"Free Will" versus "Determinism"

Overview

The arguments for Determinism come primarily from the realm of the sciences. The more science learns about the nature of Man and the Universe, the more likely it seems that the future is predictable. If the future is predictable, then it is possible that the decisions you think you make freely, are not so free.

The arguments for Free Will come primarily from the fact that our concepts of morality and personal responsibility for our actions are based on the assumption that the acting agent is able to choose otherwise. We need to be able to assign responsibility, bestow blame and praise, and allocate punishments and rewards.

The fear is that if Determinism is true, then we are not responsible for our actions, and cannot choose otherwise than we do. The essence of "not responsible" is "not able to influence the outcome". If we cannot choose otherwise than we do, then we cannot really influence the outcomes of any decision, and cannot therefore be held responsible for those outcomes. Morality and civil law disintegrate into chaos.

The "Compatibilist" argument I will present here maintains that Free Will is not inconsistent with Determinism. I will argue that once one understands what we are really talking about when we talk about "Free Will", we will realize that Determinism is actually no threat to Free Will. And that the apparent conflict between the two arises from a fundamental misconception of "Free Will".

The Arguments for Determinism

"Determinism" is the philosophical doctrine that maintains that everything is governed by causal laws, and that all actions and behavior are the inevitable result of preceding events. It assumes that all things that exist in the world are subject to laws of cause and effect.   It is, for all practical purposes, a materialist doctrine.   While it might be logically possible for a Dualist to maintain a Determinist doctrine, it would seem that no Dualist has.

Science is the primary source of arguments for Determinism.

"science is determinist; it is so a priori; it postulates determinism, because without this postulate science could not exist."
- Henri Poincare.

Our "Western / Scientific" culture assumes that everything has a cause. And in support of this, science does seem to eventually find a cause for everything. If everything has a cause, then human behavior must also have its own causes. And if human behavior is caused in the manner assumed by science, then where is there a place for "Free Will"?

"Hard" Determinists maintain that there is no place in a materialist world for a thing called "Free Will", and the concept of "Free Will" is logically incompatible with Determinism. "Soft" Determinists maintain that "Free Will" can exist in a Determinist world, but that the concept "Free Will" does not mean what we usually think it means.

I will outline the basic arguments for Determinism using a number of "Ghosts" to speak to each one. I am using the notion of a "ghost" instead of labeling each position with the scientific personality usually associated with the argument, because I will be outlining the "pure" version of the argument, and ignoring the various weaker versions. (Nor do I wish to imply that the arguments presented reflect the thinking of the scientists whose names I am borrowing.)

"Newton's Ghost"

Assumption 1 - The Universe contains a finite number of particles. (Note that this is not strictly necessary. A looser version requires only that there be a finite number of particles within the requisite time horizon.) Assumption 2 - Each particle has a specific position, course, and speed. Assumptions 3 - All particles interact with other particles in knowable ways. Conclusion - given the position, course, and speed of all the particles extant at some specified instant, it is possible to compute the position, course, and speed of all particles that would exist at any future instant. In other words, given the state of the Universe at any given instant, the future is totally predictable.

What I am calling "Newton's Ghost" is more formally known as "LaPlace's Demon" after the Marquis Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749-1847), who wrote (c.1774) - "We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes." The "intellect" to which LaPlace here refers later became known as "LaPlace's Demon".

"Heisenberg's Ghost"

(a.k.a. "Quantum Indeterminacy"). According to the Standard or Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory, quantum particles do not have a specifiable "position, course, and speed". More particularly, for certain pairs of quantum properties, of which position and momentum are one pair, not only is it not possible to specify both properties with the accuracy needed by Newton's Ghost, the properties are undefined within the range of accuracy specified by Heisenberg's Uncertainty equation. This is a much stronger statement than that these properties cannot be measured to any greater accuracy, or that they are unpredictable within that accuracy. It is the source of the "randomness" or "indeterminacy" of Quantum Theory, and the fundamental reason why Quantum Theory is not a deterministic physical theory.

Quantum Theory also allows for the spontaneous appearance of "virtual particles" at any point, as long as they do not remain in existence any longer than allowed by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. But even if they do disappear "on time", they can interact with non-virtual particles while they exist. (Stephen Hawking made use of this aspect in his analysis of the evaporation of Black Holes.)   For virtual particles to leave a trace of their passage would be incompatible with Assumption 1 above. The spontaneous appearance of virtual particles is governed by the principles of Quantum Indeterminacy, so their numbers and properties are unpredictable, even in principle. Therefore one can not assume that the Universe (or the requisite part thereof) contains a finite number of particles. And one would not be able to provide Newton's Ghost with the "position, course, and speed" of the virtual particles, since they would not exist at the specified starting instant.

