Free Will?


1) Materialism rejects Free Will [FW], because it can’t understand how FW could possibly work. But neither can anyone!

Most materialists simply deny that FW is possible. E.g. Francis Crick, Susan Blackmore, R’d Dawkins, Colin Blakemore all say it’s impossible. (Not Dennett.)
Daniel Wegner writes that if I “really could” move my hand to switch on a light – or to make the tea – this would be magic — like opening a cave by saying ‘Open Sesame’ or the djinn appearing when Aladdin rubs his lamp. How can a wispy thing like Mind affect a solid thing like matter? Everything can be explained as machinery – except FW – so FW must be an illusion!

The fallacy is obvious. Just because you don’t understand how something works, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In the past nobody understood how birds could fly. So couldn’t they fly before scientists could understand it?

Pierre de Laplace’s “Demon” is often quoted (turn of C19):
SINCE, in the scientific universe, every effect follows every cause without fail,
THEREFORE, if there was an omniscient demon who could know the complete present state of every particle in the U,
THEN he would know the complete past and future state of the U in every minutest detail.

We must suppose that the present state of the universe is entirely the effect of its previous state and entirely the cause of that state which comes next. Imagine an intelligent being who (at some given moment) could understand all the forces which are acting within the universe, and the situation of every particle within the universe – a being sufficiently intelligent to be able to analyse these data completely. This being would be able to include in the same formula all the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and all those of the lightest atoms. It would see everything with absolute certainty, and have complete knowledge of every moment of the future, every moment of the past.

A common materialist view. Let me quote a reputable work of reference:

[…] It is now widely believed that every physical event can be accounted for solely in terms of antecedent physical events […] An empirically well-attested claim of modern science is the causal completeness of physics. […] Neurophysical properties are sufficient for causally accounting for behaviour.

A recent New Scientist goes along with this, thought it suggests that people just won’t be likely to give up the illusion of Free Will.
And indeed there is a problem. A.J.Ayer writes:

[The libertarian thinks] that my actions are the result of my own free choice; and it is because of my own free choice that I am held to be morally responsible for them. But [it is either] an accident that I choose to act as I do or it is not. If it is an accident, then it is […] irrational to hold me morally responsible for choosing as I did. But if it is not an accident that I chose to do one thing rather than another, then presumably there is some causal explanation of my choice; and in that case we [must accept determinism].

It’s very hard to get round this argument. I cannot at 7.30, affect or alter my state of mind at 7.29. Nor can I at 7.29 affect or alter my state of mind at 7.28. My state of mind when I make a decision is surely caused by my state of mind the previous moment plus any outside factors that have affected me in the meantime; and my state of mind at that previous moment plus any outside factors were caused in their turn – and so on for ever stretching back into infinite time — and I have no power in the present over any of these causes.
Unless my mind were somehow to step outside the causal nexus of the world into some other world as it were — and even then … because presumably the causal nexus continues outside our world too! And it has to continue, because my thinking has to cause my actions.
It’s understandable that philosophers are still arguing with each other about these questions, just as they were back in Athens around 400 BC.

2) Block Universe. But now this is an important issue: If everything I do is predetermined – and everything is predetermined right back to the very ultimate beginning of time, then we live in what philosophers have called a ‘block universe’, i.e. a universe which is completely fixed, in which everything has been determined from the very start of time – and in which everything is already fixed in the future to the very end of time.

Now if that’s the situation, what is the point of css? What on earth is it for? Since, IF the decisions we think we make are merely delusory, and IF they are subject simply to blind accident & iron causality, THEN it makes no difference whether we are conscious animals or unconscious machines and it makes no difference whether or not we foolishly delude ourselves into thinking we make decisions.

Come to that, what’s the point of Time itself? Why does it pretend to move if it isn’t really moving?
Of course we shall be told by materialists of the Atkins / Dawkins kind that there’s no point to anything at all. And they’ll rub their hands with glee.

3) Quantum Uncertainty Now during the 20th C we learnt that the laws of nature at the subatomic or quantum level depend not on strict iron causality, but on the laws of chance. But from the point of view of freedom, this is no better. For you can’t get personal autonomy from the wild hazards of chance any more than you can from the dreary refrains of causality.

Mind you, some of the workings of the brain are so delicate – they operate at the level of two or three quanta – that it makes it easier for one to imagine the “ghost” (mind) working the “machine” (brain). Sir John Eccles suggested this many years ago.

4) Memes.
Susan Blackmore discussed this with Richard Holloway on his Discs-without-a-Desert-Island program one Sunday morning.
The “meme” was invented by R’d Dawkins (in his Selfish Gene) Whereas a gene is a unit of genetic transmission, a meme is a unit of cultural transmission, i.e. it is a thought or an idea. According to this picture, the human mind is a kind of breeding ground, ready to be infected by notions. A bonnet waiting for its bees. Just as various sorts of mammal, insect, bird, etc, breed and compete for survival in the countryside, so ideas breed and compete for survival in the landscape of the brain. Memes are thoughts or ideas seen as independent, active creatures: We don’t think, the memes think for us. We don’t do the deciding, the memes decide for us.

