A pragmatic approach to free will

PinocchioEarlier this year I engaged in a discussion on doxastic voluntarism where a commenter stated that

“I use freewill to mean we can choose to change the physical sequence of events in our brains. … If we don’t have genuine freewill, then we can’t choose”,

to which I responded with

“Regardless of where one stands on free will, we agree that we engage in something called ‘choosing’. This phenomenon is universal whether we think it is performed by a ghost in the machine or it is just another cog in the chain of prior causes.

This thread of the discussion carried on a little longer without a mutual understanding and eventually ended with me saying that I would try to explain myself in a new post.

So here we are. I currently suspect that we do not have libertarian free will; that is, I doubt that there is an uncaused part of us which controls the act of choosing. This is not a certainty, but I am compelled by the evidence (and the lack of alternative evidence) that this is probably a correct description of reality. So, now that you have received this revelation, you may climb back in bed and curl up in a ball and wait for your death because you are just a cog in a chain of causes. You are no different than the computing device you are currently using. You are a powerless bag of molecules, a meat puppet dangling by the strings of chance. Upon believing that your choices are byproducts of everything else, you could, paradoxically, immediately succumb to a self-defeating fatalism or you could keep reading and take another path. What will you do? Is that even a meaningful question?

This post does not seek to argue whether or not we actually have libertarian free will. The point of this post is to consider the implications for our sense of freedom if we do not possess uncaused agency.

Wait. How do you explain our experience of choice?

Pinocchio_to_lifeGood question. Even though I have no intention here of making the case for an absence of libertarian free will, it is worth considering whether that situation is even possible. I would like to start by reflecting on some observations which are representative of things that we’ve all experienced at one time or another.

The other day the book I was reading included a comment that “…animals don’t seem to want to party, despite what we see in children’s cartoons like Madagascar.” About 30 minutes after reading that – I’m slightly embarrassed to admit – I found myself with the Katy Perry song “Firework” in my head. Upon recognizing this I was surprised, so I stewed on it a bit. This is not a song that I encounter frequently in my listening habits. When I stopped to think about this, a faint scene began to play in my mind. It was an animation of zoo animals performing circus acts. You see, about a week earlier, I spent a couple hours watching Madagascar 3 with my sons. Near the end of the movie, the main characters engage in an elaborate circus performance set to the music of – you guessed it – “Firework”. Unbeknownst to me, the reference to the Madagascar movie in the book I was reading had set in motion a network of activity, drawing on recent experience, that led to the production of a particular song in my head.

When I was a kid my brother would play the “made you flinch” game. It may be a stretch to call it a game, but the rules are basically this: at any time, you can go up to your sibling and act like you’re going to hit them and then stop short. If they react in a defensive way then you have license to actually hit them. Twice. By definition, a flinch is involuntary. After enough bruises you learn to remain vigilant and can suspend your reaction, but eventually you will be caught off-guard again. Control of the flinch is subject to awareness.

As a final example, we’re all well aware that repetition can train us to do things effortlessly and thoughtlessly even though these things required considerable conscious attention during the initial training. This includes actions like reading, riding a bike, driving a car, using a mouse, etc… Even simple math eventually becomes automatic. These well-trained processes seem to lie on the borderlands between the intentional and the unintentional, lying just below the level of consciousness and waffling in and out of our awareness. We sometimes catch ourselves unaware that we had done something, or are doing something.

As these examples show, it is possible for behavior and mental activity to arise outside of our immediate awareness and control. They do not run through the “free will” filter. If we acknowledge that this is possible then it seems reasonable to acknowledge the further possibility that choice itself, our apparent exercise of free will, restraint and deliberation, can also arise through causative factors outside of our awareness. Under this paradigm, we might say that choice is what happens when our brain deals with competing interests. Even choosing to get up and get a drink is in competition with a desire to conserve energy and stay where you are. We have a remarkable feedback system that can recall past experiences and forecast future experiences. These work themselves in to the choice equation and sometimes we can spend considerable time and energy in deliberation as the network keeps pulling up data on both sides of the tug-of-war and reconfiguring itself in response.

