Free Will: New Directions for an Ancient Problem

Free Will: New Directions for an Ancient Problem

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1. Modernity and Free Will

“There is a disputation that will continue till mankind is raised from the dead, between the necessitarians and the partisans of free will.” These are the words of the 12th century Persian poet and Sufi thinker, Jalalu’ddin Rumi. The free will of which Rumi speaks is the traditional notion of freedom that many thinkers have believed was in conflict with necessitarian or deterministic doctrines of all kinds—fatalistic, theological, physical, biolo­gical, psycholo­gical or social. Many centuries after Rumi, we are still debating about this notion of free will, whether we have it, whether it is or is not compatible with determinism, why it is thought by so many to be crucial to our sense of selfhood or personhood, how it is related to notions such as autonomy, rationality, responsibility, desert, dignity, morality, creativity, and others, that are thought to be crucial to our self-image as humans.

But while the debate about free will goes on in modern times, there are important new changes in recent debates on the subject, new directions taken and worth exploring. I want to discuss some of these new directions in this paper that are particularly related to my own work on free will over the past forty years. The traditional idea of free will of which Rumi speaks—and which I believe to be incompatible with determinism—has been under sustained attack in modernity as outdated, obscure and unintelligible and has been dismissed by many modern philosophers and scientists since the 17th century for its supposed lack fit with the modern images of the human beings and the cosmos in the natural and human sciences. Nietz­sche summed up a prevailing view in his inimitable prose when he said

“The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense…the desire to bear the ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself…to be nothing less than a causa sui…is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far [by the mind of man]”

I agree that the traditional idea of free will may appear utterly myste­rious and obscure in modern times unless we learn to think about free will in entirely new ways, to think in new directions, so to speak. Like many another issue of modernity, the question is whether some­thing of the traditional idea of free will “in the superlative metaphysical sense” can be re­trieved from the dissolving acids of modern science and secular learning or whether free will in the traditional sense will become, along with other aspects of our self-image, yet another victim of the “disen­chant­ments” of modernity.

2. Surface and Deeper Freedom and Responsibility

The first question to address is why this traditional idea of free will was thought to be incompatible with necessity or determinism? We can begin to see why it might be so thought by reflecting on two familiar notions we understand—or think we understand—freedom and responsibility.

Nothing could be more important than freedom to the modern age. People clamor for it all over the world, often against authoritarian and violent resistance. And why do they want it? The simple, and not totally adequate, answer is that to be free is to be able to satisfy one’s desires or do whatever one wants. In free societies, people can buy what they want, travel where they please, choose what to read, and so on. But these freedoms are what you might call surface freedoms. What we mean by free will runs deeper than these ordinary freedoms.

To see how, suppose we had maximal freedom to make choices of the above kinds to satisfy our desires, yet the choices we actually made were in fact manipulated by others, by the powers that be. In such a world we would have a great deal of everyday freedom to do whatever we wanted, yet our freedom of will would be severely limited. We would be free to act or to choose what we willed, but we would not have the ultimate power over what it is that we willed. Other persons would be pulling the strings, not by coercing or forcing us to do things against our wishes, but by manipulating us into having the wishes they wanted us to have. One sign of how important free will is to us is that people feel revulsion at such mani­pulation and feel demeaned by it when they find out it has been done to them. When subjec­ted to it, they realize they were not their own persons; and having free will is about being your own person.

The centrality of this problem for modernity is illustrated by the popularity of 20th cen­tury dystopian works, such as Hux­ley’s Brave New World or Skin­ner’s Walden Two,1and many other more recent incarnations in novels and films. In the futuristic societies des­cribed in these influential works, people can have and do whatever they will or choose, but only to the extent that they have been conditioned since birth by behavioral engineers or neuro-chemists to will or choose only what they can have and do. Their surface freedoms are bought at the expense of a deeper freedom of the will.

Skinner goes further in a modern vein, by arguing that this so-called deeper “freedom of the will” is no loss at all, since it is not something we can have anyway. In our ordinary lives, we are just as much the products of upbringing and social conditioning as the citizens of Walden Two, though we may delude ourselves into thinking otherwise. We may think we are the creators or originators of our own wills only because we are unaware of most of the genetic, psychological and social influences upon us. Then, echoing Nietzsche, Skinner adds that the idea that we could be ultimate or “original” creators of our own wills—that we could somehow be “causes of ourselves”—is an impossible ideal in any case, dreamt up by philo­sophers and theologians before we understood more about the hidden causes of behavior. It is an outdated idea that has no place in modern scientific picture of the world.

