Free Will: Hardwired by the Universe?

Lately on the web there has been a bit of an uptick in discussing free will vs. determinism. Biologist Jerry Coyne shares his thoughts of some of the literature in a blog post and calls for more science to be injected into the philosophy. Over at the New York Times’ newish philosophy blog Galen Strawson tries to walk readers through the “maze” of free will/determinism arguments and consequences. She persuades me that even if determinism is false at its core by some randomness or some quantum ambiguity built into the universe, we can’t be entirely morally responsible for every action we take. 

There may be all sorts of other factors affecting and changing you. Determinism may be false: some changes in the way you are may come about as a result of the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But you obviously can’t be responsible for the effects of any random factors, so they can’t help you to become ultimately morally responsible for how you are.

Some people think that quantum mechanics shows that determinism is false, and so holds out a hope that we can be ultimately responsible for what we do. But even if quantum mechanics had shown that determinism is false (it hasn’t), the question would remain: how can indeterminism, objective randomness, help in any way whatever to make you responsible for your actions? The answer to this question is easy. It can’t.

I tend to find arguments in favor of free will stink of wishful thinking; so I concede that determinism or something philosophically equivalent is most likely true. Yet, as Strawson notes, we still feel as though we are making our own decisions. No matter how strong I think the arguments for determinism are, I behave as though I’m free to act (what other choice do I have?). The main reason is, what nihilists fail to appreciate, even if all our actions are compelled by physics they still have determined consequences which we still feel as conscious beings. 

Let me expand on this by borrowing Steven Pinker’s argument in The Blank Slate, where he eases readers’ fears that evolution and genetics (nature) compel our actions, and apply that argument to this subject.

The difference between the mechanisms that impel organisms to behave in real time and the mechanisms the shaped the design of the organism over evolutionary time is important enough to merit some jargon. A proximate cause of behavior is the mechanism that pushes behavior buttons in real time, such as the hunger and lust that impel people to eat and have sex. An ultimate cause is the adaptive rationale that led the proximate cause to evolve, such as the need for nutrition and reproduction that gave us the drives of hunger and lust. The distinction between proximate and ultimate causation is indispensable in understanding ourselves because it determines the answer to every question of the form “Why did that person act as he did?” To take a simple example, ultimately people crave sex in order to reproduce (because the ultimate cause of sex is reproduction), but proximately they may do everything they can not to reproduce (because the proximate cause of sex is pleasure).

This helps me respect the difference between our actions being ultimately determined by events prior and us proximately making actual decisions. We have been caused to have the ability to reason in real time even if the underlying operation of that reason is at its core predetermined. Ultimately people’s reason is determined by physics, chemistry, biology, and society, but proximately their brains apply logical analysis and emotions to reason and thus make a decision and act. To take this example further, ultimately you are choosing to read this blog post because a series of events beyond your control obligates you to be at a computer and prefer to make that choice, but proximately you are choosing to read because of you reasons (e.g. interest, enjoyment, friendship, lack of better alternatives, etc) that reading this is your preference. 

If our actions are determined beyond our ultimate control, but we still feel and live in that cause-and-effect chain, and therefore are not ultimately responsible (even if we are proximately responsible because we own the body which is acting) it gives me a sense of modesty and humility in condemning individuals’ behaviors. Of course, since nihilism and moral anarchy would cause actual suffering (who cares if it’s by will or has been determined?) we try to act in such a way that best reduces suffering. The pain impulse compels us to not retreat to nihilism. We are hardwired by the universe to act as though we have free will. The phrase Strawson shares with us from Jean-Paul Sartre is “condemned to freedom.”

So if we’re not ultimately morally responsible, what does that mean for criminals and evildoers? It shouldn’t mean that we let them act in ways that hurt others’ lives. But the arguments for determinism convince me that we shouldn’t punish for its own sake. Even if a rapist, for example, isn’t ultimately responsible for his actions doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t lock him up to prevent him from harming others. Likewise, if temporary punishment causes a change in behavior for the better like in the case of a misbehaving young child than that is a convincing argument in its favor. Just as if a doctor must stick a needle in a patient’s arm to provide a helpful vaccine or cure, a police officer might have to strike a violent criminal to prevent or stop an assault. Yet the vengeful torturer has no moral justification that sits comfortably with determinism. 

If you didn’t like this post I’m not ultimately responsible. Coming soon, a blog post on a form of proximate determinism. 

I hope to read Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves for a scientific and philosophical blended discussion on free will/determinism. Has anyone read that or any other titles which they recommend (or dislike)? 

(image: Erin Schell, The New York Times)

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