The insistence that we make choices independent of causative influence begs the question. It assumes that our identity is fully contained within a singular, unified, independent perspective; in short, a ghost in the machine. Yet, if we ask someone who has flinched whether they chose to flinch then they’re most likely going to say that it wasn’t a choice while at the same time agreeing that they acted. Likewise, we will not deny that it was us who performed automated tasks, even if we weren’t fully aware of what we were doing. So in some cases our action can come from some sort of involuntary aspect of our self. That is, we do not always disassociate our self identity from the actions which were not clearly “under our control”. If we accept that this is a part of who we are and that the line between voluntary and involuntary does not demarcate our identity, then I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice. Instead, our conception of the “self who chooses” must be revised so that it is consistent with the fact that we already include our involuntary self in our identity. We dispose of the idea that we are a singular, unified and independent soul and find that our identity is multifaceted, distributed and interdependent. Incidentally, a rare group of split-brain patients have offered us a fascinating window into how this works, as do patients who have experienced certain brain injuries (see blindsight, visual agnosia and hemispatial neglect). It appears that this distributed view of the self is the more accurate perspective.

You should believe that you can make choices

pinocchio_donkeyAs demonstrated by the original quote at the top of this post, it is common to see claims that the rejection of libertarian free will is also the rejection of choice. I will address that claim further in the next section, but first I want to briefly review why you should believe that you – this new, complex, multifaceted you – can make choices. When we believe in free will:

  1. We are less likely to harm each other and more likely to help each other (Baumeister 2009).
  2. We are more likely to act fairly and show gratitude (Vohs 2008, MacKenzie 2014; though Zwaan failed to reproduce Vohs).
  3. We show less prejudice against predetermined group membership (Zhao 2014, and accordingly, we show more prejudice against chosen group membership – Brewer 2013).
  4. We are more likely to detect errors and invest in thought (Rigoni 2014, Rigoni 2013, Lynn 2013).
  5. We are less likely to succumb to impulses and more likely to exercise self-control (Rigoni 2012, Alquist 2013, Job 2010).

Given these results, the evidence seems to suggest that we prefer the versions of ourselves who believe in free will. The pragmatist follows by suggesting that the rational thing to do is to believe that we actually possess this freedom.

But I can’t just pretend for the benefits

I completely understand the objection and agree that in the short term we can’t choose our beliefs – but I’m also pretty sure that you don’t have to pretend. Even when you think you can give a reason for your choice we can always just ask why again, and keep asking why until you get to the point of saying “I don’t know”. Eventually you will get there, which means that as far as we can tell from pure introspection, there appears to be something unexplainable going on. This is where we find our “free will”.

It is possible that there actually is no prior cause at the bottom of this search but, as we have seen, it is also possible that the prior causes are simply elusive or inaccessible. If you disagree, please explain to me how this kind of experience would differ from the experience under libertarian free will. I don’t see a difference and, introspectively, we have nothing but our experience to go on. So, if our internal experience regularly lacks a fully formed understanding of causation and if we recognize that we can choose between options, why does it matter whether or not our choice is actually uncaused? Pragmatism takes over when explanations run dry and suggests that instead of looking at causes, we should look at effects. We feel a sense of control and operate with the experience of control and this results in outcomes which accord with our choice. Is this not sufficient?

pinocchio_homeFrom a purely experiential perspective, I make choices. If there is no libertarian free will then I may end up in bed, shut off from the outside world because all prior causes led to that condition. However, it is equally true that all prior causes may lead me to fight off the melancholy and seize the day. We don’t know which is the future path of the causal chain, yet we detect an ability to direct it. The internal experience is the same; our sense of freedom is present no matter what. This is all that matters when it comes to the choices we make. You needn’t sacrifice your freedom on the alter of fatalism. You have a choice.

If you have read this, and you find yourself agreeing with my conclusions, then it is possible that your experiences have now changed you so that you are more inclined to invoke your sense of free will. Ironically, you have just been externally caused to have a greater sense of freedom. Run with it.

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21 thoughts on “A pragmatic approach to free will

  1. Hi Travis, I am of course interested in discussing this with you, but after our last inconclusive discussion, that may not seem like a good idea to you. My thought is to set our sights lower than reaching a conclusion, and simply aim at clarifying where we both agree and disagree. If you don’t think further discussion would be worthwhile, please feel free to say so.

