Another stab at defining free will


There was a free-for-all on free will here a while back.

But that article didn’t contain anything quite like the argument in favour of compatibilism — the notion that free will can exist in a deterministic universe — promoted by Georgia State University philosopher and psychologist Eddy Nahmias.

3:AM Magazine published “Questioning willusionism,” an interview with Nahmias, on May 25th.

Nahmias believes that some of the debate over “free will vs. determinism” arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of what “determinism” means. He argues that determinism doesn’t really mean that the Big Bang created a kind of script that the universe merely plays out by rote for eternity. Nor does he equate determinism with fatalism,  the idea that certain things will happen no matter what. To Nahmias, “determinism suggests that what happens in the future depends on what happens in the past and what we do in the present.”

In simplified terms, this conception of determinism concedes that everything in the present has causes in the past, but it does not conceive of the chain of causality as a pre-determined or “closed” process in which the very first cause necessitates the very latest effect in an invariable sequence of events. In Nahmias’s view, then, we matter, and the things that we do matter. We are not clockwork mechanisms winding down our lives in precise and unalterable ways. Importantly, moral responsibility survives in this view.

Nahmias elaborates his version of determinism:

Do we think that the truth of determinism would make it false to say, “That leaf [that just landed there] could have landed somewhere else”? I don’t think so. I think we think the leaf could have landed elsewhere, and we probably think that if it had, it would have been because something had been slightly different (e.g., strength of wind, time it broke off of tree, etc.). And those earlier differences were possible too. Determinism is entirely compatible with this analysis of ‘could have happened otherwise.’

This view of free will is compatible with the ideas of Steven Hawking. Ironically, Hawking has famously claimed that “philosophy is dead.” Yet his definition of free will, that it is what we call the enormously complex physics that occurs in the brain when we make a choice, allows for the probability that we do, in fact, choose. So the physicist and the philosopher aren’t always at odds.

Nahmias is an “x-phi,” an experimental philosopher, and he and his colleagues have conducted a number of experiments designed to tease out subjects’ beliefs about complex cases of determinism. A number of studies have identified an interesting and perhaps quite significant distinction between determinism types: “It looks like people are most concerned about a reductionistic or mechanistic picture of human decision-making that undermines the complexity and causal relevance of conscious deliberation and reasoning.”

We found that determinism, when described as ‘working through’ “thoughts, plans, and desires in the agent’s mind,” is not threatening, but determinism, when described as ‘working through’ “chemical reactions and neural processes in the agent’s brain” led people to say agents could not be free or responsible. Again, the worry is not that there are sufficient conditions in the past for all of our actions (i.e., determinism), but that there are conditions that bring about our actions while bypassing what we identify with our selves (our mental, including conscious, activity).

Nahmias explains that “if people can see how their minds matter, even if their minds are part of the physical (perhaps deterministic) world, then they are unlikely to think free will is an illusion.”

To Nahmias, the debate over free will is not just an academic exercise. He says that “Free will matters.”

Our views about free will influence our self-conception and our moral and legal practices. … So, we need to make sure that scientists who are the most prominent, and well-publicized, advocates of the position that free will is an illusion (“willusionists”) are justified in their claims.

Nahmias’s final judgement is that

Either (a) the willusionists define free will poorly, in which case their claims might lead people to think they lack what they think free will is – and that may have bad results – plus the evidence discussed would not be particularly relevant, or (b) on a more plausible view of free will, the evidence does not show we lack free will entirely, though again, it might show we have less free will – and may be less praiseworthy and blameworthy – than we tend to think.

What do I think about all of this? I like it better than a lot of the other free will vs. determinism logic games out there, for the simple reason that Nahmias and his colleagues are seeking out the ways that “real” people think about the issue and not just showing off their own skills.

Imagine what could happen if more philosophers ask in order to explain, instead of the usual explain in order to tell!

3 thoughts on “Another stab at defining free will

  1. You are suggesting that philosophers become empiricists. The will have to edge away from truth and become post modernist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s