Dawkins gives examples. The threat of hell-fire is a meme. So is God. A religion is “a co-adapted stable set of mutually-assisting memes.” Other examples of memes include ‘the arch, wheel, wearing clothes, alphabet, calendar, the Odyssey, calculus, chess, the song Greensleeves, deconstructionism’. He compares memes to computer viruses (for Dawkins the brain is simply a very complex computer). Uneasily he admits that scientific ideas too can be memes, and actually dares to give Darwinism as an instance – though he adds that the thing about scientific ideas is that they can be true.

But then are there ideas which aren’t memes? Is our notion of truth a meme? Are our methods of reasoning a meme? If so, how do we know what is true and what is not? Are there any ideas which aren’t memes? Can’t people choose their own ideas – or invent them?

As for the lapsed parapsychologist Susan Blackmore, she cites among examples of memes: ‘urban myths, farming, religion, the motto theme of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, stories of flying saucers and alien abduction.’ The Self Itself is merely a meme, a parasitic idea that breeds in our brains. As for Free Will, she writes

The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not ‘have’ consciousness and it does not ‘do’ the deliberating. There is no truth in the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls my body and is conscious. Since this is false, so is the idea of my conscious self having free will. Consciousness has no power […] Free will, like the self who ‘has’ it, is an illusion.

The memes (she says cheerfully) relieve us of foresight, purpose, hope and choice. In one of her books we even find her writing that she hasn’t written her own books.

But surely, if all ideas are memes, then the idea of a meme is itself a meme. Which blows the whole theory sky-high.

5) Problems with Determinism. The Moral problem. The Truth problem.

Now it’s obvious that determinism produces several problems. Here are two:
(1) If I don’t have FW then I am not responsible for my actions. In that case nobody deserves either praise or blame; in fact nobody deserves anything at all. The actions of the mass-murderer Gaddafi are simply caused by fate. Florence Nightingale is deserving of no praise whatever. The meaning of all human actions is completely removed from us. They no longer have any sense. Blackmore actually welcomes this! She welcomes the disappearance of ‘destructive emotions’. (I hope she doesn’t mean the disappearance of conscience!) (Blackmore 1999) How are we supposed to operate in a world devoid of morality?

6) Moreover, if I don’t have FW then I can’t arrive at truth — or anything even approaching it, such as likely theories, or trustworthy scientific findings. This is because: Scientific ‘facts’ are the result of provisional agreement after discussion, exchange of views, between the conscious minds of individual scientists. Now, if what my fellow-scientists – and also myself – think, is the result of a completely mechanical set of causes over which factors such as respect for others’ views, good judgment, respect for the facts have no effect – but merely the working out of pure determinism and pure accident – then what does this do to the notion of truth in science – or in any other activity for that matter?!!

So how can we abandon free will?

8 ) Kant & Causality

Immanuel Kant saw causality as being something we need so as to think with. Without it we can’t make sense of our experiences. (Anyway we simply can’t stop thinking in causal terms).
But we also need FW, because without it also we can’t make sense of our experiences. So equally there’s no way we could stop thinking in FW terms.

So according to Kant, we have to hold two mutually contradictory beliefs at the same time! It is impossible not to believe both opposites at the same time. Otherwise we can’t operate in the world. (This shows the inadequacy of reason as the so-called solution to all our problems.)

But does this actually mean we ARE free?

9) Theoretical solutions: a) Bergson; b) Kant; c) Thomas Reid: causation is a human intuition; we cannot use it to refute an equally strong human intuition.

a) Henri Bergson (1859 – 1941) Les Données immédiates de la conscience (1889): suggests that the problem is this: When we think of Time, we think of it in spatial terms. So we chop it up as if it were a line. A motionless line. And then we think that detachable bits of experience succeed each other, each one being the cause of the one which follows it. But Time isn’t spatial, so this imaginary ‘line’ isn’t the actual reality of Time, which is ‘a continuous boiling inextricable flow’. Once the Present has slipped away into the Past, Time solidifies: then, viewed in our memories, it looks as if you can indeed analyse it in spatial terms. But that’s merely a map, not the reality of Time as it happens, not the reality of our decisions as we make them.

So Free Will shouldn’t be conceived of spatially either. It’s not a line, but more like a surfer riding a breaking wave.
Does this solve the problem?
Well, we might believe it if we like. But of course, quite simply, our contemporary determinists reject B’s whole way of looking at the question. I can’t see how we could persuade them.

b) So now we go even further back & consult Kant again. He admits we can’t see how FW operates by looking at the phenomenal world. He agrees we feel FW, however – apparently unmistakeably – and that we feel the need to act morally — apparently unmistakeably. So he argues that since we recognize a moral law, therefore it follows logically that we must have free will. Because without FW, any thought of morality is quite pointless. Ought implies Can. You feel you ought; therefore you must know you can.