    I have some specifics in this post I’d like to discuss, but I’d like to try first to see if we can map out some common thoughts. Here’s how I see freewill:

    1. Natural process work by one state of affairs leading to another according to generally predictable laws. If you have sufficient facts, you can predict the next state either deterministically or statistically.
    2. If natural processes and substances are all there is (i.e. if naturalism is true) then it is hard to see how there can be any opportunity for freewill – there is nothing but the natural to cause anything. Atheist philosopher Jaegwon Kim has said: “a physicalist must, it seems, accept some form of the principle that the physical domain is causally closed”
    3. Yet it seems to us that we have freewill. Almost everyone would believe this intuitively, it is assumed in our legal codes (diminished responsibility due to coercion or cognitive impairment is a valid legal defence), and it is almost impossible to act otherwise. Many philosophers have tried to find a way to allow freewill within naturalism, so far not successfully I think.
    4. The obvious alternative hypothesis to naturalism (or physicalism) is some form of dualism, whether of the theistic kind (like JP Moreland for example) or the non-theistic kind (like Thomas Nagel). It argues that there are things that are not physical, but exist and have meaning, and the mind is one such.
    5. Science addresses the physical world, and finds it difficult to address any hypothesis involving the non-physical. It is therefore well equipped to address the naturalistic explanation of brian/mind, but not well equipped (at present at any rate) to address the dualism hypothesis.
    6. Human experience and introspection, on the other hand, give us insight into mind and consciousness (how reliable this insight is is a moot question), but are less valuable in addressing the purely physical.
    7. Therefore the conclusion we come to about freewill will in large part be determined (sorry about that word!) by whether we believe introspection gives valid insights about ourselves and whether we believe science can rule out the non-physical and whether it can give valid insights on a non-physical matter.

    I’m wondering how many of those propositions you would agree with?

    • Eric,
      I wouldn’t have written the post if I didn’t think it was worth discussing. To your points:

      1. Agree
      2. For libertarian contra-causal free will, yes
      3. Yes, it does seem that we have some type of free will. Consideration for the type was the point of the post. The requirement that free will can only be of the contra-causal type is question begging and presumes that our self identity cannot include physical causal factors.
      4. OK
      5. Only if the immaterial has no physical effect. We could make inferences into the nature of the immaterial from its empirical effect. I think it’s more helpful to speak about science’s ability to discover regularity rather than composition. “Physical” can have a fuzzy meaning. For example, gravitons are purely hypothetical but gravity is still a firm part of science. That all may be a bit off topic though.
      6. Science is dependent on human experience (i.e., observation) and consciousness (i.e., rational inference) so there isn’t a strict dichotomy. Science is more like a framework that guides the use of these things in a way that has proven extremely useful and reliable.
      7. I doubt that we can distill our method of drawing conclusions down to a few epistemic assumptions, none of which themselves have black and white answers. It is perhaps more interesting if I instead answer the three sub-points:
        • Introspection can give us valid insights about ourselves but this should not be to the exclusion of other insights and we should consider how they might fit together (see the second section of the post for an example of how I did this).
        • I do not believe that science can rule out the non-physical, but it can inform probabilistic judgements about whether or not something is fully explained by physical causes.
        • Science can give valid insights into the non-physical if it has empirical effects, per #5 above.
  2. Hi Travis, I think there is a fair degree of agreement there. You are better read on this topic, so a little more precise, but I don’t there are substantial disagreements, but it may be useful to clarify a few things.

    #3 – My emphasis was on seems, how things appear to be before we analyse our experience. I think your clarification here is not a matter of “seems” but of further analysis. But I think we agree here.

    #5 – You say “Only if the immaterial has no physical effect. We could make inferences into the nature of the immaterial from its empirical effect.” I agree in principle, but in practice inferences like this will rarely be acceptable in science, because they don’t easily rule out other options. Take the very subjects we have been discussing, consciousness and freewill. Whether you think this or not, many neuroscientists (e.g Sam Parnia, Mario Beauregard) and philosophers (e.g. Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers) don’t believe natural science explains these human experiences, and that experience points to some non-physical origin, but naturalistic scientists are unwilling to accept their possibly dualistic conclusions because they cannot be established rigorously by experimental science. So I think we agree on the possibility you raise here, but I wonder if you agree with me that it isn’t a possibility on which there is anything near consensus?

    #6 – I agree there isn’t a strict dichotomy, but in the examples you give (observation & rational inference) we can be confident because others can do the same observations and inferences and come to the same conclusions. But when we discuss consciousness and freewill, others don’t reach the same conclusions. Do you agree then that what I said is generally correct?