Although many people delight in the belief that quantum theory disproves physical determinism, they refer only to The Standard or Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory. Schroedinger, Einstein, Bohm, Penrose and many other physicists have never accepted the claim that quantum theory disproves determinism. Moreover, even if quantum indeterminacy is true, it can do no more than establish "random will", not Free Will - as we will discover below.

"Bohm's Ghost"

Physicist David Bohm created an alternative to Quantum Mechanics (called, naturally enough, "Bohmian Mechanics") that does away with quantum indeterminacy. Bohm (like Einstein before him) argued that the apparent randomness of Quantum Mechanics is just an indication of our ignorance of what is going on at some lower level, and that therefore Quantum Mechanics is an incomplete theory. Consider, for example, the apparent randomness of flipping a coin. The result of flipping a coin is purely deterministic. The factors influencing the actual outcome of any one flip are macroscopic, and thus beyond the scope of Quantum Indeterminacy. Yet, because we are ignorant of the minute subtle details of the forces at play, we treat the outcome as the result of chance. Bohm proposed, therefore, to add some stuff (called "hidden variables") to Quantum Mechanics to resolve the apparent randomness. The result is that Bohmian Mechanics is a fully deterministic theory of quantum phenomena. It is also fully consistent with Quantum Mechanics, although no one has yet been able to extend Bohmian Mechanics into an equivalent of Quantum Field Theory. If Bohm's physics is correct, Bohm's Ghost trumps Heisenberg's Ghost, and Newton's Ghost still reigns supreme.

'the Butterfly's Ghost"

(a.k.a. "Chaos Theory"). Many aspects of the Universe respond non-linearly to minor changes in starting parameters. Which means that microscopic differences in the starting parameters of a process can result in macroscopic differences in the end result. The classic (if perhaps exaggerated) example is that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in the Amazon jungle can affect the weather next week in New York City. The argument here is that Newton's Ghost would require infinite accuracy in its knowledge of the "position, course, and speed" and such infinite accuracy is not possible even in principle. However, the Butterfly's Ghost is defeated by the assumption that each particle in question does have a specific "position, course, and speed". Accuracy of measurement is not an issue. We are not assuming that Newton's Ghost must measure the necessary parameters of all extant particles. Merely that Newton's Ghost is provided with that information. Newton's Ghost is assumed to be given the requisite infinitely accurate information required to complete the necessary calculations. The Determinist argument is not that someone might be able to calculate the future. It is that if all particles have a specific "position, course, and speed", then there is one single future that is the necessary result of the present.

"Einstein's Ghost"

(a.k.a. "Four Dimensional World Lines"). Einstein, in approaching the mathematics of his two theories of Relativity, chose to view the Universe as a four-dimensional construct, with time as the fourth dimension. From this perspective, each particle that exists in the Universe traces out a four-dimensional "world-line". Any given instant in time is just a three-dimensional "Slice" across the sheaf of four-dimensional world-lines that is the Universe viewed from outside time. The fascinating consequence of this view of the Universe, is that neither Heisenberg's Ghost, nor the Butterfly's Ghost is able to disturb the four-dimensional sheaf. Change requires time. When viewed from outside time, change cannot exist. The four-dimensional Universe is a static entity. Whatever virtual particles may appear or disappear, whatever they might do, whatever indeterminacies might exist, whatever random or apparently random events might transpire - all are recorded indelibly in the four-dimensional sheaf of world-lines. To "predict" the future, all one would have to do is view a particular "Slice" across the sheaf of world-lines and read off the positions of things. Newton's Ghost needs to have infinitely accurate information, and be able to do massively complex calculations in order to predict the future. Einstein's Ghost is much simpler, and need only step outside of time to view the whole of past-present-future as one single four-dimensional entity. From this perspective, time is static, the past-present-future is fixed. Any event that from our perspective "will happen" already is, from the perspective of Einstein's Ghost.

The Arguments for Free Will

"Free Will" is that philosophical doctrine that maintains that an individual, regardless of forces external to him, can and does choose at least some of his actions. "Free Will" is defined largely by its contrast with Determinism.

There are essentially only two arguments for Free Will. The argument from Moral Responsibility maintains that the existence of morality and ethics presupposes Free Will. And the argument from Common Sense maintains that whatever it is that we do when we choose or decide, it is self-obvious that we could have chosen or decided otherwise, and this ability is Free Will.

