Tom Clark called my attention to this essay on free will published by philosopher Julian Baggini in Psyche, adding this:
If you’ve not already seen it, Baggini has about the best version of compatibilist free will I’ve come across, It’s explicit about determinism and how things change under it, including abandoning retribution.
But I think Baggini comes a cropper on three issues, all involving compatibilism. First, he thinks that we need a notion of compatibilist free will to act as a form of social glue, because psychology studies show that abandoning the notion of “contracausal” free will makes people cheat more often (see below about that) and also may make them abandon the notion that they’re “responsible” for anything (more about that later, too). Second, I don’t think Baggini makes a good case why we need some form of “compatibilist” free will. I don’t think that with this he’s arguing here that we use the term “free will” as a shorthand even though we may be hard determinists, and that “compatibilist” free will is just a shorthand for this argot. Rather, I think he goes beyond this. Indeed, my third issue is that he formulates a form of “compatibilist free will” that, to me, is no different from hard determinism.
That said, I think that about 80% of this article is good, and is certainly worth reading. Baggini writes clearly, and for your friends who claim that determinism isn’t something anyone believes, point them to this piece. But even better, point them to Sam Harris’s short book Free Will, a book with which I have no major disagreements. (As usual, we tend to recommend books with which we have the most agreement!) Sam’s small paperback is only $8 on Amazon. I should add that Baggini has also written a book on free will, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will (2015), which I haven’t read but will.
Click to read Baggini’s piece. It’s not short, but worthwhile for free-will mavens and philosophers.
Baggini’s first point is to assert the hegemony of determinism and to reject libertarian “you could have done otherwise” free will. This is from his summary of major points:
- All your choices are in a sense inevitable. A lot of the time, you might feel as though you have freedom to act as you wish (a view known as ‘voluntarism’), but taking into account your history, personality, mood and other factors, there is in fact an inevitability to everything you do.
- There’s no escaping the chain of cause and effect. Even quantum physics and the randomness of quantum causation cannot offer us an escape because the ability to act randomly is not the same as having free will.
And that’s that. He also notes the increasing number of brain-monitoring studies showing that our “decisions” (granted, simple ones) are made before we’re conscious of having made them:
The final nail in free will’s coffin seems to come from neuroscience. Various brain studies have claimed to show that actions are initiated in the brain before we have any awareness of having made a decision. In other words, the thought ‘I’ll choose that’ comes after the choice is made. Actions are determined by unconscious, unchosen brain processes, and the feeling of having made a decision comes later. On this view, believing that these thoughts have any role in determining what we do would be like mistaking the noise made by an engine for the force that powers it.
People object to this, saying that the decisions studied are simple binary ones (add or subtract, decide when to move a finger), but they’re getting better and the results are still the same. To those who claim that more “complex” decisions are not made before we’re aware of them, or are the results of libertarian choice, the onus is on them to give evidence instead of carping about existing studies.
As do many compatibilists, though, Baggini tries to show that determinism is really the situation we want, for libertarian free will is “capricious”. We should (and do) make decisions in line with what we really want, and that’s good.
Take the assumption that we would be robbed of an essential human capacity for choice if our decisions were in any sense inevitable. But imagine what would need to be true for your choice not to have been inevitable. It would mean that you had the power to override your settled preferences, personality and life history, and could decide to do something that is not determined by these but only by something we call your ‘free will’. Such a freedom would be gratuitous, since the only grounds for our choice would be the power to choose itself. Is pure caprice really a form of free will worth wanting?
To take a trivial example, we don’t want the capacity to choose any flavour of ice-cream but the one we think we’ll most enjoy. We don’t want the capacity to vote for any political party but the one that we think will most advance our values. Our freedom to choose matters precisely because it reflects our personalities, preferences and values, not because it can override them. Our moral and political commitments would mean nothing if they were things we could choose to change at will.
Although ice-cream choice (why do people always use ice cream as an example?) is determined, is it certain that it’s to your benefit that it be determined? Perhaps if you had a “capricious” desire to try a new flavor, you’d decide that you like it and then could have a new flavor in your panoply of preferences. I haven’t thought much about this, but it seems as if Baggini is making a virtue of necessity, and that in some circumstances libertarian free will might be useful (i.e., a robber decides not to pull the trigger of a gun). But given that this isn’t possible, we’re pretty much stuck with determinism.
I’ll highlight five other points in Baggini’s piece.
a.) Properly, Baggini notes that “praise and blame don’t depend on absolute freedom”. He notes, and I agree, that the concept of “responsibility” (as in “agent responsibility”: X did Y and was thus responsible for Y) still makes sense undeer determinism. As for judicial punishment, we’re also in agreement:
The idea that we need the concept of voluntarist free will for praise and blame, reward and punishment is also highly questionable. The major philosophical justifications for punishment are retribution, deterrence, reform of the offender and signalling societal disapproval. Of these, only the first requires voluntarist free will for its justification, and many find the notion of retribution repugnant in any case.