    #7 – Again I agree, but I think these don’t address the conclusion I was drawing – that among the factors that influence you and I (for example) to come to different conclusions, one of the most important is that I trust human experience to give me some truth on these matters and I mistrust science to assess dualism because it has made naturalistic assumptions and many scientists (naturalists) are unwilling to consider the possibility that there might be something other than the physical. For example, Alwyn Scott in ‘Stairway to the mind’: “Although dualism cannot be disproved, the role of science is to proceed on the assumption that it is wrong and see how much progress can be made.”

    I would now like to see if I can sum up what you have said here – please correct me where I may be wrong. .

    1. Your subject is: if we assume there is no libertarian free will (or uncaused agency), what do we make of our sense of freedom?
    2. “It is possible for behavior and mental activity to arise outside of our immediate awareness and control”. Therefore what appears as choice may also arise in this way.
    3. “the line between voluntary and involuntary does not demarcate our identity, then I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice.”
    4. Nevertheless, there are good social and other reasons why it is good to believe in freewill – “the rational thing to do is to believe that we actually possess this freedom”.
    5. You may think you cannot pretend about this, but if you ask enough “why” questions, you’ll find a cause you cannot explain, and that is where you can see your free will. You cannot distinguish this experience from libertarian freewill.
    6. This is enough. Accept and live a fulfilled life.

    Again, I’ll pause and ask if that is a reasonable summary?

    • Hi Eric,
      Regarding the responses to the original comment:
      #3 – Fair enough
      #5 – I think you’re reading too much into the reasons people don’t accept dualism. You say it’s because people are unwilling to give up a naturalistic bias, but I think it’s simply that they think that’s where the evidence points. Everything else seems to work according to natural laws, and there’s this enormous wall of complexity (and to some extent, ethics) hiding the details of consciousness and free will. If there were no barriers to discovery and it truly appeared that something irregular was occurring then people would follow the evidence. But this isn’t what we have. Instead, we have a young research field of a difficult problem with emerging data showing neural correlates and a separate set of data showing how our neurology is a physical part of our biology.
      The big survey of philosophers showed that nearly 14% believe in libertarian free will. The majority (59%) are compatibilists. I couldn’t find a similar survey for neuroscientists, but anecdotally the percentage of dualists is almost certainly lower than for philosophers. So yes, there isn’t consensus but there is a clear majority. I’m not making an argument from authority, though – just answering the question.
      #6 – I think I need you to try and restate the premise before I can say whether I agree with anything. I’m not exactly sure what I’m evaluating.
      #7 – See my response to #5. Neuroscience is not distrusting human experience; in fact, they’re deeply reliant on it. To quote from my reading this morning: “The correct perspective is to think of subjective reports as raw data … the new science of consciousness makes an enormous use of purely subjective phenomena” (Consciousness and the Brain, Dehaene). Neuroscience is an integrative discipline that links data from the objective and the subjective, not an attempt to eradicate the world of the evils of dualism.

      I think your summary of the post is reasonable.

      As an aside, regarding your summary point B, I’ll note that I’m growing skeptical that it could be any other way. In other words, a sense of autonomy seems unavoidable. If we are caused, then to know how our choices arose we would have to possess another perspective which sees the causal chain, but then from whence do we have the perspective on that other perspective? The expectations that we should be fully aware of our own complete causal chain leads to an infinite regress. I need to dig into that idea further but I thought I’d throw it out here as food for thought. No need to address it directly.

  3. Hi Travis,

    I feel it has been helpful to clarify a few things here. Just to continue a little:

    #5 – the matter I was raising here was not dualism but your statement that we can infer the non-physical (if it exists) by its empirical effect. I was suggesting that no matter how much evidence scientists like Parnia and Beauregard collect for the non-material, naturalist scientists tend not to accept it or they explain it in physical terms. Even if Parnia and Beauregard are right, they will be unlikely to convince staunch naturalist neuroscientists because their evidence cannot be investigated as fully as they would need. This is reflected in the percentages you gave.

    #6 – I was saying in #5 & 6 that science addresses the external world best, but human experience addresses the internal world best. You said that science still depends on subjective experience, but I was just pointing out that it was a particular form of experience which is repeatable by other people, whereas my consciousness is not repeatable by you.

    I think we have enough understanding of these matters, though obviously not full agreement, to move onto my comments. And it is good that you feel I have understood your post sufficiently.

