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The paradox of free will

Immanuel Kant

[From an email.] Jerry Coyne does not impress me [in this talk], although at least he seems less irrational and annoying than Daniel Dennett. Surely he's right to be an incompatibilist on the issue of free will vs. determinism, since the idea of self-control (free will) manifestly contradicts the idea that one's acts are determined by factors outside one's control, such as environmental stimuli and neural impulses. That sentence, in fact, is pretty much all that's needed to dispel the entire controversy and the entire literature over compatibilism vs. incompatibilism. Some of his other points are less convincing, though. For example, as Chomsky has noted, the fact that, with the help of MRIs and whatnot, a person's next act can theoretically be predicted a second before he does it technically doesn't invalidate the notion of free will. All it entails is that decisions are unconscious, and then bubble up into consciousness. But, in effect, we already knew this--we already knew that there's an unconscious and/or "pre-conscious" (in Freud's terminology) realm out of which a given conscious state emerges, frenetically churning with all sorts of mostly unactualized possibilities. It may be that if a decision is unconscious we shouldn't really say it's under our control and thus subject to free will, but that's a separate issue.

There's something naive about Coyne's whole presentation (which, incidentally, showed not a particle of originality). He doesn't seem to recognize all the logical and psychological problems involved in an abandonment, even if only an "intellectual" abandonment, of the belief in free will. But first, he's right on one obvious point: even if determinists succeeded in convincing everyone that free will is an illusion, this would have no very bad social consequences. Only a naive idealist/"intellectualist" about human behavior, like a Dennett, who ludicrously overestimates the social importance of abstract reflections on philosophy, could think that people would suddenly start behaving differently, even immorally, if they decided that free will is an illusion. "Noble lies" like God or free will or whatever are not what regulate social behavior. Institutional norms and power-structures are, in addition to elementary psychological facts like the desire for approval by others.

But Coyne is blithely unaware of more serious problems. Do we really want no longer to blame people (in the "morally responsible" sense), or to think that no one is robustly responsible for his acts? He says, like a 15-year-old who has just started reading philosophy, "I was full of regret for the way the relationship with my ex-girlfriend ended, but then I remembered, oh hey, I don't have free will, so it couldn't have gone any other way! It had to end as it did, and so I lost my regret and felt better about myself." Simple as that, eh? Wow. You can't so blithely do away with the absolutely overwhelming, in fact immediately certain, impression of free will. I'm choosing to write right now instead of go outside to the grocery store. It seems inconceivable for this impression to be wrong. In a sense, what would it mean for it to be wrong? That possibility doesn't really make any sense. Now, given the truth of determinism, it seems that in some way it must be wrong--free will must be an illusion--but how it can be wrong is impossible to imagine. Both free will and determinism seem absolutely necessary. So Chomsky and Colin McGinn and the "new mysterians" are right that our cognitive apparatus is inadequate to tackle the mystery of free will. The paradox is unresolvable.

But getting back to the problems with Coyne....our impression of free will is so fundamental to who we are, and so apparently certain, that it's much too easy and simplistic to comfort ourselves with the supposed fact that we have no control over what we do. As far as we know from our inner experience, we do have some large degree of self-control. A person's decision to behave a certain way with his girlfriend is very different from the case of the mentally deficient criminal who is acknowledged to have less control over his acts than normal people. (And yet Coyne compares the two situations, saying, in effect, that we're all like the criminal.) And after all, maybe, in some unfathomable sense, our impression of self-control is true.

In any event, as Kant said, it's impossible not to act without implicitly presupposing free will. We have to keep thinking of ourselves as free beings--subject to many constraints, of course--and evaluating ourselves and our acts on that basis. Coyne doesn't have the right to excuse his past behavior by invoking the supposed falsity of free will, partly because that is to abandon his whole identity as a human being, and partly because as far as he was concerned at the time he did, after all, make decisions, and--according to his own consciousness--he could have made different decisions. And also, again, it's possible that in some sense that humans are incapable of conceiving, some sort of determinism and some sort of free will may be compatible, such that we're right in believing ourselves to have free will.

Nor does Coyne recognize that some of the objections to his view he mentioned are right. For instance, he says that people who don't believe in free will are not being inconsistent in trying to convince someone of a particular view, because, after all, environmental inputs are in part what determine how people act. So the inputs we give people through our arguments may somehow result in the rewiring of their neural pathways or whatnot, which will maybe lead them to change their mind. But the whole point of the objection, which he doesn't recognize, is that it's inconsistent for a non-believer in free will to appeal to a person's rationality and try to change his mind thereby, because the essence of reasoning is that one (freely) considers alternatives, considers reasons, and (freely) decides between them. (The element of freedom is implicit in the very concepts of considering and deciding, which means it's implicit in the concept of using reason.) So, by presenting a logical argument, Coyne is implicitly presupposing that his audience has free will, i.e., can freely consider alternatives and decide for or against them. He may rationalize his behavior by saying, "No, I'm not actually trying to convince you on the basis of your use of reason but rather by manipulating you in a non-rational way to come around to my views"--which, in effect, is what he says--but that's a superficial rationalization that conflicts with the spirit of his activity, the rational spirit. In short, a non-believer in free will is constantly, in fact in every second of the day, faced with the contradicting of his determinist views by the premises, or the "spirit," of his actions. The contradiction is only extra pronounced in the case of the determinist who is engaged in reasoning, or in trying to convince someone else of a position by presenting him with reasons (as opposed to manipulating him in some way, emotionally or physically or whatever).

Reason really is the realm of freedom. The old philosophers were right about that. That actually poses another problem, namely what the relation between reasoning and free will is. In a way we're less "free" when under the influence of a powerful emotion. But this apparently has to do with a different sense of free will than the one Coyne is discussing, according to which all our acts are free.


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