Moral Responsibility.

The most significant philosophical argument for the existence of Free Will is its central importance for the concept of "Moral Responsibility". To understand why, we must explore just what we do mean when we hold someone "Morally Responsible".

Let's consider a hypothetical scenario. Let's suppose that you have volunteered for an Ethics experiment. You find yourself locked in a small cubical. On the wall in front of you are two buttons - a green one, and a red one. In the center is a digital clock that is counting down the seconds from fifteen minutes. You can do one of three things. You can push the red button, or you can push the green button, or you can do nothing and let the clock run down to zero. Now, how would observers of this experiment apply the concept of "Moral Responsibility"? Suppose that, unknown to you, the consequences of one of the three options you have available involves events or situations about which one can say "That is morally undesirable"? (Suppose, to pick an extreme example, that pushing the red button will kill a subject in an adjoining room.)   I think everyone would agree that the scenario definitely involves some aspect of Moral Responsibility. Thus we have the first of our defining criteria for the concept of Moral Responsibility. It must involve events or situations where your choice of actions can be evaluated against some standard of what is morally desirable or undesirable.

But in the scenario we have described so far, even if it does involve consequences that can be deemed to be morally undesirable, should you be held "morally responsible" for the consequences that will result from whatever action you choose? In the scenario described so far, you have no knowledge on which to base an ethical evaluation of the alternatives. Most people, I think, would not hold you responsible for unknowable consequences. This means we can identify a second condition for "Moral Responsibility". In order to be considered morally responsible for your actions, you must have sufficient information available about the consequences of your actions that you can evaluate the desirability of those consequences according to some set of ethical principles or standards.

So let's add to the scenario some documentation of what the consequences would be if you should push either button, or do nothing. (Let's say, to construct an extreme example, that pushing the green button will cause the death of a friend, pushing the red button will cause the death of an enemy, and letting the clock run out will cause the death of both.) I think now most observers would consider that you should be held "Morally Responsible" for the consequences that will result from whatever choice you make.

We would also, I suggest, each feel justified in critiquing your choice according to our own system of Ethical standards. And if you should ask someone else's opinion of which alternative you should choose, I think everyone would feel suitably justified in responding "You should choose .....", directing your choice to the option they would evaluate as the "best" under the circumstances.

Now lets suppose, as a variation on our little experiment, that you decide to choose what to do based on some decision process that has nothing to do with the information provided about the consequences. Suppose you decide to choose based on the flip of a coin. Are you "morally responsible" for the consequences that will result? I think everyone would agree that you are still morally responsible for your actions. In this case, however, the primary focus of the moral judgment would be your decision not to base your choice on the knowledge available, and only secondarily on the particular action that was selected by the flip of the coin.

Let's modify the experiment again, and provide you with a die and instructions to roll the die and do what the die tells you to. Notice that your knowledge of the consequences of your actions is now irrelevant. Your choice of action is based on a randomizer. (We"ll assume that you do not have the option of not obeying the instructions of the die.)   Are you "Morally Responsible" for your choice, or for the consequences? I think that most people would agree that you are not. So we can add a third defining criteria to our concept of "Moral Responsibility". The choice you make must be the result of your own deliberations over the consequences of the alternatives available.

From the way that the concepts of "moral choice" and "best alternative" are normally used, I think the above analysis accurately reflects the meaning of "Moral Responsibility" within the hypothetical scenario we have described. A choice of behavior is a "moral choice" if the choice can be made based on an ethical evaluation of the consequences of the choice against some standards of ethical desirability. And people are held morally responsible for their choices in situations where they have a reasonable basis upon which to forecast the consequences. If a choice is made in a situation where the resulting consequences are not predictable, then the consequences are generally referred to as "accidental" or "unintentional", and the actor in question is not normally held morally responsible. We can of course, apply perfect hind-sight, and say after the fact that "You should not have done that". But we do not generally hold the actor morally responsible if there was no way to have predicted, evaluated, or influenced the outcome of the choice.

The other assumption we made in our scenario, was that the consequences that did result from your choice were the consequences that your knowledge predicted would result. How would the scenario be effected if your ability to forecast the consequences were somehow rendered ineffective? I think everyone would agree you would be considered no more "morally responsible" for the consequences that actually did result, than if you had no way to predict the consequences in the first place. But, I think everyone would agree that, regardless of the actual consequences that do result, it would still be morally justifiable to claim that "You should not have done that!" if you should choose an action that your knowledge indicates is not the "best" under the circumstances as long as you are not aware of the invalidity of your knowledge. And from this peculiarity, we can see a fourth defining condition of Moral Responsibility. A person can be held morally responsible for both the choice and the consequences together and separately. A person is held morally responsible for the choice based on the expected (or reasonably expectable) consequences, and again for those expected consequences should they occur. But the individual is not normally held morally responsible for unexpected consequences.