    My feeling is that if a person believes naturalism is true, then something like what you outline is the most reasonable way to think. Yet, you won’t be surprised to know, I feel there are some difficulties with that view. Here are a few thoughts:

    #1. Quite a few years back I read two Daniel Dennett books on choice (Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves) and I found it very difficult to grasp what he was saying. Every sentence made sense, but at the end of each chapter I felt unclear what he’d actually said. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I felt some of it may have been using some words like “choice” with slightly different meanings in different contexts.

    I think your ideas may have a little of this (if I’m right, then you’re in good company!). “Choice” in normal everyday usage means the opportunity, freedom and ability to take one of several options – i.e. close to libertarian freewill. I think the word carries those overtones even if we rigorously say “choice” isn’t necessarily libertarian. So when you say “I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice.” I think the proverbial ‘man in the street’ would feel he had been conned – loss of libertarian freewill would be seen by most people as loss of choice period. I think the abolition of libertarian free will really does annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice, it is just blurring of meanings that enable us to escape this melancholy conclusion.

    I think this blurring of concepts, and the overtones of choice, allow compatibilists to feel better without actually being any better off than incompatibilist determinists.

    At the same time as I read the Dennett books, I read about half a dozen books by neuroscientists (people like James Trefil, Alwyn Scott, Todd Feinberg, Richard Restak & Susan Greenfield), and while they presented neuroscience in such a way as left me in no doubt that if they were right, we had no freewill, none of them really addressed the question, and they still used free will and moral responsibility words and concepts.

    Again I think you do a little of the same when you say “You needn’t sacrifice your freedom on the alter of fatalism. You have a choice.”

    #2. I find it very interesting that, in the end, one of your main points is that we don’t really need any more than to feel like we have choice. “We feel a sense of control and operate with the experience of control and this results in outcomes which accord with our choice. Is this not sufficient?” So evolution has led us to the point where we function best, as individuals and as a society, if we believe something that is false? (This is perhaps parallel to the view of some evolutionary psychologists that religion also evolved because it confers survival advantages.)

    This is interesting in two ways. First, in the discussions between atheists and christians, we christians are often told we should get by without our crutch of belief in our sky daddy and base our life on the evidence, and yet here we have fundamental facts about ourselves (if you are right) that we cannot and should not (if “should” means anything) live with. It is at the very least ironic.

    But secondly, replies to the argument from reason (that natural selection selects on survival, not truth, so how can a naturalist believe our cognitive faculties are reliable in determining truth?), naturalists argue that natural selection ensures that our brains do indeed generally reason reliably, otherwise we wouldn’t survive. But here at the core of naturalism is the strong conviction that we need to think falsely to survive, and we cannot really make ourselves do otherwise. So if your post is right, the argument from reason becomes very powerful.

    #3. I know you weren’t discussing whether libertarian freewill was true or false, but these points bear strongly on that argument. As I said in my initial 7 points (and which you haven’t necessarily agreed with), our conclusion on this matter may depend largely on how we value the relative merits of introspection vs external observation. It seems to me that the matters I have discussed here give good reason to doubt the conclusions you draw, for they undercut our ability to draw such conclusions. If we lack libertarian freewill we have little reason to trust our conclusions on the matter. I could develop this thought further, but I’ll stop there for now.

    Thanks again.

    • Hi Eric,
      I’ll just briefly touch on the continued points because I think the other comments are more relevant.

      Regarding #5 – There’s no mashing words here. I think you’re just plain wrong. The scientific acceptance of quantum mechanics is a perfect example of how science moves with the evidence even when it goes against existing paradigms. If there was substantial evidence of something intangible and irregular (i.e., not law-like) then it would be incorporated into the scientific understanding of the world.

      Regarding #6 – I agree that we cannot step into other people’s conscious experience, but that is far from the conclusion that science can say nothing about it.

      I can sympathize with your intuitive sense that compatibilist explanations are just word games on top of incompatibilism. This is why the second section of the post was so important. The point there was to show through relatable examples that the perception of self which accompanies the libertarian perspective is actually inconsistent with the self we know. If we come to grips with this and include our “involuntary self” as part of our identity then the compatibilist position comes into focus. The conception of self is paramount to the discussion of free will.

      Your second point is largely dependent on the acceptance of the first point and the denial that we have a choice. I have already stated that I do not agree with this, so I’m not sure what to say about #2 except to say that I also do not agree with Clifford’s Principle. I am a pragmatist at heart.