Reflecting in this way on the idea of freedom is one path to understanding free will. Another is by reflecting on the notion of responsibility. Suppose a young man is on trial for an assault and robbery in which his victim was beaten to death. Let us say we attend his trial and listen to the evidence in the courtroom. At first, our thoughts of the young man are filled with anger and resentment. What he did was horrible. But as we listen daily to how he came to have the mean character and perverse motives he did have—a sad story of parental ne­glect, child abuse, sexual abuse, bad role models—some of our resentment against the young man is shifted over to the parents and others who abused and mistreated him. We begin to feel angry with them as well as with him. Yet we aren’t quite ready to shift all of the blame away from the young man himself. We wonder whether some residual responsibility may not belong to him. Our questions become: To what extent is he responsible for becoming the sort of person he now is? Was it all a question of bad parenting, societal neglect, social conditioning, and the like, or did he have any role to play in it?

These are crucial questions about free will and they are questions about what may be called the young man’s ultimate responsibility. We know that parenting and society, genetic make-up and upbringing, have an influence on what we become and what we are. But were these influences entirely determining or did they “leave anything over” for us to be responsi­ble for? That is what we want to know about the young man. The question of whether he is merely a victim of bad circumstances or has some residual responsibility for being what he is—the question, that is, of whether he became the person he is of his own free will—seems to depend on whether these other factors were or were not entirely determining.

Reflections such as these point to a basic condition that down through history in my view has fueled intui­tions that free will and determinism must be incompatible. I call it the condition of ultimate responsibility or UR, for short. The basic idea is this: to be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient reason (condition, cause or motive) for the action’s occurring.2 If, for example, a choice issues from, and can be sufficiently explained by, an agent’s character and motives (together with back­ground conditions), then to be ulti­mately responsible for the choice, the agent must be at least in part responsible by virtue of choices or actions voluntarily performed in the past for having the character and motives he or she now has. Compare Aristotle’s claim that if a man is responsible for wicked acts that flow from his character, he must at some time in the past have been responsible for forming the wicked character from which these acts flow.

This condition of ultimate responsibility or UR does not require that we could have done otherwise for every act done “of our own free wills.” But it does require that we could have done otherwise with respect to some acts in our past life histories by which we formed our present characters. I call these “self-forming actions,” or SFAs. Often we act from a will already formed, but it is “our own free will” by virtue of the fact that we formed it by other choices or actions in the past (self-forming actions or SFAs) for which we could have done otherwise. If this were not so, there is nothing we could have ever done in our entire lifetimes to make ourselves different than we are—a consequence, I believe, that is incompatible with our being (at least to some degree) ultimately responsible for what we are. So self-forming actions or SFAs are only a subset of those acts in life for which we are ultimately responsible and which are done “of our own free will.” But if none of our acts were self-forming in this way, we would not be ultimately responsible for anything we did.

Focusing on this condition of ultimate responsibility or UR tells us something else of great importance. It also tells us why the free will issue is about the free­dom of the will and not just about the freedom of action. There has been a tendency in the modern era, since the 17th century, to reduce the problem of free will to a problem of free action. I have been argu­ing for some time that such a reduction oversimplifies the problem.3 Free will is not just about free action. It is about self-formation, about the formation of our “wills” or how we got to be the kinds of persons we are, with the characters, motives and purposes we now have. Were we ultimately responsible to some degree for having the wills we do have, or can the sources of our wills be completely traced backwards to something over which we had no control, such as Fate or the decrees of God, or heredity and environ­ment or social condi­tioning or hidden controllers, and so on? Therein, I believe, lies the core of the traditional problem of “free will.”

Focusing on UR also shows, as suggested earlier, how free will is related to self­hood, the central topic of this conference. I explained this in an earlier work in terms of what I called a “dialectic of selfhood.” In the first stage of this dialectic, imagine a baby several months old lying in a crib or infant seat. The baby’s arms and legs shake with uncontrolled and undirec­ted energy as she looks about the room. This shaking comes from her nervous system, and ultimately from the brain which soaks up a high percentage of the energy-producing glucose of the body. (We call the young “bundles of energy” for a reason.) The baby doesn’t know what to do with all that energy yet; her task is to gradu­ally learn to get more control over it.

An early stage of this process of gaining control is one many parents have observed. Objects pass in front of the infant and she follows them with her eyes. She has no control over most of the objects and simply observes them pass by. But one passing object has a special fascination—her own hand. It is different, for it seems she can control it. One day she actually learns to hold the hand still in her visual field, make a fist with it, and then open it again. This turns out to be utterly fascinating. When she first discovers it, the act is repeated over and over again, and she smiles with delight at her success. She has discovered that this passing object is something special. It is part of her; and she can control it by an act of will. She has discovered the phenomena of action and will simultaneously by recognizing that she can control and direct some things out there in the world by attending to them and willing them to happen in her mind. No wonder she is fascinated.