Note that philosopher Gregg Caruso, also a hard determinist who’s debated Dan Dennett (a compatibilist) also feels that deterrence is not a valid rationale for punishment, as it violate’s Kant’s imperative that people are to be used only as ends, not as means. I’m still pondering this for situations in which the perp really did the deed and is not some innocent person used as an example to deter people. After all, what other reason is there to give traffic tickets?
b.) Baggini says this: “It’s useful to feel you could have done things differently, even if it’s a fiction.” He uses Dan Dennett’s “putting” example:
To the extent that the idea of free will involves some fictions, this could be a good thing, as long as we are aware that they are fictions. Take the idea that we ‘could have done otherwise’, so central to the free will debate. There is a sense in which this is never literally true. But the thought that we could have done otherwise is neither meaningless nor useless.
In his book Freedom Evolves (2004), Daniel Dennett illustrates this with the example, borrowed from John Austin, of a golfer who misses an easy putt, and then thinks: ‘I could have holed it.’ If you think this means that, were time to be rewound to the moment the golfer played the shot, then she could have played it differently, you’d be wrong. The golfer herself probably doesn’t mean that either. Rather, she means that holing the shot was well within her skillset, and that this was the kind of shot she would usually pull off.
The thought ‘I could have holed it’ does not therefore serve to inform us of an alternative reality that didn’t come to pass. It is to focus the mind of the golfer on the mistake so that she doesn’t repeat it next time, perhaps by making her think about what it was that made her slip up.
This point of view, to me, does not mean that we have to think that “we could have done otherwise”. It means exactly what it says, “Perhaps I could have holed the putt if I had done Y.” And this is a simple function of our brain’s adaptive wiring to do things that bring us success (a surrogate for survival and reproduction). If we fail, our brain goes to work and runs over other possibilities, just like a chess-playing computer runs over possibilities, though it does this before it makes a bad move. One can think about alternative actions without having to fool yourself into thinking that you could have performed them at the time.
c.) Bagginis’s concepts of “free will worth having”, or “compatiabilist free will, don’t make a lot of sense to me. Here’s one of them, involving coerced choices versus uncoerced choices, with the latter seen as forms of compatibilist free will:
What we need is a ‘compatibilist’ conception of free will, one that reconciles human freedom with the causal necessity of the physical world.
Such a conception is hiding in plain sight, in the ways in which we distinguish between free and unfree actions in real life. We rarely, if ever, ground this distinction in a metaphysical thesis about causation. Rather, we distinguish between coerced and uncoerced choices. If no one ‘made me do it’, I acted freely.
Now Baggini does qualify this (see next point), but this is the most common way people find free will in everyday life. If you do something uncoerced, you’ve evinced free will. If you’re forced to do it, it wasn’t free will. (Remember, Baggini’s still a determinist but looking for everyday meanings of “free will” that make sense).
The problem is that this distinction doesn’t exist under strict determinism. As Sam Harris said:
“There isn’t, materially, anything more coercive about giving money at gunpoint than drinking milk when you’re thirsty.”
And he’s right. You are coerced by the laws of physics, whether you feel coerced or not. And, of course, there are those cases in which you are pulled in both directions. If society urges you to use your savings to send your kids to college which you want to do, while you partly regret that because you’d really like a new Porsche or two. But when you send your kid to college, are you doing that of your own free will or not? There are gazillions of such circumstances in which we do things when there are upsides and downsides of each possible alternative. That’s why the “coercion” trope isn’t useful.
But wait! Baggini qualifies this with seemingly more sophisticated philosophy:
It is not quite enough, however, to say that, as long as choices are not coerced, they are free. Bees are not forced to spread pollen at gunpoint but their behaviours are too automatic to be classed as free. Similarly, highly automatic or unreflective human behaviours, such as addictive consumption, don’t seem to be genuinely free either. So what elevates some human choices to the genuinely free rather than the merely unforced?
The best answer to this remains Harry Frankfurt’s influential theory about the difference between first- and second-order desires. Our first-order desires are the ones we just have: for a piece of cake, to have sex, to scratch our itching skin. Second-order desires are desires about these desires. I may not want to want to eat cake, because I’m trying to eat more healthily. I may not want to want to have sex because the object of my desire is not the person I am in a monogamous relationship with.
Frankfurt says that we have the kind of free will worth having when our first- and second-order desires are aligned and we act on them. When we choose to do something that, all things considered, we don’t want to do, we have failed to exercise our free will and have behaved compulsively. If we haven’t even thought about whether we desire a desire, we are not exercising our free will if we unthinkingly act on it.