      Your last paragraphs are raising the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which I’ve briefly discussed before and engaged on multiple occasions elsewhere, most recently at this blog. I think it is a very interesting argument but I think that it relies on accepting a type of dualism before it is successful. I suspect that some day I will address it more rigorously, but if you want to pursue it further then you’re welcome to start a new comment thread on the post that I linked above.

  4. Hi Travis, I think I’ll stop here – I’m pretty busy right now and I think further discussion would probably repeat.

    I think your comment on #5 shows how far apart we are on this – I think there is “substantial evidence of something intangible and irregular” in our daily experience and which science cannot address, and I think your comment shows that, and yet obviously you still think very differently to me here.

    So thanks again, it has been interesting, though a little frustrating that we seem so irrevocably far apart. 🙁

    • Hey Eric, that’s fine. It seems to me that the gap between our perspectives is somewhat illuminated when you say that “science cannot address” consciousness and free will. I see complexity and inaccessibility as a reasonable and justifiable explanation for the current state of affairs, whereas you see a need for a fundamentally different descriptive paradigm. Sometimes paradigm shifts are necessary, but usually we don’t do that until its clear that the current paradigm, which has extensive inductive support, has failed. I don’t see evidence that neuroscience is ignoring data (e.g., subjective experience) or has failed in its efforts, nor do I see any indication that it is moving in the wrong direction. So we will simply have to agree to disagree. Thanks for the discussion.

  5. Hi Travis, yes I agree with you that this is a key issue, and I think the frustration (for me at any rate) comes not just from the divergence of our views, but from the feeling that we each think the other doesn’t understand our views and therefore doesn’t fully connect with them. I would be interested to see you research and post on “How science addresses the subjective, in relation to consciousness and freewill” – or something like that.

    To give you something to write against or about, my thought, which like I said I don’t feel you’ve fully engaged with yet, is that science deals very well with the objective – whether it be stars, quarks, brains or ornithology – by observing, measuring, doing statistics, etc. But when it comes to the subjective – my consciousness and what it’s like to be a bat – observational science has a difficulty – how does it measure? It seems to me there are two ways in principle ….

    #1. Measure and observe objectively what it can and hope that’s enough. But that way misses the subjective almost totally and tends to end in reductionism where the problem is explained away.

    #2. Collate and analyse subjective reports and hope something comes out of this – e.g. by correlating objective measurement with the subjective reports. This is for example how I understand NDEs are addressed. The problem with this is that these results are generally not accorded the same scientific status, and many people revert back to #1.

    So I think those are the questions worth discussing in greater detail. You may like to post on it, or I may have a go some time. I am heading off tomorrow to your part of the world, so I’ll be in the air, jet-lagged, busy or off the air for a fair bit of the next few days, which is one reason why I thought I’d close off this discussion for now, but hopefully we can address some of these questions some more some time. Thanks and best wishes to you.

    • Eric,
      Maybe I’ll write up something as a follow-on to the book I’m reading. So far, he has addressed that topic quite a bit. The current section has focused on how subliminal cues are used to explore the edge between that which is conscious and that which is unconscious. You’re right that NDE studies aren’t well received but I think that has more to do with the extreme physiological conditions and the dearth of clearly correlated objective data. Anyway, hope you have a fun and safe trip. Pack something warm – just about the whole country is getting blasted with an arctic front.

  6. My position of the whole free will debate comes down to a sort of prisoners dilemma. In that if I have no free will then my refusal to believe in it was forced anyway. There was nothing I could do so why worry about?

    This sort of leaves having a free will as the only live option. The fact that studies show believing in it benefit me is sort of icing on the cake.

    But an interesting question would be what if those studies came in different. What if they redo them in 10 years and the results are the opposite? Should I then adopt the view that I have no free will?

    • if I have no free will then my refusal to believe in it was forced anyway

      This is interesting language. It both assumes that our beliefs are choices (i.e., something which could be refused), and that those choices can be forced (i.e., as if in opposition to some sort of resistance). Are those assumptions you hold or was it just an accident of your phrasing?

      But an interesting question would be what if those studies came in different. What if they redo them in 10 years and the results are the opposite? Should I then adopt the view that I have no free will?

      All else being equal, I would say “yes” with the caveat that I’m not sure we can “adopt the view” in an instant. I see it as more of adopting an attitude about the acceptability of a view, which may eventually lead to actual acceptance of that view by virtue of the processes which shape our beliefs.