Suppose, finally, I were to forcibly take your hand and press the red button with your finger. Most people would agree that you would not be held morally responsible for the consequences that resulted. I would be held responsible, because it was my choice that affected the outcome. But you had no choice in the matter.

Therefore, from the preceding little thought experiment, we can define "Morally Responsible" as an adjective meaning "answerable or accountable for something within one's power to control" where that "Something" is a choice or decision or judgment where -

And to be "within one's power to control" includes any situation where by choosing one alternative over another, one can influence the consequences in a predictable manner. One is not considered responsible for unpredictable consequences.

The entire concept of "morality" requires that the moral agent be held responsible for their choices and actions. The entire concept of "responsibility" requires that the acting agent have a choice. Without an ability to influence the consequences, we cannot be held accountable for them. The freedom to choose the "right thing to do" is fundamental to our conception of moral responsibility. If there is no freedom to choose the "best" of the available alternatives, there is no moral responsibility for the consequences. If there is no moral responsibility, there is no moral justification for praise or blame, reward or punishment.

In every aspect of our relations with other individuals, the concept of moral responsibility governs how we react to the behavior of others. The argument of Moral Responsibility states that if determinism were true, no person would be able to change his actions, therefore no one could ever be held morally responsible for his own actions.

It Feels like Free Will.

Undoubtedly, the most significant argument that non-philosophers think of for the existence of Free Will, is the universal individual personal experience of what it feels like to deliberate, evaluate, and make a choice. No one will dispute that whatever it is that is taking place, it certainly feels like we are free to choose how we will. Whatever else is going on, we each of us are familiar with the distinction between having the freedom to choose, and not having the freedom to choose. It is simple. It is fundamental. It is basic. And it transcends even those scenarios where we may be so physically constrained that we may not be able to do anything about what we choose. Common sense tells us that we can change our minds about which alternative we choose. Common sense tells us that we can change our actions by our own choice.

It is not just for ourselves that the feeling of Free Will is so pervasive. We treat other people as similar to ourselves. We treat other people as if they too feel like they have Free Will. We do not regard our friends or even our enemies as mechanical automatons ("zombies"), simply reacting with unthinking instinct to whatever they encounter. We treat all human beings as thinking, reasoning, contemplating, considering, and - most importantly - choosing intellects. The notion of Free Will is fundamental and basic to how we view ourselves, and how we interact with other people.

Resolving the Conflict

Free-Will Libertarianism

Free Will is incompatible with Determinism. Man has Free Will. Therefore Determinism is false. This is the argument of those who consider the fundamental need for Free Will to be more important than the evidence from science for Determinism. There are essentially two different approaches to this way of resolving the conflict.

The scientific approach is to attack the underlying premises of scientific determinism. Quantum Indeterminacy is a favorite escape hatch. As is the "Multiple Worlds" interpretation of Quantum Physics. But scientific libertarians face a serious challenge. Just how can quantum randomness (or chaos theory, or some other suitable source of indeterminacy) be translated into Free Will. As we explored above when understanding the meaning of "Moral Responsibility", if your actions are not the result of your moral evaluation of the desirability of the consequences, then you are not morally responsible for the results. If your choice of action is the result of some random (indeterminate) event, then how are your actions the result of your moral evaluation of the projected consequences? Depending on scientific indeterminacy to escape from Determinism is morally equivalent to rolling the die instead of making your own choices. It is debatable whether this approach can be made to work. I believe it cannot.

The dualist approach is to maintain that whatever it is in the human mind that exercises Free Will (let's call it a "Soul" for sake of a label), it is not subject to the constraints of materialist science. But dualist libertarians also face a serious challenge. Just how can some form of immaterial soul interact with a body that is clearly material? Biologists have tracked the nerve impulses that activate our muscles, and have determined that they originate somewhere in our brain. The dualist, therefore, must provide a means whereby the immaterial soul, not subject to the constraints of materialist science, initiates the clearly materialist nerve impulses that generate our behavior. So far, there has been no success at providing such an explanation. So it is debatable whether this approach can be made to work, if materialist science is to be at all respected. I believe it cannot.