But where could this FW be “situated” (as it were), and how could it “operate”, since it doesn’t fit in with our common-or-garden everyday reason, with the ordinary laws of causality, etc. Yes, where or how could it exist? He suggests it might be (as it were) “out of sight”, “out of all human ken” along with all the truly hidden secrets of the Universe, those which are beyond human comprehension, in what Kant calls the NOUMENON. This is the hidden essence or reality of All Things, which is beyond our power as human beings in this world to perceive or grasp. Suggestion that the hidden power of FW is in the noumenon. But this is beyond our ability to examine because of the limitations on our senses and our understanding. (Guyer on Kant p 19 § -1, p 329 )

An encouraging idea however for people like myself who suspect that we human beings are, as it were, ‘secretly involved’ in a hidden spiritual world.

c) An argument derived from Thomas Reid (1710-96): that the problematic concept is not FW, which we experience happening every hour of our lives. The problematic concept is determinism.
For where does determinism derive from? It derives from our idea of causality. But ironically our notions of causality derive from Free Will. Do we not, from earliest infancy, test out our hunches about the nature of the world by interacting with it? What is commoner than a child throwing its rattle over the side of its pram? The child repeats the act again & again, roaring with laughter as the rattle falls to the ground, as the adult picks the rattle up and hands it back again & again. The child is testing out the following theory: “I do X, and Y follows, and then Z follows Y. I am the cause of X, which produces Y, which produces Z. And thus result follows cause.” And this is hugely enjoyable! But note, the whole idea of cause derives from the free willed action of the child!

How can an idea derived directly from our experience of FW be used to refute FW? It can’t, can it? We cannot use causality to defeat Free Will, because our very understanding of causality derives from the experience of our own free actions!

10) Colin Blakemore

In The Mind Machine, Colin Blakemore (a very eminent scientist) claims:

The human brain is a machine […] It creates the state of css and the state of self. [… It makes] no sense […] to try to distinguish between acts that result from (1) conscious intention and those that are (2) pure reflexes or that are caused by (3) disease or (4) damage to the brain. [Quoted in DiM, LoP]

In his book he gives a number of convincing examples of people who have done uncharacteristic, crazy or horrible things under the influence of drugs. He obviously thinks this proves his case. But, you know, it doesn’t. He himself (being a fair man) often quotes his subjects as saying things like “I didn’t know who was doing it. I didn’t feel in charge,” or “This strange feeling came over me. I had no control over how my body acted.”
Very oddly, Blakemore himself makes no comment on these remarks. He is so blinded by his own beliefs that he has failed to notice that his own selected examples of deterministic behaviour don’t support the case for determinism.

11) the fact is — as Stephen Priest puts it — we experience FW.
Stephen Priest writes:

The possibility of choosing one course of action rather than another is a lived human reality. Determinism is only a theory. […] Freedom is experienced to be the case but determinism is largely only thought to be the case. (229)

I.e. we’ve got the reality of experience against theory.

A description of the experience of determinism shows [that you can’t get rid] of freedom. There is a clear phenomenological difference between situations in which we feel ourselves compelled or constrained and [those] in which we do not. For example, in walking into a strong wind we feel the wind resistance against our body. In being held at gunpoint we feel powerless. On the other hand, in facing some awkward dilemma we feel all too free. (229)

Whereas determinism is just a theory. Plausible, persuasive, eloquently argued for, but just a theory.
Moreover, FW is one of the foundation stones of experience.

12) & Conclusion) Notice the materialist argument: materialism is true; therefore determinism is true; therefore FW is false. I believe we should turn this argument on its head: as follows:

“IF we can be sure we have FW– WHICH we can –
AND IF FW is indeed inexplicable in materialist terms,
THEREFORE materialism is false.”

Since FW does happen, therefore the choosing css must be outside the materialist / phenomenal universe. This is the only way it can escape the laws of deterministic causality. We should welcome this, because in that case css must be non-material.

THIS implies that we do indeed have a spiritual, non-material part – which moreover is vitally important.
And this is doubtless a part of Kant’s mysterious hidden ultimate reality – his Noumenon.

One thought on “Free Will?

  1. Might I suggest using italics (em or i tags) instead of capitalisation for emphasis? Or use bold letters?
    You might also put quotations and references in different style to separate them from the actual text. Again, you can use em and i tags. You can also do this using a span tag (or some other element) with a specified class for which you define a style.
    E.g. class=”quote” and class=”reference” as HTML tag parameters
    and in style: .quote {font-style: italic;} and .reference {font-size: smaller;}
    If I remember correctly, that is.

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