This makes no more sense to me than the “coercion” argument. All that’s happening here is that our brain program is vetoing something else that we might have done: it’s the old “free won’t” trope. Granted, humans may have more sophisticated brain programs than, say, earthworms, but that doesn’t mean that just because we can override things that one might think we’d choose is no evidence for a type of free will. We ALWAYS behave “compulsively” in the sense that all our behaviors, whether or not they fulfill “second-order desires” (a distinction I find pretty useless), are compelled by the laws of physics acting in our brain. So if I give up the cake because it’ll make me fat, I am exercising free will, but if I eat it because it tastes good, that’s not exercising free will? This is a distinction without a difference. To me, this is not a “form of free will worth wanting”. It gives you no control over what you do, whether or not you eat the cake.
Even Baggini recognizes that he’s pulling a desperation move here:
Second-order desires do not escape the chains of cause and effect. At bottom, they are the result of a series of events that we did not choose. But nothing we can do can be freely chosen ‘all the way down’. No one can choose the things that most fundamentally shape them: their genes, society and family. Not even God would be free to change its nature, if it existed.
d.) The idea of free will is good for society. This is the “little people argument,” maintaining that we must tell people that they have a form of free will, because if they’re determinists they will be nihilistic and become miscreants and cheaters.
All of this is based on short term (one day, usually) studies of undergraduate students asked to read either a “libertarian free will” passage or a “deterministic” passage, and then determining, on a test given almost immediately, whether they cheat more. The results are not replicable, and there are no long-term studies of this paltry experiment. Baggini admits the problems, but still maintains that embracing determinism means rejecting responsibility. I reject that wholeheartedly, and have bolded the relevant sections of Baggini’s argument below:
For example, studies have shown that the more people believe in free will, the harsher they judge not only criminals but their victims. When we fail to acknowledge the limitations of freedom, we become more punitive, less forgiving. Simply rejecting free will altogether would, of course, be one way to make us more forgiving. But it can also push us too far. Another famous set of studies suggested that when people are encouraged to believe that free will is an illusion, they are more likely to cheat. The reasoning seems to be that, if we don’t have free will, no one can be blamed for their actions, so it no longer makes sense to feel bad about doing wrong.
We should be suspicious of all such studies, since many have failed to be replicated. Studies aside, however, it is logical that belief in voluntarist free will would entail attributing too much responsibility to people, and rejecting free will completely would mean the end of responsibility altogether. Only the compatibilist approach gives us a framework in which we can hold people to appropriate account. It tells us we shouldn’t just let people off the hook, but we should also become more aware of what has shaped people’s behaviour and therefore be more understanding of it. The same should also be true of how we view ourselves.
I maintain, in contrast, that a pure determinist approach gives us a framework in which we can hold people to appropriate account. Baggini himself has shown us how: to sequester the baddies, give people a chance for reform, and deter others. You can do all that as a pure and hard determinist.
e.) The fact that how we think changes how we act gives credence to a form of free will. Baggini says this:
Compatibilism also allows for the undeniable fact that what we think changes how we act. Many assume that if all that we do is ultimately governed by cause and effect, then our actions are caused by brain processes that ‘bypass’ our thoughts and beliefs. But it cannot be as simple as that since, when we change what we believe, we change how we act. If I think that cake is poisoned, I won’t eat it. That is why it is important to think of our actions as being under a degree of control: what we think does change what we do.
To me, this is a no-brainer, so long as you realize that you have no choice about what you think, and that the environment also influences what you think. If you think a cake is poisoned, you must have received that information somewhere, and your adaptive brain program, evolved to keep you alive, will make you reject the cake. If you’re a dog and think someone’s friendly, but then they keep kicking you, that will change how you think and how you act: you will associate that person with an aversive stimulus and henceforth avoid them.
In the end, compatibilism always seems to be a semantic way around Baggini and my claim that we have no choice than to do whatever we do at a given time. Compatibilism is not necessary unless you think people can’t handle the truth of determinism (they can, just as they can handle the idea of atheism that was once unthinkable). Yes, we have shorthands for choice, but a serious determinism knows exactly what these are: verbal shorthands underneath which lies pure determinism. Evolutionists use the same kind of short hand when we say stuff like “Natural selection made the finch’s beaks larger.”
I’ll finish by closing with more words from Sam Harris:
Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.
(That man can write!)
Let me reiterate, though, that on the whole I admire Baggini’s essay, and would love to discuss these issues with him over a pint of Landlord. As opposed to other proponents of compatibilist free will, Baggini seems open minded and amiable rather than tendentious and querulous.