Not surprisingly, this discovery is also connected to the distinction the infant is learning to make between herself and the world. And she begins to make this distinction in terms of what she can directly control with her will and what she cannot. Our full sense of being a distinct self is tied up with our con­ception of being a distinct source of motion or activity in the world, such that what goes on behind the screen of our mind (our will) can have effects our there in the world.

But in the second stage of the dialectic of selfhood, doubts arise about this simple picture. For we find that we are not separate from the world, but in it, and influenced by it in many hidden ways. Behind the window to the world—where we are supposed to be—is the brain, which is a physical object, like the body itself, part of world and influenced by it. Per­haps we only seem to “move ourselves” by our wills in a primordial way when we are in fact moved by causes coming from the world of which we are unaware operating though our brains and bodies. Such thoughts provoke a spiritual crisis. One crude reaction is to insist that we are not in the natural world at all—that the self behind the window is outside the natural world altogether, yet able to influence what goes on it that world in some magical way. A more subtle reaction is to argue that, while the world influences us, we can determine just how the world influences us through our senses and through our processing of informa­tion. We can detemrine what gets in and what is screened out, what influences our thought and action and what does not.

Alas, this solution only temporarily quell doubts about the influ­ence of the world upon us. If we have already learned we are influenced by many things of which we are una­ware, how can we be sure the very selections we make from within our inner sanctum are not determined by influences from the world in our past and present of which we are unaware and are beyond our control? What if our choices about how the world will influence us are them­selves determi­ned by the world? This thought propels us to a third stage of the dialectic of selfhood, where we encounter full-fledged threats of deterministic doctrines in all their historical guises—physical, biological, psychological, social, and so on. What I am sugges­ting is that we view the problem of determinism and free will, not as an isolated problem, but as a stage in the dialectic of selfhood—the process of self-understan­ding about the relation of our self to the world. At each stage, we are trying to preserve a remnant of the idea th t we are in some sense ultimately responsible to some degree for how the world influences us and how we react to it—against the threat that we are merely pro­ducts of forces coming wholly from the world.

Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, focusing on this condition of ultimate responsibility or UR shows us why free will has been historically thought to be incompatible with deter­minism. If agents must be responsible to some degree for anything (such as their prior formed character) that is a sufficient cause or motive for their actions, an impossible infinite regress of past actions would be required unless some actions in an agent’s life history did not have either sufficient causes or motives (and hence were not entirely determined). These undetermined actions would be the self-forming actions or SFAs required by UR.

3. The Intelligibility Question

But this approach to the incompatibility of free will and determinism through UR raises a host of further extremely difficult questions about free will—including how actions lacking both sufficient causes and mo­tives could themselves be free and responsible actions, and how, if at all, such actions could exist in the natural order where we humans live and have our being. These are ver­sions of what I call the Intelligibility and Existence questions about free will, to which I now turn. Can we make sense of such a notion of free will or is it an unintelligible, impossi­ble or self-con­tradictory ideal, as Nietzsche, Skinner and many other modern scientists and philosophers contend? And can such a notion of free will be reconciled with modern scientific concep­tions of humans and the cosmos?

Doubts about the very possibility or intelligibility of free will are connected to an ancient dilemma: If free will is not compati­ble with determinism, it does not seem to be compatible with indeter­minism either. Determinism means: Given the past, there is only one possible future. Indetermi­nism means the opposite: Same past, different possible futures. But how is it possible, one might ask, that different actions could arise voluntarily and intentio­nal­­ly from (exactly) the same past without occurring merely by luck or chance? This question has had a hynotic effect on those who think about free will. One imagines that if free choices are undeter­mined, then which one occurs must be like spinning a wheel in one’s mind or one must just pop out by chance or randomly. If, for example, a choice occurred as a result of a quan­tum jump or other undetermined event in one’s brain, would that amount to a free and respon­sible choice? I’ll not trouble you with all the arguments, like these and others, by which philosophers have made the case that if undeter­mined choices or actions really were required for free will, they would occur as a matter of chance and hence would be “arbitrary,” or “capricious,” or “random,” “irrational,” “inexplicable,” mere matters of luck” and not under the “control” of the agents, hence not free and responsible actions at all.