Determinism

Free Will is incompatible with Determinism. Determinism is true. Therefore Man does not have Free Will. This is the argument of the "Hard Determinist" or "Hard Incompatibilist". The argument is that "Free Will" is an illusion. Perhaps a necessary one, in order for us to function properly. But an illusion none the less. The challenge that the Hard Determinist faces is the relevance of such a conclusion. Like medieval Theologians arguing over the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, it seems difficult to understand how such a conclusion matters. The vast majority of people in general, and philosophers in particular, will revert to the general feeling that we do have Free Will. And if that feeling is an illusion, then the critical social importance of "Moral Responsibility" demands that we ignore the Determinist conclusion, and proceed on the alternate hypothesis that we do indeed have Free Will.   Even if the Determinists are right, we simply cannot operate on that basis.

When your philosophical reasoning leads you to a conclusion that seems so at odds with the way that the world appears to work, it pays to double-check your premises. Your conclusion may be correct. But past experience suggests that it is more likely to be wrong.

Compatibilism

Free Will is not incompatible with Determinism. Therefore Determinism is true, and Man does have Free Will. This is the argument of the Compatibilist. It is based on the argument that the concept of "Free Will" is poorly defined and misunderstood.

Compatibilist Free Will in a Deterministic Reality

In order to explore the concept of "Free Will" in more depth lets consider another hypothetical scenario. Let's consider a game of chess between you and a chess program running on your computer. And let's examine what is taking place from the perspective of Daniel C. Dennett's three "Stances"(1).  

Suppose that you are in the mid-game phase, and it is your move. You examine the chessboard, identify some possible moves, and evaluate their desirability against your knowledge of chess strategy and your projections of how your opponent will respond. You choose a move, and (say) move your bishop. Now, wasn't your move an exercise of "Free Will"?   Did you not feel that you freely choose to make that particular bishop move? There was nothing in the situation that would render that particular move forced. You were not coerced. The move could not have been the result of random quantum events, or the flip of a coin, because you had clear strategic reasons for the move. There were a number of attractive looking legal moves available to you. You could have chosen otherwise. It has all of the characteristics of a typical day-to-day example of a "Free Will" decision. I think everyone will agree, that in the specified scenario, your choice to make that particular bishop move was an unrestrained exercise of "Free Will". Yet if we replayed the game tomorrow, and reached exactly the same point in the game, your analysis would be the same, and you would again choose to move the bishop as you did today, for exactly the same reasons. (Assuming, of course, that you do not learn anything new in the interim.)

But now consider the move the computer responds with. The computer chess program examines the chessboard, identifies some possible moves, and evaluates their desirability against its knowledge of chess strategy, and its projections of how its opponent will respond. The chess program chooses a move, and (say) moves its knight. Now, wasn't the computer's move also an exercise of "Free Will"?   Did it not freely choose to make that particular knight move? There was nothing in the situation that would render that particular move forced. It was not coerced. The move was not the result of random quantum events, or the flip of a coin, because a computer is specifically designed to preclude such things. It has clear strategic reasons for the move. There were a number of attractive looking legal moves available to it. It could have chosen otherwise. The only thing it could not do was turn off the computer and go for lunch. Doesn't this choice also have all of the characteristics of a typical day-to-day example of a "Free Will" decision? Or is there something different going on here? If this is not an exercise of "Free Will", what's the difference?

The Physical Stance.

At the physical level, the chess program running on your computer is a completely deterministic chunk of software, running on a completely deterministic chunk of hardware. The designers of the computer chips that are your computer go to great lengths to design out any potential quantum indeterminacies. The process of testing the hardware and software consists of providing the same inputs over and over again, and making sure that the outputs are identical to what is expected. The nature of binary coding in the hardware and the software is designed to mask the microvariability of electrical voltages, currents, and charges. A more complete model of a deterministic universe could not be found.

Yet, at the physical level, if Determinism is true, the chess program running on the computer between your ears is also a completely deterministic chunk of software, running on a completely deterministic chunk of hardware. The processes of evolution that designed the hardware between your ears had to design out any potential quantum indeterminacies. The process of natural selection, of differential rates of procreation, would weed out any design where the same inputs did not generate the "expected" outputs from generation to generation. Evolutionary adaptations "work" only so far as they enable marginally more successful rates of procreation over may generations. And biologists have demonstrated that the nature of our genetic coding masks any microvariability of chemical affinities when replicating DNA, translating DNA to RNA, or RNA to proteins. A more complete model of a deterministic universe also could not be found. If Determinism is true, there is no meaningful difference between the computer chess program, and the human chess player, at the physical level.

