Something wrong with discussions of free will…

Okay, so I made the mistake of reading this article on Free Will today by John Tierney in the New York Times. To say I was irritated and flummoxed would be fairly accurate, methinks.

From what I can tell–although it’s not entirely clear that this is the author’s point–it seems to be the case that a number of philosophers, psychologists, and various scientists don’t believe in Free Will, and instead believe in a deterministic Universe.  It also notes that a deterministic universe causes obvious problems for the concept of human morality–as it is assumed that for someone to do something “evil”–they have to have had the choice of whether they wanted to do it or not. In a deterministic universe, thusly, there would not really be a choice–because the actions would have been previously foreordained and unavoidable–and thus there cannot be real responsibility for one’s own actions.

All of this talk is nothing new, in my experience, and it is one of the consequences of a deterministic universe that has been well-known (and causing fits for Christians and other groups with concepts like “sin”) for centuries.  However, the article goes further and also seems to argue that when people are told this fact–that the universe is deterministic and thus they have no free will–that they then begin to believe that there is no morality and even to be more likely to act immorally themselves…

It therefore concludes–and here it starts to get a bit shaky–that the belief in free will–which is a normal and common state of affairs for most people–is necessary for society, because without it, societies suffer from greater anti-social tendencies and thus they would be more likely to self-destruct. This claim comes out in the quote from a psychologist, Dr. Vohs, who states, “It’s adaptive for societies and individuals to hold a belief in free will, as it helps people adhere to cultural codes of conduct that portend healthy, wealthy and happy life outcomes.

Now there are a number of issues that irked me that I want to get into here…

1. The article begins with a discussion of an example found in this article.  This article talks about a study done in experimental philosophy that concerns moral responsibility and free will.  In the study, it showed that people naturally believe that a deterministic universe (no free will) is incompatible with moral responsibility.  They call this position incompatiblism. The opposite position,which many philsophers, psychologists, and some scientists hold, is called compatiblism because it says that a deterministic universe is compatible with morality.

They also show that if you tell people that scientists believe the universe is deterministic and then give them a situation where someone acts “immorally” in a rather abstract or “victimless” way–that people tend not to think that the person is morally responsible for their actions.  In contrast, they showed that if, in the same situation, you told people about the deterministic universe, but then had a situation where somebody did something horribly evil–such as decide to leave their wife and kids and have them brutally murdered–that people would then ignore the knowledge about determinism and state that the person was morally responsible for their actions. The article then offers two possible explanations:

a) The first is that concrete emotionally charged situations cause an overwhelming emotional response that outweighs logical knowledge of deterministic effects and thus people choose to blame a person because they want to blame them. This is the explanation that makes a good amount of sense to me and seems reasonable–especially when the article notes that concrete–but emotionally uncharged situations do not evoke this same kind of reaction.

b) The second explanation focuses not on the final concrete situation, but on the abstract or victimless situation and says that the “non-blaming” response of people here “result from a misunderstanding about the nature of determinism.” They continue by giving the following explanation:

The hypothesis maintains that if people think the world is deterministic, their conscious deliberations and other psychological processes are causally irrelevant. However, this is not what determinism entails. Determinism is consistent with the idea that behavior is produced (i.e., determined) by conscious psychological processes.(Emphasis mine..) To explore whether this kind of confusion affects responses, participants were presented with different versions of determinism. In one condition, behavior was said to be determined by neurological and chemical processes. In that case, participants drew incompatibilist conclusions, saying that people were not responsible if behavior is all caused by neurological and chemical processes. In the other condition, behavior was characterized as being determined by psychological processes. In that case, participants tended to give compatibilist responses, maintaining that people are responsible even if their actions are determined by their psychological states (31). This suggests that determinism itself might be less threatening to our ordinary ideas of moral responsibility, so long as the determining causes are our psychological states and processes. (Again, emphasis mine–see here for this paragraph..)

2. This paragraph–especially the emphasized parts–really doesn’t make any sense unless you make some very weird assumptions about determinism, chemistry, and free will.  Specifically, to claim that determinism is just about “psychological states” rather than about neuro-chemical  reactions begs the question of just what the hell “psychological states” means and how is it related to neuro-chemical reactions.  If a psychological state is not materially determined by neuro-chemical reactions that have all been previously determined by prior neuro-chemical (and more broadly chemical) reactions that can be traced back to the beginning of time–then THERE IS NO FREE WILL PROBLEM AT ALL, BECAUSE ALL YOU ARE SAYING IS THAT HUMAN THOUGHTS CAUSE HUMAN ACTIONS.

If, however, a “psychological state” is materially determined by neuro-chemical interactions (going back to the big-bang)–then the compatibilist position amounts to saying that if we just don’t talk about what we mean and leave it all fuzzy–then people will believe that they were acting morally or immorally even if they had absolutely no choice in what the their actions throughout their entire lives would be. That implies to me that they really haven’t any clue about what the hell material determinism/physics/chemistry actually is and means or they are actively being deceptive.

3. Returning to the quote by Dr. Vohs about the adaptiveness of having societies filled with individuals who believe in free will despite being in a deterministic universe, it strikes me that there are some very funny things going on with regard to our understanding of these terms and categories if we make such assumptions.  Specifically, if we are to assume a hard (chemical based) determinism is governing the events of the universe–from the onset of time up through the typing of this blog post–of what importance is it really to talk about something obeying or conforming to evolutionary laws or concepts.

More broadly–what importance are evolutionary laws at all–seeing that they are based about describing some sort of “competition” between either genes, individuals, or species–when the results of this competition were already foreordained in a deterministic universe.  The species that now exist as well as the extinction of other species could not have been otherwise in such a universe–so to try and “explain” how that occurred by using laws that work at such a macro-chemical level seems quite odd in some ways.  Perhaps it could be justified in terms of the fact such evolutionary laws make telling this story of the universe easier. Of course–in a deterministic universe–is there any actual “need” for justification other than the fact that the espousals of such justifications was foreordained?

4. Similarly–the idea that experimental philosophy is increasing “understanding” of reality by helping to explain why SOME people believe certain things in certain situations, whereas others believe other things in the same situations–that seems rather odd when a deterministic universe has made it impossible for them to believe otherwise…and that the understanding–or lack thereof by people–was also foreordained by previous events.

In conclusion–I still don’t find any of the arguments put out by people who don’t believe in free will about why/how we should be moral to be at all persuasive.  They seem to be based, thoroughly, on either faulty understandings of chemistry and/or the liberal usage of novel terminology and hand-waving to obscure and the underlying fact that a deterministic universe without free will cannot be said to have morality in any real sense.


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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2 Responses to Something wrong with discussions of free will…

  1. Sara A says:

    Interesting article from one of my fav blogs….

    It goes into detail about a new “free will” study using the Libet paradigm. If you aren’t familiar with readiness potential, it is essentially neural activity prior to making a movement. His classic study (Libet et al., 1983) is a neuroscientific rebuttal against the phenomenon of free will. Anyway, this newer study presents evidence that a deterministic mindset actually reduces the RP. Very strange, indeed!

  2. Pingback: The Gravity of Consciousness | The Philosophy of NOM

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