No wonder libertarians about free will, those who believe it is incompatible with de­ter­­minism, have looked for some deus ex machina or other to solve the problem, while their opponents have cried magic or mystery. Indeterminism was required for free will, libertarians argued, but indeterminism was not enough. Indeterminism might provide causal gaps in nature. But that was only a negative condition. Some additional form of agency or causation was needed that went beyond cau­sation in the natural order, whether deterministic or indeter­ministic. Thus, in res­ponse to modern science, we had numerous historical appeals in moder­nity, from Descartes to Kant and beyond, to “extra factors” such as noumenal selves, imma­terial minds, transempi­rical power centers, non-event agent causes, and the like, to account for a traditional libertarian free will. I long ago became disenchanted with all such appeals.

4. Indeterminism and Responsibility

If one is to make sense of free will in a modern context, I believe one must avoid all such traditional strategies and take a whole new look at the indeterminist problem from the ground up. This is another place where new ways of thinking about old problems are re­quired. It is a scientific question, of course, whether the indeterminism is there in nature in appropriate ways. As the Epicureans said, if the atoms don’t “swerve” in undeter­mined ways there would be no room in nature for free will. But our question is the philo­so­phical one that has boggled people’s minds for centuries: What could we do with indetermi­nism, assuming it was there in nature, to make sense of free will as something other than mere chance or ran­dom­ness? Chance after all is not freedom. The first step in addressing this question is to note that indeter­minism does not have to be involved in all acts done “of our own free wills” for which we are ultimately responsible, as argued earlier. Not all such acts have to be undeter­mined, but only those by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are, namely “self-forming actions” or SFAs.

Now I believe these undetermined self-forming actions or SFAs occur at those difficult times of life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become. Perhaps we are torn between doing the moral thing or acting from ambition, or between powerful present desires and long term goals, or we are faced with a difficult tasks for which we have aversions. In all such cases, we are faced with competing motivations and have to make an effort to overcome temptation to do something else we also strongly want. There is tension and uncertainty in our minds about what to do at such times, I sug­gest, that is reflected in appropriate regions of our brains by movement away from thermodynamic equili­brium—in short, a kind of “stirring up of chaos” in the brain that makes it sensitive to micro-indeterminacies at the neuronal level. The uncertainty and inner tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation is thus reflected in the indeterminacy of our neural pro­cesses them­selves. What is experienced internally as uncertainty then would corres­pond phy­s­ically to the opening of a window of opportunity that would tempo­ra­rily screen off complete determi­na­tion by influences of the past.

When we do decide under such conditions of uncertainty, the outcome is not deter­mined because of the preceding indeterminacy—and yet it can be willed (and hence rational and voluntary) either way owing to the fact that in such self-formation, the agents’ prior wills are divided by conflicting motives. Consider a businesswoman who faces such a conflict. She is on her way to an important meeting when she observes an assault taking place in an alley. An inner struggle ensues between her conscience, to stop and call for help, and her career ambitions which tell her she cannot miss this meeting. She has to make an effort of will to overcome the temptation to go on. If she overcomes this temptation, it will be the result of her effort, but if she fails, it will be because she did not allow her effort to succeed. And this is due to the fact that, while she willed to overcome temptation, she also willed to fail, for quite different and incommensurable reasons. When we, like the woman, decide in such circumstances, and the indeterminate efforts we are making become determinate choices, we make one set of competing reasons or motives prevail over the others then and there by deciding.

Now let us add a further piece to the puzzle. Just as indeterminism need not under­mine rationality and voluntariness, so indeterminism in and of itself need not undermine con­trol and responsibility. Suppose you are trying to think through a difficult problem, say a mathe­matical problem, and there is some indeterminacy in your neural processes complica­ting the task—a kind of chaotic background. It would be like trying to concentrate and solve a problem, say a mathematical problem, with background noise or distraction. Whether you are going to succeed in solving the problem is uncertain and undetermined because of the distracting neural noise. Yet, if you concentrate and solve the problem nonetheless, there is rea­son to say you did it and are responsible for it even though it was undetermined whether you would succeed. The indeterministic noise would have been an obstacle that you overcame by your effort.

There are numerous examples supporting this point, where indeter­mi­nism functions as an obstacle to success without precluding responsibility. Consider an assassin who is trying to shoot the prime minister, but might miss because of some undeter­mined events in his ner­vous system that may lead to a jerking or wavering of his arm. If the assassin does succeed in hit­ting his target, despite the indeterminism, can he be held responsi­ble? The answer is clear­ly yes because he intentionally and voluntarily succeeded in doing what he was trying to do—kill the prime minister. Yet his action, killing the prime minister, was undetermined. It might have failed. Or, here is another exam­ple: a husband, while argu­ing with his wife, in a fit of rage swings his arm down on her favorite glass-top table top intending to break it. Again, we suppose that some indetermi­nism in his outgoing neural pathways makes the momentum of his arm indeter­mi­nate so that it is genuinely undeter­mined whether the table will break right up to the moment when it is struck. Whether the husband breaks the table or not is undetermined and yet he is clearly res­ponsible if he does break it. (It would be a poor excuse for him to say to his wife: “chance did it, not me.” Even though there was a chance he wouldn’t break it, chance didn’t do it, he did.)