The Design Stance

Consider how the programmer approached the design of the chess program you are running. The chess program has been given certain knowledge about what kinds of moves are legal - bishops move on the diagonals, for example. And it has been given certain rules of strategy - dominating the center of the board is a good idea, for example. At this level of analysis, we are not considering how the programmer programmed in each of these various rules of legal chess and chess strategy. We need consider only what the program is designed to do, without worrying about how it is programmed to do it. The program contains rules for examining the chessboard for legal moves, rules for identifying possible moves worthy of further evaluation, rules for evaluating the "worth" of possible moves in light of the opponent's likely response. And rules for choosing the "best" alternative according to the provided standards of "good chess".

Yet, consider how your prior experience with chess has approached the design of the chess program you are running on the computer between your ears. Through experience, you have learned certain knowledge about what kinds of moves are legal - bishops move on the diagonals, for example. And you have learned certain rules of strategy - dominating the center of the board is a good idea, for example. At this level of analysis, we need not consider how the process of learning has programmed in each of these various rules of legal chess and chess strategy. We need consider only what the program is designed to do, without worrying about how it is programmed to do it. The program contains rules for examining the chessboard for legal moves, rules for identifying possible moves worthy of further evaluation, rules for evaluating the "worth" of possible moves in light of the opponent's likely response. And rules for choosing the "best" alternative according to the learned standards of "good chess". Again, at the design level, there is no meaningful difference between the design of the computer chess program, and the design of the chess program running between your ears. What differences there are arise from the fact that your own personal chess program was learned through experience instead of being provided from the ground up. And from the fact that your own personal chess program is but one subroutine in a larger program that is capable of "changing subroutines" based on inputs not available to the computer chess program.

The Intentional Stance.

Now think of the computer chess program not as a deterministic hunk of software running on a deterministic hunk of hardware, but as an intelligent agent. Think of the computer program the same way you would think of another person. Here is a self-interested, self-governing, self-motivating agent who wants, thinks, desires, values, contemplates, evaluates, and - chooses. The computer wants to win the game. It thinks that when I move my bishop to that spot, I am threatening its queen. It fears that threat. It hunts for a good move to protect itself from my threat. And, from the available alternatives freely chooses a good response - to move its knight to counter my bishop. Here now, at this level of analysis, we have the appearance of something that looks very much like "Free Will".

Behavior that looks like "Free Will" appears when we view whoever or whatever we are dealing with as an independent agent, and dismiss as irrelevant detail all of the mess at the design or physical levels that muddies our understanding of events. What matters to us when we are playing chess against a computer program, is how to win the game. To best accomplish that goal, the details of program design, computer language design, computer chip design, or the physics of electrons through semi-conductors are all irrelevant. What is relevant is how well we can predict the behavior of our opponent. And it is easier, simpler, and less resource expensive for us to predict what the opposition will do, if we adopt the stance that the opposition is something just like us. In other words, an agent who is self-interested, self-governing, self-motivating, who wants, thinks, desires, values, contemplates, evaluates, and - chooses. We do better at predicting the behavior of opponents, and of friends, who feel like they have Free Will. We invest "Free Will" (among a whole host of other self-like feelings and motivations) in our friends, our enemies, our pets, our predators, our prey, even our cars, our folding chairs, and our computer programs. It is an evolutionarily adaptive strategy.

"Free Will", then, is a concept from the Intentional Stance, applicable to Intentional Systems. We feel we have Free Will because we can observe ourselves thinking and choosing. Determinism, on the other hand, is a concept from the Physical Stance, applicable to physical systems. We are not aware of the physical processes that take place within us. When we observe ourselves, what we perceive is not the physics or biology, or even the information processing that is going on.   What we perceive is a self-interested, self-governing, self-motivating agent who wants, thinks, desires, values, contemplates, evaluates, and - chooses.   The apparent conflict between the concepts of0"Free Will" and "Determinism" disappears once one firms up our understanding of just what we are talking about when we discuss "Free Will". It is a "frame error" to compare or contrast the two. Both can be, and are, true. A completely deterministic device - be it a mind or a computer program - can have and exercise Free Will.

Just what exactly is "Free Will"? We can start by taking a minimalist stance, and define "Free Will" as whatever aspect of the human mind is necessary to enable "Moral Responsibility". That, of course, means that "Free Will" is that capacity of the human mind that chooses and could choose otherwise.

