clear cut! For law, ancient and modern, is largely based on the premise that in some cases people could have acted otherwise. But they couldn’t—not ever! So we shouldn’t hold people responsible as if they could have acted otherwise. And that has enormous ramifications for the legal system. We already have “not guilty by reason of insanity”, but we should have “guilty of doing an act, but punished in light of the knowledge that they couldn’t have acted other than what they did.” I’ve always thought that the court should determine responsibility, but another agency should determine “punishment”, and in light of determinism.
I wish that Sean would discuss the ramification of that “human-scale stuff”, because that’s what’s important to society. Sean clearly implies that the law under determinism would be different from the law under libertarianism (or perhaps even compatibilism). And in that he does differ from people like Dennett and many of the readers here. I’d love to have a discussion about all this with Sean some day.