Now these examples—of the mathematical problem, the assassin and the hus­band—are not all we want, since they do not amount to genuine exercises of (self-forming) free will in SFAs, like the businesswoman’s, where the will is divided between conflicting motives. The assassin’s will is not divided between conflicting motives as is the woman’s. He wants to kill the prime minister, but does not also want to fail. (If he fails therefore, it will be merely by chance.) Yet these examples of the assassin, the husband and the like, do provide some clues. To go further, we have to add some further thoughts.

Imagine in cases of inner conflict characteristic of SFAs, like the businesswoman’s, that the indeterministic noise which is providing an obstacle to her overcoming temptation is not coming from an external source, but is coming from her own will, since she also deeply desires to do the opposite. Imagine that two crossing (recurrent) neural networks are in­volved, each influencing the other, and representing her conflicting motivations. (Recurrent neural networks are complex networks of interconnected neurons in the brain circulating impulses in feedback loops that are now generally thought to be involved in higher-level cognitive processing.4) The input of one of these neural networks consists in the woman’s reasons for acting morally and stopping to help the victim; the input of the other, her ambi­tious motives for going on to her meeting.

The two networks are connected so that the indetermi­nistic noise which is an obstacle to her making one of the choices is coming from her desire to make the other, and vice versa —the indeterminism thus arising from a tension-creating conflict in the will, as I said. In these circumstances, when either of the pathways reaches an activation threshold (which amounts to choice), it will be like your solving the mathema­tical problem by over­coming the background noise produced by the other. And just as when you solved the mathematical problem by overcoming the distracting noise, one can say you did it and are responsible for it, so one can say this as well, I argue, in the present case, which­ever one is chosen. The pathway through which the woman succeeds in reaching a choice threshold will have overcome the obstacle in the form of indeterministic noise generated by the other.

Note that, under such conditions, the choices either way will not be “inadvertent,” “ac­ci­dental,” “capricious,” or “merely random,” (as critics of indeterminism say) because they will be willed by the agents either way when they are made, and done for reasons either way —reasons that the agents then and there endorse. But these are the conditions usually re­quired to say something is done “on purpose,” rather than accidentally, capriciously or merely by chance. Moreover, these conditions taken together, I argue, rule out each of the reasons we have for saying that agents act, but do not have control over their actions (compulsion, coer­cion, constraint, inadvertence, accident, control by others, etc.).5

Indeed, in these cases, agents have what I call “plural voluntary control” over the op­tions in the following sense: they are able to bring about whichever of the options they will, when they will to do so, for the reasons they will to do so, on purpose rather than acci­dentally or by mistake, without being coerced or com­pelled in doing so or willing to do so, or other­wise controlled in doing or willing to do so by any other agents or mechanisms. I show in my 1996 book that each of these condi­tions can be satisfied for SFAs as conceived above even though the SFAs are undetermined.6 The conditions can be summed up by saying, as we sometimes do, that the agents can choose either way, at will.

Note also that this account of self-forming choices amounts to a kind of “doubling” of the mathematical problem. It is as if an agent faced with such a choice is trying or making an effort to solve two cognitive problems at once, or to complete two competing (delibe­ra­tive) tasks at once—in our example, to make a moral choice and to make a conflicting self-inte­rested choice (corresponding to the two competing neural networks involved). Each task is being thwarted by the indeterminism coming from the other, so it might fail. But if it suc­ceeds, then the agents can be held responsible because, as in the case of solving the mathe­matical problem, they will have succeeded in doing what they were knowingly and willingly trying to do. Recall the assassin and the husband. Owing to indeterminacies in their neural pathways, the assassin might miss his target or the husband fail to break the table. But if they succeed, despite the probability of failure, they are responsible, because they will have succeeded in doing what they were trying to do.

And so it is, I suggest, with self-forming choices or SFAs, except that in the case of self-forming choices, whichever way the agents choose they will have succeeded in doing what they were trying to do because they were simultaneously trying to make both choices, and one is going to succeed. Their failure to do one thing is not a mere failure, but a voluntary succeeding in doing the other.

Does it make sense to talk about the agent’s trying to do two competing things at once in this way, or to so ve two cognitive prob