Choosing

The verb "To choose" means to evaluate the alternatives and select that alternative that appears to be the "best" according to some standard. The verbs "To decide" and "To judge" mean the same thing. If you do not deliberate over your choice, and have no reasons or justification for your choice when you make it, then you have not "chosen". Therefore -

But how do you evaluate the alternatives? "Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honor, if good; nor infamy, if evil." David Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, Part 2).   How you evaluate alternatives is governed by your character, personality, experiences, and current circumstances. In short, how you choose between alternatives is determined by who and what you are. But who and what you are is a product of your past - your genetics and your experiences - nature and nurture. So if your choice is caused by anything, it is caused by the sum total of your past history. If you make a deliberate choice, you do so because you have reasons. And given those reasons, you would not have chosen otherwise.

Which brings us back to the fundamental conundrum. If Determinism is true, what does it mean to say that we are free to choose as we will? If Determinism is true, then isn't every choice we ever make in our lives predetermined? Even though it may not feel that way?

The answer is "Yes! But so what?" For any choice to be your free choice, and not the result of someone else's control of, or influence on you, you have to make the choice based on your own understanding of your options, as evaluated by the values and priorities you have learned through experience. A choice is not freely yours if it is not based on your beliefs and your character, your experiences and your goals. Yet with all of these constraints, you still feel that the choice is a free one. That is because these constraints that I have listed are what you are. If these constraints are not operational when you make your choice, then you are not making the choice. All of the "diminished capacity" defense arguments, all the "extenuating circumstances" presented to mitigate the blame and punishment that society is expected to award the chooser of "bad" choices, are but attempts to explain that one or more of these constraints that are you, were not functioning at the time. To be absolved from Moral Responsibility, all that is necessary is to demonstrate that you did not make the choice.

So when you make a choice, you bring to that choice your experiences and memories, your character and desires, your goals and your values. That is what "you" are. And given who you are and what you are made of, in any particular circumstance the only way that you could choose other than how you do choose, is if something external to you forced the issue. In many cases, your friends can predict the way that you will choose, because they know who you are. And if you were to choose other than you would normally choose, your friends would look for some unusual reason for this unusual choice.

But all that is no more than saying that you are the product of your past history. Which is all that Determinism is saying. The only difference is that the first description is couched in language from the Intentional Stance. Whereas the latter description employed terms from the Physical Stance.

Choosing Otherwise

What does it mean to be able to "choose otherwise" than you did? The cause of your choice was your reasons and justifications. Given those reasons and those justifications, and given your character, beliefs, values, and experiences, you judged the choice you made to be the best of the available alternatives. Unless you learn something new to change your evaluation of the situation, you would be making the wrong choice to choose otherwise. Yet it is certainly possible that you would have chosen otherwise, had your reasons and justification been different. It is, therefore, an error in conception to presume that Free Will must involve an ability to choose otherwise, given the reasons and justification that exist. But it is not at all extraordinary to understand Free Will as including an ability to choose otherwise than you did, had the reasons and justifications been different.

More importantly, such an understanding of Free Will is not at all inconsistent with Determinism. A Determinist would argue that given the state of the Universe prior to your choice, your choice was inevitable. But all that is saying is that given your character, beliefs, values, and experiences, and the reasons and justifications you perceived at the time, you could not have chosen otherwise. A Determinist would also argue that if the state of the universe were different prior to your choice, you might have chosen otherwise. Which is only to say that if your character, beliefs, values, and experiences, and the reasons and justifications you perceive were different than they were, then you might have chosen otherwise than you actually did. The Determinist uses language from the Physical Stance to describe your choice as inevitable. The Compatibilist uses language from the Intentional Stance to describe your choice as the expected product of who you are, and the circumstances you found yourself in. Both are describing the same thing in different language.

The Fallacy of Fatalism

The doctrine of Determinism merely asserts that nothing happens without a cause, that every state of affairs is the outcome of a preceding state of affairs. Without this assumption all prediction would be impossible and all reasoning would be futile. The doctrine of Determinism asserts that the past was (in one sense) inevitable, given the physical, social, and individual forces, actions, choices, and decisions that actually took place. It also asserts that the future will be determined in the same way. But Determinism does not assert that this future can necessarily be known in advance. There is an enormous difference between "knowable in principle" and "knowable in practice". (Newton's Ghost might be able to predict the future in principle. But he would need infinitely accurate information on a possible infinite number of particles to do so. Clearly a practical impossibility. And Einstein's Ghost might be able to read off the status of four-dimensional world-lines at a particular point in time. But he does so by standing outside of time. Clearly also a practical impossibility.) More importantly, Determinism does not assert that a given future will unfold regardless of what you or I may do to promote or prevent it. Yet this is the assumption implicit in Fatalism.