      • Hi Travis
        I missed this response. I do think our beliefs involve some volition.

        Can our our choices be forced? Perhaps that is sort of a oxymoron. It might be better to say our choices are illusory.

        My issue is that denying free will seems a dead option. We , I suppose would have no options if there is no free will. But how does one really incorporate that belief into there life?

      • That was sort of the point of the post – to suggest that a disbelief in full libertarian free will is attainable through a pragmatic approach and a new perspective on what it is that defines our self identity.

      • Ok I may not understand the terminology that well. Are you saying if you reject “full libertarian free will” then we have no options? It seems you were saying the opposite. Can we have choices if flfw is false? You seem to indicate we do.

        I guess I am wondering if rejection of flfw is a rejection of the possibility of any free will at all.

      • Are you saying if you reject “full libertarian free will” then we have no options? It seems you were saying the opposite.

        Yes, I was saying the opposite.

        Can we have choices if flfw is false? You seem to indicate we do.

        Correct, I am advocating that we can still make choices.

        I guess I am wondering if rejection of flfw is a rejection of the possibility of any free will at all.

        I suggest that rejection of LFW is not the rejection of the possibility of any free will at all, but that is largely semantic – which is why I prefer to phrase it as “the ability to choose” or something of the sort.

  7. Ok I am trying to get a handle on this.

    I thought you responded to this comment from me:

    “My issue is that denying free will seems a dead option. We , I suppose would have no options if there is no free will. But how does one really incorporate that belief into there life?”

    You said (I think this was a response to this comment but it may have been a different comment):
    “That was sort of the point of the post – to suggest that a disbelief in full libertarian free will is attainable through a pragmatic approach and a new perspective on what it is that defines our self identity.”

    But you see I thought and you now confirm that rejecting FLFW does not mean we have no options and no choices. In other words I thought your blog was a defense of a limited form of free will that is short of FLFW. I was agreeing that it makes sense to support free will in some capacity because if you completely eliminate the notion of choice it seems hard to know how to incorporate that into your life.

    You say:
    “I suggest that rejection of LFW is not the rejection of the possibility of any free will at all, but that is largely semantic – which is why I prefer to phrase it as “the ability to choose” or something of the sort.”

    Again I might not be familiar with the vocabulary here and that might be the root of the problem. But it seems to me that if we have the ability to choose then we have free will. Isn’t that what it means? How is this a semantic issue?

    I realize we may have diminished capacity to choose. And my notion of identity and who I am that is choosing might not be accurate. But at some level there is some ability to choose going on with an entity that we can loosely identify as Joe. Does that make sense?

    • Hey Joe,
      Here’s where the semantics come into play. I want to say that free will = subjective experience of choosing regardless of causation. Determinists and libertarians want to say that free will = uncaused agency performing choice. This makes me a compatibilist, who are criticized by libertarians and determinists for “playing word games” but I think it is just a matter of adopting the appropriate perspective for the situation. From an objective standpoint it is possible to evaluate the nature of reality and conclude that the activity in people’s brains which corresponds with the act of choosing is due to a massive web of causal influences while, at the same time, recognizing that from a subjective perspective we have the experience of choice. Since our choices are only made and known from the subjective perspective then it makes sense to adopt that context, which means we can believe that we have the ability to choose and that we have free will regardless of whether we believe there is an uncaused agent within us or that there was a massive web of causal influences that led to the choice. Forcing myself to adopt the objective perspective to define my subjective experience seems unnecessary, if not impossible. And as noted in the post, it probably doesn’t give us the result we want.

      • Thanks for the explanation. That makes sense to me.

        “Since our choices are only made and known from the subjective perspective then it makes sense to adopt that context, which means we can believe that we have the ability to choose and that we have free will regardless of whether we believe there is an uncaused agent within us or that there was a massive web of causal influences that led to the choice.”

        The question is whether there would be a contradiction in your beliefs that can be teased out here. If there is it would be illogical to hold both beliefs.

        I am not the one who would be able to tease out a contradiction though.

  8. Haven’t read the comments yet, but I thought this was a great post, Travis! The whole free will thing is such a difficult subject, and you did a really nice job making your arguments clear and uncluttered. Loved the Pinnochio references, too. 🙂

    • Thanks Nate! I’m encouraged to hear that you thought this was clear because you’re definitely right that the whole free will discussion is difficult and often becomes bogged down in misunderstandings and semantic disagreements.

What do you think?

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