Just because a Compatibilist believes that Determinism is true does not imply a Fatalist attitude about the uncontrollability of the future. The future is what we choose to make it. Determinism merely means that our choices are not uncaused. What we choose will be determined by our histories. But that does not conflict with the notion of Free Will. If your choice is uncaused, if your choice is the result of random events, if your choice is not your choice, then it is not an example of Free Will.

Moral Judgments from a Compatibilist

The primary challenge facing the Compatibilist, is explaining the purpose and function of moral judgments. If Determinism is true, then in any situation of moral choice, one's choice will be determined by one's history. And that means that in any situation of choice, one is not able to choose other than as one does. Despite how free it might appear at the time, the reasons and justifications one perceives are persuasive, and one cannot choose otherwise than one does without violating what one is. And if that is the case, what is the status of moral responsibility and moral judgment?

The answer is that we are all learning machines. Choices do not happen in a vacuum. Individually, we make a myriad of choices every day - many of them ethical ones. And individually, we are each a member of a social group where others of our kind make similar kinds of choices just as frequently. Over the course of evolution, "good" choices survived long enough to procreate. "Bad" choices died out. However, evolution is slow. We have evolved the ability to learn. Unlike the chess program, if we replay the match, we will bring to the rerun all the things we have learned in the interim. The human mind does not have a "restart" button. We learn from all experiences, and we can never exactly rerun a "Test scenario" and expect exactly the same output. Every time we evaluate our alternatives and make a choice, decision, or judgment, we learn more about ourselves and the world around us. We learn to improve our processes of evaluation and choice by distinguishing "good" choices from "bad" ones. Therefore, as an aide to learning - both for ourselves and for others - it pays to advertise those decisions that are notable for being "good" and "bad". Passing judgment on one's own choices, and the choices of others, serves the purpose of making plain how such choices "ought" to be made. Practice only makes perfect when we can recognize when our aim is off.

We assume that other people are just like ourselves. We assume that the best way of teaching other people to make "good" choices, and steer clear of "bad" ones, is to make plain what kind of choices are considered "good" and "bad". Hence a compatibilist's judgments (moral and otherwise) on the choices made or contemplated. Hence the purpose of praise and blame, punishment and reward.

Does the morally culpable miscreant deserve to be punished? (After all, the poor clod could not have chosen other than he did.) What is the meaning of "deserve" in this context? The dictionary says it means "be worthy of, merit, earn". Surely then, the miscreant's behavior is worthy of, merits, has earned the punishment?

If the objection is that the miscreant could not have chosen other than he did, and is therefore not morally responsible, then the objector must provide a definition of "morally responsible" that includes some element not covered in the above essay.

So the answer is "Yes!" For three reasons:

  1. to teach the chooser to change the way he evaluates and selects alternatives (punishment tends to reduce repetition, and provide an incentive for better use of learning opportunities);
  2. to teach me what kinds of choices to avoid, and what kinds of standards my social groups apply (I can learn by example); and
  3. to teach you that I mean what I say when I tell you that certain of your choices will result in undesirable consequences for you (advertised punishments make for good deterrents).

 

Summary

Compatibilism maintains that Free Will is not incompatible with Determinism, and that the apparent conflict results from a misunderstanding of what "Free Will" means.

The human brain is an incredibly complex, and deterministic, biological computer. "Free Will" is just exactly that mental process that evaluates, deliberates, and chooses the most appropriate response to the current situation.

Free Will is not represented by choices, decisions, or judgments that are undetermined or uncaused, or caused by random or indeterminate events. Free Will is represented by choices, decisions and judgments that are caused by your character, beliefs, values, and experiences, and the reasons and justifications that you perceive at the time.

Given the character, beliefs, values, and experiences, and the reasons and justifications that are perceived at the time, you could not have chosen other than you did. But given any difference to this long list of inputs, and you might have chosen other than you did.

The judgments we make, and the emotional reactions we feel, about the choices we and others make, serve the purpose of training the evaluative processes of the mind. We cannot learn to choose more wisely, unless we can recognize when someone makes a particularly good or bad choice. We react the way we do because we are learning machines, and that is how this particular kind of learning machine learns.

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Footnotes

(1)   Dennett, Daniel C.   The Intentional Stance. The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts. 1998. ISBN 0-262-54053-3.

For a more complete understanding of the Compatibilist's argument about the meaning of Free Will, and its relationship to Determinism, I would recommend -

Professor Dennett does a much better job than I could possibly attempt at explaining just how Free Will is totally compatible with Determinism.